Growing up in a town in east Tennessee locals called the buckle of the Bible Belt, it didn’t take this nonconformist long to become an angry, militant atheist. I hated that the kids I went to school with didn’t believe in evolution, and that some even thought fossils were a conspiracy theory. I was annoyed when the first question anyone ever asked was, “What church do you go to?” And it hurt, I have to admit, when a close friend admitted that she believed I was going to hell. In church school as a kid, I tried to pray to God, but I panicked when I never heard anything back. While people babbled on about bathing in God’s love, I felt nothing. The pews were cold and uncomfortable, the priests spoke poorly of women, and the choir had some terrible singers. If you’d asked thirteen-year-old me if she’d ever pray again, she’d glare at you and answer with a resounding, “Hell no.”
But, at twenty-four, I do pray. I’m still an atheist, but I’ve come to terms with religion in my own way. I’ve also found that there are certain types of prayer that even atheists will benefit from, regardless of a lack of belief in a god. Here are three:
1. Thank you.
When you don’t believe in God, you don’t have anyone to thank for the bright robin’s egg blue sky, the smell of freshly mown grass, the crisp carbonation of a great beer, or the warm embrace of another. Because of this, it’s really easy to forget to be thankful for the little things. Numerous psychological studies have shown that practicing gratitude allows you to notice and more thoroughly enjoy all the good parts of life and may even reduce stress.
One type of Buddhist meditation is lovingkindness meditation, which essentially translates to a prayer. Lovingkindness meditation involves the recitation of a prayer to people you know on varying levels, from someone you are very close to, to an acquaintance, to a stranger, to someone you struggle with, to the entire universe. Here’s an example of a prayer:
May you be happy and peaceful,
May you be healthy and strong,
May you be free from suffering,
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
Here’s the amazing thing: Lovingkindness meditation has been shown to increase activity in the brain’s insula and temporal parietal juncture, which are linked to detecting emotions and processing empathy.
Even more amazing? Brain scans of the French monk and lovingkindness meditation expert Matthieu Ricard showed immensely high gamma wave production linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory as well as excessive activity in his left prefrontal cortex compared to the right, showing a huge capacity for happiness and a reduced capacity for negativity.
3. Help me.
Plenty of people will tell you that they found God when they were going through a rough patch in life, like, the roughest patch. My mom always said to me, “You just haven’t been through something really difficult yet,” of my atheism, as if that would snap me into belief. Although I never did snap into belief in God, being able to look up at the sky and say, “Can you stop making my day go so badly? Can you give me a break?” has helped me. Studies have shown that praying in general can help ease stress, anxiety, and depression. So, the next time you’re struggling, let yourself say it: Help me.
No one said that being atheist meant that you had to give up the good parts of religion, and one part of religion that’s been proven to truly enrich people’s lives and minds is prayer. Why not give it a try?