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The Atheist Prayer Experiment Begins

Today’s the big day! It’s the beginning of my 40-day trial by prayer.

I’m to pray for two to three minutes per day as sincerely as convenient and ask God to reveal himself to me. I’m to watch for signs of God’s presence in daily life. For more on this experiment, read my earlier post.

The experiment is in response to a 2010 paper “Praying to Stop Being an Atheist” in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. I’d like to pull out from this long paper a few ideas that need critique.

Author T. J. Mawson notes the critique of other scholars of his work: “Mawson’s words are beyond parody.” I wasn’t very impressed with the arguments myself, as you’ll see, but I do appreciate an author who can be that honest and self-deprecating!

From the abstract:

In this paper, I argue that atheists who:

(1) think that the issue of God’s existence or non-existence is an important one;

(2) assign a greater than negligible probability to God’s existence; and

(3) are not in possession of a plausible argument for scepticism about the truth-directedness of uttering such prayers in their own cases,

are under a prima facie obligation to pray to God that He stop them being atheists.

Note the similarity between this argument and Pascal’s Wager. Pascal said that betting on God’s existence is the smart bet—if you win, you get bliss in heaven, and there’s not much downside if you lose. But if you bet against God and lose, you get an eternity in hell, and if you win, you can’t even say, “I told you so.”

One way Pascal’s Wager fails is that it ignores how it applies to the challenger as well as the person challenged. The same is true here. Mawson says that atheists ought to pray to an undefined god that they don’t (yet) believe in, but by the same logic, Christians should also pray to god(s) that they don’t yet believe in. This doesn’t negate his argument but says that it applies to him as much as to any atheist.

Now, on to the paper. It claims that atheists praying for God to help them is as reasonable as shouting “Is anyone there?” in a certain dark room. Some say that a wise and helpful old man lives in this dark room, though some say that this claim is false.

I disagree that these are equally reasonable things. Dark rooms and old men are things we’re all familiar with. “There’s a wise old man in this room” many not be a true statement, but it certainly can’t be dismissed out of hand. By contrast, “There’s a supernatural being who created the universe” is implausible on its face.

And if this is supposed to be an analog to religion, why imagine just one room? All gods aren’t sought in the same way. We should imagine many different rooms and perhaps different protocols to represent the wide variety of gods that Mankind conceives.

Mawson assumes that the wise old man is willing to reveal himself. And here again we have a difficulty, since Christians are quick to explain away God’s hiddenness by saying that God might not reveal himself. The simple God hypothesis has expanded to claim that God exists and he desperately wants a relationship with each of us … but he may remain silent despite our pleas. We’re told that God has his own good reasons for remaining hidden (reasons we can’t understand), but how far do we want to go to support this God hypothesis in the face of contradicting evidence? At what point does it go from honest rational inquiry, to support for preconceived beliefs with an unfalsifiable hypothesis?

I will comment more on the paper as the prayer experiment continues, but I’ll wrap up here with an anecdote that the paper concludes with. Atheist Bertrand Russell was asked, “What if you die and find yourself in front of God after all?” Russell said that he would tell God that he hadn’t provided enough evidence for his existence. Mawson imagines God responding, “Well, you didn’t ask me for any, did you?”

And we’re back to the Alice-in-Wonderland God who desperately wants a relationship with us, who knows that our not believing in him will send us to hell, and who knows that he looks indistinguishable from the thousands of other gods that humanity has invented but refuses to do anything to simply make his existence plain.

As a brief aside, let me comment on the Unbelievable podcast that is hosting this experiment. Their approach—praiseworthy, it seems to me—is typically to bring together a Christian and a non-Christian to discuss their different views. The non-Christian might be a Muslim or an atheist. The discussion might be evolution vs. Creationism. Sometimes they have two Christians with two different theological views. What it’s not is simply a sermon to tell the flock what to believe about some aspect of life or Christianity.

Why is this not the model for other podcasts? Reasonable Faith, Stand to Reason, Apologetics.com, Please Convince Me and most other Christian podcasts: I’m talking to you.

Last week I took my third acid trip.
This time I saw God.
Otherwise, it was nothing.
— Paul Krassner

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell

    This is what I sent to the experiment’s organizers:

    “Justin, I am on the cusp of joining your atheist prayer experiment but before I do I’d like to know if you have some technique like the Heckman 2-stage correlation method to correct for self-selection bias. It seems that, without it, you’d have difficulty drawing any sensible conclusions from whatever results are reported, and it would probably be a waste of my time to participate in the study.”

    No response yet, but the day’s not over.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      You’re giving the experiment a lot more credit than I think I am. That the expectations on the participants are set quite low–low enough for me to participate–I’m in. I’ve held off critiquing the validity of the experiment as an experiment–all the more reason for you to do so.

      • Richard S. Russell

        Your low expectations appear to be justified. Here’s the response I got from the chief experimenter:

        “I’m afraid its not a ‘scientific’ experiment in that sense, so we won’t be having control groups, or the method you mention. I quite understand if that means you don’t feel it will be worth your time.”

        Good that he’s so understanding, because any “experiment” with this utter lack of rigor definitely is not worth my time. You’d think that anyone who premises the whole challenge on the idea that atheists have some sort of moral obligation to give it a fair shot would understand that, but I suspect that wasn’t really the main motive behind the “experiment” in the 1st place.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Richard:

          You’re missing out, bro! I’m going to be laughing at you and the other 100 billion souls that God was too incompetent to save as I look over the ramparts of heaven watching you warming your feet by the fire … if you get my drift.

        • vksun

          Richard,
          Ultimately, issues of truth, what to be done about our moral inadequacies etc are for each person to deal with, both by looking as objective reasons/evidences, as well as praying about it to confirm and to see working of God in ones life etc. This is something that can be done by anyone anywhere (need not be part of a “experiment” group). This experiment as I understand, is just a call to do that and just creating a forum to do that and discuss/share experiences etc

        • Bob Seidensticker

          As an aside, I see no evidence for objective anything (morals, purpose, and so on).

        • Bryant

          Bob Seidensticker,
          are you making an objective claim that nothing objective exists?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Bryant: Nope, I’m not making any objective claims.

        • Gael

          “(2) assign a greater than negligible probability to God’s existence; ”
          An atheist by definition does not believe in gods. Thus, whoever qualifies for this experiment is not an atheist. He is an agnostic.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Well … an atheist believes in God, but not all atheists assert, “There is no God.” I prefer to say: “I have no god belief.”

          I’m also an agnostic. You’re right that the definitions are important to nail down, but I see no incompatibility between being an atheist (no god belief) and also being an agnostic (no god knowledge).

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      As a fellow participant, I agree with Bob. The “experiment” is very informal. It’s mostly “let’s get a bunch of atheists to pray and see what happens.” I don’t know for sure but i suspect the only conclusions drawn will be whatever participants say if they are interviewed for the show.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        OM: Yeah, it’s done for a radio show, so creating something newsworthy might’ve been the primary motivation.

  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob the broken atheist,

    I’ve been praying to God for months for him to do something for me, yet nothing so far has happened. Or maybe something happened, but I did not notice. At any rate, my faith has shrunk.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been disappointed by life. How do you see this playing out? Will you give God more time?

      • RandomFunction2

        To Bob S,

        It’s quite possible that there is no God up there who listens to me. Or maybe there is a God, but he is indifferent.

        However, many people say that God DOES answer their prayers. Many people say that they DO experience God in their lives. Not all these people are nuts or crave for power.

        What am I to do with that?

        • OverlappingMagisteria

          Investigate their claims and make up your mind. There are also many people who experience alien abduction, bigfoot, psychic abilities, etc. Not all of them are nuts either.

          What do you do with that?

        • RandomFunction2

          To OverlappingMagisteria,

          Really? Are there people who claim items on your list, yet who are not after something like money, power, glory, sex and who are not mentally unstable?

          Plenty of believers are none of the above and yet they say they have met God somehow. Here I don’t speak of literal “revelations”, like those who were reportedly given to Paul and Muhammad. Just normal spiritual experiences that put believers in contact with God.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RF2:

          This is just my approach, mind you, so it may inform your position not at all.

          I would look at how the human brain works. We’re used to it, so its antics aren’t too surprising, but if we step away from it, we can realize the distance it puts us from reality. Confident memories aren’t necessarily accurate, we see patterns where they don’t exist (pareidolia), we’re tricked by optical illusions, trauma can create PTSD, long periods of solitary confinement can create mental illness, and so on.

          When someone from some other religion points to answered prayer, Christians rarely say, “Whoa–I guess that religion is a path to God just as trustworthy as mine.” We can think of a dozen (natural) explanations that are more likely.

          That’s how I’d respond.

        • RandomFunction2

          To Bob S,

          Actually, one Christian theologian, John Hick, DOES think that other religions are a path to the Absolute, which is as valuable as Christianity. His stance is called “pluralism”.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RF2: Granted, but is Hick’s approach the same as yours? If not, this data point is kind of irrelevant, and you’re back to responding to other nutty religious claims the way I do–that is, seeing them as probably phenomena with natural explanations.

          As a tangent, you read about Mother Teresa and her dark night of the soul, I’m guessing? My worldview is very different than hers was, but I have sympathy for her anguish. Is there any parallel here with your journey?

        • RandomFunction2

          To Bob S,

          I tend to think that, with some qualifications, Hick’s theory is roughly correct. One day I intend to write something about it.

          I know that Mother Teresa had doubts about the existence of God. I would never claim I am “like” her, at her level of holiness though. But many believers who used to have vivid experiences of God at some point lose such experiences and now their world seems empty of God. At that point many lose faith. It seems strange to me. If I had some phone talks with a guy in the past, but then he disappeared, I would still not think that he actually never existed. Unless I am psychotic or something like that.

          Actually, I never had an unambiguous religious experience. Even after months of praying, God failed to provide me with even the slightest clue to his existence and his will. Of course, maybe he DID do something, but then I saw nothing. I don’t find God when I look at nature either. Nature is not beautiful, and its orderliness can be explained naturalistically. The world does not look to me as if it were created.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RF2:

          with some qualifications, Hick’s theory is roughly correct

          OK, but you’re not suggesting that this is the typical view of Christians? This sounds very fringe.

          If I had some phone talks with a guy in the past, but then he disappeared, I would still not think that he actually never existed.

          Fine, but that’s not the analogy. If you had an experience with “someone” in a nonrepeatable, mystical, even bizarre way, other natural explanations leap to mind–as we discussed early.

          Even after months of praying, God failed to provide me with even the slightest clue to his existence and his will.

          Is it just determination that keeps you a Christian of sorts? Why back this hypothesis in the face of so much contrary evidence?

  • DrewL

    What it’s not is simply a sermon to tell the flock what to believe about some aspect of life or Christianity.
    Replace “Christianity” with “atheism” and you’ve summarized nearly every atheist blog, including this one. Why the double standard?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Perhaps we hang out at different atheist blogs, because I see no double standard. The atheists that I know (and I also read the blogs of many atheists that I don’t know, so the sample size here is admittedly small) are eager to find the truth. There is no dogma, so fellow atheists straying is simply not an issue.

      They often discuss child rearing, and the most common approach that I see is to teach their children about Christianity and other religions + teach them critical thinking skills–in other words, they would never consider indoctrination into atheism (whatever that would mean).

      • DrewL

        The double standard I was raising was your praise for Christian blogs that bring in a different perspective than merely atheism.

        …are eager to find the truth. There is no dogma

        You definition of dogma bears a strong resemblance to Marxists’ definition of ideology. Clearly in your world, you have truth, people who don’t agree with you have dogma. Quite amusing.

        • DrewL

          Let me say it more clearly: the conclusions drawn will be whatever pre-formed opinion the participants had going into it. I could probably compose Bob’s “results of the experiment” post right now: a self-congratulating reflection of how he subjected his beliefs to an “experiment” that violated all requirements for having any valid scientific conclusions, only to discover a generic, non-specific God that no one believes exists, in fact, doesn’t exist. How can we bear to wait all 40 days for that?

        • DrewL

          Sorry, the above was a response to OverlappingMagisteria’s comment.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I could probably compose Bob’s “results of the experiment” post right now: a self-congratulating reflection of how he subjected his beliefs to an “experiment” that violated all requirements for having any valid scientific conclusions, only to discover a generic, non-specific God that no one believes exists, in fact, doesn’t exist.

          We have a prediction! Let’s see if it comes true.

          The organizers don’t claim that this is scientific. You and I agree. Aside from feeling the desire for a group hug, I’m not sure what else there is to say.

          As for the generic deity, most apologetics are deist arguments (Design, First Cause, Ontological, Transcendental, and so on). I share your bemusement–isn’t it odd that Christian arguments are so often actually deist arguments? I wonder then why they’re not deists.

          How can we bear to wait all 40 days for that?

          Your patience is remarkable.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The double standard I was raising was your praise for Christian blogs that bring in a different perspective than merely atheism.

          There’s an asymmetry here. Atheist blogs are responding to the enormous status quo of Christianity.

          I frequently take apart blog posts or articles from Christians. I’d be happy to take that a step further and have them respond so we can have a dialogue … but they never do, even when I’ve tried to make my URL available to them.

          But if you want to call that a double standard, no problem.

          you have truth, people who don’t agree with you have dogma.

          Not having any doctrines, it’s hard to have atheist dogma. There is no authority that critiques what I believe, unlike the situation with Christians.

          Quite amusing.

          Some come here to get provocative ideas, but if you find laughs, that’s fine too. Welcome.

  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for the link to the Mawson paper. I noticed two things off the bat:
    1) Mawson has only one positive result in mind, you WILL hear the voice of God (“she hears a Road-to-Damascus-style voice” “the voice might say, ‘Knowing what you’re thinking, permit me to perform a
    few miracles or reveal some unlikely fact…”). But the podcast asks participants ” that he or she remains as open as possible to ways in which that prayer could be answered”. That is, they don’t limit positive results to an actual voice. Why is that, I wonder?
    2) this experiment is a win-win for theists. They can always fall back on God’s hiddenness. As Mawson said:
    “It must be admitted however that the problem of divine hiddenness does reveal a
    limitation to the utility of praying in the manner that I am endorsing; it reveals, in the
    terms of our analogy, that the wise old man in the room, isn’t, on the most plausible
    theories which attribute him existence, uniformly prioritizing communicating with
    people. That being so, any experiments which involve the evidence of his existence
    coming via a process which depends in part on his having a choice over whether or not
    to reveal himself to the experimenter cannot be conclusive experiments. In the case of
    God, of course, He will necessarily always preserve that element of choice so these
    ‘prayers as experiments’ can never be conclusive.”

    avalon

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      To be fair, Mawson did say that repeated un-answered prayer can be seen as evidence of no god. Though he was careful to say that it would never be complete proof, while an answered prayer would, so he did describe it in a lopsided way.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        OM: And yet Mawson did note the concern that an “answered prayer” might simply be the echo of your own voice (using the man-in-the-dark-room analogy). Though Christians like to stack the deck so it’s “heads I win, tails you lose,” his honesty has shown that either outcome is inconclusive.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      avalon:

      Note that the experiment actually being conducted is less demanding than Mawson might like. If there were any demand that the participant desire to find God, I wouldn’t be able to participate. In my case, I simply desire the truth; the supernatural outcome seems so remote that I don’t have much interest in it. In particular, I would not be pleased to discover that the petty and vindictive SOB as described in the Old Testament exists.

      Yes, Christians always like to arrange the win-win situation. In the unlikely event that any of the participants (about 50, I hear) do convert, God wins! And if none do, the God Hypothesis is unscathed.

      Like Mr. Deity said, “if somebody prays to me and things go well, who gets the credit? Me, right? But if they pray to me and things don’t go well, who gets the blame? Not me! So it’s all good. I’m going to mess with that, right, by stepping in? Putting my nose where it doesn’t belong?”

      • David

        I take it that this is an experiment for you. What would count as conclusive evidence that God exists? Considering that prayer doesn’t work in such a fashion that you can control different variables to arrive at a quantifiable conclusion (in other words, the results would be qualitative), what could possibly be interesting about this experiment for you?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          God is really smart. He would know what it would take to convince me. He could do that.

          What’s interesting is that this experiment stirs the pot. It gets conversations going. I like being around such activity.

        • David

          I’d rather put it: God is really smart. He would know what it would take to invite you to believe. My advice: look for invitations and not for revelations.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David:

          “Invite me”? Why the extra layer?

          If you and I went out for coffee, you wouldn’t be inviting me to believe that you exist; you’d be demanding it. And that’s not a problem. Of course, lots of other things may or may not happen–I might like you or not, I might give to your favorite charity or not, I might join your mad plan for world domination–but your existence wouldn’t be in doubt.

          That Christians add this separation simply says that they’re trying to handwave reasons to avoid following the evidence where it leads–that there is paltry evidence to accept God’s existence.

        • David

          There are all sorts of layers and levels in education. Why wouldn’t it be the same for the ultimate Being? Why would we be supposed to “get” Him as something elementary and not as a reality which is more subtle than the highest forms of knowledge?

        • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

          God is indeed smart; but then, the God I believe in also has an almost absurd respect for human freedom and our ability to misuse our own smarts. I know how easy it is for me to self-justify or to move the finish line when I’m not getting results that I like. Putting my cards on the table is one form of reality-check that I find helpful. Letting other people in on my decision-making process, so that they can critique it, is another.

          So the question of what would actually convince you, what kinds of revelation you would be willing to accept – and what kinds you would not – is probably a fruitful avenue to pursue, if only to say for sure whether this experiment has any possibility of validity at all.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David: Everyone understand the concept of a person existing (like you or Barack Obama) or not (like Superman or Harry Potter). That’s the standard I have for the Big Man. Does he exist? Sure doesn’t look like it.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Robert:

          the God I believe in also has an almost absurd respect for human freedom

          No problem there. And making his existence known violates that not at all. Indeed, until a few minutes ago, I didn’t know that Robert King existed, but here you are, barging into my life, forcing your existence on me … which is fine by me. That’s just how it works.

          “Yeah, but God doesn’t want to violate your freedom” is no explanation for the Problem of Divine Hiddenness.

          So the question of what would actually convince you, what kinds of revelation you would be willing to accept

          Why not let God decide? Wouldn’t he know a good way?

        • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

          …here you are, barging into my life, forcing your existence on me…

          This analogy is … odd. I’m not forcing anything on anybody. I’m just typing on a keyboard, with no assurance that anyone will ever read it.

          Or am I? What if you’re reading the product of a very well written computer program that can pass any test Turing can devise? What if you have multiple personalities that you’re not aware of and you yourself typed it, and spoofed the IP address so it looks like it came from somewhere else? Where’s your evidence?

          (In case it’s not clear, that last paragraph is a reductio ad absurdum.)

          Why not let God decide?

          Because you have a mind of your own, which is meant for thinking, and for making decisions and judgments based on experience and rational argument. You are responsible for where you decide to place your credence. Or are you saying that you want God to take over your mind and force you against all will and reason to recognize his existence?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Robert:

          I was being facetious. No one complains about someone else’s existence being forced upon them. Similarly, God’s “absurd respect for human freedom” is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence.

          What if you’re reading the product of a very well written computer program that can pass any test Turing can devise?

          What if we’re brains in jars? What if we’re in the Matrix?

          I’m not sure where we’re going with this.

          are you saying that you want God to take over your mind and force you against all will and reason to recognize his existence?

          Where is this “take over your mind” thing coming from? I’m simply saying that knowing that Robert King exists and knowing that God exists are the exact same kind of thing. I would know God’s existence through the same kinds of means that I know that you or anyone else exists.

          That Christians must make excuses, must imagine that God can only show himself through some sort of violent or coercive means, shows that they understand the problem of Divine Hiddenness as well as I do and must handwave implausible solutions.

          I’m simply following the evidence. If God exists, I should know have the evidence; I don’t have the evidence; therefore, I assume that he doesn’t.

        • David

          Bob:

          I think that you’d agree that the evidence depends on the type of entity we’re talking about. Its easy enough to prove that you or I exist, or that Obama exists. But for other entities, you need different sorts of tools and you need to accept different sorts of evidence. For example, there are some realities which cannot be detected without the aid of a microscope. There are some things which we come to understand with precision through mathematical proofs. In the case of God, we’re talking about an immaterial Being whose existence, by definition, cannot be proved through quantifiable (physical) data. As far as I see it, the best proof for the Christian God’s existence, is the discernment of an unseen presence which influences your daily life and draws you into a relationship through prayer. There can be no overwhelming physical proof that this is the case because there is no physical presence to perceive–which is why the “extra layer” of belief is necessary.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David:

          I think that you’d agree that the evidence depends on the type of entity we’re talking about.

          Well … yes and no. For an animal (a newt or mosquito) that has no interest in being found, you’re right. For a fairy or leprechaun that presumably desires not to be found and has the power to remain hidden, you’re right.

          But for someone in whose image we were made, who is intelligent, who is omnipotent and so can make himself be apparent in any number of ways, I disagree.

          Why are we looking for vague traces of evidence for his existence? Why isn’t he more obviously existent than you are?

          Looks to me like you’re simply finding excuses to make plausible the fact that God looks indistinguishable from no god.

        • David

          Bob:

          I think we’re reaching the crux of the matter. If God is truly more powerful, intelligent, etc. than we are, and if we’re to assume his existence, then we have to, at the very least, give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that there’s a very good reason for his hiddenness. I happen to think that there is a very good reason which is in keeping with the Christian view of reality. If we were the characters in a book and God was the author of the book, then God could hardly expect us to have any direct knowledge of him. You mention being made in the image and likeness of God and so I think its a good analogy. A character in a book conforms to the image of a real person–but its completely unconscious and unreal in comparison. The best revelation that you could expect from such an Author is for him to become one of the characters in the book. Thus we have God becoming flesh in Jesus. In the process of becoming one of us, God has already spoken face to face with us. Any other approach which he could’ve taken would’ve been either incomprehensible or subject to misunderstanding.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David:

          we have to, at the very least, give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that there’s a very good reason for his hiddenness.

          Absolutely not. You don’t assume God’s existence first and then reinterpret all the other facts to support this.

          You evaluate the evidence for God’s existence just like evidence for the existence of Zeus. If it’s relevant that we see absolutely non evidence for Zeus, the same must follow for God.

          If we were the characters in a book and God was the author of the book, then God could hardly expect us to have any direct knowledge of him.

          Are we talking about different religions here? I thought we were talking about the religion in which God desperately wants to have a relationship with us. If that’s it, then God can make himself known. That he hasn’t is compelling evidence of his nonexistence.

          Thus we have God becoming flesh in Jesus.

          And again you assume the truth of the Christian message. That’s what we’re trying to prove.

        • David

          Well then, if Jesus is God in the flesh, then, we do have evidence that God desperately wants to come into relationship with us. And if that’s the claim to be tested, the Christian one, then it would make sense to prove it according to the Christian criterion which you’ve adopted–through prayer. So far, so good. But, and I say this knowing that you must have heard this many times by now, you’d better be as sincere as possible in your prayer in order for it to be authentic. And it wouldn’t hurt to pray after reflecting on passages in the New Testament. That’s my 2 cents. Good luck!

        • David

          Although, Bob, after further reflection, prayer might not be the best thing for you. If its proof that you’re after, especially if its physical proof, then I don’t see why you should continue. The whole point of belief is to open yourself up to the unknown–to give up your own criteria and to place yourself in the care of a Being which has its own criteria. If you can’t even trust that such a Being exists, then how could you begin to consider entrusting yourself to His care?

          Here’s my 2 cents after reflection: find a group of Christians which you like and make a point to hang out with them. I think that perhaps the testimony of their lives might convince you of the necessity of faith. What’s the use in making an act of faith when you aren’t interested in faith in the first place?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David: And the only reason I’m participating is that I don’t have to be sincere. If that invalidates the experiment in your eyes, I can understand that.

          You can imagine how sincere you would be if you, as an experiment, prayed to Quetzalcoatl or Xenu.

        • David

          Alright, I get it now. Peace.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I never want proof, just compelling evidence. I go in the direction that the evidence points, and every clue points away from the Christian claim.

          If you can’t even trust that such a Being exists …

          Of course I don’t trust that this being exists. Seriously–why should I? Where’s the evidence?

          find a group of Christians which you like and make a point to hang out with them.

          As a matter of fact, I’m doing that very thing tonight. I’m part of a Mars Hill (Mark Driscoll) small group that meets every Wednesday.

        • David

          Seattle area…. Might I propose to you a group which meets in the U District? It meets (usually) every Monday at 7:30 at Blessed Sacrament Church in the priory. The group is called Communion and Liberation. You might give them a try–you’ll either love them or hate them. But they certainly won’t turn you away for being an atheist who just wants to check things out. Tell them David La May sent you, if you want, although my name won’t get you any special favors. Just a suggestion.

        • David

          (correction: 7 o’clock on Mondays.)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David: Thanks for the tip, but what I’m eager for is finding Christians who enjoy talking about apologetics or related issues. Do you think this would be a good fit?

        • David

          Might not be the best fit. Its got sort of a book club/symposium feel to it.

      • http://www.evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

        Yes, Christians always like to arrange the win-win situation. In the unlikely event that any of the participants (about 50, I hear) do convert, God wins! And if none do, the God Hypothesis is unscathed.

        Not God, exactly — because this “experiment” can’t prove his existence — but religion wins if people convert. I wish you well with your participation, but personally I think it’s a waste of time:
        http://www.evilburnee.co.uk/2012/08/an-experiment-designed-to-be-useless.html

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  • http://denythecat.blogspot.com Brian Sullivan

    What do you mean by praying for 2 or 3 minutes a day “as sincerely as convenient “?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That’s my own interpretation of what the experiment asks for:

      We only ask that anyone taking part commits themselves to finding a quiet meditative “space” and praying there for two to three minutes each day as earnestly as they can for any God that there might be to reveal himself/herself/itself to him or her, and that he or she remains as open as possible to ways in which that prayer could be answered.

    • joeclark77

      Not having read the Mawson article, but having heard of similar experiments before, my advice would be to make a prayer that is actually true. “Dear god or gods, if you exist, and I don’t think you do, but if I’m wrong I’d certainly like to know it, so I’m trying to keep an open mind, well, if you do exist, please send me a sign, or lead me to the evidence myself, or at least, don’t hold me accountable for not believing in you otherwise.” Prayer should be honest communication. If you’re just going through the motions, or lying in your prayer, why would you expect a response? If you don’t *want* to know if God exists, why pray that you want to know? If you wouldn’t be willing to believe even if presented with proof, why pray that you’ve got an open mind and are ready to be shown the evidence? IMHO you’re more likely to get a response if you say what you actually feel and ask for what you really want, even if that prayer doesn’t seem very dramatic or very charitable.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Yes, sincerity and honest are good foundations.

  • http://saintsinprogress.blogspot.com Nicole

    “One way Pascal’s Wager fails is that it ignores how it applies to the challenger as well as the person challenged. The same is true here. Mawson says that atheists ought to pray to an undefined god that they don’t (yet) believe in, but by the same logic, Christians should also pray to god(s) that they don’t yet believe in. This doesn’t negate his argument but says that it applies to him as much as to any atheist.”

    I really couldn’t get past this paragraph. How is Pascal’s Wager supposed to apply to the challenger? I assume the challenger is the one who says, “You should act as if you believe, just in case…” What is the challenger supposed to do, for his own safety and/or edification? It seems to me that the challenger is more like a person who says, “I bet you your life you can’t jump across this chasm on your own.” If the person challenged insists on jumping unassisted, how does it affect the challenger (aside from either being proven wrong or having to witness a terrible accident)? It sounds as if you’re talking about a counter-challenge. I have never heard a compelling counter to Pascal’s Wager.

    Also, by Mawson’s logic, a Christian should pray to gods he doesn’t believe in only on the three premises given, or similar ones. What might those be? It seems to me that Mawson is making a case for atheists to give a trial to God within the framework of their existing beliefs, while still challenging them. I would need to see a similar case–within the framework of my existing beliefs, even as you challenge them–to concede any logic there. For example, we can’t very well ask God to prove he doesn’t exist! So I don’t know how it could apply to believers.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Nicole: I’m saying that the challenge is structurally parallel to Pascal’s Wager, not that it is Pascal’s Wager. Mawson’s abstract (at the top of the post) applies to him just like it applies to me (where he would be obliged to pray to those god(s) he doesn’t believe in, just like me).

      The compelling counter to Pascal is, as I said, to note that it applies to the challenger just as much as it does to the atheist. Is it a smart bet for the atheist to worship Yahweh? OK, then it’s a smart bet for the Christian to worship Shiva (and a thousand other gods). Y’know–just in case.

      You’re right that Mawson does give the potential atheist challenge an out. And if the tables were turned and this experiment imposed on a Christian, they would have the same options to opt out.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    Hi. New here. I wonder why do you keep mentioning Christians. Back when I was an atheist. I divided the God question into several smaller questions. The first step, it seems to me, is this: Is there some kind of higher intelligence/power greater than man? Only after I answered that one would I start asking the next logical set of questions; namely, if so, well, what can be known about it, what is it’s nature, can we contact it, etc.?

    It seems to me that it’s startlingly obvious that there is a greater intelligence at work in the universe than we little naked monkeys on this planet, which apparently is in the hinterlands of our galaxy, and we don’t really even know that much where our galaxy is — “local cluster”? There just seems to be a lot more going on in the physical universe than we can imagine … so I felt that it was pretty obvious that something else was going on besides the activity of our minds.

    Now, where do we go from there … well, that’s a different set of questions.

    In any case, good luck. I would advise the Lord’s prayer, though, since you are discussing Christians so much. It seems that’s the question you’re getting at, but I think you are putting the cart before the horse. Best regards, Bill

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bill: Thanks for the comment.

      It seems to me that it’s startlingly obvious that there is a greater intelligence at work in the universe than we little naked monkeys on this planet

      That we know very little is startlingly obvious. That there is anything supernatural is not. Can you elaborate beyond “it’s just obvious”?

      • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

        I never really accepted the term “supernatural.” I don’t know what it means, in the sense of any sufficiently advanced technology (or methods or knowledge) appears indistinguishable from magic yadda yadda, you know that argument. If the universe was created by a God, well, then He did it somehow. And He probably can’t explain it to me, as I can’t even fix my coffee maker.

        What I meant by “startling obvious” is that a lot of human intellectual history seems to be discovering the intelligence that already exists in things — laws of physics, chemistry, and yes, even moral laws. I see this process of discovery as evidence — very strong evidence — that there is an intelligence behind all this. Whether it’s supernatural — as I said, I don’t know what that means. I prefer “Cosmic Reason.”

        There also seems to be extra stuff in our experience that appears meaningful but is superfluous to our evolutionary needs — love, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, emotions, intuitions — that is further evidence that there’s something else going on, some other intelligence besides us. What it’s nature is — again, that’s a different set of questions.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Bill:

          Order and intelligence are two different things. We see order in a crystal–doesn’t mean that there was a divine Crystal Maker behind it.

          Complexity is another thing that is not the same thing as intelligence, though many Christians confuse them (“That’s super complicated! Gotta be an intelligence behind it.”).

          These are all deist arguments. If you find them convincing, does that make you a deist?

        • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

          Order, especially a complex order, does seem to imply intelligence, doesn’t it? If my house is clean and orderly, you would automatically assume that someone did that.

          Order in a crystal doesn’t mean there wasn’t a crystal maker behind it.

          No, I am not a Deist, at least anymore. I’m a Catholic. But first things first. Are you a logical positivist?

          In any case, you’re trying to find out if there’s a God. I’ll tell you a prayer to find out: Find one person you love and pray for them, and ask God how you can be of service to them.

          Or, alternatively, you could ask the Holy Spirit to show you your sins.

          God usually answers either of those pretty quickly.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Bill:

          Order in a crystal doesn’t mean there wasn’t a crystal maker behind it.

          Granted, but why imagine there is one when we have a natural explanation?

          No, I am not a Deist, at least anymore. I’m a Catholic.

          But all your arguments are deist. How do you get to Catholic?

          Are you a logical positivist?

          Dunno. How do you define this?

          In general, I avoid labels like this because they’re an opportunity for confusion. I’d prefer we simply use definitions.

          God usually answers either of those pretty quickly.

          The prayers that you have in mind require enthusiasm that I don’t have. Imagine praying to Quetzalcoatl and you’ll see the situation I’m in. I’m happy to go through the motions as an experiment, but I don’t expect much from it.

        • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

          It’s difficult for me to discuss this because I have to go back and remember what I was thinking, to find the atheist within, so to speak, and see if he’d (that is, me) buy whatever argument I set forth. Since I went through that process myself, I should know, but there are some things I don’t remember about what I was thinking.

          In my case, it came down to categories of knowledge. Most of us educated types tend to develop something like logical positivism. Logical positivism says that a statement is either a tautology (i.e., a definition) or empirically verifiable. Anything else is nonsense. It’s since been adapted. But we tend to privilege, in our knowledge categories, that which is expressible in language. But are there other categories of knowledge, things not so easily put into words?

          For example, Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge described “tacit knowledge.” Now, of course, we’re in real danger when we go down that path, because, as humans, we have a collection of cognitive biases that can make unstated knowledge nothing but a collage of wish fulfillment, prejudice and superstition.

          But despite that, there remains a point in there about tacit knowledge. One day I was wondering why I could identify, but not describe, why I recognized Asian women from behind. I could say straight black hair. I could say very straight, very black hair, shorter, small butt. No matter how detailed I got, I couldn’t explain it, and yet I very consistently identified correctly when I saw an Asian woman from behind that she was Asian. That’s a silly example of tacit knowledge. We know more than we can say. Yes, I waited to verify it. But why was I correct in the first place?

          Another example is, “Where do hypotheses come from?” There they are, right in the center of the scientific method, a mystery. Some are deduced, but some seem downright a priori.

          Now, do we have a priori knowledge of God? A believer will say, post conversion, yes, and I knew it all along. (St. Paul also argues that knowledge of God is manifest in the real world — so it wasn’t quite a deist argument I was using.) Martin Heidegger, on the other hand, argued that we have a priori knowledge there is no god, that is, we are all atheists. Heh. Welcome to the human condition. Lovely, ain’t it?

          Now, when it comes to Christianity, which seems to be the concern of this blog, the fundamental question is this: Was Jesus resurrected from the dead? If so, Christianity is true. If not, it’s nonsense. As you know, Christianity is a revealed religion — that not only is there a God, but that He has revealed Himself through Christ and intervened in human history.

          If you want to find out the answer to that question, simply ask Jesus. By the way, the answer He gives to that question is, come and see. He doesn’t give you a dissertation like this one :) However, my inner former atheist is saying, “Bob’s totally not going to buy that.”

          Anyway, it’s late and I seem to have lost my train of thought. May be having a senior moment. Best regards again, Bob.

          – Bill

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Bill: Thanks for the comment.

          You’re right: I’m totally not going to buy that. I need the evidence.

          But here’s an experiment. Looks like it might be interesting, so–what the heck?–here I am.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    Kierkegaard said “prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.” As a Pagan who prays to many gods, I’ve found this to be true. I’ll be interested to see what changes come from this experiment.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      John: Thanks for the comment.

      If you’ve read some of the comments, some of the Christian respondents are anticipating no result and are preparing their excuses. They (rightly) point out that, as a scientific experiment, it has flaws. Even from a Christian standpoint, this is not the typical approach. But I think your approach is in line with the originators of the experiment–no big demands, just a thought that we might find something interesting.

  • dorcheat

    I hope we can have a weekly update and commentary of your observations. Of course we want the juicy details such as: prayer location(s), types of prayers, whether you read from “canned” prayers, time spent with each prayer, praying with other human prayors sometimes.

    Some numbers for the crunchers. For the entire 40 calendar day period, the “prayer” time total will range from 80 to 120 minutes at the prescribed two to three minutes per day. This amounts to 0.14% to 0.21% of the total possible time spent at “prayer” during the 40 days or 57,600 minutes.

    For the record, I am atheist but this should prove an interesting account for atheists and for Christians (not to mention the other religions as well: Islam, Hinduism, etc). I dare say Bob that you will be dominating Patheos for the next 40 days (and nights, snark, snark). Good show mate!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      dorcheat: Thanks for the comment and the suggestions.

      I’ll definitely provide a few interim summaries of what’s been happening, though most new posts will be unaffected. I’m keeping a prayer log of where my mind goes during each (brief) session. I haven’t thought of a canned prayer, but that’s an idea. Someone suggested the Lord’s Prayer, but that’s the prayer for a believer, so that won’t work for me.

  • Nathan Wood

    Bob you said
    “If that’s it, then God can make himself known. That he hasn’t is compelling evidence of his nonexistence.”
    To that I would say God does not give undeniable proof of his existence because of free will. For instance God does desire a relationship with us. He desires one of a loving relationship, that is incapable if God makes it undeniably known to this world that he is an all powerful God. I say this because if God makes it undeniable that he is God then we as humans would have no other option but to serve him. There can’t be true love for God if it is the only option you have. Also Christianity is a religion of faith. I know that is a hard thing to understand as an atheist but very simply no Christian can give you undeniable physical evidence that God is who we think he is, or that he exists, or that Jesus Christ really was the son of God and the Resurrection. I can tell you with all certainty that Jesus did historically exist, I can tell you that there is substantial evidence supporting that he came back, at least there is in my opinion, and I do not mean faith, I mean signs that point to it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Nathan: Thanks for your comments.

      He desires one of a loving relationship, that is incapable if God makes it undeniably known to this world that he is an all powerful God.

      I don’t follow. You and I could have a relationship, and it wouldn’t be jeopardized if I knew that you actually existed. In fact, overwhelming evidence of your existence would be a prerequisite for a relationship. Why make different rules for God?

      I think I can answer that: because you’re trying to handwave away the fact that God’s hiddenness is strong evidence of his nonexistence.

      There can’t be true love for God if it is the only option you have.

      Why would that be the only option? The god portrayed in the Old Testament is a petty, vindictive SOB, so I’m not sure why I’d be motivated to love him. I might well be a yes-man simply to get in his good graces to avoid hell (if that were an option), but it wouldn’t be a willing thing.

      Also Christianity is a religion of faith.

      I understand. And the need for faith, too, is very strong evidence that God doesn’t exist–otherwise, why the need for faith?

      I can tell you with all certainty that Jesus did historically exist

      Your word won’t do it for me, I’m afraid, especially when I’ve researched the subject (more in my blog) and am unimpressed with the purported evidence for the resurrection and other miracles.

  • TC

    Based on what I have read, you are asking if prayer works, and depending on the answer, determine if God is real. If I missed something in there, please qualify my statement. There seem to be plenty of arguments on this page, for and against this experiment, how prayer works, and the existence of God.

    What concerns me is not any one of these things, but rather why a self-proclaimed atheist would commit to any version of the experiment? The most common answer, I think, would refer to Pascal’s Wager, but no matter the reason, attempting prayer would suggest a search for something, correct? A search for a being or not for a being, those are the only two options. Base on your responses to other posts, it does not matter which its is because you are going to find the one you are looking for either way. Either your mindset is open and you walk away believe or your mindset is hardened and you walk away more distant. This is part of the controversy you have talked about.

    The other part: If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He do what I ask Him to do? I ask him to show himself, almost demanding it sometimes, yet He refuses to do so. If you choice to look at things from your point of view, then yes, it can seem like there is no God. But, take the stance of God himself, using the Christian perspective that he created the world, walked with man, destroyed countless nations, raised up a people group, came down to earth as a man, died, rose from the grave, and promised he would come back, yet still people do not believe, would you want to do anything further? It’s by his love and grace that we are even still alive if He exists. If He does not exist, then refuting the existing facts of someone being murdered on a cross, but walking with men a few days later would have explanation elsewhere.

    Since I realize that you like the facts in order and the proof in line, my suggestion is to listen to this audio and/or read the transcript of it: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=530914253

    You do not have to change your views for me or for any other believer, but if you are going to attempt something such as prayer, it is best that you be informed of all of the consequences of such.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      TC:

      depending on the answer, determine if God is real

      The results of the experiment will certainly be a data point, but not everything is resting on just that.

      What concerns me is not any one of these things, but rather why a self-proclaimed atheist would commit to any version of the experiment?

      It’s an experiment that I can commit to (that is, the entrance requirements are low enough for me), and it’s interesting.

      Also, as I think I mentioned in my prior post on this, I occasionally get challenged by Christians who say, “Yeah, but have you asked God to come into your heart?” That question is flawed in loads of ways, but by concluding this experiment, I’ll at least have a slam-dunk rebuttal to this (weak) challenge.

      you are going to find the one you are looking for either way

      My expectations are clear: I expect the bold and resounding response that you’d expect from a Deity that isn’t there. But, I haven’t ruled out deism (just determined that it’s super unlikely). Maybe that deity will reach out to me. Could happen (though I’m doubtful).

      would you want to do anything further?

      The Christian view that I’ve heard is that God (1) exists, (2) desperately wants to have a relationship with me, and (3) is omnipotent.

      Consider our conversation: here we have you who (1) exists, (2) is mildly interested in having a conversation, probably not a relationship, and (3) is mortal and fallible. And I have far, far more evidence that you exist than God.

      Conclusion: this is evidence against God’s existence. Doesn’t prove anything (but that’s OK–proof isn’t the currency for this conversation), but it informs my decision about what to conclude.

      (Spoiler: doesn’t look too good for the God Hypothesis.)

      My to-be-read pile is tall, but I’ll take a look at that sermon. Is there anything particularly noteworthy about it?

      • TC

        I am very interested in this conversation and the relationship that it is forming, but I do not see the point of creating a topic of discussion (talking about myself), if the second party is unwilling to see my point as well as his own. Please listen to the sermon so they we may continue having this conversation. The entire sermon is noteworthy, and the best part is it is an audio file, does not actually have to be read.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I won’t simply accept your position to be polite, but I can be convinced that it’s correct if the argument makes sense.

          I need to hear more about the sermon before I spent (waste?) my time. What’s the topic? Why is it compelling? Thanks.

        • TC

          It discusses evidence of the God, evidence that He exists, that He is real, and gives the valid proof that you are attempting to find. It explains why people like myself believe (or should believe) what we believe. No problem.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          thanks. I’ll try to get to it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      TC: I read the Voddie Baucham “Why I choose to believe the Bible” sermon.

      Unfortunately, it’s what I expected. If you simply want to be patted on the head and told what a good boy you are for being a Christian, this is a good sermon. But for someone well-educated and skeptical about the Christian position, it’s very thin.

      I’ve already addressed many of the apologetic arguments that he raises, but if there’s one in particular that you think is compelling, feel free to summarize it and we can discuss.

  • vksun

    Regarding the Pascal’s Wager, I do not think the right approach is just trying to be smart. It is about recognition of ones own moral adequacies, the need to overcome etc. If there is a perfectly moral/Holy God, relationship with who is the highest good for us, it is we who are in need of God and not other way round. So, one looks at evidences (like philosophical/logical/historical etc reasons like origins, existence of rational/moral creatures, objective morality, the way a nation/people called Israel as part of their history recorded series prophets about a Messiah, fulfillment in Jesus, life/claims of Jesus etc) and one also prays to confirm the truth and see evidence of working of God in ones own life with respect to ones own moral inadequacies etc. You ask why not Christians pray to other gods – indeed, as I said above, while looking at objective reasons/evidences one does not preclude any possibility. One has to approach it with a open mind and even the prayer is for God/Creator to reveal the truth (including who/what represents the true nature of God and God’s salvation etc accurately etc). So Christians do make the prayer to God to lead into deeper/higher truth, into deeper relationship with God etc all the time. Just that it all pointed them to God as revealed by OT/NT/Jesus.

    And to Betrand Russel (we do not know him personally, but as an example), the question may not be “Well, you didn’t ask me for any, did you?”, but that there was no desire to deal with the issue of moral inadequacies or that he deliberately avoided God’s ability to help with moral inadequacies, hence did not believe (while believing things in his life with much lesser reasons/evidence, but just making excuses when it comes to God) etc. If one sees it as “God who desperately wants a relationship”, there is already a problem – that one is not recognizing ones own desperate need on the issue of ones moral inadequacies etc.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      You’re approaching this as if God’s existence has been proven. That is, given God’s existence, here’s how we should act/pray.

      But God’s existence is the question at hand.

      I’m not asking for any more evidence for God’s existence than I’d ask for anyone else’s. But I’m also not asking for any less.

      • vksun

        I did not say that God’s existence has been proven. I said it is a combination of philosophical/logical/historical etc reasons (which gives reasons to consider praying to see working of God in ones own life with respect to ones own moral inadequacies etc).

        • Bob Seidensticker

          And I’m saying that I’m obliged to approach the God question as if it’s still open. “Does God exist?” is the issue at hand.

          You apparently are assuming God’s existence and asking how we should act given this.

        • vksun

          Yes, it is perfectly fine to approach “Does God exist?” as the open issue/question at hand.

          But after going through a process of examining philosophical/logical/historical etc reasons and through prayer, seeing working of God in ones own life, morality, renewal etc, one can also reach a point of acceptance of God’s existence.

  • gcrobmd

    A witness comes after the trial of your faith. Be faithful. Be kind and loving to others. Help others. Build others up. Be charitable. Especially be loving, kind, patient and long-suffering with your family.
    Your asking should also include thanks for the blessings of your life, and recognizing how others have recognized God’s influence in their lives.
    Ask with real intent. That means if you get a positive answer, be ready to change your life based on the new knowledge. The more positive your answer, the more obligation you have to serve.
    Still, the real trial of this life is to do good without proof, with faith alone, just because you love what God stands for and you want to emulate Him. Can you be good when nobody is looking, even when you think God isn’t looking? When you start to live this way, and recognizing your own weaknesses without excuse, your answers will come.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      g: Thanks for the suggestions.

      Your asking should also include thanks for the blessings of your life

      Being appreciative of my good fortune as well as the good people in my life is easy to do (which doesn’t mean that I couldn’t improve quite a bit). Directing the appreciation to some deity is another matter.

      Still, the real trial of this life is to do good without proof, with faith alone

      Atheist do good with no need of faith. We do good simply because (like most people) we’re driven to do good.

  • Mary Liz

    Well I’ll be praying for God to reveal himself to you. Just one thought, if you ask God for this or that or the other thing and you don’t get the thing you asked for does that mean that God doesn’t exist? Rather does it mean it was not in his will for you to have that thing at that time? God never does anything against his will. In fact quite the opposite. Everything that is in accordance with his will happens in his own time. I simply ask that you seek God in the simplest terms. Address him, talk to him, and listen or wait for his reply. I’ve been most pleased by his haste in addressing my concerns and his Love. It’s not always a verbal answer, it’s not always an immediate answer, but he definitely answers, not always in accord with my will. But always in Love and Mercy as he is he reaches out to those who reach out to him. I hope you recognize his touch and discern his will for you.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Mary Liz: Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      The experiment is simply for God to reveal himself to me; that’s it. I won’t be asking for any particular thing.

      God never does anything against his will. In fact quite the opposite. Everything that is in accordance with his will happens in his own time.

      Why then ever ask God for anything? Even asking for world peace would seem to be pointless. If God has a plan and he’s sticking to it, why would he deviate because of what I think is important? Surely he knows better.

      but he definitely answers

      How do you know? If you were a Muslim, you could reinterpret the same result as Allah answering you. Or if you were a Hindu, and so on.

      I’ll grant that you can convince yourself, whatever your religion, that your prayers are being answered. But why is that any evidence that your god actually exists?

  • http://www.mindingthelight.org Sally Gillette

    Hi Mark
    I like your plan to test your beliefs “experimentally” because I’m a Quaker, and we place high value on personal experience of God.

    My Quaker meeting in Portland, Oregon, publishes a bimonthly journal that we call Minding the Light. For each chapter (issue) of Minding the Light, people in our meeting respond to queries about their experience of God. For example, the query for our first Chapter was “When did you first recognize the Light?”

    One of the stories in that chapter was written by our pastor, who was something of a “Christian-basher” when he was in high school. In the story, he tells how he met his future wife and started attending a Quaker meeting with her. One of the fascinating things about his story is that, when he eventually experienced God’s presence, he was reluctant to acknowledge it to anyone because his identity as a questioner/doubter was important to him.

    If you’re interested in reading stories by people whose beliefs are based as much (or more) on experience than theology, our website is http://www.mindingthelight.org.

    Best wishes on your experiment!
    Sally Gillette

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sally: I assume you were writing to me?

      Thanks for the note. I don’t know much about Quakers, but I do remember hearing of their thoughtful approach to religion.

      If I suddenly was convinced that God existed, I would have a similar challenge, having to move to a new circle of friends. Still, my focus is on the truth, and I go where the evidence points.

  • Justine

    Bob,
    I just want to say that I’m so impressed by your openness on your search for truth, and that I think you are awesome.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      :)

  • Tiff

    First, I think this is a good experiment and I don’t want to come off as snarky, but I have to wonder what Christians you are talking to that give you these poor explanations of God. Maybe someone’s already discussed this with you, but in case they haven’t I’ll bring them up.

    1) God doesn’t make himself plainly obvious because loving him has to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, it’s not real love. He gives us the options to see him or not to see him as part of the gift of free will. If we are not given a choice, it’s not free will either.

    2) God doesn’t send people to hell because they don’t believe in the “right God”. Matthew 25:31-46 seems to cover it quite well:

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations* will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
    When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      tiff:

      God doesn’t make himself plainly obvious because loving him has to be a choice.

      That’s fine, but that’s not the issue here. When I love a human, “Does he/she exist?” is a trivial question. I needn’t ask it. Why would love be an option if I didn’t know if that person existed or not??

      But in the case of God, this trivial question is suddenly the question.

      So don’t bring up love or free will. The issue is existence.

      Matthew 25:31-46

      The parable of the sheep and goats is an odd one to bring up. It makes clear that faith isn’t how you get into the Kingdom; it’s works.

      If that’s your point, then great; we agree. But most Christians are still hung up on that whole faith thing.

      • Tiff

        It isn’t whether or not they exist, but it’s the person that causes you to love them, it’s something deeper than that. God existing is different than a person existing. Another person didn’t create you and the entire world in it, you’d probably feel differently about knowing for a fact there is a God than any other person in the world. If you knew for a fact there was a God and He created you and the world, you would likely feel some sort of obligation to Him. Which is why God’s existence is directly tied to loving Him in a way that is different from knowing another person existed. But using the person analogy, what if you found out that you owed every thing you have to some person you hated or simply ignored or took for granted. Would knowing that you have this sort of “debt” to this person change your feelings about them or how you acted towards them? Probably.

        Caught, I’m Catholic, we don’t believe in the “faith alone” doctrine. Here’s a good, succinct (just over a minute video) explanation of the Catholic view of salvation of those who aren’t Catholic (or even Christian):

        http://www.wordonfire.org/WOF-TV/Commentaries-New/Answering-the-Skeptics-Part-5-Mike-Leonard-qu.aspx

        Two minute explanation of being saved by “faith alone”:

        http://www.ucatholic.com/apologetics/2minuteapologetics-2/

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Tiff:

          God existing is different than a person existing.

          Wow–it gets harder and harder to find this dude!

          Which is why God’s existence is directly tied to loving Him in a way that is different from knowing another person existed.

          I have a firm rule: first, figure out if someone exists and second, decide whether to love them or not. They gotta be in that order. I’m funny that way.

          explanation of the Catholic view of salvation of those who aren’t Catholic (or even Christian):

          Interesting video. I’d heard that before, but it’s good to get a reminder. As you can imagine, I’m still wondering what grounds the big claims (why they’re not just made up).

          Two minute explanation of being saved by “faith alone”:

          I agree that “faith alone” is a weak claim. You can work your way into heaven according to Matt. 25. But Ephesians 2:8–9 says that it’s just faith. Sounds contradictory to me.

  • gcrobmd

    If by evidence you mean seeing and hearing and handling and feeling a heavenly messenger, you might get that but probably not. Paul got that but he was ready to spend the rest of his life seriving God, ultimately sealing his testimony with his own life. Few people are ready to commit to that degree. More likely, the evidence you will get is a still small voice as did Elijah, bringing with it joy unspeakable, or a life that goes better, or simply the dawning of an unexplainable rock-solid assurance that God lives. If God handed out the evidence that you ask for, then we should expect tangible angels every week in at least one congregation in the world. However, none of us would be tested to see if we will choose good over evil when no one is looking, and so the mortal experience would be wasted.
    I believe in God because of spiritual manifestations (not the evidence you wish for), and because I love Him and what He stands for and I want to serve Him, because the doctrine of pure religion in James is right, because the theology of my religion answers enormous questions, and because my church organization and its people support the needs of real people in real life situations, and is designed to produce the ultimate happiness in this life and in the next. It is right-on relavant to real life, right now.
    My relgion believes that God answers the sincere prayers of all people who ask Him for help because He loves all His children, and that consistently loving people will arrive at the Judeo-Christian heaven they hope for and probably much more. But I also believe that my religion provides the greatest blessings here and now in this life and the key to ultimate happiness in the world to come. We also believe that all sincere seekers will have the opportunity for all of God’s blessings through faith in Jesus Christ and His infinite atonement.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      g: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      More likely, the evidence you will get is a still small voice as did Elijah

      But isn’t it weird that God would be so vague? Why would God make evidence of his existence indistinguishable from a thousand other gods?

      Kinda makes God look nonexistent.

      none of us would be tested to see if we will choose good over evil when no one is looking, and so the mortal experience would be wasted.

      Nope. The issue is existence.

      the theology of my religion answers enormous questions

      I bet science does a better job of answering the enormous questions. And where science falls short, only wishful thinking fills the gap.

      support the needs of real people in real life situations

      Now this is a tangible good! I’d rather we just focused on things like this.

      My relgion believes that God answers the sincere prayers of all people who ask Him for help

      I guess that leaves me out, doesn’t it? I can work up no more sincerity for Yahweh than you could for Shiva.

  • gcrobmd

    Hey Bob. I take it you are an atheist. Do you not realize, that if there is no god, then eventually there will be one, and if there can be one, then already there is one! Let me explain.
    Along with the creation of matter and energy at the instant of the Big Bang, an infinitely elegant order also appeared. Cosmological, geological and biological evolution is the gradual manifestation of that original order. The appearance of life is like the appearance of a crystaline snowflake in a winter’s sky. The theist says the order is the result of a personal and sentient God. The atheist says the order is the result of natural laws. It is terribly interesting that the order has resulted in the formation of personal and sentient beings, that is, you and me. I ponder what that says about the nature of the original order? These personal and sentient beings are understanding the original order. We are even on the verge of programming our own evolution. What will be the end result? Surely we will fix the problem of running out of telomeres that results in death. We will be immortal. When we can interface our brains with the internet, then we will have at our command all knowledge. When we connect ourselves to technology, we will control everything from the toaster to the weather, maybe even the nuclear processes at the center of the sun, and the gravitational tidal forces that create solar systems and galaxies. We will evolve into immortal beings with all knowledge and all power and all presence. We will be gods.
    The only problem is, who will change the human heart, so that we do not annihilate ourselves along the way to godhood, like the Krell did in Forbidden Planet? We will surely need a Savior!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      g:

      I take it you are an atheist

      Bingo!

      an infinitely elegant order also appeared.

      Seems like it was pretty chaotic to me (though I’m no physicist). Low entropy, to be sure, but no order.

      I ponder what that says about the nature of the original order?

      That from the simple rules of physics, amazing complexity arises?

      Consider water. At an atomic level, there are a small number of quantum considerations. But at the macro level, you’ve got rainbows, frost, snow, whirlpools, and dozens of other marvelous interactions of water with the natural laws. You know how many different kinds of crystals water ice can be composed of? Fifteen.

      Pretty cool!

      Surely we will fix the problem of running out of telomeres that results in death. We will be immortal. When we can interface our brains with the internet, then we will have at our command all knowledge.

      Possibly. But be careful–we have a long history of wrongly predicting the technology future.

      We will surely need a Savior!

      Sucks to be us, I guess. I see no evidence for one.

  • gcrobmd

    B: We humans must constantly choose between the enticements of our physical being opposing the enticements of our spiritual being in this fallen world. We seek out and eventually surround ourselves with the evidences we choose. These filter our perceptions of the world. It’s fabulous that we can choose. I see evidence of the Savior everywhere.
    My reality check is what God wants of me: to love my family, nurture my children, educate myself and children, be honest, do the best I can in my career, support others in their needs and be supported (this is where church comes in), and support my community, my country, and the world.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      … our spiritual being in this fallen world

      That’s one view. I don’t share it. I see no evidence of “spiritual beings” or a “fallen world.”

      We seek out and eventually surround ourselves with the evidences we choose.

      The evidence is there. We can choose to focus on just a subset, of course.

      I see evidence of the Savior everywhere.

      And I see not a bit. Maybe you’re like believers in other religions who filter the evidence from the world to support their preconceptions?

      My reality check is what God wants of me…

      My list of important things in my life is similar. Maybe these have a natural origin, but you’re overlaying Christianity on top?

  • Richard S. Russell

    Here’s an 8-minute video that shows why it makes as much sense (and produces just as good results) to pray to a jug of milk as to God:
       http://youtu.be/YymNb-pr-Pc

    Short version: God answers prayers in 1 of 3 ways: yes, no, or wait. This is guaranteed to produce a positive result 100% of the time. So would praying to ANYTHING!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That’s one of my favorite videos. Very cleverly done.

  • Pingback: The Prayer Experiment, Week 1

  • http://www.ozarkcatholic.owrdpress.com OzarkCatholic

    Bob,

    I just thought I’d challenge you to, during your daily prayer these next few weeks, to consider singing. Singing is considered one of the highest forms of prayer. As you are doing short, 3 minute prayers involving a ‘release’ lets say from Atheism, an apt prayer would be the Kyrie Eleison. This prayer and hymn stems from the first century, and is found in the ancient liturgies of Rome, Antioch, and Constantinople. It consists of “Kyrie Eleison, Christi Eleison, Kyrie Eleison…” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, lord have mercy. It was most repeated by priests at laity during the worship service before approaching the altar, and before the beginning of the communion service, to highlight our unworthiness to be in God’s presence.

    It is a wonderful prayer. Below is a link to a youtube video of the Kyrie from Missa VIII, Missa de Angelis (mass of the angels). Its short, sweet, and easy to learn/listen to. I highly recommend focusing on those words, “lord, have mercy”.

    No matter the outcome, I hope you find this experiment with prayer fruitful in some way. I look forward to reading your thoughts on all this at the end.

    Pax Christi.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That’s a new one! Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://www.ozarkcatholic.owrdpress.com OzarkCatholic
  • Dr. Eric

    I’m going to suggest that you’re not very serious, Mr. Seidensticker. If I were going to devote only two to three minutes per day for forty days to study molecular biology, would you think that I put in enough time to get anything out of it?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Eric: You’re quite a precocious little guy, judging from your picture!

      If I were to devote 2-3 minutes per day to investigate the curious claim that there is a sun, that ought to do it.

      Molecular biology and discovering God’s existence seem to be in quite different categories to me.

      Anyway, 2-3 minutes is the requirement of the experiment. I’m simply following it.

  • A Christian

    If you pray you have to do it on God’s terms, for example asking for signs is a no. Matthew 16:4

    Trust me I have experience. I never thought prayers were answered for.. more than 20 years. I spent much of my life as an atheist, but when I tried the same experiment as you, nothing happened. Well that was affirmation for me, that God doesn’t exist, or if he did, he doesn’t answer prayers. But I was wrong.

    Very long story short, later I accepted Christ and my very first prayer was answered.. immediately. I’m a severely skeptical person so I dismiss coincidences, delusions, etc.. I think hard before I accept something as an answered prayer.

    After accepting Jesus might be real and confessing my since, I recieved a literal experience of the Holy Spirit, which I did not even expect, but found out is what you recieve if you do what I did – as written in the Bible.

    After having Christ I started having prayers answered in direct ways. Which I had never experienced or believed before, for 20 plus years. So it’s not like I was a ‘light’ skeptic.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Christian:

      asking for signs is a no. Matthew 16:4

      That’s odd, because in the same book, Jesus did the miracles to prove his divinity: “…so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6). Also: John 14:11, 10:37–8, 20:30–31.

      I recieved a literal experience of the Holy Spirit

      Thanks for the summary, but that doesn’t help me see that God exists.

  • A Christian

    Let me put it another way: Because remember, you’re testing the validity of the existence of God, if you just make up any old ‘way’ to do it, that is like mixing water and salt together everyday and hoping for a fizzing reaction – instead of using vinegar and soda.

    If you are really openly experimenting it makes sense to follow God’s directions and see if there is a result.

    Just praying around in the dark may not work, in the same way that trying to make two random liquids fizz, without the instructions or knowledge of acids and bases is not likely to produce a genuine result.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’m not trying to find God. I’m trying to find any god who exists. As a result, my approach is broader.

  • Sufiya

    The great Hindu saint Ramakrishna was approached by a scientist in great distress. So much so that he wanted to pray, but could not do so, as ‘there was no proof for the existence of God.”

    Ramakrishna advised him :Then pray thus:” If You exist, then listen to this my prayer”.

    A week later the man came back and threw himself at Ramakrishna’s feet, weeping and crying out in joy: “You have saved me!”

    • RichardSRussell

      And you got this all on tape, right? With timestamp and everything?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      How could the scientist be eager to pray but simultaneously have no reason to pray?

  • Sufiya

    Actually, if you want to communicate with God, you have to be able to speak a common language. After taking up the study of Hebrew and Sanskrit any lingering doubts I ever had on the existence of Deity rapidly disappeared.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      God speaks Hebrew and Sanskrit?

      Why would studying these languages/religions do anything but show you that people have been inventing religions for millennia?

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