Can someone pray if he doesn’t believe in God? I don’t see why not.
In trouble, I might scream “Help!” even if I don’t think anyone can hear me, just on the chance that someone can. In the same way, I might cry “God, I need you. I don’t think you are there, but if you are, I will try to do what you ask. Please get me out of this dark.”
Nonbelievers, take heart. I think God hears prayers like that.
But a lot of things considered prayers are nothing of the kind, like communing with my “inner goddess,” or like chanting “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” That bald-faced lie isn’t a prayer to the Deity but a flattery of the Self.
Or like sitting on the porch and drinking coffee – a best-selling Unitarian minister came up with that one. True, one might commune with God while sitting on the porch and drinking coffee, but sitting on the porch and drinking coffee is not, per se, communing with God. Better the prayer of an honest nonbeliever than rank self-deception.
Or like the chant “Aum” or “Omm.” Some people say that this is addressed to a spirit, in which case it would be a prayer, though to what spirit it may be addressed is another question, about which no one much seems to care. So far as I can see, the chant is more often a sort of self-hypnosis.
Or like the fellow in the old Ray Bradbury tale who got in touch with the All by meditating on the hum of high-tension electrical powerlines. Electricity can’t hear you. The totality of life and death, animals and stars, harmonicas and pneumonia, pop concerts and yogurt smoothies, love, malice, lies, truths, and illusions can’t hear you either – and its answer would be worthless if it could.
More nonbelievers’ prayers would be offered, perhaps, if they were more often meant when they were offered. What we do mean when we pray without believing is often more like this. “God, I want your help this time, but then please leave me alone until I ask for you again. If you want me to do something, I’ll think about it, but don’t rattle my preconceptions or ask me to change my life. Just now I need a little light, but otherwise, please, I would like to be left in the dark.”
God, Who always reaches down to us even when we are not reaching for Your hands, give us grace to mean it, even if we don’t yet believe it.