A friend of mine (I'll call him Andy) is facing a family crisis over faith. Though Andy is an atheist, his wife is a Christian who, while generally tolerant of Andy's atheism, nevertheless takes her religion quite seriously, frequently reminding their children about the importance of praying. This is causing tension between Andy and his children. Andy's oldest child, an eleven-year-old girl whom I'll call Cindy, is very upset about her father's non-belief. She seems especially bothered because Andy refuses to pray for her and the rest of their family.
Therefore, Andy decided to write a letter to Cindy, and he was kind enough to forward a copy of it to me. Knowing the background, I thought the letter was beautiful and touching (though I'm wondering what Andy's wife will think of it). Andy gave me permission to share it, with names changed:
I want to explain something to you that is very important to me. Because I love you very much, and because you are so very important to me, I want you to understand what I'm about to tell you. After you read this, I hope we can talk about what I'm saying here.
I think you know that there is no such thing as magic. When we are children, it's fun to think about magic and believe in it, but we soon learn that magic is not real. Even when magicians do things that seem impossible, we know that they are not really performing magic. We know that magicians are experts at creating illusions, and that there are natural explanations for everything that happens.
Even though we know that magic is make-believe, sometimes we are taught to believe that it is real. Many people, when they want something, think they should pray to God to give it to them. If they want to win a soccer game, they pray to God to make them win. If they want a new toy, a new dress, or a new iPod, they pray to God to give them these things. If they are sick, they pray to God to make them feel better. If they want to do well on a test, they pray for it. I don't believe that prayers like these are appropriate, and please let me explain why.
First of all, it seems to me that it's a little selfish to ask for small magical favors from God. There are 7 billion people in the world, and many of them are in great need. The world is filled with starving children, homeless families, sick people who have no medical care, and people who suffer from the horrors of war. With all of these people who need so much, doesn't it seem selfish to ask God to help us win a silly soccer game, or to give us a new toy?
Also, it really wouldn't make sense that a good, loving God would listen to such prayers while ignoring others. Would a loving God ignore the prayers of billions of suffering people, choosing instead to help your team win a soccer game? I want your team to win, but I hope your soccer game is not more important than millions of starving children.
It seems to me that praying for favors is just a way of believing in magic. It's a way of pretending that the natural laws of the universe can be ignored. This, of course, is silly if you think about it. More importantly, this way of thinking causes many people to ignore their own responsibilities. For example, some people will pray for something even though they haven't done anything to deserve what they are praying for. They will pray to do well on a test, for example, even though they haven't studied. To me, this just doesn't seem right.
After all, the way to do well on a test is to study, isn't it? The best chance of winning a soccer game is to practice, isn't it? The best way to be healthy, it seems to me, is to live a healthy lifestyle, to make a habit out of eating healthy foods, avoid things that are unhealthy, and get exercise. And if you want a new toy or a new dress, the way to get them is to earn them.
Of course, sometimes things might happen that seem unfair. We might get ill even though we don't deserve it, or we might be treated unfairly in some other way. But we have to understand that sometimes things like these happen, that the natural world is not always fair. In the natural world, terribly unfair and unfortunate things happen all the time - that's just the way nature works. In fact, compared with many other people, we've usually got little to complain about. We will almost certainly always have enough food to eat, and we are in a good position to get a good education and all of the material comforts that we need.
Therefore, when you ask me to pray for you (or for anything else), I don't want you to misunderstand me when I say that I won't do it. I simply do not believe that prayer works, or that it makes any sense. Nature works according to natural laws, not magic. The idea of a man in the sky who takes requests from 7 billion people just seems silly to me. No such man would ignore the prayers of billions of suffering, innocent people while granting the prayers of those who ask for iPods, or to win soccer games, or pass tests.
So I hope you understand, and I hope you can respect my views. Of course, even though I'm not praying for you, I very much hope good things happen to you! I also want you to help make the world a better place, a place where there is much more peace and much less suffering. That will happen not by praying for it, but by working hard to make it happen. You can make the world better by paying attention to the the natural, not the supernatural, and leaving magic to fairy tales.
Love you with all my heart.
David Niose's critically acclaimed Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available here.