Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"I'll pray for you"

It’s not unusual for defenders of the Christian worldview to close a conversation with non-believers with the words, “I’ll pray for you.” I’ve heard this many times, and I’ve also seen it written in correspondence many times. Quite often this final adieu comes out as a last gasp signaling, not so much a defeat as surrender or even a sign of intellectual resignation, as if the believer had come to a dead end in his thinking. It may be nothing more than code for, “I don’t know what else to say,” which would embody a kernel of honesty.

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?
This approach puts the onus right back on the theist’s shoulders while drawing attention to the fact that he has abandoned reason by invoking prayer.

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


Ydemoc said...


To those who say, "I'll pray for you," you suggested responding with: "Why not try to convince me through rational argument instead?"

I think I'll try this out. I'll report back with results after I do.

By the way, I've always thought that the expression, "Bless your heart," (in many if not most cases) is code for "Wow, I (the person using that expression) think that you are a total moron."

Anyway, thanks again!


Jason mc said...

I started reading this blog years ago, and really enjoyed it. Been away for a while though. Recently, I've been going though the IP archives from years I've missed.

I'm having a great time again. Thanks for the work, Dawson, verbosity and all! I'm again inspired to get into some philosophical writing myself.

I'm the guy who asked the question you responded to here back in 2010:

Recently I've been impressed by philosophical work of the Sydney School of Aristotelian mathematical realism (http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/structmath.html). Readers of this blog might find it intriguing too, I reckon, given the Arisotelian heritage it shares with Objectivism.


Joe said...

Great topic Dawson.I don't have a good response to "I will pray for you" other than,"so, what?" I think a Calvinist would say that he is praying for god to open your heart so you can see the evidence. Maybe other Christians have the same idea or maybe god would increase his persuasion of his existence on your life. So in the Christian's mind this is not an act of force but a prevenient grace as John Wesley may describe it. I guess one response could be similar to Dan Barker's "how do you know prayer works?" and explore that claim.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Dawson. Do you think you can do a refutation of Clarkian presuppositionalism? I think that's the only one you haven't covers yet and I would like to see your views on it.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi All,

Thank you for your comments. Sorry for the delay in my response. I’ve had a very busy holiday weekend! I hope everyone is enjoying their July 4 celebrations! I will take some time now to respond to your comments in the order that they were posted.


Please let us know what happens if you get an occasion to take this approach to the “I’ll pray for you” slogan. Of course, the degree of its intended “bite” will be determined by the context of the conversation in which it is deployed. The believer may really think he’s being entirely authentic, and while he may really think this is the case, he might not realize how disingenuously his words may be coming across.

And yes, the “bless your heart” saying can have a rather patronizing tone, sort of like treating a person’s boons and gains, however minor they may be, on the same lines as the luck of a blind squirrel finding a nut. “You managed to get out of the way of that speeding car? Well, aren’t we clever!” As though you were a recipient of fortune *in spite* of your stupidity. Here, however, I tend to think this is more dainty-old-lady talk than anything else (I know, how sexist of me!). They heard their parents and elders say it when they were young, and they’ve picked up the habit.

Perhaps we should compile a list of the common sayings theists tend to say and see which ones are worth exploring for philosophical implications. Then again, I do have more important things to do… But if anyone knows of any and is interested in probing their meaning, feel free to chime in.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Jason,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you reached out. I remember that blog entry I wrote way back when. Thanks again for posing the question that prompted it!

Thanks also for the link to the Sydney School webpage. I will have to add that to my list of summer reading (which is already probably too long for me make much progress on… but, I like to set my sights high!).

Is it just me, or is Aristotelianism starting to make some kind of comeback in the world? Maybe I’m just getting my hopes up!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Joe,

Thanks for a very thought-provoking comment.

Some thoughts…

Replying with “so what?” – how about with simply “Why?” In both cases, these are questions that are likely to be interpreted as hostility, or at any rate as a challenge to continue a conversation that the believer probably wants to end. Asking “How do you know prayer works?” of course might invite a bit more intellectual interaction – at least, one would hope! But if the believer wants to discontinue the discussion, he probably already feels insulted by the fact that you’re not a believer (your very existence being a kind of threat to his emotional security), and wants to exit with a parting shot that, he feels, strikes at your deepest nerves. Often believers want to use strategically placed words to jar others into conversion somehow. In my own experience (which is representative of only my own experience!), when believers tell the story of their own conversion, they often point to that “one thing” that finally sent them over the edge into full sell-out mode, even though such a story ignores or downplays a huge number of more fundamental factors that made them initially vulnerable to religious suggestion. They focus only on the straw that brought the house down.

As for the statement that the believer “is praying for god to open your heart so you can see the evidence”: I still see this as a camouflaged appeal to the aggressive use of force. This is even worse than a thug coming along and twisting your arm behind your back; you can see a thug coming and may be able to protect yourself. But you can’t do this with a supernatural being. How would one be able to resist the creator of the universe?

The notion of going through one’s “heart” to get them to “see the evidence” itself sounds like some backdoor used to bypass rational inquiry. What specifically is meant by “heart” here, and what is its relationship to “seeing the evidence”? Does evidence appear differently if it’s “seen” through “the heart” as opposed to analyzed by rational methods? This is usually left completely explained, but the whole approach strongly implies an appeal to emotions. Really, what else could it be?

Such statements suggest that the believer thinks that all that is really need is essentially a mood change, as if to say, “if you change the way you feel, if you have this set of emotions, you’ll ‘interpret’ whatever you see as ‘evidence’ for what I’m claiming.” (Because of the commonality of such language among apologists, I’ve come to be rather suspicious every time they use the word ‘interpret' – there’s often more packed into this term than they want you to be aware of.) It all still comes across as a tacit admission that their worldview program cannot be rationally defended – some supernatural intervention is needed to get us there (just as liberals always believe that some form of government intervention is required to ensure civil propriety). In the final analysis, believers are simply not aware of the fact that they have accepted the primacy of consciousness view of reality and that this foundation is what makes their theistic fantasies seem so real to them.

Of course, if the believer wants to distinguish the notion of “prevenient grace” from an aggressive use of force, the onus is upon him to explain the difference. Don’t Calvinists hold that the Christian god’s “grace” is irresistible? Don’t they hold that their god’s will is irresistible? Bullets and handcuffs are also irresistible. So is being burnt at the stake. But the Calvinist needs to answer: In a contest of wills between the Christian god, which is supposed to be all-powerful, omnipotent, able to create universes and make fish cough up coins, and puny miserable weakling man who can do no good on his own, whose will is going to prevail, according to what Calvinism actually teaches (as opposed to what a given Calvinist might say in the flash of a moment)?

Expect scalding-hot scorn should you get an opportunity to pose such questions to a Calvinist.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Oreoman 1987,

Regarding Clarkian presuppositionalism… In fact, I have written quite a bit on Clark’s views, but I don’t think I’ve posted any of it. I have interacted with some of John Robbins’ stuff on my blog, but even here, I’ve only published the tip of the iceberg. Good suggestion. Perhaps, should I get some time, I’ll check into my personal archives and see if there’s anything worth dusting-up.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dawson. I recently decided that I too am an Objectivist. I'm now convinced that it's the only philosophy that I can actually agree with as a whole. XD!

Anonymous said...

Hello Heathens!

The answer to "I will pray for you" that I liked was:

"I will think for you."

Bahnsen Burner said...


That reminds me of an occasion many years ago, back when businesses were allowed to let people smoke in their establishments. My father and one of his associates went to a Dennys and one of the ladies in the neighboring booth asked, "Do you mind if we smoke?" My father's associate quickly turned around and asked, "Do you mind if we fart?" Within two minutes, the two ladies got up and left.

Not an exact parallel here, but the power of words ("the Word" as Christians imagine it) can do wonders.

Of course, it also occurs to me... I recall how on several occasions when I've found myself in an encounter with a frothing defender of the faith, I suggested that the believer pray for me (e.g., to pray for my eyesight). But very often the response to this is something to the effect that I need to make supplication firsthand for myself, that I need to be getting on my knees as it were, because I need to demonstrate faith. Suddenly this is out the window when they want to close a conversation that's not going well for them with "I'll pray for you."

I'm glad these aren't my problems.


Commander Chris said...

When people tell me that they will pray for me I simply tell them to keep track of their time and I will reimburse them.

David Barwick said...

Hello, all

As proof that some things never die, I left a follow-up comment on a year-old thread. The comment was mostly addressed to Brandon Dickens, but anyone is welcome to address it. I just wanted to post here in case Brandon didn't notice that I posted on that old thread. The url is http://bahnsenburner.blogspot.com/2015/07/believers-remorse.html

David Barwick

Joe said...

Thanks Dawson for taking the time to thoughtfully respond. The Calvinist sees the heart as the direction of your desires. It is always explained in Calvinist circles as, because of original sin we are all inclined to interpret and see things without a view toward God. The only way that you can see the evidence for God is if God changes what you ultimately desire. God does not change everyone's desires, only the elects. Yet God uses means like preaching and prayer to open the elects hearts. Isn't it great God uses us to call the elect to the praise of his glory!LOL(This is what the Calvinist says) So when you are speaking to a Calvinist, he has been taught that you cannot see the truth about God until God opens your eyes. The game is rigged from the start. The evidence, to a Calvinist, is not about being objective but about God changing your desires so that you can see him. So "I will pray for you" from a Calvinist simply means that if God so wills, he may choose to change your desires (heart) using my prayer as a cause. Of course God could just change our hearts without us but isn't it awesome that God uses pitiful, sinful creatures,like ourselves, for the praise of his golry! That is the Calvinist world that they believe is real and it is very difficult to get them to doubt it.

petew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
petew said...

Dan Dennet(?) "... thanks, will you sacrifice a goat for me too?"