I had a friend who was diagnosed with brain cancer and given very little time to live. She was a confirmed atheist who had no hope of heaven or fear of hell. I was impressed with her courage and calm in the face of death.
I told her that I would have a prayer for the sick said for her at synagogue, but I hastened to explain to her to her that I had no more faith in the efficacy of the prayer than she did. I told her that for me, having the prayer said for her was simply a way of keeping her in mind and expressing my solidarity with her. She thanked me.
There is no hard evidence at all that prayer has any healing power. The largest study done on this question, the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) on cardiac bypass patients, concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from cardiac by-pass surgery. The study did show that some of those who knew they were being prayed for actually got slightly worse, possibly because they assumed their condition must be really terrible if they were being prayed for.
There are those who believe that prayer sends out some sort of mysterious healing energy, but that seems as nonsensical to me as believing in a God who can be persuaded by prayer to reverse the course of cancer. Still, remembering my friend in the prayer for the sick seemed meaningful to me on some level.
In Hebrew the verb “to pray” is a reflexive verb with a root that means “to judge,” so one might take prayer to be a practice of introspection. Liturgical prayer is a bit like poetry; much of it, of course, is poetry. The repetition that liturgical prayer involves can be mantra-like and produce a kind of meditative state. In any case, it is perfectly possible to pray without believing that prayer in any way alters the course of nature or gets us out of little jams or gets anyone a reprieve from a death sentence.
Then there’s negative theology. Negative theology holds that we cannot say anything positive about God; we can say only what God isn’t. So if someone asks, “Do you believe in God?” we must answer with another question: “What do you mean by God?” If that question can be answered,” then the answer to the first question must be “No.” So, if I embrace negative theology, vis-à-vis any explicit concept of God, I am as much an atheist as my friend who was dying.
Richard Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists make some very valid criticisms of religion. But in attacking and denigrating literalists and fundamentalists, they are mostly going after low-hanging fruit. Not all who adhere to an organized religion give intellectual assent to assertions for which there is no evidence. The motives for religious practice are varied and include the need for ritual and community. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, religious people don’t need solemn sermons from atheists about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literally true, or that religion has been guilty of crimes. For many, religious affiliations “are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.”
These days one often hears the statement, “I’m not at all religious, but I am spiritual.” For me it’s the opposite: I’m not at all spiritual, but I am religious.