Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer


Each morning and night, Sigfried Gold drops to his knees on the beige carpeting of his bedroom, lowers his forehead to the floor and prays to God.

In a sense.

An atheist, Gold took up prayer out of desperation. Overweight by 110 pounds and depressed, the 45-year-old software designer saw himself drifting from his wife and young son. He joined a 12-step program for food addiction that required — as many 12-step programs do — a recognition of God and prayer.

Four years later, Gold is trim, far happier in his relationships and free of a lifelong ennui. He credits a rigorous prayer routine — morning, night and before each meal — to a very vivid goddess he created with a name, a detailed appearance and a key feature for an atheist: She doesn’t exist.

While Gold doesn’t believe there is some supernatural being out there attending to his prayers, he calls his creation “God” and describes himself as having had a “conversion” that can be characterized only as a “miracle.” His life has been mysteriously transformed, he says, by the power of asking.

Written By: Michelle Boorstein
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  1. Just helps remind me that atheism only rejects belief in a god(s) and has nothing to say about anything else. I do think that everyone but some game players rejects god because of some positive belief–if only that things that don’t make sense are not true. I.e, atheism is a conclusion based on positive views about the universe and human life and consciousness. Just because someone is an atheist, it doesn’t mean I’d consider them for BFF status.

  2. Interesting. It could make sense. Maybe he doesn’t use terms like Jesus or recite anything from religious material. I certainly couldn’t do it , I just couldn’t compartmentalise like that.

    How do you pray with an instant recognition that your praying to nothing. What’s more how do you pray without getting hooked and pulled back into religion and its cousin spirituality.

    Better to meditate I reckon , or else practice some mind calming techniques.

    The closest I come to prayer , is I just say ‘hope’ to myself. That’s the way I handle it.

  3. In reply to #4 by Pauly01:

    How do you pray with an instant recognition that your praying to nothing. What’s more how do you pray without…

    Exactly. I can’t help thinking that there has to be SOME kind of denial involved in the process. I guess that the security that can be found in reason and logic just aren’t enough for some people. It seems they can’t do without a bit of woo-woo… kind of like a child’s “security blanket” or a crutch.

    And there’s still the question of him bringing his children into this way of thinking which could be harmful to their development: through example, he’s teaching them a deep contradiction which could end up confusing them.

  4. You could look at what he is doing is giving clear instructions to his biocomputer about what he wants it to do.

    You could also look at its as praying to himself, who is the only one who could grant the request.

    Affirmations are another form of what he did.

    Consider also that a 12 step program comes with a cheerleading team, who surely deserve some of the credit.

  5. Admittedly, I miss prayer and have been trying to find new approaches. Being an introvert and highly reflective person, I enjoy thinking inside my head. At times, prayer really is a way of acknowledging what your thinking and feeling at a particular point in time. So frequently we get caught up in a fast paced life; self-reflection is a way of tapping into/monitoring what we want and need. Some people do this by walking, journaling, floating in a swimming pool, spending time in nature, etc.

    When I had problems, as a theist, I would talk to God in conversation. Now, I still find it’s easier to talk to myself when I address the conversation towards “someone else.” Interestingly, turning your problems into an analogy is a good creative problem solving technique. I can see similarities with the two approaches. I find this self-talk to be very productive and keeps me in tune with what I am needing and brings me to a certain depth and clarity of emotions. In a way, I can step outside of myself and see my situation from another viewpoint. I give myself “permission” to feel what I feel. Otherwise, certain thoughts and emotions tend to be scattered and not formed.

    The challenge is coming up with a substitute for saying “God.” At times, I use “OK Me” but sometimes I catch myself using “God.” I know I’m not really addressing a God, but enables me to talk easier to myself. I know this may seem odd, but it makes me wonder if some atheist (on their deathbed) do this in order to acknowledge and ease their current impending state. They comfort themselves by realizing that this is the end and it’s all OK. It’s more gentle than thinking – Oh no, I’m going to die!

    IMO, self-reflection was hijacked or at least piggybacked by the religious. Instead of taking “inventory” most prayer seems to be a form of begging. Personal “meditation” fosters growth and empowerment while much of prayer becomes a rote form of begging. I would like to believe that introverts have existed since human evolution (or maybe before.) Self-reflection allows us to control our own thoughts. A meditative reflection can help bridge rational thought with what we want and feel.

  6. In reply to #2 by aroundtown:

    Man this is starting to get spooky, “Prayer”. You’ve got to be kidding. I looked at the calendar, it’s not April fools so what gives. Maybe it’s agitate an atheist day and I just didn’t know we had one. If he has to call it something, why not the invisible thing in an alternate dimension? “Miracle”, “Mysteriously transformed”, this story feels very strange. He lost weight because his put less food in mouth, end of story.

    Indeed. The key here might be the serenity prayer before eating. If you take a moment to relax and clear your mind and then eat slowly concentrating on the textures and tastes there is a chance you will modify your eating habits. Many us (self included) eat in a rush and miss the signals from our body that it’s had enough.


  7. Well , what do you know,It is not only Jesus who answers prayers!I wonder what the Christians will make of this.Right,I’m off to pray to the Juju who lives under the sea.

  8. What a silly anecdote. One could as easily find someone who solved his weight problem by reading comic books, or meditating in front of a rose bush, or taking up painting or having sex with an inflated doll or….well you get my drift. Just because one pathetic creature can derive some physical benefit from some ‘technique’ says nothing about — well about anything except the flexibility of the human imagination.

  9. In reply to #7 by QuestioningKat:

    Admittedly, I miss prayer and have been trying to find new approaches. Being an introvert and highly reflective person, I enjoy thinking inside my head. At times, prayer really is a way of acknowledging what your thinking and feeling at a particular point in time. So frequently we get caught up in a…

    I sort of know what you mean Q-cat. It is often valuable to be able to ‘talk-out’ a problem, and prayer might offer that opportunity to a believer. But it is important to realize that it is the talking that is therapeutic. I find myself discussing my problems with my dog. She snoozes through the whole monolog but I don’t need her comments anyhow. Having her there to ‘listen’ helps me to articulate them and discover areas where I am being unreasonable. Just using words and sentences to examine my feelings gives me a whole new perspective on them.
    This is, of course, the exact opposite of meditation, in which you try to empty out the mind and relax. Having a talk with oneself or one’s dog changes inchoate emotions into ideas, and helps one to decide on a position to take, a plan to make. — And usually the first step in the plan is to take the dog out for her walkies before it is too late.

  10. Psychotherapists sometimes use guided imagery to change a client’s mental/emotional state. If I imagine beaming my mean boss to the Enterprise brig, or if I imagine a wise older person being present with me in a time of distress, it changes my state, which allows me to think and process more effectively (and results in a feeling of relief and hope; maybe that’s what theists are calling god). I do know that the Enterprise and the wise older person exist only in my imagination.

  11. In reply to #13 by justinesaracen:

    In reply to #7 by QuestioningKat:

    Admittedly, I miss prayer and have been trying to find new approaches. Being an introvert and highly reflective person, I enjoy thinking inside my head. At times, prayer really is a way of acknowledging what your thinking and feeling at a particular point in time….

    Talking to animals is also a good way to reflect. My view is not traditional Buddhist meditation. Eastern religions and new agers try to control this “monkey mind.” I never was able to shut out thoughts anyway. My mind spins all the time. The best I could do is relax and let my mind slow down, wander a bit and then make decisions. I found focusing my thoughts and clarifying life’s issues, feelings, etc. to be more productive. Writing or speaking our thoughts helps us to focus. I live in and interact in the world and not some cave in a mountain.

    I think what is happening with the atheists described in the article is that they are struggling with finding a method that redirects reflection back towards it’s original purpose of communication with the self and away from a God concept. Talking to another person is helpful, but not always handy or beneficial. Besides some things you just don’t want to share with others – you want to keep it to yourself, but not too close that you are not acknowledging the issue.

    There are different types of prayer. The results of begging/request type of prayer can be measured and shown to be ineffective. Usually some sort of physical object, monetary reward, or material good is desired. The type of “prayer” that says, “I need to give myself a break.” “I’d like to find an answer to_____.” “I want peace.” “I want things to be different.” tend to eventually be worked out by the person doing the “praying” because they take action towards achieving that personal (mental health) goal. Usually some aspect of our personality is being a pain in the ass by holding us back. When we calm down, make a conviction and release our expectations of the outcome, we usually find a solution and success because its on our radar.

    To the Golds – if they happen to wander onto this site. Here is an alternative to saying the Serenity Prayer:

    I acknowledge my ability to choose peace and serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    Living one day at a time;
    Enjoying one moment at a time;
    I (we) strive to do better knowing that
    each and every moment I have the opportunity
    to choose wisely again and learn from my errors
    in thoughts and deeds. I persevere through hardships
    knowing that I will stumble and gain the strength to continue on.
    I acknowledge and accept help from others who may
    ease my burdens and show me a better way.

    I surrender to the process of living in a world
    connected to other people and nature surrounding me.
    I acknowledge the beauty and wonder of the cycles of life around me knowing that I too and part of this universe.
    I recognize and accept situations that will lead me to be reasonably happy in this life
    and supremely happy with all the days I live.

    Notice how you can change “I” to “we” and make this a family practice. You could change the words up from time-to-time.

  12. How in damnation can an atheist pray to something that he knows doesn’t exist and doesn’t listen?

    All this chap needed was an anchor, some form or mental discipline to alter his eating habits. Going to the gym a few times a week and saying I’m not going to eat this doesn’t need incantations?

  13. So his god is a very vivid goddess??? Lots of guys worship very vivid goddesses they made up in their heads.

  14. I just saw a documentary about “The Secret”, a proponent of positive thinking and visualizing your goals. Which seems like the actual method of Mr Gold. But it makes me think about a Politician (cannot remember who) that said what is wrong with Atheism: “is that Atheists do not need a Savior”. That to me is the biggest problem with Jesus oriented Christians. They want/need a “Savior”, because they do not want to have to take responsibility for their own actions. Mr Gold was the same. Instead of “taking responsibility” for his over-weight problem, he needed extra help, from outside himself to solve his problem. Even Jesus (of the gnostic Gospels) said to look inside yourself to find truth.

    Christians provide no morality for their practitioners. Being afraid and having a “Savior to take away responsibility for your actions, and purge your of guilt, is the epitome of immorality. Morality is doing “Right” simply because it IS Right. Not because of fear that some God will get you if you don’t.

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