Do atheists and agnostics pray? Yes, indeedy. Quite a bit it turns out. Six percent of them pray every day, we’re told by the Pew Research Center. And 11 percent pray weekly or monthly.
If no one is there, you might ask, who are they praying to? Let me guess.
The air. The universe. The self. Maybe.
Or theirs might be the kinds of prayer that don’t need a recipient. They could be a feeling of awe. A sense of the numinous. An upwelling of peace brought on by nature. A moment of transcendence in the presence of music or art. Or simply a moment of felt stillness.
Their prayers might also be an overflowing of gratitude. A shout of joy brought on by being alive. A moment of connection with another human’s pain.
Or, of course, they could also be cries for help from people who can’t help crying out even though they don’t think anyone hears. Trees falling in the forest. The proverbial atheists in foxholes. Or just screamers, who voice their pain because they must and give it meaning because that’s what humans do.
Once the options are outlined, it seems less surprising that atheists pray. But that brings up another question. How did I (and they, if my suggestions are actually what the study’s respondents mean by prayer) get the idea that prayer could take so many forms?
I did not grow up thinking such thoughts. I and everyone I knew believed that prayer was directed to God (or Gods if they were what we Baptists called poor heathens). Or Jesus, who is God. Or in the case of Catholics, Mary and the saints.
Prayer was spoken—either aloud or silently. It consisted of praise, supplication, repentance, and thanks, except when delivered publicly. Then it might include quite a lot of telling God what he already knew and a goodly dose of preaching aimed at the listeners, held bowed and captive by the notion that God was in attendance.
But prayer, like so much of American religious belief, has gone rogue. Now it can consist of all manner of things. Be directed toward all sorts of entities. Or none at all.
NEXT: PRAYING ATHEISTS II: The atheist who made a goddess, didn’t believe in her but prayed anyway from the Washington Post story. And what happened then. How William James would explain that.