I didn't become an atheist all at once; you could say it was a gradual slide along the belief spectrum in an atheist direction, a long-term experiment in moving away from supernatural explanations for why the world is the way it is. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to acknowledge, "I don't believe in a God or Higher Power." It's been that way now for years.
But for me, becoming an atheist never meant abandoning what is commonly thought of as ones "spiritual life." And there have been a few practices that I've given up and then reconsidered: might they have value, after all? Praying for people is one of those practice. Yes, I am an atheist who prays.
After becoming an atheist, I assumed that it marked the end of my praying days. No more praying for people, no more prayer at all. I discarded the practice. It wasn't long before I realized I missed praying. There came some moments when I felt compelled to do something more than what my hands could do, and not-praying felt artificial.
Refusing to do something I felt an emotional need to do simply because I was an atheist seemed almost petulant.
I talked to my atheist husband about it. As always he was supportive of me in my philosophical fretting, but behind his glasses, his eyes seemed to say, "You poor thing, raised in religion. You just can't let go, can you?" Maybe I was just imagining that look in his eyes; maybe those were my own thoughts.
I put the thought of prayer aside again.
But it kept cropping up. I have a large circle of diversely religious and God-believing friends and family, and someone was always falling into some difficulty and asking for prayers. What was I to do? Ignore their requests?
Not to mention, I really wanted to pray for them. In the past, as a believer, it would've been easy -- so many prayers to choose from, prayers for every imaginable occasion. I could've taken one from a book or I could've made up my own quick little, "Dear God, please help So-and-So in this rough time."
I felt like I was walking around loaded with cash and no stores were open where I could spend it. Prayers were burning a hole in a pocket.
Then my daughter was conceived. Then I found out she had a severe heart defect. My atheism served as a mercy to me. I didn't wonder, "Why me? Why her? Why us?" I didn't wonder if I should repent for something, I knew this wasn't a punishment. I didn't wonder what God's plan was; there was no plan. I took a lot of comfort in all that.
But it was a hard time, emotionally and psychologically, and several times I felt very tempted to pray for relief. But to whom? I searched my heart for any desire to claim a God to believe in to help me through this, a God who might protect my child after she was born and keep her from dying at a young age. I could find no such desire. I was definitely an atheist.
After the tumultuousness of that experience, I returned to the question of prayer, and decided to take an experimental attitude about it. I was going to resume praying for people, though I would not pray to any god or gods. And I'd see what happened.
If what happened seemed negative, I'd give it up. And if what happened seemed good, then I'd keep it up.
Five years later, I pray for people regularly. Here is why, based on my experience.
1. It's a time to focus on empathy.
Prayer is a catch-all word that doesn't always indicate there are many types, but all the religions I know anything about have different words for different forms of prayer. Some prayer is where you specifically ask your god for something. That's probably the kind of prayer we think about when someone says the word "prayer" -- e.g. "Oh, Lord, let me get this job."
Remembrance is another form of prayer, such as repeating holy names and concepts that center or calm the mind.
I don't yet know the name for the type of prayer I took up, but what I do is set aside a few minutes to focus entirely on the person who has asked for prayers and empathize as much as I can with their situation, then make a prayer that they get through to the other side of those troubles.
2. It's an opportunity to learn.
If someone you care about said to you, "I have [this medical condition]," it would be considered a sensible act to look up and learn about the basics of their illness. Well, I think the same applies if someone is having any hard emotional experience.
When a friend lost a child, I did what I could with my hands and my words, and prayed for her as she requested -- and then I read about grief.
One day it was a psychological view of grief, and another day after I prayed, I read what a Buddhist had to say about grief, and so on. In any case, that pause for prayer is also a chance for me to be a little bit more educated on something I haven't experienced.
3. It's the pluralistic thing to do.
I'm an atheist, but it doesn't bother me that others aren't. Diversity -- whether we're talking about ecosystems or the human brain -- is, in my view, a fundamental part of life. Once I became an atheist, no one ever pressured me to pray, but I was troubled by the idea of ignoring pleas for prayer.
I don't ask for prayers (except in a facetious way about my favorite World Cup teams, for example) but when someone is really hurting and bothers to ask me to pray for them, what am I going to say? "Sorry, I don't pray for people, but I hope you're all right?"
I don't know, but I couldn't reconcile that in my heart. Praying for those who ask for prayers is a way for me to participate in the lives of my believer friends and family.
4. People prayed for me when I was worried sick for the health of my daughter.
I didn't solicit "prayers" specifically but when people asked, "Can I pray for you?" I always said yes. Knowing that people were praying for me, mattered.
Did their prayers heal her heart or tangibly improve her health outcomes? I doubt it. But it mattered to know that people were empathizing with us and taking time out of their lives to give some thought to us and our situation -- even knowing we weren't a family of believers.
I know some atheist and agnostic friends likely never prayed for us, and that's okay, too -- they might have sent cards or kind words, or sent money, or came over and helped me organize my garage (which I will remember for as long as I live).
The point is, it all helped me get through that terrible time. Never have I looked back and thought, "Gosh, I can't believe people prayed for me; what a bunch of n00bs."
I don't believe in any gods, so I don't believe that a god answers our prayers. What I believe is that our prayers are heard -- by the people we pray for when we respond to their calls for help, and by ourselves, when we put that call out.
You might ask why I call it prayer instead of "good thoughts" or "positive energy." It's not an either/or. I call it by whatever the other person wants me to call it. If they say, "I'm asking for your good thoughts," I'll reply, "Sending you good thoughts." If they ask for "prayers," I'll tell them I've prayed for them.
All my prayers are good thoughts, good vibes, and well wishes. I'm not opposed to the word prayer.