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How (NOT) to Evangelize Atheists Through Prayer

praying for atheists

Several years ago, Polly and I traveled to Newark, Ohio, to spend the day with Polly’s parents. Physically, the trip was brutal. Three hours down, three hours back, and more potholes than I could count, the trip left me writhing in pain by the time we returned home. For chronic pain sufferers such as myself, this agony is often the price of admission. If I want to venture out among the living, I must endure the bangs and bumps that come my way. On days such as this, pain medications tend to be ineffective, so I grit my teeth and endure. To quote the Bible, he that endureth to the end shall be saved. My salvation came when we arrived home and I went straight to bed. I slept for fourteen hours. (Things have physically deteriorated for me since the writing of this post. A shopping trip to Toledo cost me two days in bed.)

Polly’s late father had his hip replaced in 2015. I previously wrote about Dad’s health problems here: How Fundamentalist Prohibitions Cause Needless Suffering and Pain. Sadly, this post proved to be prophetic. Dad ended up in a nursing home, forced to wear a brace to keep his hip in place. Several days after the surgery the new hip dislocated. It was several more days before the rehab staff figured out that there was something wrong with the hip. If there ever was a circumstance that could be labeled a clusterfuck, this was it. I am sure that if Dad had it to do all over again, he would not have had the surgery. Dad was able to come home eventually, but he was never able to walk normally again.

While we were visiting with Dad and Mom at the nursing home, Polly’s preacher uncle, Jim Dennis, stopped by for a visit. He didn’t know we were going to be there, so he was quite surprised to see us. After twenty minutes or so, it was time for Polly’s uncle to leave. Before leaving, Polly’s uncle offered up a prayer. Recently retired from the ministry and in poor health himself, Uncle Jim launched into what can only be described as a sermon prayer. Those raised in Fundamentalist churches likely have heard many such prayers. These prayers are not meant for God as much as they are for those who are listening, In this instance, the prayer was meant for the two atheists in the room, Polly and Bruce.

The prayer started out with a request for healing and strength for Dad but quickly moved into a recitation of the plan of salvation. I thought, why is Uncle Jim praying like this? God knows the plan of salvation, as does Dad, so the soteriological utterance couldn’t have been for their benefit. Mom was nearby, but she was one of God’s chosen ones too. The only unsaved people in the room were Bruce, Polly, and their daughter with Down Syndrome. As Polly’s uncle prayed, I looked at Polly, smirked, and shook my head. Here I was, at the time, fifty-eight years old, having spent fifty years in the Christian church, and I was being treated like someone who had never heard the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) version of the gospel.

If this had happened a few years ago, I likely would have said something. But, as I looked at Polly’s uncle and her Mom and Dad, I thought, soon they will all be dead. Morbid? Sure. But, the truth? Absolutely. I have no desire to fight over religion with Polly’s diehard Fundamentalist Baptist family. I am sure Polly’s preacher uncle thought that putting in a good word for Jesus might somehow, some way, cause us to fall on our knees, repent, and ask Jesus to save us. Regardless of his motivation, it was clear that Uncle Jim did not respect us. (Since the writing of this post in 2016, Dad has died, along with Jim and his wife Linda. Only Mom is still alive.)

Polly and I, along with our children, are huge disappointments to her family. Since I was once considered the patriarch of our tribe, the blame for our fall from grace rests squarely on my shoulders. It has been thirteen years since Polly and I darkened the doors of a church. We have attended numerous family functions, and not one person in her family has attempted to understand why we deconverted — not one. Some of them read this blog, and I am sure this post will make its way in printed form to Polly’s Mom. Will it finally force an honest discussion about the elephant in the room? Probably not. Better to hope Polly and that $*%$ husband of hers are still saved. Backslidden, but still saved. Anything, but having a frank discussion about why we no longer believe in the existence of the Christian God, or any other deity, for that matter.

While I would never expect or demand that Polly’s Fundamentalist family stop living out their faith, it would be nice if they respected us enough to accept us as we are. We are ready and willing to share why we no longer believe. If family members want to know, all they have to do is ask. And if they aren’t interested in knowing, the least they can do is refrain from trying to evangelize us. There are no prayers that can be prayed that could possibly cause us to change our minds about God, Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible. Thousands of prayers have been uttered on our behalf, yet Polly and I remain happy unbelievers. We are living proof of the powerlessness of prayer.

Polly and I have known each other for almost forty-six years. I first met her preacher uncle in December of 1976 at a midweek church service at the Newark Baptist Temple. Uncle Jim let the church know that Polly had a guest with her. As the congregation turned to gawk at the embarrassed redheaded young man, Polly’s uncle said, They have a shirttail relationship. It remains to be seen how long the shirttail is. The next day, I spent my first Christmas with Polly’s family, meeting her cousins, uncle, and grandfather for the first time. Forty-six years have come and gone. Polly and I are now in our sixties. Our middle-aged children have greying hair, and their thirteen children call us Nana and Grandpa. We have spent many wonderful moments with Polly’s family, and more than a few moments we would just as soon forget. I love them dearly, as does Polly. We just wish that they loved us more than they love Jesus.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    The issue is about love Bruce. I was thinking it all the way through your post. And you hit the nail on the head in your last sentence.

    We just wish that they loved us more than they love Jesus.

    Sorry about Polly’s dad. 🙁

    • Avatar
      Nate Klaiber

      Agree with this statement as well.

      What I experience is objectification. I am told I am “loved”, but that love is contingent on me loving their personal god.

      Many great points here, Bruce.

    • Avatar

      Or at least as much as they love Jesus. I was struck by that last line too—but I am not sure it was not a Freudian slip or a princess slip—but I think Bruce did that intentionally—meaning that if the Polly’s uncle really loved Jesus—he would not do shitty things like this to Bruce and Polly.

      However, it has been my experience that her Uncle would no doubt say: “Why Charles, sharing the gospel of salvation IS LOVE.” To which I would say:

      “Uncle Jim. It is part of LOVE—but there is a lot more to LOVE than that and that alone. You know damned well that Bruce and Polly already know all about that. All you are doing is practicing passive-aggressive harassment against Bruce and Polly. That is NOT LOVE. That is being mean-spirited, unkind, and unloving. If Jesus were here, I feel sure that he would kick you square in the ass for doing it too. Now straighten up—and try doing the one thing you fundies do so poorly—practice the one scripture you fundies would most like to delete from the Bible: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Now get over here, apologize to Polly and Bruce, and give them both a big hug. Do better next time—or I will personally kick your ass for Jesus.”

      Maybe Polly’s uncle will read this post—and the scales will fall from his eyes.

  2. Avatar

    Christianity claims a far deeper, a far longer love than any other and while sharing this great and free glory with us, they have not even the basic decency to consider our human feelings. You do not matter.
    I am sorry that the Baptist bus has left you behind but the Word travels on a schedule and you have not gotten ready to ride, again today. Jesus is everything and all and you are a foolish man. Let us pray: Oh heavenly father, we cannot know your wisdom. We cannot judge our mortal brothers and sisters but if you choose to torture them daily, thy will be done heavenly father of love.
    No person trained up in the church and who gets away, will ever be fooled by double-speak again. No church, no government, no charismatic salesperson will ever break through. My older brother (I am in my sixties) still refers to me as a believer even though I have told him both politely and very impolitely that he is full of shite. “You know!” he cries in his evangelical pain, “YOU KNOW!”
    It makes me weep sometimes, this terror, this human abandonment. And all I have to do is agree with double-speak, lie again and say I believe in the Gawd, I’m a good boy and will obey the preacher. So very sad for you, Bruce, and for some the rest of us too.
    What I tell myself is that love is love, that it is human and real. When my brother can be friendly and loving towards me, the human shines through all the delusion and I accept that as it is… Do I sometimes wish for more, that I was loved for me and not for God, well, sure. I keep this in my heart and remember to tell my children they are my very first love, the epitome of my humanity and I am thankful to them for just being alive, for living each day. There is nothing that could be a greater, a more human love.
    Thanks for a rich blog entry, Bruce… much food for thought.

  3. Avatar

    When the issue of public prayer comes up I sometimes wonder how a cryptic and subtly place comment like, “Very well, I suppose I can tolerate a few horizontal prayers”. The clueless supplicant asks about what is meant by “horizontal”, a quick explanation that public prayers are obviously aimed at the group in attendance so the prayers only emanate horizontally they never go vertically up to heaven.
    I suppose this also could be a fine way to absolve oneself when someone volunteers someone to give a prayer. A curt, “No I’d rather not involve myself in a horizontal prayer.” Of course it has the benefit of being Biblical as well.
    Obviously (such as this particular case) it might not be appropriate. Rocking the boat here wouldn’t accomplish much, except to ruin a good visit.

  4. Avatar

    Oh the good ole sermon prayers. My favorite was about ten minutes long, by my bitter former pastor. It was a diatribe, on Mother’s Day no less about how women should submit, complete with snarky guilt trips and pointed references. Everywhere that man went things shriveled up and died

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    Gung ho Christians who feel the need to preach constantly about their faith are some of the most selfish people imaginable. They believe they have a personal relationship with Jesus so this needs to be of supreme importance to everybody else. If I happened to be a friend of Miley Cyrus and talked about this non stop I would soon become insufferable. Imagine that I insist you listen to her music and agree that she is the most talented person in the world and I steer every conversation back to her and her body of work. If you disagree with me I insult you and inform you that some personal flaw is blinding you to her talent. Before too long my only friends will also be Miley Cyrus fanatics who will join me in my contempt for other non Miley Cyrus fanatics. Now Christians of course will point out the flaw in my analogy since they believe that belief in Jesus is essential for salvation. Well dear Christians I will point out that if you fail to bow before Miley Cyrus you will burn forever in hell. Prove me wrong!

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    “We just wish that they loved us more than they loved Jesus.” Bruce, that line says it all. Unfortunately, as near as I can tell, being any sort of religious fundamentalist means loving whomever or whatever you worship more than any person or thing in this world.

    Confession: I love my kittie more than many other people. Not all people, just many!🐯

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    When I was going through my deconstruction, I asked myself if I LOVED God and/or Jesus. The answer was that I knew what I had been taught about them, and mostly I feared them or felt obligated to say I loved them because, you know, hell. So no. I didn’t LOVE them like I live my kids, my mom, my grandparents, my husband, my dogs, my close friends. I wondered how it was possible to love a deity that means to condemn us to eternity in hell if we don’t say we are worthless sinners and say a prayer turning over everything about our lives to this deity. Even the death and resurrection narrative didn’t seem like such a big deal – plenty of prisoners of war have suffered much more torture and abuse than Jesus supposedly did. And he, being God, would have known it would be over soon and he would be resurrected.

    So my question to your remaining IFB family is, do they TRULY LOVE GOD or are they just terrified of him? I think it’s a fair question.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      I think your last paragraph offers a damn good question.

      My mother was a conservative Catholic. I remember, from things she said in the last half-decade of her life, that she was terrified of dying. This was a woman who spent the last two decades of her life, dying slowly from medical complications of a lifetime of smoking, as far as I can tell. It’s a brutal way to die, and whenever I encounter a smoker (they aren’t as numerous or obvious in California now) I think about my mother’s slow decline.

      She would talk about how some people said that heaven and hell were both actually on this earth. She prayed the Rosary (a Catholic sequence of scripted prayers, where the praying person offers a leading personal prayer, indicating what/who they’re praying for) every night, and attended a weekly rosary prayer service that my parents and several other retired Catholic couples took turns hosting in their greater neighborhood. She was terrified of dying. I tried to comfort her, pointing out that God wouldn’t be likely to abandon his servant (her) at the end. It didn’t help.

      Just as a quick reminder to non-Catholic readers, Catholic doctrine says that people who haven’t committed unforgiveable sins will have their souls tortured to cleanse them of badness (in a place/state called Purgatory) before being admitted into heaven. Catholics pray that their departed loved ones have short terms in that state, with the belief that begging God or one of his intermediaries will produce a better outcome for the deceased. Mom had nothing on her conscience that ought to make her fear dying. Whatever issues between her and God were remaining (and they had to be very few!), they’d get resolved and she’d join the heavenly throng.

      Mom was still terrified of dying. I never understood why.

      I’m afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of being dead; I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, and when my brain stops working, I’ll be so much organic material in need of recycling. But the fear of dying is primal. That’s okay. What I am not, is TERRIFIED of dying. It’s gonna happen, and I’ll put it off as long as there continues to be a payoff. But terror? No.

      My mother’s last three weeks of life were spent in a semi-coma to coma state, probably–but only probably–unaware of her surroundings. I have no idea if she knew she was dying. She was certainly suffering, terrified, fighting the medical interventions hard enough to need restraint. If it was her religion that caused that sustained state of terror, then…well, I don’t want to think of what I want to do to the people who induced that terror.

      Hitchens is right: religion poisons everything.

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Bruce Gerencser