A Spiritual Paradigm for the 21st Century
by D. Midbar
by D. Midbar
Among the instruments of emancipation the supreme is devotion.
Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of him is untrue.
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing.
—1 Thessalonians 5:16-17
God: To be or not to beWe atheists can experience the divine presence so intensely that it doesn’t matter if God exists or not.
And he does not.
Atheists can live the religious experience as authentically as anyone before us ever has. Perhaps more authentically, for we know the truth about God: that there is none.
Through prayer, the medium of grace, we can experience the God that might as well exist, but doesn’t.
Point of DepartureLittle children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
—1 John 5:21
Basic Premises: There is no god. All religion is false. Yet we love and long for holiness.
Our intellectual honesty, our knowledge of the world, and our emotional maturity require us to be atheists.
If you subscribe to these premises, you will probably like this book and perhaps, in the long or short run, profit from it. If you do not accept them, this book is probably not for you, at least not now.
Sing in the Language of God
We lament the absence of God. We can never recover him, but we can sing in his native language. We can pray.
Nothing requires us to renounce the sacred, the sense of godliness, the as-if-it-were-divine.
Crisis: We Haven’t Got a Prayer
Atheistic spirituality is of paramount concern both for humanity as a whole and for the authentically meaningful life of the individual. Atheistic spirituality is the basis for the truest and holiest religion possible—the one that need not be articulated, codified or imposed on anyone.
The unquenchable thirst for the sacred in a secularized world is our primary existential dilemma. No one and no thing can quench this holy thirst; no one and no thing can resolve our existential dilemma.
We’re on our own in the dark, cold, meaningless universe we’re already quite familiar with.
We haven’t got a prayer.
The last hope for a spiritual consciousness with philosophical integrity lies here.
If you miss this boat, there will be no other. The others, you may have noticed, have already sunk.
Atheistic spirituality has ancient roots, for both skepticism and transcendence are at the core of all truth traditions and of all existential authenticity. We need to see through myth, indoctrination, dogma and superstition; and see into the holy light of an inexistent god.
Pray and you will have this first and second sight.
Historically, atheistic prayer is perhaps made most explicit in certain strands of Buddhism, although similar strands can be found in many religious traditions: Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, “paganism” and pre-literate tribal religions. It’s there, wherever you look, if you look deeply enough.
Since atheism has been considered heretical in many cultures, spiritual atheists have often had to camouflage their lack of literal belief by using traditional religious vernaculars. We had to maneuver as best they could within the dogma of the day.
Prayerfulness can also found within secular philosophy, although in the world of hard, uncompromising, even brutal truths, intellectual standards are high and skepticism trumps mystery.
There are few assertions about prayer that can stand up to intellectual scrutiny. But few need to be made.
Prayer is praying, not asserting.
* * *Atheistic prayer is universal and non-sectarian.
Nobody owns the tradition. No one except you and me; except all of us.
It’s a secret doctrine that’s a secret for no good reason. So listen, and you shall hear.
Given the abundance of historical clues to genuine atheistic spirituality and the parallel persistence of a deep tradition of worship everywhere one looks, it’s a good bet that the truths I invite you to discover and explore have been known to thoughtful and soulful people in a wide range of cultures over several thousand years.
Some of these people may have worked within a framework established by institutional religions. Some may have been openly heretical, iconoclastic and rebellious; and they may have been ostracized, imprisoned, tortured and murdered because of their convictions. Some were surely as independent as a person can get, given the cultural contexts and constraints that shape us all. It is also possible that particular religious cultures at particular stages of their development— perhaps movements within Buddhism or Sufism or Taoism— may have been more receptive to atheistic prayer than others.
Dogma and tyranny are always the enemies of truth, and the more dogmatic and tyrannical a society is, the less likely it is to discover or tolerate truth—philosophical truth, scientific truth, psychological truth, spiritual truth, any kind of truth.
On the other hand, it is also obvious that relatively free cultures, like our own liberal democracies, have developed new mechanisms to distract us from profound spiritual experience.
Still, given our historically privileged twenty-first century political and educational advantages, you might expect us to be more open to atheistic spirituality than we actually are. If we were, this voyage of discovery—the discovery of grace through prayer—would be easy and its arguments practically self-evident.
But don’t kid yourself. Genuine spirituality has never been easy.
Travel light, pilgrim. The terrain is rough and the journey long.
God Without God
Even under the best of circumstances, prayerfulness is never easy. Nevertheless, there are some current factors in our favor. Today, thanks to scientific progress, global access to information, and the survival of liberal democratic tradition, we have reached a level of awareness, a historical juncture, in which a literal belief in a deity is no longer necessary or desirable in order to experience the divine.
In short, we are educated and we are free.
So we can, in a sense, have our cake and eat it too: God without God.
Life After DeathThere will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. . . . Every man shall be his own priest.
The various gods and the god-infested mythologies of humankind have been superceded. The supernatural has been superceded. We can now attain everything religion offers— the deepest experiences of transcendence, grace, faith and spiritual fortitude—without pledging allegiance to any of the enshrined and fossilized beliefs.
Intellectual suicide is no longer an admissions criterion to the Holy Ground.
Now that God himself is dead, the gates to the temple are flung wide open, free of charge, and anything goes. Holy anarchy, a creative atheist’s delight, reigns.
* * *Many of us, however, fail to realize what is now possible. We have thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Our contempt for authoritarian religion and the very depth of our critical thinking have led us to a spiritual dead end.
* * *God is dead. But He keeps popping up in his coffin, like a poorly slain vampire in a B horror movie.
Something is wrong. We have properly declared him deceased, but either we haven’t given him a proper burial, and so his decomposing corpse nauseates us—in other words, we still go through the motions of a dead religion—or we simply haven’t figured out that we don’t need God in order to pray.
* * *Prayer, unlike God, is alive and well. Prayer’s essence is immortal and its power is vast.
Our need for the experiential source of holiness is profound. We need spirituality like we need affection, companionship and sex. We live without prayer as we would live without companionship—at great peril to our souls.
We can and must find spiritual life after the death of God. We can and must discover and experience a new atheistic paradigm of spirituality. Call it prayerfulness.
The Usefulness and the Limitations of Godtalk
Given my own philosophical background and personality, I believe that the best spirituality, the richest and the most honest, is characterized by iconoclastic austerity—the uncompromising questioning of all hand-me-down beliefs, the unequivocal rejection of supernaturalism and superstition.
However, if at the end of this process of demystification, you still want to use the godtalk, fine. It is often allusive and evocative.
But God does not exist, and what exists least of all is the anthropomorphic god(s) whom we Judeo-Christian-Muslims are taught to address in supplication and praise.
* * *If you can develop atheistic prayer and find a completely new idiom, so much the better.
If you can’t, use what you’ve got, including godtalk, the traditional language of prayer.
Preserve the sacredness, but annihilate the deity.
Once God is dead for you, you need not be haunted by Him. Dispose of the corpse and keep on praying.
It is an affront to the sensibilities that religion as a global conglomerate has expropriated and co-opted the vocabulary of spiritual experience to such an extent that it exiles skeptics from partaking of prayerfulness.
That is not merely unjust; it’s fatal for the soul. It may even be fatal for humanity. Without transcendence, without prayer, we shrivel and die.
* * *The Diaspora of atheists who live in self-imposed intellectual exile beyond the clutches of religion can find their spiritual home. Their City on a Hill. Their better place. Welcome home, pilgrims.
* **But the task at hand entails much more than mere atheistic demystification. There is also a necessary constructive project. Once God is dead and buried it is incumbent upon us to rediscover the holy. We do so through prayer.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Grace through prayer is our birthright as human beings. Our refusal to accept the supernatural, irrational aspects of religion (i.e., the existence of God) must not inhibit us from exercising that birthright.
Prayer is a blessing to be cherished and not to be denied.
Obligation or Choice?
I consider the turning to prayer, the disposition toward prayer, a responsibility.
But it is a responsibility gladly and almost effortlessly borne.
Praying is, then, like having good manners, like being civil with the universe; like knowing how to receive a gift graciously.
In order to receive our birthright, our blessing and our gift, we must fulfill the gentle obligation of prayer.
* * *On the other hand, you are quite free to take it or leave it. People have gone through life and will continue to go through life without the slightest notion of what I am talking about. It would be presumptuous to judge them.
I suggest, however, that something is missing in a life without prayer. A basic need goes unsatisfied. It’s like a life without sex , without friendship or without love. Such lives are possible, and many such lives have been lived with indifference, with impunity, with pride, and even with dignity.
But just as a life without love, sex or friendship is a life limited in its human potential; just as a life without truth and insight is an intellectually handicapped life; so a life without prayer is a life that atrophies the spirit.
In the Dark of Night
To use a popular metaphor, we are wired for religious experience, wired for grace, just as we are wired for language, logic, love and moral values.
How have we managed to short circuit our connection to the divine? How have we managed to abdicate our spiritual birthright?
Obviously, ignorance and laziness have led us to the acceptance of spirit-stifling creeds. But our very intelligence has also led us astray.
We are right to be disgusted by institutionalized religion. We are right to repudiate irrational belief and its attendant dogmas and fanaticisms. We are right to engage in a continual process of demystification and critical awareness. We are right to pursue science and technology—to cure cancer and improve crop yields, to create abundance, to provide universal social services, to resist tyrannies and sustain democracies.
But all of our material, philosophical and social progress has also had the highly undesirable side effect of smothering the spiritual light.
Now, sisters and brothers, the circuit is broken; our candle is out. The darkness is real and relentless. But it is a dark night of the soul from which we can emerge to holy light.
Pray through the night.
The Usefulness and Limitations of Explanation
Insight into the cause of our dilemma is, of course, useful, and I have tried to provide a sketchy explanation. I have little interest, however, in finding a scapegoat for our current state of affairs. Not institutionalized religion, as nonsensical and oppressive as it often is. Not materialism, for all its vulgarity and emptiness. Not secular humanism with its philosophical inconsistencies and benign platitudes. Not nihilism, in its sterility and despair.
Understanding our malaise does not oblige us to cast blame or offer excuses for the loss of our souls. Why bother? We can reclaim and regain our souls.
Life is short.
The New Paradigm
This little book provides an intellectual paradigm that allows an ancient spiritual methodology—prayer—to flourish.
I propose that you let the immense and exquisite light of atheistic prayer shine and bless you throughout your lifetime.
Pessimism and Salvation
The future of humanity may well be disputed between religious believers and materialists, the traditionally deluded and their cynical, empty-handed critics. But despite all my confidence in the power, glory and beauty of atheistic prayer, I did not write this book to save the world. The future of humanity may be grim, and I am not optimistic. But your future, as an individual “soul”, is far more promising.
The world may never change, but you can.
Easy Ways Out
I will be pleasantly surprised if more than a few people understand these words enough to deeply explore the implications.
Some of our best minds—minds far better than mine—and some of our most sensitive souls—souls far more sensitive than mine—will miss the point. I just got lucky.
Arriving at the practice of atheistic prayer is harder than it looks. It’s easier to turn back hypocritically or opportunistically—returning to ideologies and religions whose limitations and falsehoods are obvious. It’s easier to succumb to the pandemic viruses of materialism, hedonism and cynicism. It’s even easier to fall on your sword in terminal despair.
But you do have another option: pray.
If Not Now, Later
I hope that if this book does not speak profoundly to you now that you will put it aside and reconsider these ideas some other time—perhaps much later in life, perhaps at a moment of existential crisis or special spiritual need.
There are, unfortunately, few right moments for this message and many wrong ones.
If you are lucky enough to come upon these words when you can truly appreciate them, the book can save your immortal soul—the soul that neither you nor I believe in. This book can lead you to God, the God that doesn’t exist.
The Benefits of the Atheist’s Prayer
What You Get and What You Don’t
You Get Insight
Prayer will awaken your senses and sensibilities. In this regard, prayer bears some similarities to meditation. In meditation, you give the mind a rest, and enough creative space for insight. In prayer, the mind, while detached from everyday discursive thought, is active; and your insight is holy.
You Get Faith, Hope and LoveAnd now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
—1 Corinthians 13:13
All three of these supreme spiritual virtues blossom in prayer. Faith, hope and love are components of prayer, like red, blue and yellow are colors of the rainbow.
FaithPrayer differs according to religion, but faith does not change by religion. Its states, its focus, and so forth, are immutable.
Have faith in prayer’s capacity for eternal renewal and eternal delight.
Atheistic faith is pre-rational rather than irrational. Like an infant’s faith in her mother.
Faith can move mountains. Almost. Virtually. Faith can certainly move the mountain within.
Whatever mountain blocks your view of Godliness, faith can move it.
Trust faith. Deeply, but not unconditionally. Faith is not belief. Belief is of the intellect, belief in something. Faith is of the heart.
I believe with perfect faith.
—Traditional Jewish prayer, attributed to Maimonides
We can pray with perfect faith. As if we didn’t know better.
As if we were children:
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 18:3
There are testimonies that some Hasidic Jews went to their death in Nazi gas chambers in
ecstasy, reciting a liturgy of joy. Such faith is both absurd and essential to the human spirit. Prayer is often imbued with such faith. But so is fanaticism and insanity.
Atheistic faith, vaccinated against fanaticism, is no longer blind. On the contrary, atheistic faith is omniscient. Watchful. All-seeing. Never misses a trick. And there are plenty of tricks.
Faith is a paradox. In faith-full prayer we know that there is nothing left to have faith in. Yet we are faithful.
The line between faith and self-righteousness is thin indeed. Keep to the good side of it; atheistic faith is grounded in humility.
HopeHope is a spark in infinite night.
Hope in prayer is holiness rooted in the world. Justified, legitimate, necessary.
Like faith, hope must be grounded in humility. Prayerful hope transcends greed and frustration. Prayer sanctifies our hopeful dreams.
Hope for change and betterment is essential to love. And without love, prayer is pointless.
LoveLove of prayer and of the other.
Pray for them all.
Pray for enemies.
Pray for loved ones.
Prayer for someone is not supplication on their behalf.
It is divinely focused attention with the person in mind and heart.
It is difficult to pray for your perceived enemies. But the more you do it the easier it gets. It is a healing grace.
Prayer is forgiveness, and prayer is love.
You Get Less FrustratedOnce the power and glory of prayer are deeply understood, you will become less ambitious and more accepting of human limitation, including your own. Prayer won’t grant you the Buddhistic detachment or Christian resignation of a saint, but you will become more aware of the vanity of achievement and the folly of selfishness.
You Get Better RelationshipsPrayer awakens the capacity to love, and prayerful affection will strengthen relationships with friends, lovers, family and community.
You Get JoyThe contemplative joy of atheistic prayer, is one of life’s greatest spiritual rewards. Genuine spiritual joy, free of toxic dogma, has a truth, purity, humility and beauty all its own.
What you don’t get
You Don’t Get HappinessPrayer will not give you everything you want. It might not even give you anything you want. You can still get a brain tumor; you can still get divorced; your child or your parent or your lover still may die; you can be abandoned, assaulted, raped, humiliated.
Shit happens, and some of the shit will happen to you.
At the very least you will hurt—physically and emotionally.
And prayer won’t fix or cure or anesthetize the hurt.
But prayer is there.
A blessing. Now and always.
You Don’t Get ProgressIf everyone prayed long and hard and deep, maybe it would lead to a golden age of peace, love, understanding and abundance. But don’t count on it. Most people won’t, and the few who do won’t make much of an impact. Prayer is not a social program.
You Don’t Get Personal GrowthYou start each prayer without a penny in your pocket. Naked. Prayer is not cumulative. Don’t make a competition out of prayer; don’t keep score. Prayer is not a marathon, a savings account or a weightlifting program.
You Don’t Get Practical SolutionsPrayer won’t help you pay the mortgage or find a mate. Prayer isn’t a magic potion or an amulet.
You Don’t Get AnswersPrayer provides insight and understanding, but the fruit of prayer is not a body of knowledge. You cannot assemble a coherent philosophy piecemeal with prayer, nor can you find out the answers to any of the intractable and irreducible mysteries of life. Not all questions have answers. Especially not the hard ones. Don’t pray for answers to the unanswerable.
You Don’t Get Rich, Cured, Enlightened, Loved, Honored or Obeyed
Strive elsewhere. Keep prayer holy. Like a temple where the moneychangers can’t go.
You Don’t Get ReligionHeaven forbid. Please, whatever you do, don’t make a new religion from atheist prayer. Instead, find Godliness and end religion, once and for all.
The Spiritual Practice
Getting StartedQuench not the Spirit.
—1 Thessalonians 5:19
Pray and love prayer.
Know that there is an end to your spiritual misery, an end to your pilgrim wanderings.
But you must be honest.
You must pray.
* * *
In spite of every reasonable excuse you have not to, still, you must pray.
* * *It may take you four seconds or forty years to traverse the desert. But you must pray your pilgrim way out.
It’s the only way out.
Start by starting.
Learning to PrayEven if you think you can’t, you can learn to pray.
There is joy and wonder in prayer.
Learn for your own good, and perhaps even for the good of others.
* * *In the breaking through I am more than all creatures; I am neither God nor creature; I am that which I was and shall remain, now and for ever more. There I receive a thrust which carries me above all angels. By this thrust I become so rich that God is not sufficient for me.
To learn to pray, forget about God.
Reclaim your spiritual birthright without resorting or reverting to any of the false gods.
All the gods are false.
God is false.
Forget about ritual, religion and morality.
Perhaps the best prayer is silent reverence,
If need be, on your knees, with folded hands,
Or walking, sitting, dancing, making love.
Alone or accompanied.
In perfect faith and devotion.
Learn to love prayer.
To love praying, pray.
Practicing PrayerTo love praying you must practice prayer.
To love praying you must learn to pray with devotion.
Like you would learn a foreign language, like you would learn to play the piano.
Practice the instrument of prayer.
Study prayer by praying.
To love praying you must also play at praying.
Play for fun.
Become a virtuoso.
Became an artist.
To love praying you must learn to pray consciously, actively, not passively.
Not by rote.
* * *
The secret essence of prayer is an art form.
But it is not necessary to have a special talent to pray.
And it is not necessary to have time.
You can get good at prayer.
Prayer itself will show you how.
How?The quality of attention counts much in the quality of the prayer.
—Simone WeilDirect your unwavering attention to the divine.
Turn to the divine, the holy, the sacred. Always. As often as you can.
Pray just as you’ve prayed in church or temple, but do not address God.
Evoke the feeling states of prayerfulness.
And if you’ve never prayed anywhere or anyhow,
You’ll find it comes naturally.
* * *Prayer is not petition or intercession.
Prayer is adoration without an object to adore.
Don’t pray for. Just pray.
…a naked intent directed unto God, without any other cause than himself, sufficeth wholly. And if thou dersirest to have this intent lapped and folden in one word, so that thou mayest have better hold thereupon, take thee but a little word of one syllable, for so it is better than of two; for the shorter the word, the better it accordeth with the work of the spirit. And such a word is this word God or this word Love. Choose whichever thou wild, or another; whatever word thou likest best of one syllable. And fasten this word to thy heart.
—Meister EckhartIf you need words, use them.
God god god god god god.
But keep the words to a minimum.
It’s not about words.
It’s about emotion and devotion and passion.
Short prayer pierces heaven.
—The Cloud of Unknowing
When you close this book, or when you pause in your reading, start to pray.
Direct your attention to the holy. Notice your quality of attention while you are prayerful.
There. You are on your way.
Prayer will not change you, nor will prayer change the world. Expectations of prayer are deadly. Don’t expect prayer to work. Don’t expect an answer. Don’t expect a listener.
Prayer is as intimate as love and lovemaking, private to the point of silence. No one is listening, for nothing is asserted and nothing answered.
Prayer is not dialogue.
Prayer, like love and lovemaking, is union.
Prayer lights the sky.
* * *Exercise prayer in perfect freedom. Choose prayer.
Begin to pray. Don’t let the absurdity of the enterprise stop you.
Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is absurd.
Distractions and Delusions
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
The world is full of demons and tricksters.
They can have any name: Satan, Jesus, God, Country, Allah, Krishna.
What they have in common is noise.
They are Maya—illusion and delusion.
Their intent is to deceive you, to deny you passage, deny you truth, deny you freedom, keep you from praying.
Don’t be angry with them; don’t get paranoid.
Pray for them.
Your prayer will exorcise your demons, render them impotent, forgive them, bless them.
Love and Prayer
Love is infallible; it has no errors, for all errors are the want of love.
—William LawHe that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.
Although all our mundane projects may have a quality of futility, finiteness and absurdity, we don’t need to renounce our lives in the world to love and live prayer.
Pray and do as you please. Love and do as you please.
Prayer abjures explanation. Prayer is a mystery.
Love prayer, and do as you please.
* * *Do as you please, but get your priorities in order. Don’t neglect prayer.
It may often seem that everything else, or at least something else, is more important than praying. But nothing is, except love; and love is prayer’s twin.
When and How Much?
It doesn’t matter how hard you pray or how much you pray, how unceasingly or how fervently.
If you stop praying for a minute or a millennium, just start again.
Prayer is there. Always.
Pray anew each time.
Like a virgin.
Each time the first time.
I wish prayer inhabited a moral universe. I wish prayer could tell us right from wrong. I wish prayer were a catalyst for good, for wisdom, for righteousness. I wish prayer fixed things.
But prayer is not magic, and prayer is not utilitarian.
Prayer is a good unto itself.
Prayer is song, and prayer is redemption.
LiesOur society confuses success with redemption.
We confuse spiritual realization with the tawdriness, vulgarity and cruelty of worldly achievement and accumulation.
We trade in fashionable mythologies and re-fashioned deceptions.
A bouquet of lies to deceive, control, seduce and distract us.
To pick our pocket.
Our world is thick with lies.
Be careful, be vigilant.
Don’t waste your life in thrall to a lie.
The Last Word
Prayer is naught else but a yearning of soul...when it is practiced with the whole heart, it has great power.
—Mechthild of Magdeburg
You must love prayer, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
II have written this book under a pseudonym because I believe not knowing who I am is better for both you, the reader, and me, the writer.
It’s better for me because I have nothing further to say on this subject. I have no reason to become a public person and prefer to remain a private one.
My anonymity is better for you in that you don’t have to cope with, process or filter the image of an author whose gender, age, personality, appearance, life experience or ethnicity might distract your attention. Forget about me. This is about you.
What you have read is all you get. Make the most of it.
If you have merely read my words, you have misread them. The book entails a spiritual practice. Prayer is meaningless without practice—pointless if you don’t try it.
Use and abuse prayer. Wear prayer out. Make love to prayer.
Prayer is immortal, inexhaustible and indestructible.
Prayer is supple, generous, sweet and muscular—a nurturing and passionate lover who will reach out to you and respond to your caresses. Trust your lover. You will not be disappointed or betrayed.