Whether you are the religious sort or a confirmed cynic, many have experienced a friend or acquaintance who is keen to tell you that you feature in their prayers. For some, this is a compliment. But to others, it is another method of imposing one’s religion. The Gryphon asks: is the term ‘I pray for you’ is a kind gesture or completely insulting?
According to general consensus, anything that causes someone to be offended must be offensive by default. ‘I pray for you’ conveys the sentiment that someone has dedicated time to think about you and better still, has asked for help on your behalf. The dictionary definition of prayer is, ‘a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity.’ In this sense, surely stating, “I’ll pray for you” is an act of generosity and kindness, rather than something offensive or patronising? We should not confuse the intellectual with the sentimental. Atheists who deem someone praying for them as an intellectual insult have misinterpreted the intention.
To atheists, praying is a useless act and the words are meaningless. Instead of criticising this sentiment, they should see the importance in the “I” and “for you” rather than considering their pride hurt. Somebody is using their personal time to think and feel for you. Why be offended by that?
The expression ‘I pray for you’ is also not as religious as the opposition would have you believe. Perhaps even 25 years ago, these words might have been accompanied by the physical act of praying. Now, and certainly in the case of the Western world, the words rarely constitute the religious act. To level an argument of outrage at the religious connotations of the words and how they are tied to abhorrent scriptures is to overstate the religiosity of them. Ironically, they are often never substantiated by the act that consequently renders invalid any argument that states the prayer is imposing on you.
Some would also argue that the person saying “I’ll pray for you” feels they have a moral superiority over whoever they are addressing. But this is a cynical view and the intent of prayer is not to assert spiritual authority on another.
The most viable argument for the opposition is that there can be elements of religious scripture and customs that appall; for example, death for apostasy in Islam, circumcision in Judaism, or patriarchal dominance. So, if someone prays for you, these customs are by extension, reinforced. It strengthens the particular religion and accordingly, makes you a vehicle for it by not resisting. The same applies for someone of a different religion, wherein the action of praying to another deity reinforces the customs of a religion that you don’t believe in.
If we consider the action of praying in any religion as an expression of gratitude or a call for help, then the phrase should not be interpreted as someone trying to force his or her religious customs upon you.In this secular age where people are easily offended and words are endowed with unprecedented gravitas, it is understandable that some may take offence to the expression in question. But considering the genuine care somebody must have to even consider appealing for help on your behalf, the words “I pray for you” are not as patronising as you might think.
I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who considers the phrase ‘I’m praying for you’, to be agonisingly insincere. Imagine: you’re having a lovely day; you live in a country with a reasonably high GNP, decent employment statistics and low levels of violent crime. Here you are enjoying yourself when a random stranger or mild acquaintance comes up to you to explain that he is ‘praying for you’, and usually, that they would like you to join his church.
But even if we assume the offer of prayer is made out of pure goodwill (an impossibly generous guess right off the bat), is it really possible to see the actual substance of the phrase other than for what it is: a complete evacuation of the brain? How can you respond to someone who says this? Sure, it’s a nice idea, but what do the words actually entail, and what does it suggest about the mindset of the type of person that does it?
Besides from spitting out your drink in shock, I would argue there is very little you actually can do when confronted with these magic words. The statement ‘I’m praying for you’ contains no specific advice, no formal commitment to actually help you out. It also requires embarrassingly little brain-power to deploy and carry through.
A few minutes face to face moving the lips and a few minutes during prayer-time doing much the same thing is all it really takes.
Our happy churchgoer then gets the good feeling of having done a righteous deed without having lifted a finger in actual help. All I can really see is a feel-good slogan that makes the deliverer feel warm and fuzzy but is without a whole lot of meaning.
Hilariously, though, and far more interestingly, is that the completely empty and lukewarm nature of the phrase appears to be its greatest defence. Why protest when Mr/Ms Godly from next door is simply wishing for his/her deity to bring down on you eternal hugs and good stuff?
And yet I can’t help but feel profoundly uncomfortable that I have no choice but to accept this vote of heavenly thanks. I would like to think that the development of free society means the one true faith has lost the ability to threaten those who fail to conform to its doctrine. But the church, like any organisation, relies on converts to bolster its ranks, so logically the only way it can continue to survive as society becomes increasingly less faith-based is by exercising soft power.
The statement strikes me as being a calculated sales pitch in that it is technically meek and mild, but in reality just as forcibly inclusive. ‘I’m praying for you’ suggests that you have a problem that they have identified but you haven’t and can’t solve: ‘But don’t worry! I ask my God everyday to sort you out.’
Now for those of us who have made the choice to be heretics and not follow the mother church this is really just too much. All inclusion in prayer says to me is that ‘you are a part of my belief system; you just haven’t come round to it yet’. Vaguely cultish, definitely patronising; but then, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.