A few months ago, the Washington Post had an article about atheists praying. One of the praying atheists interviewed for the piece says,
“If you say, ‘I ought to have more serenity about the things I can’t change,’ versus ‘Grant me serenity,’ there is a humility, a surrender, an openness. If you say, ‘grant me,’ you’re saying you can’t do it by yourself. Or you wouldn’t be there,” said Gold....What I get from that is he has a yearning for the comfort of faith and a willingness to give himself up, even though his intellect can't quite go there. The article goes on,
Atheists deny religion’s claim of a supernatural god but are starting to look more closely at the “very real effect” that practices such as going to church, prayer and observance of a Sabbath have on the lives of the religious, said Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for the secular advocacy group the Center for Inquiry. “That’s a big hole in atheist life,” he said. “Some atheists are saying, ‘Let’s fill it.’ Others are saying, ‘Let’s not.’ ”I'm not a praying sort of atheist, though I like the act of going to church and the rhythm of the ritual. Regardless, I've got no problem with other people praying around me, or even for me. The way I see it, if someone wants to pray for me, they are offering a gift. (The only exception is the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-the-mouth sort who says "I'll PRAY for you" to the Godless homosexual--that's not a prayer as a gift, it's as a weapon.)
I know BP prays for me, and when she drops me at the airport to go off on a business trip, she always traces a cross on my forehead. Jokingly, I told her if the cat gave me a dead mouse, that would be a gift in his world too... she hit me. ;-) But all joking aside, I very much appreciate that BP does this, and I am glad to be the recipient. Since I am married to a Christian, if she DIDN'T pray for me, she either wouldn't be much of a Christian, or our marriage would be in real trouble.
Recently we talked about last rites. I told BP that if I were lying in a hospital at risk of death, and she wanted to call the priest to give me last rites, that would be fine. Because it is meaningful to her. After all, what does it matter to me? At that point, it's not about me. I would want my wife to do whatever gives her the most comfort. She was relieved, I think, to have that explicit permission. I also assured her that if the situation were reversed, one of my very first calls would be to a priest, again, because it matters to her. (It helps that one of our dearest friends is a priest!)
That conversation came back to us last night as we heard the tragic story of someone BP knew from work. L. was in a terrible car accident with irrevocable brain damage, and a Roman Catholic priest had been summoned. There was some discussion in the family that the victim "wouldn't want that". But at this point, it's not about the victim. She's already gone. Maybe it gives comfort to the ones who do believe. Maybe it's a way of admitting that she's gone. Maybe it's closure. It doesn't matter.
I know that many ex-Catholics-turned-atheist have a visceral dislike of the idea of last rites, almost as if they believe that Holy Mother Church will be triumphant in the end and drag them to a heaven in which they don't believe. But if you really DON'T believe, then what's the harm? You're past caring. But for someone in the family, maybe it's important. Like funerals, these ritual acts are not just about the dead. They are for the living.
Telling someone that you'll pray for them has an intention to it. It's an act of generosity. To reject it is churlish. So, for those so inclined, prayers for the crash victim L. and her family in this trying and difficult time.