Tag Archives: Wicca

An Atheist’s Guide To Prayer



In case you’re reading this a good while after the incident that inspired today’s post, it is the 15th of July 2016 and last night in Nice, France, a truck full of weapons careened down a walkway full of people gathered to watch the national holiday fireworks, killing 80 of them and injuring more than 100.

I’m tired. So tired. Exhausted. I think you are too, and that’s not a good thing because it means they’re getting to us, which is what they want. Fuckers.

And I know what you’re thinking, seeing the title of this post. No, praying won’t bring those 80 parents, siblings, children, lovers and friends back to life. It won’t help the injured heal from their wounds, either. Note that if you happen to believe the contrary, good for you. But I’m an atheist, and in this post I’m addressing my fellow atheists.

There is something to be said for prayer, and that is that it helps process difficult emotions, such as anger, grief and fear. The rituals surrounding the act of prayer are comforting, and prayer itself brings solace to the mind and provides an opportunity for introspection. I’ve heard it said that religion is the peoples’ teddy bear that we need to grow out of, but I don’t see the harm in needing to be comforted once in a while. We’re not superhuman, and the world is a scary place.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship with religion for a while. I think it started six days after my daughter was born, just after the Bataclan attack in Paris. I looked down at her sleeping face and wondered, what sort of world had I brought a child into? And I felt profoundly guilty and scared. I saw the hashtags #PrayForParis and felt a bit lonely, too. If only I could pray, I thought, and feel like it was making a difference.

Since then, though, I’ve come to the conclusion praying does make a difference. It’s just a very, very subtle difference in the mind of those who pray, and yet it’s important: it’s a form of psychological rebellion against forces that are trying to terrify us into submission. It’s an act of love – you pray for someone – in the face of immense hate and destruction.

So I want in.

The ritual I chose was Wiccan, because that’s the religion I followed for years as a teenager, but any sort of ritual – religious or not – would have done fine, as long as it’s familiar and comforting. I removed a bunch of paperwork, and cleaned the little chest of drawers my mum painted with a pentacle and gave to me for my 17th birthday to use as an altar. I rummaged inside the drawers and found a mirror, a tealight, a broken heart-shaped rose quartz given to me by a lovely family of Americans we’d met years ago, an incense holder and some frankincense, and a tiger-patterned feather I found in a forest once that probably belonged to a pheasant. I placed the candle in the center, the incense vaguely towards the south (I dithered a bit, wondering if incense was more air or fire and then remembered that it didn’t matter), the feather in the east, the rose quartz in the north and the mirror in the west. I lit the candle with a match because it felt more ritualistic than a lighter, and lit the incense with the candle flame. I sat cross-legged in front of it all and clasped my hands together in my lap.

Then I just sat. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply the way I would while meditating, but instead of focussing on some inner light, I thought about terrorism. I imagined there would be orphans – 80 victims, there have to be – and thought, too, about the mothers who had lost their children, which is what I fear the most. I thought about the rage and the grief that would consume them, and I let the sadness wash through me, dwelling on it for a bit. I imagined myself as one of the victims. My control freak of a brain tried to imagine all sorts of ways in which I could have escaped death by being just a bit more vigilant, just a bit quicker than the others, but this time I told it to shut up. None of those people wanted to die last night, any more than I do. I’m no better, no quicker than any of them, and if I’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time I’d have died just like they did, and it wouldn’t have been my fault for not being quick enough. I’d just be unlucky.

As I confronted the reality of death, and my inability to control when and how it comes to me or my family, I expected to feel fear. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d have a panic attack, which is why I was breathing slowly. But instead I just felt glad to be alive. I felt like making the most of being here, with my family and friends. I wanted to enjoy what I had while I had it, and so doing, shout a big Fuck You to the shitstains that are trying to destroy us.

And I wanted to share it with you. If I hadn’t taken the time to do this little ritual, then I’d probably have spent the day feeling crap. It might have ruined my weekend. And sure, that’s nothing compared to all those whose lives have been taken, or ruined by the deaths of their loved ones, but it counts because it’s what they want. They want to ruin our lives, bit by bit, to wear us down, to make us fear one another and lose all hope. Fuck that. Let’s pray. Or at least, let’s each sit down somewhere quiet and take a few minutes to think about how this has affected us, and how we’re going to react to it. Let’s be sad for those who died and who lost, but let’s also be glad it wasn’t us, yet. And then let’s decide not to let them win, at least not in our own minds. It’s a tiny, tiny difference, but it’s a start.

A youtube channel you might be interested in is The School Of Life. They have some very interesting videos on religion, including this one: