I hear frequently from Christians the offer that they will pray for someone who is not a believer. No doubt there is a range of possible meanings by such an offer. It may be just a cynical, passive-aggressive insult. It could be an innocent and simple request to generally keep the recipient safe from harm.
Or, it may be a request that God help the person to come to know and understand Him. This implies a potential path to belief, faith and eventual salvation for the prayed-for person.
Prayer seems to take different forms – not all prayers are requests (some are offers of thanks). However, request prayers are thoroughly pointless. When someone makes a request of God through prayer, it can only be with a childish naivety that they would ever expect their request to be granted. Leaving aside the fact that prayer has been shown not to work, the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the request prayer seems to be that the human act of praying itself will somehow influence a omniscient deity’s decision-making. As if he didn’t already know what the praying person was about to ask for. And as if His mind hadn’t been fully made up before said prayer about smiting or saving someone, or delivering world peace, or fixing the cataracts of Sam’s mum, or allowing a particularly pious football team to be more deserving of a victory on a given day.
More profoundly illogical than this is the prayer for a non-believer – that somehow they will change their minds, see the light, allow God into their hearts, and (eventually) become a Christian.
In the previous post here, I described one of the core Christian doctrines – that of the existence of free will. This is the assertion that we all have the choice of what we believe. We are apparently free to choose to accept the Christian God, or to reject Him, according to Christianity.
As part of a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made the point that “praying for an atheist” in this way is completely contrary to the notion of free will. Their reply was that when Christians do this, they obviously don’t mean something in the sense of a “spiritual mafia” (their words), or a forced, instantaneous conversion. They were implying a more gentle persuasion approach – one in which God would reveal Himself more subtly, not make the person believe, but rather help them to, perhaps over a course of time and through interactions with other believers.
But this misses the point that even such a ‘gentle’ approach contravenes the principle of free will with respect to belief. If God plays any role whatsoever in influencing the thinking of a non-believer, then He has interefered with the free will of that person in their apparent choice to not believe. It makes no sense for an omniscient God, who wants their subject to believe and indeed follows through with the evidence or revelation required, to do so in a way that just falls short of success – even if that success takes the form of a last-minute death-bed conversion.
The belief or non-belief position of a person is something that is arrived at by a complex psychological process. It is influenced by the teachings of people close to that person from a young age, the individual learnings and discoveries throughout their lifetime, the persuasion of others and the memories and lessons from the individual’s past. Basically the sum total of all of a person’s experiences. There may even be a biological or genetic component to the psychology of faith vs. scepticism (although I personally doubt the significance of such a component in the context of all the other aforementioned influences). The power of all of these factors demonstrates that free will, and certainly the supposed free will of theistic belief, is clearly a psychological illusion. We cannot examine our beliefs in a conscious manner that is independent from these influences.
However, Christians that believe in limited atonement – and this seems to be nearly all of them – insist that free will of belief is true. Therefore they cannot escape the point that if they pray for a non-believer (ie., make a request to God to persuade them of the Christian ‘truth’), then they are asking God to intervene – no matter how gently or subtly – and influence the belief system of the individual in question. It is a direct contravention of one of the core tenets of Christian belief.
Of course, the logic of this will be lost on most Christians who still feel the need to pray for their atheist friends. The next time one of them does, see what they come back with when you point out the flaw in their logic. If they do see it, perhaps they have the potential to see some of the other logic flaws in their beliefs.