Why I Pray with My Family Despite Being An Atheist

Social Commentary

Why I Pray with My Family Despite Being An Atheist

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

“Why do we pray mumma?”, asked the fat eight-year-old, still licking the cheap buttercream frosting off his fingers as he headed toward the tolling bells signalling the time for mass. “We pray because God is listening and he’ll help us with our problems”, said chubby cherub’s mother, a sweet Catholic woman. “Then why doesn’t Jesus tell uncle Mark to stop drinking and beating aunty Beatrice?” shot back Lardy McManboobs.

His mother didn’t really have an answer, other than twisting his ear and leading him to church.

Twenty years later, my uncle Mark still harasses my aunty Beatrice, and the question still stands, “Why do we pray mumma?” Only this time it came after my Sunday Netflix binge was interrupted by my mother to invite me to spend quality family time together. In my house that usually means one of two things: A. Watching my father flip through TV channels, with the same enthusiasm with which he’d look at the little inventions I’d make from salvaged parts of different electronics; B. Prayer.

The correct option was B. But that day, I also got the answer to the question eight-year-old me had.

Family prayer follows a simple arithmetic: If it hurts, doesn’t work, or hasn’t happened yet, pray. Prayer will turn things around. It starts off with the rosary, a form of prayer, made up of a bunch of smaller prayers, repeated frequently and fervently. It’s 50 “Hail Marys”, five “Our Fathers” and a bunch of other creeds, supplications, litanies, and invocations to anyone up there listening. In short, about a week’s worth of morning school assembly prayers said together in the hope of the almighty seeing what good Catholics we are. My family in particular likes to take this up a notch by tacking on prayers for everything from the intentions of Pope Francis to prayers for our departed family members, hoping they find eternal rest and don’t come back to live with us.

Family prayer follows a simple arithmetic: If it hurts, doesn’t work, or hasn’t happened yet, pray. Prayer will turn things around.

Think of these rapidly accelerating prayers like a sort of popularity contest that guarantees winners a trip to heaven. Except, I don’t think my parents particularly believe in them either.

My father, who prays just like he eats – a lot without a thought – could star in Eat, Pray, Lie-back, and Watch Television. My mother, on the other hand, thinks of it as a way to fill up the hours. The amount she prays is directly proportional to my salary increment in a given year. “Prayer costs nothing”, she says, so she’s always praying. In fact, I fear one day the prayers will be so firmly embedded in her brain that she’ll become the Hail Mary equivalent of Dexter from the “Omelette du fromage” episode.

Me: Mum what’s for breakfast?

Mum: Hail Mary

Me: What?


Me: Is that a Hail Mary or a Hail Mary?

Mum: Hail Mary.

In this Groot-esque scenario, I am an unwilling – but very present – participant. One does not simply say “no” to family prayer time at the D’souza household. The first time I actively refused to accompany them to mass on Christmas, I was given a careful explanation about sermons – a little coaxing, a little cajoling – until I was finally persuaded… after a whack.

Since I’ve grown up, the threat of violence doesn’t work anymore. In its absence there is a simple, harsh reminder: That while I live under their roof, I have to play by their rules. Otherwise there are tons of 28-year-olds living by themselves who don’t have to pray with their families – without having access to hot home-cooked meals.

Being an atheist in a family deeply rooted in religion – even if it’s by rote – makes me the Grinch who stole credit from God. According to my mum, “Everything happens as God wants it to, no matter how hard you work, you can move forward only with his blessings.”

I, on the other hand, view things a bit differently. Our successes and failures are ours to carry, God and his ward, Jesus, aren’t secretly sabotaging us in order to make us run toward them, arms splayed Bollywood-style. We sabotage ourselves and use religion as a crutch to hobble away from our inability to face our own inadequacy. This argument is my version of a nuclear deterrent in the cold religious war raging on between me and my parents. And just like any good nuclear deterrent, it comes with the promise of retaliation in the form of, “If you don’t like it, move out and pay rent.”

This is where all arguments go to die. This is the black hole of pride and self-esteem, the bonfire of the vanities. Because as we snowflakes know all too well, paying rent in Mumbai makes you wish you could grow a new kidney every month for the times you decide to order a second lunch after watching some #foodporn, or decide to add to your peddler’s retirement fund by buying more drugs than you usually do.

Despite years of prayer being as useful as an Aadhar card, my parents’ faith seems stronger than ever. We WILL get the house we always dreamed of, uncle Mark WILL someday loosen his grip on Chivas, I WILL start going back to church. The strength of my belief is best summed up as: Atheist in the streets, altarboy in the sheets. I may write tomes about how religion is a suxx, but at the end of a gruelling day, with a hot meal in my belly and a roof over my head, I’d rather mutter a few half-hearted supplications to placate my parents, rather than illustrate the futility of their faith.

The way I see it, my atheism has to take a backseat sometimes. As every Lokhandwala struggler knows, compromise toh karna padta hai.  

So I now choose guerilla tactics over a full-blown confrontation. Practically speaking, if we can make empty promises to each other on a daily basis – “Oh sure, I’m only five minutes away, babe”; “No no, I swear on my mom, the brief will be in your inbox before EOD” – making some more to an omnipresent, invisible deity isn’t going to hurt me. Everytime the call to family prayer is sounded, I simply join in, sit back, and observe. I half-heartedly mutter the words like the lyrics to a song I don’t particularly like at a cheap bar, because I’m there for the economically priced alcohol, not the music. After mouthing prayers with a deadpan expression, I hope aloud that it’d be nice if Jesus gave us a timeline as to when our problems will finally get resolved.

My mum simply rolls her eyes, while my dad and I get into faux theological arguments which usually culminate in a quiet Sunday dinner. Just the way I like it.

So while SETI has a greater chance of finding extraterrestrial life than my parents solving a problem through prayer, they persist in counting their beads and their blessing. At least it has helped me find the answer to my age-old question, “Why do we pray mumma?”

Well, we pray so we don’t have to pay rent. Prayer costs nothing, but rent is expensive.