Praying with atheists

My brother has had some pointed conversations in the past about my faith. During those times he’s proudly proclaimed himself to be an atheist. Personally, I wonder if he said it just to be purposefully provocative. If he’s an atheist, he’s not much of one.

He called me yesterday. He’s a little freaked out about our mother who was admitted into the hospital over the weekend. Mom came home to the Catholic Church the Ash Wednesday after I was confirmed. Since we share our faith, I don’t l feel the same bleakness as when my uncle passed away, who was also an atheist. There’s lots of things we can do, and so far we’ve started prayer requests and petitioned the appropriate Saints, lit candles and broken out our Lourdes water. This morning, I went to mass.

My brother admitted there was little we could do but pray. I told him that must be hard to do as an atheist. I feel like I was a little harsh on him, but I’m losing my patience being one of the lone Christians in my family. They can be awfully critical until it comes to a time of crisis. The Church gives us ways to deal with these things, I wish those I loved would get on board.


Encourage him to think positive thoughts if he can’t actually pray just yet.


I’m sorry to hear about your mam. Please try not to fall out with your brother, you need each other during this difficult time. Prayers for you and your family.


I talked to my brother the other day. He told me he’s put our mother’s name on a couple of prayer lists. :joy:

My father and step-mom on the other hand…they’re a piece of work. :angry:


Put your father’s and step mom’s names on the prayer lists too (anonymously).
Have Masses said for them.
Sounds like they may need the help more than your mom.


Ritual emotional release is a truth about the human experience. This is why we light candles, punch the ground out of frustration, kiss photos, etc. We are at a heightened state of emotion and a need ceremony to release it some how. Ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony to calm our nerves and calming someone else as well. Atheists say GD it all the time as well since that’s just part of the cultural language they grew up in. Go be an officer on the Battle Star Galatica and you’ll be using the curse word, Frak, as well.

I doubt your brother is a hard and true atheist if he is putting her name on prayer lists. I think a lot of people who claim to be atheists, especially young people, just really haven’t given theology much thought. It is avant garde to be atheist as a young person because you can do whatever you want with no “structure” telling you your actions are wrong. My guess is that if he is anything it is an agnostic who just hasn’t answered the questions in his own mind.
I also think a lot of atheists consider themselves that, not because they don’t believe in a higher power, it is just that they don’t believe in structured religion.


I sympathize so sincerely. I pray at lengths everyday including novenas after my rosary and after my chaplet of divine mercy for the sinners or the world, particularly the atheists and Muslims I know. I understand the exhaustion and the passion to save them. My progress so far has only been that they’re no longer hostile towards The church and Christ. Also I have been getting my mom to mass with me on occasion. God bless you.


I hear you. Once I got news of my mother, my wife brought out the candles, photos, sacramentals, and Lourdes water and set up a small shrine. We’ve got our believing family members praying for us as well as our church family as well as my CAF family. It’s all brought a lot of solace to me and my brother reports that our mother was back to her usual self yesterday, laughing and talking with visitors and not suffering from any back pain.

My atheist father (he divorced my mother 40 years ago) on the other hand called me last Monday to see how I was doing. The best he could offer was a lame joke about ‘being like the NRA and offering up our thoughts and prayers’. It served as a poignant contrast between the richness of the Catholic tradition and the bleakness of atheism. In this case, the atheist literally has nothing to offer. Add to this an underlying antagonism to religion, and atheism becomes worse than nothing, it becomes a detriment and a distraction. I’m discovering that atheism denies us our humanity and offers nothing in the way of spiritual comfort to those of us who mourn.


Remember that faith is to a great extent a gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s kind of odd to me that when people talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Corinthians, they all focus on “discernment of spirits” and “speaking in tongues” but nobody ever mentions faith. I guess it seems pretty boring compared to yammering out some tongues.

Pray that your dad receives this precious gift of faith. He will need it.


True, and if anyone should know that it should be me. I converted out of the blue without any prompting by any living person. My faith truly is a gift from the Holy Spirit. That’s what makes visiting with my dad and brother so interesting. They’re like little time capsules of who I used to be.

I need to remember that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody and to just be patient, pray, and be the best Christian I know how to be.


I agree being an atheist offers nothing that religion offers for ritual release and social structure of organized religion. This is because atheists are responding to a single question. Are you convinced /believe there is a supernatural? If you say no, then you are an atheist. That’s all it is to be an atheist. It’s a single position to a single question. Now as to what to offer for cultural emotional release for heighten emotional states, that’s just up to each person to find for what works for them. You can still be religious and spiritual and offer the same empty jokes that your father did. I like to play music, talk with friends, exercise, play with the dog, and built a Japanese ceremony corner in a quiet place in the house to meditate over the days events. Rituals are important to calm yourself and work through your thoughts. But you don’t have to be religious or believe in the supernatural to do these things and and practice these things.

I would suggest trying not to be so harsh with your relatives, with regards to their atheism. They believe what they believe because it works for them. It is no different than why you believe in the things you believe. I know a lot of atheists with very healthy attitudes about life and death. They are just different than what religious folks believe. I don’t think your relative was trying to be disrespectful with his joke. It was his way of expressing that
he doesn’t derive comfort from the concept of thoughts and prayers as being a solution to the issue at hand (your mom’s illness). There is nothing wrong with you saying something to him like “Well when others send good thoughts and prayers, that is a comfort to me, knowing they are thinking of Mom. What would be a comfort for you right at this minute? Is there anything I can do for you?”

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Sport = atheist ritual relief and social structure

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Is your brother an atheist in regards to the Church or does he really believe there is no God?

The great thing about being Catholic is that when a man and a woman fall in love we go to church to marry them. When we have babies, we go to church and we baptized them. When they pass away, we go to church and bury them. When we get sick we pray and lay hands on each other.

I’m glad you brought up the tea ceremony because it reminds me of my step-mother. While not the atheist my father claims to be she professes a quasi-buddhist. self-made spirituality with undertones antagonistic towards Christianity, especially Catholicism.

She insisted on talking with me after m bleak conversation with my father. For some reason she thought it was a good idea to bring up sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The conversation took a downturn when she brought up how a lot of Catholics are leaving the faith.

I replied, 'if they’re leaving the faith, they don’t know what they’re leaving"

She responded, ‘they’re leaving a rape culture’.

To which I said she “needed to watch her mouth and show some respect” at which she got extremely offended.

So, I ask you, in what spiritual tradition is this an appropriate way to address a step-son who’s Catholic mother has been recently diagnosed with cancer?

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I am really sorry about your mom. I know this is a terrible time for you and your family. Since you say nobody else in the family holds your beliefs, I would suggest considering not discussing religion or faith at this time with them. It sounds like it only leads to arguments and people feeling like respect is not being shown, etc. Rely on your church family for spiritual support during this time. Love your family members. Don’t fight or argue with them. If they try to initiate a conversation with you in that direction, just set some boundaries and say you’re not up to talking about it right now. Change the subject.

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It’s a central part of the OP’s life and someone is dying.
The subject is going to come up. It’s the elephant in the room.
I’m sure the OP is not going out of his way to start apologetics discussions, but it would be equally difficult to just never talk about it, especially when the person with the illness is herself religious.
I’d be pretty affronted if I were dying and someone told me to just not talk about Catholicism or God because it might upset some atheists. Or if my good friend or immediate family member were told that.

I also take issue with the general idea that religious people need to just shut up so as not to make waves, even when someone is not dying. Unless you are at work, where policy usually dictates (in USA and at large companies anyway) that you leave certain subjects out.

I do agree that it’s pointless to engage the stepmom in discussions of religion when she is hostile to it, but it’s fine to give her a measured answer and then say, “I don’t think it’s productive to discuss this with you further, as your comments are often disrespectful to me and my beliefs, so I prefer not to talk about it with you.”

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I recently had a loved one die, and during their short and extreme illness I had zero energy to argue with family about anything. All of my energy was going into caring for the sick person, and soothing my soul through the sadness of it all. That is why I suggested to avoid arguing about faith and religion at this time. That’s all it was, just a suggestion. Obviously there are many ways to approach the problem OP is having.

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I would think he’s an atheist in regards to the Church. I can’t fault him too much, it’s the way we were raised.

Last summer I visited him in Vermont. He literally nearly ripped my arm off in a tubing accident. Obviously, he was very upset with himself, and after I got home he called me to check in. At the end of our conversation I told him to keep sending good thoughts, to which he replied “prayers”. I thought to myself that it was worth nearly losing my right arm to get him to take that leap from ‘good thoughts’ to prayer. :grinning:

If he’s an atheist, he’s a terrible one. :wink:

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