I was never raised to believe in a deity or pray. And while I have been in several tight situations, I never saw the need for prayer and got through just fine. When I’m in an emergency situation pretty much all of my concentration and focus goes into what I need to do to stay safe. Take the time a bunch of tornadoes ran through Fort Worth in 2000.
In high school I lived in a suburb outside of Fort Worth. I was a senior, my sister a sophomore,and I had just finished some homework on what had been a beautiful day when I was stunned to hear a thunder clap and I looked out my window to see that dark, ominous clouds had come in. Even though I had lived in Tornado Alley for several years, I was still amazed by just how quickly the weather can change from pristine and beautiful to scary in minutes.
I left my room and went to the living room where my dad was on the phone talking to my mom, who was still at work in downtown Fort Worth. When he hung up he told me she was on her way home. That was when the sirens went off and all hell broke loose. We turned on the tv and there were tornado sightings in our city and warnings to take cover!
Because of the amount of clay in the soil, houses here aren’t built with basements. When a tornado strikes, you’re advised to find a room with no outside walls that is not by the water heater. Well, whoever built our house did not get that memo. The only place that fit the bill was a tiny coat closet in the hallway. We took all of the coats and everything else crammed in there out and my 6’2 dad, my 5’9 self and my sister, the smallest of us at 5’6, managed to squeeze in together. We tried to call my mom, but the phones had gone down. The power went off. It sounded horrible outside. With the tv out and the phones down, we had no idea what was happening. So we waited.
My sister started to get anxious and I remembered watching how my dad smoothly started talking about tv shows she was interested in to distract her from what was happening. Now as a trained counselor I see what he was doing was getting her to focus on something other than her anxiety, which is a counseling trick to help people cope with anxiety.
Eventually the storm seemed to clear and my dad went to check things out. The power came on, and we learned that two tornadoes had hit, one in our suburb and another in downtown close to where my mom works. While she did work below ground in the city, we were worried because last we heard from her she was leaving work and could have been in the parking garage or the street when it hit. My dad tried calling but couldn’t get a hold of her. Meanwhile, another problem came up. My grandfather was missing.
My grandmother had called once the phones came back on and said that when he heard that the tornado was in our area and he couldn’t reach us he jumped in his car to come to us. He didn’t have a cell phone.
So two family members were missing. My sister and I took turns calling and checking in on friends and exchanging stories of what had happened. Finally my dad got a call from one of my mom’s co-workers. She was okay and was busy performing first aide on some kids who were in the parking garage when the tornado hit. We later learned that just as she was out the door she was told she couldn’t leave because there was a tornado outside.
I can’t remember if my mom or grandfather got to the house first. But my grandfather had gotten stuck in a very bad traffic jam on the highway. It was so bad that traffic was at a complete standstill so he actually took a nap!
So all was well. For us. The next day we went to school and found that some of our classmates were now homeless and had lost everything. Two people had died.
In a lot of ways, our reaction to the emergency is not drastically different from what religious people do. Even in the uber religious Bible Belt, people weren’t sitting in their living rooms and letting some god handle it. At school we exchanged stories of where the safe spot in our homes was and how we passed the time while holed up there waiting for the storm to pass.
My dad also spent time distracting my sister from the storm with talk about mundane matters and kept things calm for us. Some people might use prayer for this, but there are effective ways without prayer.
And everyone was calling everyone to check in on people.
Here’s the difference. I don’t think our house was spared through divine intervention. It was sheer luck. Honestly, there’s something horrible about the thought that Person A’s house was spared because they were favored by a deity while Person B’s house wasn’t so it was destroyed. Bad things happen to good people. The kids I knew who lost their homes didn’t deserve that. Most of them were Christians who were likely praying. My family got lucky, theirs didn’t, and nothing they did or didn’t do could have altered the tornadoes path. Two people also died, and they didn’t deserve that. Luck, good or bad, is uncaring and cruel.
And yes, it is possible to be an atheist and remain an atheist in a life threatening situation. For me, there’s a narrowing of my focus on what I need to do to survive. Praying isn’t on the list.