There is no atheist equivalent to prayer

The “comfort of religion”

We atheists are often reminded that religion is “comforting”.  Sometimes, even other atheists will ask; “Why would you want to take away the comfort other people find in religion?”.  It’s a valid question, and the answer varies by the individual. Personally, I don’t. If the religious would kindly keep their mythology out of the state house, I have no issue at all. Believe what you like, if you can. *

Fear of death

Many atheists assume this comfort refers to the promise of eternal life.  Christians promote this view by asking us; “Where are you going to spend eternity?” This is both popular and biblical: “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”

Welcome to the afterlife

Me, I don’t believe in an afterlife. In fact, I find the concept terrifying. Hell, if it existed, would be an unspeakable horror. But heaven is not much better. Spend eternity osculating the derriere of a bronze-age tyrant? No thanks. For that matter, name any activity you’d like to do for all eternity. Take all the time you need.

OK, so what else is comforting in religion? Intercessory prayer.

I’ll pray for you

The meaning of “I’ll pray for you” varies by context. When you are disagreeing with someone, it means; “Go To Hell” (at least, in the South). But when someone you love is hurting, that’s a different story. Empathy can be painful.

Sometimes I think prayer was invented just to address the feeling of helplessness that we have when our beloved friends and family members are suffering, and we can’t actually do anything to help. I encounter this nearly every day, and “You are in my thoughts” doesn’t convey what I feel.

From the
From the “Book Of Common Prayer”

Love is sometimes defined as the state of mind in which another person’s happiness has become essential to your own. And when the prospects of the other person’s happiness are sparse or nonexistent, we desperately want to do… something. Maybe we don’t care so much what happens to us in some mythical afterlife, but it’s a different story for our loved ones.

You have a friend with cancer, or who has no place to live. A loved one whose child is ill, or addicted to drugs, or in jail. And you can’t do a damn thing except watch your friend or your relative suffer.

Lead us not into temptation

It is tempting to believe in something because it would make a more comfortable universe. And when I say “tempting” I mean just that – a real temptation. I’d like very much to believe that I could appeal to a greater power on behalf of my friends, my family. But the trouble is, I don’t believe in that greater power. No amount of wishful thinking on my part can conjure it up.*

I wish I could pray for the victims of the Charleston shooting.  I wish I could pray for friends with cancer, or facing homelessness, or struggling with some tragedy in their family.  But, to whom would I pray?

What’s an atheist to do?

This explains why an atheist might be willing to be a soldier, or an aid worker, or a school teacher, and why there are secular aid foundations like Foundation Beyond Belief. Not everything matters just because of “eternity”. In fact, the relentless focus of religion on eternity cheapens human suffering now. When you don’t believe some deity is going to step in and make it right…


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  • “Believe what you like, if you can” refers to the fact that belief is usually not volitional. If you think about it. Once you believe something, you can’t just stop believing it because you don’t like it. Or believe something just because the implications of that belief would be in your favor.
  • More than a few marriages have been scuttled by the sense that, when one speaks, there’s no one listening. Ask a hundred atheists, and probably thirty of them will say that they prayed, but there was no evidence anyone was listening.
  • When I speak of God, it is in the same voice I use to speak of Batman. As in; “Batman would never sing Kum-By-Yah”, it is ‘factual’ within the framework of the myth.
  • I think some people believe non-existence would be somehow painful. But as far as I can tell, I didn’t exist at all for the last 14 billion years, and I wasn’t inconvenienced by it. When I stop existing (as all the evidence at my disposal suggests will be the case), there’ll be no “me” to worry about it. If death wants to frighten me, it will have to do better than that.

Love potion stories are way creepier than we thought

Last night I watched the old Twilight Zone episode “The Chaser“, in which a man, smitten by a woman who wanted nothing to do with him, slipped her a magic love potion that made her fall, forever, madly in love with him. He finds her relentless ardor too much to bear, and considers killing her, but can’t go through with it, once she tells him she is pregnant.

Think about that for a moment.

The story was about his tragedy – poor guy! – condemned to live with a woman who loves him too much. Nothing about her loss, having had all the consent she would ever have erased by a lifelong date-rape drug. Her existence as a person was never considered. Whatever she wanted out of life (and that was for her to determine, not him) was simply swept aside.

I’m not blaming the Twilight Zone here; it’s a great show, and has many episodes where the woman is the protagonist. But it reflects a culture in which the woman is simply not a person. That culture goes way, way back to stories in the middle ages, and probably earlier. How much better if we can at least see it for what it is.

And see women, at all.

Crosswalks don’t mean a damn thing

Taking her life in her hands

Taking her life in her hands (click to embiggen)

As I walked across this 100-foot crosswalk today, a young buck in a silver Mitsubishi honked at me and gave me the finger. I let him know I was in the crosswalk and that he is an excretory sphincter. In other words, just another day of interaction between pedestrians and drivers.

After work I rode back to the intersection on my bike, and watched for a few minutes. Drivers seem unaware of what a crosswalk is, and what it means. Which is not surprising, and who cares, Am I Right?

But here’s the thing: munis are in the habit of writing tickets for “jaywalking”, which means crossing the street in the middle of the block. At this intersection, you are interacting with cars approaching from 5 possible directions, and which are in turn interacting with cars from 8 different directions plus pedestrians. In the middle of the block, you interact with cars coming from two directions, and their movements are much more constrained and predictable.

Yes, every driver can tell stories of inattentive pedestrians. But pedestrians pose little real hazard to drivers. If the town wants to write somebody a ticket, they can damn well watch the drivers. In the space of five minutes watching at this one intersection, I saw about twenty cars crowd a pedestrian. Often, two or three per.

Man crossing street
One pedestrian in crosswalk, six cars. Three slowed noticeably to avoid collision. (Click to embiggen)


Stepping out into judgment

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner

Got to say, that Vanity Fair cover is damned impressive, even allowing for makeup and Photoshop. But the more important story for me is all the people talking about her “courage” relative to another athlete, or a soldier, or some such. Often, in a mocking tone.

The fact that a percentage of soldiers lose bowel control their first time on the battlefield is empirical evidence that you need real courage to be a soldier. And that gay or transgender people sometimes commit suicide, is also evidence that courage is required to face society as your unpopular, true self. Stop comparing them.

I salute Caitlyn Jenner’s courage. It isn’t lessened by the fact that she is rich and has a lot of support. I’m just saying, be on the lookout for the trans person who isn’t rich, or who does not succeed in being conventionally beautiful, or who is rejected by his or her support group, and is all alone. Be a friend. Or at the very. least. don’t let someone make them a punch line in some goddamned heartless joke. (I’m lookin’ at YOU, Huck).

Life is full of all kinds of pain. Even if we don’t understand all of it, we can try to care about all the people bearing it. And try not to make it worse for them.


  • UPDATE: In June of 2017 I don’t know what to make of Jenner. Yes, it took courage for her to come out. No, I don’t have an explanation for why she’s identifying with people who think she is an abomination before the lord. And most of all, her reaction to the GOP baseball shooting has erased any vestige of warm regard I ever had for her:

    Caitlyn Jenner quote
    Caitlyn Jenner on congressional baseball shooting: “Liberals can’t even shoot straight”
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  • Must admit I had to look up Bruce Jenner. Really don’t follow sports much.