Will “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” ever leave human commentary?

Nov 6, 2012

Discussion by: PY
With pre-disaster fear, disasters taking place and post-disaster commentary (to name just a few reasons) the web seems full of comments such as ‘we are praying for you’, ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’, and ‘ I will pray for your safety’ et. all, as if the act of praying itself can change or manipulate the outcome of events. How long will in be before these magical words will lose all meaning? Surely some pray wish-lists are just social grace or are meant to be kind comments, or perhaps to have control over the uncontrollable, but it seems these wasted words re-enforce magical thinking and are patronizing at the very least. Is it not time to ‘out’ praying for what it is, complete and utter magical nonsense and manipulation of otherwise meaningful acts of compassion?

41 comments on “Will “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” ever leave human commentary?

  • 1
    Mister T says:

    While I don’t disagree with your sentiment, how exactly do you propose to ‘out’ praying? To whom will you address your objections? Atheists realise that there is no evidence for the efficacy of prayer (and in fact there is evidence to the contrary if you hold with Dr. Benson’s et al’s study). If you are aiming it at people who are on the fence (as the God Delusion is) then fine, perhaps promoting academic studies such as the one I mentioned is the way to go. One thing you have to be careful of though, is alienating people with your approach. Some people, rightly or wrongly will be offended that you are taking what is to them a show of compassion and dismissing it as worthless. The statement “our thoughts and prayers are with you” can be taken to include both a theistic and atheistic message of compassion. Even if it only mentioned prayer, the general message is an expression of good will so it can be easy for people to take criticism of it as a cynical “angry atheist” message even if that is not the intent. One may well say, let them be offended, we need to tell it like it is. Ok, but if your intent is to actually change minds I think it’s important to not forget the heart and its emotional response. Just to be clear, I’m not making a comment on your personal approach (since you haven’t described what that would be), I’m merely stating my concern about how such a message might be expressed.

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  • 2
    stuhillman says:

    I agree with Mister T, there is no point in pushing for elimination of terms that are part of our Christian Cultural heritage.  It would just alienate otherwise quasi religious people.  Swear words, for example, swearing on “God’s Blood” (the origin of swear words) became “‘Od’s Blood” and has later deteriorated to the (British) “bloody” so-and-so that has lost all its initial meaning.  Expressions like “God knows” and “Heaven help us” have been with us for a long time and no longer have their initial meaning.  As religiosity diminishes so will the meaning of these expressions but the words will still be with us for a very long time.

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  • These comments are helpful. ‘Angry athiest’ could be a probable impression, and as a Chaplains’ son I definately have my triggers, but anger or the impression of it is fundamental and we know where that goes. Showing  compassion outside of prayer in some form of ritual has few other options  than ‘moments of silence’. I get that, and it works for me. I can lower my head for a moment of silence and respect, say, for our veterans and their sacrifice. But I can still hear my father’s voice saying “let us pray’ and all the dutiful lowering their heads like sheep, and thinking this is so, so stupid. I will not do this, control my thoughts and be humble about it. No harm, no foul though? Praying just seems to take responsibility on what can be done (something like actually helping) and replaces it it with wishful thinking AND passing the buck at the same time,over to the Big Fellah who will take care of it. Problem solved, done my bit and if done properly, great results. Now I can sleep safely for a little while longer.

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  • 4
    Sjoerd Westenborg says:

    I don’t think saying your ‘prayers will be with someone’ is necessarily a bad thing. If used as a expression of compassion, it is no different from ‘my thoughts will be with you or ‘I wish you well’. It comes from a good place, and is just the way the religious express themselves.

    When prayer is substituted for actual help, or presented as equally worthy of praise (“We’ve been praying for you all night instead of sending money and medicine!”) it has to be confronted for sure. Here I agree with Mister T, that you do need to be careful. It’s nice to be right, but the ultimate goal is to make people see why you are right. Whether through logical arguments or with the help of scientific studies is up to you. 

    And while I think Stuhillman is right in saying most expressions with religious origins and vocabulary have lost their initial meaning, I personally take great care never to use them. Preferably using a humanist or neutral substitute. There’s no need in perpetuating them. 

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  • 5
    Saganic Rites says:

    most expressions with religious origins and vocabulary have lost their initial meaning, I personally take great care never to use them.

    I try not to use them and am usually successful, but I’ve never yet been able to bring myself to cry out to Darwin at the peak of passion!

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  • 6
    Ornicar says:

    Humans eat, poop and pray. I keep praying my computer to go faster, or not to crash. I know it doesn’t hear, but I talk to it no matter what. I pray my car to start in winter (“Start, for f. sake. Start please !”). I pray trafic lights almost every morning. I wish the weather would be nice next weekend, even though I have no influence whatsoever on the weather. And if I play heads or tails for a million dollars with any of you, you will pray (“may it be tails, may it be tails…”) while the coin will be spinning. Humans pray. Christians are not special.

    I say “the sun rises” even though I’m no flat earther. Sure I should say “the part of the world I’m located on right now starts facing toward the sun”. But I don’t.

    In France, during the revolution, we banned the word “Monsieur”, because it meant “my Lord”. People were to use “cityzen” instead (citoyen). That lasted a couple of years, and now we use Monsieur again, after 200 years of republic, without fear of sounding royalist.

    It’s good to raise awarness sometimes. But sometimes, words are just words, with functions and a history.

    Have a nice day, even though I have no control over how nice your day will be and that is just 1) wishful thinking 2) pagan superstition or 3) a polite way of finishing a message.


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  • 7
    Alan4discussion says:

    Expressing empathy with those who have suffered, or who are suffering is commendable – providing it leads to some action or community action to help.
    Prayer which is only to generate warm fuzzy feelings in those praying, or is a distracting substitute  for active help, or a proselytizing opportunity, is hypocrisy.

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  • 8
    SaganTheCat says:

    one meme at a time…

    i’m still waiting for the day people stop responding to a selfish act of expelling a mist of virus-ridden mucus into the atmosphear with “bless you”

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  • 9
    crookedshoes says:

    You know what gets me nuts???  The people who manage to sidestep the tragedy and then THANK god for the near miss.  It is such a strange way to think and it is so prevalent.  “Thank you god for hurting someone other than me.”

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  • 10
    Pauly01 says:

    I think at the heart of these blessings is the idea of hope conveyed from the wellwisher to yourself. I wouldnt take it as an infringement on your belief system.

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  • 11
    iggystompbarnyard says:

    What are they really praying for when they bid you a farewell? Are they just trying to say “We’ll talk to god and hopefully he’ll give you save passage?” I know that I wouldn’t want other peoples prayers representing me even if it was the greatest prayer of all. By having them wish me a farewell by telling me that their ‘prayers are with me’ or that they’ll ‘pray for me’ means that they are not only undermining my own beliefs but my intellect as well. Am I suppose to keep their prayer at my side just in case something does happen and when it does their prayer will save me? Or can they pray well enough to ensure my safety with god? So if god really does exists and you can contact him though prayer, that means you think that praying will make a difference if you petition him the right way? So what if they pray for you or even wish you their prayers and you leave and die does that mean that their prayer didn’t work? Does praying even work? I think its wishful thinking, you are going to get what you want if you want it bad enough and if it doesn’t happen it simply means that though out the seemingly random, endless chain reaction of activities that humans do on earth, you picked the one thing that doesn’t fit into the chaotic order of the world. So do me a favor keep your prayers to yourself and let me leave quietly. This will never go away as long as there’s faith and as long as there is a fear of death, there will always be faith. But I imagine as with most non believers that I too simply must suck it up, politely accept their stupidity and move on with my life.

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  • 12
    carissah1 says:

    As a cancer survivor I have people who tell me they are praying for me frequently. Usually I just smile and say thank-you, I choose to hear them saying “I’m sad that you have cancer and wish that you didn’t” (see not only theists can wilfully misunderstand). But sometimes I feel like saying, “keep your prayers and do something useful! Like walk my dog or make dinner when I’m too tired or stop by for coffee when I can’t get out, or donate money to the hospital that is trying to save my life!” Thankfully my immediate family and friends are also atheists who channel their frustration with my disease into useful avenues, or simply admit when they are helpless and let it go.

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  • 13
    bluebird says:

    A friend, who is Christian, says “bless you” when I sneeze.
    Conversely, I say “gesundheit” to her, and everyone else for that matter.

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  • 16
    mmurray says:

     You know what gets me nuts???  The people who manage to sidestep the tragedy and then THANK god for the near miss.  It is such a strange way to think and it is so prevalent.  “Thank you god for hurting someone other than me.”

    Agreed. Grace gets me the same way.  If we all had food it would be OK but at the current time it just seems to say “Thank you Oh Lord for not choosing me to be amongst those who will die of starvation today.”  Just sucking up to the Death Camp Commandant.


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  • 17
    Clappers says:

    As ever Dan Dennett expressed it well

    ” What, though, do I say to those of my religious friends (and yes, I have
    quite a few religious friends) who have had the courage and honesty to
    tell me that they have been praying for me? I have gladly forgiven them,
    for there are few circumstances more frustrating than not being able to
    help a loved one in any more direct way. I confess to regretting that I
    could not pray (sincerely) for my friends and family in time of need,
    so I appreciate the urge, however clearly I recognize its futility. I
    translate my religious friends’ remarks readily enough into one version
    or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: “I’ve been
    thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart [another ineffective
    but irresistible self-indulgence] that you come through this OK.” The
    fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and
    have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a
    supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my
    family and from friends around the world have been literally
    heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to
    truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me. But I am not
    joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that
    they were PRAYING for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond
    “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel
    about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a
    voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of
    money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t
    expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the
    affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had
    found a more reasonable way of expressing it.”

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  • 18
    SaganTheCat says:

    the big division is the use of the G word. if someone says god bless you, you know they’re some sort of religious type but just bless you is a cultural norm that many people feel uncomforatbale chalenging.

    “bless you” is a term anyone can get away with using without sounding like a believer, but it has other meanings, such as offering a blessing by way of gratitude. the word “bless” on its own tends to be used as a term of endearment for somone or something that has emotionally moved one.  when i lie on my back and paw at the air (a well known and highly offensive gesture in cat language) someone always say “aw bless!” with no reference to jesus dying for our sins.

    with that, i feel there are two acceptable responses to someone sneezing. 1. “bless” (aw how sweet! you just made a sudden shreiking sound and presented me with a snot bubble when i looked up) or 2, when someone says “bless you” you can join in with “yeah thanks for that”

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  • 19
    bluebird says:

    Ok, I see what you are saying.  With regards to my friend, she knows I’m a hardcore atheist – 
    maybe that’s why she drops ‘god’.

    I’ve lived in the midwest (Ks, Ok, Mo, Il) all my life and have never heard anyone say “bless!”.
    What is generally said is “oh, bless your heart!”.  I don’t use that term, either.

    In closing, I say “gesundheit” to all, and to all a good night.


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  • 20
    alaskansee says:


    Have you considered the Daniel Dennett method? Thanking “goodness” (human goodness) when someone evokes a deity, that way you’re thanking the emergency responders, doctors or other humans that actually do something. It’s harder for someone to object to your “correction” than to your thoughts on their friend in the sky. Most people wouldn’t stand in front of some one giving first aid and argue it’s god taking the strain.

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  • 21
    OHooligan says:

    “Thank you god for hurting someone other than me.”

    A kinder, more empathic thing to say, or at least to bear in mind, is “There but for fortune…”. 

    Or simply “That could have been me.”

    Those who have lived when others in near-identical circumstances have died know that Natural Selection is, at the individual level,  Survival of the Luckiest.

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  • 22
    SpecOps17 says:

    On the issue of “bless you” after someone sneezes: is it not the sneezers obligation to acknowledge the disruptive (although involuntary) bodily reaction? Why would I fart and look at someone expectantly, waiting for them to apologize for my flatulence? “Excuse me” is the only thing that should be heard after a sneeze. I usually say it at exactly the same time (but a bit louder than) the would-be blesser. Sometimes they still get the blesses through, so my next gambit is to ask them if they really think they have that sort of power. When sneezed at, I simply stare until the sneezer excuses him- or herherself. So far my personal campaign to remove this “bless you” shit from my life has been mostly successful with only one or two holdouts at the office.

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  • 23
    Nunbeliever says:

    Well, in my country Finland it would be very strange to say such a thing to a friend (not to mention a complete stranger) unless you are truly religious. I can’t imagine that my country is that special. Hence, yes I can definitely imagine a world without these pointless phrases.

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  • 25
    meriel says:

     Well it harks back to the time of the great plague doesn’t it,  blessing  someone to keep death at bay.  I don’t think flatulence was ever a sign you’d got the black death 🙂

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  • 26
    alsarg72 says:

    In Australia these kinds of comments/sentiments are extremely rare. On the rare occasion that they are said I think most of us would be more likely to think “that was weird”. The time will come in the States. It might just need a couple of generations to die out.

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  • 30
    Barbara Necker says:

    I think if your plight is such that friends would be inclined to pray for you,  it’s not the right time to admonish them for it.  I’d say “thanks for your good wishes”  & let it go at that.

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  • 31
    nick keighley says:

    The trouble is, it seems rather graceless to decline someone who wants to do you the “favor” of praying for you.

    I manage it. Someone stopped me on the street and tried to sell me their religion. I’ve no problem with this, they can be entertaining. But I lost interest in this one when she claimed she wasn’t religious but a christian (why do they do this?); so I started to walk away; she asked if she could pray for me and I said “sure”; she seemed a little miffed when I carried on walking.

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  • 33
    Lewis Holliday says:

    This type of ‘post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc’ reasoning is exactly the sort of thing that is utilised to justify the supposed omni-benevolence of God. I have problems with the classical theistic understanding of God as it is, but the insistence that prayer works really irks me. There is no real basis, other than coincidence, to suppose that prayer does anything. I think it was Daniel Dennett who, after operations to cure a life-threatening illness, was told by an acquaintance that they had prayed for him and that their prayer had saved him. He had to resist the urge to reply ‘Did you also sacrifice a goat?’. Humorous as may be, it does raise some interesting implications…

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  • 34
    OHooligan says:

    I grew up with the long form of “Bless You”:  “Bless the child if it’s not a witch.”  

    More interesting, don’t you think?

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  • 35
    Josh Badgley says:

    Or “there but for the grace of God go I”.  That one really gets on my nerves, because basically the person is saying they are more worthy of their imaginary deity’s favor than someone less fortunate.   It’s such a smug thing to say.

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  • 36
    Josh Badgley says:

    I don’t mind the fact that superstition has infected our language to such a huge extent.  We’ve been a supersitious species for countless millennia.  I hope it will change, but I expect such change to be slow in coming.

    One thing that does bother me though, is when people say they will “pray for you”.  I have relatives who know I’m an atheist and every Sunday after church they make it a point to mention that they “prayed for me”.  This is basically a middle finger, a way of saying “we don’t like the way you think and we want our imaginary deity to make you more like us”.  It’s as if they’re expecting me to thank them for it.  

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  • 38
    EnthusiasticAtheist says:

    I agree that it’s a tad annoying to see it all the time but mostly I agree with Mr. Dennetts view as was posted previously. 

    But I will admit to some confusion when an aquaintence and Facebook “friend” posted about the clean-up efforts in New Jersey after Sandy, happy that the power was back on, that debris was being cleared away, that people had food and shelter who needed it.  And then closed this not by thanking the hydro workers or the clean-up crews but with the phrase “god is great”.  Really?  Isn’t that kind of offensive to all the people who did the great work of helping out?  And really…if he was so great, when why create the disaster in the first place?? 

    So saying “I’m praying for you” at least shows they care, however annoying it may feel ( and I do admit to being annoyed ny it), seems to be to be somewhat less offensive than giving a fairy in the sky credit for human accomplishments!

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  • 39
    bad john says:

    In most (all?) English speaking countries, it is very hard to avoid all words and phrases of religious origin.  For example, do you ever say Goodbye?  Here is the etymology from the OED: “A contraction of the phrase God be with you (or ye )”
    Similarly, it says of Good day: “In the full forms have good day, God (give) you good day . Obs.”.  I avoid most of the common phrases which are still obviously religious but I am not fanatical about it.  I am inclined to say: “God knows” but since the sense is “Nobody knows”, I quite like that one.  I am also happy with Einstein’s: “God does not play dice”.  Avoiding all words of religious origin would also require new names for the days of the week.  Again, this does not bother me, in fact I find it amusing to hear Christians honouring former gods.   

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  • 40
    Kikiat says:

    Really, people say that as a standard thing in the States?

    I think that will fade when people come to their senses, but what about: 

    Creatures (think about it) 
    oh my god
    god no
    thank god 
    god knows

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