Should Atheists Pray?

awe-prayerSecular communities must offer humanity a real alternative to tired dogmas and text worship—possibly including some forms of prayer.

My relationship with prayer has evolved over the years.

When I attended Child Evangelism camp as a child, first as a camper and then as a teen counselor, we used to sing, God answers prayer in the morning, God answers prayer at noo-oo-oon, God answers prayer in the eeevening .  .  . My youth pastor explained why it didn’t always seem that way: Sometimes God says yes, he told us, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says wait. That struck me as a little mean, but having been taught that doubt was from the devil, I pushed those thoughts aside.

As a college student struggling with bulimia, I couldn’t understand why God would say no or wait when I asked for healing. Surely He didn’t want me sneaking and lying and wasting food! But my pleas sent heavenward had little effect. Absent divine intervention, I eventually found relief with help from my parents and therapists. Metaphorically, in other words, I followed the path of 19th Century abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, who famously said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Over time I lost my faith that the Christian God existed and, along with it, my faith that He was listening to our prayer requests. I stopped praying. Years later, when I first saw a website created by and for former Evangelicals, the banner across the top stung. 26,000 children will die today from starvation, what makes you think God will answer your prayers. I winced. Had I really been so self-absorbed as to think God heard my requests and not theirs? Had I really said grace over dinner, believing that He personally provided my family with bounty while others starved? Ouch!

If you grew up religious, as most Americans did, you probably have some first-hand experience that prayer doesn’t work—at least not in the way your Sunday school teacher or Rabbi or Christian college professor said it would.

So, why would I ask readers to consider the possibility that atheists might benefit from praying?

Not Just Requests

Because prayer, as a human endeavor, is much more than simply a series of special requests. It also can be a form of self-expression or introspection, or a deliberately altered state of consciousness. The kind of prayer I sang about at Child Evangelism camp—called intercessory or petitionary prayer–is like half of a conversation between two persons, one human and one supernatural, with very uneven power. Petitionary prayer is, essentially, begging for favors from a meta-parent who claims to love you but can’t be trusted to meet your needs without cajoling and flattery. But that’s not the only kind of prayer.

This point is important, because as atheists and other non-theists move to develop wholly secular spiritual practices that eschew any form of supernaturalism, we may find that while some forms of prayer are fundamentally superstitious or otherwise dysfunctional, others can be adapted to serve secular spirituality and enhance quality of life.

The secular value of prayer depends in large part on the intent.  Are prayers meant, in the words of psychologist and theologian J. H. Ellens “to persuade, inform, beguile, suggest, inveigle, ingratiate, encourage compliance with our wishes, or merely reflexively benefit us psychologically and physiologically?” The latter set of goals is perfectly compatible with superstition-free living, and in fact is highly desirable.

Goals of secular “prayer” might include values clarification, finding calm during a time of turmoil, or listening to a quiet internal voice that we now recognize as our own.

What is Prayer?

For centuries, scholars have sought to define, analyze and categorize prayer; and in recent decades they have applied to this task investigative methods from fields including psychology, sociology, anthropology, medical research, and neuroscience. But the more scientists try to study prayer, the more they recognize that it is a broad, complex, multi-dimensional human enterprise.

One challenge is trying to divide different kinds of prayer into any kind of reliable taxonomy. Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster identified what he saw as 21 different kinds of Christian prayer, which he clustered  into three types that he called “inward, outward, and upward.” Inward-facing prayers are those seeking personal growth, either by creating some form of transformative insight/consciousness or by requesting God’s assistance with change. Outward-facing prayers are those seeking to influence the world external to the person praying. They may be public prayers, for example, or requests that God fix some problem situation.  Upward-facing prayers are those that seek to alter the believer’s relationship with God himself. Foster believed that these categories relate to three core human needs: transformation, ministry, and intimacy.

Psychologists Bernard Spilka and Kevin Ladd in The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, analyzed a number of prayer studies and then applied factor analysis to Foster’s three categories. They found that the various labels used by researchers didn’t neatly overlap. Nonetheless, themes emerged—including “personal examination, tears, sacrament, rest, radical, suffering, intercession, and petition.” In their analysis, “radical” meant seeking God’s help with boldness or radical personal change. “Intercession” included requests made on behalf of other people, while “petition” meant requests made on behalf of the “self.”

Much of the language used by these prayer researchers implies a world view that is fundamentally at odds with secularism. As a nontheist, I believe that this worldview is at odds with what we know about ourselves and the world around us—and not just as it relates to prayer.  I further believe that many kinds of prayer are actively harmful—harmful to the person doing the praying and harmful to society as a whole.

A Look in the Mirror

And yet, that isn’t the whole story. Yes, prayer is strongly shaped by cultural and religious traditions, including archaic superstitions, but prayer also reflects the thought patterns and yearnings of those who pray, some of which are profoundly and universally human. If we assume there’s nobody on the receiving end, then prayer is in some ways like an ink blot test. It’s us projecting ourselves into the universe.  It offers insight into our deepest fears and highest hopes, our overweening capacity for self-absorption and impressive generosity, our remarkable  gullibility and admirable persistence in the face of adversity. It reveals how we relate to each other by showing how we relate to an other who is woven from the fabric of our own neural architecture. In coming years, the study of prayer may offer insights into that neural architecture itself.

Life Can Be Hard

If we hope for humanity to move beyond faith and superstition, we need to treat prayer seriously, meaning we must seriously examine the hypothesis that prayer not only offers insights into the human psyche, but that it also provides real benefit. Adam Lee, offers a warning to fellow atheists:

Human beings have always been, and still are, at the mercy of a complex and often frightening world. It is only natural that people in such circumstances would be eager, even desperate, for a way to calm their fears and give themselves confidence, and this is what prayer provides. It gives believers a “direct line” to the highest power in the universe, the one whom they are told is on their side and will make sure everything turns out all right for them. This ability to cope has always been one of the major perceived benefits of religious belief, and atheists who seek to make inroads against theism would do well to remember it.

If nontheists hope to challenge the kinds of prayer that are morally and intellectually harmful—the prayers that provide cheap emotional or spiritual salve while our neighbors suffer or that twist and cripple our internal sense of dignity and empowerment—we must also be mindful that coping with life is hard. Stripping away dysfunctional coping mechanisms means we must replace them with something better.

The Baby from the Bathwater

Embracing ancient wisdom may be essential if secular communities want to offer humanity a real alternative to tired dogmas and text worship. Some forms of prayer are relatively compatible with the emergence of wholly secular forms of spirituality and may be borrowed, largely intact. For example, where the Abrahamic religions treat God as an external “other,” many Eastern traditions treat the divine as an internal center point. Contemplative prayer practices can help to draw a person into this center, sharpening consciousness and clarifying values so that they can shape lived experience. Atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris discusses psychological benefits of these practices in his book Waking Up. 

Even forms of prayer that are laced through and through with superstition may provide enough natural benefits to those doing the praying that they will be abandoned broadly only when something else takes their place. A variety of studies looking at the personal effects of prayer on the believer suggest variously that more prayer is associated with increases in hope, attachment and forgiveness, resistance to addiction, feelings of unity, and decreased marital conflict.

To date, these studies document a correlation between prayer and measures of wellbeing, but without establishing causal relationships. It is to our benefit that prayer has now become a serious topic of study, with dedicated communities of scholars within the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Religious Research Association and Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) of the American Psychological Association.

If humanity is ever to benefit from the best that religion has to offer, we must unpack the box and sort the contents so that we can separate handed-down rubbish from that which is timeless and useful. In the Bible, prayer takes many forms, ranging from prayer “without ceasing”—meaning an everyday mindful connection with something bigger than the self—to “forty days in the wilderness”—meaning a retreat from everyday routines to re-center in that which matters most.

In the Christian tradition, prayer can be a social activity, an orchestration of shared values and intentions. Alternately, it can be a solitary cry of anguish or confession of that which feels too dark to share. Each of these types of prayer expresses a core part of the human spirit—what it means to us to be who we are, where we are: mortal women, men and children, keenly aware of our fragility, seeking to live well and die well in community with each other.

These dimensions of prayer are too meaningful to be left, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “in the dustbin of history” even though many aspects of religion must be. They are too important to be ceded to the traditional purveyors of institutional superstition and patriarchy. They are part of the inheritance of humankind, a finely-evolved product of millennia of human suffering, joy, wonder and yearning. They belong to us all, and for the sake of our children we must begin the long, complicated process of cleaning and claiming them.

This article concludes a 4-part series adapted from the chapter, “If Prayer Fails, Why Do People Keep at It?” by Valerie Tarico in Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, edited by John Loftus.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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34 Responses to Should Atheists Pray?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    I think prayer ought to be left for the theists. Why inherit all of the baggage that word contains? That there are “benefits” to praying is debatable, but any substitute will have to link up with the energy necessary to do something effective. Praying for someone/something else to do all of the work is just wishin’ and hopin’ under another name.
    The New Agers use the term “manifesting” which is also a loaded term I do not recommend, but at least there is some semblance of doing something associated with it.
    So, how about a new term for ways to address things we would like to see happen?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sean says:

      Completely agree with you. I’ve always been an atheist and praying, something that was pushed on me as a child where it was mandatory in schools, never quite cut the mustard with me; it always felt like I was being forced to talk to someone else’s imaginary friend.

      Of coarse, there’s nothing wrong with hoping for a better outcome to events, or even appealing to anyone or anything in times of desperation. All that is built into our psyche. But, given the common understanding of the word prayer, I don’t consider hopes – or screaming to anything that can hear your pleas for help – to be prayers. Words like prayer, and even spirituality, are loaded with all-sorts of baggage leaning in the direction of mystical woo. They just aren’t necessary. And atheists who use them only muddy the waters and help give rise to more woo.

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    • Scrubbing away the superstition and reclaiming the parts of prayer that are useful doesn’t mean we have to keep the same name for these practices. What might that new term be?

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      • Sean says:

        Self-reflection/introspection, having hopes, or even making appeals to whatever, are naturally part of the human psyche. Removing the baby from the bathwater, so to speak, doesn’t mean we need a substitute in order to self-reflect/introspect, have hopes or make appeals. Those behaviours, while they may have helped give rise to religion in times of great ignorance, fear, and even paranoia, are there regardless of whether religion exists. They are part of our human psyche after all.

        There’s no need for atheists to use prayer, or any umbrella term, for the above behaviours – e.g. if I have hopes, I have hopes. I’m not having prayers or “insert here”.

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  2. Timothy B Miller says:

    Excellent article and series of articles!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andrew Sigal says:

    Great thinking on this very important topic, and a lot for me to digest here. I agree with many of your points, but I am having a problem accepting your conclusion as is. While I defer to your significant knowledge in this field, I find that I must disagree with the continued use of the word “prayer.” I feel like it is simply too loaded a word, and one which most people in Judeo-Christian societies personally define and use in the ways that we agree are harmful (or, at best, a waste of time).

    There is a large lexicon of words either coined or co-opted by religions that are worthy of reconsideration. As an atheist, what does it mean if I said that I don’t eat junk food because “my body is a temple.” What would it mean if I said I was “ministering to her wounds.” Can I say that “he is the high priest of solar technology.” Not to mention endless “blasphemous” expletives, and the word “blasphemy” itself. But these words pale in comparison to “pray”, since prayer is an activity, and, as you note, it is an activity that seems to be built into the human psyche.

    Though your expertise vastly exceeds mine, this is a subject that I have been pondering for quite some time. I wrote about it explicitly in my essay http://andrewsigal.blogspot.com/2015/11/please-dont-pray-for-paris.html “Please Don’t Pray for Paris”, and I implicitly played with the idea in my series http://andrewsigal.blogspot.com/2012/03/i-want.html “I WANT”. Given that “prayer” is built in to the psyche, and can have important social and personal value, it is clear that atheists do need to pay attention to the underlying concepts of prayer. But I agree with the comment of Steve Ruis that the word “pray” is too loaded and that we need to stop using it.

    I have proposed many alternative words in my writing, and, I would also suggest that one need not search for or coin a single term to replace the word “pray.” As you note, “prayer” can and does mean different things to different people in different cultures under different circumstances. Why not stop using the word “pray”, and begin using “meditate”, “contemplate”, “wish”, “implore”, “care about”, “empathize with”, “stand with”, “mourn for”, “cry out”, etc. Does that in any way weaken the activity at hand. I don’t think so. Once upon a time I received a very minor, but very painful, injury while scuba diving. Instant relief was available on shore, but the bumpy ride back from the dive site was agonizing. I brought to mind the face of the Buddha. I contemplated that image for the duration of the ride. I was not praying to the Buddha for relief. I was not praying that the Buddha smooth the waves or speed up the boat. I was contemplating the face to calm my mind. If I told that story and used the word “prayer”, I believe that many people would misinterpret the internal state I was describing.

    So, yes, I agree that atheists need to appreciate the value of the underlying experience of contemplate/wish/cry-out/etc., but I still advocate for the expulsion of the word “pray”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you, Andrew. I agree that we probably need other words, and I appreciate that you have suggested several. Nontheists struggle also with the word “spiritual”, as in “secular spirituality” because it too so carries overtones of religion and other woo. But I think “prayer” is probable easier to replace.

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  4. tildeb says:

    As someone who must often perform to high levels of expertise in public, I have come to rely on what I call a centering exercise that uses the same form as prayer yet doesn’t appeal to some superstitious element. It’s very important to place one’s self and one’s awareness fully in the here and now while at the same time disallowing all the potential problems that might soon come about from entering this immediate ‘safe’ space. I also use this technique in all kinds of other high pressure, high stress situations from domestic to professional crises in order to manage my focus and function well. Uncertainty can be a killer.

    I also use the technique to reflect… a means to get me and my emotions – both high and low – out of the way to center myself on a kind of third person review… what went well, what didn’t, how I can improve, and so on. I also use this as part of a sleep routine and have found it a way to better appreciate just how much others add (and subtract) from my well-being, what I can do to improve myself on behalf of others, and so this thinking process turns out to be a very calming and relaxing way to situate myself in an ever-changing life. It shows me what is most meaningful in my life and offers me a way to honestly place myself in it.

    I say all of this because I think the effects of such intentional techniques really do alter to positive results what I think is found beneficial in prayer… but without all the superstitious nonsense and abdication of personal responsibility and loss of personhood and dignity that lies at the center of religious practices. I understand that religion steals everything beneficial and then claims to be its cause (while studiously placing blame for negative effects squarely on the shoulders of its non-godly victims) and I think a poor understanding of possessing a bicameral brain – one that produces different ‘voices’ (for lack of a better term) – plays right into this thievery. Learning to activate and listen to different voices we naturally possess from different areas and hemispheres of the brain is hardly the purview of religion (religion almost be definition is a knowledge-empty set) but, in the absence of good teaching how to live well and be the narrator of our own narratives no matter what we encounter in life, steps into an assumed role and then uses our own ignorance as a means to advance its superstitious and submissive cause.

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    • rorys2013 says:

      [Religion]”uses our own ignorance as a means to advance its superstitious and submissive cause.”

      As I see it our fundamental ignorance is the fact that we all need to be introduced to the fact that our thoughts are just representations, they cannot be anything else. Therefore the first requirement, for any thought, is to determine whether it is representing something or nothing. If nothing and you react to it as if it was something then you are deluded. If the thought is representing something then the thought is true.

      Our brains evolved to increase our chances of survival in this physical realm. Therefore there is selective pressure to ensure that the the representations in the brain, i.e. thoughts, are of reality, not representing nothing. I think thoughts which are not true produce inner unease/discomfort/pain in the thinker. Thoughts which are true produce positive feelings.

      Activities guided by the thought of a God out there have led to immeasurable personal as well as social suffering of all kinds therefore for this reason alone we should reject the thought of there being a God out there. It is a delusion no matter how much emotional effort is invested in it.

      There is more to life however than our circumscribed experience of it as an individual. Luckily it seems that we each have the inward ability to sense this wider reality and prayer that aligns us inwardly with this wider reality is useful prayer. At least I have found it so in my life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

        I suggest that all thoughts are valid. I further suggest there are no “good” or “bad” ones. Some people may argue that thinking of putting a bullet in Trump’s brain as a good thought and others will swear to the contrary.

        What is forgotten in the evaluation process is that we assess all things in terms of a duality, good or evil, or god and satan if you prefer. The duality concept is the issue. The reality is that the thoughts can lead to action. Whether we take action or not on the thought is based on our personal belief system.

        Thoughts about finding a girl friend, having good health, having a comfortable life, being afraid of gangsters, fearing terrorism in our streets, etc.; all of those things are thoughts we may have. Whether or not they will become a reality in our personal or communal lives is based on the amount of energy that we imbue them with.

        Let me give you an example that is not my own but will illustrate the power of thought. And may I be so bold as to suggest it is not unlike prayer.

        An elderly person is retired and lives peacefully in her home enjoying her life. Over the course of many years, as she observes the newspapers, the television, and perhaps radio she may begin to notice the constant reporting of violence everywhere in the world. Murders, wars, invasions, U.S. drone assassinations, invasion of Iraq, Libya, etc. Her friends may even indicate to her and support the news reports suggesting the world is a bad place and very dangerous.

        Thus slowly over a period of time, even though her personal situation is certainly not a violent one she may begin to ponder the extent of the violence in the world. Soon she may begin to have thoughts about violence in her neighbourhood. She may pay more attention when she hears sirens in the neighbourhood. All of a sudden, and because of that new focus, she finds that there are indeed bad things happening in her neighbourhood or other neighbourhoods. Thus over a slow process and after some time she focuses more and more of her thoughts on violence and pays more attention to the news reports on violence.

        Our friend, the old lady, continues this path focusing on violence and slowly comes to fear that which is really not a part of her own personal reality. However, the focusing of thoughts on the issue supported by her energy on the subject may lead her to face such an event.

        Thus one day, this person answers a knock on her door and finds it is someone wishing to rob her. An outside observer would say she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, another “accident.”

        However, if you look at it in the context of the thought and energy combo I have painted, you might think differently and say that the robbery is a fulfillment of not only her fear regarding violence but the energy she projected behind those thoughts. Someone, the robber, registered her thoughts in his mind ans has agreed to help her out with the “creation” of this new found reality that the elderly person has now formed as a potential reality in her mind.

        Again, from the perspective of “reality creation”: “Is the robbery good or bad?” I suggest it is neither. it is simply a cooperative effort between the retired person and the robber, agreeing to create an event. It is an expression of creativity, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with good or evil.

        Where people get into trouble and are faced with life issues such as rape, murder, pedophiles, predators, wars, genocide, storms, hurricanes, drought, Fukushima, 3-mile Island and all other events, is that they totally reject the idea that they are the “creator”of the event, but rather an outside god, which they prefer to blame. Facing your own role and responsibility in the above situations can be viewed as more than outrageous, but as insanity.

        In fact they are not only the cause of the event but the event(s) is a cooperative effort of, in some cases, thousands of peoples if not millions. The Fukushima event is a worldwide experience, and thus created by billions of people. It is in part due to the worldwide fear of mutually destructive nuclear war. So much focus is put on the fear that the event is created, not nuclear war this time, but a localized event with worldwide ramifications, the end result is the same.

        The internet is a worldwide event allowing people in very remote areas to view and see for themselves the creation of events everywhere. This is a cooperative effort of billions of people.

        The same situation applies to worldwide conditions such as climate change, nuclear proliferation by way not only of bombs and nuclear weapons, but also of nuclear power plants.

        We, the people, are becoming sensitized to world conditions, disappearance of animal species, rising seas, etc. It is saying to us that we can do something about it. It is in the power of our thoughts, multiplied, and by the energy we put behind those thoughts that propels solutions worldwide. The Trump event is one of those events. Now what we make of it, is in our hands.

        A penny for your thoughts, is worth more than the billions of Bill Gates.

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      • Andrew Sigal says:

        All thoughts are valid? I believe that there is a giant tea pot circling the sun that controls all events on earth. Valid?

        Liked by 1 person

      • tildeb says:

        Very po-mo of you. We still call this line of reasoning you offer, ‘Blame the Victim’.

        Let’s use the same scenario you draw up but rather than exposure to violence and thoughts about it, let’s say the lady’s days and nights are filled with thoughts of puppy dogs and butterflies and doilies. The same robber comes to her door. I think you will continue to assign to her responsibility because you presume a causal connection between thoughts of , say, robbery, and its manifested reaction to those thoughts and pretend that no such robber would show up in the thought experiment you use.

        To get around my criticism, you have to connect by means of a mechanism the real world effects you select and the real world cause you hypothesize. This you have not done and your thought experiment does not suffice.

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      • I’m afraid I have to agree with Andrew and Tilde-b here, Yeoshi. As soon as there is an external objective–and i think that for a sentient being there always is–then all thoughts cease to be equally valid.

        If the quest is construed broadly, I don’t believe that any of us ever get away from the animal instinct to avoid pain and seek pleasure–and to understand the contingencies that govern these two dimensions of experience. All religions ultimately put forward hypotheses that are, fundamentally hedonistic in the sense that they are arguments about how to attain this. Buddhism on the surface eschews this pursuit, but really argues for a more sophisticated pursuit of the same. Christianity makes no bones about promising exaggerated versions of pleasure and pain in its two versions of the afterlife.

        But I digress. I agree with you that good and bad look very different from the vantage of, say, a rabbit and a mountain lion that wants to eat that rabbit. But that doesn’t get us away from the very basic underlying principle. It simply brings us to a question about whose experiences of good and bad matter and why–which is a process of articulating convergent priorities.

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      • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

        In the case of the rabbit versus the mountain lion it is not a question of good or bad or whom perceives it to render it as good or a bad event. In this case we have adopted the “survival of the fittest” motto as the true paradigm. Fortunately the rabbit and the lion couldn’t care less about what paradigms we use, they have their own “natural” paradigm.

        In the case of what we perceive as the predator and the prey, lion v rabbit, there is an understanding between the two as to their roles. The rabbit understands the need of the lion to eat as it requires nourishment just like the rabbit to continue living.

        For instance, take the situation of a pack of lions chasing down water buffalo. Both of these creatures understand their roles. However, the lion does not indiscriminately attack any buffalo. Because of the underlying understanding it may target a young born to not only assist the heard in controlling its own population but also to help itself survive by eating the meat. We, as human beings normally never consider that aspect in what is seen as a predator v prey environment.

        Furthermore, the lion pack may target elderly or sick buffalo in the herd, to help them control the spread of disease in one instance and in the other to provide honour to the sickly whom will fight till the end and not just abdicate their role. This is not to say that both of these players will abdicate their responsibility. Each one is cognizant of the other and I claim it is this knowledge that helps them both secure a “natural” balance in their respective environments.

        Man, on the other hand, more often than not deals with his reality and the other creatures in his world indiscriminately and with utter disdain in many cases. There is little respect if not total absence of it when man decides to kill animals, as an example, for what is called “sport”. We do not “honour” our prey, we simply slaughter it. There are consequences to ourselves for being so arrogant and may I say “uncaring.”

        We generally do not live in “balance” or if you prefer in “harmony” with our environment. We simply destroy whatever we see and build something we believe to be more appropriate.

        All thoughts are valid. That does not imply an automatic creation or physical experience of those thoughts in our lives. For the thoughts to become actualized there must be creative energy behind it and it must be sustained.

        All thoughts begin in a dream state and I do not mean the one we are accustomed to when sleeping. The dream state I am talking about is where ideas begin. Those ideas begin in our “self” which is not physical in nature. You may wish to call it soul but it is that which creates our physical body. Now I know I will lose a lot of you here, but that is ok. Our physical reality begins in the dreams of our soul or “true self” creates in its attempt at creating new worlds, new experiences, and experiments to infinity with all manner of things. Thus we are a reflection of our “self.”

        Nonetheless in our physical body we do influence our reality. The simplest example is the hypnotist on a stage or self-hypnosis used to relax, meditate, lose weight, etc. We as physical beings are not fully handicapped. Our dream state when sleeping is used to help us resolve issues and explore solutions and new options that we may not have considered in the physical world. It has been demonstrated that the dream state exists also in our waking state but we choose not to focus on it nor to remember it.

        To think of ourselves as having an animal instinct is to insult our creativity and the selves that we really are. To add murkiness to the issue, death is only another event in our path. It is a simple transition from our physical realm to our true self.

        The catholic religion offers the enticement of heaven or hell, not much of a choice; eternal punishment and pain as they say, or eternal brain-dead bliss with no potential for creativity. Neither choice is acceptable. The Buddhists on the other hand claim our objective is to return to Nirvana, and to meld back into the “creator”, again a dead-end choice.

        We are creative beings whichever way you cut it. Self or no self, that is our essence, creativity. Any path that does not produce creativity in all its aspects will be shunned by our selves. Prayer, if nothing else offers the hope of creativity. It also reminds us that we are more than what we appear to be.

        An example of what is used to describe what I am trying to get across follows. Consider an actor on the stage, and a viewer in the audience, by the way, the only viewer in the audience.

        The scene is this. The viewer is looking at himself, the actor. on the stage experiencing life. The viewer is the “true self” examining the behaviour of himself as the actor. Depending on the paths taken or choices made the viewer may offer choices to the actor to help himself/herself achieve the desired results. However, all along the path(s), there is freedom of choice. The actor, may or may not recognize or “focus” on the suggestions given (as in a dream state) and act on them or it may intuitively react to them and create a new path or action. There is absolutely no predetermination in all of this, there are endless probabilities and possibilities, that is what is called creativity.

        One fundamental error of the Karma model is that it is claimed that we are re-born or have many re-incarnations because we have to make up for errors from previous lives. This is another facet of the duality model, good and evil.

        What would you say if I suggested that the so-called reincarnational lives are in fact simultaneous lives and not linear. Our current physical world is based on linearity while our friend the viewer lives in a multi-dimensional reality and is therefore aware of a great deal more than our myopic view.

        Recently I was viewing a presentation by Peter Russel of the Robert Monroe Institute in Virginia regarding his life’s experiences. It was quite interesting at one point when he was trying to describe things by using the word “awareness.” The word “aware” might be a good substitute for prayer. You try to become aware of your reality, your thoughts, your dreams, your path in life, your objectives, etc. You become aware of others. You become aware of new realities, of the potentiality of new chices.

        As you put it indirectly, our reality is based on essentially two dimensions or better yet, is linear. That limits our flexibility and inquisitiveness about ourselves. The linear concept says you are born, live, and die. That is nonsense. True, our bodies are an intermediate step or a creation by our “viewer” but it does not begin nor end there. The viewer is the one that we find again upon our physical death and there we begin anew with fresh ideas, new objectives, and things we may wish to try out.

        Try to imagine a reality in which time is an illusion. The lives that you have, are all lived simultaneously, they are not linear and therefore there is no need to even consider the concept of karma, it is such an infantile view.

        The idea is to try and become self “aware”, to talk to yourself, to look within, to seek the “self.” That is what I am struggling with. I never said it was easy to take responsibility for all your decisions and all the events of your life.

        Getting back to your point about “..whose experiences of good and bad matter and why…”

        They all matter and the why is because they are creations of our viewer, our selves. I repeat there is no good and there is no bad. There is just experience by way of creativity.

        That is not to say that we should just sit back and watch the U.S. attack Libya and Iraq, and become observes as when they use drones to assassinate civilians and other people they consider “terrorists.” The same applies to a man raping a woman, a priest abusing the choir boy, the pope agreeing to a one-world government, letting the E.U. reject millions of refugees on the vague assumption that they are guilty until proven innocent.

        There is a concept known as “honour” and respect of the other as in the case of the buffalo and the lion. Both understand each other but that does not mean the buffalo will just bend down on his knees and let the lion snap its neck, no, it will play its roles and the buffalo will try its best to defend itself.

        As with crimes of all types, there is a consequence to our actions and we need to honour and respect each other. Incarcerating someone in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day for many years as is routinely done is to tally dishonour ourselves and the person we are trying to punish. We have not stopped being brutes and dictators, as is the case for the Assad regime in Syria, the military dictatorship of Egypt and Saudi Arabia but to name a few, and so many others in other countries.

        I hope I give the correct credit to Edgar Cayce for the following: “It is time for the sleeper to awaken.”

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  5. I have been agnostic since approximately 1970 or so and have been preoccupied with the ethics of love ever since. I have had three deeply spiritual experiences, one of which emerged from a sort of prayer of dare in which I dared God to reveal anything to prove God’s existence to me. I had an intense experience of God seemingly answering that prayer. With perspective, I have come to understand the event as my consciousness talking to another part of my brain that did not seem to be me. In the aftermath of that, I came to believe that we all relate consciously to an extensive system of neurons that contain what we interpret as our values and beliefs. Functionally each of us has a “value and belief system” that evaluates everything, that forms and records beliefs, and basically controls our thought process and behavior. I think prayer taps into that value and belief system. I see the value of prayer as a way to tap into our own depths. So I see value in prayer as a conscious act that changes something within us.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Perry says:

    I doubt I could ever accept the notion of an atheist prayer, despite whatever alleged evidence exists that suggests such activity is beneficial in some way. As Andrew Sigal commented above, the word “prayer” is too loaded a term for me. Christianity ruined my life, and I will never fully recover from the extreme harm it caused me. When I finally reached out for help with the Complex PTSD I was eventually diagnosed with as result of that harm, more than one counsellor/psychologist was unable to relate to the extreme spiritual abuse I had experienced. So when they suggested things like mindfulness, meditation and cognitive behaviour therapy, I stopped my sessions with them. Perhaps I misunderstood what they meant by mindfulness and meditation, but just those words alone reminded me too much of the role prayer played in my former life. Same with CBT. Just that phrase alone freaked me out.

    I had come to the realization on my own that I had been indoctrinated as a child, and my adolescent mind so manipulated by my spiritual abusers that I allowed them to control and exploit my entire life for two decades. The last thing I wanted was anyone else messing with my mind. As I said, I probably misunderstood what CBT was, but my point is that words matter. I ended up self-directing my therapeutic recovery through a university education, which had been denied to me as a Christian. I found atheism to be the only safe ground for me to rest on. I could not bring myself now to accept the notion of “atheist prayer”, however benign or beneficial that might turn out to be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

      I too am searching. I have found some solace in the books by Jane Roberts, a channeller, and creative author that produced 22 books on reality, your role in it and what you can do about it. The material is tough to digest and even understand but it does paint a different picture of reality than the current fantasy.

      The following is not meant to offend you in any way as I am sure you have done a great deal of “soul” searching (pardon the word soul), but it has helped me with my troubles.

      My difficulties in life have been a cake walk compared to your own however, divorce, loss of my job, loss of my home, loss of my daughter, not knowing from one day to the next if I would be a homeless person living in a cardboard box, etc. all of these things are like sandpaper on your heart. You tend to get rough on the edges, and you scrape yourself along on the road bumping into things along the way.

      I adopt the view that all the activities, actions, events, situations, cal them what you will, as horrific or as pleasant as they may be are all “experiences” that YOU, WE, US, have designed and implemented on this planet. It is our current mechasim of learning.

      We are in a gigantic kindergarten school, our baby steps are painful and slow to be sure, yet as “Eyehore” from Winnipe-the-Pooh” might say, we muddle through.

      The one resounding tenent I claim from my life’s experiecne to date is that the events of my life have been put there by myself to allow me to learn and grow and as such I have, with great great difficulty, begun to accept them and most importantly to remember that if I have done those great and horrific things, they have been put there by me FOR me, and not for anyone else.

      Thus there is a benefit to me in all of it. It is not an accident that this is happening; it is not pre-determined as so many will tell you, but your path is multitudinous, that is all of the choices that you make and including the ones you think you have not made are all experiecned through multi-selves in various multidimensional universes and other realities. Within it all you remain “yourself”.

      Call me a nut! You might be right my friend, But at least it is an idea that I adopt and cherish as my own, not one given by a religion, a prayer, a priest, a sadist, a terrorist, etc. those experiences of my life are my very own and I continue to learn, however painful it may be. This is one truth, one of many of your own life as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perry says:

        You assumed in your first sentence that I am “searching”. Given what you write after that, your use of that word suggests connotations beyond what I was doing by educating myself out of religious dogma. But you really lost me with your reference to finding “solace” in a “channeller”, which made it hard for me to take serious anything you said after that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

        Was only trying to help. Not everyone is comfortable with the esoteric. Surprising when you think that god-myths are just that.

        Like

      • Perry says:

        “Was only trying to help.”

        I know. That’s why I didn’t call you “a nut”.

        Like

    • I hear you, Perry, and I honor your journey out of religion-induced trauma.

      Like

  7. Thanks for sharing this Valerie…I have mentioned this before but as a speaker at our Waⁿdat Ceremonial Grounds, and a continual Longhouse participant, we have been taught that giving thanks and maintaining thankfulness is the purist prayer. We might thanks to the trees, the thunderers or the winds, the moon and the stars and it might be to give thanks to the Creator (whom we refuse to define in any theological way) .We open our ceremonies with a Thanksgiving Address which addresses the natural order. In our Waⁿdat language, to express thanks FOR the trees is the same as saying thanks TO the trees. We are taught that it is rude and presumptuous to ask for things. The Creator must not be seen as some sort of vending machine, or a familiar spirit one can manipulate and appease to receive favors. We receive what life gives us and try to maintain a state of thanksgiving even in suffering…we have no right to demand favors or to set lofty expectations. We are only fellow creatures along with creatures we share this world with.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

      The creator as you like to cal it, him , her, etc. is not an external force. Contrary to your teachings that god is within us I claim that I am god, the creator, the designer of my reality. I am everywhere and I learn and I grow and continue creating all thigns within and without. I seek others like myself and we co-create the physcial reality and other multiverses, and prayer has nothing to do with it.

      Praying to a statue is nonsense and enclosing yourself in a box called a church for an hour or so will not change the facts of reality. Though so many claim, there is no separation of the self, there is no subconscious, no soul, no ego, no consciousness; all is ONE and the separations are the joys of scientists and pretend scientisst that call themsevles psychologist and psychiatrist, the class of PSCHOS, as I prefer to call them. So continue to call upon your fantasies that you call prayers.

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  8. Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

    It appears you were subjugated to the usual litany of brainwashing exercices. Endless repetition does imprint the brain into automatism – the cultists at their best. They have learned how to imprint all the young ones at an early age to remove your sense of exploration, inquisitiveness, questioning, and above all to become answerable to a god, whatever the kind. Similar techniques, and perhaps more profound, are used by communist China, as it continues to be ruled by a dictatorship that pretends to represent the people. Some guy dressed in a white gown sitting in a place called the Vatican does much the same; also a dictatorship. How can this brute that claims to be the vicar of christ on earth tell women that they will go to hell for having abortions. The church and its prayers are means to control slaves who are too scared to think for themselves.

    Using the word prayer is in my view very destructive. I would prefer words such as, self-exploration, searching within, expanding your universe, meditation, relaxation, letting go, etc. There are so many other choices. The word prayer is synonimous with religion and extremists and I really hate the word.

    You have been so effectively brainwashed that to this day you stil think the word is acceptable in a secular environment. I clearly disagree. This is akin to the U.S. extolling the virtues of PEACE while they continue making war and to use weapons such as spent uranium in Iraq and Afhanistan. The uranium poison will last for many, many millions of years, causing cancers, horrific birth defects, shorter life span. That is the heritage the US has left in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the way the same is true of Fukushima that continues to kill millions over time. Nuclcear plants are the world’s greatest plague.

    Back to prayer. It is totally unwarranted, and unecessary if one can achieve understanding of ones’ self. We are all in search of the truth within and it is not a religious one and it is not prayer.

    The search within is not easy. Prayer in my view is a crutch leading to lazyness of soul and mind.

    You quote Adam Lee:
    Human beings have always been, and still are, at the mercy of a complex and often frightening world. It is only natural that people in such circumstances would be eager, even desperate, for a way to calm their fears and give themselves confidence, and this is what prayer provides. It gives believers a “direct line” to the highest power in the universe, the one whom they are told is on their side and will make sure everything turns out all right for them. This ability to cope has always been one of the major perceived benefits of religious belief, and atheists who seek to make inroads against theism would do well to remember it.

    The root of the problem lies in faulty thhiking as Lee presents in that: “… we are …at the mercy of a complex, and often frightening world.”

    While this is what people are beign told and taught I disagree with the view. I believe that the creators of this physical reality are ourselves and not an outisde god or super being or whatever nonsensical term you wish to use. The physical reality of this universe is made my myself in concert with the rest of the billions of people on the planet. YOU create your own reality. Thus in this view one must accept responsibililty for all of the activites we see, do, and live. That does include, assassinations, rape, murder, decapitations, starvation, nuclcear bombs, sexual abuse by paedophiles in the catholic extremist church, despotic controls by the pope, the Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the 3-mile Island incident, tsunamis etc. the list is as long as you wish to make it.

    Furthermore we must take responsiblity for the beauty of the Fibonnaci Series, the Sequoias, the extaordinary moving sunsets and sunrises, the moon in all its facets, the moving stars, the birds calling our names, the dolphins riding like the seas, the polar bear sliding down the enbankment with delight, the untold joys of watching kids run on the grass yelling out loud with joy and exhuberance, your first kiss, your first love, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, all of this makes me smile and much ot it fogs my eyes. YES I accept it all.

    Trump, at this time is an unknwon quantity. Perhaps a prayer for him might be required (LOL). What do you think?

    It is long overdue that we stop blaming everybody else for the circumstances of our world. The buck STOPS with you, not the president, not the pope, not your neighbour, not the storm coming your way, and prayers will not change that. If you really need to blame some thing or someone, look in the mirror.

    I asked god if he knew of another! It thought for a second (now, because we experience what we call time here, this may be a few million years), and he replied by saying: “There was something else before myself but I canot recall what it was nor where it is.” It keeps looing for the other.

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  9. bscritic says:

    Thank you, Valerie, for inspiring this discussion of prayer. I agree wholeheartedly with several of the commenters. We must not just redefine prayer. We must use more accurate words to describe the useful activities that you include in the term. Words are powerful because they are the substance of thought. The word “prayer” carries far too much baggage and has been far too monopolized by religion to be used by non-theists for healthy,useful activities. It seems impossible to divorce the term “prayer” from the implication of a supernatural listener to our words, even when the prayer is not intended as an intercession or petition. So in answer to your tile, “Should Atheists Pray?” — no, atheists and all other rational people should meditate, focus, express appreciation, convey love, hope for (while working toward), etc. as the situation requires.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Susan Louise says:

    Thank you for this post. I found what you said to be very useful for thought. I do believe that some intended uses of prayer can be damaging. I am an ex-fundamentalist and subsequent suicide attempt survivor. However, I have an enormous passion for pure spiritual growth. I’ve redefined my personal understanding of “God” to be Consciousness. Since we all have consciousness, we all have what is commonly “God” regardless of what names we use for consciousness or the access to higher consciousness (prayer, meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and realization. In my studies, I have learned the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation (attached to religion as in prayer, or not) and their contributions to quality of life. I do wish I had learned such things while young. I accept now whatever names and titles others choose to use, so long as they consider themselves on a path to peace. Thank you for a great post and more to consider. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

    Hello again, I would like to suggest a link that might interest soem people here. It is a presentation given by Dean Radin, PhD, Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) during the 27th Professional Seminar of March 2016 of the Monroe Institute.

    I hope you enjoy it, for its mind expanding implications.

    I take great liberty in extracting and copying the description of the video on youtube. Here it is without changes.

    Published on Jun 15, 2016
    The Illusion of Separation
    Everyday experience tells us that our minds are isolated inside our heads and that ultimately we are separate creatures. But everyday experience is a poor arbiter of the true nature of reality. Joining us via Skype, Dr. Radin discusses why this is so and presents evidence indicating that a key part of us—perhaps the key—is not only holistically interconnected with everything else throughout space and time, but that this seemingly radical idea makes perfect sense after applying a twist to prevailing scientific models of reality.

    Dean Radin, PhD, is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and Volunteer Faculty in the Department of Psychology at Sonoma State University. He earned a BSEE degree in electrical engineering, magna cum laude with honors in physics, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and then an MS in electrical engineering and a PhD in psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. For a decade he worked on advanced telecommunications R&D at AT&T Bell Laboratories and GTE Laboratories. For over two decades he has been engaged in frontiers research on the nature of consciousness. Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, University of Nevada, Interval Research Corporation, and SRI International.

    He is author or coauthor of over 250 peer-reviewed scientific and popular articles, three dozen book chapters, and 3 popular books including the award-winning and bestselling The Conscious Universe, Entangled Minds, and a 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award, Supernormal. Dr. Radin has appeared on dozens of television shows and has given over 350 interviews and talks.

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    • Perry says:

      In one comment above you referenced channeller Jane Roberts. In another you referred to Christian mystic Edgar Cayce. And now you reference the psuedoscientific Institute of Noetic Sciences. In your first reply to me you invited me to: “Call me a nut!” I resisted, as I tend to avoid name calling. But I will say that it is now clear that you are peddling woo. While you may find that sort of nonsense meaningful to you, I doubt many, if any, of the atheists Valerie is referring to in her article will.

      “Noetic “science” is closer to the pseudoscience of parapsychology and other such New Age fluff as “expanding your consciousness.” The Institute of Noetic Sciences is the primary outlet for this form of woo. It was co-founded by former astronaut Edgar Mitchell and former Exxon executive and crank billionaire Paul N. Temple, who is also associated with the fundamentalist Christian organization The Family,… Unsurprisingly, noetic science has come under criticism from skeptics and actual scientists, and the organization Quackwatch has placed the Institute of Noetic Science on the “questionable organizations” list.” http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Noetic_science

      Edgar Mitchell, former astronaut (astronut?), now deceased, supported for example, the Canadian quack known as Dreamhealer (Adam McLeod), who claimed the ability of “quantum healing”, healing over long distances. He considered Mitchell a mentor. After financing his university education with expensive public healing performances, he is now a naturopath in Vancouver, BC.

      The following Skeptical Inquirer article from March/April 2006 debunks McLeod’s claims, and this quotation from it is apropos Valerie’s article above:

      “Whether you are a theist, deist, nontheist, atheist, or pantheist, distant healing and its close relative, petitionary prayer, are questionable. “The problem with distant healing and petitionary prayer is that they don’t accept that the universe is beyond our control,” says bioethicist Stephen Post of Case Western University, head of the Institute for Unlimited Love. “Even if you’re a theist you cannot presume God will answer your prayers. There’s a certain human arrogance in thinking that somehow I can impose my will on the divine, and that I can actually measure prayer’s effect.””
      http://web.archive.org/web/20060720193756/http://www.nyu.edu/classes/neimark/bigbird.html

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      • Yeoshi Yamamoto says:

        Woo-woo, sure hit a nerve there. You sir, have issues. The reference to Cayce was a quote and not a dissertation or invocation of his work nor his views of christianity. It is true that he was engrossed with religion and that affected his life. However, in the matter of his healing recommendations under self-hypnosis, he provided brilliant solutions to people whom otherwise would be dire straits. A simple phase like woo-peddler dismisses any validity he may have had. Sad to see you are so dismissive.

        There has been plenty of analysis of his healing recommendations and they have proven very reliable and effective. Of course, current medicine laughs at any such nonsense as they prefer their scalpels, intoxicating drugs of all kinds, chemotherapy for people who might survive anyway but are destroyed in many ways and sometimes killed because of the chemo itself. Not to beleaguer current medicine, but it does have its own quacks disguised under a white coat. As a side-note I invite you to review the exhaustive list of drugs peddled by the industry and you will find horrific side-effects, listed and aprroved by our government: heart attack, drowsiness, heart palpitations, sweats, lost of consciousness, liver and kidney failure, loss of vision, and the list is endless indlucing deeath. So who is woo-peddling again?

        Looking back at the claims regarding christ and his sayings one would be quite safe in saying that he was a woo-peddler as you are fond of saying. So were Copernicus, Kuhn and Galileo but to name a few. In some countries and to this day, so-called witches are legally killed if reported to be so by somebody. Abortons are illegal in many countries and the victim (if such is the case) is incarcerated for being a victim. The Dark Ages are never too far behind.

        Information is just that, no more no less. If you wish to dismiss it, that is entirely up to you. Others may find it interesting and explore it further. It is out there for everyone, take what you want and leave the rest.

        It is interesting that you do not address Radin’s data directly but you suggest they are crap by implying that he is a nut case by virtue of his association with others that may have been ear-marked as such. It is the same tactic the U.S. has used with Guantanamo detainees. Your association with “guilty” parties makes you automatically guilty as well.

        Recall the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen whom at the age of 15 was incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay by the U.S. dictatorship. Now what type of woo-peddling was he guilty of. Oh I now! Launching a grenade as the soldiers (U.S. soldiers) claimed. And of course our friendly, happy-go-lucky Harper would have been happy to crucify the boy himself. Bill C-51 anyone?

        So there is a price to be paid for providing information. Some information we enjoy, some we abhor, some we detest, some we ignore, other information we would prefer to destroy. So does the pope still think that the earth is the centre of the universe? Who was the woo-peddler that thought that idea up? Ah yes, science.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Perry says:

        I should have know better than to engage with you. It is not possible to have a rational discussion with someone like you who makes the kinds of assertions and assumptions you do. As for me having “issues” with spiritual nonsense, yes I admitted that in my first comment above. It seems to me that you are the one who is being dismissive, and in denial of your own “issues”.

        Like

      • Carey Folk says:

        Arguing with woo-woo people is like wrestling in the mud with a pig……after a while, you realize the pig enjoys it.

        Like

  12. Friend says:

    Why exactly would an atheist pray? Do you know what. A-theist means?

    Like

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