Does It Make Sense for Atheists to Pray? June 25, 2013

Does It Make Sense for Atheists to Pray?

I’ve known for a while that the percentage of people who pray doesn’t necessarily make sense given the percentage of people who are non-religious, but I always reconciled that discrepancy by reminding myself that a lot of non-religious people still believe in a higher power.

Now, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein profiles an atheist who prays to a fictional deity:

Four years later, [Sigfried] Gold is trim, far happier in his relationships and free of a lifelong ennui. He credits a rigorous prayer routine — morning, night and before each meal — to a very vivid Goddess he created with a name, a detailed appearance and a key feature for an atheist: She doesn’t exist.

While Gold doesn’t believe there is some supernatural being out there attending to his prayers, he calls his creation “God” and describes himself as having had a “conversion” that can only be characterized as a “miracle.” His life has been mysteriously transformed, he says, by the power of asking.

Boorstein points out that the Pew Research Center (PDF) has numbers on people like Gold:

Eighteen percent of atheists say religion has some importance in their life, 26 percent say they are spiritual or religious and 14 percent believe in “God or a universal spirit.” Of all Americans who say they don’t believe in God — not all call themselves as “atheist” — 12 percent say they pray.


I don’t get it. I don’t get how prayer (and not just secular “meditation”) helps you when you know nobody’s on the other end of it. It’s like taking a sugar pill knowing that it’s not going to make you feel better.

The only explanation I can offer is that prayer, like an atheist “church,” is a word that means different things to different people, and a lot of atheists are using that word to stand for a kind of introspection that looks and sounds like prayer, but still shouldn’t be classified as such.

If you do need an atheist prayer, though, may I suggest this one?

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