Is it okay to pray–if you’re an atheist?

A number of atheists “hunger for a transcendent experience” despite their disbelief.

Sigfried Gold isn’t the only atheist who prays to a God that he doesn’t believe in.

Michelle Boorstein reports Tuesday about the spiritual lives of atheists, a number of whom, she writes, “hunger for a transcendent experience” despite their disbelief.

So what do we know about atheists, their beliefs and their spirituality? Here are some of the most interesting findings from the Pew forum, which for years has tracked the beliefs of those who say they have no religion. Some of the findings may seem contradictory–an atheist who values religion?–but indicate that, like the faith lives of so many Americans, things aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem.

Check out Boorstein’s story for more on how some atheists are redefining the spiritual life without God. And share your take here–is it okay to pray–if you’re an atheist? Are you someone who rejects religion, or God, but finds meaning in meditation? Tell us about your practices here.

Image courtesy of C Jill Reed.


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • leibowde84

    Why not? Whatever floats your boat … right? I’m a practicing Christian who prays regularly. Why should only believers get to utilize prayer?! Are some that selfish?

  • WillRunForBeer

    I don’t really understand calling it “prayer” if it’s not directed at a god. So, no, I don’t think atheists pray. In other words, I think meditation is different than praying, in that it is internal.

  • slimething

    The author of this piece should better define the term “atheist”. I believe she’s writing about agnostics who do not know if a god exists, not atheists who do not believe any god exists. Then again, the term atheist may vary depending on the definition of god.

    A second consideration is the difference between faith and religion. Faith is a person’s creed whereas religion is the organization of similar creeds into a sect. Again, that’s my view but please hammer at it. We need to straighten out the lexicon here.

    I am atheist. I have a mixed bag of faithful, agnostic, atheist and religious as friends (as does everyone). The only commonality among them is that they are great people who seem to inately share core virtues that I admire. I accept/believe that some people need to believe in the supernatural and some do not. That is no basis for judgement and disrespect. Even faith systems preach that whereas some religions do not.

  • Malcolm C Dragon

    How can “14 percent of atheists…say they believe in God or a universal spirit”, when the very definition of an atheist is someone who DOESN’T believe in any such thing: that’s absolutely nonsensical! If they do believe in God, then they aren’t an atheist… no two ways about it!

  • Tender Hooligan

    I am British, and reading these posts makes me realise that atheism has different connotations in the US than the UK. Certainly when I first read the Pew Forum research I was confused as to how 14% of atheists say that they believe in God. I suppose as it is 14% of 2.4% the numbers are small, but these people just aren’t atheists. We are probably a bit more relaxed about the concept of atheism here, and it is not discussed much as it is so commonplace. This is despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most junior schools in Britain are run by the Church of England, and the majority of children have an enforced daily act of worship in school. In order to get a place at the better performing schools, you have to say that you attend the local church, and actually be seen at services to get a letter from the priest in some cases. This faux religion is usually abandoned once the child is safely in the chosen school, but it does skew census results somewhat.
    Most of my acquaintances regard religion as harmless, but irrelevant. However, as prayer and churchgoing has faded, people still show faith in something inexplicable, such as homeopathy or crystals, or other alternative therapies. Me, I am a true sceptic, and probably don’t do anything that could be regarded as spiritual. Nevertheless, I regain my balance by tending to my allotment and talking to my vegetable plants…(but that’s only because I’m giving them more carbon dioxide for photosynthesis…it’s science, honestly!)

  • northernliberal1

    Perhaps there are some atheists who live in communities where everybody else is a Christian. They go through the motions of prayer to preserve their place in the community. Anyone who professes to be an atheist and still professes belief in anything like a god has just not yet had the courage to let go of the belief lifeline yet.

  • twmatthews

    This piece just doesn’t make sense. It would help if you would define some terms. When you say “14 percent of atheists and 56 percent of agnostics say they believe in God or a universal spirit.”; isn’t that a contradiction? How can you not believe in god and then say 14 believe in God? That’s like saying 14% of people who can identify the color of a stop light (red) believe it to be blue.

    So what does 5% of atheists pray daily mean? Are you confusing mediation with prayer? Are they talking to themselves and classifying it as prayer?

    These statistics would be better off with some definitions behind them, otherwise we are left to interpret what it all means — just like the bible is open to interpretation which is where religions get into trouble

  • twmatthews

    I apologize Malcolm. I wrote my comment without reading yours. Yours is well put.

  • Aaron O’Donahue

    Because “universal spirit” may not meet their definition of a “god” so they identify as an atheist. This is a self-identification survey.

  • leibowde84

    What’s the difference. So, maybe the definition of the word is changing. Happens with most terms throughout history.

  • leibowde84

    WRONG, and here’s why:

    Definition of “Prayer” –

    2.hope strongly: to hope strongly for something
    3.address earnest request to somebody: to ask somebody for something, especially earnestly or with passion

    The first definition of the term “prayer” is connected with a diety of some kind, but the other two (66% of the definition) fit fine.

  • leibowde84

    WRONG, and here’s why:

    Definition of “Prayer” –

    2.hope strongly: to hope strongly for something
    3.address earnest request to somebody: to ask somebody for something, especially earnestly or with passion

    The first definition of the term “prayer” is connected with a diety of some kind, but the other two (66% of the definition) fit fine.

  • leibowde84

    The early Christians were considered to be “atheist” by the Roman population. This was due to their reluctance to acknowledge the many Roman gods. The definition of terms constantly change due to societal norms and beliefs. To claim that a term can only have one meaning for eternity is to deny this historical truth that has been a part of history since the beginning of language.

  • 3vandrum

    In my opinion the “atheists” who pray are not truly atheists, they are the “undecided”. To whom are they praying to? The 2.4% americans are the true athiests. The 14 percent of atheists and the 56 percent of agnostics who say they believe in God or a universal spirit are not atheists. Are they confusing “prayer with meditation. Buddhists, Jains and some schools of hindu philosophy (samkya and carvaka) do not believe in a creator God but they do meditate. You meditate on your breath and do not say any mantra or anything. The benefits of meditation and yoga are well documented scientifically. Prayer is mostly a part of monotheistic religions like Christianity and islam where there is a personal God to pray to.

  • jejames3

    Atheists don’t believe in prayer, or anything supernatural.

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