One night years ago, tired and miles from home, an atheist professor of religion prayed to the great god Pan. The Horned One didn't grant his wish, but he gave him a priceless insight into the mechanism and staying power of prayer itself

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Pan: the great goat god, rustic wood-dweller and melody-making minstrel, pointy-bearded erotic prankster, horned paramour of sycophantic nymphs, wryest faun of spring fertility.

Pan, the eminently combined half-beast/half-human paradox that encapsulates us all.

Pan, raucous and ribald. Pan, son of Hermes.

Of course, given the triumph of Christianity, nobody worships Pan anymore.

So, about 20 years ago, I decided to pray to the great Pan. And it was an extremely enlightening experience.

While a young professor, new husband and even newer father, I taught a night class once a week at a community college about 12 miles away. It was up in the hills of San Bernardino, California, with only one main road to take me back home.

Now, if I hit the first traffic light at just the right time, then I would get green lights the entire drive home—cruising through every intersection, green after green, all the way, without stopping. And when that would happen, it would only take me about 20 minutes to get back to my wife and kid. However, if I hit the first traffic light at the wrong time, I was screwed: I’d get a red light at every subsequent intersection, block after block, and it would be a journey of stopping and starting the entire way back, taking twice as long to get home.

The autumn night I prayed to Pan was dry and windy, the weary end of a long day. The night class got out just before 10:00 pm and I was duly knackered. As I walk across the dark campus to my car, I suddenly thought of Pan. I don’t know why Pan, exactly, but I loved reading about him when I was a kid, even remembered trying to commune with him, somehow, someway, in the woods when my family would camp in the Sierras.

As I got closer to my car, I decided to pray to Pan. I mean, why not? What could I lose? And given that I had been studying and writing about and teaching about religion since graduate school, surely I could give the old prayer thing an honest try.

So just before I got into my car, I closed my eyes—not sure why prayers would be any more effective with eyes shut, but hey, that’s what they do in the movies—and this is what I earnestly, fervently prayed:

Are you there Pan? It’s me, Phil. I know you don’t have many worshippers these days. Maybe not even any. But I’ve always loved you. So, here’s what I am asking: please let me get all green lights on the way home tonight. I’m tired and I just want to crawl into bed next to Stacy. Can you please do that for me? Can you make it so that I hit every green light heading home? If you do, I promise I won’t forget it. I’ll worship you on a regular basis. Heck, I’ll even try to get others to worship you. Surely, if the God of the ancient Israelites can rescue Cat Stevens from drowning in the ocean in response to his promise of future worship, you can do something similar for me, right? All green lights, OK? I know you can do it. I have faith, Pan. In you.

With that, I opened my eyes, exhaled soulfully, and felt good knowing that Pan had heard my prayer.

I got into my car, pulled out of the parking lot, made a left turn onto Baseline Road and—wouldn’t ya know it?—I got a red light. Just like that. Full stop.


So much for Pan, right?

But wait.

Just before I could fully doubt Pan’s existence or efficacy, I immediately—like a miraculous flash— experienced a moving moment of enlightenment.

My mind quickly said to itself: “It’s not that Pan isn’t real! It’s not that he hasn’t answered your prayer! There is probably a drunk driver a mile or so down the road, and Pan knows this, so he gave you a red light to protect you. If you had gotten a green light, you would have been killed by the drunk driver!”

“Thank you, Pan!” I faithfully proclaimed.

Even though Pan hadn’t answered my specific prayer, he had my back in a deeper way!

Through such instantaneous mind games, I experienced a profound understanding about how religion works. Though my own attempt at earnest prayer had clearly failed, I was at least blessed with deep insight and experiential enlightenment regarding the whole business of faith and religious fervor and how they both function.

Simply put: People want or need to believe in something benevolently magical, and they’ll interpret anything and everything — or even nothing — as a sign that they are loved and watched over by a mystical, mighty being. Any events – even the exact two opposite events – can be interpreted in the same way and towards the same divine conclusion. If God answers your prayer – voilà! – proof of God. If God doesn’t answer your prayer, there is surely a deeper plan at play, and thus—voilà!—still proof of God. It is as psychologically fail-safe as it gets.

In a world that is fraught with pain, suffering, disease, depression, violence, insecurity, alienation, death, abuse, addiction, deceit, anxiety, ambiguity—to say nothing of hunger—most people need the comfort of faith in an overseeing being who is there for them, who has their back, who loves them, who responds to their needs. And most people will see the world in whatever way they need to in order to experience such a relationship, even with something nonexistent.

This is why, when my wife started to recover from a devastating stroke, the nurses interpreted ever bit of improvement as the amazing power of God — but didn’t stop to ponder why God would ever allow her to have such a horrific stroke in the first place. It is why the lucky few who survive a plane crash see it as clear evidence of God looking out for them – but don’t bother considering why God didn’t look out for most of the people on the plane who were crushed and burned to death. It is why those handful of kids not hacked to pieces in Rwanda can praise God for his loving care, but not question why so many other children were slaughtered on His watch. It is why people pray for God to cure their cancer, and when their health improves, they praise the Lord, and when it doesn’t, and they are on death’s door, they still praise God.

Pan didn’t grant me a slew of green lights that night 20 years ago, but he did help me better understand why most humans maintain religious faith.

Thank you, Pan.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...