Is faith the world’s most effective placebo?

Aug 31, 2013

My 15 minutes of fame, courtesy of an article in the Washington Post featuring me as an atheist who prays to an invented God in order to facilitate my participation in a 12-step recovery program, provoked a little tempest in the teapot of atheist blog postings and commentary. My fellow atheists have suggested, not always politely, that I’m not an atheist, that I’m not really praying, and that praying is not acceptable behavior for atheists. As politely as I can manage, I would like to defend myself on all three counts.


To the charge of not being an atheist, I reply that, while I do pray to a figment of my imagination that I sometimes call God, I completely reject supernatural explanations for why things happen in the world and in my life. I use purely psychological explanations to understand the effects I notice as a result of my prayers. I would ask those who want to boot me out of the atheist camp to explain what qualifications are needed beyond a rejection of the supernatural. Is there some code of mental conduct for atheists that I have managed to violate? Could I be reinstated as an atheist by admitting that I’m not really praying? Atheist blogger Herb Silverman on the electronic pages of the Washington Post says, “Atheist prayers sound a lot like what I would call focusing or meditating, which some also view as a transcendent or spiritual experience.”

My daily regimen includes 30 to 45 of meditation in addition to prayer, so when I claim to be praying it’s not because I just don’t know the difference. Meditation involves various forms of relaxing or focusing the mind, focusing at times on the breath, physical sensations, thoughts, sounds, etc. Insofar as mental speech arises in meditation, it arises as a phenomenon to be observed, not as an intentional activity. Prayer, on the other hand, is intentional speech, silent or aloud, addressing a benevolent listener who is not physically present. Recitation or chanting of mantras or repeated prayers form a gray area between meditation or prayer, but outside this gray area, the two are clearly distinguished by the active use of speech, not by belief in the entity addressed when speech is used.

Written By: Sigfried Gold
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

0 comments on “Is faith the world’s most effective placebo?

  • 2
    IDLERACER says:

    In reply to a sentence in the article:

    Studies show that placebos can work even when patients know they are taking them.

    Um, perhaps I’m missing something here, but I believe that if a patient knows he/she is taking a placebo, then what he/she is taking is, by definition, not a placebo. What the patient is engaging in, is some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wonder if people who run 12-step programs allow their clientele to pray to Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Obi-Wan Kenobi if they choose to do so.



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  • 3
    Reckless Monkey says:

    Interesting,

    I think ritual must play a fairly significant part in changing behaviour. I notice when I visit a church how much kneeling and standing, singing and kneeling again goes on. I can only assume this re-enforces group think and forces you to submit to this non-existant external reality, otherwise why do you keep doing it. Of course I don’t kneel or pray when I attend these because I’d feel like a hypocrite. But I am very much aware how much I feel out of place and it would be so much easier not to stick out like a sore thumb. I’d like to see this guy experiment a bit, keep a log one week pray to god, the next santa and so on.



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  • Faith has the added advantage there are incentives to claim it worked when it did not. If it did not work, god found you unworthy, your faith was faulty…



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  • In reply to #2 by IDLERACER:

    I wonder if people who run 12-step programs allow their clientele to pray to Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Obi-Wan Kenobi if they choose to do so.

    Yes you can pray to whatever you call your higher power. Of course, these are just temporary to finding the One True Higher Power who most choose to call God.



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  • 7
    giggity says:

    There seems to be an actual positive psychological effect resulting from both prayer and meditation. Whether the author of this article is a hypocrite or not is irrelevant to the determination of the efficacy of these psychological activities. One study found the following:

    “A study was conducted to compare the efficacy of meditation with that of imipramine and chlordiazepoxide in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. At the end of five weeks, meditation was found to be as effective as pharmacotherapy in controlling symptoms of anxiety. It was superior in altering trait anxiety (TMAS Scores). Meditation is an easy to learn and cost effective therapy. It has a distinct edge over pharmacotherapy in that it is does not have the associated problems of habit formation,-withdrawal effects, overdosage or other undesirable effects.”

    Future study of the nature of the cognitive processes involved in these activities should lead to a more scientific approach in achieving the positive results (without any necessity of a supernatural belief system).



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  • 8
    Mr DArcy says:

    Peter Grant:

    I suppose my only real criticism is that all this kneeling and praying stuff seems, well, rather undignified.

    I think that’s the idea of it ! E.g. “Islam” means submission. Too many bloody people on their knees. Get up and sort the world out !



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  • 9
    tedgrant2 says:

    On a general point about Atheism, the aim of all Atheism campaigners is , I assume, to “convert” the whole world to Atheism. So let’s just imagine a future time when this has become a reality and everyone is an Atheist. The word “Atheist” would then be obsolete, because calling a person an Atheist would have no significance. It only has significance now because Theists exist. An analogy is giving moons names. As everyone knows, there are many moons in our Solar System and they’ve all been given names, except for our moon. Our moon has no name because people, until the invention of the telescope had no idea there were moons other than ours. There are no references to other moons in the Bible, so when Galileo announced to the world that he could see moons going around Jupiter, the Church representatives said he was wrong. Because people believed there was only one moon, there was no need to give it a name. Similarly, in the future, when there is only one “belief system”, there will be no need to give it a name.



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  • 10
    ArloNo says:

    In reply to #6 by Peter Grant:

    I suppose my only real criticism is that all this kneeling and praying stuff seems, well, rather undignified.

    Undignified, subservient, and totally ridiculous!



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  • 11
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #9 by tedgrant2:

    The word “Atheist” would then be obsolete, because calling a person an Atheist would have no significance.

    Apart from historians, it would simply fall out of use. No intelligent adults talk about “Atooth-fairyism”. – (Unless some of us are making a point to theists) Hopefully, in time, as civilisation matures, theism will attain the same status as toothfairyism!



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  • In reply to #2 by IDLERACER:

    In reply to a sentence in the article:

    Studies show that placebos can work even when patients know they are taking them.

    Um, perhaps I’m missing something here, but I believe that if a patient knows he/she is taking a placebo, then what he/she is taking is, by definition, not a placebo. What the p…

    The guy was explicit in stating that he was aware that the placebo effect works even though you know you’re taking a placebo. The sentence is also a link to a study that demonstrates it. The placebo effect is fascinating.



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  • 13
    wchensley88 says:

    I agree with you Mr. Gold. If you can find time, pick up a copy of ‘Beginning Mindfulness’ (I don’t recall the author). It has great instructions on how to train the brain to be in a non-stop meditation mode and thus enjoying every second we have in our lives.



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