Atheists Who Pray

Jesus in Pray
Jesus in Pray (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the many things that leads me to think that the mainstream news media in the U.S. is essentially broken is the manner in which various news organizations seem to recycle stories. It is as if they are determined to ring as much as possible out of each story because it is far easier to do so than something like investigative reporting, which tends to be resource intensive. For an example of what I'm talking about, consider the story about how polling data indicate that some atheists report that they pray.

From what I have been able to gather, the original source of the countless articles written about praying atheists is a report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released in October of 2012. The report was covered when it first appeared, and yet, we are seeing "new" articles about this report appearing in reputable media sources as recently as June of 2013 and being distributed as recently as last week. Notice how the article which appeared in the June 24, 2013 edition of The Washington Post refers to "New research on atheists by the Pew Research Center" and then links to the October 2012 report.

Praying Atheists

What makes this old story so damn newsworthy? I'll offer two guesses, one somewhat kinder than the other. First, the story may have some appeal because it appears - on the surface at least - to smooth over some of the differences between atheists and theists, making it look like we really aren't that different. This is the kinder of my guesses, and I do believe that some people read such stories from this mindset. I don't happen to be one of them, but that doesn't mean it isn't still part of the appeal to some. And perhaps smoothing over our differences isn't so bad after all.

The second guess, the one that is a bit less charitable, is that the appeal comes from the fact that articles like this make atheists look like hypocrites. This fits a particular narrative many religious people find appealing. Just take a look at the beginning of Boorstein's article. We encounter a man praying to some sort of god, actually referred to as "God" even though we will learn in a few sentences that he has been praying to a god he says he made up, with his head on the floor. Then we learn he's an atheist who "took up prayer out of desperation." See, atheists pray when they are desperate too! And this guy's prayer has worked - he's lost weight through prayer. Remember, all things are possible through prayer!

Boorstein seems desperate to convince us that atheists are just like the religious.

While Gold’s enthusiasm for spiritual texts and kneeling to a “God” may make him unusual among atheists, his hunger for a transcendent experience with forces he can’t always explain turns out to be more common.

She has a point. Some atheists really are just like the religious, and that is a shame. But this is hardly surprising. Why would we expect any different?

And then we get to hear about the "new research" from October 2012 showing that 26% of atheists say they are "spiritual or religious" and 12% say they pray. Boorstein then quotes Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry about "a big hole in atheist life." I really hope he didn't mean that the way it sounds.

The Myth of the Rational Atheist

What are we to make of all this about atheist "spirituality" and praying atheists? I think we can make sense out of it by reminding ourselves of a few facts:

  • Some traits (including intelligence, tolerance of ambiguity, and perhaps even spirituality) are normally distributed in the population, meaning that we will see considerable variation in the form of our familiar bell-shaped curve.
  • In a large enough sample drawn from the population of interest, one expects to find that the distribution of such traits will approximate their distribution in the population sampled.
  • There is nothing inherent in the definition of atheism that precludes spirituality or even prayer.

I believe we have more than enough evidence to dispel the myth that atheists are somehow more rational, more skeptical, or better at critical thinking than the religious. Of course there are atheists who consider themselves "spiritual" and/or who pray to various made-up entities. Why wouldn't there be? There are plenty of atheists who believe in ghosts, alien abductions, Bigfoot, psychic powers, homeopathy, and the like. The Pew findings should not surprise us one bit.

We atheists need to let go of the notion that we are smarter, more rational, more skeptical, or more capable of critical thinking than the religious. We are not. People arrive at atheism in many ways and for many reasons. Reason, skepticism, and critical thinking are not equally important to all atheists.