Prayer for Atheists

Prayer helps even if you don't believe in God

Legend has it that the physicist Niels Bohr had a horseshoe hanging above his door. A colleague asked him why, to which he responded, “it’s for luck.” The colleague then asked him if he believed in luck. Bohr reassured him that as a scientist he did not believe in luck. Puzzled, the colleague asked again why Bohr had the horseshoe hanging above his door. Bohr responded, “I’m told that you don’t have to believe in order for it to work.” 

Bohr may not have realised it, but the same is true of prayer. We are not talking about being agnostic. The agnostic’s prayer is like watering an apparently dead plant. The plant probably will not respond, but it seems worth a try. For the atheist, such as myself, there is no great chance that God is listening or will respond, but that does not matter. One does not need to believe in God for prayer to work. 

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Dave Zimny 1 July 2023

"Notice that no deity is invoked or petitioned. The prayer takes the form of a wish that all beings will be well."

This category error vitiates Prof. Irwin's entire argument. Prayer by definition is a wish directed toward some supernatural force or entity that has the power to fulfill that wish. If a wish is not directed toward some force or entity, that wish is not a prayer. Atheists by definition do not believe that there is a supernatural force or entity that can respond to our wishes. Therefore atheists cannot pray in the precise sense of that word. Of course, Prof. Irwin doesn't value precision very highly. Instead, he seems to advocate Humpty Dumpty's philosophy in "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There":

"‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
‘The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'"

Dollie Ennis 16 November 2021

Admittedly, even though I believe that "nothing fails like prayer" to actually get anything done, there are personal benefits to the very act of praying itself. These benefits have been clearly documented by physicians, psychologists and philosophers in countless books over the last few decades. My approach is different. It's neither clinical nor scholarly. I'm simply asking the question of how to pray when you're an atheist because I loved to pray as a Christian and I still love praying as a nonbeliever.