NYT Asks: Should Atheists Pray?

Joshua Reynolds - The Infant Samuel

In last week’s Room for Debate, the question the New York Times posed was this:

With atheist church services this month in Louisiana and New York, nonbelievers are borrowing some of the rituals of believers: gathering, singing, sermons.

Would it be fruitful for atheists to pray? For believers and others, what is the point of prayer?

I suppose the Times should be applauded for asking a question that seems to take atheism seriously, even if they allowed just one self-identified atheist into this “room ” to answer the question.

The simple answer, from this atheist’s perspective, is a great big fat obvious no. Prayer is by definition something asked of someone (or something), and it seems ludicrous to ask people who don’t believe in the supernatural to close their eyes, put their hands together, bow their heads and concentrate on asking something that might theoretically hear their sublingual thoughts for anything. What is the point? Leave prayer to the believers!

In the context of an atheist “service,” even, prayer is a ridiculous idea–perhaps even more ridiculous. In religious services, congregants pray together ostensibly to be heard by their god as one. This aspect of prayer is of course out of the question for atheists, who, it shouldn’t have to be said, have no god to pray to. But the other, less obvious aspect of prayer during a service is to share one’s spirituality with a community. This, I would even argue, is the only truly useful aspect of prayer services. As I  said in a previous post, I think religion is really at heart more about humanity than deity. It has always been used to bond people in communities around shared ideologies, and it’s that quality of religion that atheists seem to be trying to emulate with their “churches” and “services.”

It’s also that quality that I think is antithetical to atheism, which is not a simple ideology that can be shared and passed along as memes dressed up in ritual. You don’t get to be an atheist, the way you can get to be a Christian, Muslim or religious Jew, by repeating rote words or gestures until they become part of your being like sweat or breath. You get to atheism only through conscious thought.

Paradoxically, perhaps, I do think atheists might benefit from meditation. In my experience, which is not as extensive as I wish, meditation requires no content–in fact, the less content the better. I’m most familiar with transcendental meditation, having been given a mantra by a TM teacher who believed meditation is good for mental and physical health. He probably also believed it was good for spiritual health as though it were something different from mind and body, but I think they’re all of a piece. In any case, my experience tells me meditation is useful for clearing the mind, for regulating breath, for calming the heart, and so on. I suppose you could meditate in groups–and, in fact, I’ve heard of some people who find group meditation a powerful, enlivening experience. But it’s not something you can achieve in a moment of silence once a week as part of a ritualized service.

Let me know what you think of all this: Should atheists congregate in churches? What should an atheist service look like? Is there a good reason for atheists to pray together? Should they study meditation together?  I’d like to know what you all think.

6 thoughts on “NYT Asks: Should Atheists Pray?

  1. My reply came before the Times story:


    As to your individual questions:

    Should atheists congregate in churches?

    No, they should congregate at a softball field.

    What should an atheist service look like?

    Coed, nine innings. Lots of beer.

    Is there a good reason for atheists to pray together?

    Pray to what? Atheist prayer is an oxymoron.

    Should they study meditation together?

    They should study everything and anything. Together or apart.

  2. It sounds odd when being compared with theistic congregations, as if its a competing thing. Forgot who said it, but the line went something like, “There’d be nothing more ridiculous than a bunch of like-minded men sitting around discussing the non-existence of the gods.” That said, anything that gets people together to celebrate real things (science, space exploration…) must be considered good.

    • I think most atheists can do without sermons. I was thinking a weekly panel with Q & A on free-thinking subjects might be useful. Doesn’t have to be on the same day every week. In fact it would be more interesting to rotate the day and time and venue.Or randomize it. Just to stay away from the idea of a sacred time and space.

      I don’t know if I’d join a “congregation” even along those lines.

      • A roaming Q&A… Now that’s an idea. I suppose TED Talks are already that (to a point), but there’d be no harm in getting them out to a larger audience.

  3. Get this: Buddhists are atheists, and Buddhists pray. The particulars vary by sect, but atheist prayer is not an oxymoron once you consider that the word “prayer” has more definitions than the author provided.
    Prayer can be a conscious statement of intent. It can be a means of aligning minds to a common purpose. It can help one to feel a sense of surrender to the forces at play (without the need for a bunch of dogma about what those forces are). It can be a whole lot of things.

    Should atheists do this? Only, and especially, if they want to. And they can decide what it means and why they are doing it, too.

    Lastly I would like to point out that a rejection of belief in a deity doesn’t automatically imply rejection of belief in a transcendent idea of consciousness. It is common to use the word “atheist” to mean “denier of anything and everything not thoroughly explained by, and compatible with, modern physics (properly: philosophical physicalism).” That is a common use and many atheists hold to it, but they don’t have to, because the word’s meaning can stop at “there is no God” and imply nothing at all about other popular spiritual beliefs.

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