By Aaron Earls
Leah Libresco felt trapped. She was an atheist student on an overnight college visit when a gospel choir decided to pray over her.
“It was kindly meant, but stressful for me,” she says. “I didn’t want to tacitly agree with them, but I was also scared of giving offense.”
These days, as a convert to Catholicism, Libresco is worried about practicing her faith without offending atheist friends.
To discover what makes them more stressed, she commissioned a study to find out what type of religious displays make atheists and agnostics uncomfortable.
It turns out, most atheists feel just as awkward as she did with public prayer, particularly when they’re asked to participate.
More than 6 in 10 atheists (62 percent) say they are uncomfortable when someone asks to pray with them. That far outpaces other public displays of faith, including religious discussions.
Only a third of atheists and agnostics (33 percent) say bringing up religion or asking about religion makes them uncomfortable.
Slightly fewer find it awkward when a Christian says, “I’ll pray for you” (30 percent) or when they see someone praying before a meal (27 percent).
Even though 27 percent is a relatively small number, it seemed high for Libresco when considering all that may be involved is a bowed head and a silent prayer.
“I was surprised by how strongly people felt about saying grace,” says Libresco, “even though I had disliked it, too, as an atheist.”
She says it may have to do with what type of image comes to mind when an atheist or agnostic thinks about praying before a meal.
Some may envision being asked to hold hands and pray together, which is much different from one person quietly saying a personal prayer.
“I was rooting for that to be less off-putting,” she says, “because it’s an important part of my daily worship now. I want to find a way to both pray and eat with my friends.”
Other religious acts were uncomfortable for far fewer atheists and agnostics: public religious procession (13 percent), praying with visible motions (13 percent), praying with a physical object (12 percent), wearing religious clothing (8 percent), and declining food or beverage for religious reasons (5 percent).
For Christians like Libresco looking to practice their faith and keep their unbelieving friends, she offers some advice from her own experience on both sides of the issue.
“I try to talk to my friends about prayer at times other than when I’m praying,” she says.
“So if they have questions like ‘What do you mean by that prayer?’ or ‘What do you expect of me?’ they can ask at a time when it doesn’t feel like a referendum on whatever I’m about to do.”
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.