Do Atheists Pray?
April 7, 2018
“Do atheists pray?” This was the question asked at our Lenten book study of Craig Groeschel’s book “The Christian Atheist: When You Believe in God But Live as if He Doesn’t Exist.” I had never thought about the question, so I emailed Scott in the middle of class. We agreed the question would make a good Crossed column. So here we are.
Spending much of my childhood with my grandparents and their friends, I would occasionally hear someone — usually a World War II veteran — say: “There are no atheists in foxholes!” While this might be true for some, I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest all atheists change camps in their hour of need. I can imagine some atheists dying a stoic’s death rather than crying out to God. But does this mean no atheists cry out to God? I don’t think so.
Scott’s in a better position to answer this question, but I would imagine some atheists do pray. We often equate prayer and meditation. I would think a few atheists might spend time in self-reflection and centering practices akin to prayer. I would also think in a time of crisis — whether in a foxhole, or at the bedside of a loved one facing death, some atheists might silently express thoughts or feelings that, had they been spoken from the lips of a person of faith, we would consider a prayer. But are such detached thoughts prayers?
We could quibble over intent. If a person doesn’t believe in God, can we really call their prayer a prayer? Can a prayer truly be a prayer, if it wasn’t directed to any One in particular? Yes! I believe these “sighs too deep for words,” as the Bible describes them, are sincere prayers even if offered by those who have no faith in God. Why? Because God is not only the One who hears our prayers but also the One who inspires our prayers.
“ … for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” — Romans 8:26b-27
“Sighs too deep for words” is a very nice expression. When solitary contemplation isn’t enough to process my most profound experiences, sharing and exploring them in close relationships with other living, caring, empathetic humans is usually the most fulfilling outlet.
Perhaps some religiously uncommitted people facing death do “cry out to God,” throwing their last chips down on Pascal’s wager. But I suspect most atheists would not generate belief during those moments any more than a drowning Christian would cry out to Poseidon.
In my youth, attempts at prayer underscored the non-reality of God. God was described as powerful, loving, and present, yet I found myself struggling to detect him by force of will and imagination. Praying was indistinguishable from pretending. Now, as an atheist, I am free to explore deep emotions without doing that futile mental work.
Before even learning to speak, our earliest interactions are with loving, knowing, protective, authority figures. We submit to the security of their care and protection. Humans might unknowingly project this parental relationship model onto the universe. Later, language becomes integrated into our thinking processes, giving our mental life the feel of a conversation. The sense that we have a caring omnipotent conversation partner might be resident in our nature.
Atheists are humans. We experience the same emotions that believers funnel into prayers: gratitude, contrition, awe, and pangs of concern for those we love or for humanity in general.
When the United States initiated war in Iraq, I watched it on television. Militarily, those were probably the most precisely delivered bombs in history. Nonetheless, I knew that crumbling concrete crushed flesh, and projectiles penetrated bodies while the sky flashed and the earth shook. There was terror. I recognized also, that military force is a blunt instrument with which to try to improve the world; I feared further suffering. I don’t recall my posture — forehead in hands, eyes closed, perhaps. Thoughts and feelings merged. Sorrow, fear, empathy, and hope seemed a single substance. I immersed myself in it, trying to find what it should mean to me.
My daughter once received an old but functional handed-down hobby telescope. I aimed it at the brightest object we could see between treetops in our wooded yard. When I pulled it into focus, I saw Jupiter with little round moons suspended around it. Only night air and space stood between me and those bodies. A tingly wave of awe washed through me — an actual physical sensation. I was suddenly intimate with the universe in a way words can’t represent.
Had I prayed? Well, now we’re discussing the meaning of words. No matter how solemn or transcendent these moments, I had no illusion of my thoughts being received by any being or having an effect outside of me. These moments were me processing perceptions with my human package of emotions, not prayers.
And there’s the rub! It’s not my place to give meaning to Scott’s experience. Yet, the question must be asked, “What makes a prayer a prayer?” Scott had no intentions or illusions he was praying to God. But what did God hear? Scott believes he’s alone with his heartfelt thoughts and emotions. But does that mean God isn’t listening? I can’t speak for Scott, but I would think God was deeply moved by Scott’s compassion, and God was the inspiration of his awe. In the words of the Psalmist, “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of Thy cataracts” (Psalm 42). Whether we know God or not, this is who God is: the One who hears our “sighs too deep for words.” The One who hears our prayers.
Scott and Bill agree, human emotions and experiences are wondrously nuanced. The reflections of an atheist might sound much like the prayers of a believer. While they do not agree on whether God exists to hear those reflections and prayers, they believe it is good to recognize how much of the human experience the believer and the atheist have in common.