Atheists pray the most beautiful prayers. That’s what I discovered several years ago when I was researching for a book project. The book was about 20-somethings who had grown up in Christian homes only to walk away from their faith as young adults. Most were confirmed atheists or agnostics.
For months I conducted in-depth interviews. At one point, my wife had a suggestion:
“Ask them if they ever still pray,” she said.
It was an absurd question, really, considering how bitterly most of them had denounced the faith; Why would anyone pray to a God they no longer believe existed? But I started asking the question anyway, and the answers surprised me. Usually the person’s eyes would turn to the ground. If we were talking on the phone, the line would go silent for a few seconds.
“What do those prayers sound like?” I would ask.
That’s when they poured out their prayers. They were angry prayers, but beautiful in their honesty and desperation:
“God, where are you?”
“Can you hear me?”
“Do you exist?”
“Do you even care about me?”
“I miss you.”
One girl told me in a hushed voice about how, on some occasions, she still prays for guidance and for God’s protection. Others breathed prayers of thanksgiving, despite their insistence that there was no one to thank. One example was David Bazan, an indie rock singer who had gradually lost his faith during his mid-twenties.
“One thing I really missed initially when I left the faith was expressing gratitude through prayer,” he told me. “So I still say those prayers, just expressing thanks for the beauty of the world and the joy of relationships.”
Bazan also missed what he called “the sense of surrender that comes through prayer.” He added: “In the parlance of Christianity, I never wanted to have a hard heart.”
One night, Bazan almost surrendered to God.
“I was lying in bed at night. I just suddenly had that fear: Oh my God, what if I’m wrong? I would just lie there terrified, heart pounding. I even started surrendering to God. Then at the last second I just said, ‘forget this.’”
In spite of his refusal to turn back to God, he continues to pray:
“Sometimes I still feel like I’m praying to capital G-O-D, and other times I guess I’m just praying to the air.”
On one level such prayers are tragic; They’re echoes of lost faith, utterances of desperation an unfulfilled expectations. But on another level they’re encouraging. And they’ve taught me a lot.
As Christians it’s easy to view the doubts of others as an implicit threat to our faith. We wonder if skeptics will say something that undermines what we believe or if we’ll have a snappy response to their objections. But hearing the prayers of these people made me hear skepticism differently. I no longer hear it as a challenge to my faith but rather as the broken language of spiritual longing.
It’s been said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. I think that’s true. And when I encounter people who are still connected to God by some emotion, even a negative one, I see it as a sign of life.
For me, that’s heartening. It makes the task of reaching skeptic friends less daunting. Ultimately we don’t carry the responsibility to convince them of anything. God is already at work in their hearts. All we have to do is get behind what he’s already doing.