Thoughts on Prayers: Jimmy Kimmel Says They Even Had Atheists Praying for His Son

[updated 5/5/17] Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional plea Monday night for affordable healthcare for Americans with pre-existing conditions, made as he recounted the scare he and his family endured the week before when his son Billy was born with a heart defect, looked like it might be the nail in the coffin of the GOP’s latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Kimmel’s story was heart-wrenching and told with such appreciation for every person involved in treating his son, from nurses to the cardiac surgeon to the crew of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! who sent cards and well-wishes. “We had atheists praying for us!” Kimmel joked, describing the outpouring of concern. Perhaps he was referring to ex-girlfriend and fellow comedian Sarah Silverman, an open atheist who often speaks fondly of him. Kimmel, who is Catholic, likely has many atheist friends—we all do.

But do atheists really pray? I well remember the morning in 2008 when my four-year-old daughter had a seizure. My husband woke me up in a panic and together we raced back to her room where she was convulsing and foaming at the mouth. We got her and our infant son out the door, and as I climbed into the back of the minivan I remember so clearly the words that flashed through my mind: “If there’s a God, please don’t let her die.”

My daughter didn’t die. After a very long day, during which we, like the Kimmel family, benefitted from excellent doctors, she was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy. It’s a form of epilepsy that only affects children and only causes seizures during sleep. It’s called benign because kids almost always outgrow it in a few years. (Georgia had one more seizure that we know of, but that’s it.) When I recounted the story to people close to me, I included that part of the story where the possibility that God existed and could control what was happening flashed in my mind. It surprised me.

It’s natural to want to do anything and everything for a loved one in danger. Does the fact that an atheist made a plea to God (with the caveat “if”) in a moment of crisis mean that the religious impulse is natural and that those of us who aren’t religious are suppressing something? I don’t think it does. I think that in a moment of true crisis it’s natural to grasp any straw.

What do you think? Are you an atheist who prays or has found yourself approximating something like prayer? We’d love to hear your thoughts on prayers.