The Atheist Prayer Experiment

I listen to an large number of podcasts. In fact I’d go so far as to say that when I’m working from home or out and about with my iPod, my listening is 99% podcasts. They vary from music podcasts to comedy and audio stories right the way to science based. There are some atheist podcasts and there is a sole Christian podcast in the list.

That Christian podcast is Unbelievable? (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/unbelievable/id267142101) From UK Christian radio station Premier. The basic format is that the Christian host takes a subject each week and generally chairs a discussion between a theist and a non-theist. Usually the theist is a Christian. I find the show is generally well balanced and I appreciate the honest discussion that follows. I think Justin (the host) does a very good job.

Now that the plug is out of the way; last year they ran An Atheist Prayer Experiment (http://www.premier.org.uk/atheistprayerexperiment). I’m so far behind on listening to the podcast that I’m only just catching up with the results shows. The basic idea was to challenge Atheists to pray daily for 40 days asking God to reveal Himself to them.

My Thoughts

When I first heard about the challenge, I did consider if I would have taken part. The experiment was already over by the time I heard the first podcast advertising it. My conclusion was that no I would not take part because I would more than likely be guilty of not being open enough to pray the prayer and mean it. Surely that would disqualify me as I could not be objective.

The conclusion from that was that if the only people would be able to take part where those who were considered open to their being a god, then surely they can’t call themselves atheists can they? While I applaud the sentiment behind the experiment I do see it as being a bit valueless.

Testing God?

Having ruled myself out of taking part, my next thought was that surely this would come under the banner of testing god and the Bible specifically warns against this doesn’t it. I had a brief conversation with my pastor (since I no longer attend the church is he still my paster? Who cares, he’s a good chap and a good friend so for clarity I’ll refer to him as my pastor) on this and we both seemed to agree that it did get close to falling foul of that.

Rather naughtily I asked the question “In that case, isn’t all prayer testing god?” Hmmm, I think the answer to that is a whole blog post on its own. Anyway, we agreed that the boundary was more a fat grey line than an absolute boundary.

Later I would discuss this with my wife and while we too agreed it was a largely valueless experiment, her answer to the testing god question was that the warning to not test god was more about seeking a bargain than it was about praying this sort of prayer. I asked her if Jacob and the Fleece was a test, she said yes. We agreed that since the command came much later than Jacob’s bargain that we’d let him off on this occasion.

Praying on Video

In order to protect himself from accusations of not being sincere, one participant recorded a video of himself praying. Christians commented that the prayer was genuine and complimented him on his prayer. The participant reported that he felt humiliated by it. I wondered why they were complimenting him on the words he used, surely it’s the state of his heart and mind towards god that is of greater importance!

It’s a Christian Win-Win

Regardless of the results, Christians can claim a win here. If there were many converts, well the answer is obvious. For each of those who don’t convert, well they were clearly not open to god’s message or the time wasn’t right for them, or any other apologetic reasoning.

As it happens, there was a tiny number of converts out of the 70-odd participants.

 

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8 thoughts on “The Atheist Prayer Experiment

  1. The NY Times recently ran an article titled “Addicted to Prayer” (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/addicted-to-prayer.html). In it, Sigfried Gold (full story in another article here: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-24/local/40163710_1_atheists-supernatural-god-prayer) used prayer to a non-existent African-American Lesbian god to help control a food addiction and weight problem.

    From what I’ve read, and experienced of certain prayer, that level of emotional submission can be a profound experience. But it doesn’t mean that there is a god, or that you are actually communicating with anything real. If anything, it’s more like an emotional ejaculation, and while beneficial, confusing it with supernatural communication is deluded thinking. My own prayer experience is actually what set me on the path to atheism. Specifically because it taught me how useless subjective experiences are in the search for truth.

    About 11 years ago I was an agnostic deist with a highly developed and groovy God who was neuter, eastern philosophy friendly, and utterly apathetic to the human race. What then caused me to delve into the narcissism of theistic wish-casting? Why love of course. My ex-fiance had left me for some loser and I fell to my knees and called out to god to guide my achy-breaky-heart, and would you know it, the Great and Powerful Dear Abbie replied, and a calm came over me. I had totally just communed with the All Powerful Creator of the Universe and he had totally just told me to chill. It was awesome. So awesome in fact that I shared this profound religious experience with my ex-fiance in a bid for her heart. She was so inspired by this that she had her own little conversation with the Great Adviser and was told to immediately elope with the ex-con junky that she had shacked up with. Oops! So much for subjective experience.

    So, could I fall before a god and pray with all my might, and then feel better for it? Yes, I know I could. And it is at times tempting when I’m stressed out, but it wouldn’t be real. It’s like masturbating to the sex you’re having in your mind, if you believe that sex is real, that it really happened, then you are deluded. Why then does that communion with a god any different?

    I think there is much value in a submissive style of meditation like some prayer, I just don’t think it should shape your view of reality. The human mind is too fickle a thing for revelation to be relevant in the discourse of truth.

    • Hi Justin,

      Thanks for those links, I wasn’t aware of them, they made for interesting reading. I philosophers love results like that!

      The impression I get from them is that it reinforces the notion that prayer only benefits the prayer and it serves to strengthen their already held position.

      • I thought it was a worthless challenge told him to either drop it or first answer some of the issues other people and I raised and he refused. I think only one person agreed to take up the challege

  2. What if you framed the experiment in terms of miracles? You even get to pick the miracle. Take 10 things that are not likely to happen and that you think God would like to answer with a divine intervention. Ask him daily to take his pick. Write them down. Ask others to help you pray. Fasting can’t hurt either.

    But you can’t expect the test to work if you’re wicked. God hides his face from evil people. For a month or so, you’ll have to give up your sexual addiction, etc. You’d also have to rid yourself of pride. I know it’s asking a lot, even of a devout Christian, but I’ve personally seen miracles. Relaying them to you would not be convincing, because you’ve heard stories like Don Piper’s before and rejected them. You have to have your own miracle.

    But as you pray, remember that those who are given more have a higher expectation on them. To whom much is given, much is required. So if you ask for a spectacular miracle and do nothing about it after you have one, the punishment will be greater.

    And I know the vast majority of atheists won’t try an experiment like this. They are comfortable in their world view, and they’d like to keep it as much as I want to keep mine. This is for the brave and discontented. The thought of giving your entire life to an experiment for a month seems like a huge investment, I’m sure. But what have you got to lose? A month is nothing in the broader scheme of your life. And when you factor in an eternal soul, what would a man trade for that?

    With all these people (some rational, most not) claiming their own, first hand spiritual experiences, isn’t it likely that at least some of them are real? Once you have your own divine encounter, these kinds of questions fall away. If I wasn’t already a theist, I’d take the challenge. Losing a month on an experiment like this isn’t a very high price to pay. A diet takes more work and is subject to all the same excuses.

  3. Pingback: Good Riddance 2013 | Confessions Of A YEC

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