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