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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

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