An Atheist Contemplation

Or: “A Secular Humanist Prayer”

Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2017.10.01, Updated: 2017.10.16

Perhaps due to my upbringing, I found myself liking the repetition and reinforcement of nightly prayers. Though many people might find it silly, I set about to write an invocation or prayer of my own.

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My time is limited; I should use it wisely.

May my actions better the world.

May I be kind to myself and others.

May I continue to learn.

May I daily improve.

Emotions are chemicals; they are not in control.

May I better determine when my efforts will be effective.

The only moment I have is now.

Contemplation Explanation

I call it a contemplation (definition) because I have yet to find a better word. Other similar words — prayer, invocation, mantra, litany — imply things I don’t believe. I couldn’t find a word that meant: “something an atheist might memorize to repeat occasionally that has the same effect that prayer has on a believer but isn’t actually intended for imaginary beings to hear”.

During the past few years, I have examined the idea of prayer. Clearly prayer has an effect on the person doing it, if nothing else. Prayer calms people, adjusts attitudes, focuses thoughts, and so on. It seems similar to the known effects of meditation or controlled breathing. There is little to no evidence of any of these actually curing or helping cure any adverse medical conditions, but it is nonetheless obvious that mindful meditation and similar practices have calming, peaceful effects on those who practice them.

I have racing thoughts that keep me from sleeping. During the day, I experience the same stresses and anxieties as anyone else, but without the benefit of prayer. (I have long practiced simple controlled breathing with some success). Observing others practicing repetitive, memorized prayers, I wondered if I could try it without believing.

I searched the internet for “atheist prayer” and similar phrases without much luck. I did find a few atheists trying the same thing, but none of the examples I found seemed right for me. So I decided to write my own.

My first idea was to take the Lord’s Prayer (the “our Father” if you’re Catholic) line by line, and transform it into an easily memorizable set of phrases that could be repeated in times of stress, restlessness, anxiety, etc. But I quickly realized that this particular prayer is worthless once you remove the God parts. It is entirely about praising God and asking him for stuff, so I quickly moved on to write my own from scratch.

What did I want to say? As with actual prayer, I knew it would be me talking (or thinking) to myself, so it should be composed of things I want to be reminded of, both about my thoughts and about my behavior. It should be simple, no more than 10 lines, with all the fat trimmed out. I wrote some lines in my journal as a practice run. Then I began to trim away unneeded phrases and explanations. Accustomed to writing lengthy pieces, I kept reminding myself: this must be short. Eventually, I cut it to what you see above.

For curiosity’s sake, here is the original journal entry:

What Each Line Means To Me

One of my major goals was to keep it short. The current version is briefer than my original draft, and briefer even than the version I originally posted here. Going brief — for purposes of easy memorization — is fine for me, because I know what I originally intended, but might not suffice for everyone else. Here, I will offer what I hope are useful insights on the contemplation above.

1. My Time Is Limited; I Should Use It Wisely

This is a direct refutation of the religious claim that we’re all immortal. The fact is, no one knows when they will die; it could be 15 minutes from now, in an accident, explosion, crime, terrorist attack, brain aneurysm, heart attack, or any number of other things. Or we could live another 50 years. We just don’t know. But we do know it will end. The longest lifespan ever experienced by a human is incredibly, incomprehensibly short relative to Time itself, or even relative to the 5,000-year lifespans of the Great Basin bristlecone pine trees of California. Thinking of this helps me avoid time-wasting activities.

2. May My Actions Better The World

By “the world”, I am referring mostly to human civilization, not necessarily the planet itself, which I can’t very well save or destroy. The line itself is meant as a reminder that each of my actions has intended and unintended effects, rippling through the future, some more predictable than others and some more immediate than others. As an inane example: driving irresponsibly not only puts lives at risk — a direct effect — but also raises stress levels in other drivers around me, affecting their moods in subtle ways that could have repercussions for still other people throughout the day. It also increases the rate of wear-and-tear on my automobile, which will eventually affect my budget and the environment. I try to think of every action throughout the day and determine how even the little things can make the world a better place.

3. May I Be Kind To Myself And Others

The reason I kept this one longer than simply “be kind” is as a reminder that it is not only important to be kind to others, but also to myself. In order to stay healthy, both mentally and physically, I must think of my own needs and be careful I don’t sacrifice too much for others (I have a tendency to do this).

For a fuller explanation of what “be kind” means to me, see My Code Of Conduct page.

4. May I Continue To Learn

This also comes from my Code Of Conduct page, where “be informed” is the second tenet of my personal code. Not only is an active mind associated with greater longevity and physical health, but almost nothing else matters if you don’t know stuff. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t go to college. I’m making up for it by reading tons of non-fiction.

5. May I Daily Improve

This line originally added “myself” at the end, which I eventually realized was unnecessary. I use “improve” in a general sense, applying to every facet of my life. I want to improve morally, healthwise, mentally, physically, and socially. This takes practice — what I like to call “training” (the third tenet of my Code Of Conduct). I establish better behaviors in myself through regular repetition of better actions, until they become habit.

6. Emotions Are Chemicals; They Are Not In Control

This line is a reminder to myself to not be controlled by moods. Though I was never taught it in school (it was “just a theory”) back then, I am now aware that happiness, sadness, love, anger, fear, etc., are all merely my brain’s reaction to chemical concoctions coursing through me. For many years, I allowed these emotions to dictate my actions. Now that I know what they are and what they do, I can actively work against them.

7. May I Better Determine When My Efforts Will Be Effective

This line is a nod to the famous Serenity Prayer, but simplified and without reference to imaginary beings. It is important that I recognize when making an effort will be wasteful activity and in those cases accept what I can’t change. It is just as important to recognize when making an effort might make a difference.

8. The Only Moment I Have Is Now.

This is my reminder to dwell not so much on the past — to which I am very prone — nor to worry about or pine for the future, because all time periods except now are out of reach. I can act now. I can speak now. I can read or write or exercise now. I cannot do any of those things next year, until it arrives and becomes now.

See Also:

What I Believe

My Code Of Conduct

Or, use the More menu to navigate.

This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version, click here. Known edits are listed below.


• 2017.10.02: Removed three extraneous words from the “emotions” line. Removed unnecessary first line of Explanation. Added links to definition of contemplation, “don’t believe”, “no evidence”, “racing thoughts”, “memorized prayers”, “the Lord’s Prayer”. Reworded second paragraph of explanation. Added “little to” and accompanying link. Added image file.

• 2017.10.05: Added screenshot of original journal entry.

• 2017.10.16: Updated wording of contemplation. Added tooltips to each of the links in the text — invisible to mobile phone users. Added section to explain greater meaning for each line.

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