Replacing Prayer

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?


  1. Robert B. says

    You forgot meditation! Meditation has an entirely secular purpose as routine maintenance for your brain – computer analogies in psychology are always a bit iffy, but it’s sort of like going into the task manager and closing down hung processes to free up system resources. I suspect that one reason that some people feel better when they pray is that they’re effectively meditating, even if they don’t think of it in those terms. (Not to mention the religions where meditation is explicitly built in.)

  2. Cuttlefish says

    Robert B– I did not so much “forget” as “omit”; I wanted to focus on the stuff where god was a proxy for doing something to or for someone else. Also, I guess I’ve never been a big meditator, before or after religion. Also, come to think of it, when I googled “functions of prayer” and looked at the first few results, meditation wasn’t mentioned!

  3. lamacher says

    One day, when at my devout parents’ place at noon, dad asked me to provide the ritual ‘grace’. Without bowing my head or closing eyes, I said: ‘We are grateful for this food, provided by underpaid, overworked ‘guests’ in California. We are mindful of the devotion of underpaid teachers, nurses, municipal workers who provide essential services to society so that many may live vicariously off their labor.’ I stopped, and they looked at me as though I’d gone mad. Mother said, after a few moments:”But you didn’t thank God!” “He had nothing to do with this meal”, I said. End of conversation.

    Your poem is not only apropos, it is good poetry – as your efforts usually are. Cheers!

  4. Margaret says

    If there are real world things you were praying for, these are things you can work for.

    Unless you were one those praying for your god to kill the gays or the feminists or the abortion providers or the Democrats or whatever, in which case please continue to pray rather than going out and doing the killing yourself.

  5. Robert B. says

    @ Cuttlefish: Fair enough. I might be misunderstanding prayer – I deconverted early and I was never all that religious to start with, so on reflection maybe I shouldn’t think I know what prayer is to believers.

  6. deepak shetty says

    So… what to do instead of praying?
    When a beloved aunt had cancer I did wonder what to do – when I was younger it was easy – pray and promise some sacrifice if my aunt got better – when I no longer believed in prayer I had no idea what to do. There is a feeling of helplessness in these cases that prayer used to work around by delegating the fixing of the problem to a higher authority.
    So I spent the time remembering why the aunt was so beloved to me instead of praying.

  7. Randomfactor says

    Prayers for someone in the hospital always work better when delivered from a couch at the blood bank. Oftentimes the help is diverted to someone else in need, but it always helps.

    Prayers for improvement of your community are routinely answered when delivered while picking up trash. You can see results immediately.

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