Ask Richard: Why Do I Still Pray After Decades of Not Believing?


Mar. 10, 2010

You may send your questions for Richard to (Questions may be edited.) All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There are a large number of requests; please be patient.

Names are randomly changed for added anonymity.


Dear Richard,

I've been an atheist for many years and an agnostic for many years before that. I grew up with born-again evangelical parents, and I was a believer until the age of about 16, when I started to have doubts. I'm now 40 years old and I can honestly say I'm confident that the God of Judeo-Christian religion does not exist.

My question is: Why do I still pray? I often find myself praying, "God, show me that you're there and that you exist." I don't pray every night, but every now and then.

I've come up with four possible explanations for why I do this:

1) I'm hedging my bets. I pray just in case there is a god that could damn me for all eternity–even though logically it seems very unlikely there would be a god that would need me to believe in its existence and would punish me mercilessly if I didn't.

2) Force of habit. Since I grew up praying every night, it has been a ritual I've practiced time and time again. To give up this habit would be extremely hard.

3) There may be a part of me that still believes in God. I think that nobody is 100% sure God doesn't exist, and that atheism is just agnosticism with a little more confidence. Under this definition, I'm consciously an atheist–but could I still believe subconsciously?

4) Maybe I have a mental problem that compels me to talk to beings that don't exist? But I don't exhibit any emotional problems, so this explanation seems unlikely.

Do you have any insights into why I pray? Do any other atheists have this problem?



Dear Stuart,    

What a candid and poignant letter! I'm always reluctant to analyze people's psyches because the chances of being wrong are enormous. But I'll offer up a possibility as to why you continue to pray as long as you take it as only one possibility of many–a shot in the dark with maybe a bit of hit and probably a lot of miss.

Yours is a good example of the predicament humans face as animals with large, active limbic systems and large, active frontal lobes: we have powerful feelings and powerful thoughts and, when they conflict, either may overcome the other but neither can ever fully banish the other. We are consistently inconsistent creatures, feeling and thinking mismatched things. It's what makes us interesting to each other and to ourselves. 

People seem to experience religious belief in two ways: through thought and through emotion. I wonder if when you stopped believing in God intellectually, you did not stop experiencing the emotional aspect of belief that had been deeply set by the time you were 16.

The way you describe your prayers, I wonder if instead of praying to God to show you that he exists, you're actually saying to yourself that you want him to exist. After all, if God doesn't exist, to whom are people talking when they pray? Themselves. It's the emotional and intellectual parts of their minds communicating with each other. Sometimes our desires can be so strong that simply thinking them silently to ourselves is not enough. We must speak our longing out loud into the physical world and hear it echo back to our ears. We must be sure that all the parts of our minds have heard it.

Many atheists describe a period after abandoning their intellectual belief when the emotions associated with belief continued on. But, lacking the familiar supportive thoughts and activities, those feelings began to turn into grief. This feeling of loss or mourning can last for weeks or months or sometimes even years as it gradually fades away. Perhaps you're experiencing this phenomenon with a longer time lag than usual, and you're expressing your grief in this wishful, wistful way: expressing the nostalgia of your believing years.

So my hypothesis is a little bit like the first and third possibilities you suggested. Mine suggests lingering emotions associated with your past belief, while yours suggest a remaining intellectual belief, but they might overlap.

I don't think the second possibility you mention is likely by itself. If praying was purely a force of habit, the habit would probably fade away after so much time without anything to reinforce it. As for the last possibility, I don't see anything in your letter indicating a psychotic process. If you had a serious disorder, other areas of your life would have serious problems.

Which brings me to my question for you: Is this really a "problem" or is this simply a quirk? If it doesn't interfere with important things in your life, such as keeping a job or keeping a relationship, then perhaps it should just be considered an eccentricity.

However, it did at least perplex you enough for you to write your letter. So if I'm correct that you are experiencing something like the extended grieving period I described, perhaps you need to find something else besides prayer to satisfy that old neglected emotional need that your belief used to fulfill. If you're not sure what, look at your secular, rational and logical life and see if there is something–not necessarily rational or logical–that's missing or that you could add. It could be something involving joy, play, creativity, whimsy, humor, beauty, awe, wonder, thrill, belonging, worthiness, connectedness, gratitude, meaning, passion, challenge, love or a hundred other "things-that-aren't-things" that enrich and complete our humanness. If you find something that fulfills your emotional need, perhaps the praying will finally cease.

So, Stuart, that's my shot in the dark. Maybe a little bit of hit and probably a whole lot of miss. Take it as a suggestion or a clue, or just as encouragement to always stay at least as curious about yourself as you are about the world around you. As you explore your interior continent, maintain an attitude of affection and humor, and disapprove of nothing that you find. Waste no time with either of the twin vanities, pride and shame. Some things about yourself you'll understand and others will remain enigmas, but just keep exploring.

Perhaps it is the wondering that is more important than the knowing, anyway.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.