What should I do, when I used to be praying,
When now I no longer believe?
No longer a god who can hear what I’m saying,
No heaven that I can perceive.
There’s really no need; there’s no formal injunction,
You simply don’t pray any more
But should you desire, just examine the function
Of just what your praying was for:
Some prayers are a message directly to god
Singing praise, or a note of thanksgiving
Such notes may, of course, though at first it feels odd,
Be directed at those who are living—
The doctors, the farmers, the builders, the teachers
Society’s helpers, too many to name;
Your coach and your teammates; your mom in the bleachers
Who, much more than god, helped you out in the game
Some prayers are intended to say you’re repenting,
And humbly requesting forgiveness for sin
If you’ve done someone wrong, perhaps prayer is preventing
Your focus from where the real damage has been—
If you’ve done someone wrong, and need some forgiving,
Not god, but that person, is whom you should ask
It’s harder to ask of a person who’s living
But you’re in the wrong, and so that is your task
Some prayers are petitions, for health or protection,
For knowledge, or favor, or rain, or success
To make the world good (since we can’t have perfection)
Without too much work, or a whole lot of stress
There are things you can do to prepare and be ready
To limit your loss when the world goes berserk
When disaster might hit, you can keep your hand steady,
Then you—and not god—can just get down to work.
So, yeah… one of the search terms that led someone to my blog today was “what to replace prayer with now that i’m an atheist”. And I have to admit, my first thought was “what? why? I just found out I’ve been doing something useless–what should I replace it with?” And of course, there is no need to do any particular thing instead of praying; anything at all, from walking the dog to writing poetry to trimming your toenails, will be at least as useful as prayer.
But of course, that’s a pretty shallow analysis–my faithful friends all tell me that prayer is very meaningful to them. That is, it has a purpose, or rather, it may have several purposes. And so, the real answer is to analyze the function of prayer, and to see if you can accomplish the same function (or even more) in an alternative fashion.
It is not difficult to find multiple different functions of prayer, given the number of faith communities on the internet. I looked at a few functions; the same analysis can be done for any more.
Two separate but related functions are praise and giving thanks–respectively, “attaboy, god!” and “thanks!”, both offered as a response to something about the real world (yes, you could offer these in response to the promise of heaven, but my assumption is that the new atheist won’t be missing this particular function). “All glory to god”, says the winning athlete, or the tornado survivor, or the rescued miner, or the hungry person looking at a bountiful table. What to do instead? Thank the actual people who have helped! Thank your teammates, coach, trainers… the parents who brought you to practices for years, and the organization (school or club) that made facilities available. Those people are actually there, and actually did something, and deserve every bit of the praise and thanks that you are giving to some invisible proxy figure.
You may pray for forgiveness. I’m told this is difficult. Frankly, what’s difficult is finding the actual person you have wronged, and asking that person’s forgiveness. They may not give it. You may have to earn it. You may have to undo the damage you have done. Asking forgiveness of an invisible proxy might make you feel better, but if that is what you miss and want to replace, honestly, you were doing prayer wrong.
Prayers of petition (intercessory prayers) plead with god for rain, or recovery from injury or illness, or guidance, or (frankly) money. I am told that these prayers are never (ha!) taking the place of actual action; to the extent that they are not said while actively working, they at least compete for valuable time. But rather than pray for rain, work for water conservation. Rather than pray for recovery, work for better 911 coverage, better training for trauma teams, regulations curbing ineffective quackery and promoting evidence-based treatment. Rather than praying for the hurricane not to hit, get your disaster kit ready. Rather than pray for good grades… study. Rather than… you get the idea.
So… what to do instead of praying? If there are real world things you were praying for, these are things you can work for. If you were praying just to keep from actually having to work for them… I dunno–try masturbation?