A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

A Humanist Lesson: The Prayer of Serenity

Christians believe that their holy text, the Bible, is the inerrant word of God. They believe it can be referred to as a complete guide on how to live your life and secure salvation. However, the religion has also produced an abundance of extra-biblical teachings and doctrines. Many of these reflect the cruelty and intolerance that dominate the Bible, but, just as the Bible has some teachings and values that we should proudly uphold and defend, so the post Biblical teachings have messages worth listening to, and I believe in giving credit where it is due. One such lesson worth saving, is the Prayer of Serenity.

The prayer was written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930’s or early 1940’s. There is some dispute over the exact original text, but bar a few details of wording, the structure is always the same. This version may be cropped from the original, but is probably the most popular version in circulation today:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and (the) wisdom to know the difference.

Though the prayer is short, I believe it one of the most deeply profound maxims ever to emerge from Christianity, or any religion for that matter. The only part I reject, for obvious reasons, are the first three words, “God grant me”. The essential thing to realise about the prayer, is that it was written by a human being. As a humanist, I have no reservations about adopting this lesson. I don’t ask God to grant me these things though, I simply aspire to attain them, as a morally conscious person. The pleasant irony, is that the prayer itself shows us that we don’t need to look to God to help us implement it. “Courage to change the things I can”. One of the things we all have the power to change, is our personalities and the way we live our lives. We can strive to achieve these traits for ourselves, without any divine intervention, simply by making an effort each day.

The things that we cannot change are few. When we are faced with things we cannot change, it is futile to worry about them. This does not mean it is easy not to, but accepting the fact that it cannot be changed is half the battle. We cannot go back in time, anything that has happened in the past is set in stone. Denial or ignorance of this fact can be a catalyst for wishful thinking, which gets us nowhere. Rather than agonising over what might have been, or tormenting ourselves with plans of what we should have done, we should learn our lessons from the past and then accept our impotence to affect it with serenity.

The things that we can change are many. When we are faced with things that can be changed and that need to be changed, we should face them with resolve and determination. We do not have the power to change everything that will happen in the future on our own, but with collective efforts we can work to make the world a better place. The things that are wrong, but can be changed, should not be accepted in any manner. Failure to realise that changes can be made will lead to apathy, negligence and indifference, which leave us in a state of stagnation. We should not reluctantly absorb the wrongs with which we are faced, but have the courage to actively amend them.

It is only with the ability to distinguish the difference between those things we can change, and those things we cannot that we will make the best use of our highly limited time, and channel our energy efficiently into projects worthy of the effort. We should not stumble through life guessing the difference with faith and hope, but deducing it with measured reason and rational thought. We should seek the wisdom to know the difference, but no wisdom is required to have faith, in stark contrast with the elegance of the scientific method.

After debating with some people I know about the problems with religion, I have often heard “well maybe you’re right, but you’re never going to change anything. We’ll always have religion and faith”. The truth is that it can change, indeed it already has changed and it is changing before our very eyes. We only need to look at the shifts in society over history to see that on the grand scale, religion is in decline. Non-believers are the fastest growing demographic in the USA, and in Western Europe, although not officially secular, many countries are far less assertive in their religious beliefs and intolerance. Needless to say, there is much work to be done in the East. Unfortunately, in true Darwinian fashion, the progress is slow, and we may not be around to see our efforts truly bare fruit. To quote Richard Dawkins though, “value the future on a timescale longer than your own”.

Let us adapt slightly, and then adopt the Prayer of Serenity as a humanist lesson. Religion has done great harm and cost many lives throughout history, but that is in the past and we should accept that we cannot change that. However, religion, while declining is still strong, is still causing harm and costing lives and has the capacity to continue to do so for many, many years to come. This is something we can change, and we should resolve to do so. We should work to help everyone see the difference between the two, and this will arm us with the tools we need for change. Not weapons of destruction, but, to quote fellow blogger Ellis14, “the very tools that the religious hate: reason, intellect, freedom, communication”. Let’s start today.


9 Responses to “A Humanist Lesson: The Prayer of Serenity”

  1. I like the longer version of the prayer better…and that’s not just because I don’t like the label cherrypicker! 😉

  2. I would express the “serenity prayer” as, “I will always seek the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to understand the difference”.

    It’s a very important lesson, we can’t change the past, and we can’t change the fact that we will die sooner or later, and we can’t change the weather (at least not yet). But we can change ourselves, and we can work to change our society. There is no point in stressing over what might have been, we just need to focus on what CAN be.

  3. Toby: I like your post and you write it well. I’ve responded over here:
    http://nakedpastor.com/archives/874 . Let’s see what happens!

  4. I don’t know if you guys have seen “Seinfeld” in the U.K, but there’s a hilarious episode in which a wound-tight character adopts an abbreviated version of Niebuhr’s slogan. Whenever he feels himself losing mental control, he shouts: “Serenity now! Serenity now!”

    It turns out, not surprisingly, that the phrase doesn’t work.

  5. The Exterminator said:

    I don’t know if you guys have seen “Seinfeld” in the U.K, but there’s a hilarious episode in which a wound-tight character adopts an abbreviated version of Niebuhr’s slogan. Whenever he feels himself losing mental control, he shouts: “Serenity now! Serenity now!”

    That’s hilarious! I’m familiar with Seinfeld, but not that episode. I’m assuming the character was Kramer? I can imagine him saying it, that’s made my day 🙂

  6. Actually, the character was George’s father, Mr. Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller. But it was, indeed, hilarious.

  7. I like this version:

    “Accept with serenity what you cannot change, have the courage to change what you can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference.”

  8. Very well written. I am an atheist. I believe that there are definately good practices within every religion but we need to pick them out and update them by a few hundred (maybe thousand) years. I came to the conclusion as a young boy that prayer works because you are making the changes yourself but I did not know how I could have a daily prayer if I had nobody to ask. Like you I simply change the words around and ask myself to change.

  9. Hi there I believe that reinhold niebuhr started this prayer out using “god” to superficially reach the Christians but then spoke to atheists or those in question and christians who would not understand its interpretation but wanted them to feel included as well. Atheists and those questioning wouldv want to under stand why they felt it so comforting. Well here’s why…in one sense of this conversation is taking place between someone and god, at first, but they are basically asking him to grant them the ability to live without him as it takes acceptance, change, courage and wisdom to go away from God. God would not grant anyone wisdom as all wisdom proves his inexistence. In one interview he confirms Christianity as a necessity if a society can not come up with a platform in which to teach core values. This is why I feel he was so passionate about the separation of church and state, that way schools could teach non religion. But unfortunately it didn’t work out that way as political agendas corrupted the basic format taking out integral psychological and all philosophical and authentic morality theories that equated religious belief as the main source of mental illness. Along with every other content area suggesting the that trying to believe in something that you know is un-true or false (or faith) to have major implications on one’s mental and physical health while also inhibiting ones ability to comprehend science. Thus being complacent with the idea that heaven is the limits of the earth instead of understanding the truth that the universe is limitless.

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