Lately I’ve received a larger than usual number of questions about well-being in secular life and the secular aspects and health benefits of religious practices such as prayer, sabbath, religious study, and fasting. The most recent questions came through the website all the way from Montenegro! Below are some brief responses to these complex questions. I encourage you to explore these topics in more depth.
Other questions? Ask them on our Contact page.
Do non-religious people pray?
Some – not all – religious people pray, and there are some non-religious people who do something that might appear similar to praying. Some may even refer to it as “secular prayer”. Religious people pray to G/god(s) or other being(s) and believe they are connecting with a cognizant entity or force that/who hears them, and sometimes they believe that entity will respond or intervene in their lives or the lives of others on their behalf. But there is much more to prayer than the comfort that comes from a connection with the supernatural.
Research shows that building mindfulness “stops” and positive habits into daily life, like practicing intentional gratitude, meditative moments, presence, compassionate awareness, and other elements that can be present in prayer, increases happiness, focus, physical health, empathy, and other elements of well-being that set our intentions for a better life. Not superficial “McMindfulness”, but rather a genuine, meaningful practice. Some non-religious people do practice mindfulness, and sometimes they do so in a way that might even look or seem like “prayer”.
It is worth noting here that the word “prayer” can be seen as negative. It may be hard for some religious people, who think they are doing something that makes a difference by praying on/for others, to understand that non-religious people might receive this in a negative way. Prayer as it relates to G/god(s) can be perceived as an empty or lazy substitute for compassionate action. It may be even seem intrusive: using a difficult time in someone’s life as an opportunity to wedge faith in G/god(s) into a space where it is not wanted, meaningful, or helpful. In some cases it can be outright harmful. It matters whether the gesture is out of ignorance or hostile intention, but we can’t always know (although we can test it). For those marginalized it can be further isolating for the majority to continually reinforce their privilege. Although great in number, secular Americans face many challenges. Some secular people may be opposed to using the word “prayer” because of its associations with the supernatural and/or with religious privilege.
What is a “secular sabbath”?
There are those who practice a “secular sabbath” – a day of rest from work and stress to re-connect with peace, nature, family, or whatever is grounding and meaningful to us. Especially with the prevalence of technology, an intentional period of being unplugged is healthy, grounding, and uplifting. Secular Sabbath may be a full day of the week for some; for others it may be an hour a day watching sunrise, gardening, or simply resting. It slows down our pace and gives us space to just…BE.
Do non-religious people fast, like for Lent or Ramadan?
Some religious people fast in connection with their faith, believing that the practice of fasting brings them closer to G/god(s); however, there are also non-religious benefits of fasting. Some may even practice a prolonged secular sacrifice period similar to Lent or Ramadan. In fact, I do that myself for 42 days at the beginning of each year. Benefits include the reinforcement of inner fortitude – the strengthening of one’s will and self-control. The practice of delayed gratification helps us to focus on goals rather than on immediate returns. Reflection on what we need vs. what we want improves our ability to make decisions about how we live. There may be physical health benefits as well depending on your practice; however, extreme fasting can do damage to the body. If you practice fasting for any reason please make a sound, scientifically-based fasting plan.
Do some Atheists believe in God?
No. In a Pew Research Center report, “10 Facts About Atheists”, the researcher says that 8% of those who call themselves Atheists believe in God or a universal spirit. What they mean is that those individuals may not understand the meaning of the word: someone who does not believe in the existence of G/god(s) does not believe in God or a universal spirit. They also note, however, that although only 3% of Americans identify as Atheists, almost 10% of the population says they do not believe in God – they just don’t use “Atheist” which is the word meaning “someone who does not believe in God”, likely due to the stigma attached to the word Atheist. Note: 10% of Americans is almost twice as many as the number of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other minority religious identities COMBINED.
Further, many people are culturally or in practice aligned with a faith or faith community but don’t believe in the God or dogma of that community. Along a person’s faith journey they may realize they no longer believe in the G/god(s), but the culture, traditions, and people of the religion are so intertwined in their life that to disengage from it would be traumatic and they may fear damaging relationships with loved ones. So they remain within the faith. There are many Atheists in pews (and even in pulpits), wearing religious symbols, or participating in religious life. In surveys they will likely claim the religion as their identity; we have no way of knowing the true numbers of Atheists. We can surmise, however, that it is many more than reported. It is is much more realistic to conceive of a religious person who doesn’t believe in G/god(s) than an Atheist who does.
Do non-religious people read religious texts?
Yes. In fact, in a Pew Research survey of religious knowledge, Atheists and Agnostics scored highest, especially in world religions. Some secular people appreciate the artistic and historical value of religious texts and are very familiar with them. Further, some feel that we must be able to cite religious works such as the bible in order to understand and counter arguments for religion in a meaningful way. Others feel that it is irrelevant and even wasteful; we no more need to read or cite the bible than we need to read or cite the Illiad & the Oddesy to know or argue that the stories are real.
InterWorldview Inner Life
How our worldviews inform our actions may be different, but we are all human beings -made of star dust – who seek meaning, fulfillment, happiness, and connection. We strive to have impact beyond ourselves and to do so we seek to become the best person we can be. Mindfulness and reflection habits help us in that journey; however, they are practiced, perceived, and named differently depending on an individual’s faith or non-faith and worldview lexicon. Honoring each others’ journeys begins with seeing the common threads that connect us.
Here are some references and resources if you’d like to read further.
References & Resources
- BE.’s Secular Gratitude, http://seculargratitude.wordpress.com
- Greater Good Science Center, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/
- Secular Buddhist Association, Mindfulness: http://secularbuddhism.org/tag/mindfulness/
- Huff Post Article: Is Mindfulness a Religion?: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-rudell-beach-/is-mindfulness-a-religion_b_6136612.html
- Secular Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Efficacy and Neurobiology: https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.17020034
- What is a Humanist Alternative to Prayer? http://kidswithoutgod.com/teens/ask/what-is-a-humanist-alternative-to-prayer/
- Why we need to slow down our lives. https://ideas.ted.com/why-we-need-a-secular-sabbath
- Why we need a secular sabbath: http://www.dailygood.org/2017/04/30/why-we-need-a-secular-sabbath/