Atheist Sigfried Gold made quite a stir last summer when the Washington Post ran a story about the amazing success of his prayers to a goddess he created and doesn’t believe in. Some atheists attacked him, saying that he couldn’t pray and still be an atheist. The story so intrigued me that I’m still telling it to people.
The journalist in me particularly likes this story because it confounds and offends both believers and nonbelievers. There’s a saying in journalism: If everybody is mad at you, you’re doing something right.
So here’s the story I so like telling and some possible explanations. Gold began drawing a 15-foot goddess decades ago. He named her Ms. X, after Malcolm X. Four years ago, depressed, drifting in his relationship with his family and overweight, he joined a 12-step program for overeaters. In response to the requirement that he turn his eating problem over to God, he began praying to Ms X in the morning, at night and before meals. He never believed she was real.
Today, 110 pounds lighter, free of depression and happy in his family relationships, he credits prayer with delivering him. He still doesn’t believe she is real. But his prayers are real. And powerfully liberating. His explanation is simple.
“If you say, ‘I ought to have more serenity about the things I can’t change,’ versus ‘Grant me serenity,’ there is a humility, a surrender, an openness. If you say, ‘grant me,’ you’re saying you can’t do it by yourself. Or you wouldn’t be there,” Gold, a software engineer, told the Washington Post.
Nineteenth Century psychologist William James, also not a believer, had a theory that fits with Mr. Gold’s reasoning. It’s the same one that James used to explain the life-changing effect which religious conversions can have.
Many nonbelievers simply deny that religious conversion changes people. But James was too keen and honest an observer to accept that. Religion didn’t permanently change everyone, he observed, but sometimes conversions caused basic shifts in people’s core personalities for the better. These shifts went beyond mere allegiance to an idea, James noted. Sometimes those he called “twice-born” emerged from a conversion experience with more hope, security, kindness, energy and true virtue.
While James didn’t blindly deny that God might be responsible, he looked for other explanations. He came to believe that when people finally stop struggling to solve problems on their own and turn them over to God, the conscious mind, which has become miserable and overwhelmed in its failure to find solutions, steps aside, allowing the unconscious to work out what’s at issue. The unconscious mind then rights what’s wrong, healing whatever soul sickness is causing such misery.
More modern science offers a corresponding explanation: the placebo effect, which has been described as the mind’s ability to produce a future that’s been promised. You take a pill, you expect to be better, and the brain produces chemicals that make that happen. The placebo effect is so powerful that it often beats even drugs that have been on the market and considered effective for years.
So prayer might be a placebo. Even if the supplicant is only speaking to himself, if the prayer for inner change or healing is heartfelt, the mind and body may respond at deep levels.
But following that reasoning, we might say that such prayers aren’t answered by outside help at all. Instead they are heard by the self and answered by the self. We might consider them focused meditations with an added element of surrender to relieve the pressure that so often sabotages us.
But Gold isn’t going for it. He has done meditation. Meditation didn’t change him. Prayer to Ms. X did.
She isn’t real. He doesn’t believe. But praying to her works.