An Atheist in Prayer


Illustration by Hannah Fishman.

I cannot recall a moment in the sixteen years of my life when I have felt more out of place than I did while standing with my head bowed, my eyes staring at the ceiling lights as they reflected off the newly waxed floorboards of the local church.

“Dear Lord, thank you for the food you have given us.”

I could hear the sounds of pointless prayers as they echoed off the walls. If I lifted my eyes, I could see the hunched backs of grade school children as they pressed their foreheads against their interlocked hands; their faces scrunched in concentration.

It was mid-July and my first day volunteering at a summer camp for grade school children held at the local church. It hadn’t occurred to my fourteen-year-old self that my religious affiliation or lack thereof would be an issue— all we were supposed to do was bring the kids around and keep them in line.

Instead, it felt like I was branded by this enormous sign that read “FAKE” for everyone to see. That is, if they weren’t so busy praying.

“We ask that you bless us and this food.”

It was the sort of irony that I’m not completely sure I had yet understood: I, an atheist, had joined devout Christians in prayer.

I wasn’t raised with religion; the notion of faith in a higher power never even entered my head. But I wasn’t lost and certainly wasn’t this nihilistic, “emo” kid. I had just come to know the world through a different lens.

I desperately scrambled for ways to convey any semblance of piety, though my efforts were largely futile. I then focused on my posture. Did my stiff back and awkwardly folded hands betray me? Should I relax my shoulders and move my lips to blend in?

Maybe I had brought atheism upon myself growing up. The curious and skeptical kid that I was, I had questioned religion in its entirety. To me, God existed no more than Santa or the Tooth Fairy. How could there be this one all-knowing, all-powerful being responsible for everything in life that gets to decide who lives and who doesn’t? Why are all the Bible stories from thousands of years ago and why was there nothing more recent? If there is God, then why do people suffer?

“And give us the nourishment we need to learn and work hard during summer camp.”

Was it wrong for me to join them? Was it disrespectful for me to bow my head when I didn’t believe there was someone for me to bow to? Could I have just stood there, eyes gleaming with cynicism?

Oh non-existent God, I just really wanted to go home.

I was distracted by my own breathing, the air tasting foreign and full of hypocrisy. The scent of greasy Chinese takeout filled my lungs, not that of some blessed matter provided by God. I scoffed at the scene of brainwashed children and was irritated by the man who led them.

I didn’t expect to feel a certain sadness in the pit of my stomach. I suddenly longed for the feeling of being able to completely rely on someone. In some ways I was envious and wished that I too believed in a god.

In that moment, what I found myself yearning for wasn’t some divine intervention but the succor provided by faith. I wished for the belief and prayers of those around me to be heard. Yes, prayers cannot end wars or heal the sick, but faith can renew a damaged soul and rebuild an
exhausted will.