Being an atheist has some significant drawbacks in this culture, especially in times like now when a dear friend is suffering a life-threatening illness. Most people aren’t public about not believing in God, so I often feel alone, on the outside of a caring community of believers who offer great comfort to each other. Painful social stigmas are attached to nonbelievers in some circles and I’ve certainly experienced that. But when it feels worst are in times of peril or sorrow when my Christian or other religious friends deal with their helpless feelings by invoking the power of their god through prayer. I don’t have that option.
I don’t pray. I don’t believe that there is a Higher Power to pray to. And if there were, I don’t believe he/she/it would be persuaded by people asking him/her/it for favors. What, does someone get to recover their health and live because enough people prayed for them, or the right people, the anointed, prayed for them? I hear my religious friends urge everyone to pray for someone as if one more person would be the deciding vote. How could anyone believe in an omnipotent god who decides people’s fate like that? Sorry, I’m not trying to judge. I’m honestly not able to understand that. And, yeah, I’m upset. And scared.
Don’t get me wrong. I think prayer is a good thing, not because it causes a god to do something but because of what it does for the one praying. It focuses their heart on someone who needs support and that’s of real value. Most people believe their god works through ordinary people so prayer means friends are paying attention to the person in need and that is very powerful, regardless of whether you believe in a god that will do something miraculous or not. I honestly hope the believers in my friend’s circle of support will continue praying.
My spiritual life centers around gratitude and mindfulness. I’ve always wished there were a box at the end of the choices – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – that said Grateful. Gratitude for an atheist is admittedly ironic since there’s no belief in someone to be grateful to. I just am grateful, to my core, as a default place I always return, and that works for me. In this instance, I am grateful for this friend, for her care and love for me across more than a decade. The spiritual path I try to walk is mindfulness. I learn, time and again, that there is room in my heart for all emotions, including sorrow and fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. Negative emotions (“upset. And scared.”) do not have to be fought with and defeated or relieved in some way. They just are. They exist right alongside love and joy and hope. For me, to be human is to accept and live inside the full continuum of human feelings.
I still struggle with what to say when others are saying “I’ll be praying for you.” My daughter has taught me the Quaker phrase “holding you in the light” which I love. I often say “I’m holding you in my heart”, pretty much the same thing. I don’t believe in a Higher Power and certainly don’t have any influence with one if I’m wrong about that. All I’ve got to offer are my compassion and acts of support. All I have is my love.