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