That was a nice, short post.
Okay, I do have some more to say. This subject came up at Wesley J. Smith's blog, Secondhand Smoke.
Smith's position is that it's legitimate for Christians to tell healthy atheists that they are praying for them but is insensitive to tell ill atheists the same thing. This is a rare case in which I disagree with Wesley, and I think the question raises related interesting issues.
It's important that people who give advice to Christians take seriously the implications of considering Christianity to be true. Now, if we Christians took Christianity to mean that we should do something heinous--like blowing up civilian buildings with all the people in them--it would be quite legitimate to take this to be a reductio of Christianity. One could then say to the Christians, "I don't care that you think your religion is true. Your religion is telling you to do something evil; therefore, something must be wrong with your religion, at least as you interpret it. You should be able to see that."
No problem with that form of argument. But when we are talking about things that are obviously not intrinsically wrong, like offering prayers to sick atheists, people need to realize that there can be a problem with telling Christians that they shouldn't do something that is natural, understandable, or even (in some cases) mandatory if one grants the truth of Christianity.
Consider what a Christian might well believe about his sick atheist friend: This person is going to go to hell and suffer eternally if he doesn't turn around, repent, and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. This person is now gravely ill. That means he probably doesn't have that much time to make that major change in his life. Therefore, there is a particular urgency to the situation.
Now, consider what it means to say, simply, to one's friend, "I'm praying for you." Is this inherently pushy or offensive? I cannot for the world see why. In fact, it seems to me that one will take it to be so only if one thinks that there is something inherently "icky" or embarrassing about Christian faith itself or perhaps inherently embarrassing about sharing one's Christian faith. This comes up in many of the comments in Wesley's thread (not comments by Wesley, I hasten to add) with repeated phrases like "pushing your beliefs on them."
On the contrary, it would be "pushing one's beliefs on" the atheist friend to say, tacitly or explicitly, "I'm going to sit here in your hospital room and not go away until you make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. I'm just going to keep on arguing with you until I wear you down." That would be pushy, rude, and counter-productive!
But telling the friend that you are praying for him is extremely gentle and is, in fact, an expression of love. It is a way of telling him that you are doing something that you believe to be for his benefit, that you are trying to help in one of the only ways presently available to you. It also conveys the idea that you wish to offer your faith for his consideration and that you are available to discuss it with him should he wish to do so, and it conveys that in an indirect and tasteful fashion.
One of the reasons I think it is important to talk about this is that the secular world is more and more accepting the notion that Christian witness is inherently problematic, inherently pushy or even inherently a bad motive for doing things. I noticed this very disturbingly in the coverage of the recent slaughter of medical missionaries in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed that they were "proselytizing." The media insisted that they were not proselytizing and called family and friends to witness to this supposedly meritorious fact about them. The disturbing implication was that the "accusation" by the Taliban (!) needed to be taken seriously and answered on the assumption that "proselytizing" would have been bad and would have somehow mitigated their murders. Again and again we heard that they gave of their time and effort to help people medically without trying to "discuss religion."
Think about the change this represents. It used to be that we talked about missionaries as preaching the Gospel without hope of earthly gain. The bad, ulterior motives, according to the old way of looking at things, were earthly glory and money. Now, the implication is that giving humanitarian aid (not sharing the Gospel) is the good thing to do and that the bad, ulterior motive is the hope of converting people to Christ. This is a very ominous shift and is one that we should address directly and reject.
I suggest that Christians reject the word "proselytizing" entirely for Christian witnessing and missions. I also suggest that Christians watch out for suggestions that Christian witness is in bad taste. Of course, there is a time and a place for everything, and we exercise prudential judgments about this all the time. But when the mere social disapproval of sharing our Christianity is allowed to dictate our standards of prudence, we are being lazy and being conformed to this world. The fact that the secular world increasingly thinks of Christianity as an entirely private thing that shouldn't be shared with anyone does not mean that Christianity really is a private thing that shouldn't be shared with anyone.
All this is, perhaps, rather far afield from the original subject of sick atheists. It might well be suggested that the atheist's sickness is itself the kind of thing that dictates a prudential judgment against any mention of one's Christian faith. But this hardly follows. It has been known to happen that people who are ill come to reconsider their former rejection of God. God can use illness to soften hearts. This--again, on the assumption that Christianity is true--is an argument for the Christian to reach out to the sick atheist even more than to the healthy one. The Christian should pray for guidance in contacts with the sick atheist friend in order to decide what to say and how to say it. But by no means does the mere fact of the sickness mean that nothing should be said.
If Christianity is true, and of course I believe that it is, it is the most important truth in the world. God loves you. God sent His Son to die for you. You can be forgiven of your sins and live in eternal bliss, in enjoyment of the beatific vision, with which the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared. If that isn't worth talking about, I don't know what is.