Growing up, prayer didn't make a ton of sense to me. I was raised secular, and asking for divine intervention seemed akin to believing in magic. I dismissed it out of hand.
However, in my early 20s, I got involved with the 12-step community. Going in, I knew nothing about the culture or history of 12-step programs, so when I found out that it was a spiritual approach to behavior change, I was... surprised.
Each meeting ended by holding hands and reciting the Serenity Prayer, and I was encouraged to learn several other prayers to recite at the beginning and of each day. As someone who formerly identified as a hardcore atheist, this brought up a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.
But I was at an emotional low point, so I gave it a try.
Over the better part of a year, I experimented with incorporating prayer into my daily life. I would recite the Serenity Prayer in my head before a challenging conversation, or the St. Francis Prayer before a work meeting. Occasionally, even though I had no real theistic beliefs, I found myself talking to God, the universe -- whatever was out there.
This was challenging at first, as the idea of prayer brought up a lot of resistance. I found it much easier to translate other aspects of the religious experience into a secular worldview -- embracing prayer always felt like it would mean turning off my rationalist filter and that I might start believing in all sorts of fanciful things.
However, rather than discounting prayer as I had in the past, I started to become curious about it as a phenomena. Prayer as a practice has shown up in societies across time, space, and culture. Even if I didn’t believe in a religious interpretation of prayer, I still wanted to know why so many people valued this practice.
Eventually, I came to a handful of secular interpretations of prayer that helped reduce my cognitive dissonance and to understand the role prayer plays in religious peoples’ lives. While I ultimately moved on from the 12-step world and let go of prayer as a personal practice, I still draw upon these interpretations to help bring meaning to my experience and cultivate empathy for others.
Below are a handful of these interpretations. May they be helpful for you as well.*
When people get sober, they tend to have lots of self-doubt and self-loathing. However, hope and belief in the future is important when making major life changes. Prayer can give people something to believe in when they no longer believe in themselves. It can allow them to tap into a strength that seems to come from beyond -- at least from beyond their negative self-identity. Even if it's simply a placebo, for many it still has a significant positive effect.
For the secular person, one can similarly look to believe in something beyond oneself at times of doubt and struggle. One way to think of this is as the anthropomorphization of an idea. We can view love, courage or compassion as tangible forces in the world that we are in relation to, that can visit us and lend us their strength. One can also engage with an internal representation of one’s ancestors, or with the universe itself. Even if these all are just projections of the mind, they can help us tap into more intentional ways of being during times of struggle.
Gladdening the mind
In the last few decades, we've learned a lot about the brain. One of those key learnings is that the brain keeps changing even as we get older, adapting to the experiences of our daily lives. Pathways in the brain are like grooves, and the more we travel those pathways, the deeper those grooves become. If we reach for a cookie or a smartphone when we feel sad or anxious, we’re more likely to do it again in the future.
One psychological interpretation of prayer and meditation is that it helps reinforce positive brain pathways. As one meditation teacher put it, it helps "gladden the mind." Examples of this are metta meditation in Buddhism or the Centering Prayer in Christianity, which both aim to cultivate emotions like love, compassion, and forgiveness. The more we experience these positive mental states, the more likely they are to arise again in the future. Eventually, they become such regular habits of mind that they turn from temporary states into personality traits.
Rubber duck debugging
In the tech world, some engineering teams engage in a practice known as rubber duck debugging. When a programmer encounters a bug they can't fix, before they go to a more senior engineer for help, they must first explain the problem and any ideas for potential solutions to a rubber duck on their desk. The idea is that in clearly elucidating the problem and possible solution space, engineers often solve the problem themself, without ever needing to bother their direct manager.
Similarly, even without a belief in God, one can understand the value of prayer as rubber-duck debugging. Whether we’re talking to God, the Universe, or a stuffed animal, by verbalizing the situation we're facing we may in fact stumble upon the solution ourselves.
One of the ways that groups bond is through synchronous movement, singing, and speech. We see this in schools in the U.S. with the Pledge of Allegiance and at sporting events with the national anthem. We also see this in military bootcamp, where new recruits are forced to march and chant in unison for hours on end. These examples reinforce a sense of shared identity and communicate to each member of the group that they are part of something larger than themself.
Prayer as a method of group identification can also go far beyond the walls of a temple or church. For example, in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, there are prayers that one is required to recite at various points throughout the day. There is the prayer for eating, the prayer for sleeping, and even the prayer for going to the bathroom. At each of these moments, the prayer serves to remind a person of their religious and cultural identity, tying them back to the group.
In a more negative example, some cults use a similar tactic as a means to police the thoughts of their members. They'll compel their acolytes to pray constantly throughout the day, either out loud or in their own heads, such that there is no room in their thoughts for doubt or dissent.
In the secular world, one can utilize shared speech to create a greater sense of group-identification. A leader of a non-profit could have the team recite their mission as a group at the beginning of each weekly staff meeting, or a sports team captain could pick a call-and-response line from Remember the Titans and use it at the start of every game. These in-group memes can help transform a disparate group of people into a cohesive unit.
Sanctification literally means to make sacred -- it is a type of ritual that ascribes deeper meaning to an everyday activity, connecting it to "matters of ultimate concern." Whether it's work, food, or sex, sanctification serves as a bridge between the sacred and the profane, inviting a deeper sense of meaning into the mundanity of life.
Interestingly, sanctification has all sorts of positive benefits. Adults who sanctify marriage tend to have happier, more durable relationships. College students who sanctify sex tend to enjoy sex more, and have more of it. By intentionally ascribing deeper meaning to these activities, they both get better and become more significant in our lives.
One secular version of this is connecting daily behaviors to values -- the things you care about most in the world. This could look like intentionally tuning into a sense of compassion when speaking with your partner, or cultivating a sense of courage in the face of a difficult situation at work. These values can help heighten the high points of our life, and make meaning of the low points.
Another way to approach secular sanctification is through tying something mundane to a greater story. This could be as simple as calling in the memory of your ancestors before a family meal, or connecting your day job to a broader story of human progress. Either way, it’s about taking an activity we’re doing and tying it to something that transcends ourselves in time and purpose. It is, as Viktor Frankl put it, ascribing our identity to something greater than ourselves.
We've covered a lot of ground, and I imagine not everything here will resonate with every reader. The devout atheist will probably find these interpretations lacking, and the deeply religious person will probably feel that I've missed the point entirely.
Still, for those of us who see the world not in black and white, but in shades of gray, perhaps these ideas may give us something to try in our own lives. At the very least, I hope they help the non-religious person better understand the function prayer might play in a devout person’s life.
And finally, while I no longer pray, I do often find myself using poetry the same way I may have used prayer in the past. I’ll recite a poem by David Whyte when I’m out on a hike, or reflect on a line from Carlos Castaneda when contemplating a difficult decision. Whether it’s Rumi, Mary Oliver, or Harry Potter, pulling in passages from great works of poetry and literature can help us tap into deeper human dynamics, with or without God.
So with that, I’ll leave you with two of my favorite Rumi quotes:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”
“Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
Invitations for Reflection
- Where am I struggling to control that which I cannot?
- Where might I benefit by placing faith in something greater than myself?
- What states of mind do I find myself habitually inhabiting?
- How might I be more in touch with my values during the mundane tasks of my daily life?
- What are the texts that I find to be “sacred”? How might I use them to punctuate my life?
*Example of a quick secular prayer