Sometimes I tell people I will keep their friends or loved ones in my prayers, even though I'm an atheist. I don't say it to be polite, nor do I say it because I can't think of anything better to say that might comfort them. I say it because I mean it, even if what I mean by "prayers" is probably different from what they mean.
Believers think of a prayer as an invocation or an action to build a rapport with a divine entity that will intercede on our miserable behalf if we bother him enough. That's not what a prayer is to me. While I don't believe in God, I do believe in beliefs. In fact, in some ways, our beliefs are even more real than the material world around us. That material world is shaped, after all, by our immaterial beliefs and ideas. Hence it is with the phantom limb of thought that we paint the world, and give our dreams an existence all their own.
That being the case, I believe that thoughts are real. They are certainly more real than God, unless by "God" you mean God as an idea, which I admit is quite real indeed. I also believe that there is far more going on with our existence, our reality, and our universe, than I am even infinitesimally aware of. Yet I do not say I pray because I invoke a being and ask that being to intercede for me. Rather, I merely encounter someone in my thoughts the way you may encounter someone in the park. In both situations, the proper thing to do is extend some common courtesies, and upon departing their company wish them well. An that is what I mean by prayer.
Freud said that, whenever our minds are not burdened with the troubles of life, the default operating mode of our thoughts is to think about relationships and the people we know. This is part of why we enjoy gossiping, for example, because it is the mode of thinking that everyone is well familiar with and we all know it.
The thoughts are real in that I possess them, at that moment at least, in the same way I could possess a tennis ball in my hands. And in the same way that I can only hold a certain number of tennis balls in my hand, so I can only hold my focus on so many ideas in my head at one time. In this sense, my thought is not only something that my mind is possessing, it is likewise something that is possessing my mind as well. Eventually the thought will fly away, much like a moth would do, or I will put it down, as I might a tennis ball. Yet when it does, or when I do, I prefer that it do so in a better state than when I found it, or it found me.
I do not really think of an idea as a moth, mind you, the way I believe Richard Dawkins does, although he may be right. Instead, I think an idea is simply a thought we spot walking along one of the many synaptic boulevards that crisscross and connect our consciousness to our subconsciousness. And if there is no God, than the person who believes there is one, by praying for someone they love, is merely engaging in the same process that I am when I happen to think of the same person. The difference is that my thoughts are not trying to reach outside my own skull, to communicate with some intelligence beyond myself, but theirs are.
Either way, we are both talking to ourselves, in a sense, only I recognize that my inner dialogue is only a monologue, while they think their inner monologue is really a dialogue. Nevertheless, for both of us, our thoughts are alive, active, and real, even if they may not be that way to anyone else. Yet because I know I do not know what my thoughts are, where they come from, or where and if they go, the fact that I had a thought of someone and hoped for them to get better, is to me the same as the believer who prays for a God for someone in the same hopes.
I do not think my thoughts will help that person but by the same token they will not hurt them either.On the other hand, my thoughts are real to me, and can therefore do me harm. So I treat my thoughts of others as I would wish the thought of me to be treated by others. To respect someone in deed and thought, then, is what I mean by prayer. In this sense, I think the believer and the atheist both pray in exactly the same way, and perhaps even to the same God.
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