THE BLOG
15/07/2013 11:27 BST | Updated 14/09/2013 06:12 BST

Why Atheists Should Pray

Prayer can be viewed as a kind of vertical communication (e.g. with a God), verbal or contemplative, structured (e.g. reading a prepared prayer) or freely composed (e.g. talking to an imaginary other).

This is a difficult challenge - by the end of this blog - to convince at least some atheist readers that they might benefit by praying. Impossible? Maybe. But my blog this month is at least partly driven by my discomfort with Richard Dawkins - the Oxford don - and his somewhat fundamentalist zeal in depicting religious people as literal, and thus in need of his particular brand of reason and atheism. I concur with scholars like Peter Higgs (of Higgs boson theory fame) who are somewhat "embarrassed" by Dawkins, noting that "What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists." Dawkins assumes that people's religion and metaphysical understandings are a mind-numbing crutch, rather than something more subtle and complex. I argue that while religion has a lot to answer for, certainly some of the practices that have emerged from religion bear further reflection than currently afforded by Dawkins.

People are turning off Christianity in droves in the UK for reasons obvious enough, including lack of relevance to contemporary life. In the 2011 Census, the percentage of Christians had fallen from 72 per cent of England and Wales, to 59 per cent in just 10 years. Those reporting no religion had increased from 15 per cent to 25 per cent. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most of these drop-outs will not be queuing up to take on another prescriptive approach, even if it is from the esteemed atheist guru himself.

We need to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. While religion is the way our social institutions attempt to organise our spiritual beliefs, practices and communities, spirituality is very personal. We social scientists often think of spirituality as how people make meaning out of their lives, especially in terms of what they consider to be the sacred. While sociologists initially thought that Western economic and scientific progress would usher in a secular era, it hasn't really turned out that way. While people are turning away from Christianity (although Islam is becoming more widely practiced in the UK), they have not necessarily given up spiritual beliefs and practices. Witness for example, the way Western science has rushed to embrace (and secularise) mindfulness , which came from ancient Buddhist belief systems.

It does seem that some spiritual practices are associated with complexly positive outcomes that can't be easily explained away, and may become - or be - hardwired. Mediation, for example, which can be spiritual (or by now secular), has been linked to activation of a region of the brain linked to positive mood (and reductions in anxiety), as well as an improved immune response to the influenza vaccine. And hot off the press, we at the University of Westminster have just completed a study with mainly Buddhist-identifying male mediators where cognitive and electroencephalography (EEG) measurements were used across a battery of cognitive tasks and meditation in men, repeated one year apart. The results suggested that indeed attention skills improved with meditation practice, with some suggestion the men even increased their emotional intelligence.

Prayer can be viewed as a kind of vertical communication (e.g. with a God), verbal or contemplative, structured (e.g. reading a prepared prayer) or freely composed (e.g. talking to an imaginary other). We conducted research with people living with HIV in the UK to find out more about their spirituality, and specifically what is going on when they pray. In particular, we were interested in how prayer influenced coping with HIV. By collecting diverse stories and analysing them in detail using computer software, we were able to develop a model to understand the role of prayer in their lives. What emerged was fascinating. Quite apart from whether or not a higher power exists (which we can't study), there was something going on, that went a bit like this:

1. Prayer simulated counselling, by setting up a conversation with an 'imaginary other'

2. By setting up this conversation, prayer tended to interrupt negative rumination (where we tend to churn through our concerns over and over again, lowering mood at the same time)

3. Setting up this conversation takes concentration, and by interrupting rumination, it tends to promote mindfulness (paying attention in the present moment)

4. The simulated conversation meant that people felt they got things off their chest (rather than churning around in their minds)

Anyone who attempts "mindfulness" meditation becomes aware of the common human heritage of a restless mind, jumping from one unrelated thought to another, often rather boringly. Psychologists say this kind of thinking can trigger anxiety and low moods, even depression. The stories we heard suggested that prayer could help people to step out of this state when seemingly at the mercy of destructive thoughts. As one person said, "I think when you pray, usually you feel relieved that you've talked to someone." Or as another said, "when you've had a pray and you can calmly reflect you know... you feel [a] sort of calm." So, could prayer be considered a kind of cheap counselling?

The stories people told linked prayer to improvements in thinking, feelings, and bodily sensations. Common internal shifts reported included greater calmness, gaining insights and personal strength, as well as processing grief over time. As one person said, "I became strong. And I am still strong up to today... there are a lot of things that change you in prayers."

Organised Christian religions are rapidly doing themselves out of business. But Dawkins' quest is also likely to fail, in as much as it misunderstands the human condition, the complexity of spiritual beliefs, and the nuanced outcomes of practices with spiritual antecedents. A bit more humility on Dawkins' part could open up dialogue across the atheism-spirituality-religion spectrum. And one day atheists might pray.