In my first piece about atheism here, I wrote that religious believers should not have a monopoly on concepts like spirituality, awe, inner peace, and even prayer. Recently, I began to think about that statement a little more closely.
I was talking with a friend about belief. She said, "I believe in God. But I don't define God. I don't know how. I just pray to God, because it makes me feel better."
I thought about that. I am an atheist. I've called myself an atheist since I was 16 or so. When I was 15, I started leading a congregation in prayer. I am a lay clergy member. I still remember vividly the first time I stood behind the podium, in front of the congregation. Their faces blurred together. I opened my mouth to sing, shaking and terrified and feeling like a child who had somehow stumbled into an arena much too advanced for her, and I had no idea what would happen. I had no idea if my voice would be there. But it was. I began to sing, and as I sang, I felt the space change. I felt a connectedness that I'd never experienced before. There was something binding all of those people, with their blurry, upturned faces, to me, and something binding me to them, and something binding us all to something bigger. The something bigger, I felt, was both all living people and all of history. I didn't think to call it God. Despite the religious setting. Despite the spiritual connotations, I knew as strongly as someone knows that they feel God's presence that I did not feel God's presence.
And I never have.
But it becomes a little blurry sometimes. The line between belief and non-belief, I mean. The definitions on both sides can be so easily expanded to encompass everything. My mother likes to tell me, "You just don't define God broadly enough." According to her, I'm a believer, I just don't know it.
I tend to think that people are what they say they are. Otherwise, someone else always has to decide, and that other person doesn't ever have the full story. There is a long, complicated, possibly sordid, and definitely thrilling history that has led to my identity as a non-believer. I couldn't begin to explain it here, because it'd take too long. And it'd be beside the point. The point is that people tend to get stuck on the concept of God. And everyone has a different idea about what God means. And all of those ideas come with different rules. So that when our identities blur and blend and the colors bleed together slightly, everyone yells, "See! I told you so! You're not what you claim to be!"
For example, I sometimes catch myself praying. Maybe "prayer" is the wrong word. When my friend said, "I pray to God" to explain her personal belief system, and to clarify that she fell on the side of "belief," as opposed to "non-belief," I suddenly wondered what it meant to pray. I suddenly felt something a little like guilt. Because I knew that I'd done something that could definitely be defined as praying. And I knew exactly when it had happened. Not just once, but many times.
It was always during the Amidah, the climax of the Jewish liturgical service, when the congregation is standing together. We sway and bob, davening with the familiar gentle rocking motions. And on the bima, I face the ark and hold my siddur (prayer book) against my chest and think about my life. And I ask for something. The text of the Amidah petitions God. I must have learned the beseeching nature of the experience long before I understood any of the words. I don't remember anyone explaining it explicitly. But I always knew what to do at that point. Ask for something.
"Please...Allow me to better appreciate the joy in my life, and to better reject the sadness."
I never said "God." It was never, "God, would you...." It was just a request. From me, to -- I never knew, or cared to know. The world? Myself? Nothing at all? It never felt relevant.
Had I cheated, somehow, on my atheism? Had I slipped up and grown dependent on a relationship with a God I didn't even believe in?
I don't think so. I don't think that "cheating" exists in this context. It isn't a game. And the rules are arbitrary. I wasn't slipping up or cheating. I was thinking about my life in a context where self-reflection is formalized and encouraged in the shape of prayer. I was using a tool readily available to me.
Prayer is deeply powerful. It comes in too many forms to count. It sports a breathtakingly enormous fan base. People who practice it like an art, people who take it incredibly seriously, people who use it for healing, people who do it casually, people who make a living studying it by hooking up Buddhist monks to EEG sensors. And, apparently, me -- a person caught constantly between her culturally religious identity and her non-belief.
I know a lot of people will want to tell me that I simply don't understand. That if I pray, I'm doing something religious, and am therefore a believer. They will want to tell me that I'm writing out of a place of profound confusion. Well, maybe I am. Maybe I'm confused about the need for painfully simplistic definitions. And the need to give absolutely everything a name and a designation. Maybe we need new words for different types of the thing we call prayer. But more than that, maybe we need to let atheists pray once in a while. Without God. As radical and paradoxical as that might sound. As fundamentally incorrect as that might sound. Maybe we need to just let atheists pray.