On Atheist Prayer

Yesterday I visited Auschwitz. I knew it wold be an intense experience, and I was also aware that I didn’t quite know how... What does it mean, then, for an atheist to pray? For this atheist, yesterday, I was deeply, emotionally connecting to the suffering of the Jewish children kept in concentration camps by Nazis, and to the Latinx children kept in detention centers by my own government. I couldn’t fully experience the suffering and grief on its own. I had to feel some kind of hopefulness in order to feel the grief. The hopefulness wasn’t rational. It had no direction. It wasn’t conceptual or articulated. It represented no path forward or strategy. But it was there, and it was deeply necessary for the experience of human connection. For me, yesterday, there was no other way... Visiting Auschwitz taught me many things yesterday, but I think this was the most important. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or in eternal souls, or life after death—as I don’t—there is still a place for prayer. Sometimes we need to experience hopefulness even if we don’t have a good reason to. We need it in order to fully experience the suffering and tragedy that is an unfortunate fact of our lives. The alternative to a life without prayer for me is not a more ‘rational’ one where I only believe and am motivated by the facts, for I cannot truly grasp the facts without prayer. They are too horrible to look at all on their own. And so I pray.

Lisa Miracchi, "Some Reflections on My Visit to Auschwitz - or - On the Possibility of Atheist Prayer." This is a valuable reflection on how to cope with suffering by a philosopher at University of Pennsylvania. It seems to me that it is contextualizing two issues. Firstly, whatever your beliefs, religious or otherwise, honestly facing human cruelty can overwhelm. In particular, imprisoning children in cruel conditions is morally horrific. The detention centers at Auschwitz are in that sense similarly appalling as more recent examples reported from United States and Australian political life. With regard to the detention centers in Nauru, United Nations officials have "demanded the Federal Government reconsider its offshore processing policy as concerns about detainees' mental health grows." In the US, Elizabeth Warren, herself a former law professor at Harvard University, recently described the United States immigration detention centers as warehouses "filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys." Miracchi's essay on Auschwitz speaks to the horror many of us felt after reading Warren's eyewitness account. It is also fresh on many of our minds given the US Supreme Court's decision that also set current immigration policy in the context of WWII era US internment of Japanese people. While the court upheld a revised US travel ban, it also overturned the 1944 Korematsu vs. United States decision. Justice Roberts wrote that it "was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and —to be clear—‘has no place in law under the Constitution.'" Secondly, Miracchi's essay persuasively suggests that prayer has meaning for people who hold many different beliefs. It should give pause to those that depict irreconcilable clashes between atheists and religious people. Many people seek out practices that enable hope to flourish in their lives. These are necessary for the long term work needed to find practical alleviation of suffering wherever we find it. Prayerful people in diverse democratic societies may yet find surprising new ways to build coalitions that respond to the rise of cruelty.