How Atheists Pray

An old story from Plato:  The ancient Greek scientist Timaeus is getting ready to narrate his Theory of Everything, his theory of the origin and structure and purpose of the universe.  His lecture will summarize most of the best science of the day, including cosmology, basic physics, chemistry, and biology.  Timaeus was sort of an ancient Greek version of Carl Sagan (or maybe Sagan was a modern version of Timaeus!).

But before getting into the science, Timaeus tells his audience that it is necessary to begin with a prayer.  His prayer will honor the Deities; it will give thanks and praise.  His prayer will set the stage for his science.  So let us pray!  Except, well, there’s a problem.  After insisting that we must pray, after stressing the supreme importance of prayer, Timaeus just launches right into his story of the universe.  Where’s the prayer?  Did Timaeus forget? Was there a prayer that just got lost over the centuries? Are some pages missing from our copies of the Timaeus?   Or is Timaeus insulting the Deities?  Is he really a scientific atheist who says we must honor the Gods in prayer, but then flips them off?  Is he mocking religion and showing the superiority of science?

Eight hundred years after Plato, the late Roman pagan philosopher Proclus gave an answer: The entire scientific story of the universe, as presented by Timaeus, just is the prayer.  Timaeus prayed by doing science.  But what kind of prayer is this?  And are scientists like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan praying when they write their science books?  Is Richard Dawkins praying when he tells the story of evolution?

Most of us probably think of prayer in terms of petitionary prayer: asking God for favors, for money, for love, for health, for victory in social competition, for success in life.  Or maybe prayer is a kind of therapy: we tell God our troubles.  Except that none of the people in this story were Christians.  Plato, Timaeus, and Proclus were all ancient pagans.  They don’t believe in the Christian God.  For Plato and Timaeus, Christianity doesn’t even exist.  And Proclus opposed the Christians in ancient Rome.

For many ancient pagan thinkers, like Iamblichus and Sallustius, petitionary prayer didn’t even make sense.  The Gods are eternal powers which order and animate nature in accordance with the fixed laws of their natures.  Apollo moves the sun in accordance with unchangeable astronomical laws, laws which come from the nature of Apollo himself.  Since the Gods are changeless, you can’t change them by begging them for favors.  They don’t even hear your prayers.  Your prayers are irrelevant to them.  Worse, from an ethical perspective, petitionary prayer turns you into a beggar.  If you want to approach the Gods, you need to become godlike.  And the Gods are self-sufficient.  They have neither any needs nor any wants.  Begging is anti-divine. But at least prayer means talking to the Gods?  The Gods have no ears.

But do these philosophers matter?  Ordinary pagans, who were not philosophers, regularly begged their Gods for favors.  They loved to write curse tablets, in which they begged divine powers to harm their enemies.  The offered sacrifices to gain divine benefits.  And paganism itself is growing irrelevant: soon the Christians will take over the Roman Empire, and Christianity will replace ancient pagan religion.  Fast forward fifteen centuries, and jump across the globe, to contemporary America.  Here prayer means talking to God.  And God, according to Christians, really does hear your prayers.  Mostly, prayer is petitionary: prayer means asking God for favors.

According to Christians, prayer at least means talking to God.  If that’s right, then it seems obvious that atheistic scientists cannot pray.  They don’t believe there is any God to talk to.  So Sagan, Hawking, Dawkins, and others, aren’t praying.  Perhaps even Timaeus wasn’t really praying.  But some atheists have argued that you don’t have to believe in God in order to pray: you can pretend to talk to God.  You talk to God like you talk to an imaginary friend.  And this really can be therapeutic, even if you don’t believe that God exists.  This idea goes by the name of religious fictionalism: you treat God as if God were a fictional character like Harry Potter.  God is your imaginary therapist.  By simulating talking to a therapist, you really get therapeutic benefits.

Unfortunately, this fictionalism doesn’t make any sense in the case of Timaeus.  Nor does it make sense for Sagan, Hawking, Dawkins, and other modern scientists.  They don’t address their books to an imaginary God.  They aren’t pretending to talk to some fictional God.  Even Timaeus didn’t do this.  These science writers aren’t talking to any God at all.  So, if prayer means talking to God, or to some deity of some kind, then doing science isn’t praying.  But what about pantheistic prayer?  Pantheists say the universe is God; so by talking about the universe inside of the universe, Timaeus was really talking to God.  Well, no.  Timaeus was talking to humans.  And you can’t talk to the universe.  You can address it in speech, or talk at it, but you can’t talk to it.  It doesn’t hear you.

The idea that prayer means talking to God is a Christian idea.  It wasn’t the idea of prayer used by Timaeus.  And if doing science is praying, then this is a non-Christian concept of prayer.  Should we call it “prayer”?  Some atheists are cultural Christians: they say we should accept the Christian meanings of words.  This is like fictionalism: these atheists say we should still think like Christians, even while saying Christianity is false.  This turns atheism into a kind of hypocrisy.  And words like “prayer” aren’t owned by anybody.  Prayer has been practiced in many different ways in many different cultures.  It was practiced by Timaeus in his way long before Christianity.

To make sense out of Timaeus, and to use his ideas today, we need to reject the Christian definition of prayer.  One form of prayer (theistic prayer) does mean talking to God.  But atheistic prayer does not mean talking to God.  It didn’t mean that for Timaeus, since, in fact, after insisting on the need to pray, he doesn’t talk to any Deities.  He just launches into the science.  What might atheistic prayer mean?  For the pagan Platonists, the purpose of your life is to become as godlike as possible.  Prayer is one of the ways you become godlike.  It is a way of transforming your human mind into a divine mind.  So here is the lesson of the Timaeus: by doing science, you make your mind divine.  By doing science, you elevate your mind to the level of the divine.

In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins says that by doing science we can get outside of the universe. We get outside of the universe by “putting a model of the universe inside our skulls”.  The construction of this scientific model of the universe “is why it was worth coming to life in the first place”.   He says “the feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. . . . It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living”.  And this is exactly what Timaeus was doing, and, by doing that, he was praying.  When we put a truthful model of the universe inside of our heads, by doing science, we get outside of the universe.  We can look at it from an external perspective, from a divine perspective.  If there were any gods, they would have this perspective.  And there don’t have to be any gods in order for the perspective to exist.

When you do science, or even study science, you transform your human mind into a divine mind.  You make yourself godlike.  And prayer, in the atheistic sense, is any cognitive activity which makes you godlike.  This is how Timaeus prayed.  According to this atheistic definition of prayer, Sagan, Hawking, Dawkins, and other scientists and science writers, are praying.  Sagan’s Cosmos is a prayer.  Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is a prayer.  By reading books like these, you make your mind divine.


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7 thoughts on “How Atheists Pray”

  1. Great piece Eric. It’s funny you mention Fictionalism and how prayer can be a type of effective, therapeutic form of Fictionalism. I just gave a talk yesterday and made that same point. But I also really like how you push beyond that to expand/change/challenge the definition of prayer and what it can be. I’ve personally started using petitionary prayer (in a fictionalist way) in my own life because of its psychological & emotional benefits, but long before that I was enthralled with this sense of “witnessing” the universe.

    The notion of becoming “godlike” and seeing reality as it is, it strikes me as in part what the mystical traditions across the world aspire to as well. – I’ve been interested in the question of whether atheistic mysticism is possible, and what it might look like — do you have any thoughts on that?

    • You certainly can be a mystic without believing in “God.” I am one. But I don’t think you can be a mystic without some unifying notion, some notion in which the seamless interconnection of self and cosmos can be given meaning.

      • Hm. Yea, the unifying notion is a prevalent part of mysticisms across the world. They can take on many forms. For me, mysticism has both an experiential component (feeling said unity / other aspects of mystical states) and a component of intellectual understanding (knowing said unity exists and acting in accordance with it, even when it may not be immediately present and felt). I’d say that for me, the scientific paradigm (seen as a whole) offers a breathtaking vista of interconnectedness and vastness. Walking in nature / immense spaces often helps me fix my mind on both the feeling connected with the cosmos and knowing it (even in part) that I identify with mystical experience.

        Could I ask, Thomas, what is the unifying notion that forms the basis of interconnection of self and cosmos and what is the meaning that it has? – I’m fascinated by this question.

        • Daniel, I can’t what “the” unifying notion is, but I can say how I think of it.

          At the intellectual level it is the source and ultimate context of the Universe, and the mystery behind why the Universe is and is as it is. For more details on that, you could see the article I published here in early February titled “1-1 = The Great Mystery.”

          At a more mythic/poetic level, I simply use the old word “Tao.” Tao is the fact of this Universe’s spontaneous self-organization, which results in the endless novelty that we find here on earth. Tao is similar to the traditional idea of God, but God stripped of every trace of anthropomorphism.

          And as the mysterious source of the Universe’s creativity, Tao is also the mystery and creativity of our inner being.

          The mystical experience for me is precisely the meeting of the Tao as inner mystery and the Tao as the mystery of the Cosmos, where the two forms of mystery become one and the same.

          • That’s well put, Thomas. I like that notion of the mystical experience as the meeting of the inner and outer mysteries – the human inner cosmos which exists within the outer one. That inner cosmos is different from the outer cosmos and yet mediates how we perceive and understand that outer cosmos.

            “The mystery behind why the Universe is and is as it is” – that’s very similar to the way in which Einstein conceived of scientific/religious awe. I wrote more about his perspective in one of the sample pieces I sent your way earlier today.

            And I assume 1-1 is about “Nothingness” something that also fascinates me. I wrote a podcast episode for Ministry of Ideas about notions of nothingness from the perspective of physics, philosophy, and religion. I’ll take a look at your thoughts on it!

  2. Also, the notion of ‘culturally christian” atheists is good food for thought. – How Christian notions have become “common sense” and thus difficult to see, much less question.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Eric. I am fascinated by this topic. Prayer and meditation have both been practices instrumental in my transition from Christianity into Humanism. Over time I realized that prayer was always more about me (and people) than about whoever/whatever might have been listening. Curiously, adopting a psychological posture of not being the center of the universe oneself can be a pathway (wormhole?) into experiencing the divinity you describe (toward which all the mystical traditions of the world aspire), viz. awareness that I am the universe and all its phenomena. Which blows the illusory ego “me” away. Because we all are. (In my opinion, the 12 Step groups have implemented this insight as a technology for transformation in practical, largely helpful ways.) Again, thank you.


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