WASHINGTON — 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 only be characterized as a “miracle.” His life has been mysteriously transformed, he says, by the power of asking.
“If you say: ‘I ought to have more serenity about the things I can’t change,’ vs ‘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,” said Gold, who lives in Takoma Park, Md.
While Gold’s enthusiasm for spiritual texts and kneeling to a “God” may make him unusual among atheists, his hunger for a transcendent experience with forces he can’t always explain turns out to be more common.
New research on atheists by the Pew Research Center shows a range of beliefs. Eighteen percent of atheists say religion has some importance in their life, 26 percent say they are spiritual or religious and 14 percent believe in “God or a universal spirit.” Of all Americans who say they don’t believe in God — not all define themselves as “atheist” — 12 percent say they pray.
Responding to this diversity, secular chaplains are popping up at universities from Rutgers to American to Carnegie Mellon, and parents are creating atheist Sunday schools, igniting debate among atheists over how far they should go in emulating their theist kin.
Atheists deny religion’s claim of a supernatural God, but are starting to look more closely at the “very real effect” that practices such as church-going, prayer and observance of a Sabbath have on the lives of the religious, said Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for the secular advocacy group The Center for Inquiry. “That’s a big hole in atheist life,” he said. “Some atheists are saying ‘Let’s fill it.’ Others are saying ‘Let’s not.’ “
Some prominent atheists, including the writer Sam Harris, are exploring the spiritual value of “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” he wrote in a recent essay. However, “there is a lot of resistance to that among other atheists, who think it sounds very hocus-pocusy,” Fidalgo said.
Gordon Melton, a prominent historian of new American religions, said it’s only been in the past decade that atheists have become organized and the range of their views has therefore become more known. Sociologists have also just begun asking more complex questions about faith to all respondents.
“It’s only been recently that people who are atheists said: ‘One can do spirituality in an atheist context,’ ” Melton said. “We’re getting more comfortable with idiosyncratic behaviors [in general], mixing things we’d not think of as going together. We see people are kind of making up their own religions as they go along. . . . When we think of people sitting in the pews we shouldn’t think of them homogeneously; they are all over the fields, they just aren’t voicing it. “
For example, what exactly do theists mean when they say they believe in God, to whom do they pray and how do they feel the benefits from prayer happen? How would atheists who describe themselves as spiritual define the word? And how do the 6 percent of self-described atheists who pray define the practice?
An atheist praying may seem like an oxymoron, and some atheists interviewed for this article reacted angrily to the concept.
“Like anything about humans, there are variations or perceptions and some humans seem to be born with this perception of ‘otherness’ or non-physical presence and it’s a mystery to me what they’re talking about,” said Steven Lowe, 62, who is on the board of directors for the Washington-area Secular Humanists.
But for other atheists, the concepts of spirituality and prayer have meaning.
Pete Sill, a 79-year-old from Arlington, attended weekly Catholic services almost his entire life, was a parish Scout leader and considers himself “very spiritual.” He meditates or does yoga for at least five hours a week and embraces various religions because he sees them as an expression of the most biological of human instincts: the need for survival. They provide a way to relate to one another and grapple with the fear of being alone, of dying. He thinks more atheists pray than the Pew statistics reveal, though he defines the word as encompassing the deep contemplation of ideas and philosophy and, most of all, living.
“I think prayer is important because it takes your mind away from the horrible aspects of everyday life.”
Vlad Chituc, a 23-year-old manager of a social neuroscience lab at Duke University, said he started college thinking religion was a negative thing but now wants its benefits . He’s working to start a regular meditation practice and seeks out places where he can pick up “that energy you feel when you’re in sync with a group of people,” such as at dance parties.
Initially, he wrote in an email that he was open to the word “spirituality,” which “really is just kind of shorthand for feeling a deeper connection to something greater than yourself.”
But what would an atheist see as “greater” than the self?
“Maybe ‘greater’ is a loaded term,” he said. “Finding meaning in something other than yourself. . . . Not something supernatural.”
Interest in atheist spirituality is climbing in the United Kingdom. Widely reviewed there last year was best-selling writer Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists,” which said non-theists like himself could achieve everything from better relationships to an end to “feelings of envy and inadequacy” by emulating the religious. A new “godless congregation” (note the lowercase “g”) for atheists in London called The Sunday Assembly that opened last fall was immediately jammed with more than 1,000 people and had to open in other locations.
Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford University anthropologist who studies the way evangelicals use imagination in prayer, said Sigfried Gold is both “common and uncommon.” He’s demonstrating a typical way some people are taught to pray, she said, by sharpening their imagination. A common Christian exercise, for example, involves envisioning meeting and talking with Jesus.
The goal of those prayers, she said, “is to use your imagination to make what you’re focusing on more present. That changes you . . . You’re not making more real your ideas about going shopping. You’re making more real this person who is the best possible person.”
Gold’s ideal is embodied by a female image he began drawing decades ago, a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X. There are drawings around the house of her, as well as various spiritual pieces of art. He gave his two young children (he recently had a daughter) middle names after Greek Gods and is open to someday changing his mind about the existence of God.
He even prays about it.
“God, if You want me to actually believe you exist, I’ll do it; I’m not married to my intellectual pride; You’ve given me so much, just give me a little whisper,” he wrote in a prayer included in a recent essay about his journey.
“But God has maintained her stately silence.”