This guest post comes to us from Melanie Rucinski, a Harvard sophomore and outgoing leader of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (our undergraduate secular student group), formerly the Harvard Secular Society.
I have read enough books about atheism and psychology to know that prayers do not have healing power, at least not to an extent that is statistically significant. Furthermore, the fact that I am an atheist kind of goes along with not believing in the power of prayer in general. In all of my years of sporadic church attendance, then, I’ve never asked for prayers for anyone I know. I’ve considered it multiple times, but if my skepticism weren’t enough, discomfort with asking congregations I’m not a consistent member of to pray for my sick or dying family members and music teachers would still hold me back.
In the past two years, I’ve seen more illness and death in my personal life than I’d experienced in all the years before. My maternal great-grandmother died when I was five and my maternal grandfather died when I was ten, but then everyone close to me was pretty much fine for a while. In the fall of my senior year, though, my oboe teacher was diagnosed with a frontal lobe disorder (the symptoms resemble Alzheimer’s), and since then both my paternal and maternal grandmothers, as well as my piano teacher, have passed away. So it’s not like there hasn’t been anything to pray for: my oboe teacher’s health is still going downhill. My maternal grandmother had had Alzheimer’s since shortly after I started high school, and my piano teacher had been diagnosed with cancer. There have been no truly sudden deaths.
Two weeks ago, I played piano in a service at the church I consider to be my church. It’s the church at which I sang in the choir when I was growing up, worked in the nursery when I was in middle school, and have always attended Christmas Eve services. I know many of the congregation members, and they know me. If I ever felt that I needed spiritual guidance, this church is where I would go. That said, my family is not the only one to refer to this church as a Unitarian church in disguise. I am not the only atheist who attends. The church is a religious community, but it’s the community part that’s important, not the religion.
At this point, my piano teacher had taken a sudden turn for the worse. She was in hospice care, and it was clear that the end would be soon. I had seen her a few weeks earlier, but I wasn’t really sure how to respond to the whole situation. I hadn’t taken lessons with her on a consistent schedule since my sophomore year of high school, and hadn’t studied with her at all since the spring of my junior year. Although I now respect her as a musician, I had a fair number of problems with her for most of the time I was her student. My mom was closer with my piano teacher than I was. Even so, I felt that if there was any time to ask for prayers from the congregation, this was it, particularly since my piano teacher would be leaving behind her husband and I thought that he, too, could use to be in people’s thoughts.
My mom came to the service, and after failing to read my lips during the ‘Concerns and Celebrations’ part of the service (I was sitting at the piano and she was in the third or fourth pew), finally made a reasonable guess as to what I was trying to say and stood up to ask for prayers for my piano teacher and her husband.
I do get chills sometimes during sentimental moments, and I do occasionally cry, or at least have tears in my eyes. I did not expect, though, to have the emotional reaction that I did in the moment after my mom finished her request. Nothing actually happened in that moment—it was followed just by a brief silence between my mom’s words and someone else’s concerns, unlike at another church I play at where the congregation gives a verbal affirmation after each joy or concern. Something about that moment, though, and something about knowing that at least some of the congregation members would be praying for my piano teacher and her husband, did get to me.
Even if I don’t believe in God or in the power of prayer, there is something truly powerful about knowing that there are people I know or people I don’t, people I’m close with or people I’ve never spoken to, who are thinking positive thoughts in the direction of someone I ultimately do care about. Maybe it’s the idea that positive energy is contagious and that if these people somehow try to send goodness out into the world, it will eventually reach the strangers they’re praying for. Or maybe it’s just the cliche that somebody out there cares, that in some abstract way, the people in the congregation are connected enough to each other—and to me—to take others’ concerns for their own.
Later that afternoon, we got a phone call saying that my piano teacher had passed away. I actually did cry about it for a few minutes, although it wasn’t until I was on my own and reflecting again on the church service. This is just something else religious communities offer that secular communities have trouble creating an alternative to: I feel comforted by the thoughts of the congregation members in a way I would not feel comforted by the thoughts of Harvard Secular Society members (if I even felt it was appropriate to ask for their thoughts on my piano teacher’s behalf). Somehow in that moment in church I felt the pervading love one is supposed to feel in the presence of God, and while at that point it was accompanied by sadness, it was still something beautiful.
I used to feel it was disrespectful to ask for prayers from congregations I play for, almost subtly condescending—maybe taking advantage of their beliefs. Now, though, I don’t think I feel so negatively about it. In the same way that I don’t feel it’s disrespectful to sing hymns during services since I really do enjoy the group music-making, maybe it isn’t disrespectful to ask for prayers since they do ultimately provide some comfort. And even if there’s no scientific evidence that says it helps to think positive thoughts in the direction of people I love every once in a while, it certainly can’t hurt.
Melanie spent six years of her youth in a liberal Jewish suburb going to church and Hebrew school before she became an atheist. She tells people that she is studying education research and policy at Harvard because saying that she’s majoring in Social Studies makes her sound like she’s in middle school. In her spare time, Melanie finds something like God in running along the Charles River, playing Bach, and baking pies.