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Oh sure, as a kid, you were a devout Catholic. It was the incense, the Gregorian chants, the sad-eyed saints. They really had you. For a while there, you even performed extreme unction—last rites—for dying bees and earthworms, making the sign of the cross over their writhing bodies, absolving their sins and giving each one a little spritz of Holy Water, from your own private stash.

But you got over that when puberty hit. Bonjour tristesse, etcetera. Between high school and college you tried on Kierkegaard and Camus. You wallowed in Hesse. Even stodgy old Bertrand Russell whispered alluring words. Those guys (and many others) wooed you, serially, collectively, up, down and sideways. There was no turning back. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Oh please. Who gives a shit?

Meanwhile, your best friend from high school graduated from college and moved to her husband's hometown in the Oklahoma Bible Belt. Where she quickly adopted the protective coloration of Born Again Christianity. You believe that's the only possible explanation.

So, what do you do now, when you're both in middle age, and she's asking you to pray for her because she has Stage IV breast cancer? First you cry. Then you comb the Internet, where you discover that there is no Stage V. IV is as far as it goes, the end of the line. Everybody out! That's why they call it "terminal". Stage IV means it's spread to her bones, to her liver. Probably even to her clothes! Ah c'mon, she's already lost a breast! Isn't that enough?

Do you drop to your knees and beseech God for a few crumbs of mercy? Well, of course you do! Certainly. Probably. Unless… unless you're a rabid atheist.

Your current husband (of twenty-seven years) calls himself an agnostic. You suspect, because he's a statistician, he's probably run a chi square test and determined there's some finite chance of God's existence. But you have more guts than that. None of this wimpy-ass, hedging your bets stuff for you. You ARE an atheist, goddammit! You have your principles! You do NOT pray! Not even for your best friend from high school. Who is… terminal.

And yes, of course you've heard about those supposedly scientific studies that show there are benefits from prayer, even if the person who's getting prayed for doesn't know it. Although you haven't read the studies yourself, you're appropriately skeptical.

While you're asking yourself what good would the prayers of an atheist be anyway, you become aware of a weak signal, like a pulsar from deep space. Oh, wait a minute. You know what this is. It's Guilt, the only remnant of your Catholicism. Embedded in your brain like a Pavlovian cyber cookie, by all those years of indoctrination.

Your cousin mentions in passing something called Dial-A-Prayer. A free service in which sixty True Believers will pray fervently for thirty days on behalf of anyone you care to designate. So easy! Like dropping off shirts at the dry cleaners. Ten Hail Mary's, no starch please. It would be criminal not to make that call.

A sepulchral voice answers on the first ring. It's a male but somehow he reminds you of Sister Savonarolla from fourth grade. She of the hairy chin mole and the metal-edged ruler. You quickly state your business, anxious to be on your way. The voice on the phone asks for the name of your friend and says, "Let's pray for her now." Ohmygod, you hadn't counted on this. You really do want sixty times thirty prayers for your friend, but geez. Okay, okay, you'll do it. You'll go through the motions, anyway. He begins to intone a prayer. It's not part of the standard Catholic repertoire, but a long, rambling, freeform kind of thing. You have no choice but to listen. However, in hopes of stopping this runaway train, you throw in a few passionate Amens, every time he pauses to catch his breath. Finally, just when you're on the verge of thinking unchristian thoughts, he ends the prayer with a request for your address, so he can send you more information about "The Ministry." You're so tempted, just for a second, to give him your jerky first husband's address. But there are principles at stake, examples to be set. You've come this far. You'll finish what you started. This is for your best friend from high school. So you've already decided that when the Dial-A-Prayer letter arrives, asking for a donation, you'll respond with a generous check. And this will be just a baby step on your new path to becoming the benevolent, the munificent, Mother Teresa of atheism.

Appeared in Barbaric Yawp, 2003

No Mother Wants This

What My Mother Wore