Editor’s Note: Spokane FāVS publishes a series of articles on the topic of prayer. Prayer is a common religious concept and is used in secular and familiar speech and circumstances. Early humans may have used some version of prayer even before the advent of formal religious observances.

But what does prayer mean? What is that? Who did it? Can you pray if not to a Divine Being? How do you do? Is this a solitary and / or community activity? Why do it? What motivates a person to pray? What are the prayers’ expectations? Should there be some type of tangible outcome or aftermath? These and other questions will be addressed in the coming weeks.

By Steven A. Smith

I’m not praying.

I first made this point in a February 9 FāVS column, substantial portions of which are reused here as part of the current FāVS prayer series.

The I Don’t Pray statement follows a health crisis in my extended family that has finally been resolved. But while things were still uncertain, my social media feed was full of prayerful answers.

“I pray for you.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with you. “

“Please pray for us,” members of my own family.

I love my family. But as a staunch atheist, I said then that it would have been hypocritical of me to participate.

At the risk of being redundant, I thought that some of what I said in February might still resonate, for better or for worse.

I understand the almost reflexive recourse to prayer when crises engulf our lives. People deserve to find comfort where and how they can. If prayer brings this comfort to people of faith, so much the better.

But I don’t pray.

I have always appreciated people of faith who do not try to impose their beliefs on me. So, I would never, ever try to persuade someone else to accept my beliefs.

But it can’t hurt anyone to offer an explanation.

This is how the Oxford dictionaries define prayer: “A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or to an object of worship.

As an atheist, I don’t believe in God, nor in any deity, for that matter. I don’t think a “solemn request for help” from what I believe to be a non-existent deity can produce the results sought by the supplicant. And if a prayer cannot produce results, it follows that prayers of thanks also do not make sense to people who believe like me.

In times of crisis, a religious person might well argue that positive results are influenced by the outpouring of prayer. On the other hand, countless people face medical crises, for example, the consequences of which are tragic despite the fervent prayers of family and friends. Good people pray with all the devotion and sincerity they can muster and yet people die.

A person of faith, faced with this reality, will suggest that determining life and death is part of God’s plan. An unbeliever looks at these opposing results and asks, “What makes this baby worthy of life and this one marked for death?” What makes this family worthy of joy and the other worthy of sorrow? What blueprint is really at work here?

A person of faith will examine the great tragedies of this world – fires, floods, hurricanes, plane crashes, school shootings, terrorist attacks – and see a larger design.

An unbeliever sees the universe acting in a predictable way based on basic physical laws. The determination of life and death, therefore, can be quite random until it gets past all of us in the end.

Questions of life and death raise the issues of prayer. But what about smaller “requests for help” from the deity, a second kind of prayer? What about all those prayers undoubtedly expressed every week when the Mega Millions jackpots go up? Millions of people will be praying for the jackpot, but only a few out of the millions will all win.

How about all those holiday prayers from nice, non-naughty kids asking for a new bike or the latest PlayStation? How about prayers for a better job or a better marriage?

Believers insist that prayer works because they have received the benefit, the result for which they prayed. God answered their request. But when the benefit doesn’t come or, worse, tragedy strikes, is it because someone didn’t pray hard enough, didn’t pray to the “good” god, or was just not worthy? in the eyes of the divinity?

There is a third kind of prayer, a prayer not for a specific result or benefit, but simply to seek comfort in the act, a form of spiritual meditation. It is prayer as a ritual. My dear wife, Carla, a non-practicing Catholic, falls into this category. Me too, under certain circumstances. I led the Passover Seders, reciting the appropriate prayers. I have been known to recite the prayers called during the lighting of Hannukah’s candles. And I said Kaddish for my father. There is comfort and familiarity in the ritual even though I do not believe these prayers are a conduit to the Almighty.

So, I understand the impulse and I respect it. Like I said, people should find comfort where and how they can.

Looking at the social media reaction to my family’s health crisis, I honestly struggled with my own response. To remain silent would have been unreasonable. I love my family and sincerely wanted to offer my support, but without offending anyone. Atheists are often outliers within their own families.

It would have been hypocritical to express a prayer of support. I was able to offer and I offered my love, my concern for the well-being of the family. And I sent out all the positive energy I could muster, believing that optimism can be a force multiplier, as Colin Powell once said.

In the case of my family, a person of faith could say that God answered all of these prayers and intervened. After all, the crisis was over. Life prevailed.

But an unbeliever looks at the result and accepts some of that chance in life while thanking modern medical science for developing technologies that sometimes work to our advantage.

For this I am sincerely, if not in prayer, grateful.

  • UNDERSTANDING PRAYER: Why I Don’t Pray – June 26, 2021
  • Ruminations on Father’s Day – June 20, 2021
  • Our image abroad – June 15, 2021
  • The deep and lasting pride of a father for his cheerful daughter – June 8, 2021
  • Mortality and Eternity – June 1, 2021
  • Problem for American Jews – May 25, 2021
  • The Cheney vote: courage and cowardice – May 18, 2021
  • The Race to the Bottom of Idaho – May 11, 2021
  • COVID: The view from the porch – May 4, 2021
  • Racial understanding in the spurts – April 27, 2021

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