Ask Richard: Atheist Misses the Comfort and Companionship of Prayer

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Richard,

I have not been an Atheist for long, just a few years. To give a little history, I was raised in a very loving Southern Baptist home. I was very serious about my relationship with god, it was to me (as I’m sure it is to most Christians) a very special and personal relationship. It was not until college that I really began to question all that I had believed for so long. After a very difficult journey I now know that god does not exist.

When I was a Christian my understanding and practice of prayer was more conversational than formal. Over the years this conversational prayer became seamlessly entwined in my life. It was as if I never stopped praying. I believed that all of my thoughts were prayers, or rather one continuous conversation with god. This, even then I understood, was very therapeutic. I also kept a prayer journal, which I wrote in constantly. In doing so, I could organize my thoughts and feelings, and in a way, counsel myself, though at the time I felt it was the holy spirit and not myself. I now realize that it was all my own doing. I was solving my problems, not god.

Even knowing that what I was really doing all along was talking/thinking to myself both in my ceaseless prayer and journal, I can’t seem to continue doing it knowing that there is no one but myself listening. Being able to give up my problems to god made them easier to deal with. Since I’ve been an Atheist I have felt something missing that I gave up when I ceased to believe in god, and I know now that it is prayer. I have tried many times to do the same thing, but knowingly talk to myself or write in a journal not addressed to god, but I cannot seem to do so as freely as I had done before. Even writing this email to you is easier because I know there is someone on the receiving end. How can I overcome this barrier that holds me back?

Thanks,
Kaitlyn

Dear Kaitlyn,

I think the barrier that you need to overcome is the one that seems to be separating you from other people.

I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you’re completely socially isolated, but I want to take the opportunity to talk about isolation.

Your letter describes various ways that you have used to sort things out, but none of them involved other people. You talked to what you thought was a god, and now you talk to yourself. You wrote a journal to what you thought was a god, and now you write it to yourself. The only mention of another human being is in your second-to-last sentence, when you said that it’s easier to write your email knowing that I’m on the receiving end.

It’s easier because you need people to be on the receiving end, not just yourself. You need friends who can listen, understand, care, and give you their feedback, and then in turn you can listen, understand, care, and give feedback to them.

This distance, the essential other-ness between you and other people is an important and useful thing. If you want to use a mirror to see yourself clearly, you must have the mirror some distance away from you. If it’s right up close, touching your face, you cannot see anything about yourself clearly. From their stepped-back vantage point, other people can provide a reflection, a view of you that you could never see when looking just within yourself.

It can be hard work to articulate your thoughts and feelings to another so that they can accurately understand you, but that very process forces you to clarify your thoughts and feelings to yourself as well. But unlike the prayers or journal, the other person’s reflection and response comes back enriched with their own unique point of view, and you can see possibilities that you missed in your blind spots. Even their difficulty in understanding a fine point is useful information to you.

As Robert Burns said in “To a Louse”
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

It’s best to have a balance between introversion and extroversion. Extremes of either can stifle our personal development. Some people are too turned within because it’s a way to avoid the risks and tensions of interacting with other people. In the other extreme, some people are constantly interacting with others because it distracts them from facing something uncomfortable inside themselves. The only way to stop these handicapping fears from within and fears from without is to face them, listen to their stories, understand their causes, forgive ourselves for having those fears, and then resolve to change their causes with new specific behaviors. In order to think and feel differently, we must live differently.

Atheists frequently have difficulty with social isolation. Often they come from backgrounds where their main social resource has been their religious community. As their belief gradually disintegrates, they pull back, either physically isolating, or reducing their intimacy with family and friends, for fear of revealing their unbelief. We get good at anything we do for a long time. Atheists often have to be withdrawn for so long that it becomes a habit, and even after their social situation is less restrictive, they sometimes continue to isolate. Being alone in a crowd can sometimes be more painfully lonely than being physically alone, but we are creatures of habit both good and bad.

This is different from solitude, which is a welcome and soothing aloneness, and different people have varying levels of need for its comfort. Just avoid extremes. If it is used it too much it can become more about avoidance.

One of the questions that believers often ask of atheists is “Without God, to whom do you turn in times of difficulty?” The answer is usually that we turn to other people. A frequent believer’s response to that is “People will let you down, but God/Jesus won’t.”

Yes, sometimes people let us down. Welcome to life on Earth. The fact that people can let us down makes the times when they don’t so beautiful, so healing, and so validating. If they were incapable of letting us down, their caring and help would have little significance, and we would have little appreciation. The help would be only exterior, and would have no interior benefit.

So Kaitlyn, If you haven’t already, develop at least two trusting friendships where you can safely share with them the kinds of things that you would write in your journal, and in return, be a “journal” that is just as open and accepting of them. It can take some time to find and nurture such friendships, so it will take patience, effort, and a little risk. It is essential to most people’s emotional health, so it’s worth getting past whatever hesitance, shyness, or apprehension you may have. If one prospective friend disappoints you, don’t give up, try another.

This is one of the most beautiful things that human beings do, and it is one of the main things that make us human. To listen, understand, care, and respond, back and forth, over and over. To be always “other,” yet constantly coming closer to being one.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Trina

    A very sane and compassionate reply!  I deal with depression, which can be isolating, and these comments are a good reminder for me.

  • http://phosphoro.wordpress.com/ 4AK

    There is profound value in introspection, meditation, and keeping a personal journal – none of which necessarily require another entity on the other end ‘listening’ to your thoughts. Don’t give those things up just because your god delusion has ended.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1220871538 Alan Eckert

    That is my favorite Burns poem! I can imagine him sitting in church and being more amused by the louse in the hair of the woman sitting in front of him than the sermon.

  • James Emery

    A beautiful and important thought!

  • Laura Dresow

    Here are two more suggestions that may or may not help:

    1) Address your journals/ writing to somebody — an absent parent or sibling, an ancestor, an unknown future descendant, whatever. Imagine that you’re not only working out your own questions, but speaking to someone who would genuinely care about your problems.

    2) Get a therapist. A lot of people, even today, look at attending therapy as somehow failing. I personally see my therapist as a) a sounding board and b) a friend I can talk to and not worry about them spreading gossip in my social group. No matter what I say to her, it won’t come back to haunt me — and I’m legally protected if the impossible happens and my loved ones do hear what goes on in those meetings.

    • Annie

      These were going to be my two suggestions as well, although I thought Richard’s advice was spot on.

      At times, going to a therapist can be the best gift you can give to yourself (or a relationship).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-Dunlap/1418932885 Kenneth Dunlap

      I would go one further and address it, with every intention of delivery, to a future child or family member. This would let the recipient see the truth of his life and some of his struggles, as well as providing a reason to be precise and concise in his writing.

  • Anonymous

    A very thoughtful response indeed.  My only question is the reference to “people let you down, god doesn’t.”  If you do not believe in god then how DOESN’T god let you down?  Look at all the Texans praying for rain?  Where has that gotten them?  Does the assumption that it’s god’s plan deem it automatic success to pray no matter what the outcome?  To me the odds are that people will either let you down or surprise you at the same rate as the god you once believed in.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-Dunlap/1418932885 Kenneth Dunlap

      It seems an impossibility for a non-existent creature to “let you down.” The people who worship the creature can let you down, you can let you down as a believer, but the creature simply cannot ever let you down… due to its non-existence. I would liken this to an imaginary dog biting you… ain’t gonna happen.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, not really relevant, but I find that awful English translation of the last stanza of To A Louse to be incredibly annoying.  What was wrong with leaving it in the original Scots?  It would still have been understandable to almost every English speaker.  Burns even deliberately anglicised his Scots specifically to make it more accessible to English speakers.

    “O wad some Power the giftie gie us

    To see oursels as ithers see us!

    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

    An’ foolish notion:

    What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,

    An’ ev’n devotion!”

    • Gerry

      Thanks for straightening that out, hatblogs! It bothered me too,  in fact as I read it I was struggling to remember the original language in the back of my head!

  • Cutencrunchy

    Nicely put I would only include the idea of getting or envisioning a mentor or your ideal self – When you have complicated issues or questions you can write a letter asking your ideal self or mentor how he/she would respond. The importance of balance between our internal and external processing should be emphasized but for the constant stream of consciousness that is daily life, the ideal self/mentor can be a useful tool – and then when you receive a response  (and you will) share it with others.

  • http://www.dwnomad.com Dustin Williams

    Since part of what you need is to have someone on the receiving end, perhaps blogging would be a nice release. I know it’s been helpful for me.

  • Anonymous

    “People will let you down, but God/Jesus won’t.”

    Really? That’s an actual justification? Considering there is zero evidence a god is there at all an actually accurate version would be “People will sometimes let you down, but God always will”. Sometimes I think that being a lifelong atheist hobbles me in understanding some aspects of the religious mindset.

    First and foremost I would agree to Richard’s advice. As a complementary idea (but no substitution) I would suggest trying to have those conversations in your head with imaginings of people. This can be someone you know and trust (a parent, sibling, friend etc.) or someone of your own creation. The idea is to express ideas to this imagined person and imagine what responses they might give. It’s a little game of pretend, instead of knocking ideas around your head at yourself, create a fictional character. It’s certainly no substitute for real-life relationships, but it could help in the day-to-day “continuous conversation” aspect of life.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Really? That’s an actual justification?

      Yes, believers have actually said this to me. Perhaps it’s not as commonly used as the impression I’ve gotten. Their remarks seemed to be part of a religiously-based general disdain for people, and the attitude that one should never trust people or even oneself, because to do so approaches doing it in lieu of trusting God, and that is prideful or something bad like that.

      Yeah, whatever.  I found that arguing with them either revealed a fortress-like mentality that was impervious to evidence/logic approaches, or a tangled maze of rationalizations for God’s “responding” with nothing or with disappointing outcomes.  Even if I had the patience to navigate through the dizzying spirals of that maze, at the far side there was still the fortress of obdurate refusal to think any further anyway.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-Dunlap/1418932885 Kenneth Dunlap

        As I said in response to someone else, it is not inaccurate to say that god(s) will never let you down, any more than it would be to say that an imaginary dog might bite you.

      • absent sway

        Yes, I used to hear this sort of thing and wholeheartedly agreed with it at the time. I agree that there is that disdain there, in hindsight. There are so many versions of Christianity, but you have apparently tapped this aspect of my former version very well. I grew increasingly distant from real life friends, but my inner life of prayer, etc. was rather rich and rewarding, and ultimately all the more painful to lose. Good advice here.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Plenty of excellent advice here, all of which I would second (especially imagining conversations or interviews with other people — it’s how I think a great deal of the time; I’ve even managed to change Bill O’Reilly’s mind once or twice in these conversations). What I would add deals with the finding of trustworthy friends, if you don’t already have any you can talk to. When I was young, early teens, I had no one I could talk to. No one I trusted. So I figured that if I wanted trustworthy friends, I needed to be trustworthy. So, I was. I decided not to lie (note, that was a personal decision, and not something that I necessarily think should be a universal maxim). I’ve messed up a few times, but for the most part, I’ve stuck to it. And when someone wants something kept in confidence, I keep it. Not even my wife gets to hear about it. If I’m not sure if they want it kept in confidence, I assume they do until I find out otherwise (by asking). 

    Make this a habit, a part of your character, and people start to pick up on this. They recognize that you’re trustworthy, which allows them to open up to you. And funny thing, if they trust you, most are not willing to betray your trust. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to be true (maybe Richard can give us insight into why). 

    I’m not saying you aren’t trustworthy, only telling what helped me, in case it gives you insight that could help you. I’m also not implying that it doesn’t take time for this to work — it does. But it does seem to help pick out the good from the bad.

    (side effect: I hate making promises, cuz then I gotta keep them)

  • Anonymous

    Kaitlyn, you could write yourself a letter, you could even post it to yourself.  You could write to a family member or a pen pal.  Even some guy in prison who needs some social contact.  I’m unfortunately a rubbish letter writer.  I leave it too long between letters and cram too much into them, most of which is nonsense.  When writing to yourself this isn’t an issue though.  You know nobody better so it will still make sense when you read it back.

    Write fiction, ask others to critique it.  Join a book club and discuss a book.  Take evening classes.  Go to the pub and lament the state of politics and the economy.  Take up a sport.  Even jogging has companionship if you run a regular circuit.  Go for walks with a notepad and jot down ideas as they come to you.  Say hi to the lady who walks her dog at the same time as you have your morning stroll.  Chat to the shop keeper where you buy your papers or magazines from.  Sit in the lunch room at work and talk about the weather.  Chat to your neighbours in the queue when you get your morning cofee.When my children were still babies I used to hold long involved conversations with them about all kinds of subjects, mostly things that I thought were funny.  Actually that hasn’t really changed now that they are teens (and I get the same sort of response as I did when they could only laugh and dribble).  I speak to my pets though they never answer me except to demand food or attention.  I even hold conversations with myself in my head and I am sure that this is one place that I will always win an argument.

    We are social animals.  We don’t function well when we isolate ourselves from social groups.  Some people try to fill their social requirements with religion but we know that they are just talking to themselves.  What we need is social interaction.  It does us good.  Genuinely.

  • Tisha

    I think the advice to develop a couple of intimate friendships sounds good, but *how* do you do that? If you’re fundamentally an introverted person, what do you do to create that kind of relationship? If you overshare too fast, it puts people off. How do you know the other person *wants* to even hear about your problems or ideas or whatever? 

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      *raises hand* Fundamentally introverted and private person here. 

      Listen. Just start with listening. People love a good listener, which tends to make them willing, and often wanting, to open up more to you. Once this starts happening, they often find themselves wondering just who it is they’re talking to. So, they start to ask questions. When you’re asked a question, answer with a little more detail than is required, and watch the reaction. Do they continue to show interest? Do they ask more questions? Does it seem like they want a conversation?

      Those who don’t get to that point with you, you probably can’t develop an intimate friendship with them (and likely wouldn’t want to). It won’t happen overnight (usually), but it’s worth it.

  • Al2wilk

    I understand this sentiment completely.  I have never been religious and now self-identify as an atheist and skeptic.  However, I sometimes feel that I miss something that I have never had, which is someone or something to “pray” to, or to call upon.  I understand that it is really myself that I am looking to for strength or guidance, but that is an awkward conversation.  I love the Serenity Prayer, but have never found a satisfactory atheist version.   My teenage son, who is non-religious, recently introduced me to the Prayer Song, which is a beautiful song.  It has inspirational lyrics and doesn’t actually address any of the prayer to God, so I imagine it to be addressing our inner higher power, but once again, it feels awkward.  At times, I even envy those who do believe in a higher power to pray to, because I feel the act of praying would be a comforting process.  

  • Rebecca

    I have another suggestion, aside from talking to friends or therapists.  If anyone wants to  journal (somewhat privately, not on a blog) but needs to know someone is on the other end, there’s a great journal swap community over on Livejournal (old school!)  http://jrnal-swap.livejournal.com/profile

    You can specify the subject matter of the journal, and maybe even find someone who’s going through something similar.  It’s a great combination of penpalling and journaling.


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