What is Praying?

Sending love and prayers. Saying my prayers. Pray, tell. Praying for sun. I'll pray for you. Praying, in one form or another, is a common part of our society. It has many meanings, though the connotation is often religious. But what does praying really mean? Can atheists find any benefit in praying?

Supplication and hope

In its most common form, praying refers to a communion with a deity or higher power. Prayer might be used to express gratitude as well, but giving thanks to god seems to fall more under the term "praising" than "praying." Praying more often seems to imply asking for something. Praying for someone to get well... for yourself to do well... for your favorite team to win... for the light not to turn red...

Praying can also mean strongly hoping for something. Are religious people actually asking their god to make their favorite team win a game or to not be caught speeding? Or do those requests fall under the category of strongly hoping for something? I suppose it depends on the person praying, although, religions often have prayer guidelines, which may include being humble and unselfish.

For me, strongly hoping for something does come with a sense of "please let ____ happen." I don't think there is a deity or universal force that is listening or deciding the fates, but wishing still comes in that form. It may be a habit of my religious upbringing or just a common societal view.

Yet, I'm not sure that's the best approach. Instead of asking for things to go well, I find it much more encouraging to know that things can go well and to actively look for ways I can shift the odds in my favor.

If a loved one faced a surgery, I'd likely be thinking "please let it go well." Yet, I'd also read up on the surgery, offer to help during recovery and check in to keep his or her spirits up. If I was planning an outdoor event, along with "praying for good weather" I might check local forecasts when setting the date and have a contingency plan for rain.

Contemplation and meditation

Prayer can also take the form of seeking guidance, gathering strength or quietly contemplating an idea or situation. In some religions, this form of prayer is opening yourself to help from a higher power. In others, it is opening yourself to power (strength, compassion, empathy, etc.) from within.

Ruminating, or deeply thinking, can be useful whether you are religious or not. Praying in this way is similar to meditation--particularly when the practice is wordless or with a repeated chant (or formal prayer). And meditation is a healthy practice that is open to everyone, atheists included.

There are many health benefits that come with regular meditation. There may also be medical benefits of prayer, which have been attributed to meditation, a healthier lifestyle* or community support.

*Though, the idea that religion promotes a healthier lifestyle is debatable.

Connection and support

The benefits of prayer largely come down to connection. It's a matter of connecting to yourself and connecting to a supportive network. Religious people include a deity or higher power as part of these connections.

Many atheists have deeply contemplated their beliefs and experienced profound self-discovery along the way. Whether they let go of a childhood religion or grew up without one, they know that supernatural belief is not required for personal connection, empathy and compassion for others.

Yet, connecting to others can still be a challenge. Atheists not only lack the community of an organized religion, they are often ostracized by society or even disowned by their friends and families.

So, what does prayer mean for atheists? It doesn't make sense to pray to a deity you don't believe exists. However, hope is important for keeping a positive outlook and regular meditation may offer a range of psychological and physical benefits.

While secular living may not including "saying prayers" it typically does include hope, contemplation and connection. Perhaps, for atheists, the key to "prayer" is simply looking within, both to ourselves and our communities, instead of asking for help from above.

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