Christopher Hitchens, as you've likely heard, has cancer. He's one of the "new atheists," and of course people asked "now that he's going to die, will he find God?" to which he replied in the negative. In this article, he discusses his "fan" reactions (i.e. people praying for him to get better in spite of his atheism, or assuring him that they wouldn't condescend by praying for him, or gloating that God has sent him such suffering), to which he responds:
...Why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got.
I recently received a lengthy "fan" e-mail from someone positing that those atheists probably never had to deal with real suffering and loss, and that it's positively cruel to take away religion from those who need it. This is a common response, and one directly responded to by the new atheists (and by Freud, at some length). I'm not going to repeat those arguments here, but I wanted to weigh in from my current situation (my mother just passed away last week...).
One of the great things about atheism is that your thoughts are private. For believers, doubt is an affront. For those like myself for whom the actual existence of a personal God who listens and judges is simply not a live option for belief, if I talk to "God," if I talk to the souls of the departed, if I let the flood of warmth wash over me that comes with reflection on a felt, immediate connectedness to the dead, who is going to care?
I anticipate the responses: "Your mind tells you there is no God/afterlife, but your heart tells you otherwise." "In acting contrary to your beliefs, you show that you're conflicted." "This discrepancy is just fuzzy headedness."
On the contrary, I don't see any so drastic a problem here. In sketching out my metaphysical views, I'm doing one thing: rationally looking at the different positions and assessing some probabilities, well aware, of course, that even the grounds for making these probability judgments are pretty shaky. If I'm talking to God or any number of dead people, I'm doing... well... I don't want to give any definitive analysis of my behavior (trying to cope? aesthetically decorating my interior existence? taking advantage of some psychological/physiological ability that we all have? attuning myself emotionally to the universe as a whole?), because, frankly, it'd be an ad hoc, made up interpretation. But I do know that I'm not in doing so saying anything about "what I believe."
All of this points to my opinion about belief itself: that it is pragmatic. I believe in the ground in front of me for the purpose of walking, and remain neutral about its "inner nature" insofar as that's not relevant to my using it for that purpose. I do not believe it at all likely that is judging my every act for its effect on my immortal soul, so I don't act accordingly, or relatedly I don't believe it necessary to have any metaphysical view like that for me to be (mostly) nice to people. I believe that talking to the dead can make me feel better, and it doesn't spoil the experience for me to, upon reflection, believe that I'm probably not actually talking to the dead.
So it's not the case, on this view, that atheists in airborne turbulence suddenly become theists when they pray that the plane won't crash. No doubt they're reverting to some childhood habit of talking to God or flailing out in search of something to grasp onto. Really, though, my point is that one doesn't have to provide a definitive explanation for this behavior to say that it does not involve metaphysical assertions (unless you, following my pragmatic line stated above, reduce ANY metaphysical assertions to something that's not really an assertion, in which case I'd need to do some more work in stating the difference in character between these two kinds of non-assertion).