An Atheist’s Prayer

by Liz James

As we sit down to eat, my seven year old declares:

“I’m grateful for this delicious meal,” (he always starts with this, even if he’s just declared that there’s nothing worth eating on the table), “and for that we aren’t poor” (he always follows with that, ever since he found out that some kids don’t have enough for food and homes. It drives me crazy–it sounds ridiculously classist to me).

“I’m grateful for bug spray,” he continues, “and that there’s a new show about Air-Benders even if it’s not as good as Avatar was, and for that school will be over soon, and for this lovely day, and for Duncan got to stay for supper, and…”

He likes to have the floor, so he can go on for a while–especially if he’s not in a rush to eat the allegedly “delicious meal”. We all go around and say something we’re grateful for, and sometimes somebody says Amen and sometimes somebody doesn’t.

“If you don’t believe in God,” a visiting friend once asked, “Who are you praying to?”

The long answer is, some version of prayer has shown up in so many cultures in so many times that it must serve some purpose. If you believe in God(s), then that purpose could be supernatural. If you don’t, it only makes sense that the purpose would be more… human centric.

“Don’t you feel silly?” my friend asked, “Isn’t it weird to talk when you don’t believe anyone’s listening?”

“I have four sons,” I reminded her. “So no, not really.”

The truth is, these little moments of gratitude are transformative. And we don’t need prayer to make a ritual of gratitude, or to pause to talk about what we hope for, or to hold someone we’re worried about in our hearts. And for some people, using prayer as a means for these things would feel oppressive, or silly, or dishonest. For us, it doesn’t–it feels like a special kind of voice. Like singing. I sing when nobody’s listening, too. For us, praying is like singing–you can do it “for” somebody, or you can just do it.

Although I want my children to grow up with a strong connection to reason, logic, and science, I also want them to grow up with a strong connection to reverence. For us, a big part of this has been to develop little rituals–singing certain songs before bed, lighting a candle for major events, and holding funerals in the back yard for dead caterpillars.

I find that my kids are excellent guides in this. Partly because their vision is more free–they have taught me to see “praying” as existing separately from “praying to” because they aren’t shaped by the same history that I am. But they also notice what I don’t–they can see sacred dandelions and caterpillars because they aren’t conditioned to think of meaning as resting only in the “big” moments of life.

And lastly, they are free because they aren’t constantly trying to analyze what they are doing–whether it’s meaningful, how it fits into larger social context, whether it’s logically consistent with their religious beliefs.

Within my own family tree, I can trace how religious freedom has grown and changed with each generation.

My dad discovered freedom from prayer in becoming an Atheist.

I discovered freedom to pray–despite being an Atheist.

My kids, who would be hard pressed at their age to define themselves as Atheist or not (or to see what that has to do with anything they see as important). And they seem to have inherited both a freedom from prayer and a freedom to pray. And they’ve added to that–a freedom from categorizing and analyzing this part of their experience of living.

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2 Responses to An Atheist’s Prayer

  1. karen Loe says:

    I must say, expressing gratitude is not the same as prayer!
    Love this post!

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