The Christmas Mass, as the pseudonymous parish priest Fr. Nonomen writes in Commonweal, is fairly unique. “This is the Mass where you politely ask people to finish their cups of hot chocolate and cans of Red Bull outside. … This is the Mass attended by the famous bi-annually faithful.” As such, Fr. Nonomen sagely notes, the Christmas Mass provides a “pastoral opportunity” that should not be wasted in minor displays of self-righteous annoyance or by desperately trying to impress visitors with “schmaltz” and “secular symbols” or (most tempting?) through attempting to conjure up guilt (“[D]o not say how you wish attendance could be good every Sunday”).

The presider should recognize that many different forces may have brought the participants to Christmas Mass, including those more familial than theological. Further, Nonomen counsels, “Be sensitive, too, to the many faiths embraced by those who are sitting in front of you.” Nonomen does not write, however, about those who may be agnostics or atheists, who may be in the pews for reasons as various as family solidarity, nostalgia, or curiosity.

To be sure, their presence also presents a pastoral opportunity, not least to clear up misconceptions, for — as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes claims — “Believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism” through our neglect, defective presentation of doctrine, or conspicuously poor living.

But the attendance of agnostics or atheists may also present another sort of opportunity. What might it mean if at least some agnostics and atheists have found their way to church and are seemingly praying with and for us? I have no wish to question whether they really are agnostics and atheists. After all, a praying agnostic or atheist may not be completely atypical. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey (2015), 20 percent of agnostics report praying daily, weekly, or monthly, and the comparable percent for atheists is 3 percent.


In an account published several years ago in The Humanist, atheist Spencer Case recalled a time when he was in Iraq, shortly after his first combat experience, when he was so struck while staring at the night sky at the contrast “between the order and beauty of the cosmos and the human-made chaos of the country [he] was stationed in” that he prayed,

Dear God, I have come to the conclusion you probably don’t exist, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that any one view I hold may turn out to be mistaken, however unlikely the odds seem. So if you are there, if I am wrong, you know where to find me.

Philosopher Shieva Kleinschmidt of the University of Southern California has a fascinating article in Faith & Philosophy[1] on the question of whether atheists can pray, even if we use a somewhat restrictive definition of prayer as necessarily a communicative act directed toward God.

At first, this question may seem ridiculously easy to answer. Surely one cannot direct a communicative act toward someone who by definition one does not believe exists. Arguing by analogy, however, Anthony Kenny has suggested that an atheist in prayer may be likened to a stranded man “who cries for help though he may never be heard or fires a signal which may never be seen.”

Likewise, John Lemos has suggested both disbelieving that his wife is in the house and saying, “‘Darling, will you please fetch me some scissors from the kitchen,’ in the faint hope that she is there to respond.”

Kleinschmidt expands the case to imagine a person, Adam, stranded in a post-apocalyptic landscape, unable to hear clearly, speaking into a payphone that he has reason to believe no longer works. Adam hears a fuzzy message that sounds much more like a recording than a person. Kleinschmidt suggests it is still plausible to think that Adam may state his location into the handset. Adam, in his wasteland, is desperate.

There are, it seems, two and possibly three arguments we have to add to make the situation of the atheist at prayer fully plausible:

1. To the objection that the atheist is being inconsistent, Kleinschmidt merely claims that the atheist has simply to be an atheist with less than absolute certainty. Kleinschmidt draws two analogies. We live as though disaster will not occur, but we lack absolute knowledge that “the sun will not explode within the next year.” Also, we may take a bet against a belief that we hold is correct if we pay a penny if we are right and receive “an arbitrarily high sum of money” if we are wrong.

2. Kleinschmidt states that our post-apocalyptic Adam may still try to communicate with the sounds on the phone because he is desperate but also because he has “nothing better to do.” Later, when describing a deathbed scene, Kleinschmidt notes that the atheist who is praying has “nothing else to do.”

3. In a footnote, Klenschmidt notes the claim brought to her attention by Mark Murphy that an atheist who prays has to at least “have some sort of pro-attitude toward God.” She is unsure of this claim. She offers the example of praying with “dread, regret, or fear of God’s existence,” but her example later features a serial killer who may rightly fear some recognizable form of justice and still involves a God imagined as capable of hearing the prayer and offering a degree of mercy to the murderer.

An atheist who prays at a Christmas Mass may still be an atheist but recognizes:

1. the slight (if rather explosive) possibility that God may exist (in Case’s words, that “any one view I hold may turn out to be mistaken”),

2. that life presents situations in which there really is no real alternative to prayer, and, finally,

3. that we can conceive of a God who may at least desire to hear our prayers (and whose felt absence might be likened, as Case does, Hardy-like, to a funeral).

This invites us to draw a distinction. Gaudium et Spes speaks critically of one type of atheism as stretching “the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God.” This modern atheism, characterized by a rebellion against “all prior givens,”[2] does not seem to adequately describe the atheist at prayer.

The witness of the atheist at prayer at a crowded Christmas Mass, however unlikely, may remind us that we cannot simply define ourselves against atheism and that a Christian worldview may have to find an uneasy place for atheism within it. To take the words of another Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium: “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”


[1] Shieva Kleinschmidt. “Atheistic Prayer.” Faith and Philosophy 34.2 (2017): pp. 152-175.

[2] See James Schall, “Thomas and Atheism.” New Blackfriars 92 (2011): pp. 565-573, 573.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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5 years ago

From my quick internet check, Spencer Case was born into the Mormon religion through his parents, so it’s not exactly like prayer is foreign concept to him. Let me give you an example from my own background. I grew up in a Catholic household and went through a great deal of Christian/Catholic education, being an atheist, I rejected the mysticism of Christianity (and other religions). While I may not pray to a god, I have attended services from time to time with family. Although I am an atheist, I understand the protocol during service and am very respectful of it.… Read more »

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