Last week my mother called to give me some very bad news: A young relative had died early that morning. He was a man whose entire life was one series of life-threatening situations after another. He was born with severe birth defects. So, although his untimely death came as no real surprise, it was still shocking and heartbreaking to our family. He had overcome so many seemingly impossible health challenges that one more "medical miracle" didn't seem out of the question.
For over 25 years I faced similar soul-shattering scenarios, but I had always believed that my relationship with God and my communications with him (through prayer) would carry us through any situation, no matter how painful.
But then I became an atheist.
So what does an ex-believer do when praying to a God you no longer believe in is not an option?
Admittedly, even though I believe that "nothing fails like prayer" to actually get anything done, there are personal benefits to the very act of praying itself. These benefits have been clearly documented by physicians, psychologists and philosophers in countless books over the last few decades. My approach is different. It's neither clinical nor scholarly. I'm simply asking the question of how to pray when you're an atheist because I loved to pray as a Christian and I still love praying as a nonbeliever.
So, yes, to get the most pressing question out of the way, an atheist can in fact pray (if we stretch the definition of prayer just a little).
So here are four keys to praying like a Pentecostal... as an atheist.
1. Find a good listener.
During prayer we experience the benefit of having the perfect sounding board, an imaginary listener who never interrupts and never makes themselves the subject of our conversation. Atheists may never be able to fully fool themselves into believing that someone else is actually listening whenever they speak out into the void, but the practice can still be very effective. My best suggestion is to find a true friend with whom to share not only your innermost thoughts but your life. In the course of writing my book, I poured my heart out to my co-writer Ethan Brown. His unquestioning attention and the safe place that it created for me did more good than all my years of praying combined. If you can't make a good friend, hire a great therapist.
2. Be real.
When sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with no one or no-thing, there's far less pressure to maintain a facade or pretend to be better off than we really are. It feels refreshing to step into our prayer closets and allow ourselves to become emotionally naked. If you have a friend who can be completely trusted, this should still be possible for the nonbeliever. If not, please don't let this exercise pass you by. Find a secluded space, start talking out loud about what's troubling you, and don't stop until you know that you're no longer pretending or hiding from your true self on any level.
3. Let go.
Some atheists seem to struggle with the idea of "going with the flow" with their emotions. Unrestrained emotions are considered by a portion of nonbelievers to only belong to the domain of religion. For that reason they feel that some forms of emotional expression can be dangerous. In the religious world I was raised in, emotional displays were not only allowed but expected. In my experience, you'll know when you're no longer hiding when the tears begin to flow.
4. Listen to your heart.
The combination of feeling as if you have the ultimate listener's undivided and nonjudgmental attention with complete self-honesty mixed with emotional release can all work together to make the act of praying both comforting and regenerating.
You might ask, "This kind of prayer may 'feel' good, but what if I'm seeking advice?" Again, if my opinion is correct and there really never was anyone listening to your prayers during your believing days, then who was really giving you advice and direction? Well, you gave it to yourself. This one realization alone changed my life dramatically for the better. You possess more insight and strength than you probably realize. So pour your heart out and then listen to what it has to say about your situation.
The Way Forward
Atheists (and everyone one else, for that matter) should never stop "praying." That is to say everyone should have a good listener in their lives, and everyone should strive to be completely honest with themselves, to the point of bringing their emotional selves to the surface.
As my family navigates the grieving process over this precious person we have now physically lost from our lives, there will undoubtedly be much praying. Of course, some of those prayers will only be the handed-down mumblings of religious tradition that we use to fill the space created by the uncomfortable silence that naturally arises from a loss for words. Other prayers will be more sincere expressions of supplication, asking for personal strength or for the divine support of another grieving loved one. Yet most of the praying that my family will engage in will simply be to each other. This form of personal, highly emotional prayer not only passes the time but helps all of us emerge from life's hardest tests.
Jerry DeWitt is an American author, public speaker, and leader in the American atheism movement. He is a former pastor of two evangelical churches who publicly converted to atheism in 2011 after 25 years of Christian ministry. He is the author of the book Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey From Belief to Atheism.