Sunday, November 11, 2012

Atheist Prayer Experiment

I like to listen to the podcast (and radio show) "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio. They sometimes have interesting debates. But not often.

The episode today hurt my head. In it, they revealed the results from their Atheist Prayer Experiment. Their idea was based on the paper

Mawson, T. J. (2010). "Praying to stop being an atheist", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 67(3), 173-186.

I have not read the paper, but here is the premise. If someone wants to have a good reason not to believe in a god, then they should at least try looking for one first.

After the 40-day experiment, where atheists or agnostics pray to god for a revelation, here are their results.  Of the 71 atheist or agnostic participants,
2 now believe in God
2 failed to take part in the experiment
52 did not find reason to believe in god 
15 have not yet reported

I'm not surprised. But not because I think there IS NO a god.

During the podcast, they played an audio clip of one of the participants praying. He said he felt humiliated praying. He said stuff like, "Please God, reveal yourself to me in any way you deem appropriate." To me, this begs the question... just what counts as a revelation? Dr. Mawson brought up the point that the feeling of humiliation might be the sign that God sent. How clever... of Mawson, AND of God.

The problem here is that without well-defined criteria of what constitutes a sign, there is no way to objectively evaluate the results. Naturally, God does not like to be told what to do, so that's why one can't prescribe the parameters. Such unfalsifiability is bread-and-butter for the religious apologists.

I didn't take part in the experiment. Why? Well, I don't take hallucinogenic drugs or drill holes in my head because I don't want to compromise my brain's ability to function. I try to avoid being brainwashed. That may make me sound scared, like I don't want to face the reality of God. The truth is, no one wants to have their beliefs challenged. On the contrary, we guard our beliefs.

One of the atheist participants being interviewed said, "We don't choose our beliefs." I agree with that. But we CAN set up the circumstances whereby our beliefs can change. That is, our beliefs can change, but it's not usually through conscious deliberation. Emotional and physical duress can do it. And sometimes simple emotions can tip the balance. I don't want to take the risk of going off the deep end of religion. I'm perfectly capable of believing whole-heartedly in God... but that wouldn't make me right. Check out the book On Being Certain by Robert Burton.


  1. I tried this experiment on myself. I found that, after about 4 weeks, my praying became more frequent and longer. By the 40th day I actually enjoyed it and felt that, somehow, I was being heard. More, I didn't want to stop! It became a habit of sorts.
    After almost a year, I hate to admit this, but at least for me, God exists. Call it self hypnosis, whatever, but I've actually started going to Church for the first time in my life and I enjoy it, even need it now. Strange, at least I would have felt that way for sure (60 years an atheist) but maybe I need this now.

  2. Thanks for telling us your experiences, Harvey. I'm glad you've found belonging there. I respect your candor.