Prayer Experiment

I ran across something on a discussion board called the Atheist Prayer Experiment. Intrigued, I checked out their Facebook page. The cover features a young woman in a tee shirt and rolled up jeans. Her bare feet are planted in the sand as she holds a bullhorn up to her mouth, yelling at the breakers that crash beneath the setting sun. I’m not sure what symbolism I’m supposed to take from the picture.

This particular Atheist Prayer Experient is the project of Justin Brierley, the presenter of UK radio talk show Unbelieveable? Brierley has called on atheists everywhere to pray for forty days, from September 17 to October 26, and ask God to reveal himself. The ‘About’ section of the experiment’s Facebook page reads, “The project is based on the academic paper by Oxford Philosopher Tim Mawson which argues that atheists should pray to stop being an atheist.”

Prayers in the wind

Prayers in the wind (Photo credit: marco83)

Naturally, it hasn’t taken long for skeptics to cry ‘Confirmation bias!’ Others say the experiment itself, beyond being unscientific, is built on the premise that any superior being who happens to be out there responds to prayer as we understand it. A few online commenters went as far as to suggest a shotgun approach. “Should we not also take steps to appease every other deity hypothesized?” was the essence of several comments. Finally, there are those who note that many of the atheist participants are ex-Christians who earnestly sought god before this experiment. If god were to make an appearance now it might prove his existence (at least to individual participants), but it would also throw his goodness into great doubt. After all, it hardly seems loving to deny your presence to someone–causing them to endure doubt and anxiety–only to show up years later at the onset of some arbitrary experiment.

And while the common replies to these objections could probably be discussed at length, I’m more interested in pretense of science built into this ‘experiment.’ Unlike some, I don’t believe calling this an experiment is a thinly veiled attempt to give religion more credibility than it realistically commands within the skeptic community. In fact, I rather think it captures the most primitive forms of scientific experiment in both essence and execution. Before there were double-blinds and control groups, someone said, “Hey guys, what would happen if we lit this on fire?” And thus a (albeit hazardous and poorly constructed) experiment was born.

pattern of colours forned by oil on water

pattern of colours forned by oil on water (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet, it is universally acknowledged that faith is something separate from science. Religion does not yield to the laws of scientific skepticism, and some would argue that it is this very trait that disqualifies religion as a credible worldview. On the other hand, some Christians say that such experiments qualify as ‘testing God’ (Matthew 4:7), and thus cannot yield any results.

Personally I’m not sure how to react to the experiment. I am not an empiricist, but I also do not believe in magic–that is, I do not believe that the proper incantations or rituals can bring supernatural forces under human control, and sometimes I fear that such ‘experiments’ are promising just that; that this time–this time, with the proper words under the proper circumstances, god will make himself unequivocally plain where he has failed to before.


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