Beautiful Secular Prayers – By Dennett and Dawkins

Beautiful Secular Prayers – By Dennett and Dawkins May 16, 2016

Editor’s Note: This time, instead of a full-blown sermon, the blog is featuring what I’m calling “secular prayers.” They are short, very sweet, and written by two extremely prominent professors who are also co-founders of The Clergy Project. Both men are highly acclaimed in their academic fields (philosophy and science) and are often called “angry” or “militant” atheists. This is, in my opinion, because they dare to speak frankly about religion, not worrying about ruffling the delicate feathers of theologians unaccustomed to criticism from people who do not share or value their religious views. I think what theologians dislike most about Dennett and Dawkins is that they are respected academicians who make a strong, well-reasoned case for their anti-religious views. It’s understandable that this would be threatening. Theologians are accustomed to being respected on the assumption that their advanced academic degrees bring them closer to a mystical, metaphorical “divine” presence. Now, Dennett and Dawkins question the very nature of the divine, demonstrating that natural divinity is found in the beauty and complexity of the universe and in the written words that touch human hearts. They provide two excellent examples here:


Dan DennettDaniel C. Dennett, Breaking The Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, p. 103

“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready at hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. That, I believe, is the secret to spirituality and it has nothing to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.”


Richard_Dawkins_Cooper_Union_ShankboneRichard Dawkins, excerpted from Unweaving the Rainbow – Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. The full quote in his own voice is found here.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. […] We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

**Editor’s Question** What other quotes from “angry atheists” or other famous humanists do you think would make excellent secular prayers?


Bios: Richard Dawkins is founder and chair of the board of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Literature, author and former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, author and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

>>>Photo Credits: By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

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  • Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot. My #1 choice.

  • carolyntclark

    I like your Editors Note, Linda.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks — hard to believe that thoughtful religious people would despise them if they heard them speak, but they often don’t – they just hear about them.

      • mason

        So true. Can’t really say we were thoughtful. We were trained and indoctrinated not to read or listen to any different views, thoughts, beliefs, etc. as it was the Devil just trying to get into our mind. Just so absolutely absurd now, looking back at those silly days. I have come across many a liberal theist who after reading one of the Four Horsemen became atheist very quickly. I remember one chap in particular at the gym in Naples who read The God Delusion and some stuff from Dawkins. He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and he went from liberal believer, to agnostic, to atheist in less than a month, with very little input but me other than I was once a Preacher and now an atheist because it had occurred to me the entire idea of blood sacrifice of a son was barbaric and immoral.
        I really think most liberals would show as agnostic on a polygraph test.

        • ctcss

          I have come across many a liberal theist who after reading one of the Four Horsemen became atheist very quickly.

          I wonder what, in particular, moved them in that direction? Personally, I don’t find much of the Four Horsemen to be very compelling. It’s not that they aren’t intelligent, or that they are incapable of making reasonable arguments. But I think that they mostly focus on the material in their arguments, and I don’t think the material has much of anything to do with religion. However, I think that many people are materialists, thus our different takes on the question of religion, and why atheistic (i.e. materialistic) arguments may sway them.

          • Elizabeth.

            ctcss, I’m smiling to realize that another favorite I thought of celebrates precisely our being matter — Perry’s riff on Chief Seattle’s response to the offer to buy Native American territory. You’re right… this is quite a different outlook from the views you’ve written about! ….(long, but scannable!)


            “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

            “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.

            “Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

            “The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man.

            “We are part of the earth and it is part of us.

            “The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

            “The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man–all belong to the same family.

            “So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves.

            “He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land.

            “But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us.

            “This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors.

            “If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.

            “The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

            “The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

            “We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

            “The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on.

            “He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care.

            “He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care.

            “His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright, are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads.

            “His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

            “I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways.

            “The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

            “There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings.

            “But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand.

            “The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

            “The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with the pinion pine.

            “The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath–the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath.

            “The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes.

            “Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

            “But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.

            “And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

            “So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition: The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.

            “I am a savage and I do not understand any other way.

            “I’ve seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.

            “I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

            “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit.

            “For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

            “You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin.

            “Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother.

            “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

            “This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know.

            “All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

            “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.

            “Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it.

            “Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

            “Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.

            “We may be brothers after all.

            “We shall see….

            “The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

            “But in your perishing you will shine brightly….

            “That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.

            “Where is the thicket? Gone.

            “Where is the eagle? Gone.

            “The end of living and the beginning of survival.”


          • ctcss

            ctcss, I’m smiling to realize that another favorite I thought of celebrates precisely our being matter

            Thanks, Elizabeth. I think I may have read that text before. It certainly sounds familiar. And although I agree that the Indian’s philosophy and outlook seemed to be more evolved than the white man’s philosophy and outlook (at least the white man’s political, commercial, and military philosophy and outlook), I would still wonder if the Indian outlook was so harmonious that they never experienced diseases, disasters, or tragedies in their experience? Or if they did, whether they considered it to all be part of some great circle of life?

            Given how matter operates in a mindless and random fashion, it would seem hard to believe that problems never occurred for the Indians. And even if they did not seem to happen (because they were so in tune with everything around them), that begs the question of why they were also not in tune with the matter composing the white man? Because even if tiny native microbes were in harmony with the Indian so that they had no problems with them, what about the “macrobes” appearing in the form of the white conquerors? And then there is the problem of the actual white microbes that came along with the white man, killing thousands of Indians through diseases unknown to them?

            So, although I like the philosophy being voiced in your citation, for me it doesn’t address the problem of what happens when things go wrong, as they invariably must, when chance and unthinking matter are involved? That’s why I have compared liking matter (and its inherent limitations) to liking despotism. Despotism, as a form of government, can work if the person in charge is kind and thoughtful, as well as being physically capable of addressing all that goes on in the kingdom. But if that kind and thoughtful person is replaced by someone unkind (or cruel) and thoughtless, and the kingdom is physically enlarged beyond the ability of one person to rule effectively, then the resulting experience is no longer one that anyone would wish to be governed by.

            This is why I wondering why so many here seem to extol the wonder and beauty of the material world, seeming to give little thought to the outcome of a world governed by chance and mindlessness? It’s one thing to say, with a shrug of the shoulders, that “Stuff happens”. It’s another thing altogether when that “stuff” happens to those we love and care about.

            So, I like many of the sentiments mentioned in this post. But I still see those sentiments as having their eyes closed to the question of the dark side of materialism.

          • Elizabeth.

            Thanks so much, ctcss! I was thinking you were (justifiably) letting this comment pass, but I was really curious what your take is and am glad to see your comments!

            I’m not knowledgeable about Native American outlooks, but my guess would be that your wondering if perhaps they often think of the inevitably negative interactions with matter as a part of a “circle of life” is likely true.

            I am starting to wonder why it would be necessary to think of matter as unreal in order to overcome its negative aspects… why not enjoy the beautiful in matter and do all you can to alleviate the terrible? like build tornado shelters, learn effective meditation (align with the divine) and mediation (diplomacy), search for vaccines…. You would not be bowing to despotism, but courageously accepting a challenge and making life better for yourself and others…. ?

            Thanks always for your comments!! Signed, Curious in patheos : )

  • carolyntclark

    In keeping with Dawkins sentiment, “We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds”…..a very favorite awesome quote is from songwriter brothers Robert and Richard Sherman’s song “Mother Earth and Father Time”, from the children’s movie, Charlotte’s Web.
    Simple and profound….
    ” How Very Special are we, for just a Moment to be, part of Life’s Eternal Rhyme”.

  • mason

    When I discarded my irrational theistic belief, and realized I’d been talking to myself all those years, I just continued talking to myself, sans the absurd requests for miracles etc. etc.; an effective form of focus, meditation, and secular “prayer.”

    My favorite secular quote that can be a secular “prayer”, and can also be sung to the tune of “Oh Holy Night”, is one of mine. 🙂


    © Mason Lane 2013










    • carolyntclark

      so much awe .

    • Elizabeth.

      I especially like “the sounds of children singing in the meadow.” (Is is fair to have an in-house poet?)

    • Linda_LaScola

      O Holy Hight was my Mother’s favoite hymn. I think she loved the soaring soprano part which she did so well. I think she would have really appreciated this version

      • mason

        My contribution to encourage humans to cease “falling on their knees” and stand up on their own two secular feet 🙂 I’m glad to know, by proxy, your mother would have appreciated the re-write.

  • carolyntclark

    I’ll contribute one of my very favorite poems. We have it framed.
    I first heard it in 1994 at Jacqueline Kennedy’s funeral, the eulogy read by her companion,Maurice Tempelsman.
    “Ithaka”, Constantine Cavafy (1883- 1933). The narrator, (Odysseus ?), addressing us, the traveler, on our journey, bidding us not to waste life anticipating an imaginary destination, but rather to live well, savoring the treasures at hand.
    There are many video interpretations. I like this one with Sean Connery.

  • Leanne Davis

    “You should be happier that you are insignificant and the future is miserable, because you are here today and you are endowed by evolution with a consciousness, and intelligence, and you can ask these questions. So in stead of being depressed and requiring meaning in the universe beyond your own existence, you create your own meaning, and enjoy your brief moment in the sun.” ~ Lawrence M. Krauss from The Unbelievers

  • Elizabeth.

    In this age of paradigm-shifting, I find Ryan Bell’s “liminality” and “butterfly soup” so evocative….

    Phrases from his “Living Between” video:

    “This year in-between — this in-between space for me is highly informed by this word ‘liminality’ — literally “threshold.” Anthropologist Victor Turner used it especially to describe young people going through rites of passage – this idea of a child who is neither this nor that, the space of unknowing, the in-between space, coming of age….

    “My experience this past year has been a personal experience of liminality… neither here nor there, without the structures of support that one finds in either place…

    “Turner invokes the image of a caterpillar becoming a moth or a butterfly. In coming-of-age rituals the experience is like that of being a non-person, of dissolving into the background noise. As you probably know, the caterpillar, before it becomes a butterfly, sort of digests itself and becomes sort of butterfly soup, and then reorganizes itself, I almost want to say “miraculously,” into a butterfly….

    “The analogy for me is apt… It’s the disorganization of one’s worldview and the reorganization of a new worldview, often out of the same component parts that were there before, only into a completely new end product.

    “It’s an experience of profound disruption for a person or for a society. The old has passed away but the new has not yet come into focus. It’s the experience that we usually describe with the prefix “post-” – post-Christian, post-Enlightenment, post-Modern.

    “So liminality is a really creative space, I’ve found, this place of in-between – It’s painful and awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s also very creative space where you can learn some of the most important things you’ll ever learn in your life.

    “It’s a space worth inhabiting, not rushing through. It’s a de-constructive space, but it’s also a re-constructive space. I find it to be a generative place, this liminal space….

    “The temptation is to jump from one certainty to another….”

    • Linda_LaScola

      Lovely, thank you — and Ryan too

  • Linda_LaScola

    thanks to our commenters for such good contributions to our secular prayers

  • ctcss

    Linda, although I don’t have anything personally against Dennett and Dawkins (both seem to be decent individuals), I am not much in awe of these chosen statements.

    Dawkins’ statement basically extols blind chance and a zero sum outlook. He points out how vastly much has been potentially lost through chance and how we should be grateful that we are lucky enough to be here. It’s the kind of “kindly” sentiment I would expect from a Dickensian workhouse master telling the ragged orphans off for not being grateful enough for the roof over their heads and the thin gruel and stale crust they have to eat. And no, I am not slamming Dawkins here. He is simply being honest about what he sees the circumstances to be. That’s fine. But as a “prayer”, I find it to be lacking for the reasons given.

    Dennett’s statement I find to be a bit ironic. He also envisions the world as governed by chance. But then he basically ends up offering a statement of faith.

    “Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready at hand while dealing
    with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is
    definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged,
    you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you
    when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.”

    He honestly believes what he is saying to be true, but he offers no mechanism for how those better outcomes will happen. Once again, this is not a slam on Dennett, but simply noting that a faith statement is a faith statement, whether when based on God or on an unspecified, vague mechanism.

    All of us, believing or non-believing, need encouragement and solace to help us face the issues we encounter in our everyday life. But personally, I am not too keen on “prayers” that have, at their foundation, the governing force of blind chance. That, to me, is fatalism, and I am not in favor of that, either in a believing or a non-believing context.

    Just my thoughts.