"I'll pray for you"
At the same time, the believer parting with these words from a conversation which has proven evangelistically futile, may just be trying to get under the non-believer’s skin in an effort to rankle his nerves and drive home the point that, as a non-believer, he doesn’t have recourse to supernatural power, while presumably the believer does.
Of course, as a parting shot, the statement “I’ll pray for you,” while pretending to convey empathy, care and sentiment, often carries a snide dimension to it, for it implies that something is wrong with the non-believer, as though he were defective and thus needed some kind of repair or cure, especially in a moral sense. It apparently doesn’t dawn on the believer that this only implicates the god he worships, since that god supposedly designed and created the non-believer in the first place. Does the believer realize that he worships a god which designs and creates defective creatures?
But in fact, the philosophical implications of parting with the declaration “I’ll pray for you” are much deeper than an expression of mental failure or an insult, especially if the believer were making an effort throughout the conversation to squelch criticism and “proclaim the Word of the Lord” like a magic spell.
I remember an interview with a philosophy professor on the topics of atheism and faith in which the “I’ll pray for you” invective came up for discussion. The philosopher remarked that he had not come up with a good way to respond to it, and he seemed annoyed if not troubled by this. He explained that he wasn’t after a one-liner or some incendiary come-back. His concern was to avoid provoking any further emotional ire than had already arisen as a result of the conflict inherent in a discussion between a theist and an atheist over rival worldviews. This indicates a high regard for virtue on his part, but his loss for words suggests a disappointing lack of understanding. One can, and must, do better.
The desire to avoid fanning the fires of conflict with a cute wisecrack would probably rule out the title words of Danny Barker’s clever tune, “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” even though one could argue that they’re certainly true. Of course, if one-liners are appropriate – you be the judge! – then “nothing fails like prayer” would probably shut the mouths of the would-be holy more than just about anything short of breaking into a plainchant chorus to Lucifer. But it would likely also burn a bridge before it’s built.
(Naturally, if believers think that prayer has a high success rate, they are invited to pray for my ever-ailing eyesight – see here.)
Now the words “I’ll pray for you” may in fact come at a point when the conversation really does need to come to a stop, but it does not necessarily need to be time to bid farewell. The call to make an effort to persuade through rational argument does not need to mean that the conversation should continue right there and then. A break may be in order, in fact desirable. This would allow both parties some space to simmer down, re-establish composure and review the topics that have already surfaced.
Then again, I’ll happily take the Christian’s flaccid “I’ll pray for you,” dishonest as it may be, over the Islamist’s “Allahu akbar!” any day of the week! But O Dear Humanity, we’ve got to do better than this!
The interviewer himself replied to this quandary by suggesting a response to the effect that, “if your prayers work, I’ll be happy to join you!” The idea here being: if pleas to a supernatural entity reliably produce desired results – i.e., outcomes that can be soundly determined to correspond directly to what was asked for in the form of prayers, then that would constitute a form of evidence that should convince the non-believer that there is in fact a supernatural entity capable of altering reality in answer to prayers.
This response, of course, does not take into account the likelihood that what is actually prayed for is not some convincing demonstration that will provide evidence to a thinking mind for the existence of “the supernatural” (“I’ll pray that a swarm of flies spell out the words ‘Jesus loves you’ in mid-air in his living room!”), but rather that the comment “I’ll pray for you” most likely signifies a wish to summon supernatural forces which will take over the situation and transform the non-believer’s mind against his will. Saying “if your prayers work, I’ll be happy to join you” does not speak to this. Rather, it only constitutes an implicit sanction of the appeal to force that is inherent in prayer.
I would argue that a better way to respond to the quip “I’ll pray for you” is to emphasize how, even if (yea, especially if!) prayer were effective, it would be immoral to make use of prayer to compel other people’s actions, thoughts and beliefs – as immoral as putting a gun to a person’s head and chaining him to a wall. For prayer represents the delusional urge to summon the irresistible strong arm of supernatural force to make desired changes in the world. The statement “I’ll pray for you” is essentially an admission that one has neither an objective basis nor a rational method to persuade others to his viewpoint and, insisting on his viewpoint nevertheless being true in spite of its lack of rational tenability, hopes that some cosmic form of violence will change people’s minds by compulsion rather than by persuasion. It’s the confession that “I know I’ll not be able to convince you by pointing to facts and evidence that support my position, but I still want you to accept it anyway, no matter what, so I’m going to call upon this invisible magic being which I’ve enshrined in my imagination to violate your reason and force you to believe what I say.”
In precisely this way, “I’ll pray for you” represents an implicit appeal to the aggressive use of force against others to get one’s way. As Ayn Rand rightly put it, “faith and force… are corollaries” (“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 66).
So a good response might be something along the lines of:
Why not try to convince me through rational argument instead?
Think I’m wrong? Have a better approach you’d like to share? Feel free to argue your case in the comments.
by Dawson Bethrick