As a kid, I prayed every night before going to bed. Sometimes I prayed when I really desperately wanted something or was feeling unhappy. Praying made me feel like I was doing something when I didn’t know what to do.
I pretty much stopped praying at the same time that I stopped believing in God. Well, I did pray before I took my driving exam when I was eighteen. To maximize my chances I prayed to every god that I could think of. It was a close call, but I passed the exam.
Very recently I’ve run into the phenomenon of non-religious praying. It isn’t a new thing, but I’d never heard of it before. It means that people who don’t believe in God pray anyway. Some actually pray to God and others to some less well defined force such as the Universe. But why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be the same as if you tried to make a phone call using a banana? To someone that you don’t even think exists? In other words, wouldn’t it be madness?
Well, not necessarily. There is no doubt that prayer has many benefits. Saying grace before eating might increase our appreciation for food by reminding us of how lucky we are to receive it. Praying before bed might help us settle down. Some people recommend writing all your worries down before bed, and praying sounds like a similar process.
Prayer is obviously not like ordering take-out where you just place your order and fifteen minutes later walk out with your meal in the bag and ready to go. It’s more complicated than that. All religious systems make it obvious that praying merely increases the chances of your wishes coming true. God does what he wants, but if you pray, he might consider helping out. From an atheist’s perspective this is of course only supplying a convenient plan B to uphold faith in case the person is disappointed. It makes it impossible to establish the veracity of whether prayers are actually heard or not, and forces people to lean on blind faith alone. Any eventual prayers that were “heard” are used to strengthen the system.
For reasons above and others, I don’t believe in God but I do believe that the act of believing is somehow beneficial. There is plenty of evidence for the effect that belief can have on healing from disease. Positive thinking and belief that things are going to get better might be the very phenomena behind the placebo effect. Could prayer be just another manifestation of the placebo effect? Could it intensify our ability to change by strengthening our volition and instilling a positive mood?
Believe and it shall be granted to you. Without belief few difficult things are possible. Praying can increase your belief in success, which is what you need to keep on working towards your goals. It can help you keep your eyes on the prize since concentrating on what you need helps focus your thoughts on the thing that you are hoping to happen. Praying can help you overcome obstacles by keeping you strong. Praying can increase and help uphold positive mood, which is conducive to success.
The prayers that I’ve been talking about here are selfish prayers. The way I see it, prayer might have some effect if the person is praying for something that that person can influence. I don’t believe that praying for others, unless it somehow leads to you taking action on their behalf, could help them. The study behind this link has come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, there are other studies that show that prayer and religious practices in general are healthy and have a positive effect on longevity. There are probably many methodical shortcomings with these studies, but I’ll leave them alone for now.
I don’t think I’ll be starting praying, at least not regularly. It does feel silly when I don’t believe there is anyone at the receiving end. But if I try it and it feels good, why not? Think of it as a form of meditation.
What do you think? Should even atheists engage in some kind of prayer? Do you pray and has it helped you somehow?