Atheists/agnostics: how do you respond to requests to "pray for me"?

I’ve recently gotten back in semi-regular email contact with some relatives after almost no contact of any kind for several years. (Having a kid will do that, it seems.)

The latest email I received closed with something along these lines:
“We’re going through some difficult times – but don’t worry yet. Pray for us, and we’ll talk to you later.”

So of course I started thinking about the etiquette of this kind of situation.

I’m an atheist. These relatives probably don’t know that. I’m not going to pray for them – not because I don’t care, but because I just don’t pray.

So what’s a polite thing for a non-believer to say when someone asks you to pray for them and you’re not going to do it? My instinct, in this case, was to respond with sympathy and mention that I’ll be thinking about them. It’s all true.

How do other non-believers handle similar requests? Do you say, “Well, I’d pray for you, but I’m an atheist. Good luck!” Ignore the request? Say you’ll pray for them, figuring that a little white lie won’t hurt? Actually pray for them, even though you don’t believe?

And are you offended by the request? I’m not, but I’m always a little surprised, just because prayer is so seldom on my mind.

I’m not asking for advice for my particular situation – this exchange took place a while ago, and I figure the atheist issue will resolve itself later if necesary. I’m just wondering how other atheists and agnostics handle prayer requests. Especially if they handle them politely.

“I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

Ditto. Because they are in my thoughts.

I’m not offended as it’s usually not the time nor place to be offended (aka self-centered).

In an e-mail, especially the way you describe it, the request is probably rhetorical. It’s almost a figure of speech for some folks, and I don’t feel compelled to reply.

If for some reason someone were to ask point-blank “would you please pray for xxx,” I’d respond by saying, “I’ll keep xxx in my thoughts” (I agree with your instinct). If they pressed the prayer angle, then they’d get the “I don’t believe in God” comment. Likewise, when some well-meaning soul says “I’ll pray for you” I just say “thanks.”

I’m neither offended nor surprised by such requests/statements, and see no reason to bring up my agnosticism unless the other party becomes insistent or obnoxious.

Ditto. “Your family and you will be in my thoughts.”

I agree with what Misnomer said, it is usually possible to avoid these situations politely.

In cases where the person requesting that you pray becomes insistant that you do it I see no harm in obliging them. Let’s face it, as Athiests none of us know 100% for sure that there isn’t a God and if someone is adamant that you pray then what the hell, you might as well do it, it only takes 30 seconds out of your day and keeps the other person happy. There is no point in making a big deal out of your Athiesm to the point of offending the requester by refusing to do such a simple task because you don’t believe it will work. I think of it like crossing my fingers, I know it won’t make a blind bit of different to my or any other person’s luck but there’s no harm in doing it all the same, nothing lost.

Except for one thing. If you don’t mean it, it’s not really a prayer.

If there’s nothing I can do in person then I’ll usually say some variation of “I’m sending you good vibes/wishes/willing you my extra strength to help you get through this rough time.”

I don’t believe people should pretend to pray if they don’t believe in a god or gods, or in the efficacy of prayer. You should only pray if you mean it. And, of course, you should only pray to the deity or deities that you personally believe in, in whatever way you think is proper.

No one should pressure those who don’t believe in prayer into doing it. If they’re doing it out of ignorance (they don’t know you’re an atheist, or don’t understand why an atheist wouldn’t pray), you should politely explain it to them. If they keep pressing, they’re being obnoxious, and should be dealt with accordingly.

I believe people who do pray when they don’t mean it, or pray in a way that they don’t believe in (a Jew praying in the name of Jesus, for example), break the Third Commandment (Second for Catholics): You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. I think that’s a fairly serious sin, and I wouldn’t want to coerce anyone into committing a sin like that on my behalf. It’s also hypocritical, and I wouldn’t want to coerce anyone into that, either. I take religion seriously, much more seriously than a superstition like crossing your fingers, and I don’t want to encourage others to think of it as nothing serious.

When I ask people to pray, I always ask for “prayers and good thoughts”. Covers all the bases.

“Please keep us in your prayers.”

“I definitely will.”

“Will you please keep us in you prayers?”

“Yes, definitely.”

I am an atheist, and at this point I’m so tired of getting into it with theists that in instances such as this I just let it slide. They’re asking for special wishes, and it’s easiest to simply concede. I never say “I am going to pray for you,” I just respond affirmatively when they ask. No skin off my back.

If someone knows you are an atheist and ask you to keep them in your prayers to be an ass, I still reply in the affirmative. I won’t take the bait, because some people want any excuse to get up on soapbox, and arguing with them is a waste of time. I’ll only debate religion with an open-minded calm person (although most religious debates start that way but digress into hard feelings all around).

The simplest thing is to say “Maybe you didn’t realize it, but I’m not religious [they like this a whole lot more than the word atheist] so instead of praying for you I’ll just wish you good luck with that problem.”

I just say “Please do if it makes you happy.”

The trouble with rhetorical questions is that ignoring them can also cause trouble. One time I was up for a job promotion. I had been discussing it with my friend then said “Well, it’s time for my interview. Wish me luck.” She just let it slide. I resented that she didn’t just say “Good luck.” I guessed, correctly, that she preferred the other candidate. Silence can hurt.

“Please pray for me.”

“For you, I will slaughter a ram and burn its entrails.”

“…Uh, okay.”

If someone says it in such a direct manner (thankfully, I’ve found it to be a very rare situation to be in), I change the subject or deflect it any way I can. I won’t lie, I won’t feed their insecurities - and as Anne Neville says, they shouldn’t be placing such an expectation on anyone anyway.

I don’t go around insisting that nobody ever prays for me, so there’s no double standards.

Hmmmm . . . this response seems disingenuous. If I am mistaken, you are a much better friend than I! I wouldn’t even know where to begin such a feat.

I’ve never had someone become insistant that I pray for them. A “thinking of you” type remark is enough to satisfy them in my experience. If they responded to that with a demand that I pray, I would probably ignore it and not reply to them. Or I’d say “Sure!” and promptly forget about it. Either way, they’d be creeping close to my blocked sender list. I can’t imagine encouraging continued correspondence from someone who pushed so hard for me to pray… but then again, most people who know me realise that I’m an atheist as it’s not something that I take trouble to hide.

I try to ignore the request or gloss it with something vague. If directly pressed, I will tell them as politely as possible that I don’t believe in God, and brace myself for the consequences. Fortunately, most people will simply drop the subject (some have even apologized) but once in a while I get a theist who sees my unbelief as not being serious, or worse, as a conversion challenge.

From my somewhat uncommon perspective about god and religion, were someone to ask me specifically to pray for themselves or someone else, I would know what that actually means in the context of the situation, and that’s something I have no problem doing.

I’m an agnostic - my usual response is to say sure, and then I may set aside some time to just thinking “Hey, if there’s anyone or anything up there, could you give these guys a hand, please?” Pretty vague, but hey, if it could help.