I'm one of those weird new atheists who didn't leave some religion. While both of my parents went to church as kids (Dad Protestant, Mom Greek Orthodox), they pretty much left me to my own devices. We never went to church, I was never told about God or Jesus, and I didn't really even know what religion was until I was about 12 and started hearing about it from friends. My dad always told me to just be a good person via the golden rule, and everything would sort itself out. It was more important to be good than to be a jerk who goes to church. Now my dad is probably an atheist (or a very atheisty agnostic) and my mom is one of those wishy washy agnostic theists who hopes there's some sort of higher power thingy to make the world a happy place.
I can go on and on about my various experiences, but one thing just popped into my head now. For people who were basically raised as atheists, there might have been a time where you thought you were supposed to be religious. Was there ever a time you tried to pray just out of the hopes that it would work?
I attempted prayer a total of two times, both around the time where I was in my Hopeful Deist stage. The first was when I was 14, and my cat had died. Now, this was the most lovable cat in the world, and I had him my entire life (he was 18). I was sort of a lonely awkward little kid, so he was my friend when I didn't have anyone else. It sounds kind of pathetic saying it now, but it was the first time something close and comforting had been taken away from me. I was crying for days about it, to the point where I couldn't sleep. One night I asked my deisty God that if he existed (and wanted to stop being deisty for a moment), to please give me the strength to stop crying.
I did stop crying about my cat, but looking back, I know it wasn't some divine being that gave me the strength. It was from inside of me (cue the cheesy music). By asking for that strength, I had made up my mind that I needed to move on, and move on I did.
The other time was when I was convinced I was pregnant...even though I was a virgin. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but 16 year old girl logic isn't the best. When you've fooled around with your boyfriend to any degree and your period is just a tad late, you're convinced the boy has super-sperm that can dissolve through the air from a meter away and still get up your vajayjay somehow. Saying I was scared shitless is an understatement. Praying seemed like a better alternative than jumping out a window, so pray I did. I promised God I wouldn't do such naughty things if he gave me a free pass this time through (Um...a promise I'm kind of failing at. Whoops, oh well).
A couple days later, my monthly visitor finally came. Do I really think God did it? Of course not. But at the time, it was comforting thinking the situation was in the hands of someone who could do something about it. Maybe that relaxation releaved some of the stress that was making it late in the first place. I can only speculate, but I think it does show how prayers can make people feel better even if they're not being directly answered. And to an extent, they create a sort of placebo effect that actually helps out.
The actual efficacy of prayer is a whole other topic. The thing I find most interesting is that these two positive situations still didn't make me suddenly believe in God. Even though my prayers were "answered," I think I knew I was just tricking myself into believing them for the benefits. Double think is an amazing and scary thing. I wonder how many theists are in a similar situation.