An atheist who prays…REALLY???

chicago 4

By Kenneth Justice

There’s so much turmoil in the world and in my life. I graduated college in 2008, the housing bubble burst and I’ve never felt very much stability” she said

Last week in Chicago during my Drinking in the Culture Tour I met a late 20ish woman who brought up the subject of prayer, “Both of my parents are hardcore atheists, but I found that I feel much better about my life if I pray before I go to bed at night” she told me

How did you learn to pray” I asked, “Do you have religious friends, Christian, Muslim or something that taught you about god?

Nope” she said, “I’ve never really had any Christian friends at all. I guess when I was a teenager I just noticed people praying in movies or on television and I thought I would try it. I miss once in a while, but I would say that 90% of the time I pray before I go to bed” she said

Apparently her parents, especially her mother, gives her a lot of hell for praying, “I guess you would say that I’ve become more agnostic lately and my parents hate it. My mother thinks I’m stupid for not being atheist” she said

I’ve spent much of the past week thinking about the praying agnostic woman, I’d never had a conversation quite like that one and I keep asking myself what it is that would lead the daughter of two hardened atheists to a life of prayer; even though the young woman has had no direct Christian or religious influences in her life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing stones at atheists. It just struck me as odd that this young woman with no religious influences in her life whatsoever would adopt prayer to a god she doesn’t know or doesn’t even know is hearing her as an important facet of her daily life.

Perhaps the answer is simple; Western Culture is in a state of panic. After that damn housing bubble burst in 2008 the world we thought we were living in radically changed overnight. Entire economies all across Europe and the America’s went into a tailspin. The cost of gasoline (petrol) skyrocketed, the price of gold & silver hit record levels, people lost their houses to foreclosure, and bankruptcies became common fare.

Perhaps in a world that seems out of control; turning to a higher power for answers becomes a soothing salve for our aching soul. Young adults now live in a world that no longer offers them the promises given to previous generations; the baby-boomer generation was told that if they worked hard and committed themselves to certain company ideals then a nice little pension or retirement income awaited them alongside a vacation home in a warm climate. But any dreams of a rosy future have been destroyed by our failed economies.

Greece, Ukraine, the United States….the list of countries struggling financially is endless. Many countries are living on fumes and even the future of the European Union is in doubt. At some point we might see another great recession; some talking-heads believe the next big crash might be bigger than the one we experienced six years ago.

In a world gone mad people turn to prayer.

Admittedly, I’ve never been very good at prayer. For all my years attending church and being taught the intricate tenants of Christianity; prayer is something I’ve always struggled with and been uncomfortable around.

The agnostic woman explained to me that much of her prayer life is listing the things she is thankful for, “I kneel next to my bed and I thank god for everything that I’m thankful for and it makes me feel more grateful for my life” she said

Sociologists throughout the years often remarked that each generation tends to experience a gap between the ages; “older adults often have a difficult time connecting with young adults and vice-versa” they observe. But in this brave new world that we are living in, I’ve noticed that more than ever; older adults have been very understanding of what the younger generation is experiencing; things are so out-of-whack that all of us can see that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening before our very eyes. With each new day the middle-class shrinks.

In a world gone mad people turn to prayer.

Last week, workers protested outside a local fast food restaurant. The employees stood in a line outside the drive-thru window and prevented the place from operating. “We are overworked for the amount of money they pay us” the workers yelled. A good friend of mine is a hardcore conservative republican and even he says it is bizarre how hard they work fast-food employees, “When I used to work at a fast food restaurant it was the hardest job I’ve ever had. I was exhausted at the end of every day. During the rush hours the line would go out the door and the stress level was through the roof……all for a measly few bucks an hour that wasn’t even enough to make a car payment” he said

My Drinking in the Culture Tour has barely begun but already I’ve met people that have really challenged me to think. More often than not I find myself with more questions than answers, but at least it gives me something to think about as I sip my coffee each morning,


I will be in Pittsburgh in seven days! I’d love to have coffee with you; check out my homepage for dates and locations.

Categories: Culture & Society

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109 replies

  1. Thanks for taking us along on your journey, Kenneth.

  2. Prayer is just a word that agnostics use for positive affirmation. It is not to a being of any kind. It is not a worship. I personally believe that the higher power many of us seek that do not believe in a god, is in our souls. That we seek the intuition and strength of our being.

    • Interesting thoughts Ellen. Yea, the agnostic young woman basically said that she had a hard time believing ‘nothing’ was out there and felt that it made more sense to believe that ‘maybe’ something is

    • I agree. When there’s no being to pray to, I see it as a way of ‘digging deep’. Drawing up the deeply held knowledge and truths that we all hold. Some people see that as god. Others as themselves. Interesting post and comment.

  3. Hey Kenneth,

    I agree with you. Our culture is becoming underlined by a fear that we don’t want to admit to. And when fear is hidden, things start collapsing. And when things start collapsing and our current knowledge can’t fix them, we start looking for new knowledge. A lot of us start looking to a higher consciousness for a way to release the fear.

    Just my thoughts! Thank you for your post 🙂

    ~ Allison

  4. Some years ago, I worked as a transition counselor; before teaching was my full time work. I used public transit. I went all around in areas of Philadelphia to schools and to homes of the high school students. I met with them, their parents, and school administration, counselors, and some of the students needed outside agencies… there were many people to se and short gaps to reflect, write my reports, and think… it was a huge challenge and my experiences constantly filled me with questions. I read lots, thought, reflected on issues… this led me eventually to put on my Christian faith for real.

    I could never predict what examples of faith that I would encounter that might deeply move me away from the fears of this bizarre world to the faith that God is working a plan for us.

    Just keep at it Kenneth.

    Thanks for blogging your story.

    ~ Eric

    • Eric, sounds like a fascinating job you had, holy cow. Having worked in the human service field I totally know what you mean when you say that ‘it was a huge challenge’. Its tough work to say the least

    • It was a time when the work was all I had for a while – it was a good thing that it challenged me to my core. You are correct – it is tough work to say the least.
      Have a great weekend Kenneth.

  5. I lay in bed each night and focus my thoughts on the parts of my life I’m grateful for, inspiration to current problems and the outcomes I’d like to see come to pass, with the exception of starting my inner monologue with “dear Lord” I’m pretty sure that the course of my thoughts is pretty similar to what many people view prayer to be. No matter what someone’s religious views are spending time reflecting on positive aspects of your life and searching for a positive path through the darkness that engulfs you can have beneficial effects on your mental health. Prayer by any other name can soothe as sweetly.

    • “prayer by any other name can soothe as sweetly”

      I love that sentence! So beautiful

    • As an Atheist I take time to meditate on the positive in my life, express gratitude and consider the challenges that I’m presented with. I may visualise where I want my life to move towards. .. This is what pray is after all. I think that tying it to religion or a deity is incongruent with its purpose.
      I think pray is becoming more prevalent because we are as a global society practicing gratitude and authenticity more often.

    • Emil, “I think prayer is becoming more prevalent because we are as a global society practicing gratitude…”

      That’s an interesting point; so perhaps as more and more cultures connect through global commerce it is encouraging greater attention to things like prayer and spirituality?

    • If something works, it can transcend the limiting labels we assign it. If something works it will be universally accepted.

  6. I used to pray a lot when I was a Christian. I became an atheist a couple years ago at the utterance of a final last prayer. Despite the fact that I no longer pray, I meditate and strive for an attitude of gratitude. I think prayer can be a wonderful thing when you realize that the difference you’re making is within yourself.

    • ‘I meditate and strive for an attitude of gratitude’

      I think that is the trend I’m noticing; prayer and mediation for a lot of people has to do with gratitude

  7. In my humble opinion, God’s spirit entered her thoughts to share with her His peace. A barrier has been built by her parents thought receptor’s and the result is they cannot share the blessing of peace that is afford to a person of faith.

    Regards and good will blogging.

  8. I pray several times a day, sometimes even just a short sentence or two, because I work very hard to live a life of gratitude and make sure I am saying “thank you” as often as I can.

    • “sometimes even a short sentence or two”

      Maybe that is my problem, I make prayer out to be too big of a thing; like I have to spend a lot of time praying and then I simply don’t do it because it seems like too much work.

    • Lol, yeah, I can’t do that. I have my morning prayer which I count off on my fingers and then I just spend the rest of the day sending off quick little “texts” to Him. Thanks for this beautiful weather! Thanks for blessing my finances! Thanks for the talents you gave me so I could do xyz! I lift up so and so, it sounds like they are struggling and could use You.

      It may not be the most grown up way to handle it, but it works for me!

    • Kate, I love it! I will probably try and use that approach, maybe it will improve my prayer life.

  9. Very well said, prayer is not about believing in God but it is all about being thankful for all the good things in life. It is also about thankful to unknown force, if there is any, for bringing you out of the trouble unharmed assuming situation could be worse. It is all about holding someone’s hand for comfort until you are strong enough to stand on your own and impervious to circumstances.

    • ‘it is all about being thankful”

      Right; thankfulness, I wonder how often we are thankful every day. I know for myself, too often I forget to be thankful and end up spending too much time thinking about the things that annoy me

  10. I would first ask what a prayer is.
    Can one just speak to a member of the family that has passed away.
    Can one just speak to God.
    Does one need to clasp their hands.

    From what I learned in Religion is that our heart is our temple for everyone we want to talk to.
    It is our church we retreat to to speak with those we miss. And true I quit on religion.

    But could it be we just have a schizo moment and talk with ourself.
    Just me asking a question.

    Will surely see the day that we can come back on top again, and be able to share our joys.

    • All of those are great questions, and I’m not sure what the answers are. Everyone has so many different thoughts and opinions regarding what prayer is; even within Christianity different Christians traditions view prayer differently.

    • I is not just wanting answers and surely not questioning a religion as we all have our own perspective on that.Believers and none believers.

      It is more interesting to see what we pray for. as you said in time of great need. but what do we need. What do we ask for?

    • The points you have raised are quite interesting. For me, a prayer is above the ritualistic activity of any religion. You clasp your hand or not, kneel down on floor or stand, bathe in holy water or not, It is all insignificant. It is not about demanding something; let alone materialistic, one is not supposed to ask even peace of mind. A prayer is all about being thankful from the bottom of your heart. And when your prayer reach such simplicity, your soul becomes so pure only then your heart becomes your temple. You will also reach a level where you don’t need words for prayer, there is no specific time or physical act is required for prayer. The prayer resonates within you every fraction of second.

  11. I agree, the conversations you have with people leave more questions than they answer, but in my opinion that is the real purpose of our life, to learn and discover from eachother.
    I am going to say it again, your blog is changing lives one conversation at a time.

  12. When my brother-in-law left the hospital mid-week after a 7 day stay, many family members expressed happiness their prayers for him had been answered. None said thanks for the skilled health workers, technology, and affordable care insurance that brought him back to health and kept him from going bankrupt.

    We are given the intellect and abilities to learn, create, and do great things for our fellow humans. My god would expect me to do as much as possible with those skills and to promote them for the betterment of the human condition.

    • Well said Jim. A lot of times people simply forget to be thankful for the people in their lives; or in the case of your example the doctors and health care workers

  13. Hi Kenneth,

    It’s fascinating that she learned to pray from movies and TV, not from any church. It seems that the various media are taking over from the church as the primary sources of spirituality and religious knowledge in our culture and our world. These days, I suspect more people get their spiritual inspiration through the Internet than by sitting in pews.

  14. As an atheist parent I thought it was terrible that her parents chose to deride and shame that young woman for following her own path. Most of us know how difficult it is to go against the teachings of our parents. Too many of us live “in the closet” for fear of social repercussions. Why on earth would you turn on your own child like that?

    • I didn’t want to get into too much detail as to what she said about her parents; but I got the vibe that they were something akin to fundamentalist atheists; sort of like fundamentalist Christians but without God…. or perhaps ‘activist’ would be a better term…..and I agree with what you wrote AZ

    • Perhaps the term you are looking for is anti-theist?

    • Yea, perhaps that is a good term, or ‘militant’. Some people, whether they are atheist, religious or whatever are simply living their lives looking for fights and looking for people to make fun of who don’t believe the same as them.

  15. In my opinion, praying is simply a way of putting forth our intentions and focusing on something for a moment, giving thanks to whoever or whatever we wish to give thanks to. Of course, there is the religious context, but why can’t we simply give thanks to the universe, or better yet, ourselves, for being alive and aware?
    In that way, I think anyone can pray and not have to be religious.

  16. I think it is wonderful that this young lady has found that her life is more fulfilled by praying and be grateful for what she has.

  17. “Apparently her parents, especially her mother, gives her a lot of hell for praying, “I guess you would say that I’ve become more agnostic lately and my parents hates it. She thinks I’m stupid for not being atheist” she said”

    I think her mother is forgetting that no harm can come from talking to things that don’t exist. In a way, I see praying as similar to blogging. When I write I don’t know if anyone is reading, but letting out my feelings about something does make me feel better. Some “hardcore atheists” can be very religious people.

    An parent being angry at a child for praying is similar to a parent forcing their child to pray. Why should a person cares if someone else prays? At this point I don’t see any benefit to prayer but I don’t see much harm from it either.

  18. I am appalled that her parents give her grief for praying. Each of us has to find his or her own way in life, and it’s the role of parents to nurture and support, not to indoctrinate and ridicule. I am an atheist, but I would never condemn anyone who seeks comfort or solace through prayer. I am introspective and am thankful for what I have and who I am. I also think about how I can be a better person. Some might call such introspection prayer and may even feel that sharing such thoughts with an entity such as God makes them feel less alone. It is, as you say, a world gone mad. I don’t believe in God, but if praying to a god, meditating, or just being quietly thankful for what you have and working to make yourself a better person works for you, well, as I like to say, “whatever floats your boat.”

  19. Great post. I had to laugh, I have never been a praying agnostic, but speaking of irrational behavior, as a teenager, I did have some good discussions with God about His lack of existence. It felt quite rational and intellectual at the time until He gently asked me who I was talking to.

    To this day my mother is an atheist and still annoyed with me about my faith. There really is something quite irrational about despising what you do not believe is real.

    • “but speaking of irrational behavior, as a teenager, I did have some good discussions with God about his lack of existence”

      Ha ha that put a smile on my face, thank you! Great comments 🙂

  20. Have you read Lit by Mary Karr? She describes a similar feeling regarding prayer, a habit that began by taking the time to reflect on things for which she was grateful. It doesn’t seem as though prayer could be a uniform experience, as you’ve nicely highlighted here.

    Another fantastic post! I’m enjoying reading about your coffee tour adventures.

  21. I don’t think the world had gone Mad. People have just overspent, that’s all. This young woman is a very interesting case. She seems very wise. Thanking God is just about the most centering thing a person can do, I would imagine.

  22. I used to be an agnostic. My saying was always “I’ll find out when I die.” With that said, I used to pray like this young woman you spoke of. I didn’t pray to God specifically, as I was not certain that there was one. But I did pray to the stars, the sky, to anything above me. I felt that IF there was a higher power, that He or whatever it was, might somehow be able to make my life easier, to give me the answers to my problems. I had a nightly prayer, which consisted of the same words every night for years. As a confused young girl, I just needed help with life and was hopeful that something up there could help me. Now I do believe in God, but it took me a long time (along with a few unexplainable events) to get to this point.

    • “…I just needed help with life and was hopeful that something up there could help me”

      So beautiful…..a great story. It reminded me of the lyrics “Someday I wish someone up there would find me, till then I walk alone” from a Green Day song

    • Thank you. I haven’t listened to them in years, but will look up that song.

  23. Am I religious? No. Do I pray? Occasionally, and especially during periods of air turbulence when I’m on planes. I admire this woman, however, for making a choice that is right for her. Regardless of one’s beliefs, I applaud people who do what is right for them.

  24. Prayer. Good for the mind, body, and soul. You can call it other things and still be doing your self a lot of good. I personally pray to Jesus Christ. I like this thought provoking article Kenneth. Thanks for letting us be involved with your life by reading. Praying for peace for this young lady and for this generation on which so much has been taken, so much demanded, and so little given in opportunity. Keep the faith millennials. Us baby boomers love you guys…sorry for the mess we left for you.

  25. Could her desire to pray be evidence that we are “wired” to worship? We have needs and longings that cannot be filled by the material things of this world. As Augustine said, “I was restless until I found my rest in thee.”

    • Bwdell, you may very well be right; its a great point you make and something I’ve thought about a lot in the past and I’ve even written on the subject. I really do believe there is something inherently wired in us the way your suggesting 🙂

  26. Reblogged this on The Road Less Traveled and commented:
    Some wise words from my friend Kenneth Justice. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter for more great reads: @culturemonk

  27. Kenneth, thank you again for a thought-provoking post. The events of my life in the past year make it hard for me to give any input about prayer. I have always acknowledged that there are things on this earth we’ll never understand. I think the straw broke this camel’s back. However, even as I lie in the sand in the scorching sun, I believe in God. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand his ways.

  28. I had a discussion the other day with an atheist who speculated about how I could still find myself with belief in a higher power. I was showing how science and religion were different realms of thought. The two do not cross or contradict. What I thought was interesting, though, is that he was trying to look at religion through the lense of science, much like creationist look at science through the lense of religion. If we can just remove that lense and see these two for what they are, I think we’d all come to realize the two are not at odds with one another.

    I’m thinking about this because of the young woman’s parents. They are looking at her desire for prayer through a lense of science, so it makes no sense to them. I’m impressed with her story, though. Clearly she feels connected to something, even if she has no ability to conceive what that something might be.

  29. I identify with this woman. My parents are believers, but only Christmas and Easter attendees. I walked my way to Sunday school, confirmation, VBS, church on Sunday even after nights of partying hard I was there in my normal pew. I felt very safe there and I always felt lead there by Him. I’ve never felt out of place. Her faith and mine, IMO…God lead for sure.

  30. God works in His own ways with His own purposes. Personally, I don’t have enough “faith” to deny the existence of God! And prayers are a powerful thing when offered in faith.

    This young lady may be working a purpose of God. He may be trying to get her attention…and her parents as well. You may have a part in things by posting this. Who can say?

    Thank you for sharing this unique story…

    Steve Pejay

    • “I don’t have enough faith to deny the existence of god”

      I think we are in the same boat “light and salt” 😉

    • Fantastic! I think it was C.S. Lewis said something like “I gave in and admitted that God IS God!”

      There are evidences for the bible and it’s gospel which are undeniable…

      Steve 🙂

  31. Some of the most spiritual people I have ever met have been atheists. One need not believe in a specific religion to know that there are bigger things in the universe than ourselves. Except for those who delude themselves that books written by men have all the anwers – none of us truly knows what our Higher Power – if any – really is. I find myself irritated by the girl’s parents. There are all types of fundamentalism and I have commented that any fundamentalism – be it religion, atheism, scientism – is a dangerous thing to all of us. JMO.

  32. Award, award, claim your Versatile Blogger Award 🙂 Right here, :

  33. I can’t remember if it was said here on your blog, Kenneth, but I remember it suggested that prayer is speaking, and meditation is listening. Many readers here have already commented on meditation. I would suggest they are two halves of a whole that is thoughtful introspection, or communication of spirit. It would seem to me, also based on these comments, that whether this communication is to the anima mundi (the Force, if you will) or simply to the self, it matters not– it is focus, a filtering out of distractions, to pay attention to the inner self, and to be able to listen to those quiet matters– of chi, the breath of life, etc.

    • Great comment Jaklumen. I particular like this line of yours, “It is focus, a filtering out of distractions”

      Dude, right on. There are so many distractions in this world and its nice to have a break from them

  34. When the world turns to prayer, the people go mad

  35. I had similar question for my biology teacher; she’s a atheist that is dating a very religious man and all she’d talk about how disturbing and creepy his family seems to her. How in the world she’s going to enjoy her life?
    The girl you met looks like the rose that grew in fertilizer ( in sh.. in Albanian lol ) those skeptic parents should except their daughter’s beliefs; don’t have to be a religious to pray, simple human being.

    • “how in the world she’s going to enjoy her life?”

      Right on and I totally agree with ya B!

    • Depends on the religion, honestly. I had an neighbor in a duplex who I got along with quite well. He invited me to his wedding (second time around) and my daughter (who was friends with his son) went. I was appalled when as a part of the wedding all the elder males in the church surrounded the bride to pray Satan out of her. (Not him as well, mind you – just the woman – who was by nature EVIL.) My daughter and I looked at each other and at that moment I realized that I could never let that neighbor be a large part of my life.

      Honestly, some religions ARE creepy in how they treat people. I’m sure see thinks that sometime her prospective spouse will see reason. Me, I’d just run as fast as I could in the other direction.

    • True, some nations or religious think that have the power over a woman like she’s a doll 😦

  36. Great site. Your posts are always really thought provoking. I found it weird that her folks weren’t happy with her praying. You’d have thought they were a bit more free thinking. Each to their own I guess.

  37. Really interesting post. I think the thing with language is that there can be many terms for the same thing – how different is writing an affirmation journal to saying a prayer of thanks every night? Personally, I’ve never thought spirituality and atheism are that mutually opposed. Religion and atheism – now that’s a different story. Pleased to meet you, Culture Monk 🙂

  38. Reblogged this on Christianity Simplified and commented:
    This is exactly why I promote Christian concepts – even as a non-believer. Regardless of the truth of the story, there is value in “The Simple Heart of Christianity”.

  39. I don’t think you need have any particular religion, or faith in a higher power, to pray.

    Prayer can just be a positive statement (to oneself) or wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering. Every time I read or hear of tragedy around the world, I close my eyes and think positive thoughts for those who are affected. I suppose this is a kind of ‘prayer’. I just believe in the power of the Mind and that if we all thought in a positive way, the energy generated would reach those in need.

    In times of great distress, I have had my watch stop. When I was in one of my first jobs, I would be thinking about someone on the other side of the room and wishing ‘xyz’. They have actually called out and asked me if I spoke, or wanted them (at the time of my thinking about them as I did my work). I’ve had dreams about things while, or before, they happened. I’m a great believer in energy transference and telepathic power.

    I am a great believer in the power of the Mind, so positive affirmations (or ‘prayer’ by atheists) is something I’m very open to.

  40. Interesting encounter there. Great post, as always. Very thought-provoking. As others like C.S. Lewis and C. Baxter Kruger has said, we all seem to be hard-wired in our DNA for the need for something transcendent, something (or Someone) bigger than ourselves that will “save the day.” And we want to be part of a larger story, one that it really matters in the end, and that it will turn out alright, especially when we’re faced with fearful or uncertain situations. Our entertainment media reflects this deep-felt need every day. Because, deep down inside, we all want to “live happily ever after” and there’s an angst in our soul when it doesn’t turn out that way. People instinctively look to prayer for a way out of this. So, I guess, in that light, it’s not surprising about the people we find praying. 🙂

  41. One of Christopher Hitchens (for those who don’t know, a committed and outspoken atheist) last interviews was with Charlie Rose. Charlie asked Hitch if he minded people praying for him. (He was dying of cancer.) Hitch said he didn’t mind. There was something about the way he said it. It wasn’t as if he meant “I don’t care what those idiots think.” It was more like ” I welcome their wishing me well.” He said it with sincere warmth.

  42. Who does she pray to? 🙂
    Just my two cents: I agree with you saying “Perhaps in a world that seems out of control; turning to a higher power for answers becomes a soothing salve for our aching soul.” But as for me, I know God exists, and I pray too! (I know through faith and as such I can never really explain it.:D ) There is a Christian that goes: “An opportunity to fear is an opportunity to grow in faith.” The world today is dripping with fear and insecurities. Maybe God IS really calling people to bend their knees. That’s all..
    Great post, by the way!

  43. Hi Kenneth..very thought provoking post.. I wish u would come over to London for a little tour some day 😉


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