July 10, 2013

Should Atheists Pray?

A recent Room for Debate discussion in The New York Times (to which I contributed, along with Hemant Mehta, Rev. Joy J. Moore, Hal Taussig, and Deepak Chopra) began with this question and it elicited the anticipated wide range of responses. Reading through the comments prompted some additional thoughts.

It is important to clarify that whether or not you think atheists should pray, the fact is that people who are atheists already say that they do pray. Other atheists say this is impossibly deviant behavior and chastise those praying atheists for being so unorthodox. What this reveals is the great diversity (and potential for internal conflict) inherent in claiming the label of “atheist” for oneself. Richard Dawkins noted this some time ago when he suggested just how diverse atheism can be based on the perceived probability of God’s existence.

Just what are these atheists actually doing by praying? From their comments, it appears that their prayers range anywhere from “God, if you’re actually there, then give me a sign” to simple moments of reflective silence. The former resemble typical prayers that have a theistic focus; the latter are closely related to non-theistic meditation. In other words, prayer practices – whether those of an atheist or a believer, have strong functional similarities. Since the prayer habits of theistic believers are so pervasively known and evident in the American context, it is not surprising that the pattern of expression could be adapted by non-theists.


June 25, 2013

Praying Nonbelievers

In a similar vein as Elizabeth Drescher’s NDSP research, Michelle Boorstein at The Washington Post writes of a documented rise in praying atheists or “nonbelievers.”

Boorstein interviews atheists and researchers alike who report praying despite their atheist beliefs. One of the atheists, Sigfried Gold, “took up prayer out of desperation,” and has created his own goddess, who even appears in drawings about his house. The key to his goddess, is that despite the detailed vision of her appearance, she doesn’t exist.  

Historian, Gordon Melton, who studies new American religions, reports increased organization among atheists in the last decade, despite their varied views on the supernatural.

“It’s only been recently that people who are atheists said, ‘One can do spirituality in an atheist context,’” Melton said. “We’re getting more comfortable with idiosyncratic behaviors [in general], mixing things we’d not think of as going together. We see people are kind of making up their own religions as they go along…When we think of people sitting in the pews we shouldn’t think of them homogeneously; they are all over the fields – they just aren’t voicing it.

In order to better understand how atheists might approach “prayer,” Boorstein suggests that there are several questions that need answering first:

…what exactly do theists mean when they say they believe in God, to whom to they pray, and how do they feel the benefits from prayer happen? How would atheists who describe themselves as spiritual define the word? And how do the 6 percent of self-described atheists who pray define the practice?

Read more here.