Why does an atheist pray? I have always called myself an agnostic, but I really don’t have any reason to believe there is an embodied God like religions claim. I do pray and I believe that there might be some divine reason to pray. I have seen changes that the physical world can’t I explain that might be a loving metaphysical force might have interceded in, but I cannot prove it. In any case, here is my writing transcribed from yesterday in my physical journal.
Now praying, once you admit there might be no God, raises interesting questions. I don’t think it is a waste of time because I feel better, and I feel like I might have helped: God or no God. I pray because I need the “omnipotent world” to right [address] some wrong I see or perceive.
God it looked so much more potent in my journal taking up two inches of graph paper. As I typed it it struck me as a good outline. I think I will try to write a paragraph for each of the sentences, or ideas behind the sentences. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll see how it goes
Now praying, once you admit there might be no God, raises interesting questions. I never prayed before I got sober. Well I did wish. I remember clearly “wishing” that I would not be in pain any more. I “wished,” as I got on my track bike in ‘80 or ‘81 that I might not get off of it in the same way. I had problems, I had cheated people, I had stolen to buy drugs and I didn’t know how I was going to explain to people how and why I had done all of this. So I “wished” I would not survive the delivery ride I was on as I got on the bike. I don’t think I rode more carelessly, but I was aware that a tragic accident would solve a lot of problems I had no solution to. I stopped wearing a helmet. I “wished” my problems would all go away, and I think I “wished” it to some force, the force of nature, that I conceived of as being out there, omnipresent, and omnipotent. I think of it now as something like Ben Franklin’s Deist God that is the trees and the rocks and all the parts of the world (conscious and unconscious, sentient and natural or biology-driven). Whatever was out there I did “wish” which much mean that I have an idea of a pre-existing force outside of myself that predates my modern, more thoughtful, self.
When I was 26 I had a crisis that resulted in me needing to participate in a sort of “therapy.” I was told by the group conscience that if I “prayed” to a “God of my understanding” I would avoid relapsing into the crisis my life had become. Since it was not an “old-book-God” I was willing to try; I was certainly not willing to get better if it meant joining one of the big three Exclusive-ist religions. I still thought that prayer was like a wish, a request of the world for someone or something. This group suggested another spiritual tack, that praying is good for the Prayer not the prayee. Not because the prayer gets something and not because the prayee gets anything either: praying means that the person praying is relying on something outside of him or her self. So if you pray for yourself, what you get is not the object you prayed for (relief from cancer, whatever), but an escape from the omnipotence of self-centered humanity: the “I can do something.” Praying means that something might be done. Praying means that something might be done by someone or something I have no control over and whatever that power decides, is for the best no matter how much it hurts me. I blithely assumed that this thing that I was praying to wanted the problem I wanted removed, removed. It seems like my optimism has been confirmed, because I have not slipped into the Hell that ran my life for the decade before that day in 1986. If this is true, that this is God’s world, perhaps for the last 26 years of my life I will resume living in HELL, because it is HIS will; maybe I’m supposed to be miserable again (praying and faith impose a lot of our assumptions and wishes on any God that is out there). In any case, I have been happily living in this projection of God’s Grace from my will for 26 years now, and I have no desire to stop: so I pray to a God I’m not sure about.
I prayed as they told me and I got better. Does that mean that there is a God with a control panel and a joy stick that kept me from participating in the myriad bad behaviors I had cultivated in my years self-will? Maybe. Maybe not. I guess this is why I am writing today. I don’t think it matters. What matters, I think, is the energy or effort you put into the world. Of course I needed a framework to channel my energy and effort as my life changed because I asked for help starting October 21st 1986. I don’t think I would be here today without that group and their philosophy. I think what worked, for me, involves investing in a God who can make me act better today if I believe in her/him/it. I might not be sure now, but I was certain then; and now couldn’t happen without then.
I don’t think it is a waste of time [to pray] because I feel better, and I feel like I might have helped: God or no God. When I pray to God, to Yahweh, to Allah, to Jesus, to the trees and rocks or to nature herself, I feel better. Did I change anything? Did anything happen differently than it would have? I have to think that the act of asking for help and guidance from outside of myself slowed me down and helped me to make better decisions in that moments that I prayed. So I have to say, no, Prayer is not a way to curry favor with God’s joy-stick of fate.
Well, I have one caveat. It is not a strong miracle, but I have always considered it a miracle, and I still do. October 24th, 1986 was the first Friday I tried not to “party.” I had told my roommate to bring his share of the rent to One Track (our messenger service) before 3 so that I could give it to my brother who would deposit it (or keep it out of my reach for the weekend). I had learned from my group that “money is a mood changer” and if I was given $300 on a Friday night I would probably set free my irresponsible party animal. In short, I would relapse into my chronic behaviors. So Dafe came home, gave me the $306 dollars and went back out to party with the Africans. I had been on the beam for three days and had accumulated, as per suggestion, 4 phone numbers of group members. I called each of them. And I called Richard, the guy who took me to my first meeting to no avail. I left messages, but it was 8pm on a Friday night and I got no answers. I was walking back and forth holding the $306 in my hand: unfolded and sweaty. I walked towards the door, and I walked back to my bedroom where I should stash the money at least 3 times, though I want to say it was 10 times to sound more heroic. I put my jacket on, putting the hand with no money through the sleeve, then transferring the money to the sleeved hand to put on the other sleeve. This is an odd detail to remember after so many years, but I know that in some primitive part of my brain I could not put those twenties, five and a one down or some spell would be broken and the party would not start (more uncharted metaphysics!).
I was walking to the door with my jacket half way on with money in the hand that was in the sleeve fumbling for keys when the phone rang. Shit, I thought it might be one of the men I had called to try and keep me from starting over, and in my mind I was at the party. But I did walk back into the apartment and pick up the phone. Some part of me did want to start being better, though this was far from a controlling stake in my personality. Or maybe it was God who made me answer the phone.
It was one of my rare friends who didn’t “party.” He called because he had nothing to do. He had bought a motorcycle, and in the months he had had it he had gotten a girlfriend for whom he had finally bought a helmet so she could go on rides with him. I guess it was “too little too late” because the weekend he’d bought the helmet, she’d broken up with him. M wanted to know if I wanted to go to Coney Island to have some fried clams and french fries. On the way there we stopped by my brother’s house and I dropped off fourteen of the $20s and asked him to give them to me when the bank opened on Monday.
I always consider M’s phone call and trip to Coney Island (via my brother’s) as a miracle of the first order. Something that should be in a book. I had done all that I could to start improving. I had used all of the tools of the group and they hadn’t worked. But who’d have thought one of my three friends who did not indulge in my “mania for instant gratification” would call me out for an adventure that night? Did God use his joy stick to make Mike call? Was that an intercession from an omnipotent God? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. Does it matter? It matters for me. It mattered back then. It mattered because I did not return to my self-destructive behaviors on that weekend in 1986. It mattered because I believed that there was a God with a joystick who would move people, places and things into position to make MY life better.
So do I believe in God? Maybe I believe, but certainly not the God of books and buildings. Most of all, I would not tell anyone that there is a God. It would be an act of ego to expect anyone to base their behaviors and beliefs on any of the random miracles of my life.
I pray because I need the “omnipotent world” to right [address] some wrong I see or perceive. So I do pray. I don’t pray for things or results or benefits, I pray “only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out.” Do I think there is a croupier standing over this mortal coil and righting things for his favorite players? Is God someone who deals from the bottom of the deck for his chosen people? Naw, if there is a God, I think S/He’s better than that. I don’t want to think of a deity who plays favorites. Indeed, I want to think of a perfect world, set up to run endlessly. I pray because I want to think about the world in a better way. I want to be part of the solution. I want to avoid being part of the problem. I pray because I want to believe that the world is benevolent, and that I can nudge it in a kinder, better direction. I pray to accept the world’s random cruelty. I pray to be faithful like Job: though Job is just a storybook character, like scrooge. But what the hell do I know? What is best is not revealed to me.
 Genocidal? Chauvinist? imperialist? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all strike me, as deployed by followers of their faiths in mass media (I know, the lowest popular form), as more interested in maintaining or gaining some sort of worldly power and control rather than as true spiritual outlets: of course I’m a cynic.
 Conditional subjunctive case: that this will not be done by any power on the page, rather by someone or something grammatically hidden from action.