My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

“Pray for Me on Facebook”: An Agnostic’s Dilemma

facebook prayer

Interpersonal relations on Facebook fascinate me.  We’ve had to develop a whole new set of rules and etiquette for relating to one another. Here’s one Facebook etiquette question that I don’t know how best to handle.

As an agnostic, what do I do when a Facebook friend asks me to pray for them?

Granted, the friend in question is not specifically asking for my prayers.  This is usually part of a Facebook status, such as, “Please pray for my xxx.  He’s in the hospital with xxx.”  Usually, the prayers are being asked for something truly upsetting—someone’s hurt, someone’s dying, someone’s getting divorced, someone lost a job.

When a friend asks for prayers on Facebook, others kindly do as they are asked.  “Praying for you!” they say, along with other well-wishes and words of advice.  Sometimes people just write, “Praying,” with no other words.  (Which makes me wonder if Facebook ought to have a “Pray” button along with the “Like” button. Heck, Facebook could have a whole drop down category of one-word responses to statuses, therefore eliminating the need for any original responses.  But I digress.)

For the most part, I am a kind person.  When people are dealing with illness, tragedy, or other difficulties, I feel sad—especially when these people are Facebook friends, which means that at the very least, they’re not strangers. So when someone says, “Please pray for my six-year-old daughter.  She’s in the hospital,” I want to say something heartfelt and comforting.

But should I offer my prayers?

After all, I’ve been asked to pray by a person I care about who is suffering.  If I say, “I’m so sorry to hear this.  I’ll be thinking of you and your daughter,” am I being mean?  I didn’t do what was asked of me.  And not that it matters, I suppose, but will others who are reading this Facebook page think I’m mean?

Moreover, am I being in-your-face with my agnosticism at a highly inappropriate time?  I would never post an obnoxious response like, “Well, I don’t pray. I’m an agnostic. But I’ll be thinking about you.”  But by not offering to pray, am I implying this, at least a little bit?

But the thing is, I don’t pray.  I’m certainly not opposed to prayer or to religion. I know that many people find great comfort in their beliefs and by the act of praying.  But I have always been an agnostic.  People may not know that about me, since I identity as being a Jew, but that describes my cultural identity and heritage, not my religious beliefs.  My family and I belong to a Humanist Jewish congregation called Or Emet, which gives us a wonderful feeling of community.

I don’t need to get into a whole explanation of why I am an agnostic.  In part, it’s for the same reason that many people are religious. I was raised that way.  Actually, I was recently offered an excellent way to describe my agnosticism by Siri, the digital iPhone assistant.  I asked her one day, “Siri, is there a God?”

“I am not equipped to answer that question,” replied Siri.

I feel the same way.  I’m not an atheist either, mind you.  It seems entirely possible that a higher being of some kind created us. But I don’t know which, if any, of my fellow humans have the correct answer about the nature of a higher power.  And others may disagree, but personally, I don’t feel I am equipped to answer that question.

So, then, when someone asks me to pray for them on Facebook, what should I do?  If I say, “I will pray for you,” that’s not genuine, even if I do say words of prayer.  I don’t have the faith (for lack of a better word) that anyone is listening.  I don’t like lying to people. But I also don’t like hurting their feelings, and sometimes, “I’ll be thinking of you,” just feels cold, even though I’m telling the truth.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t think it’s wrong for someone to ask for prayers on Facebook.  The fact that it makes me a little uncomfortable is pretty darn insignificant—and it’s a part of living in a diverse society.  I’m genuinely glad I have Facebook friends (and “real” ones too) who don’t see the world exactly like I do.

Occasionally, I do see messages on Facebook such as, “I have a job interview today. Please send prayers, good thoughts, positive energy, or whatever you’ve got.” I like these messages. They’re kind of the equivalent of saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.  Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with someone specifically asking for prayers. (Although here’s a thoughtful post by a Humanist who disagrees with me about this.)

Of course, there’s the related issue that sometimes, people on Facebook offer to pray for me.  I had an MRI recently (which thankfully turned out normal), and when I posted on Facebook that I was scared, a few prayers were offered.  It was also suggested that I keep myself calm during the MRI by praying.  Honestly, the MRI experience freaked me out so much that I did try this, along with envisioning myself walking on a beach and drinking a milkshake and cuddling with my daughter.  (None of this worked. Next time, I’ll try envisioning myself blowing up the MRI machine. Or I’ll take a lot of Xanax.  But I digress.)

So how do I feel when someone offers prayers to me on Facebook?  To be perfectly honest, it depends on my mood.  I do understand that there’s nothing but kindness involved in this sentiment.  But sometimes, I do feel that my own belief system is being disrespected when someone offers to pray for me, especially if they know that I am an agnostic.  The thing is, agnosticism is a position that is still pretty far from the mainstream. Godbelievers are in the in-crowd, and nonbelievers are the weird kids. So when someone offers to pray for me, sometimes they unintentionally remind me that I don’t belong.

Or think of it this way. Imagine that a devout Christian posts on Facebook, “Please pray for me.” And imagine that she has a Muslim friend who posts, “Allah be with you!” Or imagine if a devout Jew asks for prayers and is answered with, “Jesus be with you!” Not very respectful, huh?  So why do some people think it’s respectful to offer prayers to an agnostic?

But therein lies the dilemma. When I get unsolicited promises of prayer, I sometimes feel disrespected. So do people feel disrespected when they ask for prayers and I only offer my concern? I don’t have any answers to this dilemma, and in general, I continue to offer my best wishes and concern and love to friends who ask for prayers, because that’s what I have to offer.

I would love to hear responses, both from those who pray and those who do not.

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22 thoughts on ““Pray for Me on Facebook”: An Agnostic’s Dilemma

  1. Kate C on said:

    I often have had the same dilemma. Generally what I say is something along the lines of sending good thoughts or positive energy your way, which is true and ultimately , in my humble opinion, the gist of what the person is asking.

  2. Howard Passel on said:

    I was brought up to believe that G-d does not intercede in human affairs, and that prayer is not for G-d, but occasions for us to reflect on our moral obligations, and how we can become better human beings. I find FB requests for prayer to be expressions of mere superstition. I ignore them.

  3. I don’t comment at all. When someone asks for old baby clothes or a ride or help at the anti-choice rally or a donation to provide bibles for Indian reservations, and I can’t, or won’t, provide it, the best response seems to be none at all. It’s the same response I’d give if I didn’t see the plea in the first place, so it doesn’t feel mean at all.

  4. I agree with above. My usual response to a request for prayers is either hitting the “like” button (a cop out, I know), saying “positive thoughts coming your way”, or “ok”.

    When someone says I’ll pray for you it depends on the circumstances. In reality, that IS their way of sending me positive thoughts, so its more appropriate then a direct request to me to pray for them. After things settle down, and whatever crisis has passed, then I may feel the need to tell someone how they can be more respectful of me and my beliefs.

    The reality is most people don’t think about it…kind of the same way with “Merry Christmas”. I have less of an issue with people I figure are generally clueless, then with those who have truly thought about it and decided they will say “Merry Christmas” just because they want to.

  5. Michael Fishman on said:

    Excellent blog, Naomi, with lots of good food for thought. I think (at least for me) that it’s very easy to get hung up on the words as opposed to the meanings. What is prayer but positive words being said with positive thoughts looking toward a positive outcome? So in that sense why should I care about the other person’s beliefs or who they’re praying to? They’re putting out positive thought and words into the universe which can only be a good thing for everyone. If an online friend asks for prayers then I offer my positive thoughts to them. I do that because I think it’s the right thing to do and I would have too difficult a time ignoring them. Same with “Merry Christmas”. The thought is a positive one and that’s what I take and appreciate an thank the other person. Again, an excellent blog!

  6. As a praying person, I would not remotely be offended at an offer of warm thoughts and love when I ask for prayer. Facebook is essentially slightly more welcome spam… I never assume the same beliefs or practices on the part of my friends. (Because of that, I’m not as prone to ask for prayer in that venue, either. Occasionally, I think I’ve addressed a post to “praying friends.”)

    I did not know what Humanistic Judaism entailed. I suspected it was a cultural identity, but wasn’t sure. I also didn’t know, specifically, that you were agnostic. Maybe other FB friends will handle responses to you differently, now that they know your feelings and beliefs. I truly hope that people offer their prayers from a place of love, rather than offense. I think you can assume so (unless you have prior knowledge that they are judgemental jerks!)

    I really enjoy the dialogue and am glad you posted.

  7. Kristen on said:

    I usually say, “holding you (or loved one) in my heart”. Sometimes I say praying, but I don’t think your response is cold or obnoxious. I think people ask for prayers because we don’t really have a better way to word it. You are a warm and thoughtful person and I would continue to answer the ‘prayer requests’ as you do. 🙂

  8. Oh, and another thing…believers and non-believers, alike, have feelings of “otherness.” I regularly feel from misunderstood to despised for my beliefs. I perceive that many consider me stupid when I believe something based on spiritual convictions. (Note recent banter on FB leading to the elections.). I was under the impression that it was more politically correct to express non-belief than deep belief. (Note the previous comment calling prayer “superstitious.”) I would be judged harshly if I made damning comments towards a non-believer, but it’s quite acceptable to lob a few at a believer. Open-mindedness does not rule out conviction and vice-versa.)

    • Thank you so much for your replies, Kris! I’m sorry that you’ve felt that you haven’t felt comfortable expressing belief-based sentiments on Facebook, or elsewhere. If anyone thinks your beliefs make you stupid, well, what does that say about them?

      I’m not sure if it’s more accepted to express belief or non-belief. Sadly, this country is so divided right now that political and religious sentiments of all kinds are under attack, and even more so during the election season. Chic Fil A, anyone?

  9. I also usually say “thinking of you (or whoever)” etc. etc. as I also feel to say that I’m praying is disingenuous.

    And I must say, Naomi, that Godbelievers are only the in-crowd in the USA. Our culture is so US-centric that I didn’t have a clue that this wasn’t the norm elsewhere in the world until I left (also, I hadn’t really considered it either being quite young at the time!). Admittedly my perspective is slightly skewed as NZ is a mostly non-religious country. I mean, Helen Clark was an open Atheist, if that gives you any idea. But my understanding is that Europe is quite similar – particularly the Scandinavian countries. God just isn’t a big deal and doesn’t get talked about in every single aspect of daily life. You don’t actually even know if people are religious or not because it simply isn’t talked about.

  10. Kathryn Shanahan on said:

    My father died on December 27th. I would never ask for anything-let alone prayers. I posted the sad news to Facebook when I learned of it. I received a sympathy card from my cousin and her husband (he’d lost his own mother to cancer not that long ago) as well as one from my friends in Australia. I appreciated them very much, especially the handwritten notes.

    A week or so ago, I was walking to the library to return some dvds. I ran into an old friend. We’ve known each other since we were seven. He”s very religious in the best possible sense of the word. He said he and wife would be praying for me and my family. I said “Thank you.” He meant it genuinely.

    I think people want to feel they are helping in some way and that is something they feel they can do that makes them feel better. It doesn’t cost money and they don’t have to do anything special. I don’t know if it does anything for me, but if it does something for them, fine. I’ll say “Thank you” for the fact that they are thinking of me and my family. Maybe that’s enough. I know you expressed your thoughts that way when I first posted about my father’s declining condition. Thank you again for your kind words. 🙂

  11. I think this is a bigger deal for you than for the person asking you to pray for them. I don’t believe that one has a personal relationship with God that extends to asking God for a favor. For me, a prayer is a thought. It’s energy. So if I’m thinking of some one who has asked me to pray for them, I have prayed for them. It’s demonstrated empathy and compassion as much as a prayer does. It’s semantics. I would tell the person I prayed for them and get into the ego struggle of justifying my beliefs.

  12. I meant in the last sentence that I would NOT get into an ego struggle

  13. Southern Humanist on said:

    Hey Naomi, thanks for the link! After re-reading my post, I’m inclined to recall my son’s advice which goes something like, “Dad, you really over think this stuff sometimes.” haha! My personal Facebook is full of Christian people, and often morphs in to some kind of virtual church service around certain events or topics. In that context, I think prayers are a way for people to look and feel like they’re helping, without actually having to do anything. As a secular humanist, I guess it’s the pious obsequiousness of it that bugs me. There is actual real good to be done in this world. I was wasting way too much time though, worrying about that set of people, so I’ve now hidden just about everybody that I could expect religious prayer requests from. Which incidentally quite conveniently also removed the “ like this if you like Jesus” stuff and more insidiously in the wake of the Newton tragedy, the monumentally stupid, “if God were in schools this wouldn’t have happened” nonsense. It’s been refreshing. 🙂

  14. Thanks for writing this, it is a common dilemma for most people I think. It is hard to predict what will or won’t offend another person, but at the same time, I think that anyone that is truly a friend will accept whatever you have to give, as long as it is honest and heartfelt.

    Consider this – let’s say that instead of a generic, “Please pray for xxx”, they instead say, “Please join me in asking Jesus for xxx”. That too, is a pretty specific request. So if someone on FB posts that, and has Jewish or Muslim or Sikh friends respond, do you think they would honestly expect them to say, “Yes, I’m praying to Jesus with you right now”? Of course not. And if they did, it would make no sense, or perhaps even be considered patronizing or insulting. I would make more sense to simply reply, “I’m praying with you”.

    Keeping that in mind, as an agnostic, how to respond? I think it makes sense to say, “You are in my thoughts”, or “Sending positive thoughts your way” or whatever works for you. To say anything else would be a lie quite frankly.

    In my experience, I simply have no time for people who don’t add some sort of positive value to my life, or who can’t accept positive values back from me. In reaching out, you have made an effort to connect with that person, and share your heartfelt grief and concern for them. If they choose to make a big deal about deal about the lack of prayer on your part, I would seriously recommend considering the value of that relationship. If they cannot accept your love and concern, given as best and as freely as you can in a time of crisis, then there is really no value in the relationship for either of you. Perhaps you should part ways instead.

    Strangely enough, one of my best friends on FB is a girl from high school. She and her husband are re-born Christians. Religiously, we could not be more on opposite ends of the spectrum. But we love each other, and check in with a personal message every few months. I remember that she once posted online about a problem she was having. Tons of people from her church responded to her post, all with a common theme. “I’ll pray for you”, “Have faith that it will be OK” and so on. I actually wrote to her personally that day, and offered to help (and followed up on that). She wrote to me later and told me that not one person in her church actually took the time to offer to help, only the Atheist she knew in high school actually offered a hand!

    That’s a lesson I took to heart. When asked for prayers, I usually add the phrase, “If there is anything you need from me, any way I can be of help, please don’t hesitate to ask”. And I mean it. If we can be the vehicle for others prayers to be answered, so be it.

  15. Pingback: Facebook Prayers Revisited | The Southern Humanist

  16. In fact no matter if someone doesn’t be aware of afterward its up to other visitors that they will assist, so here it occurs.

  17. Thanks for writing about this. A friend requested prayers today for a critically ill cousin, and I was afraid this person would think I was a jerk if I didn’t post something. This is what I said: “I’m not real religious, but I will hope for a full and speedy recovery for him..” The reply was, “me either, but I really believe in the power of prayer and positive thought. Thank you!” SO they actually appreciated my thoughts and wishes for a full recovery for said person. Anyhow, I totally relate to this dilemma. Personally I think it’s a silly thing to ask for prayer. If you feel compelled to appeal to the Lord for help, then just pray yourself. Asking people to pray is sort of like one of those “I can’t believe this!” posts, baiting people and waiting to see if they respond or not. JMO

  18. I’m an atheist and I just honest w my friends. I help, I think bout them and that’s all…when they pray for me I just ignore it or I say whatever, if you think they don’t have respect for you when they say that

  19. So this is generally how I handle it…

    The beginning of the definition of pray is, “address a solemn request or expression of thanks”, which is the part I focus on, and although it continues to include, “to a deity or other object of worship”, I choose to ignore that part. Therefore, when I am asked to pray my mind says “solemn request” which I interpret to mean with “mindful attention”. So I will consistently say something like, “You will be in my thoughts today and I will make time for a special reflection on your need. Please know how much my heart is with you at this time”. If the person is more of an acquaintance, I will say something like, “I will make sure to take time today to send my loving (insert any word that works for your relationship) thoughts to you during this time”.

    When someone says they will pray for me, I continue to utilize my perspective filter to accept their intentions in the best way I can. Because I assume they aren’t being snide, I want to envision that they are just expressing the depth of their emotion and concern the only way they know how. If they are being snide, then I assume they are ignorant on the EQ scale and haven’t yet learned how to socially communicate on that level.

    All in all, I try to find the most positive and honest way of dealing with religious intentions in a secular way without offending my friends or family.

  20. TerriEloise on said:

    Reblogged this on Terri Eloise's Blog and commented:
    This is a great read!!

  21. Val on said:

    I also feel this dilemma but as atheists and agnostics I don’t think we need to. I think we are getting way to hung up on the definition of prayer. Isn’t prayer also a strong wish or hope? “I just pray that it rains soon!” or “I pray that the grocery store is still open when I get there”.

    Definition from Webster:
    Simple Definition of pray
    : to speak to God especially in order to give thanks or to ask for something
    : to hope or wish very much for something to happen
    : to seriously ask (someone) to do something

    Definitions two and three don’t have anything to do with religious beliefs.

    I think it is ok to “Send prayers” if you think of it in the same way as “Send wishes”.

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