Praying to ace an exam

I’m a medical student, and my classmates and I have an exam coming up. It’s not uncommon for students to send out study guides, flashcards, mistakes in lecture notes, etc to the entire class via our listserv – we’re generally a cooperative bunch and like to help out fellow classmates and save each other time. There are also occasions in which different school organizations send emails to the class advertising meetings, events, etc. Some of these organizations are strictly medical (interest groups related to every medical specialty imaginable), and others are religious or political in nature – “Catholic Medical Students Association”, “Med Students for Choice”, “Jewish Medical Students Association” – you name it, we’ve probably got a group for it. I’m an atheist, but generally am not bothered when these religious groups advertise to the entire class. They’re an organization, and it’s the easiest way to reach everyone until you have your first few meetings and narrow down your list of interested individuals.

But the most recent email I received was different. It was from a few of my Christian classmates who were advertising an hour long “prayer session.” I’m not sure how to explain it, but the email felt weird. They weren’t trying to be exclusive – indeed they specifically mentioned it didn’t matter whether you were “Christian or not” – but it still came across that way. It still made me feel like an outsider – a reminder that the majority of this country (some of my family members included) think I’m destined for hell, or that I’m the equivalent of a murderer or rapist. Maybe it wasn’t the tone of the email, but the fact that these classmates in particular like to conspicuously “advertise” themselves as Christian – one frequently has the word “Jesus” displayed quite prominently when he comes to class. When I see that, I can’t help but think he doesn’t want to pray with anyone “Christian or not”, but rather for them – to save their soul. Is this true? Maybe I’m wrong. They’re very nice people, but I still feel like they are judging me for my (lack of) beliefs.

Moving on from my initial impression, what also bothered me was what they wanted to gather and pray about. We’re in the middle of an infectious disease course, learning about all of these viruses and bacteria that cause death and destruction around the world. We learned about rotavirus, which kills around 650,000 children every year. Were they praying that children in developing countries could have access to sanitary water or a vaccine to prevent this infection? No! Part of our local patient population includes many poor and homeless people. Were they praying that these families would not have to worry about paying their next bill? No! Were they praying that the homeless man on the corner could get access to mental health-care and a safe place to sleep? No! They were praying so they could do well on our upcoming exam. That may reflect more on their personalities or the fact that they’re medical students rather than their religious background, but it came across as incredibly selfish.

I don’t even believe in the power of prayer to change outcomes (most recent evidence here), but I do think it can be beneficial for the person praying (as a form of meditation) or a person who knows that loved ones are praying for them (as a form of emotional support). However, regardless of whether it works or not, I must ask my classmates – seriously? Out of all the things you pray for, and you choose an exam?! Are you an idiot?! Do you not care about other people in the world?! Are you really that selfish?! And now, until they prove otherwise, my answer is…yes. They are that selfish. They would rather pray for a good grade then for a decrease in human suffering around the world. They would rather spend an hour praying to do well on an exam, than an hour studying (which is guaranteed to help them on the test). They would rather pray for an hour than spend an hour volunteering at a local homeless shelter and making a tangible difference in the life of a person. Maybe I’m crazy…but it seems like they’ve got their priorities wrong.


~ Lily



  1. Jessica said,

    November 1, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    I’m a medical student and a Christian. I get a little frustrated hearing people say that they feel judged just because others are professing Christians. Someone’s personal religious beliefs should not be considered inherently offensive just because you disagree with them. You think their beliefs are incorrect, and they likely think yours are — so what makes you any less judgmental?

    As for their prayer topic, I think you’re being a little harsh. There’s nothing to say that they aren’t praying for others at another time. I pray for people in need on a regular basis, but I also pray that I can do well in med school; they’re not mutually exclusive. One reason that I want to perform well and pass my exams is that my ultimate goal is to work with underserved populations and infectious diseases; I can’t very well do that if I don’t graduate medical school. A lot of prayer is selfish… there are things we want from life, from God, and we ask for them… who isn’t a little selfish? But the other reason I pray that I can do well is that I want to make use of the talents I have in order to help others, and there’s nothing selfish about that.

    I also spend time volunteering in my community, but it’s not something I broadcast to my classmates… you never know what your Christian classmates are doing to help others that you just don’t know about. Honestly, as stressful and trying as med school is, maybe you should cut them some slack.

    Best of luck with your studies.

  2. Lily said,

    November 3, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for the comments, Jessica. I didn’t say their beliefs were inherently offensive because I disagree with them – I prefaced the entire post by discussing how many religious organizations at my school use the class listserv, and how I think that’s ok. But to me, the context of this email was different. It wasn’t on behalf of a school organization, but on behalf of a few individuals who wanted to gather to pray.

    I also don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way – I talked to several of my non-Christian friends (Hindu, Muslim, Atheist) and many also got the same tone from the email. They felt like it also came across judgmental and a bit bizarre. Correct or not, that is the impression that the email gave, so perhaps as Christians the students should try and be aware of how their views might be perceived. As the religious majority in this country, I think some (definitely not all) Christians take that as a free pass to advertise their beliefs. This is the point I was trying to get across. I have yet to get an email from my Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim classmates for something equivalent to what this Christian email was advertising. Their beliefs stopped being “personal” when they were announced to the entire class – how would you feel if the atheist students at your school gathered to discuss why their beliefs are correct, and everyone else’s beliefs are incorrect (and sent out a class email to advertise the event)? When Christian individuals talk about the importance of Jesus, this is essentially what they are saying – my beliefs are right, yours are wrong. There is a huge difference between believing that, and professing it to those around you.

    I know that many of my classmates, Christian or not, spend time volunteering – that’s not the point. The point is that they had this free hour and chose to pray instead of doing something else, and that they prayer topic was selfish. They didn’t say they were praying to do well so they could graduate and serve the community. I understand people can be selfish, but isn’t the whole point to try and overcome that selfishness? To try not to pray just for yourself, but to place the needs of others up there as well? They may have used that time to also pray for less-fortunate individuals in the world, but they didn’t choose to advertise it that way, hence why I said “until the prove otherwise” this is my impression of them. They had an opportunity to make an impression to the entire class, and quite frankly it came off negative.

    In terms of cutting them some slack, I’m not going to harass them for their beliefs. Like I said, our class gets along very well, and I don’t think this email is going to change how cooperative most of us are. Regardless of our beliefs, we’re all working toward a common goal, and I can definitely respect that.

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