Quitting Religion, But Not the Practice of Prayer

This Easter, two newly-minted Christian leaders, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, will be leading millions in prayers that are traced back to the earliest days of the Church. But what, if anything, do such prayers mean to the growing worldwide and American contingents of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—whom both Francis and Welby were at pains to acknowledge as they assumed their new ministries?

As more and more people pull away from institutional religion, do public expressions of prayer have any real meaning in the wider world? Do they connect in any significant way to private, personal expressions of prayer? Does prayer matter at all?

A majority of Americans still answer ‘yes’ to those questions. Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, a plurality (17%) of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

But do the prayers of Nones have anything in common with the prayers of Pope Francis or Archbishop Welby and their flocks?

For the past two years, I have been exploring the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated—listening to how Nones describe their own approaches to meaning-making, self-realization, or self-transcendence. For many of the Nones across the country who have participated in focus groups, narrative surveys, or interviews, prayer is the only spiritual practice associated with traditional religion that continues to have meaning their lives.

In an online survey I conducted in the spring of 2012* on activities that Nones consider spiritually significant, prayer stood out as the lone traditional religious activity among a range of practices that many of the religiously unaffiliated engage in at least a monthly basis.

So, what are Nones up to when they pray?

As the survey data suggests, the activities that Nones consider most “spiritually significant” are deeply embedded in the rhythms of daily life. In many ways, this would come as no surprise to the shapers of the Protestant reformations, who envisioned a robust spirituality centered on family and home that was grounded in prayer. For Martin Luther, the family was precisely where Christian disciples should be formed and vocations developed, and guides for household prayer were as popular (and more affordable than) Bibles. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer was created by Thomas Cranmer to be as much a resource for personal and familial prayer as for corporate worship.

The irony of late-modern institutional Christianity, from which the majority of the self-declared unaffiliated emerge, is that this holistic, everyday spirituality among ordinary people hardly plays a role in popular notions of “religion.” Yet, prayer seems to be a lingering link between the personal and the common, the religious past and the spiritual present, that many Nones understand as having an enduring, if limited, significance. “Prayer” has a number of meanings for Nones, some of them recognizably religious, some of them, on the surface at least, not so much.

At the more religious end of the spectrum is a man I interviewed last summer in Illinois who had been raised in a conservative Methodist church and who described himself as “an admirer of Jesus, but not a blind fanatic anymore.” He told me he used daily prayer

to connect all the things in my life that are really important at any given time—my kids, my wife, maybe something in my work, or something going on in the world. That’s kind of the same way I guess I would have prayed in my church, but it’s different, too, because I’m not really asking God to work any special magic on my behalf. I’m assuming, I guess, that God—or whatever—is in the mix all the time. I guess when I pray, I’m acknowledging that, but also acknowledging that how it all works out is up to me within these relationships that matter—with my family, with my good friends. Praying puts that all out in front of me every day.

For others, “prayer” is primarily a convenient lexical category that overlaps with “meditation,” “contemplation,” “reflection,” and the like. Any spiritual meaning seems thin, submerged in an indistinct mix of reflective practices tied more plainly to personal well-being than to anything much beyond that.

“Do I pray? Sure, you could call it that,” a woman from San Diego who described herself as “almost an atheist” told me. She continued:

I sit quietly every so often during the week. I try to calm my thinking. Sometimes I’m hoping for something for myself or someone else, but I don’t have to be. I think that’s what most people mean by “prayer.” It’s not so much about “talking to God” or “saving your soul.” It’s just about settling down for a few minutes and thinking about what you really care about. It doesn’t have to be more than that.

“So why call it ‘prayer’ at all?” I asked her.

“Well, because people just do,” she began. “But, it is different than just sitting on a bench thinking, I guess. I mean, if you tell someone you’re ‘praying,’ I guess you are saying there’s maybe something else out there. You’re praying to, you’re praying for, even if, like me, you don’t exactly believe in that.”

“I have had experiences that I can only describe as ‘prayerful,’” reported a woman from Pennsylvania who expressed a belief in “the interconnectedness of all life energy” and who sometimes participated in a Pagan communities. Still, she insisted,

I’m not a theist. When I’ve had these experiences—a feeling of deep connection, or something more mysterious than that I can’t really describe—when I’m walking a labyrinth or hiking in the woods, I don’t think it’s a god reaching out to me. I think it just is what happens. I just accept that. And, I’m grateful. I want to share that gratitude, to add my gratitude to the experience so it becomes part of the bigger connection that someone else might experience. That is what makes it ‘prayer.’ It makes it more than just me, more than that I was thinking deeply while I was taking a walk or something like that.

Prayer, it seems, can function as a marker of religious and spiritual uncertainty and possibility even for those who see themselves as largely unconnected to the institutional traditions that have shaped its theological meanings and lived practice since ancient times. It has both a personal and a cultural capaciousness that allows it a contemporary significance that has been mostly drained from other typical measures of “religiosity”—attending worship, studying scripture, even believing in God.

For people put off by the religious and political rancor they see in organized religions, or who are repelled by financial and sexual scandals across religious groups, prayer is an experiential reminder that there might be “something else out there,” something “more than just me.”

Prayer may also be a lingering reminder to churches and other religious institutions of the many other ways religion has been and can be organized for meaningful common and personal practice—an Easter lesson, perhaps.



*Online survey conducted March 1-March 31, 2012. Of a total of 1166 respondents, 265 (22.8%) self identified as “None,” “Nothing in Particular,” “Agnostic,” “Atheist,” “Secular,” or “Secular Humanist.” Respondents were able to mark any activity shown in an inventory of eighteen practices as “having spiritual significance in your life,” and an open-ended “other” response was available. Respondents were also asked to indicate how often they engaged in these activities “as a conscious part of your spiritual life.” It is worth noting that the survey was conducted to test research questions, and to identify potential interview subjects. The high response rate was something of a surprise. Results should be considered suggestive rather than definitive.

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