An Atheist Who Prays July 19, 2009

An Atheist Who Prays

I want to empathize here, but it’s tough.


I understand how comforting it would be to *think* someone was listening to (and maybe answering) your prayers.

But how could any atheist think it’s “nice” to pray… when you know no one is listening?

It just seems futile at best, silly at worst.

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  • This kind of underlines one of my recent observations: prayer, in the end, is the psychological equivalent of ‘cutting’ or other forms of self-mutilation.

    People don’t “cut” because it’s healthy. They “cut” because it gives them a feeling of release, and of relief. It gives a sense of control. Even people who ‘cut’ often know better – but that doesn’t stop the activity.

    Atheists who perform “prayer” like activity, despite knowing better, are probably in the same boat.

  • I don’t get it. Why is it nice to pray?

  • Don

    I don’t see the point and honestly I would feel silly. Furthermore, I think it is dangerous to practice nonsense even for comforting reasons. People have a way of convincing themselves that there is some method to their madness. I like to keep my mind as far away from nonsense as I can (that is when I can identify it) because I know how easily I have fallen for crap before and I am still quite capable of falling for crap again, though I am better armed these days.

  • Grimalkin

    When I have something that is really nagging at me but I don’t have anyone to talk to (whether that’s because I think I will be judged or simply because no one seems interested or willing to sympathize), I talk to my cat.

    I know that she can’t understand me, but it makes me feel so much better to talk something out. Even though it’s “silly” and “futile,” I do it because it makes me feel better.

    So I can understand. I don’t know if his/her reasons are the same as mine, but I understand.

  • If prayer is an internal dialog and means of ordering thoughts like meditation then, yeah, it might be nice. Unnecessary and a bit silly but, sure, it might be nice.

  • Fastthumbs

    Once in a while (usually discussing with a Christian the merits of praying or getting proof of God), I say/think the following prayer:

    “Oh lord, please provide testable, accessible, peer reviewable evidence of thy existence.”

    It’s been about 25 years so far since I first uttered this and no discernable answer. When asking Christian suggestions on improving my methodology, the responses to my “pray” runs along these lines:

    • I don’t have enough faith (well duh, I’m an atheist),
    • I’m NOT being sincere (I’m being quite sincere – it’s a real prayer that if properly answered would make me a Christian),
    • “Pray” more often (insanity since repeating the same thing expecting different results).
    • God works in mysterious ways (of course the Christian is admitting HE/SHE doesn’t know and is giving up on the debate)
    • God doesn’t answerer trivial requests (OK, I guess my “soul” isn’t important to an all-knowing, all powerful, loving, personal God…)
    • Freewill requires that I find the answer without God intervening (ummm… without information, I have no reason to believe and if no evidence is forthcoming… besides isn’t that what praying to God is for is to strengthen faith?)

    So far, the Christians I’ve discussed this with haven’t found fault with the wording though. Maybe I should find a Hindu or Moslem or Jew to discuss this with?

  • I am an atheist, and yes, I sometimes pray. No, I am not asking a deity for anything; this is really more of a “centering” exercise; think of what many athletes do prior to competition.

    Prayer changes the person doing the praying (attitudes, emotions, priorities, etc.)

    I see it as a sort of “yoga for the mind”; yes I do yoga (asana) too; it really helps my sore back and hamstrings. Yeah, I get a bit turned off when the teachers get into the mumbo-jumbo so I just tune that stuff out.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think Ollie and hoverfrog get it. Prayer is basically a centering activity. Shoot, I think rosary beads are nothing more than centering for folks with ADHD. So, I don’t think atheism and prayer is incompatible. Who says you need to beseech some deity in order to pray.

    If you don’t take the time to see the crazy activity that goes on in your mind, your mind will be your master rather than you being the master of your mind.

  • Jeremy

    For a few months after becoming to an atheist, I would sometimes catch myself ‘praying’ and think “Wow, this is silly… but it’s still comforting.” Now I just hold an internal dialogue in my head in situations I might have prayed in before. It’s basically the same thing but without all the “lord”s and “Jesus”s. And it’s just as comforting.

    I was never much of a petitionary prayer though. Those prayers don’t translate over well to an internal dialogue.

  • Sandra

    As the parent of an impressionable young man, I don’t pray. I will talk to my self or one of the cats… this way my son can see the logic I use to come to decisions (and when I’m old, hopefully he won’t just think I’m crazy and have me committed ;)).

  • It’s easy, he/she is not a real atheist

  • You could think of prayer as a certain kind of structured introspection. Nothing wrong with that.

    Or, you know, you could be praying to invisible fairies or something. I’m pretty sure fairies don’t necessarily imply the existence of god. 😉

  • Ian

    There’s nothing wrong with prayer as an atheist. Prayer is a structured (and sometimes voiced) form of internal dialog. If you’re addressing some deity in prayer, then you’re obviously not an atheist. But I pray, and I’ve heard and read of lots of other atheists do.

    There’s also lots of meditating atheists, although you can do that in a theistic way too. And others who use mantras, again more commonly associated with magical thinking.

    I sometimes think that it would be nice to have a lot of new words for stuff that I do that doesn’t carry the theistic/religious connotation.

    But evoking the one true scotsman falacy (Juan) doesn’t help.

  • Indigo

    Am I seriously the only person here who has conversations with people who don’t exist or aren’t present, just because it helps me sort out the stuff in my head? Sometimes I even do it out loud. It’s not exactly praying, but I can understand the urge to vocalise, internally or externally, what’s going on with one’s emotional state.

  • AnonyMouse

    I admit that I’ve missed prayer, for a few reasons. Firstly, praying helped me to feel like I was getting something done, which is much less frustrating than the sitting-on-my-hands that I have to deal with now. Secondly, prayer often served as a way for me to organize my thoughts – when I had a problem, I would pray to God to give me the wisdom to figure it out, and BAM! I’d realize what the problem was and how I could fix it.

    Since then, I’ve discovered that I can achieve the former effect by getting off my butt and getting something done (usually), and the latter effect by composing an imaginary message to an advice columnist. Still, it would be nice to have an all-powerful dude on my side whom I could ask for stuff now and again.

  • Dietra

    “A prayer is just a wish with an address on the envelope.”

  • Rest

    Every night before I go to bed, I say a little prayer to my deceased cat and dog telling them that I love them.

    I’m an ex-Christian, so maybe I can’t let go completely. But I’d rather pray to animals than any god.

    Life would be meaningless without Dog.

  • Don Juan Triumphant

    What about something simple, like you’re playing pool/golf/bowling/whatever, you hit/throw the ball and while it’s on it’s way to… I dunno, the pins, the hole etc… you mutter “come on commmeeeee onnnn” or “pleaaaaassseeeee”.

    Would that count as a “prayer”? I know some people who count that as a prayer (someone once even tried to convince me that I believed in god because I do stuff like this). Even if it’s not a prayer to god, it’s still an appeal to some intangible, impossible force, a request for aid from something that could somehow interfere magically and let you get the shot (or whatever you’re doing).

    I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do this, in some form or other. The cold, logical course of action in, say golf, would be to immediately start walking forward after you hit the ball. Staring at it won’t alter the course of it. And yet practically everyone who plays golf does it; they swing, hit the ball, then hold their position as they watch it fly away.

    So… I guess depending on how loosely you define “prayer”, everyone prays, whether they actually believe something will interfere or not.

    This is a rambling comment. I apologise.

  • Pseudonym

    I once read an article in a women’s tabloid from a witch, who suggested a spell for making up with a friend whom you’ve had an argument with. It went something like this:

    1. Write the friend’s name on a piece of black-edged parchment.
    2. Roll the parchment with a cinnamon stick. Tie it with purple ribbon.
    3. Light a candle, wave the parchment over the candle three times while reciting something or other.
    4. Burn the parchment, and do some other step that I don’t recall right now. (Sorry for those who were intending to do this for themselves; feel free to ask your local high priestess.)
    5. Call your friend and apologise.

    I agree with ollie and hoverFrog. This spell is essentially no different from the kind of mental preparation that athletes, actors or musicians go through before they perform. It’s useless in the sense that it doesn’t matter what form your preparation takes. It’s vital in the sense that preparation is important.

  • Eliza

    First: the site that Hemant links in the OP describes itself: “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.”

    It’s an art project.

    The statement may or may not be true. If it is, it’s apparently something that some atheist considers to be a personal secret (and one which he/she could make into an artsy postcard).

    Second, before getting on someone’s case for saying they sometimes like to pray, you need to know what they mean when they say “pray”. My guess is, as people have mentioned above, if this person means what he/she says (& isn’t just trying to be ironic-artistic), he/she doesn’t use “pray” in a literal way like “talking to God”.

  • Miko

    If we define “atheist” as “one who lacks a positive belief in deities,” then the atheist doesn’t “know that no one is listening.”

  • sometimes prayer is just a form of meditation

  • Quester

    Sometimes I still like to stop and say “Thanks”, even if I no longer believe there’s anyone to thank. I also count my blessings, occasionally.

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    Quester, I’m with you. I’m very grateful for my life, especially for the past nine years. I shouldn’t have lived to see them.

    And I say “thanks” now and then. And then I laugh, because who is there to thank?!

    Maybe I should thank Dr. Naslund, come to think of it…he’s the man who replaced 59 cm of my aorta.

    My husband, a United Methodist minister, tells people that “the man upstairs” created a miracle that let me live after 2-1/2 months in the hospital.

    No. It was the expertise of Dr. Naslund.

    It’s really sad when a person devotes his life to learning about a particular disease, devising new ways to bring a person through the operation—what I had was the second-most complicated surgery (a liver transplant is the first)—and then people say, “Thank God for pulling her through.”

    Now, if I can just live long enough to know the results of the Kepler telescope…

  • Steven

    8 years ago, I wrote the verse below about prayer, losing my baby daughter, and how being an atheist can be tough at times. I’d like to thank my wife and her doctors for the two healthy little girls that have been the centre of my life for the past 7 years and 4 years.

    Requiem (for my baby girl)

    I’m not looking for a saviour
    but I wouldn’t say no just the same
    Maybe it makes things easier
    when there’s somebody else to blame.

    I prayed but I don’t know who listened
    and my anger was fear in disguise
    I just wasn’t ready to lose you
    so I told myself comforting lies.

    But the truth was colder than winter
    and my hope as bleak as those skies
    that gloom over barren grey hills
    while everything green softly dies.

    After all the waiting, after all my dreams,
    I could have held you forever
    Yet sometimes forever is measured in days
    and all my dreams ended in never.

    I closed up the nursery, just shut the door
    on all the things waiting in there
    for my baby girl who never came home
    on all the things we’d never share.

    Somebody told me that life goes on
    and I know that has to be true
    I still make the same mistakes
    and I still miss you.

  • Rest

    Steven, that’s a heart-wrenching poem. 🙁

  • Alex

    I think it all depends on what is considered prayer. I talk to myself and have an inner monologue (or is it a dialogue between different elements of my consciousness?) I try to focus on the things that I am thankful for, which I see more as a form of meditation even though thanksgiving is indeed a form of Christian prayer.

    We all “pray” in one form or another whether or not we realize it, and much of it seems to have a similar affect on the psyche. It becomes dangerous when you put more value into it than you should.

  • Steven

    Rest said

    “Steven, that’s a heart-wrenching poem.”

    I’m sorry, Rest. I wasn’t sure whether to post it or not because I hate to bring people down. I can say with absolute confidence that it was my family and my wife’s strength (and surprisingly enough, my own) that helped me during that terrible time. I never “blamed” God – he’s not there to blame and any prayers were just a wish that somehow things could be different. Eight years later I have two wonderful daughters and I know exactly who to thank – not in my prayers but by trying to be a good husband and father.

  • TL

    I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is.

  • I might occasionally pray for the same reason I might speak aloud at the grave of someone I loved. It doesn’t mean I think anyone is actually listening, but it can be cathartic anyway. As a Christian I really loved my father figure in the sky. He’s dead now (as if it were ever otherwise), but sometimes I still miss him.

  • Rest

    Steven, that’s okay, you don’t have to worry about bringing people down. I thought it was good that you shared a very personal moment in your life with us. Life is hard.

    I don’t think I really miss god. I miss the assurance of an afterlife, that I’ll spend all eternity with my loved-ones. Letting go of that fantasy is very difficult.

  • Rest

    [entered wrong e-mail address – delete last message]

    Steven, that’s okay, you don’t have to worry about bringing people down. I thought it was good that you shared a very personal moment in your life with us. Life is hard.

    I don’t think I really miss god. I miss the assurance of an afterlife, that I’ll spend all eternity with my loved-ones. Letting go of that fantasy is very difficult.

  • Sometimes it helps you work things out when you vocalise your thoughts and worries. So in that respect a ‘prayer’ can help. Also, it’s not true that no-one is listening, unless you have your ears closed.

    That being said, prayer is still silly. If you have something to work out, just sit there and work it out. No need to get down on your knees and clasp your hands. All that does is make it harder to get up again.

  • I completely agree with Ron. Prayer is basically a centering activity and rosary beads are nothing more than centering for folks with ADHD. So, atheism and prayer is incompatible. One doesn’t have to be beseech some deity in order to pray.

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