A bleak week and a curious week. Ordinarily we're a secular society, but suddenly people who never usually utter religious words were praying for the miners and their families.

Prime Minister John Key led the way on Monday, with the headline: "I pray to God they are alive."

And then followed similar sentiments from surprising closet Christians: Mark Sainsbury on Close Up, when interviewing a mother of one of the miners. Perhaps Sainsbury (when his producer is particularly bossy) is familiar with what's known as the soldier's prayer: God help me this time and I promise I'll never trouble you again.

When the Chilean miners were entombed for weeks but in communication with their rescuers, we watched as they and their families prayed daily for strength, comfort and a safe reunion.

Back then, Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger opined it was not the power of prayer which saved the Chileans, but a "smashing victory for free-market capitalism".

This prompted applause from atheists close to home, such as on the New Zealand Business Roundtable blog, which pointed out that free trade and an open economy had more to do with the happy ending in South America than anything done by God.

Capitalists state that industrial accidents do not occur because of an act of God, so why do Christians think praying to God will somehow effect a miracle of intervention? It is to capitalism, and capitalism alone, that man should look for help, they say.

This week on Facebook, Key's prayers prompted the same harsh mocking from avowed atheists: "Here we go again - prayers making their way to God for a miracle to save the poor miners. When will theists accept that disasters are often man-caused, and their rescues entirely man-made?"

In other words, prayers won't save you, you miners, focus on the realities of the rescue mission. But of course, trapped miners would have been aware their rescuers would drag out all the latest technology, developed thanks to capitalism and the profit motive, to save them.

We can assume, though, they would also have been comforted by knowing their families and communities were praying for them. And if they were hurt badly or dying, they might also pray for strength, for their energy/life force, or souls, to stay close to those they love and leave behind.

Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do New Zealanders always have to be so polarised?

Reasonable religionists, spiritualists - or whatever you call them - don't totally reject capitalism. They embrace it every day. So why do fundamentalist capitalists so vehemently reject spiritualism - or mysticism, as some of them prefer to call it?

Well, I know why. Some of them call mysticism self-sacrifice, or altruism, as defined by philosopher Ayn Rand. But in her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, she conjures her own definition of altruism then proceeds with a poor argument against it.

Kindness, respect for others' rights, goodwill - that is altruism as we know it, and probably what New Zealanders pray for.

When atheists dismiss religion, they overlook professionals who work in the area. My experience is with Anglicans, and I know how well trained they are, not just to read by rote from prayer books but to listen skilfully to those in need, hurting.

Ordinary folk can't do this. They edge away from the needy, the bereaved.

As a teenager I ran wild, off the rails as they say, for reasons I won't bore you with. My parents tried everything, and in despair sent the local vicar, Hone Kaa, to "have a word".

I was staunch, but Hone was able to penetrate my defiance because he was wise enough not to fight me.

It was 40 years ago. On my bedroom wall was the Gestalt prayer which Hone quite liked. I still do, too: "I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.

"You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful."