Even Atheists Pray

by Dr. Gene Edward Veith

Prayer seems to be disappearing from the cultural landscape. Public gatherings are dropping the practice for fear of causing offense or getting sued. No one is allowed to lead prayers in public schools. Government agencies, for the most part, cannot sponsor prayers. Legislative bodies and the military still do, but the American Civil Liberties Union has made them controversial and legally threatened.

Other countries are even further along in cutting out prayer. A court in England has recently ruled that town meetings can no longer open in prayer. And England has a state church!

But despite these appearances, prayer is not fading from the culture. According to a study by the Pew Forum in 2008, 75 percent of Americans pray at least once a week.

As one might expect, the numbers go up with members of churches (86 percent of Protestants, 79 percent of Catholics) and adherents of some of the non-Christian religions (82 percent of Muslims).

But over a third of the unchurched and those unaffiliated with any religion also pray (35 percent). Nearly one in five agnostics (18 percent) pray. So do one out of every ten (10 percent) atheists!

Prayer has not faded away in a culture in which people continue to pray even though they do not know or even believe in the deity to which they are praying. So, why do Americans pray so much?

We might suspect superstitious attempts to manipulate God, the prayer that ascends just before scratching off the lottery ticket. Then there is the no-atheists-in-foxholes syndrome, the fact that desperate problems can drive even non-believers to prayer. And yet there is more to Americans’ prayer lives than this.

A poll sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor back in 2002 found that the most common reason for prayer is seeking guidance (62 percent). Tied for second is gratitude (54 percent) and praising God (54 percent). Then comes asking forgiveness (47 percent). Next come seeking deeper understanding (46 percent), desiring healing (45 percent) and asking for something (43 percent).

Apparently, human beings have a deep need to communicate with their creator. This happens in some cases without reflection, like breathing. So, why is prayer becoming taboo in public? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

It would seem that religion is being drained from the external world to become something purely private and interior. This is evident, too, in the recent attempts of the federal government in the Hosanna-Tabor case and in the recent HHS mandate to restrict the constitutional protection of religion to private worship, excluding “secular” activities such as running schools and maintaining hospitals.

The prayer statistics bear this out. Though 75 percent of Americans pray every week, the number attending religious services that often is only 39 percent. Prayer is not supposed to be just individual, but also corporate. (In the prayer Jesus gave us, the pronouns are plural: “Our Father,” “Give us” and “Forgive us our trespasses.”)

Perhaps most telling is the decline of the traditional prayer before meals. According to the online Association of Religious Data Archives, citing data from 2008, only 19 percent of Americans say a prayer before all of their meals. For special occasions, 45 percent will say a table prayer, but over one in ten Americans (11 percent) never pray for their food at all.

If public spaces even the family dinner tablehave become prayer-free zones, interior and silent prayers continue. These prayers, of course, are addressed to many different kinds of deities. Some of the atheists who admit to praying insist that they are not addressing a “personal God” but a “world spirit” (as if such a beingsimilar to that worshiped in primitive nature religionswere any
less a god).

Because prayer is highly personal and intimate, it must be directed to the divine being in whom the pray-er has faith. Christians pray not to a vague generic deity but to the Triune God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–whose Word instructs them to pray in the name of Jesus.

Thus, Christiansand particularly Lutherans who have always made a point of thisoften have problems with public prayers that avoid the name of Jesus so as not to offend non-Christians. Civil religion, which seeks to give the secular state a sacred status by invoking a national god, is not the Christian faith, which brings salvation to people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).

The Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” does not, however, imply a secular arena totally emptied of God. After all, He reigns over both kingdoms. Christians are told specifically to pray for their nations and their leaders (1 Tim. 2:13). This can best be done by churches and by individuals, whether in private or public, who ask their God to bless their land, their rulers and their neighbors. Citizens who follow other religions can do the same in accord with their own beliefs. The religious pluralism of America today means the liberty of every American to pray in his or her own distinctive way. It does not mean everyone must become either a deist or a polytheist.

But if the contentions end up driving out public prayer altogether in secular venues, that does not mean that God has been driven out. The Catechism, which encourages us to pray for our culture and our government in the explanation of the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, reminds us that God provides for these things “without our prayer” and “even to all the wicked.”

But it also tells us that we pray “that He would lead us to acknowledge this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” That we can do, no matter what happens in the culture.

> “Eight out of 10 Americans (80%) say that their religious faith is at least somewhat important in their daily lives” (Rasmussen Reports).

> Sign up for “Let Us Pray,” an LCMS resource that delivers prayers straight to your inbox.

About the Author: Dr. Gene Edward Veith is the provost at Patrick Henry College and the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary.

May 2012

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