Let me preface this post by saying I have almost written about this subject numerous times since diagnosis, but withheld in concern of offending well-meaning individuals who have verbally extended their prayers to me. The concerns remain, but I hope to explain myself well enough that you understand I mean no harm with my words. Just hear me out (or don’t, I understand).
With that said, I also want to mention that the persons involved in the incident I’m about to iterate may very well read this post, but again, although my words may be quite bold and unbending, I mean no insult.
Since diagnosis, many people have come to me with support and encouragement, offering prayers towards me or simply letting me know they are praying for me. I appreciate that. Because I’m pretty upfront about my beliefs…and lack thereof…these prayers are sometimes prefaced with statements about our differences. I respect that. I really do. But I’m not going to mince words here…the act of prayer and assumptions tied to prayer can really come off as arrogant, disrespectful, or at least, without consideration of what might be respectful for the one being prayed for. Admittedly, it’s tricky, because those offering prayers feel they are doing the best thing they can for the recipient and would be incredibly confused if you were to respond with offense. Let me detail the incident that compelled me to write this….
I was working at a coffee shop yesterday when I ran into an old friend and her husband who I know more casually. They are religious. I talked to them for a few minutes, updating them to my current health situation and what lie ahead, when as we were saying our goodbyes, the husband put out his hand and said,
“Do you mind if I say a prayer for you?”
Thinking he was going to do this INTERNALLY, I consented and went to shake his hand, at which he grabbed onto it and started praying…outloud…right there. I respectfully went with the flow, allowed him to have his say, at which point he ended with, “In Jesus’s name”. I thanked him, said I appreciated it, and they left.
I was taken back by this gesture, and although I did appreciate the care and concern extended towards me, have felt uneasy about it ever since…hence this post. So let me get this out there.
I respect their beliefs for themselves. I think those beliefs are intellectually and philosophically absurd, but I do respect their decision to hold them and would never say otherwise. What makes me feel uneasy, however, are the many complicated dynamics that surround the idea of prayer and it’s offering towards others. I will get to as many I feel necessary in this post, but we need to clarify something else first.
Non-believers (or OTHER believers…we certainly have belief, just not in god) are often angry, frustrated, resentful, and otherwise put off by religious expressions and rituals…for good reason. Religion – speaking mainly about christianity here as it is the dominant religion in our culture – is intrinsically linked to a history and culture of which it has had great influence. Within this history and dominant culture also lie many horrendous acts perpetrated by the influence or dictates of religious thought. Pedophilia, genocide, stifled intellectualism, shame, fear, etc. That influence is far from gone today and is where the resentment of many non-believers lie. It is one thing to hold a belief, but it is another to engage with the dominant political process in a way that attempts to restrict the freedom of others based upon that individual belief. Whether we speak of the right for privileges gained through marriage, freedom of choice, free expression, etc., the dominant religious force has often been one of oppressing freedom and not fostering it.
Granted, INDIVIDUALS who associate with a specific religious label may not hold to certain beliefs or engage in the political process, precisely in order to avoid the offense of restricting others, but the associations still remain and it becomes tricky for the non-believer to wade through the complexities to find where one stands exactly. So when religious expressions are foisted upon us, we resist, and are compelled to give no form of consent or approval what so ever. This must be understood. It is one thing to disagree with our chosen morality…it is another to use yours to influence our lives and restrict the physical resources we depend upon.
This point may have sounded like a tangent, but it is an important clarification as to why these seemingly compassionate acts, such as prayer, carry with them a weight of offense.
PRAYER WORKS…FOR YOU
I believe prayer works…for the one praying. It offers a sense of agency over problems one encounters, say, being helpless in the face of another’s disease. Prayer gives the praying relief, but it does nothing for the other. It can, on the other hand, act as a stress reducer for the diseased, potentially altering the physical processes within their body and helping change an overall diagnosis…but the prayers themselves do nothing. Let’s be blunt about that….because false and failed hope can be more devastating than the ravages of disease itself.
Let’s also be blunt about the absurdities of the prayings intentions. For if a believer truly knows that prayer works, why wouldn’t they then pray every second of the day, for the myriad of issues facing humanity (and non-humanity)? Why would they not pray only for the most exaggerated of requests…for the end of poverty, the end of environmental devastation, the end of disease? Why would they choose to waste time praying for the healing of just one individual (instead of an entire people) or something as benign (and selfish to their species) as better weather? If this god figure does “grant wishes” so to speak, is the one praying making a deliberate attempt to “be reasonable” in their requests? If prayer truly does work….why not go all out?
But of course, “the lord works in mysterious ways”…or, “god has a plan”. Ignoring the first hyper-simple dismissal of reason, the second REALLY bothers me. For, in relation to prayer, what exactly is gods plan…and why are you going around asking that god figure to change that plan to suit your needs? That sounds quite selfish. But let’s consider the idea that god does have “a plan”. First things first…what exactly defines that plan? Is it everything that happens in the world, both what we perceive as good and as bad? If so, does that establish pre-determination? If not…then how do YOU determine what is part of god’s plan and what isn’t? Was, in your worldview, me getting cancer part of god’s plan? If it might be…why ask for cancer to be cured? If it isn’t part of god’s plan…then does that mean I deserved to get it…or if it isn’t taken out of me, that I brought this upon myself. Or if it isn’t part of god’s plan…then what happened to all the prayers for those that didn’t survive disease? Of course, the safety in all this is that no one CAN determine what constitutes this supposed plan or not. One can point to various moral guidelines in the bible (or any holy book), but this doesn’t nearly comprise an entire plan. The fact is, in the perspective of the believers, no one knows why certain things, good or bad, happen. Sure, “good” things (selfishly defined) are ascribed to god and “bad” things (also selfishly defined) are ascribed to “evil”…or whatever…but it’s only those that study and consider physical processes who can point to verifiable cause and effects, or theories.
So, again, if prayer truly works in the indescribable ways that it is said to work (and not just pleasant coincidences) then please, by all means, save your breath on me. Pray for the end of cancer, the end of MS, the end of AIDS, the end of all you perceive as “bad”.
I don’t mean to continue shooting holes in the idea of prayer…as these considerations are quite obvious, if not often ignored. That is not my intent here, but addressing them is still important to my overall point.
What I’m more concerned with is the recognized and unrecognized intentions of those that offer prayer to others. The individual that prayed for me in the coffee shop, in a way, was simply offering a gesture of care towards my situation, but it’s hard to ignore the perceived power he felt the prayer held. It is in understanding his perspective that I feel uneasy. But even more so, there is the element of “display” that left me feeling a bit intruded upon. I respected greatly that he asked me first if he could pray for me, but I assumed he meant that he would do this privately, internally and silently. I didn’t realize he meant to make a display of it, myself becoming an unwilling accomplice in presenting prayer as a viable strategy or belief. I don’t like to give support to systems and beliefs I don’t agree with or find detrimental if I can so avoid it (which is why I don’t stand during the National Anthem either), but his assumption that he could engage me in public with this act was certainly off-putting. Not taking into account that he wanted to express he cared for me, I don’t know why his prayer had to be WITH me, or even spoken. If the prayer truly works, it can be done silently, continuously, while sipping coffee, while shoveling cake in your mouth, while running, while driving, etc. etc. And I know people engage with prayer in that way, so if he was really just wanting to say, “Hey man, I care about you and hope you get better,” then he could have said, “Hey man, I care about you and hope you get better” without bringing in all the cultural and religious baggage that I alluded to at the beginning of this post. And people have said as much…and I felt cared for, supported and encouraged without reservation, without feeling like there was an ulterior motive.
But let’s be blunt again. Christianity is founded upon the idea of the saved and the unsaved. It is a ministry. It is evangelical. It is missionary. It requires those who have deemed themselves as saved, to harvest those who have not been saved. I am the latter, of course, in their eyes. Or not…I don’t know how many people know my beliefs, though I make little reservation about them. I just know that when someone wants to physically engage me in prayer, they are saying much more than just the encouraging words coming out of their mouths. They are praying for both my quality of life and that I will, in their eyes, stop being so ignorant of their perceived truth. That’s annoying. That’s also the premise of missionaries.
And I bring up missionaries because there is a parallel to their work in other lands and my current situation. I bring up missionaries, because I can think of few groups more offensive than those that enter into other cultures (that is often the case, no?) with the idea they will help them be better, wiser, more truthful, more honest. Those of us in the United States, where the missionaries I know come from, know the score. We know missionaries prey/pray upon the desperate, the “less culturally advanced” to “show them the light”. We know, despite the myriad of problems here, that missionaries go to other lands because they can prey upon their need for water, food and health care (as if we don’t have those problems here in the U.S.) to bring a new truth, a new culture and a new sense of smugness as countless people are “saved” by their good acts. I’m sorry…it’s hard to bite my tongue about this. And I’m sorry I’m not sorry. Because I can’t help but draw a parallel between that sense of arrogance that compels churches to spend significant amounts of money sending missionaries to other lands who are more desperate than those here, and individuals who come to me with expressions of belief and prayer due to my perceived moment of desperation. That is offensive.
No one ever approached me and prayed openly for me when I was in emotional desperation over not being able to see my son. No one ever approached me with prayer when I was laid off work. No one ever approached me in public with prayer when my marriage ended abruptly. Why is my disease such a sense of desperation that prayer now becomes a viable strategy? I think I know why…and it’s the primary motivation for most people’s theism in general…life and death. I’m apparently much closer to entering the sinner’s world of fire and pain (or whatever y’all believe happens now) than I ever have been, so the stakes are raised, and prayer is a last resort. The phrase, “in prison, everyone finds jesus”, rings true (or so it’s thought) because prison is a realm of desperation and people are looking for the emotional solace they can’t find in their physical state. Disease and death, for many, is no different. But I’ve made it clear over and over. I don’t need saved. I’ve created a life I don’t need saved from and when all is said and done…there is nothing to be saved to.
Some of you disagree. I know. That’s fine. But please, respect others as individuals confident in their own beliefs, their own perspectives, their own cultures, and their own rituals. I would never restrict others the right to perform ritual for themselves (but leave the animals out of it), as long as it is kept to themselves. My rejection of prayer is not a dictate for others to reject it, not at all, but rather a request that you engage with prayer personally and meet others on their terms.
A LESSON LEARNED
I was caught off guard by this individuals request for open public prayer, and so I consented to his undefined request. If could do it again, knowing that the prayer was going to be an open display, this is what I would have said,
“Thanks friend, but I don’t want to make a show of anything. Feel free to do so privately though. I really appreciate it.”
And I do appreciate it. Disease is hard to navigate for many people, especially between strangers, so the act of expressing care for someone can be awkward and take many forms. I feel I have done a pretty good job tolerating (for a better term that escapes me right now) other’s religious expressions towards me in this somewhat difficult time, but I also feel it is important for non-believers to express how these actions feel towards us. On an individual level, and I speak for myself, I interpret these gestures as friendly and caring and kind…but on a deeper level, it is hard to separate them from the prevalence of arrogance, opportunism, and restrictions of freedom that mark religion and theism in our dominant culture. It would be good for all individuals of belief to recognize these woven dynamics as well.
Ultimately, if I were to offer advice for the religious, it would be this. Be religious. Be spiritual. Be ritualistic. But do so internally or in (sub)cultures and spaces where the beliefs and actions are permissive. Bow your head for dinner in a restaurant, but don’t expect everyone else to join in.
And towards those in desperate circumstances that you know are non-believers. Simply offer caring words with no external baggage. Tell them you are thinking about them, that you care about them, and are hoping for the best. Those expressions will do more good for us than you can ever imagine.