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Prayer has benefits for non-believers too. Why atheists might like to give it a go.


When we think of prayer, our minds often conjure images of individuals bowing their heads in reverence, communing with a higher power or deity. But what if I told you that prayer-like practices are not exclusive to the religious? Atheists, who do not adhere to the belief in traditional deities, have also been known to engage in outwardly-focussed practices that bear a resemblance to prayer.


A watercolour painting of a still creek edged with flat stones. A tree is on the left. On the right a casually-dressed  woman is facing the horizon, Her arms are extended and her open hands are facing up as  in meditation..

“When we pray, we open ourselves up to feeling a change inside ourselves – a movement away from tension and mistrust toward a more trusting, hopeful feeling.”


Let's delve into these practices and the broader perspectives that underpin them.


A different approach to connection: Just as religious individuals turn to prayer for guidance and solace, atheists who engage in similar practices often do so to seek meaning and purpose.

This secular practice is about self-expression, mindfulness, and connecting with the broader context of existence with a view to tapping into a reservoir of inspiration that helps you navigate your life with a sense of direction and authenticity.


Exploring interconnectedness: The act of directing thoughts and intentions towards life itself, the universe, interconnectedness, or concepts that represent the natural world is a way of acknowledging our place within the larger fabric of existence.

Immersing oneself in nature can also be a profound and spiritual experience that goes beyond mere exploration. Whether it’s time spent bushwalking, quietly in natural places or even watching a bee in our own backyards, the act of being in nature can elicit a sense of connection, awe, and introspection similar to what one might seek in prayer.


Through non-religious prayer-like practices, we are able to:

  • engage in self-reflection, mindfulness, and contemplation

  • express gratitude for our lives, existence and the experiences we encounter

  • develop an inner sense of humility and a deeper appreciation for the intricate web of life

  • embrace the reality that we are all part of a vast and interconnected cosmic journey

  • find a space to ponder life's mysteries and their role in the grand scheme of things and

  • reflect on our place within the cosmos.

Scientific perspective: From a scientific standpoint, prayer is hard to study.

“To measure its impact, researchers need to find people who are open to praying but don’t already do it, which isn’t easy. Brain scans are difficult because people often pray out loud and don’t typically stay still when they pray. And prayer is only likely to have mental health benefits for those who are open to it,” says Dr. David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass in this article published in the Wall Street Journal.

Research on the power of prayer has yielded mixed results and the tangible impact of prayer on physical health remains a subject of debate among researchers. That said, some studies suggest that prayer for oneself can have positive effects on mental and emotional well-being.

A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2011 found that “prayer may influence positive emotions, optimism, and sense of connectedness with others."


According to an article that appeared in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 (PMID 20048448), secular (or non-religious) prayer may be considered as a special form of meditation which, therefore, conveys all the health benefits that have been associated with meditation.


“The review of randomised controlled trials confirmed that different types of meditation had been shown to result in psychological and biological changes that are actually or potentially associated with improved health. Meditation has been found to produce a clinically significant reduction in resting as well as ambulatory blood pressure, to reduce heart rate, to result in cardiorespiratory synchronization, to alter levels of melatonin and serotonin, to suppress corticostriatal glutamatergic neurotransmission, to boost the immune response, to decrease the levels of reactive oxygen species as measured by ultraweak photon emission, to reduce stress and promote positive mood states, to reduce anxiety and pain and enhance self-esteem and to have a favorable influence on overall and spiritual quality of life in late-stage disease."


Interestingly, however, this same review did state that "spiritual meditation has been found to be superior to secular meditation and relaxation in terms of decrease in anxiety and improvement in positive mood, spiritual health, spiritual experiences and tolerance to pain."


Conclusion (and tldr) In a world that often divides along religious and non-religious lines, it's fascinating to explore the commonalities that bridge these gaps. Atheists who adopt prayer-like practices enjoy many benefits. and demonstrate that the human desire for connection, reflection, and awe is not limited to any specific belief system. It's a reminder that our journey of understanding and exploring the universe can be deeply personal, regardless of the theological lens through which we view it.

So, the next time you encounter someone who identifies as an atheist engaging in practices resembling prayer, remember that they, too, are on a quest to explore the mysteries of existence and find their place within the cosmic tapestry of life.

 

Sacred Renewal Studios is an inclusive practice open to all views and beliefs. The Sacred Renewal Studios new client information form - which clients complete at the start of their first appointment -includes a section about their religious, spiritual or life beliefs and philosophies. When I'm aware of a client's beliefs and listening to what is important to them, I am able to ensure that the care I offer is delivered in an ethical manner and that communication is respectful and sensitive, especially during times of vulnerability. - Lesley

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