Why would an atheist -- who by definition does not believe in God -- pray?

A Washington Post article by Michelle Boorstein spotlighted the fascinating phenomenon of a minority of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated who take to prayer, chaplaincy and other commonly religious practices as a way to experience community with others, relax, meditate and connect to something other than the physical.

The Post leads with Sigfried Gold, who "drops to his knees on the beige carpeting of his bedroom, lowers his forehead to the floor and prays to God" twice a day.

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.

While Gold may be a unique example, he represents something bigger among the 20 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, as a recent national survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found. The survey, released in October, estimated there to be 46 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. That includes 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics and 33 million people who don't identify with any religion.

Among that broad group, which is commonly referred by researchers as the "nones," more than two-thirds of people said they believe in God, more than half said they frequently feel a deep spiritual connection with nature and the Earth, more than one-third see themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and one in five pray daily.

Among atheists and agnostics, 14 percent of said religion was "somewhat important" in their lives, while 17 percent said they took part in daily, weekly or monthly prayer.

In a HuffPost article last fall, Pew senior researcher Greg Smith explained some of the statistics on the "nones."

Smith said the growth in nones can be largely attributed to the gradual replacement of older, generally more religious generations with younger, generally less religious generations.

The survey found that one-third of adults under 30 do not see themselves as members of any religion, compared to one in 10 among people 65 and older.

"Young people are also more likely to be nones than previous generations were at similar stages in their lives," said Smith.

While it's clear that the "nones" are growing and that some atheists pray, not all nonbelievers think it's fair to call prayerful atheists by the same name.

"If you pray to a supernatural being or force you call 'God,' you are not an atheist," said David G. McAfee, who wrote "Mom, Dad, I'm an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-Believer."

Still, it's undeniable that atheists are picking up habits traditionally found among the religious. Just last week, an "atheist church" had it's first meeting in New York City.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least religious cities in the United States:
Loading Slideshow...
  • Salt Lake City, UT

    73,487 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Birmingham, AL

    Metro area Birmingham-Hoover, AL<br> 70,990 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Oklahoma City, OK

    60,249 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Memphis, TN-MS-AR

    Metro area: Memphis, TN-MS-AR<br> 58,847 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Pittsburgh, PA

    57,695 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Chicago, IL-IN-WI

    Metro area: Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI<br> 57,162 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Providence, RI-MA

    Metro area: Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA<br> 56,840 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Boston, MA-NH

    Metro area: Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH<br> 56,765 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.<br>

  • New York, NY-NJ-PA

    Metro area: New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA<br> 55,595 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Dallas, TX

    Metro area: Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX<br> 55,536 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Houston, TX

    Metro area: Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX<br> 55,144 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Buffalo, NY

    Meto area: Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY<br> 54,706 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD

    Metro area: Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD<br> 54,668 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/39/Independence_Hall.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • San Antonio, TX

    Metro area: San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX<br> 54,093 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • New Orleans, LA

    Metro area: New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA<br> 53,479 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Minneapolis, MN-WI

    Metro area: Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI<br> 52,061 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Milwaukee, WI

    Metro area: Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Alis, WI<br> 51,823 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Charlotte, NC-SC

    Metro area: Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC<br> 51,764 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Los Angeles, CA

    Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA<br> 51,382 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Cleveland, OH

    Metro area: Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH<br> 51,185 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Nashville, TN

    Metro area: Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN<br> 50,694 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Louisville, KY-IN

    Metro area: Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN<br> 50,445 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Richmond, VA

    50,113 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Jacksonville, Florida

    50,093 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Atlanta, GA

    Metro area: Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA<br> 49,721 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Kansas City, MO-KS

    49,702 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • St. Louis, MO-IL

    48,889 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Hartford, CT

    Metro area: Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT<br> 47,226 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN

    Metro area: Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN<br> 44,672 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Detroit, MI

    Metro area: Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI<br> 44,583 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV

    Metro area: Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV<br> 44,576 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Raleigh, NC

    Metro area: Raleigh-Cary, NC<br> 44,469 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • San Jose, CA

    Metro area: San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA<br> 44,189 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Rochester, NY

    44,066 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Austin, TX

    Metro area: Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX<br> 43,921 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • San Diego, CA

    Metro area: San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA<br> 43,917 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Riverside, CA

    Metro area: Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA<br> 42,293 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Indianapolis, IN

    Metro area: Indianapolis-Carmel, IN<br> 42,213 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Baltimore, MD

    Metro area: Baltimore-Towson, MD<br> 42,077 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Virginia Beach, VA-NC

    Metro area: Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC<br> 40,417 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Orlando, FL

    Metro area: Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL<br> 40,631 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Miami, FL

    Metro area: Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL<br> 38,058 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • San Francisco, CA

    Metro area: San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA<br> 37,796 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Columbus, OH

    37,702 religious adherents per 100,000 persons.

  • Denver, CO

    Metro area: Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO<br> 36,968 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Phoenix, AZ

    Metro area: Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ<br> 37,518 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Sacramento, CA

    Metro area: Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Rosenville, CA<br> 36,512 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Las Vegas, NV

    Metro area: Las Vegas-Paradise, NV<br> 35,761 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Seattle, WA

    Metro area: Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA<br> 35,643 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Tampa, FL

    Metro area: Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL<br> 34,761 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>

  • Portland, OR-WA

    Metro area: Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA<br> 31,591 religious adherents per 100,000 persons. <br>