In the 3/8/15 episode of The Good Wife (“The Mind’s Eye”), a heavily stylized episode that focuses mostly on the internal life of the protagonist, Alicia Florrick, Alicia goes to visit a nemesis who is in the hospital at death’s door. The dying man’s wife, Simone, asks Alicia to pray for him. Alicia, an avowed atheist, reluctantly agrees. You can see the full scene here.
This stirs up a crisis of conscience for Alicia (she even imagines Richard Dawkins calling her a hypocrite). Since she is an atheist, is it right for her to pray to a god she doesn’t believe in? Ultimately, she asks her daughter, the aptly named Grace, a much more faith-oriented individual, to pray for her. When Grace asks why, Alicia explains that it wouldn’t mean anything if she did it herself.
Grace rightly points out that from Alicia’s perspective, it shouldn’t mean anything if Grace does it either, and tells her mother it is perfectly acceptable for her to pray. Unmoved, Alicia presses the issue, and Grace agrees to be her proxy.
Who’s right here? I think it’s clearly Grace. In fact, Alicia seems to apply an ironic reverence to the concept of prayer. It’s almost as if she thinks God will be mad if He catches Alicia praying because He knows she doesn’t mean it. I mean, if she’s praying to no one, what’s the harm? It’s not like her dying nemesis will be sped closer to his reward because of a false prayer foul.
For Alicia, it comes down to this issue of hypocrisy. How can she proclaim to be an atheist and then entreat God for favors, even if they are for someone else? In her mind, by passing the duty on to her daughter, she is fulfilling the request more honestly, by putting it in the hands of someone who really believes in what she’s doing, despite the fact that this isn’t really what the requester asked for, and, from Alicia’s perspective, makes the prayer no more likely to be “successful.”
But I think Alicia is missing the point. I think it’s the gesture that the grieving wife was asking for, not any kind of result. For Alicia to agree and follow through with the request shows care and desire for connection; it’s not about any kind of magical power to bend God’s ear.
Why can’t Alicia see this? I think it has to do with how charged the issue of religion is, and how complicated atheism can be in a country that really does still cleave to many of the trappings of religion. After all, if Simone had asked Alicia to “think good thoughts,” I’m sure she would have happily agreed to the request with no reservations at all.
So why should atheists get squeamish about praying? Buddhists pray, and they don’t do it to curry favor with a Judeo-Christian concept of God. It’s more about speaking to the universe, and giving the universe an opportunity to listen, and being in that moment of attempting to communicate with something bigger than oneself (I imagine. I’m not a Buddhist. If I’m getting this wrong, I encourage my Buddhist readership to comment). If you want, like George Carlin, you can pray to Joe Pesci. As Carlin points out, your success rate will be no worse, and it might even be better.
Yes, a prayer that begins something like: “O Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for my sins and was reborn, please hear my prayer,” or the like, is probably not appropriate for an atheist. On the other hand, joining hands with a Christian family as they make such a prayer should really be no big deal. It makes them happy, and if you’re confident in your beliefs, it shouldn’t hurt you.
But besides that, prayer can serve purposes other than sucking up or asking favors to a Judeo-Christian god. Prayers put wishes, hopes, and dreams out there in the universe, and if nothing else, makes them real for you so you are in a better position to actualize them. Prayer can give comfort to others, even if you personally don’t feel anyone is listening. And in the end, even the atheists don’t really know who or what might or might not be listening.
Personally, the only time I really pray is when I need a heart on the river in a multi-way four-figure pot, and those prayers are usually answered about one time out of four. I’m not saying prayer is for everyone. But, even if you are an atheist, there certainly isn’t anything wrong with it.