How Should Atheists Respond When Others Ask for Prayers?

Religious Theists May Ask Atheists for their Prayers for a Miracle

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​​How should I respond to believers who ask for other people to pray for them when someone falls ill or some "miracle" is hoped for? As an atheist, it always makes me feel uncomfortable to confront others' expectation that I should pray — and uncharitable when I want to respond by reminding people that many of us don't believe in their god or any god at all.

Suggestions for How to Respond

Many religious theists, especially Christians, will ask for people's prayers and express hopes for a miracle when they experience significant problems in their lives (such as illness and injury, for example).

Other Christians will normally respond by promising to pray and actually doing so at some point, asking God for miracles and divine intervention. Atheists obviously can't give the same response because atheists don't pray at all, much less for a miracle from God. So how can atheists respond?

There's probably no good answer to this because every option carries risks and chances for causing serious offense. At the very least, atheists will have to proceed carefully and will have to tailor their approach to each individual situation. They can't respond to such a request from a mother or brother in the same way they might respond to such a request from a coworker or neighbor.

If you want to cause offense, or simply don't care whether you do or not, then you can basically respond however you want. You can tell them that you're an atheist, don't pray, don't believe in prayer, don't believe in miracles, and recommend that people place more confidence in science, reason, and being active in search of solutions rather than prayer or gods.

They probably won't trouble you with such requests or much else thereafter. Yet other than this, what have you accomplished?

Assuming that you don't want to cause any offense, you're options are very limited. Telling the bare truth, even in the most careful and respectful way, isn't what people want to hear.

Fortunately, many probably also don't need to necessarily hear that you will be praying for any sort of miracle. In many cases people are more likely looking for sympathy and emotional support — they want to know that people are thinking about them and care enough to hope that things turn out well for them.

There's nothing wrong with that, but some don't know of any other way to make such a request except to ask for people to pray for them. Perhaps it sounds selfish to simply ask for support, but not to ask for prayers. Asking for sympathy and support may make a person feel even more vulnerable than they already are in their pain. If you care enough, you may be able to help them with this pain that is causing them to reach out.

What You Can Do

You can't pray for or with them, but you can express how much you care about them, how much you want things to improve for them and promise to be there for them in their time of need. Robert Green Ingersoll said that "The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray" and he was right. If you agree with him, then you should act like it. You can't and won't pray, but this doesn't mean that you can't do anything at all. At the very least, you can make sure you don't forget about them in your busy life and try to keep in contact with them, letting them know that you are still thinking about them.

You may also be able to do more in some cases. You could bring them food if things are so stressful that they can't always prepare decent meals themselves now. You could offer to bring them other things they need or to transport them places they need to go. Again, you’ll need to tailor your response to each individual situation. If you want them to know that you care and that you support them, you can find ways to do so other than prayer.