The following is an excerpt from Prayer, Power and Awakening: Discover Your Personal Path to Authentic Prayer, a six-week online course that will guide you through a process to deepen your prayers and open to the next step on your spiritual path.
Do you have to believe in God to pray?
The answer to this question depends on answers to two obviously related questions:
What do you mean by pray?
What do you mean by God?
We will spend the rest of this course answering the first question. You will spend the rest of your life, and perhaps countless lifetimes, answering the second question.
But we have to start somewhere, so let’s begin with an initial go at the first question: What do you mean by pray? Notice this is framed as what do you mean by pray. That’s because prayer is deeply personal.
This statement expresses a bias of this course. Over the millennia, organized religions of countless denominations have provided context and content for prayer. And organized religions have strengths and weaknesses. This course is not going to address either. Instead, one of the main goals of this course is to help you transcend whatever personal history you may have with organized religion, at least as it relates to prayer.
Most organized religions tell you how to pray, providing prescribed words for prayer and standardized rituals to go with them. As I’ve said, there is value in this. And of course you are welcome to continue to pray using such words and rituals if this works for you.
But experience has taught me that when it comes to prayer, most of us yearn for something deeply personal, something authentically individualized to us, something that speaks the truth that lies deep within your heart and, if this language works for you, your soul. It is this type of prayer towards which this course is aimed, helping you access a place within you from which such prayer can flow with power and honesty. This is “authentic prayer.”
The course title speaks of such power. Some of this power derives from accessing an authentic source of prayer within you. But is there also a source of power for your prayers that comes from outside of you? This brings us back to the question of whether you need to believe in God to pray.
The conventional answer given by most organized religions is that God is the source of all power that makes your prayers “work.” We will address what it means for prayer to “work” in a later lesson. It’s enough to tackle the question of God here.
To be clear, some religions, Buddhism most notably among them, do not posit the existence of God. In fact, they explicitly reject the existence of God. Yet, they still include prayers of various kinds within their rituals. One might say they practice meditation more than prayer. (We will address the overlap and differences between meditation and prayer also in a later lesson.) So in this sense, one certainly can pray without believing in God.
In another sense, prayer can be a path to reaching for, exploring, opening to and discovering ever more about that which is…now words begin to fail us…Call it Ultimate. Call it Source. Call it Spirit. Call it Divine. Call it God. My spiritual path has taught me that whatever this may be, it cannot be reduced to words in human language. At best our words can only point towards it, whatever the “it” may be. We cannot even say whether it is a thing, a being, a personality, a force, a consciousness or more likely something so much more than any such words can express. In this course, you will have opportunities to undertake just such personal exploring, opening and discovering.
My own journey, which I share in the book Joyfully Shattered: A Physician’s Awakening at the Crossroads of Science and Spirituality, began in a family best described as passionately atheist. I never learned to pray as a child. When life brought me to challenging moments, moments when I yearned with all my being to pray, I initially had to pause at a threshold I could not cross. Eventually, with halting words that began as the words of others, I took initial, tentative steps to pray. Over time, the experience of prayer not only became natural, it grew to become central in my life. Eventually, at the age of 60, I professed vows as a monk with the primary commitment to pray for our world and all who dwell upon it every day.
So no, you do not need to believe in God to pray, or to take this course. If you already believe in God of some kind, then this course can help you come closer to, and develop a more intimate relationship with, that God. If you do not believe in God, this course can help you on the journey to discover your own very personal experience of that which is most ultimate.