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Atheist Prayer Experiment

Justin Brierley reviews the results of an experiment in which atheists pray for 40 days for God to reveal himself to them. Go here.

Thanks to The Atheist Missionary for drawing attention to this on twitter.

This is a win-win experiment to set up for the purposes of evangelizing of course.

Reasons why you should perhaps expect some positive reports include:

(i) Atheists who agree to sign up to this fairly onerous prayer regime are more likely to think there might be something to religious belief (one positive was clearly already flip-flopping - see the letter below).
(ii) Power of suggestion: if you tell people to pray, meditate, etc. and that something unusual may be experienced, it's rather more likely to be reported. Chris French's experiment on crystals confirms that people will tend to report unusual psychological effects whether they hold a real or fake crystal - in short the effect, such as it was, was all in the mind. There's reason to expect a similar effect here.
(iii) Events (coincidences, say) can easily be interpreted as divine signs, even when they are not.
(iv) We have a natural propensity to religiosity. Some religious response is therefore to be expected whether or not there's any truth to religion.

Any positives can function as anecdotal evidence (psychologically very effective in underpinning belief, even if typically worthless as evidence) and the negatives can be quietly downplayed or forgotten.

In addition, negative results can be explained away (and were by some commentators) as being due to the atheists not praying properly, with commitment, etc. If all results are negative, the entire episode can be dismissed as a mere absence of evidence, not evidence of absence. Brierley himself suggests God cannot be "put in a test tube" (a very useful immunizing move).

Philosopher Theist Tim Mawson (who is a friend of mine) does a pretty interesting commentary, I think (which is not to say we agree about everything). The experiment actually grew out of a paper of his.

PZ Myers's thoughts on the experiment here.

A letter received by Brierley below:

Hi Justin,

I am married to an atheist and together we have listened to your show since nearly the beginning. I have always fought against believing in God, always hearing that science and God can't mix. I tried and tried to not believe but I have always been drawn back in. I flip-flopped between fierce atheist to wishy-washy occasional Christian. I guess I felt ashamed wanting to believe so I would look for reasons and excuses not to. I would seek out anything related to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others and sort of make fun of believers. All the while I was conflicted.

I then heard about the experiment and decided to test God once and for all. I also tried to get my husband to do the experiment but he refused.

I think I was hoping he would join me so I could use the experiment kind of as a way to just admit it. I then realised that I could no longer live without God. With God I feel like I have hope and positivity. I feel safe. I feel like I have direction. I found that when I was an atheist I felt lost and alone. I just couldn't deny my belief any longer.

And so now thanks to you, your podcast and the experiment I have decided to commit my life to God. I have found peace and meaning.

No one in my family attends church so I know this will be a bit of a struggle. My husband is supportive thankfully since our 11 year-old daughter has also decided that she wants to be a Christian as well.

Until recently we weren't really pointing her in any specific faith journey. Once I decided to come out as a Christian she actually told me she was one as well but was afraid to say anything about it.
I suppose miracles do happen :)

Thank you Justin!



Steven Carr said…
'I would seek out anything related to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others and sort of make fun of believers.'

Because , of course, Dawkins and Hitchens and others never produce reasoned argumentation.

Believers think you are 'making fun' of them if you a) list their beliefs and b) quote their Holy Books.

There must be a reason why believers think describing Christianity is mocking Christianity.
Anonymous said…
Actually, Steven Carr, Dawkins and Hitchens rarely do/did (if ever) use logically valid reasoning (even though that's not what Kendra said). And I doubt listing their beliefs and quoting Holy Books is what Kendra had in mind, but nice job on misrepresenting her.
Steven Carr said…
On the contrary, I'm sure she meant by 'making fun of believers' asking them if they really believe that Mary was a virgin or whether they really believe that Jesus sent a lot of demons into a herd of pigs?

Or asking believers if they really think the Garden of Eden was in Missouri?
downtown dave said…
If there is no God/Creator, and we have a propensity to religiosity, then we are definitely a flawed species. Since there is a God/Creator, and He has set eternity in the hearts of men, then the propensity to find God makes sense.
There was a similar case, reported by Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello: he was teaching peple a form of meditation where one says for example "Jesus" when inhaling and "Christ" when exhaling (in their mind of course. After few months most of them reported signs of inner peace and emotional stability. However, says de Mello, he heard about one group achieving the same result with the words "Coca" and "Cola"...
I sent this tweet to Justin this morning:

@UnbelievableJB Now time 4 Xian Prayer Experiment. Let 100 Xians pray for 40 days & let them talk about results. I'd love to call in 4 that!

Calum Miller (@DoveTheology on twitter) has asked me to flesh this idea out and will do so tonight. terrible that work always seems to get in the way of fun!
Ryan M said…
"If there is no God/Creator, and we have a propensity to religiosity, then we are definitely a flawed species"

I don't know what the flaw would be. Grant that naturalism is true, and that humans are not the product of any sort of design. If there is no agent design, then there cannot be any flaws since there being a flaw presupposes there being design, or at least intentionality.

Given the above, what does not make sense about humans searching for God in a godless world? I would say nothing. Although even if we granted that there is some deep incompatibility with non theism and the search for God, I would say that we would find equal or greater problems with theism being true and there being people searching for polytheistic gods, or for alien creators of our species, etc.
Thrasymachus said…
The experiment has minimal value as an epidemiological study (even if all 70 converted or not, we know there are >>> 70 believers or non believers, and >>> 70 changing their minds each day.

The main value might be for the experimentee themselves. If you do it and get no answer (as I did), that seems further reason for atheism.
Alex Shuffell said…
They should do another test, compare results.

Get atheists to pray to an admittedly made up god, like Trisha, she's a horse god, every time you get a song stuck in your head that's her trying to communicate. Or get Christians to pray to a different god from a different religion.
Janet Sisson said…
Maybe next time they will give half the atheists tea with hypnotic drugs in it, to test whether that promotes faith?
Anonymous said…
"This is a win-win experiment to set up for the purposes of evangelizing of course."

Pretty much. I'm a Christian and I admit there's no evidential value in this "experiment" whatsoever (at least from an observer's perspective). There's other value to it (probably the kind only a Christian would appreciated) but definitely not evidential value.
If a prayer experiment "achieves" a result, it only means that their will would be done. And in this case I don't know how it would differ from just working together for a common goal... I mean it will not differ from any experiment which completely disregards any gods.

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