How to Pray for Divine Guidance Without Religion

An atheist finds wisdom in prayer, even if it is a practice often undergirded by indefensible beliefs.

Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion has brought the subject of skeptical spirituality to wide attention. It’s a thought-provoking book — or, if you’re a spirituality-hating atheist or an atheism-hating spiritualist, maybe just a provoking book. My own objection is that the book is too timid in its aim of bringing skepticism and spirituality into meaningful dialogue.

I’ve written a critique of Harris’s arguments and a description of what I think a real guide to spirituality without religion should include. Here I want to give a concrete and rather extreme example of how the antipodes of skepticism and spirituality can be brought together in creative interaction.

The key here is divine guidance — the spiritual practice of praying for guidance, or of interpreting experiences and events as messages worth considering in making decisions or thinking about important life issues.

Sam Harris, like most atheists, wouldn’t touch this kind of practice with a 10-foot pole, believing it to be founded in a gullibility and irrationality that makes its practitioners susceptible to deception and exploitation.

While I fully agree with other skeptics that any divinity or force imagined as the source of divine guidance is a figment of imagination and that acceptance of any message as divinely sent makes one susceptible to delusion, wishful thinking, and exploitation, I still recognize that there can be a wisdom in the discerning use of such practices.

A significant body of research (see chapter 2 of Stanislas Dehaene’s Consciousness and the Brain) explores the division of labor between conscious and unconscious elements in the process of cognition. In some cognitive operations, unconscious analysis works better than conscious analysis and can actually be hindered by conscious deliberation.

The conscious mind competently focuses on only a couple of factors at a time and is easily overwhelmed. The unconscious mind, like the neural network it is, can keep an inarticulate but effectively accurate count of many variables at once.

Conscious deliberation, of course, is indispensable as unconscious “gut” instincts can often lead us to awful decisions. Much of the time conscious deliberation consists of no more than post-hoc rationalizations of decisions made unconsciously (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind).

The conscious mind can go wrong by failing to critically appraise its unconscious influences, but it can also go wrong by neglecting or overriding the wisdom of its unconscious influences.

Directly consulting unconscious cognition in the process of conscious thinking is, of course, impossible. We can bring memories and other mental artifacts into consciousness, but unconscious artifacts and processes are, by definition, not directly accessible.

Free writing and automatic drawing are techniques that inhibit conscious interference and maximize the unconscious element in creative production. Meditation and other self-awareness techniques can open conscious thinking to influences and feelings it might otherwise ignore. Praying for guidance is a similar technique, with its own features, advantages, and drawbacks.

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I personally had a good deal of experience with practices like free writing and meditation, so when my sponsor in a 12-step recovery program recommended prayer, I was able to see it in that light, and be pleasantly surprised by its comparative effectiveness.

Even after years of meditation, psychotherapy, and free writing, my approach to vexing problems was all too often to exert my formidable intelligence on the relevant factors, scrunch my brow, and arrive at a decision. Half a minute later, some factors that hadn’t seemed important in my first analysis would suddenly demand center stage and force me to reverse my decision. I’d bounce back and forth, maybe make a pros and cons list, consult my wife whose judgments tend to appear inescapably authoritative, mention it to someone at work who might send me in some new direction with a few words of incisive advice.

But when I remember to pray for guidance, the process can be considerably calmer. It’s not like the voice of God booms out of the clouds with an answer. If it did, that would just be one more obnoxious voice to add to the chorus of conflicting opinions. However, praying does remind me to check in with my subtler feelings, to notice any twinges of conscience that might be pulling me one way or another, to notice my anxiety and to remember that decisions made from anxiety are rarely wise.

Sometimes, I even remember to do the weird surrender thing some believers do. I admit I don’t know what to do and mentally hand it over to my imagined higher power. This lets me breathe a sigh of relief, as if I had settled the problem even though I hadn’t. If it works — which it doesn’t always — I go on with my day having faith that all will be well. Then later, usually, I make a decision without a lot of drama, maybe with a tinge of sadness for letting go of the unchosen options, but feeling that my choice aligns with my values and a broader sense of what’s best in the current circumstances.

Prayer, if nothing else, is a way of 1) elevating my deeper aspirations in the decision-making process and 2) postponing decisions until calmer minds can prevail.

In no way do I mean to suggest by any of this that decisions made through prayer are guaranteed to be wise or that people who pray make better decisions than people who don’t. The point, rather, is that the practice of praying for guidance is not, even from a skeptical perspective, necessarily stupid. People do it not just because they’re gullible, deluded, or irrational, but because it can serve a beneficial purpose.

If you’re a skeptic interested in developing some spiritual practices, praying for guidance should be considered an advanced technique, not worth trying if it provokes too much cognitive dissonance, but still a potentially valuable technique in the repertoire of the spiritual practitioner.

And, as a skeptic, if you have an appreciation for the reasons other people pray, you’ll possess a critical element of the open-mindedness essential to an effective spiritual practice. You’ve understood that even when people undergird their spiritual practices with indefensible beliefs, there may be some wisdom in the ways they apply those beliefs to their lives.

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