Thoughts on Prayers

How do atheists find comfort?

One day my boss and I were talking about religion. I understand that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but we’re friends and somehow it came up. He was raised staunchly Catholic, the middle child out of eleven. I was a not-quite-only child — I have several half-siblings — whose mother was raised Presbyterian but lost her faith after my Quaker father died.

I have never believed in God, not even as a child. When people would tell me about the man in the sky on a cloud watching over us, I’d look up at the clouds incredulously. When I got older, I understood that belief in God was a matter of faith, trusting that He existed just like other things I can’t physically see and don’t understand: electricity, gravity, love. I accept those at face value because they somehow seem logical in a way that a being creating Earth does not. I believe that when we die, we pass into nothingness and cease to exist. It just makes more sense to me.

“Well, at least we’ll see our loved ones in Heaven when we die,” my boss said during this discussion. At which point I mentioned that I don’t believe in Heaven or life after death. “That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “How do you get through the day?”

He’s right, it would be delightful to believe that I would see my loved ones in Heaven when I die. But if we’re really talking Heaven as a place of sheer joy, I can already tell you that a number of my “loved ones” wouldn’t be in my version of Heaven. God would probably be thinking that I’d want my whole family there, and I bet for a lot of us that wouldn’t be the case. Do you really want to spend eternity with annoying Uncle Earl, his braying laugh and his stupid jokes? He’s not evil so he’s definitely not going to the Bad Place, but do you really want him in your Heaven? There are a lot of reasonably decent people I’d cross the street to avoid; passing into nothingness sounds better to me than spending eternity with them. But what a comfort it would be to believe I’d meet my truly loved ones in the Great Beyond, that there would be no end to our togetherness.

Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists” recommends substitutions for the aspects of religion that atheists miss: the community, the art, the ritual. Atheist churches and Sunday Assembly were created specifically to fill those gaps for the unchurched. But there’s one thing that can’t be replaced by a community of like-minded individuals partaking in a ritual of their own devising.

Comfort.

The comfort of believing that God has your back. The comfort of knowing that whatever happens, it’s “God’s will.” The comfort of thinking that “God will provide.” The comfort of believing that it doesn’t all end when you die.

I have struggled to find that comfort my whole life. It must give you an extra boost of confidence, knowing that whatever you do, whatever happens to you, is in God’s hands. An unwavering belief in free will makes life infinitely harder. I cannot “let go and let God.” I bear the entire responsibility for taking care of myself.

I don’t have the answer to finding atheistic comfort yet but I have found something that helps a little: prayer.

You don’t have to pray to a being. You can just pray in general, sort of like throwing wishes out to the universe. You don’t even have to come up with your own prayers. There are non-denominational prayer books in publication (like “Light the Flame” by Andrew Harvey) that compile prayers from all faiths and include secular, prayer-like poems. Poetry or meditation can also be a form of prayer.

Praying makes me feel like I’ve taken some slight form of action against situations completely outside of my control.

I began my own ritual. Every morning while I lie in bed immediately after waking, I read from three books: “365 Tao” by Deng Ming-Dao, “Light the Flame,” mentioned above, and “A Year with Rumi” by Coleman Barks. It takes about 15 minutes.

I tried a few books along the way that didn’t quite work for me. “A Year with Thomas Merton” was just entries from his diary. Merton also wrote a “Book of Hours,” but the prayers in that and Rainer Maria Rilke’s version were too explicitly directed toward a Christian God to be comforting to me.

Then at bedtime, I meditate for ten minutes with “The Breathing App,” which calms your heart rate and prepares you for sleep. You can recite a prayer for help or change, you can use a soothing affirmation as a mantra, or you can just watch your chest rise and fall and be grateful for another day. You can do a body scan meditation to check in with your physical and emotional beings; such scans can help you feel more in control. Or you can imagine yourself at your happy place.

Ironically, in my case, that’s imagining I’m floating on a big, fluffy, bright white sunlit cloud drifting in an azure sky.

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