There are two things atheists are often told by believers: first, that there are no atheists in trenches; second, that asserting disbelief is ‘arrogant’. The former is verifiably untrue, since we now have atheist groups within the armed forces, but I’ve certainly heard examples of atheists in burning buildings and labour camps calling out to God on the brink of death. Since I was recently asked to talk about prayer, and more specifically what ‘an atheist prayer’ would look like, there’s some points I want to make here.
1. The godless urge to pray when in distress doesn’t point to a god.
2. If there is a god to whom we can pray when afraid, that isn’t comforting.
3. The prayers of believers, especially when suffering, are arrogant to an almost unique extent.
4. We don’t need prayer as atheists, because we have something far better.
The point about secular people calling out to God in moments of despair is that it’s always a product of our upbringing. In British burning buildings, people ask the Christian god for help; in Indian buildings they ask a Hindu god (or more than one) for help. It’s pretty rare that an unbeliever, struck by sudden hopelessness, will call on a deity other than the one(s) they were taught about. Quite likely, they’ll often describe the entity they’re invoking in the terms of their religious upbringing, even if it’s a completely nondescript power in charge of the world which doesn’t have anything in common with, say, Jesus.
Moreover, the phenomenon is hardly unique to gods. I’ve heard stories from the trenches, for example, of soldiers crying out for their mothers. Appeals for a guardian figure are often a deeply entrenched social habit when in peril, and calling on God to help you when diagnosed with cancer or trapped in a burning building no more demonstrates he exists than calling for your mother shows she’s there with you. As someone from a very religious upbringing, too, I know it’s possible to hear God’s voice in your head even once you stop believing in him: the ‘what to do and what not to do’ intuition which religions instil.
That’s point 1 then. But I’m inclined to think that in helpless situations, God might not just be a misguided source of comfort; he shouldn’t be a source of comfort at all.
Imagine it’s you who’s just been diagnosed with cancer. Imagine it’s terminal, and you’ve only a month to live. I can see why prayer might be tempting, but ask yourself – how many other people with terminal cancer have prayed for their lives? How many other prayers inside burning buildings went unanswered? To believe that God will help you in that situation is to believe he never helped anyone else who prayed, and that you are the exception.
It’s basic theodicy, after all, that we suffer for good reasons. If all-powerful gods who care about us exist, they must have an excuse for natural disasters, fatal illnesses or cruelty. Sometimes it’s that our free will caused these, sometimes that they’re there to help us grow; sometimes it’s that morals would meaningless if no one could get hurt; sometimes it’s that humans would have no place in a world without evil. But the reason itself is irrelevant here. The belief in a god who hears your prayers requires you to think that all the suffering and injustice in the world – ever – has been part of the plan.
Whenever it’s been anyone else diagnosed with a disease or in the burning building, that was part of the plan. That was allowed by God for a reason, even when they prayed themselves hoarse in the hope of escape. But the moment it happens to you, and you pray for your torment to end, things just must be different – as if all the suffering and torment that ever transpired was part of God’s plan, but yours personally isn’t. As if the ruler of the universe, indifferent to pain and injustice wherever else they’ve occurred for all of time, will move around to suit you.
I know that prayer might give some people hope, but what an arrogant hope it is.
The majority of atheists, in any case, don’t find themselves kneeling before God in moments of crisis. We don’t say prayers when believers do, we take action. It’s heretics who break through the rubble and find ways out of burning buildings while believers pray; it’s heretics who put time into curing diseases like cancer, not just bewailing our fate when they afflict us. And it’s heretics, when all hope is lost, provide others with comfort and solidarity, not appeals to uniquely provided divine intervention.
I know, after all, that there is someone watching over me – someone with a plan for my life, who cares about what happens to me and wants what’s best. That’s me. I do. And when fearing for my health or life, it may not bring me the hope prayers would; but then I don’t have to make excuses when it’s someone else who’s suffering.