I have come to believe in the power of prayer, but not the way normal people do. My undoubtedly oversimplified view of the way most people view prayer is that it’s some sort of request sent up to the Big Guy in the Sky, a being that William Blake named Nobodaddy. God then considers the request, perhaps evaluating its Goodness and the moral status of the person doing the praying, and then sends down an energy beam to intervene in our earthly human situation. A basketball player prays before shooting a free throw, and perhaps God’s breath tips it off the rim and through the hoop. Or a prayer before getting your CT-scan results works retroactively to change not only the scan but also the tumor that might otherwise show up on the scan. God can do stuff like that, right?
So, why would an atheist pray? What might be a benefit of prayer lies in what happens within the mind or heart (soul?) of the person doing the praying. The person shooting the free throw might simply be asking himself to be his best self, and the act of prayer may generate needed calm confidence.
Another benefit: When people learned of Kim’s cancer, several of her friends told her that she was in their prayers. It helped – not because God beamed down a boost of well-targeted radiation therapy, but because her knowing that folks were and still are praying for her gave her a sense of support in what must be a lonely battle. I’m not sure those prayers would work if Kim didn’t know about them. Difficult to test that one . . ..
And here’s another benefit: If you are praying to God, you are probably bowing your head in a submissive posture, or maybe you are looking upward. In either case, what you are doing is humble (unless you are the kind of asshole who demands divine intervention because of how great you think you are). The act of prayer is an acknowledgment that there is a Something, bigger than us – call it Nature, the Oversoul, God, or whatever. Humility is, almost all of the time, a good thing – good for you, and good for everyone around you. Just think of all the horrors that the opposite of humility has inflicted on the world. It interests me as a Word Guy that “humble” comes from the Latin word “humus,” which refers to the dark organic material in soils that is essential for the fertility of the earth. I’m proud to be so humble.
But on the other hand, for an atheist the prayer could also be directed to the divine qualities within ourselves. Think of the Greek gods, or other polytheistic theologies. When I pray to Apollo (which I don’t), I am praying to the Apollo in me. When Kim prays to an oak tree (she may), she is praying to the strength of the oak and the generosity in all that an oak tree provides for the world – qualities that she shares with the oak. Seeing the divine as part of us does not sound all that humble, I will acknowledge, but as a humanist, I applaud it.
And after all, what is it that most people pray for? Lord, give me strength. Lord, give me patience. Lord, make me a kinder person (Does anyone really say that one?), Lord, help me remember where I put my cell phone. Not really asking for Outside Help here, right? It’s Inside Help we are after, in most cases, and prayer may be an effective way to gather our internal resources, however we word the request. Does anyone know of a better way to do it?
And then there is the kind of prayer which does not involve praying for something, but rather a prayer of thanks for what you have been given. Again, I see this as a kind of Inside Help, fully available to atheists through prayer.
Prayer, then, is a lot like appealing to the better angels of our nature. But don’t let me get started about angels.
If you care to share your thoughts about prayer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.