What is prayer, really? A hope? A plea? A re-centering of self? A meditation? A desperate measure?
For Christians (at least most of them) prayer is believed to be, quite simply, communication with God. It is a conversation, albeit audibly one-sided. When a Christian prays, she reckons she is talking to God in basically the same way that she talked to her housemates this morning, and in basically the same way she will talk to her parents over the phone later tonight.
Of course, “simply” might be too reductive a qualifier. There is nothing simple about the kind of faith (or indoctrination) it takes to turn to an invisible being and ask for help with all manner of personal and global situations. There is also nothing simple about the habit of speaking into space in order to bestow all of one’s gratitude on said being, or--and this is perhaps the least simple part of the whole thing--the conviction that leads one to explicitly apologize to and ask forgiveness from this being when guilty feelings bubble up. Yes, confession of sin is a big part of what Christian prayer entails, too.
Those who did not grow up in the church might feel a novel fascination with the Christian’s prayer practice. The most open-minded and empathetic non-believers may try to find the best in prayer by likening it to secular habits such as declaring intentions, sending good thoughts, or engaging in quiet self-exploration. Whether or not one believes that there is a God in existence who’s listening to and can answer the requests being uttered, even a heathen can appreciate the loving purpose behind the Christian’s supplication. A prayer for someone’s healing, for example, is, usually, a sincerely felt expression of concern and based on a true desire that the person gets better.
Things turn awkward, though, when you are a non-believer who gets asked to pray. I’m not talking about the generic calls to prayer that wash across social media when disasters strike (well, when disasters strike Western/white populaces). Those are an entirely different can of worms, and are, quite frankly, easy enough for atheists and agnostics to write off. No, I’m talking about when a specific person, a friend or family member, asks you to pray for a certain situation that’s of immediate concern--an illness or injury, say, or a financial crisis.
I suspect that this mostly happens to former Christians who still have personal connections to the church and are not particularly loud about their doctrinal change of heart when in that company. I suspect it because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening to me. Clearly I’m not shy about my departure from the faith when it comes to addressing the general public, but I don’t go out of my way to bring the subject up when nothing but sadness will come from it, which is often the case around people who’ve known me since my Evangelical days. Since I still get the occasional prayer request, I figure this can only be because either there is little knowledge of how very not-believing I am or because there is a sense that, despite my present personal convictions, I understand and can somehow still participate in the ritual.
And I do. I do understand. I don’t know how others in my position feel, but I don’t mind the ask. Sometimes being available for prayer requests is the only way to find out what’s going on in a person’s life, as many Christians (who I don’t think are necessarily conscious of this) don’t fully trust non-believers with their suffering and struggles. This makes sense--there is a fundamental difference between a Christian and a non-believer when it comes to the understanding of the metaphysical context of a problem. For a Christian to share something difficult with an atheist or agnostic who will most certainly see the issue sans a God who’s ultimately in control of it is...well, it doesn’t feel safe. So if, somehow, being previously devout gets me a lifetime membership in the intimacy club with certain people I care about, as far as I’m concerned that’s wonderful.
That said, there is the issue of what to do with the request once it’s been sent. Do I pray to a God I no longer believe in, essentially pretending faith, to satisfy the appeal in the most literal way? Many Christians might consider that at least a little efficacious, trusting that God will accept my intentions regardless of my lack of belief. Do I write down my hopes for the situation, or whisper them into the ether, knowing that I’m not technically abiding by the asker’s definition of prayer but feeling somewhat more comfortable since I’ve taken all the action I believe is within my reach? This has been my choice as of late.
The only thing that’s not an option is outright rejection. I cannot say, “I don’t believe in prayer,” even if it’s followed by a “but”: “I don’t believe in prayer, but I am hoping you’ll find a job soon.” If the situation warrants an explicit and personally addressed prayer request, then it is likely concerning enough to the person that a refusal to pray will be nothing but hurtful--perhaps even traumatic, depending on the level of nuance in their worldview. I cannot imagine ever going out of my way to get into it about the power of prayer, and inevitably the legitimacy of Christianity, when there are more pressing matters at hand. Nor can I imagine a situation in which it would appropriate for anyone to do so.
Of course, what I’m thinking of and writing about is the sharing of a prayer request ‘for later’--words sent in a text or email, or spoken in a passing interaction. These afford the non-believer time to think about the best response, and the space to not have to do it in front of the Christian. However, the ‘for later’ request is not the only possible scenario. It could also be that one finds oneself caught in a more ‘immediate’ situation, a situation wherein one is asked by a believer to pray with them right then and there.
Depending on how strong one’s conviction is about insisting on there not being a God, one could have different responses to this. I would certainly know how to be convincing should I choose to go for it. I know the rhythms and the lingo of Evangelical prayer like I know my parents’ old phone number. At the same time I would feel disingenuous, and guilty about a kind of lie. Would there be anything wrong with it? I’m not sure. There are others who would, in that cramped situation, refuse to participate. I can empathize with this, too. Christian hegemony is a real thing in this country (I’m writing from the U.S.) and non-believers frequently encounter unfair assumptions about all of the Christian-based activities they should participate in without complaint.
Maybe it depends on how well you know the people who are asking for prayer, or how much weight you give to the spirit of a practice versus its physical manifestation. Maybe you, as a non-Christian, abide by a very strong principle that compels you to point out that prayer is not for everyone, and not the only way to deal with situations. That is a legitimate position, too. Maybe it also depends quite a bit on personality, totally aside from individual religious history: are you one to avoid conflict and confrontation, or are you perfectly fine with them? I tend to be the former, for a variety of reasons.
So, now I’m actually asking, in lieu of my own conclusion: if you are a non-believer, or a former believer, or a kind-of believer, what do you do with prayer requests when they come? I would love to hear your thoughts, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.