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!