I read an advice column with the title, “An atheist faces her family’s prayer circle.” The woman asking for advice wanted to know what she and her husband should do when visiting her family and when her family asks everyone to join in a prayer circle and pray together. To the followers of religious mysticism, superstition, and magic, prayer is an incantation to ask their supernatural deity to bestow some form of good fortune on the people praying and to recognize the praying people as elevated from those who do not pray to the supernatural deity.
Religious superstition also frightens the religious to believe that something bad will happen to those who do not follow the supernatural deity; they believe that something will happen during the life or in an afterlife of the non-praying person. It is this irrational fear that drives many religious people to compel their loved ones to pray. So what is an Atheist to do?
Options for how to avoid the negativity of prayer involve respecting one’s self while also respecting the emotional attachment some people have to religion. It is the emotions of the religious that create the most trouble. When religious people are pragmatic and rational, then they can accept that not everyone shares their belief system and they can keep their prayers to themselves. When emotions get involved, then the religious tend to show some panic that their beliefs are not shared. While it is delusional to tell a person, “the mystical deity I believe in will hurt you if you do not worship it,” the people who hold such a delusion cannot see beyond their own belief and see their own irrationality. This is a troubled area to navigate.
The options for dealing with someone’s prayer neurosis follow and range from near fantasy fight to realistic.
Option 1: Laugh hysterically and tell the person asking for prayer that they are insane. This is not an appropriate response; however it does provide an entertaining fantasy before moving on to something appropriate.
Option 2: Walk away and wait for the praying to end. Usually, when dealing with a confrontation, walking away until the situation calms down is the best response. Unfortunately, religious people will not accept that asking a non-religious person to pray with them is a confrontation that is offensive and disrespectful. This leaves the Atheist in the position of being the respectful person in spite of the disrespect being shown by a religious person. So, walking away is disrespectful and will hurt the feelings of the praying person, unless that religious person is passive-aggressive, in which case they will show anger and possibly hostile sarcasm.
Option 3: Pray or pretend to pray. This suggestion, along with something about golf and Viagra, was offered in that advice column I mentioned at the top of this post. Atheists are generally honest people. We do not have a deity to “forgive” us if we lie and we favor truth over fantasy. When we bow our heads and look like we are praying, we know it is not true that we are praying. We do not want a person to believe something that is not true, so it offends us to pretend to pray.
Option 4: Be respectful and be candid. Stand with the praying people as a show of respect but decline to pray. Perhaps, tell the people in the prayer circle how the magic incantations of prayer make you feel and that you will not participate in the incantations, but be polite to those who pray and accept that this is something they want to do.
If during a prayer circle or at some other time someone openly prays for your salvation because you are Atheist, then be polite and let them know they are being disrespectful and offensive. If they never hear that they are being disrespectful and offensive, they will continue their negative behavior and perhaps escalate that behavior. If they have the emotional issue of passive-aggression, then they may escalate their negative behavior, anyway. You cannot fix a broken person; you can only learn to navigate your relationship with that person in spite of their difficulties and you might hope they will find emotional maturity.