Sunday, July 14, 2013

Praying as an Atheist

You've probably heard the expression that there's "no atheist in a foxhole." Meaning, even if someone professes not to believe in God, if they're truly scared for their life they'll invariably call out to God for help and thus reveal their true beliefs. Some atheists, particularly in the military, object to this sentiment, and I can understand that. However, I'd like to bring out another point - that one can pray as an atheist, and still be an atheist.

First, a quick aside. I deliberately titled the post "Praying as an Atheist", and not "Davening as an Atheist". Davening is something that nonbelievers in the Jewish world do as a matter of routine, because it's such a central part of Jewish ritual life - going to shul, hearing the Torah reading, saying the Shemona Esrei, saying Kaddish, etc. What would a nonbeliever get out of an experience which ostensibly is "all about God"? Plenty. Shul/davening is a multi-layered experience. It has a certain rhythm to it, specific melodies, things you have to do at certain times. And those familiar words, tunes, procedures, places and faces can give a person a much-needed sense of stability and comfort. Davening at shul also has the obvious social aspect, as well as the communal cohesion aspect. You start to feel "out of it", out of sync with the community, if you don't show up in shul from time to time. There's the "getting away from the house" aspect (come on, guys - we've all been there!). There's going to davening because something else is going on at the shul - a shiur, an event, etc. And of course there's also the possibility of introspection and focus - either on what you're saying or in general on things that matter. There's taking a few minutes out of the day just to breathe. (Of course, when davening is fast there is no chance to breathe or unwind. In fact the davening itself can be stressful. But then again, when it's slow enough to breathe, and you just want to get out of there already, that's also stressful. So take your pick!) Anyway, like I say, there are lots of layers to be found - even before you get into matters of "belief". So yes, nonbelievers "daven" all the time.

But what about "praying"? What about asking for help, expressing joy and gratitude, awe and amazement, etc.?

For quite some time, I was "anti" the idea of praying. After all, if I've come to the intellectual conclusion that the God of the Torah, alleged to have given the Torah, is not a historical reality, how can I in good conscience pray to that God? And if I've come to the conclusion that we have no evidence to believe that God (or anyone) responds to our prayers, or that our prayers do anything apart from the effect they may have on ourselves or those who know we're praying on their behalf (not to minimize that effect), then how can I in good conscience join the ranks of people engaged in mass delusion? And if I know how ridiculous and cruel it is that God should answer the prayers of some but reject the desperate pleas of others, innocent people suffering in untold ways, why would I want to pray to such a God, whose morality I consider to be majorly suspect?

Yet of late I've been praying from time to time. Mostly it's at times when I'm worried about some specific thing in the future and pray that everything turns out alright. Just something very short - as in, "Please let X go OK." As I say, I used to deny myself that indulgence on intellectual grounds. But then I realized - if it's something I truly feel the emotional urge to do, why am I denying myself? It's not as if there's some sort of "atheist's code of honor" that I'd be breaking. So I just do it.

Ah, well, doesn't this reveal the truth that I'm not really an atheist after all?

I thought you'd ask that! Nope. No, it doesn't.

It's not that I don't believe most of the time, then switch over momentarily (and conveniently) to being a "believer" when I have something to pray about, and then go back to being a nonbeliever. No, it's me the whole time - just that the thinking me expresses itself one way, and the emotive me expresses itself another. And when I'm emoting I'm not "believing" or "not believing" - I'm out of the intellectual/belief frame entirely!

Who says that when someone expresses themselves emotionally that it somehow has to "fit" with what they believe intellectually? Yes, internal consistency on an intellectual level might be something to strive for, but to demand consistency between one's intellect and other aspects human expression? I think that's where we've got it wrong. To me, that's imposing the intellect into areas where it doesn't necessarily belong.

Now, that doesn't mean there's no place to "think" about one's prayer, to evaluate it on an intellectual level. Of course there is - just not while it's happening, and not at the expense of it happening. When the intellect starts to interfere with or mute other essential, healthy parts of our humanity, that's when we might want to "rethink" what we're doing. At least I have, at any rate.

So I'd even go so far as to say that it's possible for an atheist to pray "to God" and still be an atheist. God can exist for a person in the emotional domain without existing in the intellectual domain.

For me though, the prayer "Please let X turn out OK" is something I simply release out into the ether. I'm not directing it "toward" anyone or anything. The "God" thought doesn't even enter into my head. I couldn't care less if anyone's actually listening or I'm just saying it to myself. It's like saying "Ouch!" or "Wow!" or "Damn it!" or "Woo hoo!", any spontaneous verbalization of an emotion. It just feels right, helpful to do at the time.

So yes - I agree that the "no atheist in a foxhole" idea is a fallacy. But so is the idea of there being "no atheist who prays". 


  1. Interesting concept.
    If there's no Higher Being out there listening, why make the request?
    If you're simply doing it to reassure yourself then are you really worshipping yourself? It's said that after the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah banished the Yetzer Hara it relocated inside each person's heart - we either worship God or ourselves as it were.
    Kind of reminds me of the story of how Ronald Reagan caught Mikhail Gorbachev says "Please, God" or "Thank God" and called him on it.

    1. Garnel,

      If an NBA player says to himself at the free-throw line, "Come on, sink this one - please!", and we recognize that he's trying to talk himself through it and not "worshiping himself" - all the more so when someone utters a prayer that's not self-directed, meaning the person isn't thinking they're the answer to their own prayers, it's certainly not self-worship. It's just prayer - "stam".

      About "please God" and "thank God" - cute story about Reagan and Gorbachev. But really these are just expressions, turns of speech. I for one say "thank God" all the time. It doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the person's belief, any more than it tells you about their emotional state. Sometimes "thank God" is a genuine expression of gratitude. Other times it's just a cultural formality.

    2. Um, if there's no God, what exactly is wrong with self-worship, anyway? (Aside from hubris, which plenty of theists share?)

    3. AJ, the NBA example isn't a prayer, it's an expression of self-encouragement. Prayer is far more than that, it's a reaching out to another who has the ability to assist you in ways you can't assist yourself. Saying "Yeah, I can do this" is psychological self-reinforcement but it's not prayer.

      Tes, self-worship is the elevating by the superego of one's id to the position of personal god. It turns a person's perception of himself into one in which he is the most and only truly important person in the universe around which everything else revolves.

    4. it's a reaching out to another who has the ability to assist you in ways you can't assist yourself

      So when I say "Please let X turn out OK", if I'm not reaching out to another, i.e. God, but just expressing the fervent hope that things go OK, then it sounds like you're saying this isn't called "prayer". Actually, I just checked it out, and just about every dictionary definition for "prayer" includes the idea of petitioning or communicating with God (or another object of worship). So it's a good kashya.

      I suppose I'd answer that I want to broaden the definition of prayer to include any statement which has the syntax/wording of a prayer, and which serves the psychological/emotional function of a prayer. The "chiddush" is to say that this is prayer, even if it's non-directed.

    5. > I want to broaden the definition of prayer

      You can if you want but that's cheating. You started this post by claiming an atheist can pray without being inconsistent with his (lack of) beliefs. Changing the definition of prayer so you can make your point isn't a great tactic.

    6. Simply to argue my point isn't the kavana here - it's that I truly think the experience I'm describing is something which should comfortably fall into the category of prayer.

  2. > God can exist for a person in the emotional domain without existing in the intellectual domain.

    I’m not sure about that. I don’t know. Maybe like a child who finds comfort in his teddy bear even though he knows it’s not really alive? It still feels inconsistent and kind of self-indulgent, even dishonest.

    > I couldn't care less if anyone's actually listening or I'm just saying it to myself. It's like saying "Ouch!" or "Wow!" or "Damn it!" or "Woo hoo!"

    I think this is much better. A vocalization of an emotion is different than trying to say that there are different domains and God can exist in one but not the other.

    1. It still feels inconsistent and kind of self-indulgent, even dishonest.

      I hear that, but I think a lot of people function like that without even knowing it - i.e. compartmentalizing their beliefs. If they really "thought" about a certain belief, they'd admit that it doesn't really make sense. But it's something they identify with, so they try not to think too much about it. And in that way they maintain something that works for them in other areas of life, by keeping it a safe distance away from the intellectual domain.

  3. basically as long as one is not 100% certain of gods lack of existence (no matter how skeptical he is or how unsure of what god is) there will come a point on certain occasions were the situation is such that if god does not exist there is nothing he can do to change the course of events therefor since he has a 1% doubt that perhaps god does exist the most rational way to try and effect a change in his situation is to ask that being to change his situation however that will not in any way be changing the praying persons reception that there is only a 1% chance that someones out there listening
    (if a person is honest with himself about how likely it is that god exists i don't think a just and moral god would care that said person only thought there to be a 1% chance that god exists as that's the way god himself made it seem to this person)
    however someone who is 100% sure that no one is listening i find it hard to see why he would want to pray however i agree with you that if he has that urge he hasn't done anything wrong but i humbly suggest that he rechecks his conclusion that he is 100% convinced of gods lack of existence

    also on the idea of praying when there is no one listening the haftorah for chazon we read גם כי תרבו תפילה אינני שמע and still we pray also in eichah we read סתם תפילה and based on this passuk the magen avrham brings not to say tiskabel in kaddish by shachris on tisha bav because god is not excepting these prayers and still we are required to say them so the idea of praying when there is no receiver could also apply to a theist
    thanks for the gr-8 posts have an easy and meaningful fast JUDA

    1. Juda,

      Let me see if I understand - you're saying that as long as I'm not 100% certain that God doesn't exist, as long as there's even the most remote possibility, then in a pinch I (and others like me) will call out in prayer - kind of like throwing a Hail Mary pass, as in "What do I have to lose?"

      Well, I don't know if I'm "100% certain" of anything, let alone the existence or nonexistence of a Supreme Being. But am I throwing a Hail Mary? Honestly, it doesn't feel like I am.

      Great point BTW regarding the haftarah and Eicha, and fascinating Magen Avraham!

      have an easy and meaningful fast

      Likewise to you,

  4. >I think this is much better. A vocalization of an emotion is different than trying to say that there are different domains and God can exist in one but not the other.

    Ok. But it's still not praying to "God"