The Prayer Experiment Critiques Itself

I promised in my introduction to the Prayer Experiment to return to the T. J. Mawson paper that was its inspiration. Mawson 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 others say that this claim is false.

Later in the paper, Mawson challenged his own position with a reworking of this example. Suppose the hypothesis is now that there are fairies at the bottom of his garden. Should he shout “Fairies, reveal yourselves!” into the garden each morning? He admits that he doesn’t, but why?

First, he says that he’s not especially motivated because the issue of fairies’ existence is not particularly important. This surprises me—wouldn’t this be the scientific discovery of the century? Unless I’m underestimating the value of the wisdom the old man can provide, discovering fairies would be at least as important as discovering him.

Mawson goes on to wonder if fragile and shy fairies would deliberately not respond to remain undetected. Sure, this makes sense—in contrast to the old man who we’ve assumed is eager to make contact and pass on his wisdom. But in making this contrast, he doubles down on the results of the prayer experiment. Getting a negative result (no gods answer the prayers) can’t be dismissed as an unimportant curiosity. He presumes the god(s) are like the wise old man, eager to make contact, not skittish fairies eager to remain hidden.

The other objection a potential fairy-finder might raise is that getting into the habit of talking to fairies might make one “slightly dotty.” He gives as an example the two girls behind the 1917 Cottingley fairies hoax (I wrote about that here). One of the girls maintained throughout her life that some of the photos of fairies were genuine. Is this kind of delusion a risk of an overly earnest search for fairies?

I think that this concern of going “dotty” is a valid one when applied to god belief. The human brain can play all sorts of tricks—confident memories aren’t necessarily accurate, we see patterns where they don’t exist, we have built-in mental biases, we’re tricked by optical illusions, trauma can create PTSD, long periods of solitary confinement can create mental illness, and so on—and I simply have no desire to immerse myself in a belief system unless I think that it’s accurate. If I seriously walked the walk of a Muslim for a year, for example, there’s a chance that I might adopt that belief system, but why would I want to do this?

This self-delusion is what PZ Myers was concerned about in his initial critique of the experiment.

If you tell yourself something every day over a fairly long period of time, will it affect how your mind works? I suspect the answer would be yes. … It could affect somebody who is gullible and impressionable. There’s nothing in this ‘experiment’ that could provide evidence of a god, but there is plenty of stuff to show that plastic minds exist…which we already know.

I believe things the old-fashioned way: because there’s sufficient evidence to convince me that they’re true. What’s the upside of “walking the walk”? So I can believe something for which there’s insufficient evidence?

Mawson responds:

Most agnostics and atheists will be able, quite rightly, to remove from consideration as a serious possibility that they will “project” some fantasy and thus generate false positives by conducting the sort of prayer experiment which I have suggested is otherwise prima facie obligatory on them.

For this low-demand experiment, I agree—there isn’t much of a worry. Nevertheless, a false positive seems a plausible explanation for the conversion of many people immersed in emotional religious environments such as exist in certain cults.

Mawson gives psychotherapy as an analogy, which I think is valid. Only by investing seriously in the psychotherapy process and wanting to change can a patient progress. A tepid involvement will probably produce no results.

Similarly, I could invest seriously in the process of being a good Muslim, and I might change. But while there is evidence that the health claims of psychotherapy are correct, which is the prerequisite of participating in that process, I’ve seen no evidence that Islam is correct.

Mawson claims that his simple experiment is “prima facie obligatory on [atheists].” But why only atheists? The fallacy here is like the fallacy with Pascal’s Wager—it applies to the Christian as well as the atheist. If the atheist is logically obliged to conduct a low-cost experiment just to make sure that he hasn’t overlooked any deities, the Christian is as well.

Let me suggest as a follow-on to this project the Christian Prayer Experiment.

The doctrine of the material efficacy of prayer reduces the Creator
to a cosmic bellhop of a not very bright or reliable kind
— Herbert Muller

Photo credit: Brenda Starr

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Arkenaten

    The practice of imprinting something on the subconscious through repetition, even if one holds little stock in its veracity has been shown to have an impact, either possitive or negative.
    The vernacular term would probably be positive thinking, and its practice is recomended by people such as Canadian author John Kehoe, (Mind Power) , Tony Robbins, Wallace Wattles and many others.
    The context might be slightly different but the outcome is likely to be similar, as you highlighted using the Muslim example.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The vernacular term would probably be positive thinking

      Probably, but the term “Stockholm Syndrome” pops to mind also. Perhaps inappropriately …

      • Arkenaten

        LOL! How very true.

  • smrnda

    The problem is that it’s hard to do an experiment in which you yourself are a participant and not an observer. In many psychology experiments, the experiments don’t even work unless the subjects are unaware of what is actually being studied or what hypothesis are actually being tested. If they knew this, it might affect their behavior. In a sense, you can’t really do a psychological experiment properly unless there is some way to prevent the subject from knowing what the experiment is for.

  • Jason

    The divide you make between the weak prayer experiment and the possible brainwashing that could occur if, e.g., you lived as a Muslim for a year, makes an interesting point in light of your last post. The only conversion you consider legitimate is an intellectual one. In other words, you seem to suggest that getting caught up psychologically in a cult would indeed violate your own hypothesis (i.e. even a smart, informed atheist might convert under those circumstances). This is important because it highlights that for many people religion is not simply an intellectual endeavor and often appeals to them for other reasons (emotional security, etc). But in my opinion, this is not the problem. Emotional security is valuable. The problem is that those emotional affiliations cause people to stop using their intellectual faculties and start embracing ideas they cannot otherwise justify (e.g. “I guess God spoke to me!”). I grew up as a Christian and didn’t have a bad experience for the most part. Thus even today, although I have no orthodox Christian views, feel a sense of awe and comfort when I enter a beautiful Christian sanctuary. I suppose I could interpret that as God calling me back to the fold. But actually I am aware that it is more likely (based on evidence) that those feelings are the product of my childhood associations. For similar reasons, I also find great interest and comfort reading, e.g., St. Augustine, but I know better than to be duped by those feelings.

  • smrnda

    Good point Jason. This is why I think most people really convert – religions do a good job of using ritual and music or other things to create the right feelings in people to make them want to join, the way a good marketing campaign can have a huge impact on otherwise indifferent consumers.

    I’m going to side with the idea that the only real conversion is an intellectual one, and that conversions are often something being powerful enough, be it the rituals or the social scene, to shut down someone’s brain long enough to get them inside.

  • J-Rex

    Great post!
    I’m really enjoying what you blog about. I was kind of feeling like I’d been over every atheist argument there was and there wasn’t much more to think about, but you keep bringing up some really awesome stuff.
    I really think people wouldn’t be arguing about religion if humans didn’t have such sweeping, transcendent emotions at times. Emotions are so much harder to analyze than any other part of this argument and you can never convince someone that what they feel isn’t necessarily real. It’s like trying to convince someone that just because they have their first boyfriend/girlfriend, it doesn’t mean they’re actually in love. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve had enough experiences with emotions and tricks of the mind that I was able to understand why feelings don’t mean much, but if it hadn’t been for that, I would probably still believe in some sort of divinity. Logic definitely ruled out mainstream Christianity for me either way though.

  • joeclark77

    Same thing works the other way, too, doesn’t it? You live in a culture that is publically Godless and atheistic, a culture of perjury where solemn oaths are treated as hollow ritual, where marriage means nothing, where 3000+ babies are butchered alive daily because human life has no official value, where sex without consequences is treated not only as if it were a real thing, but as if it were an undeniable human right; where politicians, teachers, and TV commercials broadcast the message that nothing but one’s own selfish desires matter or have value. That makes it real easy to slip into atheism, wouldn’t you say? Gives you plenty of reason to rationalize away the evidence that you have a conscience and a God, doesn’t it? If you ever get a nagging feeling that the ways of your world might be wrong, fear and embarrassment are enough to make you bury it.

    The conclusion, it seems to me, is that when intelligent people stand up and defend the faith in a culture hostile to it, their reasons must be pretty good and worth listening to. (Naturally, your no-true-Scotsman response is going to be that they can’t be truly “intelligent” if they aren’t atheists.)

    • Bob Seidensticker


      You live in a culture that is publically Godless and atheistic

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. If you mean that the US is governed by a secular constitution, then you’re right, of course.

      where marriage means nothing

      You married? Does your marriage mean nothing? That’s not how I’d describe mine.

      where 3000+ babies are butchered alive daily because human life has no official value

      I think what you meant to rail against was the poor education that we give our teens about their bodies. It’s a shame that no one cares about abortion because, if they did, they’d make sure that teens were educated so that they’d minimize unwanted pregnancies.

      That makes it real easy to slip into atheism, wouldn’t you say?

      I’m missing the cause and effect there.

      Unwanted pregnancies come disproportionately from the Bible belt states, so maybe you should get your own house in order before wagging the finger at atheism.

      Gives you plenty of reason to rationalize away the evidence that you have a conscience and a God, doesn’t it?

      Uh, yes, I have a conscience. Was there any doubt about that?

      As for evidence of God, I’d be interested to see some.

      when intelligent people stand up and defend the faith in a culture hostile to it

      Remind me again—what fraction of Americans call themselves Christian? And what fraction atheists? And which worldview is the mandatory one to get elected in this country?

      I’m having a hard time mustering up the necessary tears here. Sorry.

      • Arkenaten

        This is very interesting, Bob.
        I wonder if these figures are consistent worldwide? Do you know?
        I remember someone writing a book that suggested the less religious the society (but not communist, facist etc) the more stable. The author wrote about some of the Scandanavian countries if I’m not mistaken.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Arkenaten: This post (search for “Zuckerman”) has more on quantitative metrics of social health around the world. You’re right that the secular, gay-loving countries in northern Europe are kicking America’s butt in these metrics. Doesn’t prove that religiosity causes the bad metrics (likelier: the other way around), but Christians certainly can’t crow that Christianity makes much of an objective improvement in social health.

      • Michael

        Leaving aside Joe’s moralising which would take up too much space to discuss, I think you’ve missed a point regarding the ‘hostile culture’ Joe speaks of.
        Christianity is not a single belief system. Even if you omit the real fringes like Mormonism, Jehova’s Witnesses, Unitarians and others who wouldn’t have got past the Council of Nicea, you’re still left with a whole host of denominations and sects whose beliefs not only differ widely but sometimes oppose each other. Add that to a slow but definite decline in Christian hegemony (more noticeable here in Europe) and it can feel to a particular Christian in a particular sect that the whole culture is hostile – even if most of the hostility comes from other Christians.
        In the words of T S Eliot Christianity only survives because it is always adapting itself into something which can be believed.
        But not all the Christians adapt with it.
        And don’t forget martyr complex is at the heart of Christianity.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Michael: Good points. I can see how Christians would feel pressure, but I would like them to imagine things from other viewpoints. Christians in Europe have more to complain about, I’m sure.

          We live in interesting times!

        • Michael

          Bob, I think some Christians do imagine things form other viewpoints but they are still in a minority and often labelled heretics.
          Christians here in the UK have only recently begun to complain. The power of the church over everyday things has been ebbing slowly during my lifetime. I can remember when shops were banned from trading on Sundays and public parks were closed and even childrens’ swings were chained up. Now they cry ‘persecution’ when an air hostess is not allowed to wear a cross because it’s jewellery and breaks her employer’s uniform code.
          But they can be subtler; they got prayer back in a council meeting because it was ‘traditional’ to start the meeting that way.

      • joeclark77

        You have completely evaded my point, Bob, that your argument about people being conditioned by their surroundings and habits cuts both ways. My point that we live in a culture where it is very EASY to be an atheist, where atheism is acted out in the public square daily, and where Christianity goes against the grain, stands. Why do you feel the need to repeatedly use red herrings and non sequiturs (such as your theory about abortion, which has nothing to do with my argument), rather than directly address my argument?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          JC: No, I didn’t evade your point. We’re governed (as I noted) by a secular constitution. It’s just a fact of life. It’s against the rules for government to meddle with religion.

          If by “atheism is acted out in the public square daily,” you mean that government is forbidden by the constitution to advance one religion over another–and so must either ignore them all or give them all equal time–I see your point. What’s the problem? The First Amendment also protects your right to hand out leaflets on the street corner, hold up a sign saying that God hates fags, and so on.

          Now, of course, you could wonder why it doesn’t seem that way. Why various representatives try to slip in religion here or there. Why the president declares a national day of prayer. Why “God bless America” comes to the lips of politicians so easily or why they crawl over each other to prove how much more pious they are than their opponent. And that is indeed pretty weird.

          Where’s my evasion of your point?

        • Ted Seeber

          “. It’s against the rules for government to meddle with religion.”

          It used to be. Lately it seems like government does nothing other than meddle with religion.

        • Bob Seidensticker


        • joeclark77

          Your initial point was that living out a faith can cause the brain to be conditioned to believe that the faith is true, i.e. out of habit, or to reduce cognitive dissonance, etc. My point is that if this is true, it cuts both ways. Living out an atheist or functionally-atheist lifestyle should be equally likely to condition someone like you to believe atheism is true. The question is: how do you know that you’re not brainwashing yourself every time you think, act, live, and blog as an atheist? (In other words, I am pointing out that your argument is basically a denial of the possibility of rationality. As an atheist who swears by reason and logic, are you sure you want to go there?)

          My point has nothing to do with what factors indirectly affect the abortion rate, or who is mis-interpreting the Constitution, or any of these other red herrings. I’m sorry I garnished my post with a bunch of what should be uncontroversial illustrations of how our society is functionally atheistic. I can see those illustrations are distracting all of you.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          My point is that if this is true, it cuts both ways.

          It cuts in all ways where you don’t follow the evidence. Following the evidence (that is, acting honestly as an atheist) is a very different story. I’m sure I make mistakes, but I think the following-evidence path is pretty justifiable.

          As an atheist who swears by reason and logic, are you sure you want to go there?

          What is your recommended alternative?

          I can see those illustrations are distracting all of you.

          Yeah, kinda. We’ve been stuck with a secular constitution for over two centuries and have done pretty well as such. If you want to lament the atheistic condition of society (or something) in the future, please make clear what you’re talking about.

        • joeclark77

          My recommended alternative is that we assume rational thought is possible.

          Second best would be some consistency in your own argument, i.e. if rationality is impossible, stop treating your beliefs as rational. Your double standard (whatever Bob agrees with is “following the evidence”, whatever Bob disagrees with is irrational psychological conditioning) makes it pointless to talk about anything.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          if rationality is impossible, stop treating your beliefs as rational.

          You mean perfect understanding is possible? I’ll agree there. But I think we humans show a decent amount of rationality.

          I don’t know that I have any faith. Is that what you mean by “beliefs”?

          Your double standard (whatever Bob agrees with is “following the evidence”, whatever Bob disagrees with is irrational psychological conditioning)

          Amusing caricature; not actually present in this conversation, however.

        • Jason

          Can I throw Joe a bone? Bob et al are right that our country is constitutionally secular but Christianity has traditionally dominated our culture to an extreme that makes it hard to be an atheist. However, traditional religious faith IS eroding and there IS a good reason for American Christians to be on the defense?
          “Survey: One in five Americans has no religion”

        • smrnda

          What country do you people live in? Some Christian attempts to recruit me about every single week. Christians preach in public. They litter bus-stops with tracts. Christian religious music is played on street corners and in the subways. Churches are everywhere. There are Christian media empires, radio stations, publishers, bookstores. It’s always assumed that you celebrate Christian holidays. I mean, I worked for the government, and I saw the difficulty faced by people who wanted to take off work for non-Christian holidays.

          JoeClark, I’m assuming that you are a devout and practicing Christian who probably believes that one needs a personal relationship with God to get anywhere, and so, perhaps, to you, the guy at the strip club who might fill in “Christian” if he was asked his religion and an atheist at home in front of the computer who disbelieves look the same to you, in the sense that both lack what you would consider to be authentic faith, but those are very different people.

          Also, how many atheists do you hang around with? You’d probably be surprised that many of us are not out engaging in hedonistic orgies, drug use, or other extreme behaviors that we can just do since we don’t have God’s law to restrain us. We don’t make bad choices for the same reason we don’t believe in religions.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I live in the Seattle area, a pretty secular place (though we have our Christian extremists as well). Things are a lot tougher on atheists in other parts of the US.

        • Ted Seeber

          Move to Portland, Oregon, where the shoe is so much on the other foot a public school teacher was just told he can’t say “God Bless You” when somebody sneezes.

        • joeclark77

          “You’d probably be surprised that many of us are not out engaging in hedonistic orgies, drug use, or other extreme behaviors that we can just do since we don’t have God’s law to restrain us.”

          Reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “The Song of the Strange Ascetic” by GK Chesterton.

          If I had been a Heathen,
          I’d have praised the purple vine,
          My slaves should dig the vineyards,
          And I would drink the wine.
          But Higgins is a Heathen,
          And his slaves grow lean and grey,
          That he may drink some tepid milk
          Exactly twice a day.

          If I had been a Heathen,
          I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,
          And filled my life with love affairs,
          My house with dancing girls;
          But Higgins is a Heathen,
          And to lecture rooms is forced,
          Where his aunts, who are not married,
          Demand to be divorced.

          If I had been a Heathen,
          I’d have sent my armies forth,
          And dragged behind my chariots
          The Chieftains of the North.
          But Higgins is a Heathen,
          And he drives the dreary quill,
          To lend the poor that funny cash
          That makes them poorer still.

          If I had been a Heathen,
          I’d have piled my pyre on high,
          And in a great red whirlwind
          Gone roaring to the sky;
          But Higgins is a Heathen,
          And a richer man than I:
          And they put him in an oven,
          Just as if he were a pie.

          Now who that runs can read it,
          The riddle that I write,
          Of why this poor old sinner,
          Should sin without delight-
          But I, I cannot read it
          (Although I run and run),
          Of them that do not have the faith,
          And will not have the fun.

      • Ted Seeber

        There is nothing wrong with teens having babies biologically. If you actually knew anything about human biology, you’d know that.

        • smrnda

          The problem is that these days, you can’t be a teenager and go out and find a job that will enable an 18 year old to finance a family, biologically it’s possible but it’s probably a bad idea.

          Also, in terms of social development, I would recommend that nobody get married before they are at least 23. Divorces tend to be fairly common among people who marry young, mostly since a person hasn’t had enough real-world experience and will probably still change and grow a bit, so you’re making a life-time decision from a perspective where you’re really not in the best position to accept what works in the long-term.

          I know there’s people who think that early marriage worked for Medieval peasants, it should work for us except for our damn sophistication, but I find the present state of affairs far better than the past.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          smrnda: What are your thoughts on sex? Since teens are eager for it long before age 23, do you advocate celibacy before marriage?

        • smrnda

          Not at all. Just make sure they know enough biology. Many teenagers aren’t that responsible but it carries over into other areas like wearing a seat-belts. Make sure they know how to have sex and not get pregnant or get a disease.

          Celibacy before marriage is a ridiculous idea given that people tend to marry late. You start wanting to have sex in your early teens and are what, supposed to go without until you’re 25? I can see going without something (like a Big Mac) if it’s bad for you, but sex isn’t bad for you.

          I had a friend whose father taught her all about contraception. He said he didn’t have anything emotionally invested in the idea that sex before marriage should be shameful, but he wanted her to know all the facts. This friend also told me she was glad she wasn’t raised to think having sex before marriage was a tragedy, since she just had sex, got over it, and then realized if she had been raised different she might have married the wrong guy not because she loved him or he loved her or they were right for each other, but just because they wanted to have sex.

          The other thing she learned was that having sex doesn’t make your life radically better and it isn’t a tragedy either, and if it’s either it’s all in year head. I took what she said to heart and thought I learned a lot from someone else.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          smrnda: Makes sense. Christians’ statistics on divorce aren’t so great, one reason being the desire to get married so that they can have sex. Remove that obstacle, and marriage can be undertaken with more chance for success.

    • J-Rex

      You think it’s easy to slip into atheism even though everyone around you is Christian or at least believes in something?
      Is it easy to stop believing in something you’ve believed in your whole life? Something that brings your family together? Is it easy to leave your church and the friends you have there? Is it easy to explain why you left? Is it easy to have everyone in your family think you’re going to hell? Is it easy to have to avoid any conversation about religion when you’re at work or school or wherever because you want to avoid an argument because you know there’s a 78% chance that they’re Christian?
      Why don’t you go tell your friends and family that you’re an atheist and come back and explain how easy that was.
      I don’t know what godless culture you’re talking about, but it certainly doesn’t exist here.

      • Ted Seeber

        I think it is so incredibly easy that 75% of Cradle Catholics become atheists while in college. Including me.

      • Ted Seeber

        And once again, going to hell is the entire point of being an atheist. It is what you want the most.

        • ZenDruid

          You need to provide two bits of evidence here, first on the existence of hell and second on what atheists think about it.
          I won’t be holding my breath.

        • JohnH

          Hell is separation from God. Since Atheism is all about separating oneself from the belief in God then then whole point of Atheism is to go to Hell in precisely that sense.

        • Kodie

          Hell is a department of afterlife conveniently created by theists to modify everyone’s behavior. I could say you want to go to hell because you’re a liar. But hell doesn’t exist, so I wouldn’t say that.

    • Kodie

      If god could do anything to make himself credible, I’m sure we’d all change our minds. Furthermore, I don’t see why he wouldn’t give me $20. I’m praying to Jesus every day for $20 and if that’s what I need to start thinking about it, I don’t see why not.

      • joeclark77

        I have added my prayer to yours. Keep an eye out for that $20.

      • ZenDruid

        Kodie, I’d give you $20 if you asked me and I happened to have it. Joeclark, your prayer provided your brain with a little dopamine ejaculation, but that isn’t worth $20 to anyone except yourself.

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        I have a feeling that prayer will be answered. Though probably by an ATM.

        • Kodie

          If I could answer the prayer myself, I wouldn’t pray to Jesus would I? And just because all of you can hear me, hypothetically answering my prayer instead of Jesus – doesn’t count. It would help but it would not be Jesus. He’s trying to convince me he exists; I already know nice or generous people exist.

  • smrnda

    I see no reason to suspect that the Christian faith makes people more generous, if anything, since suffering is a way of getting to ‘know God’ and that this life is only preparation for the next, they can be extremely callous and indifferent towards the pain of others in this world. I’ve never been able to sustain friendships with Christians since any statement I might make concerning a personal or emotional event is always turned into a means of trying to recruit me.

    And if we’re going on selfishness, the US appears to be a much more ‘me first’ nation than secular European nations which have far better social safety nets. I don’t think this is because the religion encourages selfishness, but because it promotes ‘pie in the sky’ attitudes towards social problems rather than realizing that problems are only solved through some kind of planned, intelligent action.

    If we’re looking at marriage, it seems that Christianity has to degrade marriage into nothing more than the proper escape-valve for sex, or that a marriage isn’t authentic unless we reduce ourselves to gender stereotypes and stop communicating openly but put on a performance of proper ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’

    I mean, I’ve heard all the arguments, it doesn’t even get a reaction from me any more that I feel compelled to go into a shop that has a sign for Tarot readings and love potions and other spells. I don’t see the evidence. There’s no nagging feelings, and no feelings that I’m missing out on something either. I mean, I’m not into sports – what I see church do is to give people the type of experience they get from sports.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      smrnda: How generous are churches? Not so much, as far as I can tell. So let’s strike off church donations from Christians’ charitable giving.

      What baffles me is when Christians laud the generosity of churches (which lets those damn atheists off the hook for doing what ought to be done) but then decry the government taxing us all so that we (as a society) can do good for others.

      As for sports, I see a pretty strong parallel between rooting for the Red Sox (or whatever) and sticking up for ol’ Jesus (or whoever) when a nonbeliever badmouths him.

      • smrnda

        The usual argument is that individual Christians have chosen to give their money to the church, but that taxes are stealing money without people’s consent. First, Jesus said to shut up and pay tribute in the Bible, and the Romans were taking tribute to fund their occupation, so I can’t see Jesus in the tea party.

        The other angle used against it is that it’s wrong to take people’s money when they don’t consent, but taxes are just one aspect of law. We don’t all consent 100% to any law, but we hope that our laws have majority support without being oppressive towards any minority group. The only argument against using tax money for purposes of social welfare is an arbitrary belief that it’s outside of the proper functions of government, or a legalistic interpretation on the limitations on the federal government.

        The other one is that ‘government’ unless it’s overtly Christian, is evil, and even the most benign expansions of government are some Trojan horse to bring in the New World Order. This is an unfalsifiable belief held by many believers that will lead them to reject even the most sensible government programs.

        One thing on churches is that many of them just inefficiently replicate the same functions over and over again. How many churches do ‘food pantries’ and because every church has to do one, there’s more overhead than if food distribution was handled in a more centralized fashion. Plus, the services of the church aren’t things they do and collect metrics on to see how well they are fixing the problems, they’re recruitment tools, and their efficiency is usually measured in terms of how they affect recruitment.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The only argument against using tax money for purposes of social welfare is an arbitrary belief that it’s outside of the proper functions of government

          And yet Christians celebrate it when they do it. Doesn’t it follow that it’d be a good thing if society (read: government) did it?

          even the most benign expansions of government are some Trojan horse to bring in the New World Order.

          Oh yeah. I forgot about the UN takeover and the Black Helicopters®.

          My bad.

        • smrnda

          There is some hypocrisy when faith-based organizations try to get their hands on public money and then do a piss-poor job with it. You might want to research ‘Teen Challenge” which I believe has received money for being a drug treatment program, despite not really having anyone in their locations qualified in the treatment of drug problems. From what I’ve read, they seem to want to be a ‘ministry’ when it fits the bill in terms of what laws they are bound by but when it comes to pocketing money, they want to be seen as a legit drug treatment program. The idea that any “Christian” organization would be bending rules and then taking advantage of loopholes destroys much if not all credibility.

  • Ted Seeber

    Funny, I’ve seen a good deal of evidence that Islam is indeed correct. Actually true, well, there’s a huge logical hole at the center of their theology that prevents, among other things, seriously thinking about either the natural world or their theology.

    I think the real bit flip is to add the Litany of Tarski to your prayer routine. If nothing else, it should *already* be a part of any serious Group 3 Atheist’s meditation. I know as a Catholic, I’ve added a version of it to my Rosaries.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It’s not a part of my prayer; it’s a part of my life philosophy. I always want to believe as many true things and reject as many false ones as possible. (I doubt a lot of belief in God will come from that, though.)

      • Ted Seeber

        “(I doubt a lot of belief in God will come from that, though.)”

        If God is true, then belief in God will come from that. If God is not true, then belief in God will not come from that. DOUBT IS IRRELEVANT when it comes to the Litany of Tarski, because doubt has nothing to do with whether something is true or not. The entire point is to learn to ignore doubt.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          If God is true, then belief in God will come from that.

          If God exists but he can’t be bothered to get off his butt from in front of his Jumbotron to deign to give me some evidence, then I will have no reason to believe that he exists.

          DOUBT IS IRRELEVANT when it comes to the Litany of Tarski, because doubt has nothing to do with whether something is true or not. The entire point is to learn to ignore doubt.

          I don’t see how the Litany if Tarski is any silver bullet here.

        • Ted Seeber

          “If God exists but he can’t be bothered to get off his butt from in front of his Jumbotron to deign to give me some evidence, then I will have no reason to believe that he exists.”

          If a rock on the other side of the world exists, but can’t be bothered to teleport to you to hit you in the head, then you have no reason to believe that it exists.

          That’s why skepticism is not rational.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          If a rock on the other side of the world exists, but can’t be bothered to teleport to you to hit you in the head, then you have no reason to believe that it exists.

          So God cares about making me know him as much as a rock does?

          For most Christians, this is the enormous flaw in this analogy–God is desperately eager for a relationship. That’s the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. Your (apparent) worldview, where God doesn’t give a damn, nicely avoids this Problem, but it does seem to be a minority view within Christianity.

      • Ted Seeber

        Your next post proves that it isn’t a part of your life philosophy. Either that, or you aren’t actually following your life philosophy and following trendy politics instead of truth.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          And, again, you’ve lost me. I support same-sex marriage, and that shows that my life philosophy isn’t to find as many true things as possible?

  • Ted Seeber

    That is because you are insufficiently skeptical about skepticism. You need to learn to be wrong, before you can learn to be right- or to put it another way from your previous post, unless you are willing to descend below doubt, you will be stuck on the local maximum. Right now, to me, your problem isn’t knowing the evidence. It is being sufficiently humble enough to recognize it as evidence.

    As another poster siad, it is all in the definitions. And skepticism is not rational.

    • joeclark77

      I’ve heard it said that “the skeptic demands to be shown the evidence; the cynic refuses to be shown the evidence”. Discuss.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Why isn’t skepticism rational?

      You say that I’m not humble enough to see evidence correctly. Is that just a gut feel on your part? Any reason why I should agree with your assessment?

      • Ted Seeber

        Skepticism is not rational because it wishes for true things to be not true- and thus fails the main test of rationality – the desire to find truth.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Ted: You’ve lost me. I wish to understand the truth, whatever it is.

          We must hang out with different sets of skeptics.

  • jose

    If he has trouble taking fairies seriously, he could try muses. Art is a big, important topic.

  • smrnda

    JoeClark, not sure what your point is with the poem, but is it that Christianity just attracts people with a lack of self-control who, if you don’t threaten them with eternal damnation would just be terrible people? Or is it that there’s no logical reason for anyone who isn’t a Christian NOT to do these things?

    I think there’s plenty of reasons, and if Christians can’t figure them out, it’s just for lack of intelligence, thought or a willingness to think of how you would make sense of life from a secular perspective. The reason I don’t do a lot of stupid, idiotic shit is that it wouldn’t just not make my life better, it would make it worse, and other people’s as well. The belief that atheism implies ‘no rules’ really works only for people who are totally indifferent to other people. If you are an asshole, you will find you have no friends pretty fast.

    • joeclark77

      I don’t know which of my comments you’re replying to, but I’ll bite. Atheism implies that nothing matters, there are no consequences for good or for bad, and there is no moral law, only preferences. You can condemn someone who commits murder, but he may think he is perfectly justified, and neither of you is objectively right or wrong. Now, many atheists will insist that there are ways to arrive at a moral code rationally, with reference to a goal like “maximum benefit to the most people” (which is of course itself an arbitrary preference).

      What is interesting to me, however, is that very few of the atheists who claim you can be moral without faith seem to be able to reach even the simplest and most obvious moral judgments. I submit that the following statements should be obvious and uncontroversial to virtually anyone:
      1. Butchering babies alive is morally wrong.
      2. Sodomy is unhealthy for individuals and society.

      Now point #1 should be instinctually evident to anyone who has a conscience, and surely even a robot could compute the demographic nightmare that results from abortion. Point #2 is plainly evident through reason and evidence. I, as a Christian, do not need to rely on any Christian catechism to come to these obvious conclusions. They are accessible to unaided human reason. A Hindu or a Buddhist or a Rastafarian should be able to reach them. And yet, numerous atheists (including most of the ones with blogs on Patheos) fail to reach either conclusion. Oddly enough, the same atheists who claim you can be moral without faith, claim that only only religious people are capable of reaching these two conclusions (that butchering babies is wrong, for example). Isn’t that a direct self-refutation? Is it not the atheists themselves telling us that as a direct result of being atheists they cannot be moral?

      • Bob Seidensticker


        Atheism implies that nothing matters, there are no consequences for good or for bad, and there is no moral law

        And yet you’re aware enough of conditions within society to know that prisons are not full of atheists and that they behave themselves just like anyone else. So the idea of no consequences and no moral law is ridiculous.

        But since you already know that this is nonsense, I wonder why you bothered to claim otherwise.

        You can condemn someone who commits murder, but he may think he is perfectly justified, and neither of you is objectively right or wrong.

        Yup. Now show me that there is objective morality.

        I submit that the following statements should be obvious and uncontroversial to virtually anyone:

        I agree with 1. It’s obvious and uncontroversial because we are all the same species and have a shared moral instinct.

        I disagree with 2. Not obvious to me.

        even a robot could compute the demographic nightmare that results from abortion

        This robot is missing it.

        Point #2 is plainly evident through reason and evidence.


        numerous atheists (including most of the ones with blogs on Patheos) fail to reach either conclusion.

        So because some atheists fail to agree with Joe Clark, we know that they’re wrong? You’ll have to help me understand the logic behind that one. (Or are you joking?)

      • smrnda

        William Lane Craig thinks butchering babies is OK if god tells you to do it. So it seems with god we’re stuck with no objective morals again.

      • smrnda

        On utilitarianism, there have been some critical like Karl Popper who argued that ‘maximum benefit for the maximum number’ would perhaps ignore a small minority who was doing very badly but who would be lost in the statistics.

        Something which made me think Christianity was nonsense was exactly point 2. I can’t make a utilitarian case that there’s any real inherent harm done by homosexuality. I see none. Plus, lesbian sex is pretty safe.

    • joeclark77

      Oh, you were replying to the poem! Silly me, I replied too fast. The poem’s message is, if you really don’t believe in God or consequences, why would you WANT to refrain from hedonistic orgies and so forth? It makes no sense.

      • smrnda

        It may make no sense since you seem to be of the opinion that unless God says “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” then there isn’t any reason to do anything. My problem with that mentality is I don’t want anything to do with a person who think that, unless God is going to condemn him for doing so, he doesn’t think there’s any reason not to kill me. This makes me think of Christians as basically mindless sheep, who can’t understand an internal moral compass and can’t live without a carrot and a stick. I can neither trust nor deal with people like that.

        As for consequences, you don’t need God to have consequences or preferences. I don’t do lots of things because I have better things to do. Hedonism is pretty boring and dull and unexciting. The reason I do socially responsible things is that, in the end, if I don’t, I’ll be living in a shitty society. Its the same reason I don’t leave a mess in a public restroom – when people see a clean bathroom, they don’t mess it up as readily as when they don’t, so keeping bathrooms clean is in all of our benefit.

        And on your obvious conclusion that homosexual relations are bad for society, the Romans did it and their civilization kicked fucking ass. On abortion, I’m not sure I’d actually consider embryos and fetuses to be ‘babies.’ Is my brain-dead grandfather cheating death on life support alive? In what way? (by the way, my grandfather did die that way, so this isn’t a current concern.)

        As for God, I think the existence of the Christian God would make life meaningless. Your basically stuck living under a petty narcissist who sees no value in human beings except in that they can be turned into mindless praisebots. The Christian God imposes a sort of mental and emotional legalism where you aren’t allowed to feel anything but what you’re supposed to feel.

      • smrnda

        I could get a simpler illustration. There is nothing to stop me from eating jelly beans, and even if the Christian god were true, there is nothing wrong with eating jelly beans, but I still don’t eat them.

        You’re also probably making the error of assuming that just because someone finds fun in excess, all people must. As I said before, I don’t think that casual sex is wrong, but I am not doing it myself just since I’m not interested. There is nothing wrong with volleyball but I don’t play volleyball. I don’t see what’s so hard to understand

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