Is faith the world’s most effective placebo?

Mark Poprocki / iStock My 15 minutes of fame, courtesy of an article in the Washington Post featuring me as … Continued


Mark Poprocki / iStock

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.

Silverman goes on to say, “Although an argument can be made to do whatever works for you, reality works best for me. I don’t need imaginary friends—nor do most reality-based people.”

Now, I can’t claim to speak for all non-reality-based people, but I don’t need imaginary friends, either. I lived for 45 years without them. I just happened to find that when I started talking to an imaginary friend, certain struggles began to evaporate. It became easier to act according to my conscience.

When I started, I had a logical reason for praying to a nonexistent God: I could see clear evidence that a bunch of people in my 12-step program were succeeding at losing and keeping off remarkable amounts of weight while simultaneously gaining a newfound sense of serenity, happiness and freedom. I wanted what those people had; I was willing to do what they had done. So, when they told me to get on my knees and start asking God for help, I did. It didn’t change my conviction that God doesn’t exist, it just changed my practices.

Many people, performing the same experiment, have concluded that if the praying works, God must exist. I didn’t do that. I had read a lot of philosophy and psychology and decided that I could explain what was happening without falling back on supernatural beings or events. I was familiar with, among other things, studies showing that placebos can work even when patients know they are taking them.

We are all aware of the power of belief, but not everyone realizes how flexible this power is. Much can be accomplished by believing in the power of belief itself. This is not self-hypnotism or self-delusion. It is consciously making use of a scientifically demonstrable feature of the mind. If making use of recent scientific knowledge to improve one’s life is not acceptable behavior for an atheist, I don’t know what is.

Sigfried Gold
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  • WmarkW

    Yes, a person can benefit from holding an imaginary conversation with Abraham Lincoln. Or God.

    Lying to oneself is not always bad, as long as you admit the benefits are pure psychological.

  • Rusty Yates

    Faith is clearly the most addictive placebo.

  • ThomasBaum

    As I have said before, sometimes God rewards “faith” with “knowledge” and I would be the first to say that I can not prove this knowledge to anyone, only God can and God will in due time, God’s Time.

  • gladerunner

    “So, when they told me to get on my knees and start asking God for help, I did. It didn’t change my conviction that God doesn’t exist, it just changed my practices.”

    You changed your practices, that is what worked. You don’t even believe that a god exists, so the fact that your new practice worked for you merely means you needed to change your habits. That you aped a superstitious ritual instead of taking up knitting or playing a ukelele is moot. The only difference really being that with the former you are just whispering into the wind, with the latter two, you would be learning a new (albeit also a pretty much useless) skill. In my mind the preferred choice is rather obvious.
    To me, dropping down on a knee and mumbling to a creature I don’t even believe in is just a slow, Rube-Goldberg way of eventually wearing a hole in the knee of my pants.
    But we’re not going to kick you out of the brotherhood of atheists, we can’t, we’re not an organization. You can even lie to us or yourself about being an atheist, since we’re not an organization we don’t have any membership rules.

    BTW, I’ve recently managed to lose a good amount of middle-age weight without the rituals and the meetings. But different people are motivated differently, so, I guess, go with what works for you.

    Oh alright, I’ll share my dieting ‘secret’. It’s a simpler, one step plan, too simple you think?
    1. Stop eating stupidly.
    Seriously, it works. Bonus: No meetings.
    I didn’t say it was easy, it certainly isn’t, there were a lot of life-long bad habits to give up at one time. But it was high time to man up and create new habits.
    People pray for an eternal life, I control my diet now precisely because I only get this one, short, mortal life.
    Either way, I hope you achieve your goals.

  • leibowde84

    But, you must also recognize that most people would see this as a cop-out. Merely a meaningless statement that is a distraction from the principle that there is no evidence of God’s existence. I wholeheartedly believe in God, but I also understand that I could be wrong … as that is a necessary part of any belief.

  • SimonTemplar

    “I could see clear evidence that a bunch of people in my 12-step program were succeeding at losing and keeping off remarkable amounts of weight while simultaneously gaining a newfound sense of serenity, happiness and freedom. I wanted what those people had; I was willing to do what they had done. So, when they told me to get on my knees and start asking God for help, I did. It didn’t change my conviction that God doesn’t exist, it just changed my practices.” –Gold

    That is absolute PROOF that some people will choose not to believe in God even if they see evidence of His existence.

    Notice:
    Gold saw people praying and getting results.
    Those same people suggested Gold ask God for help.
    Gold asks God for help.
    Golds requests for help are answered with affirmative results.
    Does Gold believe God answered his prayers?
    NO. Instead he chooses to see some psychological/placebo effect at work.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84

    You wrote, “But, you must also recognize that most people would see this as a cop-out. Merely a meaningless statement that is a distraction from the principle that there is no evidence of God’s existence.”

    I believe that the only true evidence of the existence of God can only be given by God, I speak because I was told that only I could say it and I was not even told what the “it” was/is, doesn’t really matter if anyone believes what I say or not, only that I say it.

    There is only a little that I know and there is plenty that I believe and there is also plenty that I don’t have a clue about.

    In other words, I am not a know-it-all but I do know that I don’t need to be a know-it-all.

  • Henry452

    If you’re praying, you’re acknowledging a higher poer. That’s OK. How else could man have evolved to this point. Invention of the cell phone? I couldn’t even conceive of the cell phone,yet put the whole thing into reality. Doesn’t that tell you there is a higher power we can tap into? Yes, we are created in the image and likenss of God, whatever that is. This whole thing cannot have evolved out of an explosion. KEEP PRAYING. You’re definitely onto something.

  • Rongoklunk

    As an atheist I’d say you can do whatever you like if it works. I do an old exercise of being silent, really silent sitting upright in a chair, and being aware of everything around you; the air you breathe, the ticking of the clock, and feeling the weight of your feet on the floor, your legs and body sitting in the chair; be aware of where you are geographically. And stop thinking. That is the goal, and almost impossible to achieve. But over time one can get close to stopping all thought. But just the exercise itself is worth doing; being aware – even for just a few minutes is refreshing and relaxing. I guess it’s from Ouspensky and Gurdjieff exercises of awareness.

  • Rongoklunk

    Because nobody wants to face the reality of death. That’s all it is. Denial of our eventual extinction.
    People will do anything to avoid that truth, especially inventing a god and a heaven where people go after death. As if….

  • Catken1

    Well, we still do need a control group. Maybe we should recruit some others to pray to different gods, and still others to talk to themselves on their knees for a bit, and see whether any of them work better than the others.
    Science has to be rigorous in this respect. Otherwise, I might conclude that there is evidence that beginning to eat dinner causes the phone to ring.

  • Catken1

    And if God answers someone’s prayer to lose weight, why didn’t he answer the prayers of all the parents who begged them to save their children from smallpox, or tuberculosis, or other diseases? Science did – vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation have dropped the infant and child mortality rate substantially. But prayer never did make any dent therein.

  • SimonTemplar

    You’ve missed my point.

  • Catken1

    What point? That anecdotal success justifies belief, indeed makes it necessary?
    Nor have you answered my question. Why would a kind God be willing to answer the prayers of someone seeking to lose weight, but not those of a desperate parent pleading for the life of a child?

  • leibowde84

    Good point. I agree. All I was pointing out is that Atheists are after objective truth. The “knowledge” of which you speak deals exclusively with subjective truth … or, in other words, the truth in terms of how YOU see it. Whether or not your beliefs end up being accurate doesn’t matter. It must be acknowledged by every believer that there is a big difference between what you believe to be true and what can actually be objectively seen as true.

  • 3vandrum

    You are not an atheist, you are confused. May be you are an agnostic. Your fellow atheist friends are right about you. You may completely reject supernatural explanations for why things happen in the world and in your life, still that does not qualify you as an atheist. You believe in meditation. You are already doing 30 to 45 of meditation in addition to prayer. Skip the prayer part to qualify you as an atheist. Your whole package sounds more like some Buddhist philosophy or some schools of Hindu philosophies which are atheistic. You may remain as an agnostic until you make up your mind to join the atheists or join the theists wholeheartedly.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84

    You wrote, “All I was pointing out is that Atheists are after objective truth.”

    “Objective truth” as used here is the study of everything in the natural world and even tho some atheists, and I believe this to be very few but sometimes very vocal atheists, seem to think that ALL believers want to have nothing to do with the study of the natural world.

    In other words, atheists are the only ones after objective truth which is simply not true but some of the hard core ones, so to speak, think that they “know” that there is nothing more than meets the eye.

    I think that the funny thing about this is that this so-called “knowing” goes against the scientific method and no reputable scientist would say that they “know” that since they can’t prove something than that is proof that it is not, the honest answer would be, I don’t know”.

    Of course, some would say that my “knowing” that God Is goes against the scientific method and I would agree but I believe that there are some things that are beyond science and the scientific method.

    You also wrote, “It must be acknowledged by every believer that there is a big difference between what you believe to be true and what can actually be objectively seen as true.”

    I’ve run into quite a few “believers” that seem to think that “believe and know” are one and the same word, when in truth they have quite different meanings.

    Also, I know that I can not prove that God Is and I believe that no one except for God can prove that God Is.

  • Secular1

    Because it does not exist

  • PhillyJimi1

    You’re like a 45 year old going to a department store Santa Claus to ask for something for Christmas.

    What you call prayer is actually a form of meditation. You’re twisting words in a lame attempt to create some kind of catchy article about an atheist who prays, but in reality it is just silly.

  • Phi33

    “Stop eating stupidly” – That’s like saying to a drug addict, “Just say no”.

    It just displays that you don’t know anything about the obssesive, compulsive, thought processes of addicts.

  • leibowde84

    I don’t think you understand where most Atheists are coming from. I would say that most don’t claim to “know” that God doesn’t exist. They simply think that there is no point in praying or believing in a higher power when there is no way to know that it exists. In other words, I think they feel like they are better off not worrying about a deity that may or may not exist. Thus, they simply adhere to what can be proven in the physical world, as they see everything else as a waste of time.

  • leibowde84

    So, you think that God created the cell-phone?

  • leibowde84

    God may or may not have had something to do with the creation of the cell-phone, but all we know is that man came up with the idea and brought it to fruition.

  • Sigfried Steven Gold

    gladerunner — I am an addict. And one reason I feel like I’ve had a spiritual transformation or conversion that leads me to want to share my experience (as a person who has had to develop creative and weird mental constructs to support my growth and recovery) is that I no longer struggle in the way you describe to do the right thing. If you check out pp. 86-87 of the Big Book, it speaks eloquently to the way we can use our faith, whatever it is, to quit struggling. If you’d like to contact me privately I’d be very glad to talk more at length about all this.

  • gladerunner

    Mr. Gold;
    I am flattered by your response, thank you.
    It was not clear in your original article that you were ‘addicted’.
    I did not intend to sound dismissive about your plight, rather trying only to point out that what is required in most cases such as ours, is a long-term, perhaps permanent change in core behaviors. The Big Book, does not refute this. It in fact, seems to support it.
    What the book does, albeit it in a meandering and overtly and undeniably proselytizing manner, is to tell you that you can/must use your mind to filter/alter your motivations and ultimately, your actions and habits.
    My main point was simply, that the ‘god’ element in behavioral modification/evolution, as with physics, is simply not required to make it all work. You yourself claim that even though you pray, you do not believe there is any actual divine intervention. This certainly begs the obvious question.
    In the end, what you are really saying is that you must learn to think differently and look at things differently to behave differently, and be vigilant in maintaining the new way of thinking and acting.
    I certainly applaud your success, to whatever degree and however you achieved it, it just seems, to me, an unnecessarily convoluted methodology.
    I would certainly be open to more private, personal dialog. Not antagonistic, just educational. You seem to me to be a rather odd, yet interesting critter, deserving further study.

  • Sigfried Steven Gold

    Thank you very much. You’re right that the way I’ve gone about it is convoluted and weird. The reason I got to this convoluted and weird place of praying to a God I don’t believe exist was that I wanted to be able to communicate as clearly as possible with a bunch of people who do believe God exists. If there was another community available to me, offering the same benefits but not using God language all the time, I wouldn’t have done it. But having done it, it raises a bunch of interesting questions and led me to start writing and thinking more deeply about all this. And weird and convoluted as it is, my experience stands for me as an example of the way people can tear down theological or ideological barriers and come to deeply respect and learn from people they might otherwise find alien.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84

    You wrote, “I don’t think you understand where most Atheists are coming from.”

    Actually, I think that most atheists are not much different than most believers in the important things and as I have said previously, God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof and It is important what one does and why one does it and what one knows.

    I also think that some atheists and some believers are pretty much peas in the same pod that have a “holier than thou” attitude toward others.

    You went on to say, “I would say that most don’t claim to “know” that God doesn’t exist.”

    I agree with you, I think that it is very few but some of these do seem to be quite vocal, I also think that many, not all, who claim to “know” that God Is, don’t really “know” but believe and in many cases believe quite fervently but nevertheless believe.

    As I have said, I don’t “know” much but I do “know” a little, I didn’t ask to be a messenger and I don’t know why God chose me and in some ways I don’t want to know, I just want to attempt to say what I have been asked to say.

    By the way, I wasn’t told specifically what to say, I have had to figure out what to say, so to speak, and some of this “figuring” came to me by listening.

  • alert4jsw

    Is there some code of mental conduct for atheists that I have managed to violate?

    Yes, it’s called intellectual integrity. I don’t speak for all atheists, especially those who may have been raised from birth without belief. But for those of us who reached our atheism through apostasy, intellectual integrity is something we value highly since demanding the sacrifice of that attribute is one of the things we find most objectionable about religion.

    When you say, “I do pray to a figment of my imagination that I sometimes call God,” you are doing nothing different than every other religious person, since (as atheists believe) all gods are “figments of the imagination.”

    One of the things atheists find objectionable about many of the “12-step programs” is that they seem to rely on substituting one slightly more socially acceptable addiction for the one the participant is trying to beat. The insistence on “belief in a higher power” is a prime example. The entire process relies on convincing participants they are helpless to fight their “demon” on their own, which is the precise argument made by many religions.

    If “faith” (in the religious sense) were truly just a “placebo” it might not be so bad. But it is not. It is a toxic drug that relies on the rejection of physical evidence and rational thought in favor of blind belief in mythology and superstition.

    Your “praying to your (admittedly) imaginary god” is no different than someone who just “dabbles in drugs.” And just as one who dabbles in drugs can’t claim to be “clean,” one who dabbles in a religious practice can’t really claim to be an “atheist.”

    I suggest you look within and try to understand why it is so important to you to claim the label of “atheist.” And if that is truly important to you, then try to rise to the level of intellectual integrity required in order to do so honestly.

  • csintala79

    Well, the Buddha taught his followers to not look externally for the solution to the desires they have that lead to suffering. If you don’t believe in god or gods and don’t believe in the supernatural, how could you be looking for an external solution? Whatever good comes from whatever it is you are doing is within your power and is internal. You are healing yourself, which is possible for mental and emotional problems, but is very, very unlikely to cure physical illnesses. It is very likely that many who claim to be religious are using prayer as you do, i.e., they probably are privately skeptical about the efficacy of prayer, but are willing to give it a chance. Again, if they receive any relief from mental or emotional anguish, they are the true physician, not an external, supernatural being, sort of self-coaching.

  • csintala79

    The inability to understand how things occur in the physical world is not proof that god exists. Could the whole thing have evolved out of an explosion? Well, with 14 billion years of evolution, who knows? Actually things probably have been evolving for a lot longer. What existed before the explosion? Was it something from nothing or something from something? Did the explosion begin to fill up space or was space created by the unfolding of the explosion? What is time if there is an eternity, i.e., no beginning or first cause and no end? In relation to eternity 14 billion years is just the blink of an eye. Understanding a cell phone and how it works is a piece of cake compared to these simple questions.

  • csintala79

    Do obese Christians not believe in the power of prayer? Given the fact that 80 percent or so of Americans claim to be Christians, physical and mental problems should be very rare. Instead of 1% having all the wealth it should be that only ten percent are in poverty, and most of them should be atheists. Weight loss is achieveable by an individual exercising will power, which is under their control. Will power will not cure small pox and other physical diseases or bring great wealth to the masses.

  • csintala79

    The bottom line for most believers is that, yes, there is no objective evidence that God exists, but it will be provided; in God’s due time. In a Ponzi scheme credulous investors are promised a high rate of return, and occasionally some actually see a small return, but when requesting to see the books, they are told that the information is too complicated for them to understand, but in due time they will be given a full accounting. People continue to divest themselves of their life savings and follow a charismatic preacher to the top of a hill where they wait for the Second Coming. Unfortunately they should have demanded objective and tangible physical evidence instead of having subjective faith in promises.

  • Sigfried Steven Gold

    As long as the argument stays with the question of an objective God’s objective existence, people get stuck in these irresolvable and rather pointless disagreements. Pardon my arrogance in pointing out that unlike atheists in general, I KNOW my God does not exist: I invented Her and explicitly gave Her the quality of not existing. I don’t care about the existence or non-existence of any other gods, but the non-existence of mine is beyond doubt. At the same time, unlike believers in general, I KNOW that my God is responsible for what I perceive to be the miracles in my life, because my interpretation of them as miracles is a direct consequence of my attributing these things to the power of prayer. I don’t have to wonder, “Did God come out of the heavens to intervene in my life and cause these events?” I know She didn’t. But it is undeniable that part of the strength I used to change my behaviors was based on praying to and relying on this figment of my imagination. When the world changes (even if it’s only the part of the world arising from my own consciousness) as a result of prayer, it is appropriate to label this change a miracle — even while understanding that this label is purely determined by semantics and interpretation, not by any suspension of natural law.

    I don’t offer my experience as an argument for anyone else doing the same thing; rather, I offer it as a kind of thought experiment, to help people see how God and belief and prayer can work, even in the simplified case of a God possessing no supernatural powers.

  • ThomasBaum

    csintala79

    You wrote, “People continue to divest themselves of their life savings and follow a charismatic preacher to the top of a hill where they wait for the Second Coming.””

    Maybe they should take Jesus’s advise, it is up to them, when He extended the invitation to “Come follow Me” rather than following “a charismatic preacher” or anyone else.

  • ThomasBaum

    csintala79

    One of the questions you asked, “What is time if there is an eternity, i.e., no beginning or first cause and no end?”

    Something that time could be is created, as in before time was created there was only eternity, and a dimension that we live in and experience and yet not see.

    We speak of a three dimensional world and yet time would make this world at least four dimensional.

  • ThomasBaum

    alert4jsw

    You wrote, “If “faith” (in the religious sense) were truly just a “placebo” it might not be so bad. But it is not. It is a toxic drug that relies on the rejection of physical evidence and rational thought in favor of blind belief in mythology and superstition.”

    As I wrote in another spot, some atheists and some believers are like two peas in the same pod and both have a “holier than thou” attitude toward the other, this opinion of your seems to spell it out rather nicely.

    Of course, there are many atheists and many believers that don’t have this “holier than thou” attitude, just a guess, but I would say the majority of both don’t have this “holier than thou” attitude.

  • Steve Benfield

    Of course you are an atheist. People use all sorts of techniques to help them cope and deal with emotions, life, and decisions. Meditation, etc. While you use the label of ‘prayer’ — you aren’t doing it with the expectation that someone or some higher power is out there. You use it as way to talk through whatever it is you are dealing with. To lifelong atheist, it may seem foreign and too much like religion, but it isn’t religion. I’ve always felt there is power in belief — that is why religion helps people cope. It isn’t anything supernatural, it is their belief in a higher power that helps people cope. I grew up in a ‘churched’ family and had to ‘come out’ in my early thirties as a non-believer. The only time I go to church now is for weddings or funerals. There is a power to group worship and a sense of belonging that churchmembers get that is hard to replicate outside.

    In the end, do what works for you. If you want to pretend you are talking to someone to help you get clarity, then so be it. Anyone that judges you for that just as an ax to grind.

  • adamvanderlip

    Wow what a surprise, almost every atheist replying to this column is smug, self important and makes sweeping generalizations based on the actions/beliefs of others based on little to no direct information about the person theyre judging. Fundamentalist atheists are the worst. There oughta be a rule.

  • rustywheeler

    Yeah…as a fellow former believer, I have to disagree.

    All I’m going to say is that I still get a kick out of it when Jesus ends our conversations these days with “You still know I’m not really real, right?”

    And I smile and say “yep.”