Atheists often have as much problem with the idea of prayer as they have with the idea of God. Prayer can operate as a tool, a means to an end, a purposeful act, like tooth brushing. Prayer is speaking, silently or aloud, alone or with others, according to a set formula or spontaneously, in plain speech or with poetry or melody, where the addressee is an immaterial entity. Prayer operates on the thoughts and behaviors of the person or people praying. The only effects that can reasonably be attributed to prayer are effects mediated by the thoughts and behaviors of the person praying. When prayers are “answered”, the answer exists only the interpretation of the person praying.
Prayers are a means to an end, but the end, in my view, is not the pulling of strings in the material world by supernatural entities. It is the deepening of our relationship with the immaterial entity we pray to. We pray, and that relationship becomes more real to us. Regardless of the reality of the party addressed.
As much as I try to avoid being a snarky atheist, I might say about prayer that if gods really existed, we wouldn’t call it prayer, we’d just call it talking, and the gods would talk back and we’d have a nice conversation. The fact that I know I’m talking to a non-existent being when I talk to God in my head just clarifies for me what I’m actually doing: speaking my hopes, fears, gratitude, remorse to an imagined presence Who represents the best ideals I can conceive of. That’s what prayer is. It’s different from talking. If prayer was talking, we’d hear a lot of believers saying things like: “I was praying this morning and God interrupted me to ask for clarification.” We don’t worry when we pray that our sentences are ambiguous, inarticulate, mumbled, unfinished, pre-verbal. Believers don’t don’t have to be articulate because they assume God knows their innermost thoughts anyway. And atheists don’t either because we know the God we’re talking to doesn’t exist. If clarity is needed it’s only so I, the person praying, can understand what I’m saying.
The addressee of prayer is not active in the conversation in the same way as the person praying, even for believers, and even if believers tell you otherwise. The best that a non-psychotic believer can hope for in terms of a response during prayer is a quiet feeling of having received an answer. If the response to prayer comes in the form of clearly articulated sentences, commands, exhortations or anything that closely resembles actual human conversation between two distinct participants; one hopes the person praying will consider the possibility that they are hallucinating and that they may need help with that.
But the relationship established with an immaterial, mostly silent being, a being manifested only as an ephemeral or imagined presence, is still a real relationship. When I speak to or dream about my dead father, I am participating in a real relationship. The person on the other side of that relationship no longer exists, but the relationship continues, and continues to grow since my father died when I was 19 and the ways I relate to his memory change as I mature. I was angry for years at my father after he died. It was only ten or fifteen years later that I started deriving a sense of comfort and mutual compassion from that relationship.
Similarly, when I pray to my non-existent God, I build that relationship. I strengthen my sense that an immaterial being is there to help me, to listen to me, to give me guidance. And I clarify for myself what God is there for, what I need Her for, and what I need to do to uphold my end of our relationship.
As a demonstration of how I use prayer and as a reminder to myself of what I’m up to, I will say a prayer now to my non-existent God (written when I first started working on this book):
Ms. X, help me write a book that is useful to other people and to do it in a way that supports my own recovery. Please help me keep the book and the writing of it focused on the people it might help and not on me, my cool ideas, or my desire for notoriety. Help me especially not to neglect my family in writing this book. I have always done my best writing early in the morning, but now my wife would like me around in the early morning to help care for our 9-month-old and to get our 6-year-old ready for school. Please let me be willing to be present for my family even when I’m yearning to run off to the cafe to write. Finally, thank You for bringing me to this happy time in my life and allowing me to feel that I have something here worth sharing.