Nontheistic Prayer

by J.D. Moyer


Why (as an Atheist) I Pray


How do we communicate with our subconscious minds? (art by Jerrycharlotte)

I identify as an atheist.  Empirically, I’ve never seen any evidence supporting the existence of a deity, and rationally, none of the major religious belief systems make any sense to me.  Cosmologically, I guess I would call myself a meta-evolutionist (I believe both in Darwinian evolution, and in the evolution of the evolutionary process).

Still, I respect many religious traditions and practices.  I respect religious tradition because I like tradition in general, and religious ones are often the only ones available in any particular life area.  As for religious practices, I take an eclectic approach.  I like pork chops and bacon too much to ever be kosher, but I don’t mind (and sometimes enjoy) reciting Jewish prayers before meals (my wife and daughter are Jewish).

One religious practice I embrace wholeheartedly is prayer.  Prayer can mean many different things, but I’m talking about the “personal dialogue with God” variety.

So how does this fit in with atheism?  If I pray, who or what am I praying to?  Do I just have a massive tolerance for cognitive dissonance?  Or have I bought into the sloppy pseudoscience behind “remote healing”?

No and no.  My practice of prayer is consistent with my rational, atheistic belief system.  Nothing spooky or supernatural is required to make an argument for why prayer is effective (for me).

I’ll try to explain.


Consciousness and the Freedom-Building Toolkit

What we experience as consciousness is only a small part of our mental totality.  From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity (Burk Braun discusses this perspective in-depth on his blog).

If there’s a lot more “in there” than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it?  How do we “unlock” the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds?  (I call this area metaprogramming.)  How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?

Daniel Dennett — mind is quantifiable.

I’m not saying that our minds are vast and limitless, and beyond quantification.  I’m comfortable with Daniel Dennett’s take on consciousness

— brains are biological mechanisms that generate the illusion of “mind.”  I also agree with Dennett’s take on free will and naturalism — the two can co-exist.  Stephen Pinker takes a similar view – a mechanistic view of the brain doesn’t preclude freedom of choice, at least in certain areas.  While we can’t control our instincts, physiological reactions, or the majority of our moment-to-moment behaviors, we can exercise free will (and increase our freedom) with behaviors like planning, conscious learning/practice/study, self-conditioning, contemplation and self-analysis, and meditation.

I include prayer in this tool-kit of higher order mental behavior, and I think many atheists unnecessarily discard or disregard the practice of prayer for no good reason.


The Development of Thought, and Why We Sometimes Feel Isolated

Lev Vygotsky — speaking precedes thinking.

The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (born in what is now Belarus) developed a novel theory of how cognitive awareness has its roots in the development of speech.  Vygotsky theorized that very young children don’t think silently to themselves the way adults do — at first they only “think” by speaking out loud to their parents, siblings, or caregivers.  Later, this develops into “self-talk” (if you’ve ever been around young children you may have noticed them mumbling to themselves when they’re alone in their rooms).  Later still, self-talk internalizes, and becomes inner speech (what adults experience as thinking — or at least one type of thinking).

I first learned about Vygotsky in this episode of Radiolab.  Researchers in the episode discuss the possibility that “hearing voices” (a common symptom of schizophrenia) may be related to Vygotsky’s theory of language development.  If the foundation of inner speech is talking to other people, it seems plausible that a glitch in the system could easily confuse us into thinking that our own thoughts are the voices of others people (or of supernatural beings).

What interests me most about Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that thought starts off as a communal experience (talking to your parents/siblings/caregivers) and later becomes an isolated experience (talking to yourself in your head).  I wonder if this is related to the sense of loneliness and isolation people sometimes feel when they’re “alone with their thoughts.”  Even if we’re alone, we generally don’t feel lonely if our minds are engaged (reading a novel, working, writing).  On the other hand, we can feel lonely even in a crowd of people if we’re thinking to ourselves instead of talking to someone.


Prayer and the Externality Construct

If, as Vygotsky believed, our thought process is rooted in the experience of talking to someone more powerful than us, who loves us (a parent or caregiver), could this be why, for some at least, prayer can satisfy a sort of psychological craving?  Could there be a “natural void” in our minds that prayer can fill; a psychological empty space once filled by family members and caregivers, when we were first learning to think?

When we pray, we don’t feel alone, because (once again) we are talking to someone.  Atheists, like myself, don’t believe this someone actually exists, but this shouldn’t prevent us from taking advantage of a psychological exploit that can give us emotional reassurance, guidance, and insight when we most need it.

When I pray, I don’t believe any sort of conscious entity is hearing my thoughts.  So who am I addressing?  I like to think of it as the “externality construct.”  I might give it a name, like “The Universe,” or “All-That-Is-Not-Me,” or “Layer Zero,” or even “God,” but the name doesn’t matter.  The entity I’m addressing exists in my mind — a construct.  But it feels like I’m addressing someone outside of myself — an externality.

The term “Higher Power” bothers me — it’s usually used as a euphemism for some kind of omniscient/omnipresent/omnipotent Creator, ascribing agency and consciousness to some kind of imaginary entity.  On the other hand, there are plenty of forces in the universe that I’m powerless to resist or control — things like entropy, time, and evolution.  At times I tried to visualize these forces, and the vastness of the universe, as a sort of God.  But it doesn’t really work.  I don’t believe in God.  I don’t believe the universe is conscious, or “cares” (how could it, if it’s not conscious?).  The universe is full of conscious beings, but they’re not psychic and they can’t hear my thoughts.  Nobody is hearing my thoughts and prayers, yet still I find it emotionally satisfying and psychologically effective to pray.



The Benefits of Addressing “Other”

Prayer is any kind of thought that addresses Other instead of Self.  It’s a subtle but powerful shift in thinking mode.

When we address Other, we don’t feel alone.  We may instantly feel relief at not having to “figure it all out” by ourselves.  Maybe there is the sense of carrying a lighter load, of not having to “tough it out alone.”

Is this an illusion?  A hallucination?

Yes — absolutely.  We’re no more or less alone than before we shifted our mode of thinking.  But it’s still just as effective.

Some things that I “do” when I pray (internal actions) include the following:

  • giving thanks for good things in my life, experiencing gratitude
  • asking for guidance when I’m unsure of a course of action
  • asking for inspiration when I’m feeling stuck
  • asking for forgiveness when I’ve really fucked up
  • asking for a solution to a specific problem
  • asking for improved health, wealth, and other good things for myself and/or someone else
  • asking for a specific emotional need to be met (to feel more loved, more courageous, more confident, happier … whatever)

Often, my subconscious mind is happy to provide an “answer to my prayers” — often within minutes.  If I’m praying for the well-being of someone else, a way to help that person might occur to me.  Maybe I’ll think of a remedy that could help them, or a book that might be helpful, or an introduction I could make.  Maybe it will occur to me that what that person needs is someone to just listen to them, or accept them, or maybe help them more directly with time, money, advice, or another kind of resource.

I suppose a religious person, or someone who believes “universal vibrations” or some other kind of New Age hokum might think “my job is done” after praying for someone else.  It’s even possible that person would be right; maybe they influenced their subconscious mind in a way that influenced their behavior in a way that helped the other person.  But the only thing I expect from prayer are emotional strength and/or inspiration.  In the latter case, inspiration needs to be followed up with action to do any good.

Could I get the same result if I consciously pondered “how can I help this person?”  Maybe … but sometimes answers become more elusive if approached head-on.  Changing my mode of thinking — addressing Other instead of Self — is usually the more effective approach.


Why Call It Prayer?

If I’m just talking to my subconscious mind, why call it prayer?  Why not just call it “talking to my subconscious mind”?

Sometimes I do just call it that.  But behaviorally, I think the practice is identical to prayer.  The belief system is different, but I don’t think that makes a difference in terms of cause and effect.  A religious person might say “God answered my prayers” while I would say “my subconscious mind gave me a great idea” — but we basically did the same thing.  We switched our thought mode to “talking to Other.”

Here’s another consideration.  Let’s say a religious person is questioning their faith.  They’re considering swallowing the bitter pill of atheism, and accepting that life has no meaning beyond the meaning we give it, and that there is no judgement beyond the way we judge each other.  That person might hesitate in embracing atheism because prayer, and other religious practices, give them such emotional reassurance, guidance, and even joy.

I would say to that person, there’s no need to give up religious practice, just because you’ve decided that the idea of a Creator doesn’t make sense.  You can still go to church/temple/mosque, you can still pray (both traditional prayer and the “personal prayer” I talked about in this post if that’s part of your tradition).  I realize, living in the Bay Area, that I’m in a bubble of enlightened religious thinking, where many reformed communities are completely tolerant of naturalistic philosophies like Darwinism.  Richard Dawkins criticizes these types as “religious moderates,” trying to find middle ground where none exists.  Maybe that’s a valid criticism in some cases, but there’s more to religion than belief (especially in the case of Judaism).  There are powerful psychological factors involved in community, ritual, and practice that bind us to each other, and help us in our own personal growth, and we don’t have to believe in God to take advantage of these things.


Originally appearing in the Blog of J.D. Moyer, added to the Society archives with his permission.