When the Godless Pray

By Wendy Thomas Russell | December 12, 2011 | 8 comments

A few days before Christmas last year, my mother’s appendix burst. The hospital was two hours away, and by the time she arrived there, she was in bad shape. She underwent an emergency appendectomy and a grueling week in recovery, which damn near killed her. A week later came the pneumonia.

It was a scary time for my family — very scary. Everyone knew it wasn’t her time to go, and yet this series of events seemed to be spinning her toward the end.

So what did I do? I prayed.

I remember getting the news in the middle of the night (just like Madeline!) that my mom was being rushed to the emergency room. Without judging or second-guessing myself, I clasped my hands together, bowed my head and, in a desperate whisper, repeated the mantra: “Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay…”

I prayed again a few days later. This time I was on an airplane, flying 1,500 miles to her bedside. This time, so as not to disrupt my seat mate, I repeated the mantra in my head: “Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay…”

A year later, my mom is alive and well. She spent the last couple weeks doing what she loves more than just about anything — decorating the house with a lifetime’s worth of holiday decorations. Some of the things belonged to her beloved father. Some of them she has had since she and my dad were married. Some of them were made by her children and grandchildren. And all of them are like old friends — familiar, loyal and full of memories. I was never so happy to see my mom’s Christmas decorations go up as I was this year, the year after we almost lost her.

I can only imagine that someone with faith in God might interpret my mom’s wellness as an answer to my prayers — my reward for calling on a higher power to help me through.

But the truth is, I wasn’t asking a higher power for help in those dark moments last year. I never am. No matter what’s going on in my life, I simply don’t believe there’s anything at work in the universe besides our marvelous selves. My brain won’t let me. It seems, for better or for worse, that I’m missing the Faith gene.

So why do I pray?

Because in those moments of extreme panic and concern, the one thing that makes me feel better is to focus my mind on what I want — what I need — to happen. It is an emotional reaction, having nothing to do with my thoughts and everything to do with my feelings.

To me, praying is an intense form of wishing brought about by a deep focus on my love for other human beings.

A couple of months ago, I threw a surprise birthday party for my husband. Our families flew out from Colorado and Missouri and stayed the weekend with us. So much effort went into the event — all these little details orchestrated months in advance. And when it was over, and our families had returned safely back to their own homes, I thought: “What a magical thing to have happened.” Everything went according to plan. The surprise went off without a hitch. All the flights were on time. No one got sick. The weather was perfect. The kids were great. Transportation was never an issue. And everyone had a wonderful time.

I’m not patting myself on the back here. I’m just marveling at how nothing went wrong. All those little details, and nothing went wrong. What are the chances?

There is magic in having things go right. There is magic when people recover from illness, when they give birth to healthy babies, when they get to their destinations on time. In all the things that go as we hoped or expected or orchestrated down to the last detail, there is magic.

And in those moments when I clasp my hands and bow my head and repeat my little mantras, maybe it’s my way of hoping for a bit of that magic. The magic that I know for a fact happens every single day. The magic of existence.


  1. What a lovely post. As a non-christian vaguely practicing theist, I also don’t pray in the traditional sense. In fact, what I do is very similar to what you described – thinking deeply and in a focused manner on what I want, or feel I NEED to have happen. I find it comforting to focus on the thought. God very rarely enters in to it in my world. When praying in a religious setting, I do consider God, but more in the sense that the beauty of so many voices sharing a single song of hope is uplifting and almost always forces me to step back.

  2. Heila says:

    I do it too. Although there is no rational or scientific proof, I like to believe that thinking about someone who is sick or in need in a positive, mindful way can be of some benefit to that person. It certainly won’t do any harm. Worst case scenario it just makes you feel a bit better.

    I’ve never understood how Christians reconcile the idea that God has a plan all mapped out for each of us, with praying for someone who is ill. So if God has decided the person will live, or die, he will do so without any intervention from our side and surely God won’t change his mind because someone prayed and asked him to? I also don’t get praying that someone passed an exam after the fact. By all means encourage the person before she writes the exam, and keep her in your thoughts during the exam, but afterwards it’s too late. Unless God intervenes and changes marks divinely because enough people put in enough hours of prayer.

  3. Leanna says:

    This is beautiful, Wendy. Glad your mom has fully recovered!

  4. Danny Ray says:

    As a deist, I too do not believe in interventional prayer. I’ve heard it said that the main cause of discontentment is when reality fails to conform to our expectations. For me, the rare prayer is to align myself with reality not vice-versa.

    As for the “magic of existence”, instead of magic, I tend to use the term miracle. Hope even my atheist friends find this beautiful song written by a Catholic turned Unitarian Universalist of interest. Whether we believe in God or in No-God, can we live reverently?
    Crank it up!

  5. Rich Wilson says:

    I have raised the eyebrows (and consternation) of a few fellow atheists by saying that I on rare occasion pray for others. The thing is, I know the person I’m praying for will appreciate it, and I tell them I will. And once having said I will, I’m not going to buck it off since “They’ll never know”. God might not know, but I will. So I do. Not a formal hands clasped “Dear God” kind of thing, but more like a Pagan “putting it out to the universe” kind of thing.

    I also chuckle when I see a devout atheist post something on facebook like “keep X in your thoughts” or “send good thoughts”. People have a lot of ways of saying “pray”.

    Something I’ve pondered is, “Does God listen to the prayers of atheists?” Just one of those ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’ kinds of things.

  6. Katie says:

    This has been one of my favorite entries so far. The pure simplicity of it is so powerful.

    Well said.

  7. Jenny says:

    “To me, praying is an intense form of wishing brought about by a deep focus on my love for other human beings.” Beautiful Wendy. I do this kind of thing too, and it always felt superstitious to me, like a betrayal to science, but you explain it so eloquently here that it makes perfect sense. We nonbelievers need something to appeal to during hard times. I’d be curious to know how many nonbelievers have their own versions of “praying.”

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

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