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.

Umm…

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?

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.

  • Don F

    Sometimes even an atheist like me will offer a “prayer”if the situation seems right for one: Last summer my wife and I went from Minnesota to British Columbia by motorcycle to visit friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. At dinner the first evening I asked the four of us to hold hands around the table, and I said, “For the meal we are about to receive, I thank you . . . Penny and Chuck.” Our atheist hosts (Penny and Chuck) were flabbergasted as I started, but after I was done, they beamed at me in appreciation.

    • Gus Snarp

      Heh, I did something similar once. At the beginning of the meal I started talking to the kids about being grateful and offering our thanks ….. to the farmers who worked so hard to bring the food to market for us to eat. My wife’s jaw was on the floor at the beginning. But in no way would I call that a prayer.

    • Regina Carol Moore

      As a mother who works hard to put excellent food on the table, I’ve always said that the eaters should thank the being who supplied the food – the cook! And also the person/people who worked hard to earn the money to pay for all the food. Let’s give credit where credit is due! (If I’m being honest, the farmer and harvesters, truck-drivers and grocers should all be thanked too, but I’ve never talked about that.)

      • Space Cadet

        My family says grace before dinner (oddly enough only when guests or extended family are there, not when it’s just the immediate family) and they used to think it was funny to to try and put me on the spot and ask me to give the prayer. After years of politely saying “no”, I took them up one time. The “prayer” I gave was giving thanks to the farmers, the plant workers, the truck drivers and everyone else I could think of involved with getting the food from the farms to the dinner table. I haven’t been asked since then :)

    • Amor DeCosmos

      Our family does an atheist “blessing” before dinner every night. Everyone gathers hands and instead of being grateful to the supernatural, we say how grateful we are for each other and for the food…

  • Michael Mock

    I don’t know. I find that writing helps me sort my thoughts and priorities, and helps focus my attention and energy… and writing is basically just composing an outward-directed message as clearly and cleanly as possible. And I’ve heard suggestions in support groups that, when you have a lot of issues with something or someone, it can be really helpful write someone a letter explaining everything you think and feel, even though you’re never going to send it.

    So I can see where you could get a similar effect by composing a “prayer”, even knowing that the ostensible target of the prayer doesn’t exist. You could make the argument that it’s more of a thought-exercise than an actual prayer, I suppose, but for practical purposes I’m not sure the distinction is all that important.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I was thinking of something snarky to say but really…I’m just utterly confused by that whole column. Some atheists need a hole to fill the void left by the fact that they don’t recognize the Sabbath? What?

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I think there’s a lot to be said for days off. it’s tempting to overschedule and that go-go-go lifestyle is not healthy either mentally or physically. I like the idea of a Sabbath for that reason. A day of rest once a week. (Not a day you don’t go to the office so you fill it with other work.) It’s hard to schedule that, especially for people with children, but it’s important.

      • Art_Vandelay

        But we can take days off whenever we want and it doesn’t have to be divinely mandated. How many modern Christians actually clear off their schedule every Sunday (Saturday) to recognize the Sabbath?

      • Oranje

        I’m utterly incapable of that at the moment. If I try to go down that road I get into self-loathing. Staying busy is the only thing that keeps me from having to face my demons.

        Kind of sucks. Doctors are trying to help me. It would be nice to not only have a day of rest/relaxation, but to look forward to it instead of dreading the free time.

  • Gus Snarp

    14% of people who said they were atheists do not know what the word means.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      Or 14% of atheists like to mess with surveys.

  • Gus Snarp

    As for the 18% who say religion has some importance in their life, that could mean a lot of things. Religion has some importance in my life: I’m surrounded by religious people and must be ever vigilant to prevent them taking over government, warping education, and lying to my children.

    • Beth

      I’m thinking they may have meant cultural Jews, or people an atheist UU member. People who like the rituals of their culture but don’t have a god.

      • Gus Snarp

        Sure. Like I said, it could mean a lot of things. These numbers are from surveys and there are a lot of reasons someone might say religion has some importance in their life. The ones you stated, the one I stated, and many others.

  • sane37

    If you believe in gods, no matter how imaginary those gods are, you are not an atheist.

    • Jesse Cooper

      What would you call someone who believes in a god or gods but does not worship them? I think there’s a name for that but I can’t remember what it is.

      • Machintelligence

        I think the theist/deist labels still apply.

      • TCC

        Non-religious?

      • arensb

        There are several subcategories: IIRC a misotheist is someone who thinks God exists and is an asshole, not worth worshiping.

        There are henotheists, who believe that several gods exist, but only worship one (or think that only one of the gods is worth worshiping).

  • Gus Snarp

    And finally the ones who pray: well, that’s a weird thing to call it, but whatever thought process or meditation enables you to make sense of the world and to relieve your stress is fine and you can still be an atheist and pray to your fictional god but still realize its fictional, it’s just a meditation technique to focus your thoughts, right?

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    No I don’t pray. What would be the point? But I do enjoy some quiet time. We live in a world full of noise and chatter. I think most people would benefit from some meditation time. Not in any kind of “spiritual” sense (whatever that means…no one ever seems to be able to explain what they mean by that word) but just to allow yourself to relax and focus from time to time.

  • Sigfried Gold

    Hi. I really think it is prayer. And it’s not unlike taking a placebo, which has been demonstrated to work even when the patient knows it’s a placebo (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3008733/ ) The reason I call it prayer (I also meditate, but that’s different), is that it takes the form of supplication. Whether you believe in God or not, you know when you pray that your prayers won’t simply be answered as they would if you were requesting something from an actual person. You address prayers to whatever conception you have of God or whatever you’re paying to; and you have faith that it will help somehow. In my case, my faith is based on my experience that it does help. My explanation for why it helps relies on psychology rather than metaphysics. Does that make any more sense? Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    • Art_Vandelay

      I actually had no idea that placebos work when the patient knows that it’s a placebo. I thought that defeated the whole purpose.

      • Sigfried Gold

        Strangely enough, they do, at times. (Which is NOT an argument against real drugs.) The brain is a strange machine.

        • smrnda

          I actually know a guy who is doing research on this. I think he’s supposed to be seeing if this is true for people who should know better (actual doctors, people who know enough biochemistry and such.)

          I eagerly await the results.

    • Gus Snarp

      Hey, whatever floats your boat. My concern is religion writers who will use your story to essentially argue that all atheists are missing something and recognize that there really is something out there we ought to be praying to. I don’t think you think that, but I know that others will see it that way. That’s not your fault of course, this is your story, others are making a mistake if they generalize about atheists from your story.

      • Sigfried Gold

        I’ll be curious to see whether and how religious people use my arguments at all. I suspect they will find them pretty threatening: if prayer works even when you pray to an absolutely non-existent God (because, even if a God exists, the one I invented surely doesn’t), then the important thing must be the prayer and not the God — possibly very disturbing if you believe in God.

        • Art_Vandelay

          Well they wouldn’t use them logically.

        • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

          Good point.

    • Mr Moto

      If you have a measurable outcome (“experience”) that shows your prayer activity works when compared with some control, then it is not “faith”. I think you are just misapplying what words mean in the context.

      Your placebo analogy fails, because placebo effects have known mechanisms, and are tested in repeated, controlled, randomized experiments. You seem to be giving generalized meaning to anecdotal evidence, which is not the same thing at all. Thanks for your further explanation though.

      • Sigfried Gold

        I worked in the field of drug safety for a few years. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t have time to address your argument clearly, but I’m confident placebo effects do not have known (biological) mechanisms. In “spiritual” matters (one’s sense of well-being, or measurable but otherwise unaccounted for reductions in stress), definitive identification of causes is pretty much impossible. But if you ask religious people, you’ll find that “faith” is not the opposite of belief on the basis of evidence. I have evidence that prayer works for me — I also have evidence that it works partly because I have faith that it will work. Not sure if that answers your objection at all.

    • Tim Butler

      The link to the study you posted doesn’t work, because it includes the closing parenthesis. Here’s the fixed link, if anyone wants to check out the study (which I believe is absolutely relevant to the discussion at hand):
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3008733/

      • Sigfried Gold

        Thanks! I think I fixed it.

  • http://www.lxndr.com/ Alexander Unwyn Cherry

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while. You know how sometimes you talk to your computer, your toaster, your car, whatever? You don’t expect it to actually answer back, but that venting of your thoughts/feelings/etc. can still be productive. Prayer is just the same thing, but with “the universe.”

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Makes sense.

      • http://www.lxndr.com/ Alexander Unwyn Cherry

        Also, people DO repsond to tradition/ritual. There’s a reason most of us have rituals, many non-religious.

  • Beth

    I still prayed when I was coming out of religion. It went from prayer to a personal god to more of a prayer “hey, if anyone is listening….”. It was like a tick: I’m stressed and here is what I do to calm down. I don’t know how to handle this situation, so I will pray.

    I don’t pray anymore. But I do take time to think: what can I do? How can I help?

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    You can come up with statistics to prove anything. 48% of people know that.

    • arensb

      Plus or minus 52.8%. At least 87.3% of the time.

  • LizBert

    I once read something along the lines of: prayer is the human experience of crying out to the universe. I don’t believe in a higher power of any sort but when things get rough I occasionally say to nobody in particular, “help.” I don’t think it does anything, sometimes you just need to get things off your chest.

  • Portuguese Dude

    that’s kind of like me giving my right hand a name and saying it’s my girlfriend.

    you’re talking to yourself…but ok…whatever makes you feel better.

    • b s

      If you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, are you being unfaithful?

      • busterggi

        OOOooooooooooooooooooo, a threesome!

  • Duo

    When I became an atheist, I realized that there were a lot of habits I had that didn’t make sense. One was saying “bless you”. Another was praying before a meal… which turned into waiting for everyone else to pray while my food got cold. I have realized a benefit to the habit of contemplation before a meal. Now, while everyone else is praying, I “pray” to myself that I should focus on improving myself and what things I have done to help that. I get the benefit of a moment of focus to reset myself.
    Some days, I’m seriously fricken hungry and just munch away noisily while they have their heads bowed. :)

  • decathelite

    I can think of another three letter word that starts with “g” that will actually help people lose weight

    The gym.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I pray to the Ancient, Evil Ones. I also swear by them. Does that count?

  • C Peterson

    “Secular prayer” is a form of meditation. And the fact is, sugar pills work even when the patient is told they are taking a placebo. Something about the process of taking an active role in your “treatment” is beneficial.

    It makes perfect sense to me that praying to a god you know doesn’t exist could produce positive results. It’s just a slightly different version of the sort of motivational psychology that many people have had success with for a very long time.

    • JET

      Actually, religious prayer is a form of meditation as well. While the non-believer knows they’re taking a placebo, the religious person believes it is a real pill. Both are taking an active role in their treatment. One acknowledges that fact and one does not.

      I often “talk” to my mother, who has been dead for almost 20 years. She gave me some great advice when she was alive and I often ask myself “What would Mom do?” when I have a difficult decision to make or a situation to come to terms with. My brain hears her answer in her voice and it is comforting as well as a way of forcing myself to see another point of view. This is not substantially different from praying to one’s god for advice. (Although I might argue that my mother had a better grasp on reality and morality than many gods.)

      • C Peterson

        Agreed. And obviously, the reason that religious prayer is beneficial to some theists is the same reason that secular prayer is beneficial to some atheists: ritual is something that humans value, and which often produces healthy psychological effects.

    • busterggi

      Ah, but what if you accidentally choose the name of a god that does exist but you just don’t know it?

      • Sigfried Gold

        I prevented this possibility by explicitly including non-existence in the definition of my God when I invented her. But good question.

    • sudon’t

      Yep, what he said. Placebos work.

      • C Peterson

        That’s what who said?

        In any case, the point isn’t that placebos work, which everybody knows. The point is that placebos work even when people know they are placebos, a discovery only recently made, and one which is altering understanding about the mechanisms involved.

  • TurelieTelcontar

    It’s like taking a sugar pill knowing that it’s not going to make you feel better. I had a phase as a teenager when I was scared to go into our cellar. For no reason whatsoever, I’d feel scared. No matter how much I concentrated on how ridiculous it was, that feeling wouldn’t stop. When I imagined being surrounded by fictional heroes, I felt safe. No, it does not make any sense. But it did work. And while I still tried to get over that totally irrational fear, sometimes I’d take the shortcut of imagining being surrounded by nonexistent people because I didn’t have the energy. At no point did I actually think they were real, and yet it helped. *shrugs*

    • Sigfried Gold

      Exactly! And, as the article explains, the reason I chose to call the imaginary thing I got comfort from a God was that I was getting a lot of very wise, very generous, very helpful support from people who talked about God a lot. So, I not only got the benefit in my own imagination, but also because it allowed me to get help from people who turned out to be pretty smart, even if they do believe in some stuff I can’t quite buy. (And, as will shock some atheists to hear, I never pretended that I was praying to a real God, I was totally up-front and public about what I was doing, and the believers were utterly unwavering in their generosity and support. It’s amazing how you can cross these seemingly uncrossable divides just by interacting honestly and with open-mindedness.)

  • Jansen Waddell

    I expected this article to be “NO. Next question.” in giant letters.

    I am disappoint :(

  • Me

    You can pray even though you know there isn’t a god. It has to do with brain pathways forged if you have been praying for many years. Then, after you leave religion, your brain still derives a placebo effect of peacefulness from the act of muttering a prayer. I’d say I fall into the old habit of thinking a prayer in my head every couple of months. I just tell myself, the brain likes what it’s used to. It’s kind of like taking break from life and watching your favorite fantasy movie. No it isn’t real, but engaging in it for a little while makes you feel happy.

  • Todd Smith

    I can see how this makes sense for some. Having an imaginary bff is not so different than having lost a close loved one and still wish to be in contact with them, is it not?

  • randomfactor

    I know perfectly well that a coin flip is a completely random way of making an either/or decision. But quite often when the coin’s in the air, it has a way of clarifying which way you want it to fall.

    Likewise, I could see where prayer to an unbelieved-in deity could help you decide what it is you really want. I don’t think I’d do it…but I could see some getting a benefit out of it.

    (I practice something like prayer myself…but it’s between me and my late wife, whom I have absolutely no reason to believe is listening.)

  • vexorian

    The brain is full of glitches. Maybe praying even though knowing the deity doesn’t exist, tricks your brain into thinking that you are doing something about your problems (just like it works when you actually believe in the deity). The brain is quite a dumbass, so maybe it can fall for it even when you know it isn’t true.

    • randomfactor

      Julian Jaynes, in “The Origin of Consciousness…” thought that thought itself is a kind of dialog between parts of the brain.

      Even Microsoft would have been ashamed to ship the human mind as a beta.

    • Kahomono

      but you ARE doing something about your problem. You’re verbalizing about it.

      Ever hear of how the janitor solves a huge number of programmers’ sticky problems? When she (the programmer) explains it to someone else, she explains it better to herself….

      • arensb

        I’ve always called that “confessional debugging”. And yes, I’ve engaged in it.
        I’ve heard of people who keep a teddy bear or something on their monitor, that they explain their problems to in order to work them out this way. I haven’t done that. I’ve always bugged a coworker or someone.

  • SeekerLancer

    Whatever gets you through the night. As long as your fictional goddess doesn’t start talking back.

  • SJH

    Maybe God decided to answer his prayers even though he was picturing a goddess.

    Joking aside, I am curious about the statistics. I think if goes to show just how confused our society is regarding God. People believe in a higher power but do not follow. People call themselves atheist but believe in God, people call themselves Christians but don’t act like it. People have obvious contradictions in their beliefs all over the place. We lack passion and conviction. How have we come to this and how do we get out of it. I partially blame our educational system and the liberalization of religions. I’m sure there are more reasons but I think those play a big role.

    • 3lemenope

      In all honesty I’d rather people were slightly confused about the answers to the big questions instead of them being so sure that it justifies in their minds being complete jerks to people who disagree.

      This goes for everyone of all available metaphysical opinions.

      • Anna

        Yes, I’d rather deal with all those nice confused people than disagreeable fundamentalists!

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’ve seen “My close relative is in the hospital, please send good thoughts” from atheists. How do you ‘send’ thoughts?

    I think there’s value in being aware of the advantages we have. There are a vast number of ways that my life is easier than other people’s lives, and although somewhat due to my own efforts, overwhelmingly it’s just random chance.

    It’s easy to be complacent about that. I try to remind myself of the disparity, and remind myself that I am in a position to help other people. I guess you could stretch that into a prayer of thanks?

  • Chris Hall

    I have to say, I’m rather disappointed with the tone of this post and with the comments I see here. 12% of the population deserves better than a Will Ferrell gif.

    I am an atheist and a Conservative Jew. I go to shul and I pray on holidays and on Shabbat. I keep kosher and observe Shabbat. I don’t do these things for “god”. I don’t do these things for reasons of cultural tradition (I am a convert). I do these things because they are personally meaningful to me and are a valuable addition to my life. I like the daily and yearly structure of my religion, I love the songs and traditions, and I value the rational moral grounding that Judaism provides.

    I certainly don’t claim to speak for all atheists who pray, or even for all Jewish atheists (and there is a strong tradition of atheism in observant Judaism). But if their experience is anything like mine they are looking for allies in the atheist community. I want to be part of the atheist community! But what I see here, and in many other places, is an atheist community that is not interested in learning, only in being incredulous at other people’s experiences.

  • Kahomono

    There are definitely people who are medically improved by treatment with placebo even when they know they are receiving placebo.

    This is like that?

  • Kahomono

    Praying about personal problems is NOT “doing nothing,” whatever snark we atheists may direct at it. It’s verbalizing about them, which more often than not improves our own understanding of them, and can illuminate courses of (real world) action we can take to solve or mitigate them.

  • Stefan

    There are schools of “positive psychology” that advocate creating a kind-compassionate mentor in your mind that you can discuss things with. Apparently it has a lot of evidence that it actually helps people to pull away from negative self-talk and become happier people… Sorry – I don’t have a link to the experimental outcomes. I mean, what the heck are we, anyway, thoughts, memories, habitual patterns and processes – some people just need to change their “habits” to become happier.

  • Physeter

    As others have said, this is the beauty of putting the placebo effect to work for you. Studies have shown placebos can work even when people KNOW they’re getting a placebo.

    Maybe it’s like a mnemonic device, something that helps you stay more focused and dedicated to what you really want for yourself. By asking an imaginary deity for help, you find determination you didn’t know you had. Plus it might be easier for some people than non-focused “meditation.”
    Also, some people who don’t believe anymore but grew up in a faith might miss talking to God. It makes you feel good.

  • Happy Agnostic

    “Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.” (The Agnostic’s Prayer, by Roger Zelazny)

  • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

    I think there are several things that could be going on. One is that people who are brought up religious tend to get used to praying, and that praying (for various reasons) makes them feel good, or at least makes them feel better about whatever it is they’re praying about. Later, even if they stop actually believing in God, they still feel better by praying.

    Another is that perhaps (at least for some people) the very act of addressing a message to the universe, even if you weren’t brought up to do so, has beneficial psychological effects. Like writing down a list of your problems, or screaming at the sky. (I don’t know if the latter actually has beneficial effects, but it has on occasion made me feel better when I’m distressed.)

    A third possibility (though I’m not sure how distinct this is from the other two) is that human beings are predisposed to call on other humans for help when in trouble, and to talk through our problems with other humans. For many reasons, there often aren’t appropriate humans around (or we don’t want to bother them). So we just pretend there’s someone there instead. And, because we’re not actually looking for advice, just the sense of reassurance we get from talking to someone else, talking to no one actually makes us feel a little better. I think this actually plays a part in explaining why people believe in gods in the first place: We use this strategy and then forget (or never realise) that there’s actually no one there listening.

  • Don Gwinn

    My first response is like many others here, probably–they’re meditating, contemplating quietly, slowing down, getting out of the hustle of their day–all good things. But in our culture, praying to a deity is the most common way of doing that; even if we weren’t raised to pray (and many were) we were raised watching people do it on TV, reading about it in books . . . where “meditation” can sound foreign, weird, exotic or otherwise odd, even if you think it’s a good idea, prayer is familiar and normal for most Americans.
    And, to the extent that this is what it takes for him to get the benefits of daily meditation, I’m OK with it. He knows the deity is fake. He’s created and is using the image for his own purposes, and it’s working. I might quibble with whether he’s actually worshipping this goddess character, but he’s not doing anything dishonest or harmful that I can see.

  • ORAXX

    I would submit that it makes as much sense for an atheist to pray as it does a Christian. No sense what-so-ever.

  • Tel

    I’ve prayed whilst being an atheist — fifteen or so years of being taught to make every thought a prayer doesn’t go away overnight. It took a while for me to stop doing it even after I was secure in being an atheist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

    I once tried worshiping the goddesses of the Zelda series when looking for a religion where it would be impossible to take it seriously enough to kill someone over it. That did not last very long.

  • arensb

    Does “Oh, sweet Jesus rainbow-farting Christ, not this again” count as a prayer? Because if so, then I pray a lot.

  • Nox

    Or “god” is a word that means different things to different people. Some of those who would answer no to “do you believe in a god” would still think there are some sort of cosmic entities filling the god role.

  • Tobias2772

    Perhaps we could invite Mr. Gold to explain his vocabulary and himself. Otherwise, my only possible reaction is WTF !

    • Sigfried Gold

      Happy to, but time is limited at the moment. Can you pick one or two terms, one or two aspects of myself you’d like an explanation of? For lengthier explanations, some of my writing on the topic is available at http://tailoredbeliefs.com

      • Tobias2772

        Mr. Gold,
        I went to your site as you suggested and I read a bit. I found it rather interesting. I would agree with your position to the extent that I, too, feel that there are important parts of a satisfying life that I do not feel obligated to prove through scientific method. Some of my more rigidly scientific bretheren seem to miss some of the extraordinary pleasures that I associate with music, art, nature, imagination. I continue to struggle, at times, with the proper balance between rational evidence and transcendant creativity in my life.
        For instance, for a long time I believed in reincarnation. I went to hear a number of serene people speak about it and it made alot of sense to me. I had wondered about how some people seemed more together and more intune with their surroundings than others. I windered how I could gain so much perspective in such a short lifetime. So reincarnation was a lovely vision and it provided for worthwhile goals and personal comfort. But I have come to examine that position and see it for the fantasy that it is. I have no reason to believe that spirits are reincarnated in new physical entities regardless of the positive aspects that such a belief might entail. I had to give up my little story to better live the one life I have. I wish it were true, but I can’t fool myself under the given circumstances.
        However, you lose me when you feel it necessary to create someone outside of yourself to pray to and to look for to provide you with such things. Perhaps you mean for it to be used a s a tool, like meditation or chanting, but it seems inaccurate or misleading to me. If I find anything more meaningful than the physical world, I recognize that that something is a part of me (and other sentient beings) and I have to continuosly re-examine it to make sure that i am not just fooling myself to avoid dealing with my reality.
        Perhaps we are more in agreement than I think. I will read more later to explore that possibility. For now, I can only say that, for me, praying to some admittedly imaginary entity seems misguided at best.

        • Sigfried Gold

          I’m sorry I haven’t had time yet to reply to your thoughtful comment. I don’t know if this posting http://tailoredbeliefs.com/serenity-praye/ explains clearly why I think prayer (not meditation, which I also do for different reasons) makes sense even when we don’t have some entity we believe exists to pray to.

  • Mario Strada

    The other day I read on the Huffpo that a guy had to have surgery to get a live eel out of his anus. It has nothing to do with praying and religion (although I assume the guy was in a prone position for much of his ordeal) but it goes to show that there are all kind of people out there. Atheists that pray are not even past the halfway point on the scale of weird.

  • Matthew Vett

    Actually, placebos work even when people know they’re placebos, oddly enough, so I guess I’m not surprised.

  • Anna

    I find this incredibly confusing. As far as I’m concerned, atheists can’t pray. I would define prayer as talking to a deity (or some supernatural force) that you believe is actually there. An atheist can say the words to a prayer, but IMO that isn’t enough to constitute the action of prayer. It’s play-acting, not praying.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Actually Hemant, as it happens taking a sugar pill knowing that it’s ineffective might still do something. Somehow placebos do sometimes work even when the patient knows they’re ineffective.

    • rtanen

      Can’t remember the study, but there was one where, after doing studies without telling people it was a placebo and getting results, they gave people with the same problem a placebo, told them what it was, and explained that it worked for the other guys with that problem. It was still effective. Sorry about the lack of link.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    In a poll where you lump Atheists together with Agnostics then the numbers are going to reflect the agnostics more than less. According to the poll “Unaffiliated” includes Atheism, Agnosticism and those who have no particular religion.

    Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has
    used and will continue to use “religiously unaffiliated” as our preferred term for Americans who tell us in surveys that they are atheists, agnostics or have no particular religion. “Nones,” however, has become a popular label for the same population, used not only in social scientific journals but also by the media, including on the cover of Time magazine As a result, in this report we use both terms interchangeably.

    —-
    In addition, about four in ten atheists and agnostics (including 14% of atheists and 56% of agnostics) say they believe in God or a universal spirit.
    Which means that 30% of the polling group does not believe in God or a universal spirit or six out of ten do not believe in God or a universal spirit.

  • NateW

    I think that it sounds reasonable to say that one’s life could be transformed by habitually placing one’s self in a posture of “asking.” To ask (regardless of who you’re asking or if your question/request is answered) is to admit to yourself that you don’t know everything and don’t have all the answers. It’s essentially a posture of humility which, as far as I can see, can’t do anything but good for our attitude and relationships, right?

  • imjustasteph

    When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend. His name was Jon- actually, he was Jon Arbuckle but with normal intelligence. I can’t remember why I picked him- I think maybe I needed a face to use and I had just watched a cartoon and that was the face that popped up, but I don’t remember for sure. Anyway, Jon showed up to explain to me why my father, the King of Saturn, had been forced to send me to Earth to be raised by a human family- War-torn Saturn was not safe, and the successor to Saturn’s throne must be somewhere safe, so that she could take the throne when the war ended. Now that I was old enough to understand, Jon would be hanging out in a spaceship, high enough above the Earth to be unseen, but near enough to be able to communicate with me telepathically, and to relay any messages from my royal Saturnian parents.

    I knew Jon wasn’t real. I knew I’d just made him up. But if I was upset with my mom, or I felt lonely, or I thought that I was the only person in the world who was as misunderstood and in as much pain as I was at a given moment, and I needed someone to talk to……well, when I couldn’t talk to my human mother, or any of my friends, or any other human, I could still talk to Jon. And carrying on a conversation, even if you’re only imagining the other person’s side, is a good way to think things out. I might think, in this moment, that my mom was the meanest monster in the world for reading my diary or sending me to my room without listening to my side first or punishing me for something a sibling did…..but a deeper, more honest part of me knew that even if she was wrong, and she wasn’t always, she was just human. And if I couldn’t admit that to myself yet, I could admit it to myself through Jon, by putting the words in his mouth….or telepathic voice, anyway. And if all I needed was to hear that I wasn’t alone, when I felt friendless, Jon would be there, reminding me that childhood and being Earthbound were both temporary, and that before long I’d have my freedom among the stars, with my own people. That there were people like me in the world, even if it felt like I couldn’t find any.

    The point is, it’s not so silly to put a spare voice in your head to tell you the things you can’t tell yourself in your own voice. It’s silly, and dangerous, when you don’t recognize what you’re doing, or if you let your imaginary friend tell you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise, or shouldn’t otherwise, but it’s not silly to make yourself your own friend.

  • Richard T

    In place of an atheist “prayer”, may I suggest this “Apache” (no idea if it’s authentic) invocation? http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/apache%20blessing

    Unlike a prayer, which sounds as if you are asking some force outside yourself for help, this reminds me that I have my own strength and powers of recovery. It doesn’t mean very much, and some of you may find it annoyingly pantheistic, but I find it soothing.

  • Gmotron

    It’s probably like me talking to my cat. Sure, my cat exists, but she doesn’t really participate in the concersation. I usually fill in her parts based somewhat on her unrelated meows, and mostly on what I’m thinking about.

  • http://bit.ly/glUAR7 Calladus

    A couple of Mormons showed up at our atheist / skeptic meeting one day, and assured us that if we prayed sincerely, we would discover Real Evidence of God.

    Many of us got down on our knees and prayed as sincerely as we could. After all, we are not running away from evidence, are we?

    Since that time, I’ve been happy to pray with others, whenever I’m challenged to do so, as have several of our other members.

    Spoiler: none of us were presented with convincing evidence of any sort of deity, so we’re all still atheist.


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