It's always struck me as weird, this concept that people will "Pray for you" when something bad happens. As an agnostic, of course, I don't have that to say, but it's such a phrase that I am not sure I would have used it anyhow.

When you hear about something horrible that happened to another person, your urge to express sympathy is strong. When you're talking in person, you can reach out to the other person and offer them a hug, or at least your face will reveal the extent to which you really feel for the person. And let me repeat, the willingness to give a hug, even if you're some big huge guy and talking to some tiny woman whom you might intimidate, but you totally understand the grief she's feeling and you're willing to help out as you can. "I'm so sorry, lady, I am normally not a huggy sort of guy, but you seriously look like you need a hug, this thing you've told me is a horrible thing, and I want you to feel better."

The brain struggles with it in person just enough, but your physical presence gets across that "I feel bad." And you feel like you're helping somewhat.

But when you're talking textually, there's nothing like that. And "I'll pray for you" has always stood in for other people, or some other form of offering to speak to the Almighty on the behalf of the suffering.

It's not as if there's some sort of voting process, and adding your vote will somehow make their plight more noticeable, and somehow it'll get to the top of the queue of "things to fix."

So, why do the religious use this as a sort of empty condolence?

And ... like I said, us agnostic folks don't even have that. I think the best thing we've got is "I'm sending along virtual hugs." (Which has the advantage of being less threatening to folks who might not want a hug from Hagrid.)

My brain has too many random anxieties to offer proper condolences to people, and I struggle with all of the "I don't want to offend" and I might get that "virtual hug" comment, but generally I just offer the two words "My condolences" which sounds cold, and doesn't express the "I'm so very sorry for you" but has the advantage of not intruding my own mental confusion onto their situation.

Or you can step away and say nothing if it's a public enough environment online. The advantage of public conversations is that your absence won't be interpreted as a statement itself.

Still, you do want to say something, and "I'll pray for you" had the advantage of being something.

On the Internet, naturally, "I'll pray for you" may take on an entirely different context (as does everything else, it often seems). In one of the most common Internet pastimes, theological debates, partisans of one side especially are apt to make a closing arguments of this phrase as a sort of a backhanded word-slap. It seems intended to convey an assurance that the opposing party to the discussion, not being of the same theological persuasion is the purported prayer-maker, is doomed to a terrible outcome for it. It suggests, "because you are not of my especial faith, and are not convinced by my argument to change that fact, you are in a bad spot and are going to need praying for."

But perhaps the most striking feature of this tendency is the brazenness of its insincerity. It often comes at the culmination of exchanges already rife with insult and degradation and accusation and calumny (on both sides, and whether between theists and atheists, or different stripes of theist, or some other odd combination altogether), and nobody really believes that the claimant is actually going to do any praying for the benefit of their sparring partner of the moment. In especially venomous exchanges, it is quite easier to imagine that any prayers to be uttered will be geared in the opposite direction. As a signature afterthought, rather than serving as an offer of comfort, it simply ends up being another insult tossed onto the pyre.


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