The theory and practice of praytheism

We’ve all had that cringe-worthy moment in which we witness two people with diametrically opposite perspectives on religion arguing about it with each other. In a university atmosphere, it usually plays out like this:

Faith has done the world a lot of good. Anyone who disagrees has been misled.

You call us misled? How about you for letting that voice in your head tell you what to think?

How dare you! At least I have values!

So why don’t you value science?

Why don’t you value your soul?

Why don’t you value the world?!


This week I’m going to tell you about a segment of “everyone else” that I have dubbed the “praytheists.” You might say they represent the middle ground between the above two loudmouths, if we assume a middle ground between them is at all possible. The loudmouths won’t assume so, I’m sure.

First of all, a praytheist is characterized by their belief that the existence of a deity is impossible to determine, and would not live their life any differently if it were. The question simply has no bearing on their worldview. They are the first to break out the alcohol when someone argues for or against the supernatural side of religion, and have occasionally made the mistake of openly asking “Who cares?” when the mudslinging described above takes place. You may have heard such a person described as an “apatheist,” which is accurate (how I wish more people used that word!), but there’s more to being a praytheist than that.

Which leads me to the second half of the definition: the “pray” half. A praytheist is capable of participating in all manner of religious rituals without feeling any pressure to interpret it literally. This is, of course, easier to do in progressive wings of mainstream religions, where the emphasis is on abiding by the broadest aspects of the religion in question (compassion, peace, respect, etc.). A praytheist can say the prayers, read the book, decorate their house with the ceremonial objects, even follow the dietary laws, and never wonder if any of it is necessary or correct. They just enjoy it.

But, you might ask, what’s the point of enjoying it if you don’t believe it? Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? Not at all. A praytheist does all of the above for social reasons. Sitting in a place of worship is a great way to meet like-minded people who share traditions with you. Preparing a full-scale holiday party or dinner—the kind you had when you were seven years old and just learning how to set a table—is one of the most effective ways to bond with your family. Taking your significant other to a choral performance or charitable outing enables the two of you to envision a new side to the life you want to build together.

I don’t tell you any of this because I’m trying to get more people to go to a church/synagogue/mosque/etc., I’m telling you because of the widespread and unfortunate idea that anyone who doesn’t believe in God is required to avoid religion at all costs. They’re not. If you have fond memories of doing religious stuff as a child, give in to your nostalgia some time. I promise it won’t make you want to drink.

5 Comments on "The theory and practice of praytheism"

  1. Interesting article. I by no means believe in God, but I do attend church on occasion simply to soak in the community aspect. The church, after all, does do alot of great things, regardless of its beliefs.

    The problem, as I see it, is the idea that activites have to be inherently religious, i.e. by our defintion of what religion is. Any interest could be deemed a religion – movies, sports, music, journalism. That is, just because you happen to be taken with the organic aspects of religion, I would rather call it an “interest,” not “religious,” because true religion does indeed imply beliefs (at least by our colloquial defintion of it). What many religious people don’t understand about non-religious people is that they keep their own methods of fullfillment and enlightenment – for example, reading and writing give me the same emotional and even spirtual high that religion supposedly does for the religious. Religion is something for which I do not hold an aptitude, but I get by just fine with my own interests and passions. They, to invoke a cliche, make my life worth living. But I do not dare call them “religion.” So I just think you should be careful when reconciling religion with religious activities. If there is no belief system to go with it, it is, again, merely an interest.

    • What if the belief system consists of the religious teachings that have a secular basis (family, charity, etc.)? Would that make it something beyond a mere interest?

      • Maybe “interest” is the wrong word. Maybe “passion” is better, or even “emotionality.” Family and charity are great things, but they are by no means confined to a religious context, so why call them religious?

        • You certainly don’t have to call them religious, but it you agree with the religion’s specific perspective on them, it makes sense. Most religions mention charity, for example, but I happen to favor the way Judaism grades it. Read up on Maimonides’ Levels of Tzedakah and you’ll see what I mean.

  2. As Randall Munroe said, “The important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.”

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