Prayer: Why I may do it Anyway (if asked)
On Good Friday, 1973, my parents caught me smoking. It wasn’t the first time I’d been caught, but it was the last. This wasn’t because I quit immediately, per their demands. It was, rather, because I quickly grew fairly skilled at hiding my vice from them. Oh, they continued to harbor suspicions, but they never again caught me in the act. Anyway, it so happened that, like most good evangelical Christians, our family was scheduled to attend the annual Good Friday service that very evening. So, off to church we went.
I sat through the service and dreaded the coming altar call because I knew exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, the pianist had barely begun playing the prayer chorus when my mother ambled over to where I was sitting with some friends and insisted that I accompany her to the altar. There, of course, I was compelled to repent of my sin, renounce my filthy habit and ask Jesus to forgive me. I mouthed the requisite syllables as tears of rage flowed down my cheeks.
I was enraged at being compelled to say a prayer that I did not mean and thereby label myself as a hypocrite. You see, when I was fourteen I was in what I now regard as a state of rebellious disobedience of God. I believed in God but had absolutely no desire to follow, obey, love or worship him. Therefore, my prayer was utterly insincere and, as I understood the matter then, both he and I knew I hadn’t meant a word of it. I believed that uttering an insincere prayer while in a state of believer’s rebellion was the height of hypocrisy.
Fast forward to late 2007-early 2008. My husband, the deacon, and I had read stories of newly minted nonbelievers (referred to here as de-converts, a term the deacon despises) who had endured uncomfortable situations over the holidays when they were asked to say the blessing over a meal. We had also read some accounts of atheists who refused to pray with others who were ill or otherwise hurting simply to comfort them. Naturally, we had a conversation about these dilemmas before drifting off to sleep one night. As we spoke, I reached what was, to me, a startling conclusion: in some situations, if I’m asked to pray over a meal, or to say a prayer at someone’s hospital bed or some other circumstance in which prayers are perfunctory rituals, I’ll likely just go ahead and do it. I won’t offer to do it, but, if asked, I may not automatically refuse either, although I’d prefer not to do it. The reason is this:
Unlike my fourteen-year-old self who believed that her insincere prayer had gravely offended a god, my adult, atheistic self recognizes that all prayers are meaningless mumblings that simply drift away into thin air. They don’t harm or offend anyone of either the mortal or deistic kind. Therefore, my primary reasons for offering prayers of any sort would be to a) ease the discomfort of another who would regard the prayer as an act of kindness, or b) fulfill a ritual that, while meaningless to me, is important to someone in my presence. My disbelief will not render my prayers any less effective in procuring divine intervention than the prayers of believers; all of our prayers will go unheeded and unanswered. On the other hand, if someone is ill and will be comforted by a few words uttered at the bedside, my prayer may provide psychological and emotional comfort to that person. My primary purpose in visiting, after all, should be to support and comfort the one who is ill in any way possible.
And yet …. there are two reasons why I’m not entirely comfortable with this position, and hope that it will be a transitional stance that I will one day discard completely. First, I’d rather not say or do anything that will strengthen someone’s faith in a non-existent deity. Second, I’d rather not give others reason to suppose that I share their belief in said non-existent deity. I realize that, in acceding to their requests to pray with them, I will be doing both of those things. I don’t like this, but I can’t just abruptly sever ties that have accumulated over a lifetime, and, in many cases, over generations. Moreover, hospital rooms, family reunions, church pot lucks and other such settings are not good venues for launching into detailed explications of one’s rejection of religion.
Renouncing faith is an extraordinarily messy business. The intellectual break from faith, which many (including me) experience as disorienting and traumatic, is only a small part of a larger process. It is, in many ways, the easiest part. The social break from faith and faith bodies is much more difficult to achieve. It will happen for me. The deacon and I will gradually break away from our current obligations and have, in fact, already begun doing so. Eventually, most of our existing social and religious connections will be substantially weakened or totally dissolved. When that happens, we will be able to profess our unbelief more openly than we can now. Until then, I will live, somewhat uncomfortably (and yes, somewhat hypocritically and dishonestly), with my current atheology of the meaningless drivel called prayer.
– the chaplain