Why (as an Atheist) I Pray

How do we communicate with our subconscious minds? (art by Jerrycharlotte)

I identify as an atheist.  Empirically, I’ve never seen any evidence supporting the existence of a deity, and rationally, none of the major religious belief systems make any sense to me.  Cosmologically, I guess I would call myself a meta-evolutionist (I believe both in Darwinian evolution, and in the evolution of the evolutionary process).

Still, I respect many religious traditions and practices.  I respect religious tradition because I like tradition in general, and religious ones are often the only ones available in any particular life area.  As for religious practices, I take an eclectic approach.  I like pork chops and bacon too much to ever be kosher, but I don’t mind (and sometimes enjoy) reciting Jewish prayers before meals (my wife and daughter are Jewish).

One religious practice I embrace wholeheartedly is prayer.  Prayer can mean many different things, but I’m talking about the “personal dialogue with God” variety.

So how does this fit in with atheism?  If I pray, who or what am I praying to?  Do I just have a massive tolerance for cognitive dissonance?  Or have I bought into the sloppy pseudoscience behind “remote healing”?

No and no.  My practice of prayer is consistent with my rational, atheistic belief system.  Nothing spooky or supernatural is required to make an argument for why prayer is effective (for me).

I’ll try to explain.

Consciousness and the Freedom-Building Toolkit

What we experience as consciousness is only a small part of our mental totality.  From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity (Burk Braun discusses this perspective in-depth on his blog).

If there’s a lot more “in there” than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it?  How do we “unlock” the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds?  (I call this area metaprogramming.)  How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?

Daniel Dennett -- mind is quantifiable.

I’m not saying that our minds are vast and limitless, and beyond quantification.  I’m comfortable with Daniel Dennett’s take on consciousness — brains are biological mechanisms that generate the illusion of “mind.”  I also agree with Dennett’s take on free will and naturalism — the two can co-exist.  Stephen Pinker takes a similar view – a mechanistic view of the brain doesn’t preclude freedom of choice, at least in certain areas.  While we can’t control our instincts, physiological reactions, or the majority of our moment-to-moment behaviors, we can exercise free will (and increase our freedom) with behaviors like planning, conscious learning/practice/study, self-conditioning, contemplation and self-analysis, and meditation.

I include prayer in this tool-kit of higher order mental behavior, and I think many atheists unnecessarily discard or disregard the practice of prayer for no good reason.

The Development of Thought, and Why We Sometimes Feel Isolated

Lev Vygotsky -- speaking precedes thinking.

The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (born in what is now Belarus) developed a novel theory of how cognitive awareness has its roots in the development of speech.  Vygotsky theorized that very young children don’t think silently to themselves the way adults do — at first they only “think” by speaking out loud to their parents, siblings, or caregivers.  Later, this develops into “self-talk” (if you’ve ever been around young children you may have noticed them mumbling to themselves when they’re alone in their rooms).  Later still, self-talk internalizes, and becomes inner speech (what adults experience as thinking — or at least one type of thinking).

I first learned about Vygotsky in this episode of Radiolab.  Researchers in the episode discuss the possibility that “hearing voices” (a common symptom of schizophrenia) may be related to Vygotsky’s theory of language development.  If the foundation of inner speech is talking to other people, it seems plausible that a glitch in the system could easily confuse us into thinking that our own thoughts are the voices of others people (or of supernatural beings).

What interests me most about Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that thought starts off as a communal experience (talking to your parents/siblings/caregivers) and later becomes an isolated experience (talking to yourself in your head).  I wonder if this is related to the sense of loneliness and isolation people sometimes feel when they’re “alone with their thoughts.”  Even if we’re alone, we generally don’t feel lonely if our minds are engaged (reading a novel, working, writing).  On the other hand, we can feel lonely even in a crowd of people if we’re thinking to ourselves instead of talking to someone.

Prayer and the Externality Construct

If, as Vygotsky believed, our thought process is rooted in the experience of talking to someone more powerful than us, who loves us (a parent or caregiver), could this be why, for some at least, prayer can satisfy a sort of psychological craving?  Could there be a “natural void” in our minds that prayer can fill; a psychological empty space once filled by family members and caregivers, when we were first learning to think?

When we pray, we don’t feel alone, because (once again) we are talking to someone.  Atheists, like myself, don’t believe this someone actually exists, but this shouldn’t prevent us from taking advantage of a psychological exploit that can give us emotional reassurance, guidance, and insight when we most need it.

When I pray, I don’t believe any sort of conscious entity is hearing my thoughts.  So who am I addressing?  I like to think of it as the “externality construct.”  I might give it a name, like “The Universe,” or “All-That-Is-Not-Me,” or “Layer Zero,” or even “God,” but the name doesn’t matter.  The entity I’m addressing exists in my mind — a construct.  But it feels like I’m addressing someone outside of myself — an externality.

The term “Higher Power” bothers me — it’s usually used as a euphemism for some kind of omniscient/omnipresent/omnipotent Creator, ascribing agency and consciousness to some kind of imaginary entity.  On the other hand, there are plenty of forces in the universe that I’m powerless to resist or control — things like entropy, time, and evolution.  At times I tried to visualize these forces, and the vastness of the universe, as a sort of God.  But it doesn’t really work.  I don’t believe in God.  I don’t believe the universe is conscious, or “cares” (how could it, if it’s not conscious?).  The universe is full of conscious beings, but they’re not psychic and they can’t hear my thoughts.  Nobody is hearing my thoughts and prayers, yet still I find it emotionally satisfying and psychologically effective to pray.

Why?

The Benefits of Addressing “Other”

Prayer is any kind of thought that addresses Other instead of Self.  It’s a subtle but powerful shift in thinking mode.

When we address Other, we don’t feel alone.  We may instantly feel relief at not having to “figure it all out” by ourselves.  Maybe there is the sense of carrying a lighter load, of not having to “tough it out alone.”

Is this an illusion?  A hallucination?

Yes — absolutely.  We’re no more or less alone than before we shifted our mode of thinking.  But it’s still just as effective.

Some things that I “do” when I pray (internal actions) include the following:

  • giving thanks for good things in my life, experiencing gratitude
  • asking for guidance when I’m unsure of a course of action
  • asking for inspiration when I’m feeling stuck
  • asking for forgiveness when I’ve really fucked up
  • asking for a solution to a specific problem
  • asking for improved health, wealth, and other good things for myself and/or someone else
  • asking for a specific emotional need to be met (to feel more loved, more courageous, more confident, happier … whatever)

Often, my subconscious mind is happy to provide an “answer to my prayers” — often within minutes.  If I’m praying for the well-being of someone else, a way to help that person might occur to me.  Maybe I’ll think of a remedy that could help them, or a book that might be helpful, or an introduction I could make.  Maybe it will occur to me that what that person needs is someone to just listen to them, or accept them, or maybe help them more directly with time, money, advice, or another kind of resource.

I suppose a religious person, or someone who believes “universal vibrations” or some other kind of New Age hokum might think “my job is done” after praying for someone else.  It’s even possible that person would be right; maybe they influenced their subconscious mind in a way that influenced their behavior in a way that helped the other person.  But the only thing I expect from prayer are emotional strength and/or inspiration.  In the latter case, inspiration needs to be followed up with action to do any good.

Could I get the same result if I consciously pondered “how can I help this person?”  Maybe … but sometimes answers become more elusive if approached head-on.  Changing my mode of thinking — addressing Other instead of Self — is usually the more effective approach.

Why Call It Prayer?

If I’m just talking to my subconscious mind, why call it prayer?  Why not just call it “talking to my subconscious mind”?

Sometimes I do just call it that.  But behaviorally, I think the practice is identical to prayer.  The belief system is different, but I don’t think that makes a difference in terms of cause and effect.  A religious person might say “God answered my prayers” while I would say “my subconscious mind gave me a great idea” — but we basically did the same thing.  We switched our thought mode to “talking to Other.”

Here’s another consideration.  Let’s say a religious person is questioning their faith.  They’re considering swallowing the bitter pill of atheism, and accepting that life has no meaning beyond the meaning we give it, and that there is no judgement beyond the way we judge each other.  That person might hesitate in embracing atheism because prayer, and other religious practices, give them such emotional reassurance, guidance, and even joy.

I would say to that person, there’s no need to give up religious practice, just because you’ve decided that the idea of a Creator doesn’t make sense.  You can still go to church/temple/mosque, you can still pray (both traditional prayer and the “personal prayer” I talked about in this post if that’s part of your tradition).  I realize, living in the Bay Area, that I’m in a bubble of enlightened religious thinking, where many reformed communities are completely tolerant of naturalistic philosophies like Darwinism.  Richard Dawkins criticizes these types as “religious moderates,” trying to find middle ground where none exists.  Maybe that’s a valid criticism in some cases, but there’s more to religion than belief (especially in the case of Judaism).  There are powerful psychological factors involved in community, ritual, and practice that bind us to each other, and help us in our own personal growth, and we don’t have to believe in God to take advantage of these things.

43 responses to “Why (as an Atheist) I Pray

  1. Jill in Sacramento

    thank you for this article. now I think I understand why I pray to no one as well.

  2. Good to know I’m not the only one.

  3. I am an experiential Pagan, a spiritual person who does “believe”- or I may just be a little on the crazy side. Either way, this article is very refreshing. I’ve found most atheists I’ve spoken to about spiritual matters to be bitter, cynical, and generally hosers- glad to see you examining the spiritual in a logical light. There is no reason the spiritual and logical cannot be reconciled within oneself peacefully.

  4. Thanks Phoenix — glad you enjoyed the article. Re: the last sentence in your comment — I completely agree.

    There are some biologist/philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who identify as atheists but emphasize trying to understand human spiritual and religious impulses rather than ignoring or discrediting them.

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  6. Wow I thought that I had an original idea about praying is really talking to my subconscious mind. Good thing I Googled it first and came across this article. Thanks!

  7. I’m sure I wasn’t the first one to think of it either. On the other hand Vygotsky’s ideas about cognitive awareness and language development are fascinating and were ground-breaking in their time.

  8. I also just thought of this idea and thought I’d google to see if someone else had explored it – an atheist’s prayer as being something that I know is in my head, but can consider being addressed to a part of my subconscious self. I guess I can even pray to “God” – or any deity, while seeing him or her as symbolic constructs, representative of aspects of myself. This is something I will be pondering a bit more.

    • By Thor’s hammer! By the trunk of Ganesh! Virtualized polytheistic archetypal auto-communication with feedback loop effects, or something like that …

  9. Thank you for this blog post. I actually did a google search about praying to one’s self-concience, and found this post.

    I grew up strict LDS. Prayer has been part of my daily habit for most of my life. Several years ago I took the tough path of reason and it’s been hard and wonderful. But, I miss prayer. I’ve tried praying to myself but I find little relief in that. For many a god is a perfect being that never does anything wrong, lives forever, knows everything and is all powerful… In other words, a being that is everythIng we are not, but as children, this is how we saw our caregivers. So, I very much appreciate your links to how we consciously learned to speak then began the process of internal dialogue as thought.

    I live alone. Prayer was one way I could express my concerns and pretend to get out of my own head, thank a being that doesnt exist for all the blessings that I enjoy in life. I’ll keep trying to find something I can pray at. Maybe I can pray to the memory of my ancestors. That’s a tried and true instinctual method. My ancestors did in fact live, I am proof of that. If it weren’t for them, I would not be who I am, genetically speaking. I’m sure my ancestors had hopes and dreams, not unlike mine. I don’t belive they can hear me, but it is a respectful idea. I am not sure if it will be as rewarding as it was to pray to a god that I whole-heartily believed in. But, when a person lives alone, speaking to someone else is heathly. I don’t see much logical difference between praying to a beautiful idea a couple times a day and speaking with a pet that can’t understand a damn thing you’re saying. Although the latter is what single adults are constantly told to do.

  10. Thanks for sharing that Joey. I didn’t grow up with prayer or a strict religious upbringing, so it’s interesting to get a perspective from someone who did.

    • From my perspective, people going from being a devout beliver in a literal god, to belief that a god does not exist. Can be painful. Many athisist feel like religion is a great lie. And that may very well be but, there is something in humans that make us prone to accepting religious ideas.

      One such inclination could be that our young cannot survive on their own without supervision and care.

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  14. Hey J.D. — great discussion of prayer for atheists. I’m a Dennet, Dawkins, Pinker fan and an atheist. However, like you, I think some religious practices (like prayer and meditation) may have great value to post-religious people who seek goodness, truth, happiness, wisdom, etc. For the past few months I have been thinking about how I can use prayer (or whatever I end up calling it) as a tool in my life. I haven’t quite figured it out, but your blog post was inspiring. Also, loved your “externality construct” idea. Thanks.

  15. emily ann osler

    hi J.D., I can’t get enough of your posts !! I studied Vygotskij in high school (I attended a high school of educational psychology, pedagogy and human studies in Italy), and I remember the endless discussions in the classroom…Piaget, Bruner, the Gestalt, behaviorism….the ramifications are endless in these overlapping disciplines, and religion\spirituality is a huge part of the game…. so much to learn! thanks! ps: on a personal note…you mentioned your mother is from Abruzzo!! I truly hope none of your near or distant family was involved in the terrible earthquake that struck the region in 2009….it was such a terrible tragedy, so many people died…beautiful medieval buildings and churches were damaged beyond repair… I couldn’t not ask!

    • Thanks for your concern. My mother’s grandparents were from that general region (Scanno, specifically) but we’re not in touch with anyone — only distant family at this point.

  16. Fascinating article. Am wondering…do you have any thoughts on fasting and its relevance or relevance to atheists? I believe if done sensibly it has medical and psychological benefits, but many atheists seem to never even consider it.

  17. I am of the belief that there is something within us. A power vested. I have no idea where it comes from but I believe it to be there. I do believe it does have a source whether it is god or something else. But I have complete respect for different religious beliefs. They are in my view the most logical explanations we have for this unexplicable source. Psychology is taking a crack at it but I don’t know if it will ever get to the source.

  18. Thank you for this entry. I am a born-again Christian with no doubts in God at all. Usually atheists just shut me down whenever I ask questions about their beliefs on prayer, afterlife, etc. Everyone believes in SOMETHING. I appreciate your study on psychologists. I love learning about how people think. You have certainly given this a lot of thought, and you seem to be very open minded- that’s such a good quality :). Keep praying, it is one of the best practices out there.

    • Thanks for your comment Kara. My beliefs are constantly evolving — and I like the idea that beliefs should be malleable (and based on evidence) while values and principles should be rather fixed and unyielding (and based mostly on feelings, including one’s conscience). So who knows where my beliefs will be in ten years … it will depend on what I observe, and learn from trustworthy sources, and my synthesis and interpretation of that information. Hopefully my values and principles will be mostly the same.

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  20. I don’t know when your “Why (as an atheist) I pray” post was written or if you will see my response, but I have to say that I enjoyed reading it. I found your thoughts to be articulate, intelligent, and thought provoking. As a Christian and, for the last 30 years, an ordained United Methodist minister, I obviously disagree with your conclusions about prayer, but I do appreciate how well you presented them. With your permission, I would like to reference a few of your remarks (not in an unkind manner) in an up-coming sermon.

    • Hi Bill — glad you enjoyed the post and feel free to reference my remarks. Here’s a question — is belief in God as Creator an absolute necessity for all clergy? I see a role for clergy and organized religion continuing beyond belief as God as literal creator to God as a representation of the ultimate goodness in and among human beings.

  21. Hi there, I work on a religious programme for BBC Radio in Belfast and I found your blog very relevant to a item we wanted to discuss on our show. Is there any chance you could contact me? here is the link to the article we wanted to discuss:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/25/atheist-prayer_n_3498365.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003

    Thanks,
    Cathy

    • Hi Cathy — thanks for your interest! I do think I’ve said everything I have to say above, but please feel free to direct your listeners to my blog.

  22. Hey, I just read this now. I’m amazed at how similar our experience and our reasoning about it are. Would love to talk sometime. Sigfried — http://tailoredbeliefs.com/

  23. Mohammad Sabbir Saidy

    Thanks for such a good innovative writing. I think it’d be of great use to me in my loneliness and depression. It’s a gr8 relief to be able to pray at least for inspiration while still am an atheist.

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  26. kalajones

    I also am an atheist who prays. I have heard people say that an atheist who prays is not an atheist. However I feel that it is psychologically beneficial to imagine you are praying to someone, even if you know that this someone doesn’t exist. It’s sometimes better than writing in a diary. It is in a sense a form of therapy. You are able to express your deepest thoughts and it helps you to form your thoughts and feel like you are somehow being heard, helped, and supported. I do feel there is a reason that prayer is so popular. I don’t believe it is because there is actually a god, but it is because something about the activity helps us somehow psychologically. Anyway, I am really glad to hear that someone else shares my viewpoint. Thanks for writing this article.

  27. I am so grateful that I came across this blog. Thank you for elucidating some things that have been distressing me for awhile. I am an atheist in recovery and have found that prayer has helped me tremendously in realigning or at least shifiting indentification with the addict side of me. The conflict and dissonance I experienced in trying not to pray caused an increase in addict-like thinking and behaviors. The 12 step programs in my area have little room for agnostics and atheists, so I felt pressure in trying the “higher power” concept but logic always trumped the personal god allegiance and submission. I would always think it was delusional and narcissistic to believe that some entity had the power to alter my biochemistry, yet could not or would not stop a rapist or aid starving children. My conflict arose form the evidence of peacefulness and mindfulness that always followed prayer activity, but went against my innate disbelief. With this article, I feel like I can stop denying myself the gifts of prayer and still maintain my atheistic philosophical convictions. Thank you once again for your writing!

  28. Thank you so very much for this brilliant and thoughtful article. I experimented with a lot of religions in my youth before coming to grips with the fact that life and death are only facts and that our existence has none of the significance we so often strive to achieve through religion. However, ever since I gave up on religion, I’ve missed the solace I found in prayer, especially in trying times. I’ve felt the urge to pray sometimes, but I’ve always berated myself for being a hypocrite, for becoming weak and grasping for myths in times of desperation. But reading your ideas made me realize that things don’t have to be black and white. Thank you!

    I also agree with you that it’s important that we remember what prayer is and what it is not. That is probably going to be the hardest thing for me. I want to make sure that this will be something I do for internal strength, and not as an easy solution for every problem that comes my way.

  29. Very interesting. I appreciate the details as to how the atheist/prayer combo works, nicely done. I am always interested how/why people believe vs not believe and this is a new and insanely interesting perspective. So, thank you.

    I had to go look up the meaning of the word gratitude b/c your gratitude prayers intrigued me that much. I always (probably naively) assumed that gratitude needed to be directed towards someone or something. You seemed to have approached in a way that doesn’t involve either and that is a novel concept to me.

    The item that was confusing to me was your response to the answered prayers. You’re thankful to your subconscious mind for providing answers which is, again, a novel idea, but what about your prayers that are directed towards “out of mind” external answers, like health or wealth? Ex: You pray for a job and one happens to appear shortly afterward or something like that. Where does the subconscious fit in for that example?

    I’m actually really intrigued by your outlook on prayers, yeah atheists usually get an angry/bitter stigma but this is something interesting and new. I’m just curious about the logistics of how this works.

    • My perspective on the phenomena of solutions “appearing” is that by directing the subconscious we influence our perceptual filters to take in relevant information, make connections, and so forth. In other words the solutions are already there, all the time. They “appear” when we allow ourselves to see them.

      For example I often pray to parking faeries to help me find a parking place. It almost always works. Magical benevolent invisible creatures, or a backdoor route to enhanced perception?

  30. As humans, we do need some kind of myth to fall back on. The more logical and well thought out it is, the better it serves our needs. No need to throw out the baby with the bath water. In this case the baby represents prayer and the answers to prayer. Thank you for articulating your helpful insights..
    -Alexis

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