Should Atheists Pray?

“Should atheists pray?” the paper asked
And commenters all had to share…
Seems nobody knows what an atheist is,
And nobody understands prayer

At the New York Times, the “Room for Debate” opinion page asks “Should Atheists Pray?”.

With atheist church services this month in Louisiana and New York, nonbelievers are borrowing some of the rituals of believers: gathering, singing, sermons.

Would it be fruitful for atheists to pray? For believers and others, what is the point of prayer?

They ask 5 people, only one of whom is an actual atheist (Hemant Mehta). The others include a professor of psychology and former pastor, a professor of preaching, a visiting professor of the new testament and co-pastor, and (naturally) Deepak Chopra. Of course, the real fun is in the comments to each essay.

We find, among essayists as well as commenters, that there are myriad understandings of just what atheism is–from simply not believing in a god, to specific denial of a god even if evidence for one was shown, to those who specifically hate the Christian god, to frankly incoherent quasi-descriptions. Oh, and it takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe, but you already knew that.

There are also a wide spectrum of beliefs about prayer. Now, atheists are sometimes accused of being the only ones who really take the bible seriously (thus, our claims about what believers believe are simply straw men), but honestly, there is no perspective of religious belief that I can conceive of that doesn’t have its manic proponents–from Chopra’s new-age touchy-feely amorphous blobby bullshit to prosperity gospel “god wants you to be rich, so ask him for money” to “prayer is not asking for anything, it’s thanking for everything”, to “prayer is the same as meditation” to anything under the sun.

So, should atheists pray? Near as I can tell, That’s about a thousand different questions, with about ten thousand reasonable answers, and about a hundred thousand unreasonable ones. Me? I have had more than a handful of occasions when I would have prayed, back when I was religious. Some of you know. I have had occasion… but I have not prayed in over 25 years. Never had the slightest inkling. My parents have prayed, my sister has prayed, and I don’t think any less of them for it. Not in the slightest. There is every reason for them to believe in prayer. Every reason but the right one–that it works. I know the studies on intercessory prayer. I know the evidence. I’ve pissed off my whole family by correcting my sister, in her hospital bed, when she credited prayer for her recovery. My own opinion–should atheists pray? No; nor should anyone.

Do I think any less of anyone for praying? Absolutely not. Depending on your own views, and your own definitions of prayer, there are maybe a million reasons to pray. None of the good ones involve there being a god, though. All the good reasons to pray involve us being human, and frail, and scared, or hopeful, or happy, or angry, or… oh, yeah, there are probably a million or so bad reasons to pray, too. So like I said, on the whole, my own opinion is anti-prayer.

But any question that takes a spectrum and requires a black or white answer is a bad question. And that is what the NYTimes has done.

Maybe they should have asked more atheists.

Maybe they should have asked me.


  1. says

    Prayer is wishful thinking, and thinkful wishing. It’s a psychological device for reinforcing certain memes and for strengthening the ability to help oneself. Call it self-programming. It is the brain talking to itself, not to any outside agency. Begging favors from an invisible and non-existent friend is self-deluding and undignified. It is a way of shifting blame for failure onto a fictional scapegoat. Amen. – Kate Jones

  2. Azuma Hazuki says

    Prayer is useless in a universe with an omniscient, omnipotent God who, by his own admission, has “[s]een the end from the beginning; my will stands, and I will do all my pleasure.” This God also doesn’t care much for free will even if it were possible alongside the existence of a being with powers like that, as evidenced by the episode with Pharaoh…

  3. Emu Sam says

    I pray you, good sir, a farthing for charity.

    Pray tell, why not?

    I think I’ll sit here and mumble to nothing until the twenty-first century, then do away with all alternate definitions and claim atheists who do the previous definitions are doing only the supernatural one. Homonyms are great for deceit!

  4. The Lone Apple says

    I’m an atheist of the non-confrontational variety. I am an atheist primarily because I have no belief in anything supernatural. But I’m also a New Yorker (which is a sort of religion) and I pretty much live my life with one guiding principle — I will pretty much do any damned thing I want to do because I want to do it. If I’m a non-believer and feel like praying, I will. Who cares? I go to church with my wife and I enjoy the experience because I grew up a Christian and still consider myself a sort of Christian atheist. What can I say, I like the smell of frankincense. But the fact is that when everyone starts saying the Lord’s Prayer, does it matter a whit if I join in? Am I a hypocrite because I’m an atheist? Rubbish.

    I’ll do as I please.

  5. anubisprime says

    There is a school of thought that regards prayer as a desperate attempt to shore up a mental insecurity in the prayer’s own ability.
    All I know is that it would be extremely uncomfortable if the pilot got down on his knees and whispered imploring demands, that god guided the journey in all its facets, before entering the cockpit…it would be absolutely intolerable if the muppet actually prayed in the cockpit while taking off or landing!

    That is all!

  6. unbound says

    Not that I ever pray anymore, but the only one I consider is…

    God protect me from your followers.

  7. Randomfactor says

    “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” – Voltaire

  8. dogfightwithdogma says

    I think it a waste of an atheist’s time to pray, except perhaps as a means of mocking the practice. If, however, an atheist feels the need or desire to pray then I suggest either of the following atheist prayers which can be found online:

    Our brains, which art in our heads, treasured be thy names.
    Thy reasoning come.
    The best you can do be done on earth as it is.
    Give us this day new insight to resolve conflicts and ease pain.
    And lead us not into supernatural explanations, deliver us from denial of logic.
    For thine is the kingdom of reason,
    and even though thy powers are limited,
    and you’re not always glorious,
    you are the best evolutionary adaptation we have for helping this earth now and forever and ever.
    So be it.

    Dear Big Bang,
    Thank your for creating
    me and the universe.
    I love you so much.
    Help me succeed or win
    the lottery and never die.
    Though are great and mighty.
    Thank you. Amen

  9. says

    I do find it extremely grating that the NY Times asks a question and then proceeds to explore it not among atheists, but among “believers”.

    Ask FIVE ATHEISTS you morons! The story would probably have been a lot better.

    Please, anytime the name “Deepak” is anywhere associated in any article, you can be assured that the output is 100% garbage.

    Lazy “journalism”. Seriously lazy. Almost as if the person didn’t give a shit what he wrote as long as he filled 12 column inches.

  10. mobius says

    The opinions expressed by believers on questions like this…time and time again…show that most believers really don’t understand atheism at all. If one had even a slight understanding of the atheist perspective, one should clearly understand that atheists feel no need for prayer.

  11. BCat70 says

    ¨We find…myriad understandings of just what atheism is… to frankly incoherent quasi-descriptions.¨

    Oh, hi Chopra! I didn´t see you at first.

  12. Ex Patriot says

    As a long time Athiest I have always felt praying was talking to an idiot,, yourself

  13. Die Anyway says

    Once a year, at Thanksgiving dinner, I say a little blessing I learned from my father:
    “Good food, good meat, good god let’s eat!”

    But that’s about it for any praying. Although now I’m wondering if PDX_Greg is on to something —

    Worked hard all my lifetime,
    No help from my friends.
    Oh Lord won’t you buy me
    one of those new, bitchin’ Corvettes.

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