Atheist minister Gretta Vosper. Photo courtesy Vosper.
Atheist minister Gretta Vosper. Photo courtesy Vosper.

Can atheists pray? Gretta Vosper on Andrew W.K., Sam Harris, and atheist 'spirituality'

Atheist minister Gretta Vosper. Photo courtesy Vosper.

Atheist minister Gretta Vosper. Photo courtesy Vosper.

Musician and advice columnist Andrew W.K. recently made waves with a column encouraging an apparent atheist to pray for a brother recently diagnosed with cancer.

Responding to a letter from someone (referred to as "Not Gonna Pray") who described struggling with members of his family advocating for prayer, W.K. suggested that "Not Gonna Pray" should think of prayer as a kind of meditation.

"I think the idea of 'praying' is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize," he wrote.

W.K.’s response didn't sit well with some atheists. So I reached out to Gretta Vosper—a minister in the United Church of Canada who publicly opened up about her atheism in 2001—for her perspective on W.K.’s advice, atheism and prayer, and Sam Harris’s new book on nonreligious spirituality. In addition to continuing to work as an openly atheist minister, Vosper is the author of books including Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief and serves as a director of the Clergy Project.

Chris Stedman: What do you think of Andrew W.K.’s advice to “Not Gonna Pray”?

Gretta Vosper: I don't have an issue with Andrew W.K. giving his perspective on anything to anyone. And I agree: [tweetable]Part of the process of intentionally reflecting on our relationships is getting beyond our own hypocrisy and arrogance to look at ourselves as we truly are.[/tweetable] That’s humbling for most of us.

But I was both amused and annoyed by his description of what "Not Gonna Pray" should do. Amused because it replicated evangelical emotionally-manipulative praise and prayer choreography beautifully: get inside the emotional wetsuit and make this baby feel something. Anything. At whatever cost. And angry because it was irresponsible, even reckless. [tweetable]W.K. has no idea what putting “Not Gonna Pray” in that position of vulnerability is going to do, and he takes no responsibility for the emotional or psychological cost it may exact.[/tweetable] It was manipulative—and, as most manipulative things are, self-gratifying. It had nothing to do with "Not Gonna Pray" and everything to do with W.K. Which is too bad.

CS: Last year, a story about an atheist who invented a deity to pray to went viral. What do you think about his story?

[tweetable]In the words of Roger Scruton, "Consolation from an imaginary source is not imaginary consolation."[/tweetable] That said, we're talking placebo effect here, and I speak about that in my book. What is the effect of knowing that you're using a placebo? Pretty devastating. [tweetable]So if you invent a deity to pray to, you're likely not doing it to get an effect, unless it's a viral one.[/tweetable]

CS: Prominent atheist Sam Harris just published a new book on nonreligious spirituality. Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person? Why or why not?

GV: [tweetable]I'm delighted to see Sam Harris be unapologetic about using the "s" word, but I think he's got a challenge on his hand.[/tweetable] Luckily it's in a book, so he's had the time to write what he means out as clearly as he can, and he won't have to issue another of those "I've been misunderstood" articles!

I've been doing calisthenics around the word "spiritual" for the last five years and have still come up with a blank when it comes to a single-word nontheistic replacement. I can replace it in twenty-five words or maybe sixteen, but not one.

[tweetable]I don't call myself a spiritual person, though—for the same reason I don't describe the things I believe in as "God."[/tweetable] The word has too much baggage and, without the twenty-five word explanation of what I mean, is otherwise too easily misunderstood. So why use it?

CS: What are your "spiritual" or mindfulness practices?

GV: [tweetable]I intentionally reflect—sometimes alone, sometimes with another person, sometimes in a group. That’s my "spiritual practice."[/tweetable] That, and all the other things we like to think of as spiritual: time in nature, exercise, and caring for myself. As a cancer survivor, that last one is a little higher on the list than it once was.

CS: Your last book was Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. What can atheists learn from prayer? Can nontheists adapt it and make it their own?

GV: [tweetable]There are absolutely elements of the practice of prayer that can be beneficial to atheists—but many already practice those things.[/tweetable] And they do so without burdening their practice with a easily misunderstood word like “prayer.” Whenever we spend time in intentional reflection on our relationships with ourselves, others, the planet, and the seventh generation future, we're engaged in what I would call prayer. Through it, we either affirm or convict ourselves for our choices. And we have the opportunity to grow from that point.

[tweetable]My idea of prayer does not involve any supernatural or interventionist being or force.[/tweetable] There is no divine agency. If you're looking for agency, you'd best look to your neighbor and the resources she or he may be able to provide that are beyond your own abilities or resources.


  1. The very idea of an “Ask Andrew W.K.” column reminds me of those old advice columns from The Onion like “Ask Sir Mix-a-Lot” and “Ask a Battery.” Actually, Sir Mix-a-Lot and the battery were probably more qualified and gave better advice.

  2. How about “lifemeaning” or “selfmeaning” as a word for nontheistic spirituality? If you can do it with faitheist…

  3. From the irrepressible Hemant Mehta of “Friendly Atheist”

    Certainly, telling someone you love them is a wonderful thing. But W.K.’s version of humbling oneself to the vastness of the universe is a very new-age-y way to change, well, nothing. The mental focus may help you deal with a difficult situation, but it won’t get rid of anyone’s cancer.

    Meanwhile, I’m assuming the grandmother doesn’t see her prayers as simply some showcase of her humility. She probably wants everyone to make a direct plea to God to change the brother’s circumstances.

    I would personally advise the reader to let the grandmother cope as she sees fit, and he should do the same. As much as he’d love to tell his family that prayer won’t help, it’s neither the time nor place. It’s not like everyone’s going to unclasp their hands and say, “Oh! You’re right!”

    Focus on the brother. Offer him whatever tangible help you can provide. And don’t let the grandmother’s wishes distract you from making the most of whatever time you may have left with him.

  4. Atheism says God doesn’t exist. There’s no rational reason to pray to somebody who doesn’t even exist, right?

  5. You are absolutely correct.

    Suggesting an atheist to pray is inappropriate.

    But so is pointing it out to a very emotionally distressed grandma. 🙂

  6. Okay, here’s a question for all the good athiests of RNS. I see those criticisms about Atheist Andrew’s advice. Easy to dish it out, yes?

    But, just for fun, let’s turn it around. Please tell me what advice that YOU, as an atheist, would have specifically given to that inquirer. Here’s the request:

    “I’m going to make this short and to the point. My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news. Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just “pray for my brother,” like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn’t help. How do I explain this to them?”

  7. Actually, Andrew W.K. has offered some pretty darned good advice in his column, but that’s just this atheist’s opinion. In the column mentioned here, he’s not instructing the writer to pray to any being. He’s advising him to let his feelings of love from his brother fill him without invoking anything we might call supernatural. There’s no mention of God, Allah, or Yngwie anywhere in there. He’s not telling him to pray for any particular result. He just wants him to feel close to his brother. What is called “prayer” here, I call simple, undiluted love. No matter what your spiritual bent, or lack thereof, I’m down with that.

  8. (Addendum: you’ll notice that the family members are still desperately looking for hope, comfort and strength at a seriously dark time, and Hemant Mehta’s little advice to “cope as she/you sees fit” is nothing more than a great big hopeless “You’re on your own, baby.”)

  9. Clearly you have no idea who Andrew WK is if you do not consider him qualified to simply make suggestions in a philosophical manner. If you cant even allow your mind to explore hypotheticals and strive for intrinsic depth and satisfaction, I think getting all worked up about spirituality and who you think is or is not qualified to honestly answer a question he was asked is the least of your worries if you cant even entertain the thought and see that what he is saying is purely positive.

  10. finally someone actually read the article before they made a comment

  11. It’s hard to know how to respond because Not Gonna Pray doesn’t really give any specifics (I suspect the letter may not be real, frankly. Other questions that readers have supposedly posed to Andrew W.K. include “Should I become a heroin addict?”).

    We don’t know how old NGP is, what kind of prognosis his brother has been given, or what the family’s economic status is, so I’m not sure what he means by “actively help[ing] my brother and do[ing] actual things to save him.” But if his brother’s cancer can be fought and if the family is interested strictly in prayer at the expense of, say, arranging for transportation to chemo sessions and finding ways to pay for treatment, then I would have to say that NGP’s reaction is right on. He did not ask W.K. whether he should pray, but how to convince his family that prayer is not the best way to help his brother.

    I would have told him to avoid phrases like “superstitious nonsense,” focus on getting them to do things in addition to (rather than instead of) praying, and to talk to his brother about appealing directly to them concerning his needs.

    W.K.’s advice, which is not about the best way to help the brother but about the best way to make NGP’s grandmother feel better and teach NGP the virtue of humility, is worthless but pretty much what I would expect from a man who extols a “philosophy” centered around deliberately dopey motivational rhetoric and the virtue of “partying hard” (and, incidentally, whose answer to the above-mentioned question about becoming a heroin addict was essentially “If you feel like it”).

  12. Not sure if it is appropriate for the interviewed person to launch in here, but etiquette aside, here’s my response. Quite frankly, prayer is not going to change the prognosis or make any difference at all. But the family is looking for hope and, for those for whom prayer has meaning, it’s the perfect antidote to hopelessness. And so it’s good for them if not for the brother. My advice: step back, let those who find prayer an important part of the process do it and find your own ways to conjure (good word, eh?) hope if you’re looking for it yourself.
    Had cancer. Had two evangelical congregations praying for me. When I didn’t die, they expected me to witness to God’s glory. I hadn’t even thought of god the whole time I was ill. The prayer was good for them but it did nothing for me and I never needed it to.

  13. Word, Sean.

    Also, “W.K. has no idea what putting “Not Gonna Pray” in that position of vulnerability is going to do, and he takes no responsibility for the emotional or psychological cost it may exact.”

    …Sure this point is very vague and frightening and all, but really what harm is going to come from deep reflection on his brother, the relationship they shared, and being vulnerable to the ideas and feelings this conjures? Because if you read the paragraph wherein WK actually describes his ‘prayer,’ that’s all it comes down to, and seems identical to how I dealt with the passing of my own father, sans-“manipulative” party dude.

    Without that wholly vulnerable confrontation with the realities of life, isn’t such internal reflection always going to be akin to just another thinly veiled placebo, unable to penetrate the walls the ego puts up to protect its more painful complexes?

  14. But he didn’t ask for advice on how to feel close to his brother. He asked for advice on convincing his family to actively support his brother instead of sitting around feeling sorry for the brother and/or themselves.

  15. Oh, I know who Andrew W.K. is. I may have known who he is before you did. I remember being subjected to the just-released “I Get Wet” (actually, I think it may have even been a leak or an early review copy) played at a punishingly loud volume on a drive from the Bay Area to LA. I remember the endless repetition of thoughtful lyrics like “She is beautiful! The girl is beautiful!” and “When it’s time to party we will always party hard!” backed by a concrete wall of guitars and tinny synthesizers mastered at ridiculously high levels. I thought I was in Hell.

    I also see that what he is saying is “positive.” His relentless positivity is among his least-endearing traits. Actually, he has no endearing traits that I have encountered.

  16. Romans 1:18-25 in the Bible is what God says. Creation is proof of God!
    The Bible prophecy that came true with 100% accuracy proves Jesus is the
    Messiah/only way to heaven…Period! God also gave us all a conscience
    and conscience means with knowledge. Who gave us the conscience to
    know what is right and what is wrong? God did so we have the Bible,creation
    and our conscience so man is without an excuse on the day of judgment.
    The reason many don’t believe in God is because they don’t want to be
    told how to live and the Bible does that so many reject the Truth because
    they don’t want to Repent and follow Jesus/be told how to live their life.
    For someone to look at creation and say it’s just by some random chance
    it takes more faith to believe in that than to believe in God. Creation itself
    proves God is real cause if there’s a creation that means there is a creator!
    The design of the world/creation and the moon,stars all show there was a
    creator plus if the sun was any closer we would burn/any further we would
    freeze and people say that is just by some random chance? God is real!

  17. Actually, I don’t think Hemant’s advice was that bad. Why don’t I think it was bad?

    * The family members who think prayer is helpful should do it. Even if it doesn’t help the brother, it helps them.
    * Suddenly changing one’s idea of “prayer” would potentially cause the letter writer more distress than comfort. It’s not the letter-writer’s thing, and the letter-writer shouldn’t feel compelled to make it his or her thing.
    * Frankly, not knowing the dynamics within the family, giving into this request could mean that the family members start assuming the letter writer can be relatively easily manipulated into religious stuff in other situations as well.

    In substitution, I would suggest a combination of helping (arranging rides, etc) and just being present with the brother emotionally. Really. Just be there for the brother and stick with him through the rough times — you won’t regret it. Don’t stop the others from praying, but suggest that they offer more tangible assistance in addition to their prayers. If they keep fussing at you, tell them that you pray with your hands.

  18. Doc Anthony: “Prayer” is wishing, hoping, thinking. People of religious faith have no monopoly on “prayer!”

  19. Larry: So no one can think? No one can wish? No one can hope?

    The world for people of so-called faith becomes stranger and stranger and stranger!

  20. Forget the bible. There is more to thinking and hoping and wishing–and being glad or sad–than only the stories of the bible!

  21. ahardy71: It is very possible to comment about only one idea of any article!

  22. Prayer is a “kind of meditation.” Meditation is a kind of prayer. Meditations are as different as the people who mediate are different. Gods and religious faith need not be the substance of meditation, of prayer. Religious people should get over the notion that they are the ones who invented prayer or meditation, that they have a monopoly on prayer or meditation, or that prayer and meditation only refer to religious faith.

  23. You have survived a disease, that’s awesome. I have lost too many to disease and suicide in my short life…yet, I believe in God and I still pray. If you don’t want to do so, that’s fine. Understand that there are millions of wackjobs who do things in the name of religion and faith but I disagree that prayer doesn’t work. It does. And I’m not speaking of just praying to a deity for solace, but one of positive energy. I heard about it when we almost lost my aunt when I was on a vacation. Her very non Christian friends, as well as my uncle, prayed in a circle that was nothing but positive energy and light. Yes, we lost her to cancer, but at a time when my father and uncles could be there. When I could be there. And sometimes we pray because we need that strength to carry on, to take the loved ones to the chemo treatments, to be positive when we all know that person is going to die. Most of these comments are just like the zealots I deal with who say I’m not a believer in God because I don’t quote scripture or believe what they do. Andrew W.K. is about positivity and this person asked for his opinion/advice. A) Why is this person seeking advice from a pop culture icon because his family wants to pray when, and this is going to sound like an ass thing to say, when said person could ask advice from friends? B) Why are adults who may/may not be in this situation feel the need to be peeved because of his opinion. Don’t open that box less you want to know what’s in it. My opinion is that we all handle grief in several ways and prayer, of all types, is one of them. For the grandma, she’s doing what she knows, as with the parents. They want more time to spend with their son. A sibling wants more time with a brother. And the sibling is pissed at the rotten deal that life has dealt and wants to blame someone but is an atheist. I say that coming from personal experience of being in a very dark place and having no hope. Honestly, why does someone believing in a deity really piss some of you off. People who do shitty things in the name of religion are frauds or sheep. Unless this family are Christian Scientists, then it’s moot to get upset over whether or not they pray and the advice that Andrew W.K. gave. It’s advice. Why ask if you just want someone to give you your opinion?

  24. Not what I meant.

    Telling an atheist to pray is a bit much. That being said, keeping an emotional grandma calm and avoiding exacerbating a tense situation is a worthy goal unto itself.

  25. “It was manipulative—and, as most manipulative things are, self-gratifying. It had nothing to do with “Not Gonna Pray” and everything to do with W.K. Which is too bad.”

    Care to back that up with any analysis, whatsoever?

  26. That his first record is apparently your only reference point to his cultural contributions exposes how little you know about Andrew W.K.. Also, that you cite positivity as a quality to be eschewed or looked upon with disdain says a lot about you. He’s not a Pollyanna but he can come off that way.

    Anyway, continue on with your weird, cynical worldview and don’t frown too hard today.

  27. Yeah, I don’t know what it is with all the shitty, hyper-skeptical comments on this thread; including the author’s own bizarre, hyperbolic reaction to Andrew’s advice.. “irresponsible…reckless…” For fuck’s sake…

    In fairness though, I imagine it’s frustrating for folks like Ms. Vosper to *know* that popular figures like Andrew W.K. will touch more people and positively influence their lives just this year than she will during her entire career. Then again, maybe there’s a huge untapped industry for self-serving, cynical critiques of purely well-meaning, positive advice columns.

  28. “backed by a concrete wall of guitars” sounds like heaven to me.

  29. Lol you’re getting owned, bro. You might just want to shut up while you’re behind.

  30. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover emotionally from being “owned” by people who still say “owned.” Maybe I can write to Andrew W.K. for advice.

  31. I’ll admit I’m a spiritual person but don’t follow a specific doctrine. Prayer is something we do regardless of whether we do it consciously. When we are feeling scared we hope for the best. That is a prayer. Andrew W.K. is suggesting for Not Gonna Pray is to connect with his inner feelings. It seems counter intuitive to connect with feelings that we are weak and helpless but we have to admit that to ourselves. In that, we find a deeper strength and clarity. Doesn’t matter what beliefs you have or lack of you can feel those feelings, tingles, aches, energy, etc.. Whatever fancy name you want to give it you can embrace them.

  32. The Ghost who walks-You hit it right on the nose about we all know there is
    something more. Some reject it and some accept it. It doesn’t matter how
    spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they are still lost. Bible is clear who
    God is is and we can trust the Bible because it predicts the future/prophecy
    came true with 100% accuracy. Jesus is the Messiah/only way to heaven.

  33. Hopelessness. That’s reality, isn’t it? Non-existence, 70 years of biochemistry faux-conciousness, then non-existence. Nothing is important or unimportant. Only matter and energy.

  34. Atheist spirituality? Is this a religious “Onion” site? That’s absurdly humorous. Really.

  35. Mmmm…not necessarily. Yes, we are cosmological specks and all that, but relationships are important and we are important to each other. One can be hopeful without thinking there’s a supernatural essence of some sort affecting things.

    I have a kid with a degenerative, incurable, condition. That doesn’t mean there’s not hope, or joy, or gratitude, or any of a host of other emotions that religious people feel. I just don’t put stock in the idea that there’s a supernatural something I can tie in to. People pray for my kid, that’s fine, it helps them cope with it. It wouldn’t help me much to pray in the way most people think of prayer because I don’t think that does anything. And, while I do reflect on my feelings, on the feelings of those around me, etc, I don’t call that prayer — I think that’s imprecise, especially when most people believe prayer involves some sort of dialogue with a deity,

  36. Gretta fails to make important distinctions:

    MEDITATION – an effective and proven method of relaxation, self-reflection and contemplation. Meditating can lead to wisdom, humility when facing one’s responsibilities and mindfulness.

    PRAYER – a primitive form of wishing for the natural order to be altered for ones personal benefit; as a slave begs a special request from an imaginary Master.

    Meditation is wise.
    Prayer is degenerate. It is delusional nonsense; mentally damaging and an assault on one’s humanity and dignity. Prayer is a disgusting, revolting practice.

  37. Atheist Max, you are right: “as a slave begs a special request from an imaginary Master.” People. wake up.

  38. Sean,
    “I call simple, undiluted love. No matter what your spiritual bent, or lack thereof, I’m down with that.”

    Me Too!!! And I’m an Atheist too. Religion just ruins things.

  39. “Prayer is a disgusting, revolting practice.”

    …And I thought RONALD was the only guy doing satire around here !!!!!

  40. Knowing a family member is going to die is hard enough on everyone. Leave people alone at that juncture. Concentrate instead on the one dying. If they believe in the Christ figure then, as an atheist, tell them that they will be so lucky to meet Him and say hello to Him from you when they “crossover”. That is how it should be done. Now why would an atheist do that ? For those of you who believe that science and engineering will bring us to the doors of time travel and to raising our own dead [can’t get more antitheistic than that] then you have compromised nothing. If that is our future reality then, it is obvious that we would take into consideration the beliefs of the dead and incorporate a kind of 3-D illusion to welcome them over to the so called “other side” [which in reality would be the same side but removed from us in future time]. That 3-D illusion would be programmed to shepard them into the new reality of where they really are in time and space. Just my 2 cents.

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