A Secular Humanist ‘Prayer’

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Published on: 2017.10.01

Just Nod If You Can Hear Me
A self-portrait.
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry.)

Clearly prayer has an effect on the person doing it, even if there is no effect beyond that person’s body. Prayer calms people, adjusts attitudes, focuses thoughts, and so on. It seems similar to the known effects of meditation or controlled breathing. There is 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 was thinking about this while observing a Catholic repeat memorized lines. The weird thought entered my head that an atheist could be well served by a sort of “prayer” too. Many atheists use some form of meditation, but I wondered about using actual words — especially for those of us whose brains were bent by religion as children.

My first instinct was to take an existing prayer like “The Lord’s Prayer” (the “Our Father”) and replace lines with secular meanings. But as I went through it line by line, I realized it was all superstitious gobbledygook and couldn’t be converted. At least not easily.

So I decided to write my own.

I didn’t want to use the word “prayer”, because even though it originally meant “ask” or “beseech”, today it connotes God. And I didn’t want to use the word meditation or litany or any number of other words — because they all imply things that I don’t believe. I eventually settled on “contemplation”, because that’s all this is.

What did I want it to say? Just like prayer, this contemplation would consist of me talking to myself (or thinking to myself), so I wanted it to remind me of things I want to be reminded of, and focus my mind on things I want to stay focused on. I worked it over several times, trimming out the fat, and came up with this:

AN ATHEIST CONTEMPLATION

I have but one life on Earth; my time should be used wisely.

May my actions better the world.

May I be kind to myself and others.

May I continue to learn.

May I daily improve myself.

Emotions are chemicals; they are not in control.

May I correctly determine when my efforts will be effective.

The only moment I have is now.

I’m curious as to what others think of this (not that I will change my mind; this was meant for my own private encouragement).


NOTE: This contemplation is now a new page in the atheist section of my website. There is also a shareable image.

8 Comments
  1. Dana says:

    I left a flippant reply on flickr, but I’ll endeavor to answer more seriously here. As an atheist (and one who was not raised with a religious background) I have never felt a need for a prayer, litany, mantra, or what have you. I was always taught (by my parents) that one acts good and does good deeds because it’s the right thing to do. There wasn’t any question about “why;” it was (and is) just what’s done.

    I have in my adult years taken up a meditation practice (not because I felt I needed a spiritual practice but rather a means to reduce stress). I do not recite mantras or prayers (although, my meditation teacher is Buddhist and the practice I loosely follow is based on Buddhism). It felt false to me as an atheist to adopt religious trappings for my meditation practice.

    I do like the idea of “setting an intention,” which my yoga/meditation teacher instructs at the end of our opening meditation before we begin asana (movement). My intention is often a single word, such as “breathe,” or “compassion.”

    I like best your very first line of your “contemplation.” As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I’ve always found the idea that “this is it” to be the strongest motivator for my actions. I hope your contemplation serves you well.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thank you for the insight.

      I suppose atheism will always be different for me than for lifelong atheists. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’m “just a guy”. I’ll always be “a guy who was indoctrinated into pentecostal, evangelical Christianity and later worked his way out of it.” It’s always with me. When I catch myself humming a tune, it’s never Depeche Mode or Beyonce; it’s always a hymn learned in childhood. (Just as an example.) Always.

      Since you mentioned moral acts, I should clarify that this isn’t about that. It’s much more about the other thing you mentioned: “reduc[ing] stress”. It’s for my racing thoughts, my social anxiety, and so on. It was an afterthought to include exhortation to good deeds in the text, on the theory that such thoughts would thereby work themselves deeper into my brain. :-)

      • Dana says:

        Ah, I see (regarding your clarification of the “why” behind the contemplation). I’d love to have a deeper conversation about this, but for me this is better as a conversation had in person – I find it hard to have a meaningful back and forth about issues that are peculiarly particular to each individual in writing.

        There are lots of secular tools you can use to help ground you physical and emotionally and to quiet the mind. Spiritual practices can be grounding and provide a sense of security – it can be hard as someone who doesn’t believe in an other (or an afterlife) to find a sense of internal peace. But ritual can be comforting and doesn’t have to involve spirituality.

        I did go through a phase when I was in my early twenties when I tried out bits and pieces of Judaism (I’m of Jewish descent, but was not raised in the Jewish faith). It was an attempt to find a community and ritual that spoke to me. It was an experiment that didn’t last very long, as I find the spiritual overtones to be personally dissonant. Ultimately, trying to fit into the Jewish religion and ritual without accepting the spiritual nature caused me more anxiety than going without.

        When a work friend, who tended towards the new-agey, hippy-dippy end of the spectrum (and was a lapsed Catholic) suggested I try yoga for relaxation and grounding; I was very skeptical. I had tried various yoga classes on and off in years prior and while I didn’t mind the physical movement I never liked the “dharma” talks and the prayers that are essential to many yoga practices. I wasn’t comfortable appropriating Hinduism (most prayers chanted in modern American yoga classes are Hindu prayers).

        But I found a yoga studio and two teachers whose teaching style and personal beliefs were very closely inline with my own. I’ve come to associate the brief meditations at the beginning and end of class with a sense of stillness and peace. I can have a terrible day at work (or just in the world) and (as we yogis like to say) I can “step onto my mat” and almost instantly the troubles all fall away (at least for the time I’m in the studio).

        I really enjoyed the grounding I got from a regular asana practice (setting small intentions to hold in my mind throughout class) that I began to explore meditation as a practice on it’s own (without yoga asana). There are many ways to develop a practice, but I choose workshops and classes. It’s most helpful to me to practice within a community. (My meditation at home on my own most closely resembles napping on the sofa.)

        A concept we’ve been recently discussing in my meditation group and yoga classes is having the self-awareness to respond to situations rather than just react to them out of habitual patterns. Several of the lines of your personal contemplation touch on this (‘May I daily improve myself;’
        ‘Emotions are chemicals; they are not in control;’ ‘May I correctly determine when my efforts will be effective’). For the most part, we’re all grasping for the same goal; just taking different pathways to get there.

        (I’ve totally violated my first rule of personal meditation and yoga practice – “what happens at yoga, stays at yoga.” No one likes a proselytizing yogi. It’s just as bad as preaching religion at the non-believers.)

        • Wil C. Fry says:

          To go in reverse order:

          * “No one likes a proselytizing yogi. It’s just as bad as preaching religion at the non-believers.”

          I don’t mind. Even with someone’s religious views, I don’t mind them being explained to me — especially in the context of a conversation about religious views. It’s not like you brought it up out of nowhere. :-) It’s different than knocking on my door and trying to save my soul. :-)

          * “…having the self-awareness to respond to situations rather than just react to them out of habitual patterns.”

          Very important indeed. “Training” is the word that comes to mind for me. You’ll notice the difference in responses in an emergency situation between trained first responders and untrained laypersons, or between military personnel and civilians. I think the same applies to daily life situations; everyone reacts habitually, but those whose habits were formed by proper training react in better ways (generally speaking, of course).

          Is it possible for me to retrain my mind by simply repeating phrases? Possibly not. I figure it’s not hurting anything. :-)

          * “I’m of Jewish descent, but was not raised in the Jewish faith.”

          What I don’t know about Jewish people would fill *all* the books. As you likely know, where I’ve lived, one is not likely to meet Jewish people on the regular. (I know of only one family, and that was in the 1980s in San Antonio, and they were evangelical Christians at the time.)

          But I have read that many people who consider themselves Jewish are in reality atheists (for example).

          I agree with your assessment: “Ultimately, trying to fit into the Jewish religion and ritual without accepting the spiritual nature caused me more anxiety than going without…” I’m sure it would be the same for me if I tried going back to church — even a Unitarian group where atheists are typically welcome.

          * “…an attempt to find a community…”

          Perhaps I am fortunate that I typically prefer solitude, when given a choice. However, I still do occasionally desire “community” — brotherhood, if you will. But I am not holding out much hope of finding it in this region, and instead look to these online conversations to fulfill that part of me. :-)

          • Dana says:

            * “…an attempt to find a community…”
            Perhaps I am fortunate that I typically prefer solitude, when given a choice. However, I still do occasionally desire “community” — brotherhood, if you will. But I am not holding out much hope of finding it in this region, and instead look to these online conversations to fulfill that part of me. :-)

            Ah, but this is a community. Communities don’t have to be a literal physical entity. ;-)

            (At the risk of getting to far off-topic and hi-jacking your blog entry…) Also, as I’ve aged and outgrown many of my insecurities, I have accepted that I’m just fine on my own, for the most part. A lot of my earlier “community” seeking behavior was a reaction (not a response) to societal pressure. I was taught (and believed at that time) that well adjusted humans were social creatures and members of communities and tribes.

            Yoga and meditation are good fits as “communities” for me because even when done in a group setting, it’s still an individual activity. There may be 26 other people in the yoga studio with me but I’m the only one on my mat and my breath and movement are my own. Similarly, when I meditate, I’m the only one sitting on my cushion and I’m the only one in my head. (I’ve always wondered if meditation, at least the type I practice, is more difficult for very extroverted people.)

            As for whether a daily contemplation can change your habitual reactions, practitioners of meditative practices would say yes. There is probably even science to back that up. Consider the accepted practice of visualizing an athletic win or acing a job interview. If nothing else, repeating your contemplation will help you be mindful of your goals and perhaps allow you to be present in the moment.

            Your contemplation is very reminiscent of Buddhism – namely the four virtues/immeasurables: compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity; and to a lessor extent the idea that to live means to suffer.

          • Wil C. Fry says:

            Good points, all. I have little to add, except…

            I think my own “community-seeking” was one part what you said and one part a reaction to the actual community around me — not just in Killeen, but online. So MUCH of it is religion-driven and mindless flag-waving that I seek out like-minded folk, especially online.

            It sometimes gets to the point that I feel like I’m the only sane person trapped in a crazy house (I think that’s official terminology, LOL). God messages on patrol cars, pictures of Jesus on billboards, Bible verses on official government web pages, church shrubbery carved into letters that can be seen from space… (“CHOP” is an acronym for Christian House Of Prayer, one of several megachurches in our city).

            So yeah, I look to you, Richard, and others online for a bit of sanity. :-)

  2. Dana says:

    (I’m sorry, I didn’t intend to leave a novel. I didn’t realize it was that long until it posted.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Ha. If there are limits to the length of WordPress comments, I don’t know what the limits are. It’s fine by me. :-)

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