Ask Richard: Atheist Still Prays to God After 24 Years of Not Believing March 2, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Still Prays to God After 24 Years of Not Believing

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hi Richard.

I’ve been an Atheist for many years and an Agnostic for many years before that. I grew up with Evangelical, born again parents and I went along with it until the age of about 16, when I started to question it. I’m now 40 years old and I can honestly say that I’m quite confident the God of the Judeo-Christian religions does not exist. My question is, why do I still sometimes pray to Him? I find myself often praying “God, show me that you’re there – that you exist”. I don’t pray every night, but every now and then I pray this prayer or something similar.

I’ve come up with 4 possibilities of why I do this:

1) I’m ‘hedging’ my bets. I pray just in case there is a God that will damn me for all eternity. When I think about this logically, I don’t think it’s very likely. A God that would ‘need’ me to believe in Him and punish me mercilessly if I don’t, seems very, very unlikely.

2) Force of habit. Since I grew up praying every night, it has been a ritual I’ve practiced probably 10,000 times. To give up a ‘habit’ that I’ve done all my life would be extremely hard.

3) There may be a part of me that believes in God. I know that nobody is 100% sure God does not exist and that Atheism is just Agnosticism that is close enough to 100% certainty that we can logically say that we are confident God does not exist. Consciously I believe that I’m a true Atheist in this definition but could I still believe subconsciously?

4) Maybe I have a mental problem and like to talk to beings that don’t exist? I don’t think so – I don’t exhibit emotional problems in any area of my life, so this explanation seems unlikely.

Do you have any insights into why I do this? Do any other Atheists have this problem?

Thanks for your help!

Dear Stuart,

What a candid and poignant letter. I’m always reluctant to analyze people’s psyches because the chances of being wrong are enormous. But I’ll offer an idea as long as you take it only as one more possibility, a shot in the dark with maybe a bit of hit and probably a lot of miss:

This is a good example of the predicament of being apes with both large, active limbic systems, and large, active frontal lobes. We have powerful feelings and powerful thoughts, and when they conflict, either one may overcome the other, but neither can ever fully banish the other. We are consistently inconsistent creatures, feeling and thinking mismatched things. It’s what makes us interesting to each other and to ourselves.

People seem to experience religious belief in two forms, one that exists in emotions and one that exists in thoughts. I wonder if when you stopped believing in God intellectually, you did not stop having the emotions of belief that were deeply set in persistent patterns by the time you were 16.

The way you describe your prayers, I wonder if instead of praying to God to show you that he exists, you’re actually saying to yourself that you wish he exists. After all, if God doesn’t exist, to whom are people talking when they pray? Themselves. The emotional and intellectual parts of their minds are communicating with each other. Sometimes our desires can be so strong that simply thinking them silently to ourselves is not enough. We must speak our longing out loud into the physical world and hear it echo back to our ears. We must be sure that all the parts of our minds have heard it.

Many atheists describe a period after abandoning their intellectual belief when the emotions of belief continued on, but lacking the familiar supportive thoughts and activities, those feelings began to turn into grief. This feeling of loss or mourning can last for weeks or months, or sometimes even years as it gradually fades away. Perhaps yours is just a longer lag time than usual, and you’re expressing your grief in this wishful, wistful way, expressing the nostalgia of your believing years.

So my hypothesis is a little bit like your possibility numbers 1 and 3. Mine is about an emotional anomaly, a remnant in your mind regarding your belief, while your suggestions are more intellectually expressed, but they might overlap.

I don’t think number 2 is likely by itself, because if it was purely force of habit, without something to reinforce it, the habit would probably fade away after so much time. As for possibility number 4, I don’t see anything in your letter indicating a psychotic process. If you had a serious disorder, then as you said, other areas of your life would have serious problems.

Which brings up my question to you. Is this really a “problem” or is this simply a quirk? If it doesn’t interfere with important things in your life, such as keeping a job or keeping a relationship, then perhaps it should be considered just an eccentricity.

However, it did at least perplex you enough for you to write your letter. So if it is something like the extended grieving period that I described, perhaps it is persisting because you need to find something else to satisfy that old neglected emotional need that your belief used to fulfill.

If you’re not sure what the need is, look at your secular, very rational, logical life, and see if there is something not necessarily rational or logical that you could add. Try several things and something might “click.” It could be something about joy, play, creativity, whimsy, humor, beauty, awe, wonder, thrill, belonging, worthiness, connectedness, gratitude, meaning, passion, challenge, love, or a hundred other things-that-aren’t-things that enrich and complete our humanness. If you find something that fulfills your emotional need, perhaps the praying will finally cease.

So Stuart, that’s my shot in the dark. Maybe a little bit of hit and probably a whole lot of miss. Take it as a suggestion, or a clue, or just an encouragement to always stay at least as curious about yourself as you are curious about the world around you. As you explore your interior continent, maintain an attitude of affection and humor, and disapprove of nothing that you find. Waste no time with either of the twin vanities, pride or shame. Some things about yourself you’ll understand, and others will remain enigmas, but just keep exploring.

Perhaps it is the wondering that is more important than the knowing, anyway.


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  • Some people have to wash their hands 15 times a day, some people have to triple check their door lock every time they leave… It seems like a harmless quirk that has become a habit.

  • Spurs Fan

    Very nice answer Richard. I had this situation when I deconverted. I am also very familiar with the “period of mourning” after deconversion as it went on for a year or so with me. I could understand why I didn’t believe that god existed anymore, but I also felt emotionally drained after “depending” on god for so long that it took me a while to get over the fact that he/she was not there anymore.

  • I think the biggest motivating factor for this guy is his number 1 hypothesis as to why he still does it.

    My mother is the kind of person who really wants to believe in god. She was raised in the catholic church and she took it very seriously. But when she was 20, she had me out of wedlock and her church turned their back on her. So she left. She couldn’t see how any just and loving god could possibly think any less of her just because she made the mature decision to wait until she was older and to marry my dad.
    My mom really wants to believe in god, but she doesn’t see how the god she’s known throughout her childhood could be so fickle and reject her so easily. She is just too logical, empathetic and kindhearted to believe in such a merciless god. So, for the sake of this argument, I’ll call my mom ‘agnostic’ and I think she’d agree. But there is one thing my mother still believes in, no doubts in her mind. And that is the fear of hell. Not necessarily hell, but the FEAR of it.
    My mom hasn’t been to church more than a few times in the past… since I’ve been alive? But she still tells me she has nightmares about hell. She still feels the guilt of her childhood when she “sins” and she still is terrified of the idea of burning eternally in a firey pit – and she isn’t even sure she believes in the firey pit in the first place!

    This fear is what keeps religion thriving. And it’s what keeps normally logical people – like the author of this letter – on their knees in prayer. This fear is also what should be considered child abuse, in my honest opinion. There is nothing else on this earth that could give 40-year-old women nightmares about something she doesn’t even entirely believe in.
    This letter is incredibly interesting. Great post!

  • Polly

    Maybe saying a prayer just to say, “Farewell” to god would give you closure?

  • Which brings up my question to you. Is this really a “problem” or is this simply a quirk?

    I am 38, and I fully gave up all real intellectual belief by the time I was 20. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home with a family which has been involved in that same church for many generations. I distinctly remember come home from church one day as a child and thinking to myself–not in these exact terms–“what a bunch of crap.” It was after I started college when I seriously started questioning what I had been raised to believe, even though I wasn’t sure I believed in it. I rarely thought about it until I was at home and had to go to church with my family.

    Anyway, maybe once every few years, I find myself thinking something similar to what the writer has uttered to himself. It’s not very often, and I usually forget about it fairly quickly.

    When the moment occurs, I find myself feeling as though I’m a fraud or intellectually weak. Perhaps it’s because I can’t stand firm on “solid ground” about what I believe. I can’t blindly believe there is a god because there is no evidence to even hint that there is, but I also can’t give up the possibility (no matter how close or how rapidly that probability approaches zero) one may exist. Not that I really /want/ one to exist, either–especially of the kind we humans tend to make up. Again, those feelings are usually gone fairly quickly as I resume my life.

    It’s those moments of self-doubt I find troubling. I don’t know that it constitutes being a problem, but I wouldn’t call it a quirk either. I don’t know what I would call it.

  • Solorien

    This letter really struck a chord with me. Cognitively, I know that I am an atheist. When I think logically, I have no doubt that this life I am living now is what there is, and I am okay with that. Knowing this helps me live my life to its fullest. However, there are many times, usually when I am overwhelmed by those powerful thoughts and feelings that Richard mentioned, when I find myself wishing I could believe in something greater. My uniquely human brain loves to make connections and find patterns in everything and it’s easy to pretend that those coincidences mean something. I appreciate knowing that there are others out there who KNOW better, but still FEEL something on occasion. Thank you for sharing, Stuart.

  • Jeremy

    It’s just habit, let it run its course. I’m a theist/pantheist in my car of all places. It’s the only place that’s truly mine. I sing, I shout, I express myself in it.

    Sometimes coming back from a stressful experience, I pound my fist against the roof and yell, “Thank you!” to the universe. Or ask, “Please let this be okay,” or whatever fits the ocassion. I’m not directing words at anyone but it makes me feel better.

    If there’s no god, as you and I believe, who does it hurt?

  • Dan

    Another amazing column Richard. That emotional longing is very real.

  • Karen

    I think it’s a habit. I still get the feeling that I want to pray before a meal. And sometimes I do because I figure that it’s good to stop and be grateful for the food I’m eating. It’s a ritual I sometimes still honor because, well, it feels honorable.

    It’s a quiet space inside our heads, and sometimes I feel like it’s good to fill it with conversation, reconnection. “Are you listening in there?”

    It doesn’t hurt anything. Lots of religions without deities offer prayer, and some religions pray to gods “without qualities.” Jung called it The Self and there are other names for it.

    I think prayer -like the ones where you’re stating a plea- is more or less focusing intention in hopes that something different might happen and sometimes… something does :).

    I don’t believe there is a higher power “out there” to bless us or do our bidding, but there is a lot to be said for the parts of our mind that are stagnant, and us looking inward by calling upon it to be useful to us is probably a good thing.

  • I can’t help but think of the song “Dear God” by XTC, and other songs like it: songs in which the singer is addressing the God he/ she no longer believes in, and informing God of this non-belief. (David Bazan’s brilliant “Curse Your Branches” is an entire album like this. [Sorry for the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.])

    It could be seen as just another way of thinking to yourself, or thinking out loud. Hell, I have conversations in my head with imaginary people all the time; my own fictional characters (that’s where fiction comes from), or elaborate reimaginings of fictional characters other people have written about (that’s where fanfic comes from). And when an imaginary person has had an important role to play in much of your life, the emotional sense of them being real is hard to break.

  • HankTheCowdog

    Perhaps this is similar to atheists singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Away In a Manger,” or putting out a creche as part of the decorations at Christmastime — an emotionally comforting part of personal/family tradition, even if not part of active belief. You don’t give any clues to your childhood other than growing up in an Evangelical family, but maybe this just feels good?

    I grew up atheist, although I love the sparkly, arty parts of religion (cathedrals, fancy Bibles, settings for the Mass, etc.). There were Catholics on both sides of my family, and as an adult I have to admit that sometimes I feel like I should be giving up something for Lent. I wonder if it’s genetic.

  • Excellent response from Richard.

  • My view is that fundamentally, life is filled with random unpredictable events and uncertainties. People don’t like that- uncertainties create discomfort and we try to control some of that more or less, as a psychological salve.

    Religion provides that salve- if good things happened, the Gods/spirits approved. If bad things happened, the Gods/spirits didn’t approve. And religion said by appeasing the Gods/spirits and doing what they want, more good things will happen.

    Even non-religious people have little rituals that do nothing more than provide a bit of comfort, the idea that you have a bit more control. Athletes have a ‘lucky shirt’ or ‘socks’. Students always bring a calculator to exams, even if they’re not necessary.

    It’s just about a psychological need to make life a little less uncertain by following some ritual that ‘appeared’ to have worked in the past.

    OTOH, any time I’ve had people waving guns at me or got into a tricky situation, I’ve always said “now, how the hell do I get myself out of this mess” rather than ask God for rescue.

  • Lukas

    As a child, I used to talk to my teddy bear even though I knew it was not alive. Sometimes, you just need to talk to somebody, but perhaps nobody is around to listen to you, or it’s something you really don’t want anyone to know.

  • JB Tait

    I suspect the concern Stuart feels could be rooted in a desire to avoid being a hypocrite.
    The prayers, however, might merely reflect the hope that there really is a god of some sort, even though the God of current religions is clearly not an acceptable reality for him.

    The hard part is to accept that there is no God, but that praying to and hoping for one isn’t hypocrisy. There is no logical disconnect in praying if your hope is that there is a god more wonderful than the vicious, contradictory tyrants the religions have conceived. This would be a god who hasn’t spoken to you, who doesn’t interfere with the laws of physics, who doesn’t command us to act atrociously toward others who don’t believe as we do, a god capable of permeating the Universe perhaps, or one who cares about whether we make the effort to be good.

    The praying might only be an advanced form of wishing, a desire for justice, a seeking for a power that could step in and maybe make it Right.

    One reason religions persist is that people want God to be true. The only problem with that is when it turns into a “my dad can beat your dad” contest, and they keep making up more features for their particular brand, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had some super-uber-alpha power wielder to come to our defense?

    I hope there is a god, but all of the local ones are too small, so as far as I have been able to interpret the evidence, except for praying (and wishing and hoping), we have to act as if there isn’t one.

    Santa Claus doesn’t visit my house anymore since my dad died, but I still think of what I would like to receive for the Solstice celebrations.

  • I finally gave up praying after it became clear it was having the exact opposite effect.

    I kept asking God to lift my boobs back up to where they were before I had kids.
    Instead, they sunk lower.

    Either there is no God or there IS a God…and he’s an evil mother f*cker.

    I stopped praying….and now I’m searching for something else – a good plastic surgeon.

  • If it gives Stuart that comfy-feeling that crossing ones fingers gives many when wishing really hard for something, then it certainly falls into the “no harm, no foul” territory. Not to say the if he were praying “for real” it would be harmful, just saying that he should not worry about it. Habits and superstitions are hard to break.

    I do have a bone to pick with his wording of #3… “I know that nobody is 100% sure God does not exist and that Atheism is just Agnosticism that is close enough to 100% certainty that we can logically say that we are confident God does not exist.”
    – No, he does NOT know that nobody is 100% sure a god does not exist. I am NOT an agnostic in any fashion. PROVE to me that there is a god, and I will believe.

    But outside of that minor glitch, Stuart should not worry about anything he is doing.

  • Darlene

    When I was small, my Mom (who was Jewish) would always cross herself when an ambulance or police car or fire truck passed, or when we happened on the scene of an accident.

    It was a mini-prayer, an offering of thought in the hope that everything would be okay, because we would want others to hope that for us, and we were pretty helpless to do anything else.

    I’ve been an atheist for most of my adult life, and yet I still catch myself with my hand rising to my forehead when I hear sirens.

    I think it is a superstition, the same way I cannot erase a telephone message my husband leaves until after he walks in the door and is safe.

  • Meredith

    In college, while I was questioning my faith, I attended the service of a local Episcopalian church, the same denomination in which I grew up and went to religious school for four years.

    I nearly cried because it was just so comforting, familiar, and lovely. The words, the service. The cadence of it. The beautiful music. Even the smiling face of the girl I went to school with who was also in attendance.

    I wondered seriously why I would ever want to give any of this up.

    I never did bring myself to go back because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t being true to it. I knew I didn’t really believe, and couldn’t pretend that I believed just because I enjoyed the experience and the ritual.

    It was hard, but the right thing. And I think this person knows what the right thing is, too.

  • JulietEcho

    Great answer, Richard, and some good comments here too.

    When I’m really sick or in serious pain, I *totally* pray on occasion. I used to do it as a Christian – ridiculously asking God to help the pain stop, as if even the God I believed in then had a track record of stopping anyone’s pain – and I still do it, when I’m in intense physical pain.

    It’s funny – I did it this morning at 5:30 am when I woke up with some crazy bad stomach cramps. And it took the same amount of time, pain-killers, and heat application to ease them away that it does when I *don’t* utter a prayer at 5:30 in the morning.

    This habit of mine doesn’t bother me, because physical pain (when it’s quite intense) doesn’t leave the brain much leeway. You just do whatever distracts you, whatever your habit is, whatever comes to mind. You moan, or cry, or scream, or demand to be left alone, or demand help, or whatever. We all have different ways of dealing with physical pain in the moment.

    What matters is what you think when you’re lucid, when you’re thinking and not knee-jerking or absent-minding.

  • muggle

    First, it’s a harmless quirk. Don’t sweat over it.

    Secondly, let me say I do understand the emotion of it. I still love this statue of Moses in our city park that utterly shouldn’t be there. Merely because I’ve loved it since I was seven when I actually believed the bullshit story it depicts and had no idea it shouldn’t be there.

    But, aargh!, on this: “I know that nobody is 100% sure God does not exist.” Yes, I am. Let me put it another way, I’m as sure there is no god as I am the sun will come up tomorrow and I’m gonna die some day. Damn it. I wish Atheists who don’t feel quite as sure as me would stop putting words in my mouth. I am not nobody, damn it.

  • liz

    i have absoultely no emotional attachment to my previous (catholic) religion. But this may have to do with the fact that i deconverted slowly and from a very young age.

    Starting when i was about 8, when i asked my mom if gay people went to hell (i had just found out what gay meant, and found out it was a sin the same week!) she explained to me how you didnt go to hell for being gay, but for acting on it. ANNNNNND that’s what started the ball rolling. i was completely unconvinced that this was right.

    Honestly, if i started praying i would stop mid sentence/thought and say “NO…why am i doing this?” if you want to stop, that’s probably a good way to train yourself.

  • One reason religions persist is that people want God to be true.

    This is the kind of thing that always baffles me. Why do people want God (and I guess they mean the majority god of our culture) to be true? I can understand the deep cultural conditioning, but as someone who wasn’t exposed to it, it confuses the heck out of me. I’ve never wished for a god. When I was little, I felt safe and secure knowing that my parents would protect me from all the bad, scary things in the world. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t feel like I need some kind of supernatural entity protecting me. In fact, it’s creepy to think that some kind of invisible being is watching over everything, and that doesn’t even take into account the scarier aspects of the biblical deity that everyone in Western culture seems to believe in.

    So what’s the appeal of a god? I can definitely understand the appeal of an afterlife, but I don’t understand why people want a deity. Especially given that, even if one existed, we could reasonably conclude that it seems to have absolutely zero control over the real world. It doesn’t stop bad things from happening. It doesn’t cure sickness or prevent people from dying. It doesn’t make sure criminals are caught and punished. It doesn’t seem to do anything at all. It sounds some kind of incompetent Orwellian Big Brother, quite frankly. Even if it was totally benevolent, the whole “Big Brother is watching” idea creeps me out.

  • duhsciple

    What denominations of atheists are there?

  • Another indication that we (or at least some of us) may be hard-wired for belief in the supernatural?
    By being atheist, are some people simply ignoring or burying some primitive part of themselves?

  • What denominations of atheists are there?

    Since we’re not a religion, it would be hard for us to have denominations. But I would guess the experiences of atheists who once fervently believed in a god are different from the experiences of atheists who never believed in a god. As I said before, I’ve never prayed or felt the urge to pray. Prayer is very foreign to me, and I assume that’s because I never did it growing up and was not exposed to it during my formative years.

    Another indication that we (or at least some of us) may be hard-wired for belief in the supernatural?

    I’ve wondered about this. Maybe some of us are predisposed to “spiritual” or “transcendent” experiences. I know that I’ve never experienced anything even remotely like what some theists claim to have experienced. And while I think it’s largely cultural, there might be something in my brain that stops me from having those feelings and/or interpreting those feelings in a “spiritual” way.

    Then again, not all cultures are the same. If it were hard-wired, then all societies would experience these things in roughly the same numbers. I’m in the middle of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett, and the native Amazonians he studied have no religion, no deities, and no afterlife. They do believe in “spirits” and there are some mystical experiences, but on the whole, it seems to be a far less religious society than most others in the world.

  • plutosdad

    I was the same way for about 5-6 years. I didn’t finally stop and “embrace” my atheism until last year when I read Godless.

    So for me, it was just a matter of further study and considering arguments I hadn’t yet.

    Amazingly once I truly gave up any belief in a god my fear of heights went away, as well as some other fears.

  • JB Tait

    I didn’t specify which god, but meant the all-knowing, all-powerful father/keeper who has appeal for those who don’t feel safe and secure.

    I felt safe and secure knowing that my parents would protect me from all the bad, scary things in the world.

    In that context, then, your statement is exactly why a god would be desired, to replace the parents who are gone or who didn’t act that way, whose feet of clay were seen when the child grew up, who didn’t have the power or means to protect the child, or who aren’t now or maybe weren’t ever there.

    It may be a transference from childhood to have the thought that if we are good and do what god demands, then he will save us and protect us from all things Evil. And like the wife who is repeatedly beaten, if we are punished then we must have done something wrong even if we can’t figure out what it is.

    This then leads to another thread.

    Are the Hu-men the only animals with a sense of Justice? Could this be the “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” mentioned in many mythologies, and signify when we made some intellectual leap? And having discovered Justice, did we then long for an enforcer?

    Could prayer also be like taking our plea for restitution to a cosmic court with a judge who can detect dishonesty?

    So the ~wish~ for a benevolent god could have a sensible basis, but the results show it isn’t working that way.

  • Gibbon

    May I offer a perspective on this that may provide an alternative to understanding why Stuart has persisted with a ritual despite having given up the myth that originally justified it.

    As a few here will know, due to previous encounters with me; I’m currently majoring in Religious Studies at university. Now the very first reading that I did for my studies delved into something that is pertinent to Stuart, the relationship between myth and ritual and what happens to either one when it loses the other. The case that Stuart has presented us with is one where the ritual (praying) has lost its myth (belief in God).

    From Stuart’s own admission, and also according to the article that I read, it is much more difficult to give up the practice than to give up the belief. In fact the article states that there is a far greater tendency for people to define themselves by what they do rather than by what they believe, and I’m inclined to agree with that. There has been plenty of evidence in the last few centuries: where missionaries were sent they replaced the old beliefs with Christian ones, but at the same time the locals tweaked with the Christian myths enough to justify those old rituals, while still maintaining the essence of them.

    While Stuart may have given up the myth that originally justified the prayer, the ritual could still be serving purposes other than just perpetuating myths. Rituals have some important social effects; among them is the generation of social cohesion amongst members of a community, such as a Christian one, this typically occurs through those rituals which involve group participation. Then there is also the fact that rituals also demonstrate a physical expression of membership to a community, which is what prayer tends to be as it occurs most often on an individual level, thus helping others to identify one of their own. This might in fact be why Stuart is still performing prayer; on a sub-conscious level he probably recognises that by doing them he is still recognised by others as being a member of their community, one that his family belongs to (there’s even greater incentive), and from which he doesn’t wish to be ostracised.

    I’m actually reminded of the powhiri, which is a Maori ritual here in New Zealand. It serves as a welcome to visitors, particularly notable dignitaries. One of the central elements in the practice of powhiri is when a Maori warrior slowly advances on the visitor making threatening and aggressive gestures and facial expressions. This serves as a challenge to the visitor to test their steadfastness and strength. The warrior then places an item on the ground in front of them as a peace offering and then retreats, at which point the visitor advances forward and picks up that item as a sign of acceptance, which in the eyes of the Maori means that the visitor is welcome there. The parallel between the powhiri and Stuart’s case is that if he carries on performing that prayer, in theory he should still be welcome in the community.

    So it could simply be for social benefits, such as acceptance, for why Stuart is still performing prayers.

  • In that context, then, your statement is exactly why a god would be desired, to replace the parents who are gone or who didn’t act that way, whose feet of clay were seen when the child grew up, who didn’t have the power or means to protect the child, or who aren’t now or maybe weren’t ever there.

    Good point. I wonder if the main appeal of religion is a longing to remain in a protected state, or to desperately try to experience that state if you didn’t have it as a small child. I can understand the second situation better than the first. To me, if you’re an adult and you had a normal childhood, you should have grown beyond the need to have someone taking care of you all the time. Growing up and dealing with death and injustice and so forth can be hard, but it’s a necessary part of becoming an independent person. When people talk about the wish for some kind of parent-like deity, it just reminds me of infantilization or regression. I could understand it if I were five years old, or if I had been abused, abandoned or neglected, but I can’t relate to that as an independent adult.

    While I love my parents very much, they don’t protect me in the same way they did when I was a little girl, nor do I want or expect them to. They are just human beings, not the all-powerful protectors they were to me back then. And even then, I knew they couldn’t protect me from everything. I did feel safe with them and I knew they would try their hardest to protect me, but I knew they couldn’t prevent the deaths of my grandparents, or of our family pets, and I knew they couldn’t control scary things like burglaries or fires, which I sometimes had nightmares about. But I can’t remember ever wishing for anything more powerful (like a deity) to prevent those things. The god-concept was just not in my brain at that age, and when I did become aware of it, I just thought it was obviously fictional.

    I guess feeling a kind of emotional insecurity may lead some people to adopt a belief in a benevolent deity later in life, but it doesn’t really account for the huge numbers of people who had presumably secure childhoods and who still desire a mother or father deity to take of them as adults. This, I think, is largely cultural. For me, even if there was a benevolent deity, I wouldn’t want it watching me all the time. That just seems intrusive, and, well, creepy. And if it can’t protect me from the really bad things, what use is it? If any deity were to exist, it’s either impotent or completely non-interventionist, which would cancel out its usefulness. And not having been exposed to the Bible as a child makes me see the biblical deity as the opposite of comforting or loving, particularly with all the talk of hellfire, smiting, plagues, etc.

  • I struggled with religion until I was in my mid-twenties and even though I’ve been “religion free” for almost 15 years I still find myself slipping into old habits.
    Looking back I can say that I didn’t really believed after I reached about 12-13 years old, but it was so entrenched in my mind I that I was afraid to let go of religion. I mean my family, friends, teachers, and the media all told me it was true. Who was I tell say it wasn’t? I didn’t really start to rebel against my religious upbringing and openly question the whole thing until I was about 15.
    So even though today I have no emotional ties to religion, I still find myself saying “thank god….”, “bless you”, or “heaven forbid”. It is just habit and I usually don’t think anything about it. They are just generic terms I have become accustomed to using. So maybe the letter writer is just looking too deeply at something that is just, as one poster already mentioned, a quirk.

  • medussa

    I was never raised with a formal religion, and what wishywashy, constantly changing “spiritual” beliefs there were were never associated with prayer. I tried to pray once, when my cousin was fervently trying to win points with her mormon church by converting me. I just couldn’t believe anyone was listening so I never tried again.

    That said, I often find myself in situations where I am desperately hoping for a particular outcome, and I find myself muttering under my breath, “please, please, PLEASE let this happen the way I need it to.” I don’t really think I’m praying, since I’ve never been either in the habit nor had the belief. I think it’s just a way of vocalizing one’s deepest desires, something that you think is vitally important, and you can’t fathom how to handle the situation if it turns out differently.
    I sometimes wonder if that’s not the reason all cultures have some sort of religion, because it’s a formalized way of expressing what individuals and communities need: “give us our daily bread” for example, or stable relationships (however they be defined), a community to support us when we’re mourning losses.

    Of course, since muttering one’s wishes has just as much effect as praying, things do often turn out differently than desired, and generally, we do find ways of dealing with the outcome.

  • medussa

    Just read the last few posts, and realized Gibbon said what I was trying to say, only when he said it, it sounded a lot better and made more sense…

  • Canadiannalberta

    I know 100% the gods aren’t there. I mean, I know Ra isn’t, so why should any other deity get special attention?

    I love your advice, Richard!

  • DGKnipfer

    What denominations of atheists are there?

    I am a nondenominational skeptic. I equally disbelieve in everything until verifiable and reproducible tests have been completed.

  • Pither

    For me, there’s a big social component to it. Since my deconversion, my life continues to be filled with people who still believe. And the cognitive dissonance is sometimes like a tsunami. How can I be the *only* non-deluded one?? All my ancestors, my parents, my wife, my neighbors – all deluded in their belief. Perhaps this social-cognitive-dissonance causes Stuart, like me, to sometimes question his non-faith. When that happens, I find myself visiting sites like this one more. Thanks, Hemant, Richard and others, for making me realize that I’m *not* the only one!

  • midwestchick

    What beautiful advice, Richard. I have been some flavor of atheist most of my life; I was raised Mormon, but never really believed it. One of the formative experiences of my life was watching the TV series “Cosmos” when I was 4 or 5; Carl Sagan’s sense of wonder about the universe, and our tiny place in it, without any type of deity, made more sense to me, and was more comforting, than any kind of religious advice I had received, and this has remained true to this day. Science amazes me, pictures of galaxies fill me with wonder, understanding the mechanics of hurricanes fills me with awe. Art and music reach me emotionally. Perhaps, as Richard says, Stuart just needs to find something that connects to him on an emotional level – take art or music classes, or astronomy (or watch “Cosmos”!), or take up hiking, learn about butterflies, how to identify trees, how to paint or do woodworking or learn fencing – find his passion, then he won’t be troubled by his habit. I think a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world can do a lot to get you out of your own head and connect you to the world and the people around you.

  • This is a fantastic post, as are the responses. I’m still relatively new to atheism, after a few decades of half-hearted Catholic-based lip service regarding the Great Beyond. I can really empathize with “Stuart’s” situation.

    What quasi-freaks me out from time to time is that dead is dead. No afterlife, nada. After years of being told there is a Heaven, the idea there’s nothing still catches me off-guard from time to time.

    I try to turn that into motivation to make the time I have here really count. You get one chance, so do it up right.

    Anyways, thanks for reading. Later

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