In order to answer that question it is necessary to establish that atheists DO pray. Of course we do. Everyone prays, at least on certain occasions and under appropriate circumstances. It is said that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” implying that praying obviates one’s theology. It has also been said that “there will be prayer in schools as long as there are tests.” The clear implication of these clichés is that people use prayer in an attempt to improve the odds of a better outcome.
This became strikingly clear to me recently when a niece posted on Facebook that her husband was about to undergo surgery to replace an arthritic knee. Thirty-seven people commented on her post: thirty-two offered prayers, four others expressed wishes or hopes that everything went well. Only one failed to mention hope or prayer, offering instead advice for improving recovery based on having had similar surgery (full disclosure: that comment was from me).
Prayer is seemingly everywhere. While searching recently for a specific passage from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” I stumbled on this eloquent discourse on prayer:
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
(“Idylls of the King,” A. Tennyson,
in A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895,
Edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman,
Ancient Romans and Greeks prayed to their Gods. Hindus and Buddhists pray, in their own way, to theirs, as do Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Those who believe that their God answers prayer are convinced that He (I’m following Judeo-Christian stylistic conventions in gender assignment and capitalizations here) hears and responds to each and every prayer: sometimes you get what you ask for, and sometimes God just says “No.” Thus it is impossible to convince such a person that outcomes are explainable without recourse to Divine Intervention.
Gods in many mythologies have been cruel; responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Even the Old Testament God had a cruel streak: He was quick to anger and prone to vengeance, and demanded sacrifice and unwavering devotion. The New Testament God tempered cruelty with love, but promised that unrepentant sinners would suffer eternal damnation in the flames of Hell. In this context, prayer is often a feeble attempt to mollify an angry or capricious God.
I’m not against people praying. It seems to make them feel better for having prayed or being prayed for. I just don’t think it does anything to change the world. Prayer in itself really doesn’t do much for victims of floods or fires. Providing food or clothing or shelter would be much more helpful.
I am all for sincerely wishing the best for one’s self or others. After all, as a people we need empathy for those who suffer in order to motivate us to truly helpful actions. Perhaps that is how prayer functions best, in expressing a desire for improving conditions in the world in which we live.
So, do atheists pray, and if they do, to whom or what do they pray? Of course, atheists pray: we pray to Hope, the cruelest god of all.