Atheists at prayer

Atheists and others.

Somewhere on the internet I came across a fascinating insight into prayer written by a self-identified atheist.  He explained that for years he had felt ashamed by those moments that he spent in prayer.  Confronted by a scene of great beauty, he would think, “Thank you,” even though he did not believe that any such “you” exists   Facing a frightening danger, he would think “Please do not let that happen,” though he did not believe that anything could receive his plea.

And then one day he decided to forgive himself.  The tendency to want to express gratitude or to request help amounts to a quirk, an illogical but real feature of the brain.  He decided he could tolerate indulging in that more or less meaningless quirk.  He could find it amusing, rather than embarrassing.

His view of prayer strangely reminded me of the views of a fervently religious professor; more about that later.

More recently, a different writer sent me a collection of his own favorite prayers.  This writer, though he describes himself as an atheist, gathered the most moving prayers from different traditions, and even wrote some of his own elegant, uplifting prayers.  Someplace in the middle of the collection, he refers to himself as a “sporadic atheist.”  His prayers, though, betray a more positive attitude toward faith: not faith in God, exactly, but in the value of gratitude, compassion, kindness and hopefulness.

His prayers are also intensely moral. They express his desire to become more kind, more sensitive, and more understanding.  They do not resemble Hilaire Belloc’s famous Christmas meditation: “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, / May all my enemies go to Hell.”

Many years ago, after a public reading by a distinguished writer of fiction and literary criticism, an audience member audaciously asked her, right there in public, if she believed in God.  Her reply sounded something like this:

Sometimes on Yom Kippur, my body weakened by fasting, my mind dulled by hours at prayer, I think I really do . . .

Now for the deeply religious professor of philosophy, who suggested to me that what we think about God, the qualities we attribute to God, probably originate as back-formations from what we express in prayer.  We call out when we feel endangered, so we think of God as our protector.  We overflow with gratitude for bounty received, so we think of God as the source of goodness.  We hope, so we think of God as the guarantor of good outcomes.

I started this essay with the prayers of self-accepting atheist.  You can see why those prayers remind me of the theology formulated by the believing philosopher.

Further along on the spectrum, learned mystics describe their encounter with the divine in surprisingly precise terms.  Some mystics know all about emanations, phases and aspects of the deity that humans can approach with different techniques. Ask the mystic, though, not about how we can approach the deity, but about what the deity really is, and get different sort of answer.

Mystics of different traditions have slightly different formulations of this answer; Jewish mystics say “En Sof,” that which has no limits.  What does that mean? What has no limits literally has no definition.  It excludes nothing: the Hebrew word for definition, “hagdarah,” comes from the root “geder” which means, “fence.”  My late teacher, Walter Wurzburger (himself a rationalist), loved a mystical elaboration on the expression, “En Sof”: “delet mahashavah tefisah bei” = that which thought does not grasp.

So the mystic, so voluble at first, shyly stops talking when he gets close to the mystery.

A worshipper who remains unspoiled by the encounter with philosophy could dismiss this whole discussion. This worshipper knows what God is. When we pray, we address God as the loving Creator, who cares for us, saves us from distress, who validates our worth and brings about our ultimate salvation, because that is what God is.

The philosopher addresses God in the same way; so, to some extent, do the literary writer, the “sporadic atheist,” and even the atheist who forgives himself for praying, because that is what we are.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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