In one of my former cities I had a friend who was in A.A. He was a believer of sorts but he said "We have atheists in A.A., but they pray." At the time I was trying to be a believer, and I was praying as part of that attempt. His promise that atheists can indeed pray gave me hope that I would get something out of prayer, if not a connection with a supernatural entity. I decided that even if it was mental masturbation it was mostly harmless as long as this "God" guy wasn't answering. I think if he answered I'd have worried that my family gene for psychosis.
A little while later I realized trying to be a believer was a hopeless task. I just couldn't accept the supernatural in any form and the religion thing was just one of many pieces of supernatural goofiness that humans had made up. But the prayer thing really did feel good and I do sometimes miss it when I have a hard decision to make. I can't for a minute think that "God" speaks to me and gives me an answer from "above" but being quiet and reflective seems to be helpful.
Part of my quest involved looking into "Eastern" religion, and I tried meditation. Curiously the effect is pretty much the same. Nobody answers but I feel more relaxed and sometimes make progress on a life issue. Have one currently, a life or death decision about my beloved diabetic dog. I have been feeling the urge to "pray" about this, and I'm embarrassed to admit it. Well, really meditation... still, it's embarrassing because I know it's 100% natural and in my head. We atheists don't talk about our mental needs. I think this is why we meet with such resistance.
My family wasn't big on prayer except when we were all together. Even at the time it felt phony and forced. Any public declarations make me snicker even now. We all knew it was really about convincing everyone else that you're a Christian, not so much about communicating with the Deity. If God can read your mind when you're coveting, He should be able to do it while you're praying. Still, it had to be done before digging into the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey. Some branches of the family still keep up the pretense. Nothing wrong with expressing thanks, and thankfully, my family keeps it brief: God is Great, God is Good, and we thank him for this food. Amen.
Being puzzled, being grateful, being quiet... nothing wrong with any of these things. They're part of the human condition. Sometimes writing (like here) helps me sort things out. Sometimes talking it over with someone helps me come to an insight (note: in-sight not outside my head at all!) Sometimes I just need time away from my routine, such as when I'm driving.
Recently I figured out how to drop my unhelpful therapist while driving. Curiously she felt the need to tell me that she was Christian & that her whole workgroup also was. This was at my first meeting with her, and she promised she wouldn't hold my atheism against me. Of course I can't hold out for an atheist therapist in FundyTown so I didn't expect any trouble either. She turned out to be judgmental, talky, scolding, and bossy. Just a coincidence that a self-professed Christian was like that, of course. ;-) She seemed flummoxed by some of my answers to her questions. I sometimes went away wondering if we'd come to the point where she'd usually jump into religion. On her workgroup's website all of the therapist bios say they work on "spiritual issues." I snickered when I read that -- did that mean they would help people who had been abused by crazy fundies, or by crazy fundy issues? I'm not curious enough to ask, but it made me go "hmmm."
So anyway, I dropped the therapist just as I'd dropped the Sky-Daddy, but I haven't dropped self-reflection and talking to other people as means for finding "answers." I consult "facts" as well as my feelings. I won't always do the "logical" thing, and sometimes there are two competing logical choices anyway. In the end I'll consult my feelings and objective reality equally. It's probably not a girly thing to do this, but it's a girly thing to admit to it, and even be proud of it. I have made a few decisions lately that I can proudly say are both logical and emotional.
So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will admit to doing what "prayer" really is - looking inside my head to figure out what I want. The only difference is that I take credit for what I "hear" instead of attributing it to Sky-Daddy or his rape victim or their psychotic bastard child.
I find in the craziest of places that I"m not completely alone in being an atheist who admires the better psychological qualities of Thanksgiving and ritual in general: