Religion

Afternoon/Early Evening Inquisition 10.12

We Skepchicks are all hanging out in bed today, making pancakes and watching movies (I just finished The Professional), so none of us were able to find the time to post. Sorry!

Turning to the mailbag, we recently received a wonderful letter from reader Kaylia, a newish skeptic and nonbeliever who struggles with the idea of prayer. Specifically, it is something she has turned to time and again throughout her life, and now that it looks as though nobody’s listening, she’s a bit concerned. Prayer was a great comfort, as a way of throwing oneself on the mercy of a higher power when no other option exists, and now that comfort is gone.

I wanted to print her entire letter and include my own thoughtful response, but it occurs to me that the wisdom of the masses may be needed here. I might still post a follow-up, but in the meantime, do Kaylia and I a favor and tell us:

What, if anything, do atheists/skeptics do in lieu of prayer?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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69 Comments

  1. I just tough it out, all of the things that pushed you to prayer were things that you got through with out a higher power. Life is hard, but you come from a long line of winners, a line that goes back literally for billions of years.

  2. A long, solitary walk. No iPod, no companions, no pets, no fitness goals, no time constraints. Put on some comfortable shoes, head out your front door, and start walking. Have no destination; follow no set path.

    Feel free to wander, and go where your feet take you. Walk and think and listen and look and think some more. When you start to get tired, turn around and figure out to get home, preferably by a different route.

  3. Plan, put plan in to action.

    Meditate, which can be a sitting/breathing practice or it could be a ritual like cleaning the house, which I find very meditative.

    Talk to actual human friends who will empathize and offer counsel if needed.

    Stuff like that, for me.

  4. Personally, I pay homage to our robotic overlords and thank them for their constant watchfulness against the zombie hordes. Sic semper cadavera animata!

    Or I try to remove myself from the situation and try to find a solution to whatever is bothering me.

  5. Talking to people is a huge thing for me. Whenever I just feel like shit, feel like my life is spiraling out of my control, I just talk to someone, tell them everything that’s been going on with me personally and what’s bothering me.

    After doing that it’s just a matter of sitting back and recognizing whatever that is bothering me as simply cause and effect. As a human it’s easy for events to line up in a way where it appears that there is some force working against you. After you realize that there is no such force, issues seem to become more and more manageable and you can get back on top of your life.

  6. If it is something I want I ask the Universe for it, it’s pretty much a string wish, you need 3 things, desire, concentration and clarity. I usually lack clarity, if you’re not clear (and specific in what you want) the Universe will show you it’s mischievous sense of humour, it seems like this is where the phrase “Be careful what you wish for!” got it’s start.But I only have anecdotal evidence that this method works.
    Usually, I find the best method is just to let the problem go, if only for a short time. Stop worrying/obsessing/thinking over whatever it is and usually an answer comes along quickly. This is a more reliable method than the first, but, still the evidence for it is anecdotal.
    I have NEVER had any of my supplications/prayers answered by any of the gods or goddesses or other beings that I have prayed to EVER.
    If the ritual of praying helps comfort you I see no harm in it. I don’t think that you have to be an atheist to be a skeptic.

  7. Prayer is just another way of hoping. So you can have hope, but at the same time, you have to work to make what you wish for a reality. You won’t always get what you want, but then again, a believer will also point out that God also doesn’t always give you what you want.

  8. If there’s a specific problem that’s causing you worry, one way of putting it into perspective is to ask yourself what the worst possible outcome would be. Granted, such a worst-case outcome might be pretty horrible (like the loss of a loved one, for instance), but knowing that may allow you to take suitable action based on rational decisions.

  9. @Howard: Howard, I’ve also found that going on long walks or hikes puts me in a meditative state of mind, to the point where I stop thinking about what my feet are doing, and my mind is free to wander. It is a nice feeling which many people accomplish through prayer which explains its popularity. As for looking for comfort or sympathy, I would suggest talking to a friend and/or family.

  10. I also like to drive, put on a podcast or an audiobook and just drive for hours. It really centers me and feels very cathartic. It isn’t the most practical solution, but it works well for me, or it did when I had my car.

  11. I read. For extended periods of time. Just getting out of my own head with a book means the world to me, because I have a tendency to drive myself insane with thought. It really doesn’t matter what the subject mater is, fiction, nonfiction, etc. As long as I’m thinking about something that has nothing to do with my situation, I can usually calm down and think rationally.

  12. I have a large portion of my family that believes in prayer, which drives me nuts (how/why someone can credit all their effort to some omnipotent being really just doesn’t make sense). Instead of prayer, the much more efficient thing to do is just step back and look at the situation at hand and either acknowledge you did everything you could and simply ask another “actual person” for help. Besides, There are much better and more fun things I can do on my knees then pray, and I don’t need a god to tell me that. ~

  13. I talk to myself.

    I know, right? It really seems to help when I’m feeling alone or depressed.

    You said it. Prayer is talking to yourself anyway.

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far.

    I would. What the hell’s the difference? There isn’t a god so all that prayer you did was just really talking to

    You’re misconstruing what I’m trying to say.

    Don’t interupt me again, you son of a bitch.

    Guys, guys. Can we keep it civil for once.

  14. I breathe deeply and think: Is this something I have control over? If so, I make a plan on how to deal with it, one step at a time.
    If I don’t have control over it, I keep reminding myself of that fact, and spend my time on things I do have control over.

  15. Rh1no has it right, at least for me. I try to find an answer and then take action. If I can’t find an answer, than I talk to those I think might have the answer or some wisdom to offer. I have found the deepest wisdom in some of the oddest places, too.

    Sometimes, listening to instrumental music like Classical or New Age/World/Celtic helps me to calm my mind and think creatively. Long walks, with or without a pet, also help at times.

    If it’s something I can’t control (like the economy crashing, a death of someone dear), I just try to keep some perspective about it.

    I also remind myself that if there is no apparent deadline, then there is no reason to hurry to a decision.

  16. I’ve only been an atheist for a couple of years, and it has hit me really hard.

    When I get depressed I go for long walks. It doesn’t help the depression, but at least it’s good exercise. :)

    My answer is rather extreme, but I’ve been seeing a therapist for several months. (In my case there are several other issues that I am dealing with as well.) It helps me some.

  17. RoaldFalcon: Been there, done that. Sometimes I think that depression may be the only rational response to the world as it is. (Been on anti-depressants for several years, party as a “recovering Catholic.”)

    Then I remember that Gandhi said that we should be the change we want to see in the world. So I get up and do that instead. Takes practice. After awhile, you get so damn busy trying to be that change that you forget to be depressed. ;-)

  18. I generally see prayer as little more than venting anyway. If praying makes you feel better, then keep praying. It doesn’t mean that you have to believe that someone is listening for it to make you feel good. It’s just a chance to vent and express your feelings.

    Of course, if that doesn’t sounds appealing, I recommend watching albino dwarves leg-wrestling. No room for worries when you’re watching a show like THAT.

  19. Someone (above) said prayer is a form of hope, and you can have hope w/o a deity of some sort. I believe something similar – I think prayer is a form of faith, and there are still things to have faith in. Have faith in people (not all people, ’cause most of ’em are bastards, but there are some good ones out there), and have faith in technology, which keeps getting better, (and cooler), and keeps solving at least slightly more problems than it causes.

    Have faith in yourself, as well – you made it this far, after all.

  20. Day dream, think and ponder, talk to my wife, sex, Scotch, music. I suppose it depends on what’s going on.

    I don’t tend to be much of a worrier and I’m not one to whip up unnecessary guilt feelings or self loathing unless I really ought to, so even when I was a Christian I had a hard time with all the sack cloth and ashes stuff. If a friend has a problem I’ll ask if there’s anything I can do. The notion of praying instead of actually doing something to help a person is IMO just self serving emotional placation/crap.

  21. @Chew. I talk to myself too. But what I do is I sign it in ASL, using the alphabet, like signing each word. It’s not proper form or useful, but I sign it fast and, especially when it’s hidden, no one knows.

    I also right. When I’m confused, depressed, excited, or anything else, I write. Usually in the form of poems, which I post online, but sometimes it’s in my diary/journal. It helps, and I forget about the journal so no one can find it….

    Usually I can’t either… -_-

  22. Keep praying, but to yourself, not to God. The power of prayer is real, not because a god is there to hear your prayers, but because your prayers focus your attention. Talk to yourself in the third person and everything, as you did with God back in the day. After awhile, your God-shaped hole will just disappear.

  23. Interesting question.

    I can’t honestly answer it, because I never prayed… but I can offer a couple of thoughts:

    +1 to Kimbo, who suggested learning. When I’m feeling powerless (that’s why people pray, right?), Wikipedia is often my first stop. The more I know about something, the less I fear it.

    +1 to audaciousman, who suggests mediation… but that’s not easy. At least, not if you’re doing it right. ; ) (At least from a Zen standpoint.)

    Put on your open-minded cap for a moment.

    Lastly, I would suggest (don’t laugh) auto-hypnosis. I think if you do your research, you’ll find that hypnotism isn’t a “special state”… but it’s a way of cheating to get a person–in this case yourself–to change your opinion on something. At the very least, it’s a kick-ass way to relax. (Much more relaxing than mediation.) I’d also suggest leaning a bit–just a LITTLE bit–of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Okay, okay, go ahead and laugh at that one: it’s mostly bunk. But there are a few neat tricks to learn for reconditioning, and I think you’ll find you can use those tricks to change your attitude toward situations fairly easily. …Just make sure you stop after you learn those tricks, cause it gets really stupid really fast after that point.

    …Okay, you can go back to being fully skeptical now. ; )

  24. Pick a book you like that deals with the situation, and recite a favourite line. E.g., “fear is the mindkiller…”

    Although I don’t do that. Personally, my thing is to just play the stoic. I used to be more of a finding a friend’s shoulder to cry on person, but for whatever reason I left that behind. The most I ever do these days is pour myself a nice, tall glass of whiskey or absinthe, and for that it’s gotta be something pretty bad.

  25. I never really prayed, so I don’t know for sure what one would replace it with. Odds are nothing will serve quite the same purpose. After all, you thought you were talking to a deity. It’s hard to beat that.

    What I would recommend, though, is taking some time on a quiet evening, put on some music, sit down, and do nothing, not even think. Don’t even try not to think: instead, let yourself become external to your thoughts. Just sit, and listen to yourself.

  26. @ansuzmannaz : “What I would recommend, though, is taking some time on a quiet evening, put on some music, sit down, and do nothing, not even think.”

    That almost always seems to work for me when I feel like the world is caving in. Few things beat listening to “Sea Change” by Beck in those situations.

  27. I usually talk to my cats, or complain to myself. I’ve noticed that the words, or at least the general message, are no different than they would be in a prayer. I suppose it’s even possible the cats could, for example, bring me a hamburger if I prayed for one, so Cats > God.

  28. I’d recommend spending the afternoon watching CSI: Miami. Every episode makes me laugh because they tend to give too much importance to style.

    Praying is a bit like that too, isn’t it? It involves some kind of ceremonious begging to the powers that be, even though it’s not really going to change anything in the physical world.

  29. I check that I have crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s and if there is anything else I can do to fix a situation, and if there isn’t then I wait and see what happens.

    Out of curiosity, I’ve never been a religious person, I wasn’t raised with it either, and I’ve never understood how people can find prayer comforting. The closest I’ve ever felt to spiritual is when I am out amongst nature.

    Are there more born again atheists who felt something through prayer or felt nothing?

  30. Even though it’s become permantly associated with 12 Step programs, I’ve always found that meditating on the serenity prayer(…change the things I can….accept the things I can’t….wisdom to know the difference) can be helpful.

    The lack of a belief in God makes no difference whatsoever to the underlying wisdom. So when things start getting really crazy, take a minute and identify what parts of the craziness you can do something about and what parts you can’t. For instance, recognizing that you can’t change a significant other, but you can change how you react to something they do can effect your outlook on a situation considerably.

    I probably sound like a total sap, but it works.

  31. It seems to me there are different aspects to prayer. As a pre-bedtime ritual, I instead drink a beer and masturbate. At the end of a long week, instead of praying to give thanks for the strength and wisdom to get through I say “another one down, huzzah!” then drink a beer and masturbate. When I need guidance or inspiration, I drink a beer, masturbate, and have a good think about it.

  32. Thank you all for your responses, and thank you Rebecca for posting my question, I wasn’t around this weekend so I didn’t see it until this morning.

    I don’t intentionally pray… as in part of a ritual or talking to a higher power, but I still find myself instinctually asking for help in dangerous situations… and that I think will probably fade with time.

    I envy family members who can pray, because they feel they HAVE done something to help the situation even if that is totally false. I get to go for a walk, listen to music,… and wait. The helplessness is what gets to me… and even though their “help” isn’t real, it seems real to them. They find a sort of peace in that.

    I have to find my peace somewhere else.

    As a newbie skeptic/atheist finding that peace can sometimes not be easy. Again, something that I think will come in time.

    Thank you again,

    –K

  33. From the earliest time I can remember I always had discussions with my inner voice. I was always aware that it was me, but it seemed to be more detached than I seemed to be. I grew up in a family that was full of religion, my dad’s side being what I liked to call “hillbilly voodoo religion” with the speaking in tongues and cartwheeling down the aisles and my mom’s side being united methodists who were mostly interested in who was not there and how those who were there were dressed. There were lots of demons and hell-fire thrown at me. It was a struggle to shrug it all off at times. My inner conversations always helped to work through it. I would do this during walks or while doing some repetitive task that kept my hands busy but not my mind.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with sending thoughts out to the “universe” as long as you realize nothing is coming back other than insight provided by your mind. Sometimes I would use the I Ching to focus on a question or problem. While some see it as a “divination” system, it really is just a random idea generator that allows you to think through things with some outside input but without the woo woo of birthdays or planets, etc. like you would have with astrology or something of that ilk.

    In the end, you need to find a way of dealing with things that works for you. How that works in fact is going to be different for almost everyone, though there are common threads, just as we see here. ::::shrugs:::

  34. @Kaylia_Marie:

    I don’t intentionally pray… as in part of a ritual or talking to a higher power, but I still find myself instinctually asking for help in dangerous situations… and that I think will probably fade with time.

    Perhaps it’s not necessary for it to fade.

    Have you worked out whether it was the belief that a higher power, a protector, was listening and could affect whatever situation you were in that brought you comfort, or simply the act of verbalizing your troubles, even internally, that helped?

    Sometimes just voicing a struggle, sort of facing it down, is the first step in overcoming it, and if those little prayers you still invoke serve that purpose, maybe they don’t need to fade over time.

    As to the feeling of helplessness you talk about, I think you’ll find it to be a basic fact of the human condition. Everyone feels helpless at times, even those that say praying helps them. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s one that perhaps we shouldn’t try so desperately to avoid. Because it is through helplessness that we hopefully take action for our own sakes, and it’s the shared aspect of it that is the impetus for altruism. We know what it’s like to feel helpless, and so we go to great lengths to help others when they feel that way.

    Maybe, instead of trying to find the magic pill that aids us in curing the feeling, we can find the comfort we need in rationalizing it and approaching it in another way where it’s not “vilified”, so to speak.

  35. I act.

    I act to make the world we live in a better place. I might write, I might send angry letters, I might donate money, I might volunteer for an organization a few hours a week.

    And when I’m in the process of acting and my mind still looks for something to do to keep it from worrying about what might happen should my actions fail… I hope.

    People put too much weight on the “power of hope”. The best that hope can do for me is keep me from worrying too much, but it can’t really make a difference. It’s semi-useful in an indirect way, though.

  36. Kaylia – I completely get your concern. I too spent a lot of time working things out via prayer. It was an internal dialog and to be honest, I still do it. I talk through it with myself now, and I don’t think of it as speaking to someone else though.

    Also, a few years ago, I took a class in puppet making that involved sculpture. I was amazed at how meditative the act of sculpting was. I am awful at it but it’s still something that I like to do once in a while because it takes you ‘inside’ your own head while creating something externally. It also helps clear your mind. I find it a lot more of a focussed activity than painting or writing or other creative things I’ve done.

  37. I’ve never really felt the need for prayer. Just cultivate the philosophy that when the poop hits the punka it’s time to enjoy the joke. I mean, that’s life, and what’s more boring than getting what you expected?

  38. Yes Sam, I think that hits it on the head.

    There is the type of prayer that is rote… it is an automatic response because of years of “training” (brainwashing?) and when that happens, I feel disappointed in myself and also a tad embarrassed.

    The feeling of helplessness is indeed universal. And your point about not avoiding it is actually really profound. Its similar to the idea that seeing violence on television really bothers me… but I am really glad that violence on television bothers me… I don’t want to become so jaded that it is acceptable. In the same way, sometimes thing happen in our lives and there is emotional pain, but that pain reminds us of our ability to feel… and that is something I don’t want to live without.

  39. @Kaylia_Marie: “I envy family members who can pray, because they feel they HAVE done something to help the situation even if that is totally false. I get to go for a walk, listen to music,… and wait. The helplessness is what gets to me… and even though their “help” isn’t real, it seems real to them. They find a sort of peace in that.”

    To be a little more serious than in my last comment, is that really something to be envied, that a person can do absolutely nothing to help a bad situation and yet feel good about it? Wouldn’t it be better, in some way, to feel bad about not being able to do anything because that at least might spur you to try, than to have this catch-all “get out of helping, free” card to justify inaction?

    If prayer actually did anything, then I would envy that ability. I sometimes envy the obvious happiness and fullfilment that I see in religion. On some level I even envy the religious peoples’ absolute belief in an afterlife, because the thought of dying makes me shitscared. But wanting to beleive in something, like prayer, and actually believing it are seperated by a giant chasm of evidence that I cannot bridge.

  40. I try and do the Sagan thing, and take things into perspective. How many cultures inhabit this pale blue dot, for whom whatever worry I’ve got at that particular moment would either be laughable or sad? This thought keeps me from going completely crackers, sometimes . . . though admittedly flaky on occasion.

  41. I do the WWJD thing. For the real fundy atheists in the crowd that’s What Would Jesus Do?

    Only I substitute in one of my heroes. What would one of my heroes do in this situation? Which makes this more of a classical Greek tradition than a Judeo-Christian tradition.

    The thing is, you can pick you own heroes to taste. For me, Tony Bourdain, Tunde Adibimpe, Bill Shakespeare, my dad, to name a few. And I don’t even have to know them that well; that’s part of the atheist revelation thing. It’s me projecting on my heroes the best, and most human, qualities that I would want them to have. I can flex as I learn more. If I find out they are tools, I can always drop them off my list.

    Sometimes they hope, sometimes they admit to humility and lack of control, sometimes they grin at the irony. I get it.

  42. @edwardv

    I’m not a psychologist and I haven’t read the literature, but it is my understanding that studies have shown that mindful meditation, of which prayer is a type, aids in mental health.

    Although prayer is useless at its primary goal of invoking favors from deities, it is not necessarily useless in general.

    That said, I haven’t done anything of the kind since becoming an atheist. Subjectively, my mental health seems to have deteriorated, but my personal experience may be influenced by additional factors.

  43. Okay, so perhaps this next line will get me kicked to the Woo Wagon:

    I believe in the power of positive thought.

    Not that my thinking things will make them happen…. But that when I think positively, I change my attitude and that can impact not only my actions but the actions of others. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large.

    If I think of prayer as concentrated positive thinking, then it makes sense, it “works” for me and all that….

    Make sense?

  44. @Kaylia_Marie: It’s really funny that you said that, and it doesn’t put you on the Woo Wagon at all (though I like that phrase and frankly the Woo Wagon sounds fun). In fact, I’ve been planning a post about that very thing, since for the past several months I’ve been sort of obsessed with how powerful positive thinking can be. Stay tuned for that!

  45. Friends? I mean, if I’m feeling sad, or lonely, or anxious, or awed, or grateful to no one in particular, I don’t feel the need to make someone up to talk to. I talk to a friend about it.

    Hell, twitter it.

  46. @Kaylia_Marie:

    Woo wagon phooey.

    I believe that smiling makes you happier. Don’t take my word for it. Try it sometime. When you’re feeling kind of so-so, make yourself smile for a few minutes. You will actually begin to feel happier.

    Ta da.

    (There seems to be a feedback, where the brain partly determines emotions based on how the body is reacting. So if you are smiling, you can sort of fool yourself into being happy.)

    Now all the party poopers can come and point out the research that has shown this idea to be wrong.

    I am a Hedge

  47. What can a skeptic do instead of praying?

    1. Meditate.
    2. Observe the world really, really well.
    3. Cultivate an attitude of appreciation and gratitude.
    4. If it works for you, pray. Who/what do you pray to? Or do you pray “to” anyone/thing? Do you imagine communicating with a god, a goddess, the ground of being, your innermost self? You don’t need to (and can’t) test than answer to these questions within science, so settle into an answer that feels right to you. (Read comparative religion, e.g. Joseph Campbell, for some fascinating ideas.) What matters is that the act of praying is one of the many paths with the potential to put you in touch with the universe and help keep your life in perspective. It can help you become more compassionate, braver, more tolerant of life’s minor and major disasters. If it’s having such benefits in your life, keep doing it.
    (If prayer doesn’t having good effects in your life, dispense with it and see #1-3 above.)

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