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My 15 minutes of fame, courtesy of an article in the Washington Post featuring me as an atheist who prays to an invented God in order to facilitate my participation in a 12-step recovery program, provoked a little tempest in the teapot of atheist blog postings and commentary. My fellow atheists have suggested, not always politely, that I’m not an atheist, that I’m not really praying, and that praying is not acceptable behavior for atheists. As politely as I can manage, I would like to defend myself on all three counts.
To the charge of not being an atheist, I reply that, while I do pray to a figment of my imagination that I sometimes call God, I completely reject supernatural explanations for why things happen in the world and in my life. I use purely psychological explanations to understand the effects I notice as a result of my prayers. I would ask those who want to boot me out of the atheist camp to explain what qualifications are needed beyond a rejection of the supernatural. Is there some code of mental conduct for atheists that I have managed to violate? Could I be reinstated as an atheist by admitting that I’m not really praying? Atheist blogger Herb Silverman on the electronic pages of the Washington Post says, “Atheist prayers sound a lot like what I would call focusing or meditating, which some also view as a transcendent or spiritual experience.”
My daily regimen includes 30 to 45 of meditation in addition to prayer, so when I claim to be praying it’s not because I just don’t know the difference. Meditation involves various forms of relaxing or focusing the mind, focusing at times on the breath, physical sensations, thoughts, sounds, etc. Insofar as mental speech arises in meditation, it arises as a phenomenon to be observed, not as an intentional activity. Prayer, on the other hand, is intentional speech, silent or aloud, addressing a benevolent listener who is not physically present. Recitation or chanting of mantras or repeated prayers form a gray area between meditation or prayer, but outside this gray area, the two are clearly distinguished by the active use of speech, not by belief in the entity addressed when speech is used.
Silverman goes on to say, “Although an argument can be made to do whatever works for you, reality works best for me. I don’t need imaginary friends—nor do most reality-based people.”
Now, I can’t claim to speak for all non-reality-based people, but I don’t need imaginary friends, either. I lived for 45 years without them. I just happened to find that when I started talking to an imaginary friend, certain struggles began to evaporate. It became easier to act according to my conscience.
When I started, I had a logical reason for praying to a nonexistent God: I could see clear evidence that a bunch of people in my 12-step program were succeeding at losing and keeping off remarkable amounts of weight while simultaneously gaining a newfound sense of serenity, happiness and freedom. I wanted what those people had; I was willing to do what they had done. So, when they told me to get on my knees and start asking God for help, I did. It didn’t change my conviction that God doesn’t exist, it just changed my practices.
Many people, performing the same experiment, have concluded that if the praying works, God must exist. I didn’t do that. I had read a lot of philosophy and psychology and decided that I could explain what was happening without falling back on supernatural beings or events. I was familiar with, among other things, studies showing that placebos can work even when patients know they are taking them.
We are all aware of the power of belief, but not everyone realizes how flexible this power is. Much can be accomplished by believing in the power of belief itself. This is not self-hypnotism or self-delusion. It is consciously making use of a scientifically demonstrable feature of the mind. If making use of recent scientific knowledge to improve one’s life is not acceptable behavior for an atheist, I don’t know what is.