Overview:

Some atheists may feel thanking a Christian for offering prayers is appropriate, but it may be a missed opportunity to be seen.

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Earlier this week, OnlySky contributor Kristen Chase offered her take on how we should respond when well-meaning religious people offer their blessings and prayers to atheists. She suggested nonbelievers such as myself respond with one simple phrase: Thank you.

I partially agree, while pointing out Kristen’s essential qualifier: well-meaning. Yes, when well-meaning, not passive-aggressive, people of faith offer their prayers as a way to show you’re in their thoughts when they’re speaking with their chosen deity, showing gratitude is important.

However, it’s not uncommon for the phrase “I’m praying for you” to be used as a put-down, as if atheists are somehow lost souls who need the help of believers to be brought back into the fold. So it’s important to keep this distinction in mind and determine the intent of the phrase before responding appropriately.

In the case of the well-meaning prayers, though, I would respond to Kristen’s view with, “yes, but…”

My perspective on this topic comes from personal experience, both past and very recent. And it seems my experience with religious family members is a bit different than Kristen’s.

In April 2015, my second child was born. Grayson came early, at 27 weeks (that’s 3 months early), scaring the absolute crap out of us as parents. After he was born, we spent 2 months with him in our local neonatal intensive care unit while he fought and worked to get strong and stable enough to bring home. During this time, as you can imagine, my wife and I heard from dozens of people on a seemingly constant basis that they were praying for Grayson’s health and our family.

At this time, I was just starting out as a blogger/columnist, writing regularly on my own self-hosted site, as well as syndicated on some others, including Atheist Republic. While sitting next to Grayson’s NICU bed one night, my frustrations came to a boiling point after hearing so many offer their prayers, assuring me that their god would save my son. So I began to write an open letter to all of them which resulted in an unexpected spike in traffic, an outpouring of support from secular strangers, and a fundraiser that restored my faith in humanity—as well as several death threats from devout Christians. (Amazingly, the article’s reach was so widespread that even one of Grayson’s NICU nurses came across it and mentioned it to me, thanking me for writing it.)

Writing the article was cathartic for me. It allowed me to get all of my anger and frustration out of my head and onto “paper” where it could fade into cyberspace so I could focus on my two sons. It allowed me to be seen by those who assumed I was religious or wanted them to pray for my family. I didn’t ask for their prayers. They presumed I wanted them instead of asking me what I needed. Sometimes I just needed a hug. Or a cup of coffee. Or someone to mow my lawn because I was never home. But what I got was a handful of words that meant nothing to me and didn’t help.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that writing that article, publishing and promoting my first book, and doing my best to normalize my own atheism within my circle, have resulted in a deeper respect from friends and family for my position than I felt in 2015.

Last week, my father passed away after a relatively long hospital stay. Soon after, we held his calling hours and funeral at a local funeral home. As is customary, friends and family came to pay their respects and offer their condolences. A few people I chatted with during calling hours offered their prayers and I thanked them or just nodded. But those were all people who I’d never met before or didn’t know very well—friends of my dad, neighbors, or former coworkers. Anyone who knew me—my own friends, family, or acquaintances—offered their “thoughts” or, better yet, asked how I’m doing or if there was anything they could do for me.

After the funeral, I reflected on this and how the dynamic of consolation and support has evolved. People were respectful of my religious affiliation and kept that in mind when offering their condolences. They no longer assumed I wanted their prayers. They knew prayers didn’t mean much to me at all, and that a different approach might be more effective to offer their support. This was because I advocated for myself and made people see me.

I truly understand that in difficult times, we don’t want to cause conflict when someone is offering their support. But simply thanking people for assuming they’re giving you what you need when they’re not coming close will only be a disservice to yourself. It’s fine to thank the well-meaning people of faith, but it will benefit you as an atheist, as well as the rest of the nonreligious community, if you append that thank you with “…but I’m not religious” or “…but if you really want to help, I could use…”

The first step to gaining acceptance is to raise awareness. By saying more than “thank you” and explaining why prayer is not something that we need or want, we’re making the people in our circles aware that we’re here. Atheists are normal, everyday people, and we are worthy of the same respect as the religious (if not more). We’re the same friends, neighbors, coworkers, and loved ones we were before anyone knew we were atheists. In a society where changing the way we address people based on who they identify as is becoming more normal, we should be a part of that as well.

For those who may be religious and reading this, it may be time to be more inclusive of all and no longer assume people are in search of prayers during hard times. Rather, ask those having difficulty what they need instead of telling them what you think they need. Say things like, “What can I do for you?” or “What do you need?” or “I love you. Is there anything I can to do help you through this?” Don’t be surprised if they’re overcome with emotion, not expecting to hear those words.

And if you’re wondering, Grayson is now 7 years old and thriving, thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many doctors, nurses, medical researchers, and other scientists who have revolutionized the care of premature children over recent decades. We’re very lucky he was born in modern times.

Kevin Davis is a columnist and activist focused on topics associated with life as a nonreligious American. He's a father of two boys in a predominantly Christian town in Western NY and writes about the...