I look at coping mechanisms as an anthropologist would all aspects of human action and behavior in response to environment stresses. Basically, anthropologists observe and assess how human actions and choices impact the individual and a society's culture. I am not a trained psychologist or therapist so the clinical aspects of helping people through stress, something these professionals offer, is outside my skill set and knowledge.
We as humans cope all the time. We use coping mechanisms to cope with the known, the unknown, the unknowable and the immediate and long-term future. Coping with controlled and uncontrollable stresses allows us to make it to the next moment and to live in this world, where a new series of choices and options portend other positive or negative stresses.
In times of everyday or mild stress, spiritual people may turn to Zen practices, religious prayer, or other forms of other-worldly comfort to gain self-knowledge and guidance for coping. For those who are religious and spiritual, many would admit that meditation and prayer is as much about getting closer to god or some spiritual center as it is to gain insight into making personal choices. But spiritual coping is like all coping options. It is ultimately about making it through the day.
One could argue that turning to spirituality is a better form of coping than other choices such as using drugs and alcohol or committing acts of mental or physical abuse on our families and community. Negative coping mechanisms can ruin or hurt ourselves and others. Certainly as a humanist, if an individual hurts another it deeply effects me personally. Perhaps, this is why so many former addicts and prisoners will turn to spirituality and religion from past thoughts, actions and behaviors which have caused pain for themselves and others. Most former addicts and prisoners who find "god" will admit that choosing religion to take control of their lives "saved" them both actually and metaphorically from a life of self abuse or abuse perpetrated on others.
But I would suggest as an atheist that the need for religious comfort and direction is just trading in one set of addictions and dependencies for another. That finding god doesn't make you anymore human, and in fact may still separate one from connecting to humanity. Atheism is by far the most freeing and liberating form of coping mechanism because it means the individual is dependent on personal abilities and self-knowledge to own one's life and choices.
However, I find it so odd that in times of great stress, like when tornados and floods hit a community, or in random car accidents or genocidal Holocausts where there is countless murder and death many people become more and not less religious and spiritual to cope with stress. People will say, "Thank god, my house was saved" although their neighbor's house may have been destroyed. Logically and rationally, does that mean god favored their home over someone else's nearby?
I believe that religious and spiritual coping mechanisms are a form of cognitive dissonance. Indeed all religious and spiritual belief is cognitive dissonance. Defined here as individuals justifying, blaming or denying a set of circumstances or a particular reality on outside influences. Or choosing to deny a new reality or way of thinking to avoid forsaking a set of personal beliefs, values, set of attitudes or ideas which bring them short-term comfort, even though they may be intangible and may not provide any long-term relief.
For instance, there are too many instances of ethnic and religious cleansing in the Twentieth Century. All horrible forms of inhumanity and all equally despicable. For many victims, prayer allowed them to live through the darkness and brought them strength. However, for countless others, prayer only brought death. We are dealing with issues of both fate and destiny and for many survivors, no matter what the situation, they would choose prayer over action.
As an example, more Jews prayed than picked up arms during the Holocaust. Perhaps if they had chosen the latter and were more, not less non-violent things would have been somewhat different for European Jewry during WWII. Although there are many instances in the extermination and labor camps of physical action, as well as bands of Jewish partisans using hit and run tactics to thwart the Nazi's, and of course the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to show Jewish resolve to not go quietly into that good night. Clearly though, prayer was not enough to stop the almost full systematic destruction of a people and culture.
Nor is prayer enough to stop a virus from killing children versus the use of antibiotics to save them. While this is an extreme religious perspective, it is condoned and not considered child abuse. The act of coping by praying and doing nothing but putting one's or another's life into "gods hands" removes us from saving ourselves and others. It also makes us aloof, uncommitted and by-standing travelers in this world.
Then as today, coping though spirituality is an option people can choose freely. But it is not the only choice. Therefore, we as humanists and atheists must be open and understand spirituality as a life-way, but at the same time we also must ensure politically that our own life-way is not denied because of it. Most Atheists cope through reason and planning, the religious through magical thinking and prayer. Both are equally fine strategies but the Atheist's way may be better suited to adapt to situations without an expectation for external help or intervention outside one's own ability to, as Gandhi said, "be the change."
Essentially, the Atheist's response is not to deny ourselves or others any form of human stress relief. It is to to explain the need for coping rationally and ensure that coping through spirituality or through prayer, which is a religious interpretation or response, does not promote religion in the public square or interfere with secular society.
Since forms of religion and spirituality can be traced back hundreds of thousands of years, it may be unrealistic to believe such phenomena can be eliminated from our human psyche. But, I would make the argument that the need for spirituality is less important today than in previous millennium. This is because through science, we know so much more about the mechanics of the universe and about ourselves.
We do not have to attribute the creation of the universe to gods, see our birth and lives as pre-destined, nor our psychological choices and those of others as part of a divine providence or plan. As atheists we own our lives and choices and that is comfort enough to move us forward in life. A life that rejects spirituality and prayer and supports gaining self knowledge through an understanding of science and a humanistic approach to both viewing and acting in our world.
I would challenge all those who use spirituality and religion to cope with stress to view the world in a much wider and less religious set of terms. Why not take that same energy and place it into learning about the universe, not through god or a set of religious or spiritual beliefs, but through science? Such a view of the world would educate us and make us much less violent as a species, it would allow us to reach our full human potential, and also offer us the opportunity to be more accepting of others. And then perhaps we wouldn't need to have to cope so much after all.