How Do You Survive a Crisis Without Prayer?

I know, that’s an easy question for us to answer: You lean on friends, family, community, people who actually exist, etc. But it’s one of those questions religious people love to ask, anyway, as if there’s no way to grieve without God: What do atheists do in times of crisis?

After the Worst Week Ever, and just after the National Day of Prayer, NPR’s Michel Martin spoke with Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein about what atheists do to get through rough times:

Greg did a fantastic job representing a position many of us hold:

… at a moment of crisis, what people are really traumatized by is that we feel so helpless and, for humanists, the number one way to overcome feeling helpless is to reach out and help other people. It’s part of what human beings need to do is we need to connect with one another and we need to work on behalf of something bigger than just ourselves or even our individual families.

Common humanity, helping each other, regardless of creed.

Some of the responses to Greg’s interview will inevitably be about how we’re trying to copy religion when we hold vigils or want to be included in “interfaith” services, but that gives religion too much credit. We’re relying on each other because that’s all we have in this world. We’re making sacrifices knowing there’s no eternal reward awaiting us for being good. If things are going to get better, it’s up to us to figure out the path there.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • latraviata

    My younger son (28) died three years ago and I manage to survive and function quite well given the circumstances without any prayer whatsoever. In fact, recently a study has been published about the intensity, time and acceptance of religious and non-religious people and there is no significant difference, with the notation that mourning is a very personal proces.

  • DeepEddy

    And *this* is why I identify as a Humanist.

  • Outcast Kyle

    Crisis are for weak people. When something bad happens, you just make your calculations and see if you can solve it; if you can’t, then you just move on. That’s why it is better to discard feeling and embrace col pure reason. That way you don’t anything to get over a crisis, because there isn’t one in first place when you keep your head cool.

  • deltmachine



  • vivekananda

    Were there any other caricatures of non-religious people and their views you wish you could have included in your comment?

  • LesterBallard

    “Outcast Kyle” I would like you to make a seal around my asshole with your lips and then suck out shit until you choke to death. How’s that for feeling?

  • Outcast Kyle

    I think you have a really wied fetish, but I’m not into that. Sorry.

  • Outcast Kyle

    I don’t see why it’s a caricature. We should strive to get rid of all feelings. Tha’ts why machines are better than humans. Even I’m not able to do it completely but I try to do it most of the time. At least I can tell I’ve never batted an eyelash when someone in my family died.

  • Michael W Busch

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    [opens dictionary]
    Crisis, noun:
    1. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point.
    2. An unstable situation, in political, social, economic or military affairs, especially one involving an impending abrupt change.
    3. A sudden change in the course of a disease, usually at which the patient is expected to recover or die.
    4. (psychology) A traumatic or stressful change in a person’s life.

    Notice that only the last one depends on people’s emotions.

    “it is better to discard feeling and embrace cold pure reason”

    Humans are not Vulcans. You can’t not experience emotions, at least not without there being something very unusual about your brain (blunted and flat affect are seen in some people, but that’s more a question of how emotions are expressed than of their not being present).

    What you describe can be an effective coping strategy for a crisis. But it is a serious mistake to say that it somehow negates there having been a sudden and dramatic event.

  • Outcast Kyle

    i agree with you. It is impossible to eliminate feeling with our defectives human minds; but at least we can suppress those emotions or at least keep our heads clear enough to do what it needs to be done. That’s why I’m saying that we should try to eliminate all emotions so we can get closer to perfection.

  • Michael W Busch

    You have not provided anything to support your assertion that emotions are somehow a sign of weakness, nor for your assertion that a total lack of emotions would be “perfection”.

    There is a lot of evidence to say that both assertions are wrong. Basic human emotions have been around a very long time (we share some of them and some of the ways of expressing them with the chimps), and are important for the development of human societies.

    And your statement that the lack of emotions would be a good thing itself seems like an emotional argument (e.g. “Emotions cause pain. I don’t like feeling pain. Must get rid of emotions.” – the first premise of which is wrong, by the way).

  • Baby_Raptor

    I lost my best friend of almost 20 years last February to a drunk driver.

    I coped by leaning on my fiance and my friends. And spending a couple nights drinking myself stupid (which I felt okay doing because my roommate knew of this plan and was around to insure I did nothing stupid.) Oh, and lots of crying, yelling at walls and loud music.

    Losing someone you loved more than your life itself is really more of a “you’ll deal with this for the rest of your life” thing than a one-time crisis, though. I still have bad days where thoughts of her will crop up and completely ruin my mood, and I probably will for a long time.

  • WallofSleep

    “That’s why I’m saying that we should try to eliminate all emotions so we can get closer to perfection.”

    Hahahah! You are a real piece of work, and I don’t believe a word of the shit you’re typing. In fact, I don’t believe that you believe a word you are typing. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say you’re some kind of fundie in a piss poor disguise looking to drop turds.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Helplesness is cured by help. It would seem a tautology, but apparently people still haven’t all learned this.

  • Noor

    When my mother was diagnosed with brain tumor, I tried to learn about her illness and understand it. I also joined online groups and interacted with people in the same situation.I am in debt to those wonderful people who helped me and my family.
    I’ve tried praying when i was religious and it felt weird and silly. It makes me uncomfortable when people pray for me or ask me to pray for them. I really don’t understand how it helps in crisis.

  • Michael W Busch

    Encountering the attitude “all emotions are bad” is something of a trigger point for me, and I could go on for a while about the differences in experiences and description and expression of emotions or about the importance emotions have to human lives. But instead I will just ask one question:

    Do you actually think it would be a good idea to suppress all emotions – joy, excitement, and surprise as well as anger, disgust, fear, and sadness?

  • MD

    It looks like you watched half of that Star Trek:TNG episode where an orphaned boy tried to be like Data so he wouldn’t have to feel the pain of loss. You should watch the rest of that episode.

  • Randay

    Recently a cousin of mine died in her fifties. She was diagnosed with a mortal inoperable brain tumor about 1970. She had had radiotherapy and whatever drugs were available at the time. So, she decided to stop all treatment and live her last year or so as normally as she could and came out to California to stay with me or my sister. We included her with our group of friends as everyone else, no special treatment.

    Apparently the tumor went into remission “a miracle”:) and she lived until now, got married, and had a child. Certainly no one of us prayed for her.

    People pray in good times that nothing bad will happen. When bad times come they pray for better and often don’t get it. If they escape death in a disaster they pray thanks to god for saving them, without asking why god didn’t save others. But they pray for those dead instead. It is hard to see how they can believe prayer helps in such contradictory situations, except that it maybe feeds their egos and makes them feel special, blessed by a deity.

  • Charles Honeycutt

    Sociopathy isn’t a virtue. You’ve defeated your own argument with this series of posts, because the development and maintenance of society hinges on the existence of emotions. People without them MAY prosper, but only because everyone else is propping them up.

  • Noor

    It’s an attentional bias.They remember what’s convenient and forget what’s not.

  • Outcast Kyle

    That’s what you think, but you are wrong. Machines don’t have emotions and that’s why they can do a lot of things better than humans. One day machines will be smart enough to take decisions and their responses are going to be more efficient thanks to the fact that their decision-making isn’t clouded by emotions.

  • Outcast Kyle

    So just because I don’t agree with you I’m a fundie? Geez… The I should return my excommunication letter to the catholic church and tell them how I was wrong of being an atheist because some retard on the internet told me so.

    Too bad the world doesn’t work that way and I adhere to my thesis statement: humans are imperfect because of emotions and they are bound to be rplace by something that doesn’t feel them.

  • Michael W Busch

    Actually, there is a significant effort in machine learning to design programs that can interpret human emotions and interfaces that can express them (e.g. ). This very important for being able to adequately parse native human language.

    And you seem to be operating under a restricted sense of what “emotion” means. Fear is a very good emotion to have, as long as it isn’t overwhelming: it keeps you alive. And what is the collision-avoidance algorithm in a robotic car but a simple form of fear? The car is compelled to not hit things.

  • Michael W Busch

    But you still have not provided anything to support your statement, nor addressed all of the evidence that disproves it.

  • chicago dyke

    i can’t think of anything less effectual than prayer. tragedy? been there, done that. at no point was i ever improved or uplifted by meaningless evocations to a nonexistent deity.

    friends. alcohol. family. sleep. meditation. yoga. music. these are things that have helped. these are things that actually are real.

    but prayer? no. that’s a phone call that never was answered. and never will be.

  • KeithCollyer

    You need help

  • KeithCollyer

    No, seriously, I’m not joking. You need help

  • Outcast Kyle

    Well, even if some of those emotions are positive, like joy or anger, if we had them without the negative ones it would be impossible to function normally that way. For that reason I find easier to suppress everything.

    You said that we have emotions in common with animals, so we can say that emotions are more related to instinct than reason. Animals may need emotions, but humans don’t. why do you need fear of something dangerous when you have knowledge and sometimes previous experience to reach the conclusion of avoiding that thing.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of a real moment where having no emotions would be better at this moment, but I can create a very simple hypothetical scenario: a person need too choose between saving 1 000 people but if he does that he would sacrifice 10 000 and vice versa. Some people would be paralyzed by that problem because of their feeling and they would unable to save neither; others would take a decision, but they would be haunted by that decision and their performance would be cripple. Now if we have someone without feeling, that person would be able to reach the simple calculation of 10 000 is more than 1000 or if it has more data it would be able to take all the factor in account and take the correct decision without facing any problems later.

  • Michael W Busch

    “You said that we have emotions in common with animals, so we can say
    that emotions are more related to instinct than reason.”

    No, we can’t say that just because emotions are common to many animals. And it happens that instincts are often very good things.

    “Animals may need
    emotions, but humans don’t.”

    Citation needed.

  • meekinheritance

    That’s great for them, but has nothing to do with humanity.