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.

 

Pondering the effectiveness of Prayer

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that during my Christian days I was utterly convinced of the effectiveness of prayer.

Over the last two decades (and probably more) there have been a number of tests for the effectiveness of prayer, this article is just one example of many that exist on the subject (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/23/AR2006032302177.html). It was during the 1990s that I first became aware of such tests and the negative conclusions. As a dedicated Christian at the time I very quickly dismissed them; referring to Luke chapter 4 and not testing God (http://bible.cc/luke/4-12.htm).

It was clear in my mind at the time that these attempts by doubting scientists were invoking some form of supernatural hide and seek and God was not going to perform for them.

Over the years, as more and more of these articles came out, the conclusions started to bother me more and more. My pat apologetics to the problem was becoming less convincing to myself and for a while I actively ignored the difficulties it caused me.

Anyway, there was always the major power of prayer event that happened to me that I could fall back on (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/the-dramatic-deliverance/). After that event I did get involved in my church’s prayer for healing ministry and over the next few years prayed for a fair few people. I saw many blessed by the experience of prayer, that is to say they said they felt blessed and the walked away smiling. Did I ever experienced something that would categorically come under the banner of answered prayer that I could honestly say would have been validated by a scientists watching?

No. There was once a time when a friend and I were praying for an elderly lady at a weekend away and she specifically asked for prayer for her failing hearing. My friend and I prayed for that, we were full of faith that it could happen, and after what felt like 10-15 minutes she did say, in response to my friend asking, that yes her hearing had improved a little. We both praised the Lord. However, even at that time, I did hold a little doubt in my mind that she was actually being completely truthful. I can’t explain why I questioned her honesty, it was a good 15 years before I was to start the path I am on today. So, no I don’t believe I ever saw anything that qualified as supernatural answer to prayer.

Yet for many years I continued to accept and believe that the power of prayer was real and effective around the world constantly.

When I look back now I do wonder if my prayer experiences and the reports of studies failing to find a link would sow a seed of doubt that would later take root. I can’t say for certain that is the case, I think its just one of those things that sits there and nags at the sub conscious and suddenly you realise its there when other things click into place.

When I read those same studies and articles now I do see how they are rigorous and not at all biased against faith. They are honest testing and should be taken seriously and for me they serve as proof that I do now hold the right answer.

Deliverance Follow-up

Another long posts here; before reading, it would be a good idea to make sure you have read this post first: https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/the-dramatic-deliverance/

Following my deliverance experience much changed in my life. My focus changed from being reading about creationism to reading about the Christian approach to deliverance and, more generally, healing. As time went on I would return to soaking up all sort of creationist literature, but for the following couple of years at least that would take a back seat.

A few days after the deliverance experience I was in a room with about 20 other young adults from the church for our regular 18+ meet up. During group prayer time I had a reoccurrence of the recent events. I was sitting cross-legged and as someone started praying, I think it was the first prayer of the evening; I started making incoherent noises and my rear started lifting up and dropping in a very rapid bouncing movement. To say it freaked out those who were there was a bit of an understatement.

Most of those there knew of the events previously, but not all and they were certainly not all comfortable with the concept of demons. One girl in particular was extremely distraught by what she saw and immediately fled the room.

It wasn’t long before control was regained, but it was blindingly obvious that everyone in the room was out of their depth. A phone call was made and I was immediately taken to the vicars house (the same vicar who had accompanied me during the deliverance) to spend the night.

That was to be the last time anything like that would happen to me.

God, save me!

Some evenings later (it may have been as much as a couple of weeks later) I had the most scary event of that period, and possibly the most scary moment of my entire life. I was woken from sleep in the early hours by what can best be described as feeling like someone was sitting on my chest. It was very disturbing. I tried to remove the mystery weight, only to discover that I could not move at all. None of my limbs responded to my attempts at movement. What made matters worse was that the compression on my chest was so heavy that for long moments I could not draw a breath.

When I tried to call out, I found I had no voice, a combination of not enough air in my lungs and no muscle control.

With my breath running low and feeling like I was being physically held down by an unseen force, its not at all surprising that I was utterly terrified. As panic rose up through me, in a last ditch effort I managed to call out “God, help me”. Its was more of a hoarse whisper than a shout, despite thinking that I was screaming it. In that instant I was sitting upright in bed, I was able to breath again and all muscle control was back.

On recounting the story it was diagnosed as a demonic attack.

Years later I would discover that what I actually experienced was very likely sleep paralysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis), a known phenomena that can be triggered by stressful events. This discovery was a key moment for me. It meant that is such a vivid and pivotal experience that was automatically assumed to be of supernatural origin was actually far more mundane and explainable. If this experience could be explained so easily; then what of all the others? It was no longer acceptable to just accept the experiences of the past in the religious context I had always judged them. It was now essential to me to doubt them all. If its possible to psychologically explain something that is assumed to be supernatural, then for something to be truly supernatural it must defy any other explanation. I could not in full honesty say that anything I had experienced met that criteria and so it should all be doubted.

Back to the story

A week later, on a far less dramatic social night out a friend commented to me that I looked so much better. He specifically pointed out that it showed in my eyes. Those around all agreed with his diagnosis.

Inside I had changed too, specifically my feelings towards my father were very different. The hate and bitterness that I felt towards him were gone and I just wanted to love him as a father. Our relationship wasn’t fixed, far from it, there would be much pain and hurt yet to experience there; but the way I felt towards him was very different.

My girlfriend noticed it too. It was a couple of weeks later when she said that she found I had changed to such an extent it was like she was having to get to know me all over again. I was still the same person but my attitude and outlook were different. I can’t remember the exact words she used to describe the change, only that it was mostly positive but that scale of the change in character was unnerving to her.

A prophesy

It was probably a couple of months later when the church had an outing to another church to attend a weekend of healing lectures and workshops. By now I had become involved in the church’s prayer for healing group.

During one of the sessions at this church a gentleman was introduced to us all and we were told he had a gift of prophesy or discernment (something like that, I can’t remember exactly). Anyway, this chap would wander round the hall while we were singing the next song and see what came to him.

The song started and I was vaguely aware of him passing through and stopping and saying something to one or two people. I was in the back row, next to my girlfriend and he eventually passed behind us and carried on. No reaction.

At the end of the song, the gentleman was brought to the front and there was a bit of chat about what was discerned, nothing special. Then he pointed me out and said ‘this man is going to have an apostolic ministry’.

I whispered to my girlfriend, “is he pointing at me?”. “No” came the reply. I shot him a questioning glance. The speaker running the session sought clarification. The man in front of me pointed at himself and asked “do you mean me?” “No” was the reply.

I point at myself, “Me?”. “Yes, you”. My legs buckled under me and I had to sit down quick before I hit the floor. I only just made it. My mind was blur and I struggled to comprehend what was being implied and how it could possibly fit with what had been happening to me. The couple of months leading up to this moment had been a whirlwind, both emotionally and spiritually.

Given the number of people from my church who witnessed the prophesy, including the aforementioned vicar and his lovely wife, I became a bit of a minor celebrity. I was wisely cautioned against trying to self fulfil the prophesy and advised to consider all the things that had happened to me carefully. Over the years, as I moved location (and therefore church) or had ministers come and go I’ve told very few people of these events, mainly just the ministers and vicars.

There is probably more I could tell but this post is long enough already, and not the key facts are here so I’ll leave it here. As always questions are welcome.

 

The Dramatic Deliverance

Okay, big post coming up…

It’s a bit of a tangent to my creationism story but since the details I am about to recount are part of that story I feel its important to tell it, even if I am a tad hesitant. I am still not absolutely certain how much detail to give, I’ll make that up as I go along, I am very happy to answer any questions that come up in the comments.

It all came about as a result of counselling. My relationship with my father was at an all time low and it was having a big effect on me. I carried a huge amount of baggage due to the divorce of my parents and I found it extremely difficult to make friends and maintain good relationships.

So, with some pestering, I went to a Christian counselling service. I can’t remember much of the detail of want went on in the sessions, but it was a very important outlet for me. I was able to talk about issues that affected me in an honest and frank way; which I have never done before.

The end of the counselling sessions happened to coincide with a special healing service at the church I attended. This was going to be a service which focused on the need for healing, in all the Christian senses, and would major on individuals receiving specific prayer. For practical purposes, this service would be held in the Church Hall and not in the much larger sanctuary, which was filled with rows of pews.

I remember little of the service itself, when the time came for the prayer ministry I went forward. I explained to the gentleman that would be praying with me that I had just been going through counselling for personal issues and that now it was over I wanted to dedicate it all to God, especially my relationship with my father.

If I had even had the remotest hint about what was going to happen that evening, I’d have probably stayed in my flat. What happened next would be a major event in my life and define my way of thinking for a long time to come.

The gentleman prayed for me in response to what I had just discussed with him and as he finished I toppled back and hit the floor; ‘Slain in the Spirit’ is a common phrased used to describe it when someone falls over after receiving prayer in those circumstances. Usually said person enters a relaxed state and is left on their own in peace, only being interrupted if they take too long to get up again and return to their seat.

For me it would be utterly different.

Instead of relaxing I started hyperventilating, this I didn’t expect. The hyperventilating gave way to unpleasant noises and an uncomfortable tingling sensation. Instead of peace fear started to build because now I had an idea of what was coming next and I really wasn’t ready for it at all.

Recognising what was happening; a couple of nearby prayers immediately crouched down next to me and started commanding demons to leave me. Some minutes later (I have no idea how long exactly), the woman who was one of the prayers light heartedly commented “well that’s got rid of half a dozen”. Immediately my throat contracted and I had to fight hard to control the urge to rebuke her directly with words along the lines of “Do not joke about such things”. I have no idea where that urge came from, because it was never in my nature to be confrontational like that.

Very soon after the wife of the husband-wife team running the healing ministry service came over and instructed that I was removed from the meeting. I can’t remember what was said specifically, but it was clear I was being disruptive and that it wasn’t going to end soon. I remember being disappointed by her tone and it came across unsympathetic and unloving. She would later apologise to me for what was said and explain why I needed to be removed. Sadly the respect she had previously lost would never be regained from me.

So, there I was, being half carried half frog marched from the hall into the back of the church sanctuary by people I didn’t know feeling very dazed and extremely emotional.

Thankfully it was the church that I regularly attended and so being placed in a chair at the back of a church I knew, which was only half lit, was both comforting and relaxing. The resident minister of the church was also a man I knew well and respected immensely so it was a great comfort to see him come join my group of attendees.

I don’t recall if the original prayers remained in the hall or came with me, but the focus of what happened next changed. I had about 5 or 6 people standing around me now, one of whom was the church minister already mentioned. Another of note is an older lady, not the same one who made the of hand comment earlier. This lady had a man in constant attendance, he would whisper things to her (which I could hear) and she would repeat them to the group. Yet I do not recall anyone acknowledging him at all. Although I would see the lady again in future services, I would never see the man again. I came to the conclusion that he was an angel guiding the process of my deliverance.

I don’t remember who any of the other people with me were.

I have no idea how long the rest of my deliverance experience lasted, it involved praying to God for guidance, naming of emotions, instructing demons to leave and the invocation of the name of Jesus and the power of his blood.

At one point the minister picked up my right wrist and examined a bracelet I had on. It was a twisted copper and silver bracelet from Zambia, which was made to look like a snake was circling my wrist. He eyed it thoughtfully for a moment and then placed my hand back on the arm of the chair. Later, back at my flat, with my right arm twitching uncontrollably I removed the bracelet and dropped it in the bin, the twitching stopped instantly. On being told this later, the minister responded with a smile “well that’ll teach me not to listen to God”.

When it was decided enough was enough and my ordeal was over, at least for that night, I was escorted back into the church hall. The service was long over and most people had left, it was just a few stragglers and tidy uppers left. Those I knew were keen to see how I was. I just wanted to hug my girlfriend and tell her how much I loved her, which I did. Understandably, the whole process had been very upsetting for her and she had sought solace with the minister’s wife, a most wonderful lady with a fabulously welcoming smile and the gentlest demeanour you could ever wish to experience.

That’s pretty much it for the deliverance part. There is a follow up which will have to have a post of its own.

I can still Vaguely Remember Becoming a Christian

I would have been about 6 years old, so into my second year at boarding school. I can’t specifically remember when or where, but it was while away at school. I think it was while in bed one evening waiting for sleep to come.

I prayed the prayer we’d all been taught to pray about asking God to come into our heart and about being sorry for all my sins. What followed was a tingling sensation and a feeling of euphoria. That’s about the best I can remember it, given it was so long ago.

From that point on my desire to follow the Christian life carried on through all my growing up and well into adult hood; encouraged, as always, by my parents and teachers.

Of course there was to be lots of bible study and instruction on how to lead a life as a good Christian. Much of the stuff is easily transferable as instruction on how to live as a decent person, stuff that is so ingrained into me as a person that I can’t see how I could live without those values. Though to be honest, I don’t see why I would want to live without those values; after all, if everyone followed those values, the world would be a much more enjoyable place to be.

How do I view my child conversion through the eyes of an adult atheist?

Its not so easy to answer to be honest.

Certainly I have to acknowledge that it was the result of indoctrination, in the sense that there was no escape from the message Christianity. The prayer of a child to an unseen God was a prayer that was encouraged regularly. The feelings of euphoria post conversion and the other sensations were expected because I had been told to expect them and I knew others at the time who had already experienced the same. In later years, as a teen, I would discuss the same experience with others who confirmed the same feelings post conversion.

Not having any psychological qualification I can’t really comment with authority, but I strongly suspect that my young mind was easily suggestible and since a child of that age tends not to question anything an adult tells them, my mind simply followed the script already given it and so the conversion process panned out on cue.

Could there be another explanation?

I’d be interested in a psychologists take on the body’s response to this conversion experience, because while I can’t fully explain it. I am sure there ought to be an explanation that describes it though it would be hard to scientifically monitor someone going through a conversion process due to there being too many emotional variables. The whole point of the conversion process being a very private event between a believer and God would make it hard to monitor in any way that’s not intrusive to some level.

Do I regret my Conversion?

No I don’t regret it, its made me what I am and there is no changing that. Yes its sent me on an intellectual dead end with regards to denying evolution, but that’s not Christianity per se, more the quality of belief I was led into. Much more on the creationism doctrine to come in a later post as that really didn’t emerge until my 20s.

I certainly hold no ill will towards my parents or those teachers for sending me on that path in life. That would be pointless, that’s my background, that’s what made me. Yes with hindsight it would be nice to have not had that distraction for all those years. However, the bottom line is my life would have been very different without the influence of Christianity and to wish it hadn’t happened would be to also wish the many wonderful experiences that I treasure out of existence too. So I accept that its been a part of my life for a long time, Christianity has brought far more positive influences than negative, so on the whole there is little point in wishing it away, better to make more of a positive impact with the life I have left than harp on about when could have been had it been different.