The Value of Prayer to an Atheist

 

You will be forgiven for thinking that I am trolling you — I am not.  Recent posts by @susanquinn and @henryracette touched on this, but neither was the right place for my input.  Their posts described heart-rending situations, the usual setting for this sort of thing, along with various takes on why God allows harm and so forth.  Susan specifically asked if people (in general, or as a majority) really believe in prayer.  Depends what you mean.

I do not believe in God; hence I do not believe that prayer affects the course of worldly events through divine intervention.  Yet I believe in a great good through prayer, and you won’t catch me spurning an offer.  As when people say “Merry Christmas,” I don’t go swatting the noses of pleasant people who wish good things to me.  That’s just plain rude.

Beyond welcoming the well-wishes of others (which should be an easy sell), I also confess to an urge to prayer at times.  Perhaps it is a habit acquired through culture and upbringing, perhaps it is part of our genotype to have this urge (and it may be conditioning that makes us express it through prayer), and perhaps it is simply the utter lack of any other suitable response to some situations.  Maybe all of the above — I don’t know.  I do know that when a friend or even a stranger is in the midst of one of those awful situations; grievous injury or illness, death of a child, and so forth, there’s certainly nothing else I could do practically.

When, as Henry says, “there are no words,” we are powerless to speak, and when it is out of our hands, we are powerless to act.  This may have the effect of pressurizing our desire to respond meaningfully, helpfully, in any way possible, and there is always prayer — much more so if you believe, but for the unbeliever who admits his own mortality, fallibilty, and impotence to hold back disease and misadventure, prayer is there as well.

Somewhat separately, there’s also the simple social benefit of actually expressing this state to those who suffer — also well-covered by Henry and Susan.  The last thing a grieving or terrified friend wants is to wonder if they smell a rat in your weasel-words about how deeply you wish for their relief.

They say God hears all prayer.  That’s good enough for me.

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  1. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    So your real attitude is, “I don’t believe in God, but maybe…” ?

    • #1
  2. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Corrected “intercession” to “intervention.”  Very different things.

    • #2
  3. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    kedavis (View Comment):

    So your real attitude is, “I don’t believe in God, but maybe…” ?

    I am a mortal.  It is beyond me to pronounce the nature or existence of God.  Either answer would presuppose a knowledge greater than that which science can back up.

    I would not phrase it that way, and here’s why:  If I say that, the next “correction” I get would be to call me a doubting believer, and so forth.

    I simply say that I do not believe.  And I mean it.

    • #3
  4. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    BDB (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    So your real attitude is, “I don’t believe in God, but maybe…” ?

    I am a mortal. It is beyond me to pronounce the nature or existence of God. DEither answer would presuppose aknowldge greater than that which scnece can back up.

    I would not phrase it that way, and here’s why: If I say that, the next “correction” I get would be to call me a doubting believer, and so forth.

    I simply say that I do not believe. And I mean it.

     

    How does that square with “Yet I believe in a great good through prayer,” ?

    • #4
  5. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    kedavis (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    So your real attitude is, “I don’t believe in God, but maybe…” ?

    I am a mortal. It is beyond me to pronounce the nature or existence of God. DEither answer would presuppose aknowldge greater than that which scnece can back up.

    I would not phrase it that way, and here’s why: If I say that, the next “correction” I get would be to call me a doubting believer, and so forth.

    I simply say that I do not believe. And I mean it.

     

    How does that square with “Yet I believe in a great good through prayer,” ?

    It’s obvious, but just in case, I name-checked it in the first line of the penultimate paragraph.  I didn’t go full pedant as if explaining it to a five year old.  That would be a different post.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    A beautiful and compassionate post, BDB. Thanks.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Somehow, this video has eluded me for years. Found it today, though.

    I don’t know if that qualifies as a miracle, or just another autistic episode.

     

    • #7
  8. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    BDB: I also confess to an urge to prayer at times.

    Hmm.

    It seems to me that God is whispering to your not-quite-atheist soul.

    With “confess” in there, it might even be a Roman Catholic soul. (:

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Very well said, DBD. 

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication. 

     

    • #9
  10. Painter Jean Moderator
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

     

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost.  It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    • #10
  11. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    I thought of when Milton Friedman nominated his student Thomas Sowell for a fellowship and in his short letter said he was a socialist but too smart to remain one for too long. Friedman also once noted that anyone too easily converted was not worth converting. 

    This world is both physical and spiritual. One is just much easier to measure and even to explain. Perhaps the other doesn’t need explanation as much as it needs to be felt. Faith too easily stated or imagined is not that lasting, it is for the hard times and a testing is always coming.

    A really good and honest post. 

    • #11
  12. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    It seems to me you misunderstand both God and prayer, BDB. Other believers may disagree on my take, but here goes.

    Many mainly believe in God as a Cosmic Butler. If I just believe hard enough, he’ll give me what I ask for. The Prosperity Gospel is dangerous in this way. It sets people up for disappointment when the suffering comes.

    And I don’t believe for a New York minute that my prayers are intended to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to change us — to evermore conform us to God’s will for us and the world. Sure, we ask for relief from suffering for ourselves and others, but I have learned to ask God to use my suffering and that of my beloved family and friends (in union with Christ’s) for the good of the whole world. “Thy will be done.”

    God only wills Good. It’s His entire Nature.

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

     

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost. It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    Jean,

    You often seem to read what I write with hostile intent. Not sure why that is. I did not say all prayer was a fall back. But the idea that people don’t turn to prayer when they have nothing left is unrealistic. Of course they do. 

     

    • #13
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m fine with your relationship to prayer, BDB. I think it’s incomplete, but that comes from my own experience. It also doesn’t make your perception bad. 

    • #14
  15. Painter Jean Moderator
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost. It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    Jean,

    You often seem to read what I write with hostile intent. Not sure why that is. I did not say all prayer was a fall back. But the idea that people don’t turn to prayer when they have nothing left is unrealistic. Of course they do.

    I didn’t read your comment with hostile intent, Bryan – not at all. If I expressed myself poorly, I apologize. And of course some people do turn to prayer when they have nothing left. It isn’t ideal, of course – prayer is primary – but yes it happens. Hopefully that leads to a deeper understanding of and reliance on prayer, though perhaps in the majority of cases it doesn’t.

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

     

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost. It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    Jean,

    You often seem to read what I write with hostile intent. Not sure why that is. I did not say all prayer was a fall back. But the idea that people don’t turn to prayer when they have nothing left is unrealistic. Of course they do.

     

    I didn’t read your comment with hostile intent, Bryan – not at all. And of course some people do turn to prayer when they have nothing left. It isn’t ideal, of course – prayer is primary – but yes it happens. Hopefully that leads to a deeper understanding of and reliance on prayer, though perhaps in the majority of cases it doesn’t.

    You seemed to take one aspect of prayer I identified with BDB and act as if that was all I thought prayer was. At best, that was not giving me the benefit of the doubt. 

    • #16
  17. Painter Jean Moderator
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

     

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost. It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    Jean,

    You often seem to read what I write with hostile intent. Not sure why that is. I did not say all prayer was a fall back. But the idea that people don’t turn to prayer when they have nothing left is unrealistic. Of course they do.

     

    I didn’t read your comment with hostile intent, Bryan – not at all. And of course some people do turn to prayer when they have nothing left. It isn’t ideal, of course – prayer is primary – but yes it happens. Hopefully that leads to a deeper understanding of and reliance on prayer, though perhaps in the majority of cases it doesn’t.

    You seemed to take one aspect of prayer I identified with BDB and act as if that was all I thought prayer was. At best, that was not giving me the benefit of the doubt.

    My apologies. 

    • #17
  18. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Very well said, DBD.

    Those who genuinely offer prayer do so because there is little else they can do. We can sit with the grief of another, and that is all we can do on this Earth. Prayers are our supplication.

     

    Prayer is not some kind of poor alternative that we fall back on when there’s nothing else we can do to help someone. Prayer is first and foremost. It aids us in whatever we can do to help, if there is something we can do to help. It aids us when there’s nothing we can do to help. It is primary.

    Jean,

    You often seem to read what I write with hostile intent. Not sure why that is. I did not say all prayer was a fall back. But the idea that people don’t turn to prayer when they have nothing left is unrealistic. Of course they do.

     

    I didn’t read your comment with hostile intent, Bryan – not at all. And of course some people do turn to prayer when they have nothing left. It isn’t ideal, of course – prayer is primary – but yes it happens. Hopefully that leads to a deeper understanding of and reliance on prayer, though perhaps in the majority of cases it doesn’t.

    You seemed to take one aspect of prayer I identified with BDB and act as if that was all I thought prayer was. At best, that was not giving me the benefit of the doubt.

    My apologies.

    Thank you. 

    • #18
  19. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Something else just came up for me. I think that at times, G-d shows up in unexpected places. I have a friend who is always reassuring and comforting, no matter what is going on. Whether I am struggling or she is–and just know, she has had more than her share of struggles–she speaks beautifully to what is going on. She’s not a Pollyanna; she just seems to embrace life most of the time (although she likely has her dark moments), no matter what is going on. I don’t think I “hear the voice of G-d,” but I often think he shows up in those around me, in how they act or what they say. 

    • #19
  20. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Something else just came up for me. I think that at times, G-d shows up in unexpected places. I have a friend who is always reassuring and comforting, no matter what is going on. Whether I am struggling or she is–and just know, she has had more than her share of struggles–she speaks beautifully to what is going on. She’s not a Pollyanna; she just seems to embrace life most of the time (although she likely has her dark moments), no matter what is going on. I don’t think I “hear the voice of G-d,” but I often think he shows up in those around me, in how they act or what they say.

    Maybe that means you do the same, for others.

    • #20
  21. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    kedavis (View Comment):
    Maybe that means you do the same, for others.

    Such a kind thing to say, ke. Thanks. 

    • #21
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I think there are atheists, and then there are ATHEISTS. In your case, BDB, I respect your opinion because you are not shoving it down my throat. I try to be respectful of people’s belief systems, whether I agree with them or not, unless they choose to do harm. Those atheists who choose to belittle, attack and defame others who refuse to accept their worldview are not my friends.

    As I think I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m much more concerned with how people behave, rather than with what they believe. It seems to me that in most cases you act honorably. (We all make mistakes . . . ;-)

    • #22
  23. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I think there are atheists, and then there are ATHEISTS. In your case, BDB, I respect your opinion because you are not shoving it down my throat. I try to be respectful of people’s belief systems, whether I agree with them or not, unless they choose to do harm. Those atheists who choose to belittle, attack and defame others who refuse to accept their worldview are not my friends.

    As I think I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m much more concerned with how people behave, rather than with what they believe. It seems to me that in most cases you act honorably. (We all make mistakes . . . ;-)

    I think there are a lot more live-and-let live atheists than combative atheists.  I’ve heard of combative atheists who take every opportunity to insult believers, but I’ve never actually met one.

    • #23
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I think there are a lot more live-and-let live atheists than combative atheists.  I’ve heard of combative atheists who take every opportunity to insult believers, but I’ve never actually met one.

    Neither have I, Randy. But the few can sure make a lot of noise!

    • #24
  25. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I think there are a lot more live-and-let live atheists than combative atheists. I’ve heard of combative atheists who take every opportunity to insult believers, but I’ve never actually met one.

    Neither have I, Randy. But the few can sure make a lot of noise!

    I reckon some small number of combative atheists will point at some scandal-ridden preacher and make a lot of noise, like that proves that Christians are all terrible.  Then some small number of religious people will point at those atheists and say, “See, they are all hostile.”  I think the best policy is to not look for the worst outliers among those we disagree with and paint everyone with the same broad brush.

    • #25
  26. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I think there are a lot more live-and-let live atheists than combative atheists. I’ve heard of combative atheists who take every opportunity to insult believers, but I’ve never actually met one.

    Neither have I, Randy. But the few can sure make a lot of noise!

    I reckon some small number of combative atheists will point at some scandal-ridden preacher and make a lot of noise, like that proves that Christians are all terrible. Then some small number of religious people will point at those atheists and say, “See, they are all hostile.” I think the best policy is to not look for the worst outliers among those we disagree with and paint everyone with the same broad brush.

    I have met combative atheists. They do exist and they tend to be louder and meaner than the  live and let live atheists who outnumber them. We should all remember that the loudest members of any group are the least flattering members of that group. Remember Christ’s criticisms of those who said they were holier than thou.

    • #26
  27. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I begin each day with a short prayer of thanksgiving for that day, and ask that I be alert to opportunities to make the day of everyone I meet just a bit better, even if only by a smile and/or a kind word.

    I have been a Christian for 61 years, and am still learning about the Joys of a personal relationship with God. (See Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.)

    • #27
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    BDB:

    As when people say “Merry Christmas,” I don’t go swatting the noses of pleasant people who wish good things to me.  That’s just plain rude.

    Yes, it would be rude.

    Though it baffles me that you feel an urge to pray.

    When some well meaning friend or passerby offers to pray for me or some other silly sentiment, I always say thank you, just as when my dog licks my face I will praise him even though I now have stinky slobber on me.  It’s all very silly, but it makes the dog happy.  When a toddler holds out some bauble for me to look at, I act quite impressed at how special it is.  But I don’t kid myself that it’s not all quite silly.

    I even try to stay polite when a well meaning friend offers to pray for me to find “Jeezus.”  But that is a lot sillier and I remind them that this will never happen because I only recognize real things, not make believe things.

    I have some friends that ask me if I object to the military having chaplains.  My response is, not at all.  Some people feel a need to have some sort of magical blessing before they go out killing people and if we can pay a chaplain to convince them to kill for us, then I’m all for it.  

    • #28
  29. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Skyler (View Comment):

    BDB:

    As when people say “Merry Christmas,” I don’t go swatting the noses of pleasant people who wish good things to me. That’s just plain rude.

    Yes, it would be rude.

    Though it baffles me that you feel an urge to pray.

    When some well meaning friend or passerby offers to pray for me or some other silly sentiment, I always say thank you, just as when my dog licks my face I will praise him even though I now have stinky slobber on me. It’s all very silly, but it makes the dog happy. When a toddler holds out some bauble for me to look at, I act quite impressed at how special it is. But I don’t kid myself that it’s not all quite silly.

    I even try to stay polite when a well meaning friend offers to pray for me to find “Jeezus.” But that is a lot sillier and I remind them that this will never happen because I only recognize real things, not make believe things.

    I have some friends that ask me if I object to the military having chaplains. My response is, not at all. Some people feel a need to have some sort of magical blessing before they go out killing people and if we can pay a chaplain to convince them to kill for us, then I’m all for it.

    You are the kinda atheist that I am grumpy against. Harumph!

    • #29
  30. HeavyWater Reagan
    HeavyWater
    @HeavyWater

    I do not believe in God; hence I do not believe that prayer affects the course of worldly events through divine intervention. Yet I believe in a great good through prayer, and you won’t catch me spurning an offer. As when people say “Merry Christmas,” I don’t go swatting the noses of pleasant people who wish good things to me. That’s just plain rude.

    My thoughts exactly.  

    Many years ago I was getting ready to have a heart procedure, coronary ablation.  It’s a relatively safe procedure.  

    My brother-in-law, a Christian, told me in a phone conversation a few days before the procedure, “We’ll be praying for you.”  (My wife and my wife’s family are all Christians of varying levels of enthusiasm, whereas my family is nearly all non-religious.)

    I appreciated that my brother-in-law and his family were [a] thinking about me and [b] rooting for me to have a successful outcome.  

    If someone asks me to pray for them, I will do it.  Sure, I might be skeptical as to whether saying a few words will actually have a positive impact on someone.  Goodness knows if I could cure someone’s cancer by saying a prayer, I’d do nothing else with my time. 

    But I figure, what the heck.  Saying a prayer certainly can’t hurt.  And I want to provide the same emotional support for the person asking me to pray for them as my brother-in-law provided for me when I was going through a tough situation. 

    • #30
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