An Atheist’s Prayers
Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.
(Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness, © 1969)
Often, before I climb into bed for the night, I drop to my knees, clasp my hands, bow my head, and pray. I am recovering from a Catholic upbringing and do not believe in the supernatural: no gods, no ghosts, no souls. I am an apatheistic rationalist and supernatural considerations do not guide my actions or values. Morality is built into our genetic code by evolution. I am an active atheist only when pushing back against religious overreach.
So what is this praying about?
Rituals first of all seem to be comforting to most people, repetitive acts that are something we can count on when other elements of our life are stressful and in chaos. More than that, it is an opportunity to center one’s self and settle the mind, which is largely the intent of Eastern meditative practices. Prayer, however, is more active than that. It is an opportunity to review one’s actions and their consequences much as one might discuss them in a therapeutic session, to reinforce those things that were done well and are aligned with one’s moral code, values, and goals, or to correct them and emotionally “forgive” one’s self. One may consider this an exercise in “creative visualization” in planning and previewing a better course of action.
I admit that, having been raised in a religious tradition that includes the ritual of “confession,” I find it easier to do this if I am mentally talking to “an Other.” Believers, of course, believe that they are communing with their deity. One may otherwise consider this an exchange with an aspect of one’s own personality such as “the conscience” or the “empty chair” projection that is used in some gestalt therapy sessions.
Sometime the Other answers back!
I stopped engaging in this ritual for several months and discovered that I missed it. Once I resumed a small voice inside my head pleasantly said, “There you go.”
There are emotional benefits to having an active imagination. Pray on.