Living on a Prayer: How Prayer Can Benefit the Non-Believer


I am a praying-type person.

Of course, my prayers happen with a significant level of cognitive dissonance. I don't have an iron-clad faith that prayer "just works" or a delusional concept that I'm going to get what I want just because I asked for it (when I pray for sun, I'm quite certain there's at least one person who has prayed for rain - why on earth would I be more special than them?).  I'm not even entirely convinced that there is anyone out there to hear my prayers.

Prayer doesn't make me suddenly forget my problems or conjure up a figure who descends in a cloud to sort things out for me.  I've never been "healed" or had something that once was lost, suddenly be found.  In objectively measurable terms, the impact of prayer on my life is likely statistically insignificant and cannot be confirmed as more than a mediocre correlational effect.

So why pray?

For me, prayer has little to do with objective reality.  Like all questions of faith, belief, the supernatural, and "something more in life", none of us actually know for sure what is real.  At the end of the day, the only thing I actually know is what I have experienced in my life.  And I have realized that life is better (more meaningful, more supported, more connected, more grounded) if I choose to have a spiritual connection.  One of the best ways to do that is to pray.

The function of a prayer, then, is not to present a to-do list to my deity of choice.  It's to connect with something greater than me and to be reminded that I am not a deity.  It doesn't do away with the darker times of fear, stress, worry, or sadness, but it provides a sort of container to hold them.  A groundedness and a knowledge, floating somewhere around me, even if I can't quite grasp it, that this too shall pass.  A sense that there is something greater than me in control (thank goodness!), and that I can trust it.

Like most people who write about their experiences, I also think others could benefit from this.  I even think that people who aren't religious could use some time in prayer.

If you don't believe in a god?

If the idea of praying to a god doesn't sit well with you here, then replace it.  For me, "God" is shorthand for "a greater spiritual being that may or may not actually exist, that may just be (as Carl Sagan put it in Varieties of the Scientific Experience) the sum of all the principles of physics that rule the universe that we don't understand and are what we are actually talking about when we talk about God because they are so much bigger than us, or may be something closer to the God I read about in the Bible.  Either way, I will never know, but it's easier to talk to and about the ruling force of the universe if I personify it and a personal connection makes it feel more meaningful to my human brain."

See how "God" is easier?

God is a loaded word for a lot of people, though.  So feel free to come up with a different name for the being you will talk to.

If you feel like this is completely idiotic, there's a chance this is not for you, but you never know what will happen if you try.  It's like in the movies when a gruff, unfeeling man's wife dies and a well-meaning friend suggests that he can still talk to her, even though she's not there.  At first it feels silly and pointless, but then the floodgates open and he feels a connection with her that is still strong and ultimately, it helps him heal.

So then how the heck do you pray, especially if you don't believe spiritual things are real?

I have felt for a very long time that everyone, atheists included, could benefit from reciting their own version of the Lord's Prayer on a daily basis.  (This is, of course, assuming you don't already have a different religious practice of your own, in which case I assume you already have your own prayers that you find useful.)

If you grew up in any way connected with the Christian world, you probably have hear the Lord's Prayer before.  It is the prayer that Jesus gave to his followers when they asked him how they should pray.  I like it because it doesn't involve asking for a Mercedes Benz or a colour TV or any of the other things Janis Joplin sang about.  There is no shopping list of items for God to check off once he's given them to you.

The Lord's Prayer is, to me, a reframing of your place in the universe and a wish to be a better person, and that's something we could all do with more of.

Often recited in King James Old Fashioned and Important Sounding English, I prefer the everyday version:
Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen."
Now I know, that sounds ways too specifically religious for anyone who doesn't believe in God to pray.  I hear you.  But each phrase has a purpose, and once you parse that out you can reword it for your own use.
"Our Father in heaven, holy is your name."
This sentence kicks off the prayer by reminding us that there is something far bigger than us that we have no control over.  That we are not gods.  This is useful to remember, whether or not you think there is an actual God/are actual gods.  No matter what, there are forces far greater than us that we do not have the power to control, and maybe we shouldn't.  The one thing we know, the more we know about the intricacies of nature, is how much happens that we don't understand, and that messing with one little thing can have massive repercussions.

"Holy" refers to something that is somehow set apart or sacred.  If you believe in God that's easy, if you don't, well, think about Carl Sagan's definition again: the summation of the principles of physics that rule the universe.  There is something quite epic, set apart, and awe-inspiring about that.  All these little rules and equations that add together to make up our entire, beautiful, majestic, gigantic universe that we can't (and shouldn't!) touch or alter.  Sounds kind of holy to me.

So rewrite what you must, or alter definitions of "Father" and "heaven" and "holy" in your mind, but remind yourself that you are not a god, and there is a force far greater than you that rules the universe.
"Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
More on the theme of non-control: as we are not gods, nor do we control nature (no matter how we try), there is plenty we have zero influence over.  What a relief, am I right?  God (or the universe-ruling principles of science) does a much better job than we would.  He is the heartbeat of the universe that just keeps pumping without our needing to do anything.  His will (or these overarching principles of physics) keep everything running, no matter our wishes, and so I don't know about you, but I want it to rule the universe - to "be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Again, revise as you must to continue to remind yourself that your will is not perfect, or best - not for the universe, and not necessarily even for you.  That you lack perspective, and that something else does a much better job of running things.
"Give us this day our daily bread."
This is where our puny humanness gets more specific.  We cannot live on our own steam: we need food, water, sleep, and air - all things outside of us - to survive.  That's the "daily bread".

If we live privileged lives with a relative level of wealth we may not think twice about being able to provide for ourselves, but I challenge you to take a moment and think honestly about how many steps you are from relying on the charity of others to survive.  Think about any number of events that are entirely outside of your control that could set your life on edge: cuts to government funding, economic collapse, a couple years of bad crops, inflation spikes that make basics unaffordable, sudden illness for yourself or a loved one, or a fire, flood, or earthquake.

It would take only a few, relatively common, events and many of us would see our lives change considerably.  If we're lucky, we wind up on someone's couch and living off their "daily bread."  That's if we're lucky; we might not be.  There are far worse results that can come of an everyday calamity.

The point of this isn't to monger fear.  It's to remember that we are needy creatures.  We are not islands.  We need so much that is outside of us to survive, and so we ask every day that our needs be met, look for the ways in which they are, and are grateful for them.
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
This is my favourite line in the whole prayer.  If you don't want to say anything other line, say this one (or your own version, because "debts" isn't really a juicy or evocative word, nor is the more traditional "trespasses").

It reminds me every morning that I need to forgive and to be forgiven.  That I have hurt others, that I have been hurt, and that none of us are defined by this fact alone.

The only way I've found to forgive someone who has truly hurt me is to choose to do it every day, and to remind myself in the process that I need forgiveness, too.  After all, we are but finite little creatures who need air and food and water, doing our best to get by without letting the brokenness in our hearts break everyone else's along the way.  Let's remember this, let's forgive, and let's ask for forgiveness.
"Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil."
This line has always been pretty high on the confusion-scale for me.  As a young Christian child I never quite got why God might "lead me into temptation", why I had to ask him not to, and what would happen if I forgot?  Would this God I was supposed to trust lead me by the hand over to the Devil?  Pretty conflicting stuff.

For me now, this line is simply a reminder that there is temptation and evil out there.  Not necessarily the capital "E" Evil that comes from a man sitting on your shoulder with horns and a pitchfork, but the everyday kind of evil that can come from selfishness and pride and greed.  The kind of stuff that we wind up having to ask forgiveness for.  The kind of stuff that seems like a good idea because we got caught up thinking about ourselves and our needs and forgot to think about everyone else.

This line, to me, is a plea to avoid those things in the first place.  A reminder to keep our sights and hearts open so we don't let self-interest, busyness, and keeping up with the Zuckerbergs narrow our focus so much that we suddenly find ourselves in a dark place.
"For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen."
This closing bookends the prayer in Something Bigger Than Us.  A final reminder that the kingdom, power, and glory are not ours to grasp at.  The forces that rule the universe (God, etc.) have already got all the power, and we're lucky to be a part of it by existing, no point in angling for more.  They are also pretty glorious in what they do (often in such simple, elegant ways), and so why compete with that?  Besides, as soon as you take the big focus, kingdoms are kind of meaningless.

That's it.  A simple reminder that we are human, that we have needs, and that we need forgiveness and help in life.  With a few tweaks of language, this is a prayer that can benefit pretty much anyone.

Give it a try!  Do some rewrites, or change the definitions in your mind, and see how praying could impact your life.  Let me know how it goes!

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