I’m an atheist, and I pray every day.
Yes, that’s a contradiction. And it makes me a hypocrite. I’ll do my best to explain how my grey matter works.
When Hurricane Harvey clobbered Houston in August, 2017, my first thought was: Well, Rick Perry finally had his prayers answered.
In 2011, Rick Perry was the governor of Texas, and Texas was in a state of severe drought. To rectify the situation, Governor Perry issued a proclamation for “The Days of Prayer,” because the separation of church and state is a suggestion, not a part of the Constitution or anything.
The Days of Prayer called for three days of folks bending a knee and asking the Almighty for rain.
(Which is apparently more appropriate than bending a knee during a song and asking for racial equality, ha-ha again.)
So what happened? At the time The Days of Prayer happened, 15-17% of Texas was suffering. Three weeks later, 50% of the state was being decimated. Two months after that, 70% of Texas had succumbed to parched conditions. Not only did Texans not get what they prayed for, things went in the exact opposite direction. If you were conducting an experiment, you’d have to admit your methods were a complete failure.
That is, unless you want to say your prayers were answered 168 days later, when rain finally descended upon the state.
Ask, and ye shall receive… five months after the fact.
So, going back to the beginning, The Days of Prayer are why–when Hurricane Harvey hit–I had my “prayers answered” thought. Basically, I was being snotty. Rick Perry is a climate change denier, and since it boggles my mind there are people who trust in fairy tales and not science, my first thought was a bit of a middle finger to his belief system.
To that end, the HBO series VICE ran an episode titled “Deliver Us From Drought.” They interviewed Texans who scoff at the idea of climate change, because God is in charge of the weather, and man cannot affect what God controls.
It’s an odd contradiction. They cannot see climate change, therefore they do not believe in it despite overwhelming scientific evidence. At the same time, they cannot see God, yet champion Christianity because of nothing more than personal conviction.
Fast forward to 2017.
During (and after) Hurricane Harvey people were actively praying for less rain, for less floodwaters.
And, to be honest, so was I.
Even though my first thought involved snark toward Rick Perry, my overriding emotion was empathy. Every time I’d turn on the news, or open my computer I’d think, God, I hope everyone is OK.
Which brings me to the question: Is hope a form of prayer? Because I have well-wishing thoughts all the time, from the grand—crossed fingers for the people of Houston; an internal blessing to someone I’ve only read about online who is suffering—to the mundane: Sure would be neat to have something good happen in my career.
I think these thoughts are natural, even for atheists.
(Which, sadly, I’m not. I’m more agnostic. I actually don’t know what I believe in, I just know that man-made religions are silly, and that starting an article “I’m an agnostic who prays” doesn’t have the same hook as using the word atheist. Sorry about that.)
If hope is a form of prayer, what’s the difference between praying to an imaginary God and actively knowing you’re throwing your thoughts into a void? And if I don’t believe in “God,” why do I use the term when hope-praying?
Legitimate questions, and I’m not sure I have satisfactory answers.
First, I think hope and empathy are universal traits. Therefore, “God, I hope everyone makes it through” is a natural response to tragedy. But why use the word “God” if I’m an atheist? That I’m not positive on. I think it’s conditioning. The idea that when we “pray” (or hope), we are doing so to “God,” is so deeply imbedded in society that it bleeds across borders and into the psyche of agnostics and atheists. Therefore, when I say “God,” I’m not talking to a being as described in a book conceived and written by men, it’s a placeholder. It’s a noun that makes more sense than “Chair,” “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” or “Nick Cannon,” the difference between the three being Nick Cannon is real thing.
(God only knows why he was allowed to happen.)
Ultimately, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a prayer (or hope) answered.
I’ve wished for many things both personal and altruistic, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen positive results. In fact, many times I’ve had the same experience as the folks in Texas whose drought got worse after they prayed for rain.
Despite that, not only do I continue to have the hope/prayer thoughts, I don’t fight them or think they’re stupid. To hope is natural, but you have to combine hope with action. That’s something many people forget to do.
Crossing fingers is never enough.