In last week’s Room for Debate, the question the New York Times posed was this:
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.
- Praying Atheists (raisingkidswithoutreligion.net)
- New York Times Asks: Should Atheists Pray? (patheos.com)
- Research shows some atheists find solace in prayer (bangordailynews.com)
- Does It Make Sense for Atheists to Pray? (patheos.com)
- This isn’t atheism (wokeupthismorning.net)