New York Times Asks: Should Atheists Pray?

Now that we’re seeing a rise in godless congregations, the New York Times asked some people whether atheists should pray, what the point of prayer is, and whether it’s beneficial.

One of the panelists happened to be me.

Another panelist happened to be Deepak Chopra.

Here’s your challenge: Below are excerpts from our responses; can you match them to the right brown person?

Our brains change with every thought, because thoughts form a feedback loop that every cell eavesdrops on. In the tradition of meditation, silence also forms a feedback loop. A wordless voice says, “Here is peace.” Cells can eavesdrop on that message, too, and when they do, pathways in the brain are changed just as surely as when we respond to thoughts, sensations and emotions.

While the main purpose of prayer may be to help others, it never demonstrably does that. Prayers benefit only those believers who say or hear them. Prayer gives them comfort. It lets them think they have some control over a situation that may be out of their hands. It’s the last resort of people who have run out of ideas, and the first resort of people who never bothered to think about how they could actually fix the problem at hand.

I know. I know. It’s difficult. But try.

And then go here for our full responses. (Leave comments, too!)

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.

  • JA

    If I do “pray” (if it can even be called that), it’s more of a psyching-myself-up-before-doing-something.

  • Gus Snarp

    I knew Deepak’s before the first comma.

  • 3lemenope

    A wordless voice says, “Here is peace.”

    What is this i don’t even

  • jdm8

    That’s Deepak for you.

  • Matt Eggler

    Oh Hemant, Hemant. “Feedback loops”? Cells eavesdropping”? What has happened to you, uttering mindless crap like that. On the other hand, Depak Chopra has never sounded so clear and forthright ; )

  • Michael W Busch

    I remain confused as to why anyone sees Chopra as an appropriate panelist on any topic (except perhaps his own particular flavor of nonsense).

  • Stev84

    I didn’t even need to read “quantum” to know

  • Devin White

    It’s a poetic interpretation of how a moment of silence can calm a person.

  • Gregory Marshall

    It took me to the end of the first sentence. Man what a bunch of gibberish. People actually buy that mumbo jumbo?

  • Matt

    That’s why, when I want to project a sense of peace, I walk around going “uuuuuuuuhhhhhhh.” People find it calming.

  • Debbie

    I totally got it right.

  • Tainda

    I pray…

    to the gods of ROCK!

    Yeah, weird mood today. Deal with it

  • Bryan Elliott

    Agree. People love it when I use the wordless voice.

    I mean, “aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh” *drool*

  • aoscott

    Very well said, and even more powerful juxtaposed right after that gibberish.

  • ISeeWhatYouDidThere

    Ah, the old switcheroo.

  • Matt Eggler

    Hi Friendly Atheist crowd – I need your feedback. I’m sure you are all familiar with the “I heart my dog-head” bumper stickers. Well I’ve decided to make some “I quantum my Depak Chopra-head” stickers and tshirts. The problem is there isn’t a specific symbol for quantum; the best I could find are the greek letter psi for a quantum wave form, or the h-bar symbol for reduced Planck constant or Dirac constant – the smallest boundary containment in quantum scope.

    Which do you think works better?

  • Mark W.

    Reading the bios on the side, I wonder how does one become a Professor of Preaching? I’m assuming you need to spend some time on your knees…umm, praying, to get tenure for that.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “Our brains change with every thought,”

    Gee. Who is this? Sounds like the same introspective philosophizing psychobabbel stoners spew out during the apogees of their highs right before passing the blunt to the next person.

    Clearly this is Hemant (lol). Now we know why he is so friendly.

  • L.Long

    Deepak is perfect for any panel, that way you are guaranteed to get the whacked out BS from the crazy side of things.
    Yes I do pray–its called meditation, and you would be surprised how easy it is to get info out of the garbage heap of memories floating around in the brain by just letting your mind crawl thru it all in a moment of silence.
    I know that praying to the psychotic sky-fairy wont help much as I have 2000+ years of religious history to show that don’t work.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Gosh, which one should I choose to be my Indian friend?

  • ggsillars

    Deepak’s getting better: he didn’t use the word “quantum” once. It’s still impenerable nonsense, though.

  • Blacksheep

    Funny, that’s the only part that I liked about Deepak’s. Something that brings peace (if it’s real) is valuable. Otherwise I agree – I’ve spent time with him in person though, and he’s much more down-to-earth than that.

    Hemants comments seemed to be mainly concerning prayer as a tool if something is wrong, which leaves out two main components of Christian prayer: Praise and thankfullness, neither of which are meant to solve problems.

  • duke_of_omnium

    I could feel the intelligence oozing out of my brain as I read deeper and deeper into Chopra’s mystical psychobabble. If I ever read an entire book of his, I’d be a drooling vegetable by the end of chapter 2

  • John Evans

    Yeah, it’s a nice deepity. Sounds good, but when you actually examine it, it says nothing.

  • The Captain

    It took me two words.

  • Rich Wilson

    Could you put up a quick graphic of each? In any case, I think it would be an extremely small ‘in’ crowd.

    What about a Feynman diagram?

  • Pepe

    In Robert Plant’s name, we pray. m/

  • Beth Clarkson

    Why do you make the assumption that the main purpose of praying is to help others?

    If that isn’t the purpose – and my understanding is that the purpose of prayer is to change the person who is doing the praying – then your argument fails and Chopra’s succeeds. He is correct that our brains change with every thought – that’s a trivially true statement and will be true whether the person praying believes in god or does not.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Oh crap, now I see! THAT’S what zombies are doing: meditating Deepak-style! It all makes sense now, from the hunger for brains to the social breakdown to people going hysterical to the infectious mindlessness.

    I can’t figure out though why shooting them in the head would stop them. Is the “quantum” located there?

  • Oranje

    “Praise and thankfulness”

    I say this with all sincerity: can you explain the difference between those two in your faith? I’ve heard those and other synonyms and I thought it was a form of hyperbole, but suggesting that they’re two main components tells me they can be defined distinctly.

  • Hugh Kramer

    They don’t call Chopra “Deepity” Deepak for nothing.

    (Deepity: Something that sounds profound but is intellectually hollow)

  • Houndentenor

    Prayer is an attempt to communicate with a deity. If one doesn’t believe in any deities, there’s not much point in trying to communicate with them.

  • Rich Wilson

    My brain certainly changes whenever I try to think about anything Deepak Chopra says.

  • meekinheritance

    Praise prayer makes no sense, and especially not by an atheist.
    Thankfulness seems more reasonable, e.g., being thankful for our families, friends, etc. A prayer “of” thankfulness, not thanking some deity, could be considered contemplative reflection. I don’t see a problem with that, but I wouldn’t call it prayer, lest it be confused with thanking a supernatural/imaginary entity.

  • Richard Wade

    Gee, that first quote seems like Chopra, but I’m not sure because he hasn’t squeezed the word “quantum” in there, one of his favorite buzz words.

    For some fun, visit any of several Deepak Chopra random quotation generators. They’re indistinguishable from the real babbling. This is the one I got first try:

    “Eternal stillness transforms cosmic sensations.”

  • Rich Wilson

    As I mentioned in another thread, I try to be mindful of how easy my life is, mostly due to blind chance. And I think I have a moral obligation to use what I have by chance to help others with less easy lives.

    I’m also a selfish human so I don’t do it enough.

    I guess you could stretch that to a “prayer of thanks” when I’m mindful of it. I’m just not thanking any deities.

  • The Captain

    “then your argument fails and Chopra’s succeeds” No, that is what’s called a False Dichotomy fallacy just because one argument can be proved wrong, does not automatically make the other argument correct.

    Simply, lack of proof of A does not prove B. But I’m sure Chopra’s fans would be the last ones to think deeply about the fallaciousness of there arguments.

  • Machintelligence

    If you want Chopraisms in smaller doses:

  • allein

    A while back, on an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, Seth Andrews was giving every caller a random Chopra-ism at the end of each call. It was a fun episode.

  • Rain

    The professor and former pastor dude said:

    Multiple sacred teachings indicate that prayer’s benefits are often beyond the physical realm; that claim is, by definition, not subject to scientific evaluation.

    Whose definition? Mickey Mouse? Maybe someone got a definition from a Cracker Jacks box?

  • Matt Eggler

    Good idea.

  • spitz

    Perhaps you should read Hemants entire comment?

  • Blacksheep

    I did – but he specifically made this statement, above:

    “It’s the last resort of people who have run out of ideas, and the first resort of people who never bothered to think about how they could actually fix the problem at hand.”

  • Blacksheep

    if I use friends as an example, I guess praise would be: “You’re a terrific person who is always there for me.” And thankfullness might be: “Thank you for helping me move into my new apartment.”

    maybe praise is less personal. telling someone “you are awesome” leaves you out of the formula. Saying “Thank You” personalizes it.

    The lines could blur though.

  • Cyrus Palmer

    Don’t associate “stoners” with this kind of nonsense. I don’t appreciate your negative connotations. There are many, many intelligent cannabis users. True, some spew crazy nonsense, but smoking cannabis is hardly a prerequisite for that. Christian apologists spew nonsense constantly, and the vast majority of them see cannabis as “sinful”, whatever that means.

  • MsC

    I cannot believe the Times couldn’t find someone better than that quack to write about this.

  • ACN

    I always enjoy your writing, Hemant, but man, they picked a weird panel for this.

    For their next prompt, could you propose “Should Christians worship Baal?” and try to get Mark Driscoll, Deepak Chopra, and 3 Baal-ite priests? :)

  • TiltedHorizon

    “I don’t appreciate your negative connotations.”

    There are none to appreciate. I compared deepak’s ramblings to the “crazy nonsense” that gets philosophized at the peak of a high. As for “stoners”, my feelings about them are summarized in my closing of Hemant being so friendly.

  • LAB

    I don’t think praise is necessarily less personal, but it is less specific. To me at least, praise is when you call attention to a person’s positive character traits. Pointing out that someone is kind, helpful, sympathetic, etc, would be praising them. Thankfulness, on the other hand, is specific to a given situation. For example, if I held a door open for someone, they would thank me for that specific action in that specific situation.

  • headphase

    Should Christians conduct blood sacrifices?

  • Rain

    If that isn’t the purpose – and my understanding is that the purpose of prayer is to change the person who is doing the praying

    Yes that is the line they use in the company of people that know prayer doesn’t do any magic stuff. It makes them look more sophisticated. :D

  • Anna

    Exactly. This whole question makes no sense. If people don’t believe deities are real, then they can’t pray. They can say the words to a prayer, they can have an internal monologue or even talk out loud, but that’s not actual prayer. It’s just pretending.

  • McAtheist

    Sure, a wordless voice from the form-less shape. What’s so hard to understand?

  • Feminerd

    I would call praise an action you do, while thankfulness is a feeling that can inspire praise. Not the only feeling, of course, but one of them.

    To be thankful is to feel grateful for something, but it doesn’t have to be towards any specific person or being. I’m incredibly thankful for a lot of things in my life, but they’re random luck. There’s no one to praise for them, they just are.

  • Blacksheep

    Well said.

  • Brian C Posey

    I hope Hemant’s was the one that made fucking sense.

  • Beth Clarkson

    I agree, lack of proof of A does not prove B. But I wasn’t arguing for the general case, just that it was true in this specific case.

  • Beth Clarkson

    That’s not the only definition of prayer. Given that it isn’t, atheist prayer can make sense in terms of other definitions.

  • Beth Clarkson

    How do you distinguish between ‘actual prayer’ and ‘pretend prayer’?

  • EricAdler

    I tried to access the NY Times forum but got a bad gateway error 502.

  • jeffj900

    It was easy to guess. Only Chopra could come up with cells eavesdropping on the feedback of a wordless voice. What a poseur.

  • DougI

    Should I spend more of my day talking to myself? Don’t see the point of that.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    Why would atheists pray? Who would they pray too?

  • Armin

    If prayer has any benefit, it can be achieved more effectively through proper meditation, without the costs associated with believing in the supernatural or unwarranted authority.

  • Robster

    I recon the religious that mumble prayers at their imaginary friend enjoy it because it enables them to think that they’re a wee bit more special than the rest of us as they have a hard to define relationship with something that doesn’t exist and that is supposed to be a good thing. I think…

  • Anna

    IMO, it’s only prayer if you think you’re talking to a deity.

    I agree with Wikipedia’s definition:

    Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.

    Atheists don’t believe in deities, so by definition we cannot pray. When we say the words to a prayer, we don’t believe any deities exist to hear them, so we’re not actually trying to communicate with them. We understand that it’s all pretend, that it’s happening within our own heads, and that talking out loud or thinking quietly to ourselves is just play-acting.

  • Keulan

    As usual, Deepak Chopra uses a lot of words to say absolutely nothing. The other responses, besides Hemant’s of course, were only marginally better. Prayer is worse than useless. It’s doing nothing and thinking you’re helping.

  • Randay

    Though technically there are prayers of praise and prayers of thanks, I don’t think of them as prayers. They are devotions or invocations. For me, prayers are supplications: asking for something from a deity. Probably the most famous prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. It includes all three. Once again the Bible is inconsistent in that there are two versions and in different circumstances. One in Matthew and the other in Luke. The two other gospels somehow forgot it.

    It is said to be instructions on how to pray and not a prayer itself to be repeated. One part gets me and I give the version I was taught. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Most Xians probably recite this everyday but in their real Republican lives don’t “forgive those who trespass against” them. So it is pretend and play-acting. Prayers are not an option for atheists.

    As to meditation, that is what I do when I sleep and 8 hours is enough for me.

  • Goape

    Since “Our brains change with every thought”, why would it matter if I am pretending to pray? I could think about anything and still acheive some brain-change, for whatever that’s worth.

  • kelemi

    Should Christian Scientists see a doctor?

  • baal

    hat tip: Dan Dennett (2 n’s, 2 t’s, 2 e’s).