Allow me to get this out of the way from the start:
Do some people say “I’ll pray for you” with nothing but the best of intent? Yes.
Do all atheists take issue with the phrase “I’ll pray for you”? No.
However, why might the atheist get frustrated, flustered, bothered, or upset when someone tells us that “I’ll pray for you”? Whenever someone proposes to pray for me, they implicitly endorse an efficacy in prayer that I categorically reject. It’s akin to saying they’ll take action when, scientifically speaking, prayer is an act without tangible consequence—it accomplishes nothing in the material world other than deluding oneself into thinking they’ve accomplished something or at best, making the person praying feel better.
To an atheist, asserting that you’ll pray for me is to assert that you’re doing something meaningful for me when, in fact, it’s a way for you to feel helpful without providing any real assistance. It’s this discrepancy between the prayer’s perceived action and the actual inaction that can be particularly grating. Atheists believe religion has caused harm to the world through mechanisms just like this. So, when we hear “I’ll pray for you,” it might as well be “I’m doing nothing more than reminding you that I am a victim of religious terrorism.” How would you (the theist) feel when reminded of the victims of religious terrorism?
Refresher: Theists are indoctrinated with the fear of hell making them victims of religious terrorism.
It’s not just the unsolicited faith imposition; it’s the underlying notion that by praying, they’ve contributed meaningfully to my situation, rather than engaging in a way that would be genuinely productive or supportive.
Some atheists may bristle at the mention of prayer, particularly those fresh from the grips of religious indoctrination. Religion can inflict profound trauma, and escaping its grips can be a Herculean task. They might be striving to enhance themselves, to cultivate a life grounded in reality rather than faith. The phrase “I’ll pray for you” risks dragging them back into the shadows they are diligently working to escape
What the theist can do differently: Reflect on the motivation behind your offered prayer and opt for tangible action as a substitute.
Furthermore, telling me you’ll pray for me reminds me of how I know your Bible better than you. Jesus warned against public displays of piety in Matthew 6:5. He also stated that God knows what you want before you ask because he’s all-knowing. So, you shouldn’t ever pray “for” something or someone. You are to simply go in private and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Praying to an all-knowing God with requests like “Please help Brian Sapient yada yada” is an insult to that deity, decidedly anti-biblical, and a presumptuous attempt to alter his perfect plan.
Matthew 6: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
 Give us this day our daily bread. blah blah blah blah blah…
Prayer can also rub me the wrong way because it sometimes feels less like a gesture of goodwill and more like a subtle nod to our differing beliefs—a silent assertion that their path is the righteous one and mine is deficient. It’s not always about the act itself; it’s the unsolicited imposition of their faith onto my non-belief, as if my atheism is a problem to be fixed rather than a position to be respected. And if that sentiment comes from a history of religious imposition, it’s not just a mere phrase; it’s a reminder of that unwelcome pressure, a pressure I’ve consciously decided to live without.
Some of us think that it’s a way for believers to push their religious views. When a theist says they’ll pray, it can come off like they’re saying everyone should believe as they do, and they don’t mind reminding you about it. You might see it as something positive, but to many of us, it highlights just how much we still need to grow to move past archaic myths. It’s this idea that everyone should be religious that feels out of place, showing how personal beliefs are often pushed onto others, making it harder for everyone to get along without faith getting in the way.
When I appeared on Nightline to refute Kirk Cameron, he recounted telling me “I’ll pray for you,” to which I responded, “I’ll think for you.” When someone says “I’ll pray for you,” they’re inadvertently admitting to not having well-formed and defensible ideas about belief in a god.
Aside from the obvious ridiculousness of praying for someone from a theological perspective, we now can scientifically validate that it doesn’t work.
So there you have it: some of the reasons why an atheist might not appreciate the phrase “I’ll pray for you.” In the future, I hope you’ll consider avoiding public proclamations of prayer, as both the Bible instructs and reason most certainly advocates.
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When I asked the Atheism United Community about why they might be bothered if someone says “I’ll pray for you” or “Have a blessed day,” I found these responses meaningful and wanted to share them:
Often when a theist says “I’ll pray for you” what they are mean is “you are wrong and are deservedly going to hell; I’ll pray that that you see the error of your ways and repent” – Tim McGregor
“It’s presumptuous. You’re making the assumption that someone else should have the same beliefs as you. You’re putting them in a position where they either have to play along and pretend to be a Christian or they have to be honest and correct the other person creating an awkward situation.” – Shannon Donovan
“Well, personally for me, it’s religious trauma. I don’t like religion. I’m still trying to undo all the damage it did to me. So any reminder of religion has a negative impact on my mental health. When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, I got a lot of “prayers”, which actually caused more harm than providing any comfort… And of course absolutely none of them offered any sort of real help like watching my daughter or fixing meals or helping clean my house when I was so sick I could barely move. It’s a way for them to feel good about themselves like they are doing something when they are not actually doing anything.” – Vicky