A Jewish Atheist Prays

This episode of This American Life is worth listening to, if only for the first 7 minutes when host Ira Glass talks about his Jewish upbringing in Baltimore and saying prayers as a non-believer!

The Weight of Words

“And reading and calling around in the days since we had that conversation, I’ve learned that other clergy– Christian, Jewish, Muslim– some of them say the same things, especially that God doesn’t need our prayers. The prayers are for us. One of them told me the Kaddish is supposed to comfort me after my mom’s death by pointing me to this idea of God’s presence in the world, the goodness in the world, which, if I believed in God, I guess could be a comfort.

But I don’t believe. But weirdly, even without that, without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting, despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore.”

Categories: prayerTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. As a disciple of Christ, I wonder that my thoughts are perpetual prayer– a back-and-forth with God. Personal relationship. Of course, only possible via his Spirit is me: ‘Deep calls unto deep;’ and he includes me!

    • This sounds familiar, Arnold. I used to feel the same way about prayer–that personal relationship. Now, though I don’t pray any longer, I can still understand what Ira Glass feels when he says some prayers can still give comfort, even when a person doesn’t believe in God.

  2. There are many kinds of life experiences and beliefs about prayer. I had the opposite experience you did, Arnold. Believed, and prayed, for many years, then found that prayer was talking to myself. As Ira Glass says, it can be comforting, but for some of us prayer is not helpful or comforting any longer. Silence in nature now offers me something prayers rarely gave me: peaceful appreciation for life here, now, in this world. I wish you well.

  3. Hey Chris. Good story and has much fact as pray like the Rosary, Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditations produce quieting brain states. We teach breathing and repeated phrases to may patients with mental and physical health challenges. It works for the moment at least and breaks the pattern of catastrophizing and just “feeling bad”. Religions have prayed for millennia to mythic listeners and the only thing they often fall back on is “I feel better”, and random answering of prayers which if intermittent leads to a very strong praying pattern. It is like the pigeons in Skinner’s experiments who would dance to get fed think it was cause and effect. It is intermittent reinforcement which is very strong and it is backbone to superstitious behavior. We all do them, rally caps, sitting in the right chair to make sure our team wins. It just feels better and we get to participate. The baseball sports god does not come into the belief but something unexplainable that works….once in a while. HA! cheers,

    • Agreed, Marty, the aspect of quieting the mind, aware of breath, appreciation for life, these are valuable no matter how people “get there.” We were always thrilled by those “random answers” in my praying years. “I’ll pray for you” was just another way of saying, “Hey, I’ll keep you mind and hope all goes well.” Or something. Cheers back!

  4. Traditions and traditional prayers can be comforting and evoke nostalgic memories. For others it can be trauma triggering. Sometimes just the familiar rhythm of prayer can bring a sense of solace…akin to chanting. Being out in mother nature or walking a labyrinth can all evoke a prayfulness in me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: