Originally published as part of the Interfaith Ramadan series on ABC Religion & Ethics:
I’m a humanist. And like most humanists, I’m an atheist. So if you ask me “Is prayer a waste of time?” and you mean “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity” (Oxford Dictionary online definition) - and especially if I’m in a hurry - the answer would be “Yes. Obviously”.
But the question deserves more consideration. What do you actually mean by “prayer”? What do you get out of it? What’s the purpose? Is there anything here that non-believers could learn, or is it irredeemably time-wasting?
Christians sometimes classify prayer into Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS). It's easy for a humanist to dismiss all of them as a waste of time. In particular, there are two problems with Supplication - and its sibling, Intercession. Firstly, the most authoritative study on Intercessionary prayer for alleviation of ill health concludes “prayer is neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick”. It doesn’t work. Secondly, it seems not only futile but also ethically dubious to pray that I, rather than someone else, gets the parking space or wins the lottery, or that one army is victorious over another army when both think they have God on their side.
In Islam, of course, not only is prayer one of the Five Pillars, but the frequency, timing and details of how to do it are prescribed to a far greater degree than in other religions. This is clearly a powerful way to reinforce believers’ faith – a waste or not depending on your viewpoint - and to provide the comfort that, for some, comes with familiar ritual.
But beneath the surface, perhaps there are human needs being met here that are shared by both the religious and non-religious. Professor Alice Roberts recently received the British Humanist Association’s “Humanist of the Year Award” 2015. She grew up in a religious family and now says that a takeaway from her past is “the need for time and space to step back”, which she still tries to build into a busy life.
Some religious people also look for a sense of transcendence in prayer, the subjective feeling of connection with something greater, which they associate with God. But that sense is as open to the non-religious as much as the religious. The fact that I don't think it has anything to do with a supra-natural realm outside my own head, and believe something like it can be artificially stimulated in the laboratory, doesn’t make the experience any less life-enhancing. Music, art, nature and - yes - quiet contemplation can all take us in that direction.
A quiet few minutes set aside each day for thought and appreciation of life is surely a good and healthy thing - a mental muscle worth exercising, and a practice some humanists might usefully adopt. If it sometimes comes along with a sense of transcendence, that’s a bonus. Just don't call it prayer.
Jeremy Rodell – Dialogue Officer, British Humanist Association.
Jeremy previously wrote Why The Faithful Need Secularism for Interfaith Ramadan in 2014.