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Do You Need to Believe in God to Pray?

My son wanted to say, “You’re in my prayers,” but he doesn’t know how to follow up on that. What can he do?

My very thoughtful 20-something son, Will, asked me the other day, “Dad, how do you pray for somebody if you don’t really believe in God?”

Ouch. I know where this one was coming from, and I wanted to help, while respecting his beliefs. He’s somewhere on the agnostic spectrum, full of doubts but I’ve always felt that honest doubts have a lot of faith in them. He’s also been dealing, like the rest of the family, with a horrific tragedy that seems to offer only one response: prayers, lots of prayers.

Less than a month ago, his uncle, my brother-in-law Mike, was in a small plane crash that killed five guys and left Mike the only survivor, struggling for 24 hours between life and death in a hospital E.R. and then rushed to a burn unit where he is recovering slowly, oh, so slowly. How do you react to that? You can send cards, you can send casseroles, you can make calls, you can visit the family. But you want to do something bigger, and prayer feels like the biggest thing, something big enough to address the pain and sorrow.

Will wanted to say, “You’re in my prayers,” but he doesn’t know how to follow up on that. What can he do?

I thought back to a phrase my dad had, the one he used when someone was in the hospital or someone lost a job or someone’s marriage was floundering. “I’ll hold a good thought,” he said. Dad was a praying man, so a “good thought” meant a prayer to him. But can’t a “good thought” also mean the expression of a compassionate heart’s deepest wish, a marshalling of all the good forces in the cosmos for the best resolution possible, a trust that good will come of bad?

That atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens writes in the current Vanity Fair about the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, recalling how at his father’s funeral he read from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

As a very spiritual but not necessarily believing friend put it, “When many people are holding on to the same good thought, you have to trust that the universe responds.”

I know Mike has responded to the love, the good thoughts, the prayers that have multiplied around him. There are people remembering him on several continents. I can’t quite believe that he would be around without them. Those same healing thoughts have been extended to the grieving families who have lost fathers, husbands and sons.

“Go ahead and say ‘I’m holding a good thought,'” I told my son. “Go ahead and use that language. Your grandfather would say that. I can even give you a Bible quote mentioned by a learned atheist…”

As for me, I’m holding good thoughts for people in Japan, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Haiti and in a hospital burn unit. Here’s a place where I write them down to share them with many others. Sometimes it’s the best you can do and all you can do.

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