As the events of the horrible attack on Westminster unfolded, the journalist and activist Laurie Penny sent a tweet that read, 'thoughts and atheist prayers with everyone in Westminster right now. What a horrifying situation.' And with that, the twittersphere erupted. Atheist prayers?! Atheists and prayers united in a vicious chorus of righteous indignation at Penny's turn of phrase. Vitriol was liberally poured, acidic comments hurled in her direction.
Twitter is the first, often unrehearsed, draft of what we are trying to get at. Immediate and curt, that it springs from the unconscious is why it can be both wonderful and maddening. I felt great sympathy for Penny, but more than that: in her irrational, fumbling attempt to reach for the right words to express the right things, I think she hit on something rather profound.
When something awful happens, what is the correct phrase to use when you don't believe in God? It wouldn't have been right to say that she was praying, but in the face of such horror, 'thoughts' alone seem so horribly inadequate. When people are in mortal danger, what possible good can it do if I am thinking of them?
As someone who used to pray a great deal, but now has no belief in God, I absolutely understand what 'atheist prayer' is trying to reach for. It is essentially about hope. Refusing any claim that there is a transcendent force that could - or should - intervene, there remains a very human part of us that longs for some force outside of our limited material selves to act. It hopes for a miracle: the miracle of action-at-a-distance, of someone stepping into a situation to help when we have no power to do so ourselves.
In so many of the prayer meetings I sat through there were a lot more of these 'atheist miracles' than many were prepared to admit. To exaggerate only a little, there was much beseeching the Lord to fix a sink when we knew there was a plumber in the room. To have asked for help outright might have been awkward; to ask 'God' and then have the plumber feel good about being an answer to prayer created a rather delicious kind of gift-cycle... but woe-betide anyone who questioned God's primary place in all of this.
My hunch is that Penny's hastily tweeted 'atheist prayer' perhaps betrayed more honesty than many of the atheists or the prayers would be willing to offer themselves. Prayer is really no more than focused hope; the real question is, on what does that hope focus?
For the true believers, to hope that God will step in is too often an abdication of any responsibility for action. We pray for the hungry, but refuse to offer them bread from our own loaded plates. When hope is located in the heavens, the earth is left to perish.
Seen this way, the atheist's prayer is perhaps the only genuine prayer we have: it is sustained by hope, but a hope that understands that it is only human agency that can effect change in the world. In this sense, in the Westminster attacks all our prayers were answered: horrific though the injury and loss of life has been, what could have been a far more terrible situation was brought to a halt relatively quickly by some very brave individuals. Having been incapacitated, the attacker was then tended by NHS medics who tried to save his life. Emergency services showed great courage entering a theatre of conflict where no one could be sure if the last act had been played out.
We don't have God to thank for that, but nor do most of us have our own actions to thank for it either. We put our hope in others. This was our prayer, and in praying it we commit to this creed: one day we might have to gather our courage, put our own lives on the line, and be the answer where others cannot.
So yes, last Wednesday an atheist activist prayed. I, for one, am good with that.