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]
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.