I asked my students: "Why do you think they used the words 'magic...powers?' Why not 'supernatural...abilities' or something else? And why the picture of the wizard?" This time, one of my students piped in, "because it sounds stupider." I think that is right (if not grammatically, at least conceptually). "Magic powers" is arguably the most ridiculous sounding way to say it. Add a picture of a crazy looking wizard and you have effectively stacked the deck against the idea of prayer. Notice, you could do this for practically any Christian claim: "What Christians say: 'You should read the Bible.' What I hear: 'You should read this magic book written by uneducated, pre-scientific Jewish men thousands of years ago,'" or: "What Christians say: 'I love going to Church.' What I hear: 'I love gathering in a magical building and chanting magic words to a magic man in the sky.'" (Maybe I should be creating these atheist memes). Simply put, the image is rhetorically powerful because it portrays prayer as utterly ridiculous. Taken on it's own terms (if offering prayer is nothing more than claiming to have magic thinking powers), it does so rather effectively.
With that observation, I returned to my original question: "What would you say?" My students still didn't seem to know where to start, so I offered my thoughts. I told them that my response would be to say "I agree." I paused for a couple of seconds to see if anyone was paying attention before adding, "IF...if some of the basic claims of Christianity are false. If there is no God, he hasn't interacted with humanity, hasn't come in the flesh, hasn't taught us to communicate with him through prayer, then I agree that offering to pray for someone is just as ridiculous as claiming to have magic thinking powers." In sum, I am willing to agree, but under very specific conditions. Another helpful step to take is to ask the person making the original claim or criticism if he or she would be willing to agree to the opposite conditional statement. In this case, would he or she be willing to agree that prayer is not ridiculous IF some of the basic claims of Christianity are true: if God exists, has interacted with humanity, came in the flesh, and taught us to communicate with him through prayer.
So, what is the purpose of this type of "conditional agreement?" First of all, let me say what the purpose is not. It is not to sound clever. The purpose is also not to dodge the conversation. So what is it then? The purpose is to cut through the fluff and get to the stuff--to get past the magic powers language and the kooky looking wizard in order to talk about the real issue that separates us. What is the real issue in this case? Answer: the existence and nature of God. Clearly, if one rejects the existence of God, or suggests that God, even if he exists, is nothing like the Christian God, then OF COURSE offering to pray for someone would seem silly. So what? If I made a meme that said "What an atheist says: 'There is no God.' What I hear: 'I believe everything magically popped into existence, and life magically arose by total accident,for no purpose.'" No matter how ridiculous I might try to make it sound, I would hope that my atheist friends would look me right in the eye and say, "So what?" Because what is important is not what strikes me (or the person who made the original meme) as strange given that I have a different worldview. We are working on different puzzles, so it shouldn't be surprising when pieces from one don't fit into the other. The real issue is: what is true? Which view reflects reality? And that is where I think the use of conditional agreement can be very helpful--cutting through the fluff to get to the stuff. We don't need to bicker about whether or not prayer seems goofy to atheists. I know it does. But why? Because they think the basic claims of Christianity are false. So that is what we really need to talk about.
As a final thought, I want to be hard on myself and my fellow Christians for just a moment (not to be mean, but to be constructive). While I think the main issue shown in the original image is the rejection of belief in God, and the basic claims of Christianity, I don't think that we can fully escape at least some blame for the perceived silliness. Many, if not the majority of atheists that I interact with come from Christian backgrounds. I think it is fair attribute at least a portion of the sentiment they are expressing in memes like this one to a flippant, and even sometimes un-biblical approach to prayer in many Christian circles.
First of all, the phrase "I'll pray for you," gets thrown around more than a beach ball at a Nickelback concert. Even between Christians it is almost completely devoid of meaning. Why not just pray for the person right then and there? I know, I know, it is awkward, but maybe if it happened more often it wouldn't be. Or, what about this: let the person know what, specifically, you have prayed or will pray for them (example: I will be (or have been) praying for God to give you grace to endure this difficult trial and for your family to know His peace). If you just say "I'll pray for you," it really can come across as, "I will think about it later" (but you know they probably won't).
Second, many Christians are legitimately guilty (I know that I have been) of treating prayer like "magic words" to get what we want from God. If we just believe hard enough, say the right words, hold our mouth the right way, and do a little dance, we will get it. We just have to name it and claim it. So, if we don't get what we asked for, it is because we goofed up the incantation in some way. If this is our view of prayer, it should not surprise us then when the offer of prayer sounds like mumbo-jumbo to a skeptic. God is not a cosmic vending machine, and our prayers should not give the impression that he is. I fear that there are thousands of young people in the Church right now who have this concept of prayer, don't feel like it is producing like it should, and will hit the exit without looking back as soon as they are old enough to escape the "Christian culture," that they are currently maintaining for social reasons. Because, and maybe this would be a good topic for another blog, the attitude of many young people today is basically, "if it works it's true, if it doesn't it's false." What a tragedy that some (and I think many) would conclude Christianity is false simply because we have told them it is supposed to "work for them" in a way that it was never intended to.