The Bottomless Hole of Prayer Requests

Lately, I’ve been spending some time reading Unequally Yoked – a blog about a Catholic/atheist interfaith relationship from the atheist perspective, which is a great concept, and tends to attract interesting commenters from both sides of the theological aisle. There was one recent post, Reading and Praying… One of those I can do, which I left a comment on that I’d like to expand into a post.

The author, Leah, wrote a post about trying prayer at her boyfriend’s suggestion, which didn’t sway her. A multitude of religious readers suggested she try again in slightly different ways, like the following:

But all of this uneasiness is one great reason the Catholic and Orthodox Churches emphasize the saints and prayer to them as intercessors for us. It is naturally easier to identify their human experiences and individual stories, and perhaps easier to talk with them so that they can talk to God on your behalf.

I grew up strictly recitating prayers, which I find comforting in the sense that those prayers were given to us in the Bible. Then I found the Fr. Hardon prayer book in my house, which is this little red book packed full of more (written down!) prayers: http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Prayer.htm

Twice a week, every week, for several months – it’s up to you to decide how long, but I would not give up before six months have passed – visit a local Adoration Chapel. Just bring yourself – no books, no Rosary, no cell phone, nothing – and pass the half hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. You don’t have to pray – though you can, if you feel so moved. You don’t have to pay attention – though you can, if you feel so inclined. You don’t have to do anything except stay put for one half hour. If you spend the half hour there and find the whole arrangement laughably absurd, so be it. But please stay there for the half hour. Then come again next week.

There’s something I realized early on in my journey to atheism, and these comments show it: the biggest problem with requests to try prayer is that they’re a bottomless hole. No matter what you do – say the sinner’s prayer, pray the Rosary a hundred times, go to Mass every week for a year, pray to a particular saint, spend half an hour per day sitting silently in front of a box of wafers, or even perform an exorcism on yourself – if it doesn’t convert you, there will always be theists who’ll tell you, in the most polite way and with the best of intentions, that you’re doing it wrong, and that you should try something else if you really want to experience God.

When does this stop? When are you entitled to give up and conclude that the reason you didn’t get an answer is because there’s no god to give one? Obviously, if you listen to religious apologists, the answer is “never”. There’ll always be something else to try, some other ceremony to perform, some different wording to choose – and if you truly exhausted every possibility, there would still be the all-purpose excuses, like “hardness of the heart”.

To all the religious evangelists who urge atheists to pray, I ask in all sincerity – when will we have done enough? If we had limitless patience, free time, and energy to carry out your requests, would there ever come a time when you’d agree that we’d tried everything reasonable to communicate with God and counsel us that it was OK to stop? I very much doubt that any theist would say so, although anyone who disagrees is welcome to prove me wrong.

You could spend your whole life, and a thousand lifetimes more if you had them, trying every last ritual and every last prayer that every member of every religion claims will open a channel between you and God. You could spend six months in silent contemplation at a Zen monastery, take ritual baths at every sacred well in India, ingest peyote or ayahuasca with Native American shamans, handle poisonous snakes at an Appalachian backwoods church, make a pilgrimage to Mecca and bow before the Ka’aba… the list goes on and on and on, with new items being added all the time, as human beings in the realm of religion exercise their limitless creativity untrammeled by fact. It’s impossible for any one human being to try everything that every theist has ever conceived of.

With that in mind, I ask this question of every religious evangelist who wants me to try his ritual: Why should I believe that this will work? What evidence can you present to convince me that this particular exercise is more worthwhile than any of the other rituals invented by any of the other thousands of faiths on this planet? I’m willing to try anything reasonable suggested by anyone who has a good answer to this question – but so far, it’s a question that no one has been able to satisfactorily answer.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Douglas Kirk

    Something tells me most theists would say that you can stop when you’ve died (and in their view are subsequently forced to do nothing but pray and worship for all eternity), since that is the only time you’ll ever “know.” Pascal’s wager at it’s sleaziest.

  • NoAstronomer

    And the response ‘it worked for me’ is not acceptable.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.net/ Timothy Mills

    “You’re not sure that God exists? Then you owe it to yourself to keep checking until you are sure.”

    A common trope. Here is an account of some Mormon missionaries trying it on me.

    My preferred response to this approach from theists is to ask how their method avoids the likelihood of confirmation bias. That is, if I keep talking to someone that I don’t think is there, sooner or later I’ll rationalize my behaviour by persuading myself that maybe he is there. No theist has yet given me a remotely satisfactory answer.

    Maybe I’m asking them in the wrong way. I guess I’ll have to keep trying until I find a theist who can suggest a psychologically unbiased technique.

  • TommyP

    Ebsters, I loved this post. Now to pare it down to something short enough for a facebook post.

  • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com/ Hendy

    Since deconverting I’ve wanted to try and keep a diary while praying to my large TV cabinet in my living room, asking for things I used to ask for from god: strength, wisdom, the ability to be holy, etc. Then I’d note if any seemingly amazing things came up through the day.

    The occurrence of “providential” happenings has not stopped since I’ve stopped believing and praying. Just as someone brought up Lourdes and miracles at the above referenced Unequally Yoked post… there was a post that popped up in google reader for a BBC documentary called “Miracles: Science Friction.” Crazy.

    Oh, and even if you do pray… you were never really open anyway.

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    I’d prefer to think that a/the god(s) would prefer me spending that time out contributing to the world, or my family, or just living than sitting in a corner wishing for magic.

    Of course, quietly sitting in a room by yourself with no distractions for 30 minutes every week would likely provide enlightenment/insight for most people. Many people could use that time to unwind, to focus, to just think about their problems and life. Solve a problem at work, think of the next chapter in the book they’re writing. Come up with an idea to get their kids to eat their vegetables. maybe it’s something more profound. A grand unified theory. That light acts like waves. This is just simply the work of the brain and thought, not God. Or maybe it is, in some complex way, but it’s not the praying/wishing that’s doing it. It’s the simple act of thinking and using your brain.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    They find benefit in the personal experience of prayer and seem to confuse it with actual intercession from an external deity. It would be analogous to this conversation, only taken way more seriously.
    A-jazzist: I don’t really care much for Jazz music.
    Jazzist: Oh, if you listen to Kenny G, I guarantee you’ll like it.
    A-jazzist: I did a few years ago. Meh. It didn’t really work for me.
    Jazzist 2: I love listening to George Benson while cutting the grass. To fully experience Jazz, you really need to do it while mowing your lawn.
    A-jazzist: …
    Jazzist 3: Dude, I can’t even begin to describe the effect Miles Davis has had on my life. He is a master, and really helped my relationship with my wife, if you know what I mean…
    A-jazzist: uh, wow
    Jazzist 4: I find jazz most powerful when sitting in front of a fire. If you haven’t experienced jazz in this way, you just don’t know what you’re missing.
    A-jazzist: OK, cool. Thanks guys.

  • javaman

    You could spend six months in silent contemplation at a Zen monastery

    The word contemplation means silently thinking to yourself,this is not what one does in zazen which is what is practiced in Zen mindfulness,it is not pray,and can’t be compared to Christian worship.In Zazen the intent is to free the mind from bondage to any thought-form ,vision ,thing ,or representation , no matter how sublime or holy it appears. In its purest form zazen is dwelling in a state of thought-free alert wakefulness with bare attention to reality,with no thought to ask or attain anything,just being passive and just observing what “is” in your human state of affairs with no internal comments, ie. being nobody, going no where ,just being aware of this moment.In addition Buddha hood ( the term means “the awakened one”)can be attained by all humans with practice.The Buddha was just a man,. and not a god, or god’s messenger, and never claimed any divine knowledge. I haven’t said word, Please go easy on me!

  • Jim Baerg

    And how many fuzzy pictures of things that might be a bear on its hind legs or a man in a gorilla suit do you have to look at before you decide that the sasquatch isn’t real.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    As a non-ritualistic theist, my view — and answer — is going to be a bit odd:

    You can stop trying whenever you feel it’s a waste of your time to keep going. However, that doesn’t mean that you can conclude that you really did do it correctly and that the fact that you didn’t discover anything isn’t because you were doing it wrong.

    Imagine that someone tells you that there’s a way in a word processor to open multiple files at once. They give you a fairly vague idea of how to go about, saying that you need to open the file window and select multiple things. You can try all the different combinations of that for months or years and get it wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it just means that you don’t know how to do it and you keep doing it wrong.

    And for the person who gives the advice, at best it means that it isn’t something they can actually describe — which is not implausible for anything involving personal experiences — or at worst they really don’t know themselves how prayer gets them to the point of “knowing God”.

    So you could still be doing it wrong, but if they can’t tell you what to change to get it right or keep telling you different things to try you can ultimately reply with the same thing that you’d say in the word processor case: you may be right, but if you can’t tell me how to do it better than that then I’ll just stick with my current way of doing things, thanks.

  • Seomah

    Timothy Mills:

    A much better response is to pretend to pray for five seconds, then say you have actually talked with god and he responded saying that the theist in question is full of shit and worship the wrong god. Everything they could say to prove you wrong is then working to prove them wrong too, and some theists don’t realize until it’s too late.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Less Verbose Stoic: God is a subjective experience.

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    What Ceetar, Verbose, and Steve said.

  • Eurekus

    I have used the ‘when’s enough, enough?’ argument on theists before. It’s funny that they inevitably then resort to fear. It’s obvious Pascal has terrorised generations.

  • kennypo65

    Feeling down? Want to feel better? Forget prayer, do what I do. Give a little of your time in the service of others. I volunteer at a nursing home, reading to the patients, playing cards, or just having good conversation. I have made some good friends, and I FEEL GREAT. If you give something of yourself you will feel better, I guarantee it.

  • Paul

    “Jazzist 3: Dude, I can’t even begin to describe the effect Miles Davis has had on my life. He is a master, and really helped my relationship with my wife, if you know what I mean…”

    Miles Davis was my wife.

  • heliobates

    However, that doesn’t mean that you can conclude that you really did do it correctly and that the fact that you didn’t discover anything isn’t because you were doing it wrong.

    Y’ad think that the All Powerful Creator Of Everything Who Created This Univers Just So That I Can Have A Personal Relationship With Him Through His Son, etc. would be just a bit less fucking coy.

    What is the point of desiring a relationship with a being that is so emotionally unavailable (and by Bayesian inference, probably doesn’t exist)?

  • MS Quixote

    I agree, Ebon, and to expand the thought a bit, I’d argue this is one of the reasons it’s foolish of the church to attempt to mandate prayer in public places where it doesn’t belong.

  • TEP

    In many ways it’s a lot like the advance fee fraud the Nigerian scammers use. They tell you that you’ve inherited $30 million. But to get your money, you have to give them $150. But, after paying the $150, you don’t get your money. Apparently there’s been a delay, some paperwork’s gotten lost or something, or some officials need bribing, so you’ll have to pay another $250 in order to get your money. But it’ll be worth it – what’s $250 compared to $30 million? So you pay the $250. Still no money. But you’ve got to keep trying. The fact that you haven’t got the $30 million isn’t proof that it’s a con – it’s a test of your determination to get that money. You just have to keep trying to get it, by sending the scammer money. Eventually, you’ll get your reward if you’re dedicated enough. If you keep paying the money, then eventually, you’ll be rich. You just have to be patient. The $30 million will change your life; keep the faith, keep trying to get it, and the reward will be yours.

    Of course, religion is a far more effective scam, because it is much less falsifiable. Most people, no matter how gullible, will eventually realise after sending thousands of dollars to a scammer and getting nothing for it that it’s likely that they can’t get millions of dollars this way. However, with religion, a person may make many, many ‘payments’ – invested time spent praying, donating to the church, participating in rituals etc, and not be at all bothered by the fact that they are yet to get anything out of it. This is because, most of the promised reward is given after death – it’s basically “pay us with lots of your time and efforts, and we’ll give you an eternity of bliss after you die”. Thus there isn’t that much expectation of returns pre-death, whose absence could become conspicuous. Thus, there’ plenty of motive to keep on with the rituals, even if you don’t get much from them, because what the worshippers are really concerned with is getting the big reward at the end. Smaller rewards at this point are sought, not so much for their own sake, but as confirmation that they’ll be getting that big reward later on. As such, there’s a great incentive to try to interpret things as being these ‘small rewards’ and engage in confirmation bias. If it was Jesus that helped you find that lost pen, then that means that he is real, and that he will therefore be giving you that big reward after you die. Keep telling yourself that you’re getting those small rewards – find correlations between your tendency to ‘pay’ Jesus and fortunate things happening to you whenever you can – because it means that one day Jesus is really going to pay up in the afterlife.

    The really great thing about having a post death reward is that there’s no way to verify it. There’s a great shortage of people coming back to life and saying “yeah, I went to heaven, and it’s not really that much of a paradise. In fact, it’s a bit of a dump really, filled with tin shacks and garbage. Oh, and did I mention that there aren’t any toilets there? Yep, they just have open sewers flowing through the streets instead! It’s really not worth going to any effort to end up there, it’s completely horrid.” There’s no crowd of dissatisfied customers who tried the scheme and found that it isn’t what it was cracked up to be, like you would with people buying lemons from a shifty second hand car salesman. The closest you might get is the equivalent of people who paid for part of the value of a car, before deciding that the dealer seems dubious and deciding to cut their losses. In this case, all the other people who believe the dealer will give them a wonderful vehicle when they’ve finished paying him can simply say that the people who quit paying would have got a fully functional vehicle if only they’d kept paying until they’d paid the full amount. But for those who made the full payment for the vehicle, well, the transaction can only be completed once you die, which means that the living can never view the results. Those who end up with lemons have no way to warn those thinking of doing business with the dealer.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    TEP,

    The problem with your analogy is that the people that Ebonmuse seems to be referring to are people who genuinely believe that they, in fact, got a fully-functioning vehicle from that dealer, and from their descriptions it seems that Ebonmuse is willing to consider the possibility that they really did get a fully-functioning vehicle. He just can’t get the same thing when he goes to that dealer no matter how he tries.

    Those who get nothing out of it but think that it might lead to benefits after death are unlikely to say “try it for X/with X/at the same time as X and you’ll get something out of it once you do”. They’re more likely to simply say “Do it or you’ll go to Hell when you die.”

    (I say neither, but I’m rather odd).

  • Tom

    Ask not when to stop praying; ask, rather, when to start.

    In my own opinion, and I’d hope according to common sense, you shouldn’t even start doing something (scientific experiments, prayer, invading a sovereign nation, whatever) until a) you’ve got a clearly defined end scenario for every possible outcome, most crucially including the null outcome – prayer as advised by such people as mentioned here fails this because it has no end scenario for failure, and frequently has no clearly defined success scenarios either (as I’ve remarked in an earlier post here, most prayer is in fact carefully, if unconsciously, formulated so that this will be so) – and b) you’ve got a plausible underlying model or hypothesis, consistent both with itself and with prior observational data, from which to predict said outcomes and also to adapt, refine or abandon your attempts as new data are obtained – prayer fails this also since gods are, by most definitions, inscrutable.

  • heliobates

    The problem with your analogy is that the people that Ebonmuse seems to be referring to are people who genuinely believe that they, in fact, got a fully-functioning vehicle from that dealer, and from their descriptions it seems that Ebonmuse is willing to consider the possibility that they really did get a fully-functioning vehicle. He just can’t get the same thing when he goes to that dealer no matter how he tries.

    The parable of the three blind men and the elephant only holds true if the three men don’t talk to each other, don’t compare their results and never switch places to check each others’ work.

    Some people may genuinely believe that they got a fully-functioning vehicle from the dealer but if we never see those cars except in their driveways and those people have a raft of excuses and explanations about why the cars won’t even start then the other people who have observed that the dealer sells defective cars have more evidence for their beliefs.

    Our personal experiences consist of internal states and internal states about internal states. Those states are certainly “real” for the people experiencing them, but they don’t have to have anything to do with anything outside of their minds. Belief in a perfectly working car doesn’t mean that the car works perfectly in the same way that belief in an invisible dragon in the garage doesn’t mean that there is a dragon in the garage.

    As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it: “beliefs should pay rent in anticipated experiences.”

  • heliobates

    The fact that you haven’t got the $30 million isn’t proof that it’s a con – it’s a test of your determination to get that money.

    You’ve got it exactly. Prayer is a 519 scam. God has all his believers on an extremely lean reinforcement schedule.

  • Grimalkin

    And if prayer/reading the bible/performing X ritual doesn’t work, you just weren’t trying hard enough.

    It’s always your fault. You just weren’t doing it with an open mind.

  • TEP

    TEP,

    The problem with your analogy is that the people that Ebonmuse seems to be referring to are people who genuinely believe that they, in fact, got a fully-functioning vehicle from that dealer, and from their descriptions it seems that Ebonmuse is willing to consider the possibility that they really did get a fully-functioning vehicle. He just can’t get the same thing when he goes to that dealer no matter how he tries.

    Those who get nothing out of it but think that it might lead to benefits after death are unlikely to say “try it for X/with X/at the same time as X and you’ll get something out of it once you do”. They’re more likely to simply say “Do it or you’ll go to Hell when you die.”

    (I say neither, but I’m rather odd).

    I guess what I was trying to say was that people so badly want to believe in the really big reward that their deity is promising that they’ll be all the more determined to convince themselves that the deity is giving them small rewards now, because a deity giving them small rewards is ‘evidence’ that it is likely to give them that big reward it is supposed to have promised them. Thus there is motivation to pray, pray, pray, pray, until you get the result that you want, a coincidence that can be interpreted as a ‘small reward’ that can function as a ‘sign’ that the big reward is coming, if only you keep at things. Since the purpose of prayer is to validate the belief that the big reward is on its way, prayer can only ever be ‘enough’ if it suffices to convince one that there is a powerful being that’s going to reward you for investing in it.

    It’s sort of akin to people who really, really want the fantastic car that the dealer promised them, and have already invested a lot of money in it. They want reassurrance that the dealer will eventually give them their car, so whenever they make a payment, they look around for signs that the dealer is kindly disposed to them. They keep looking until they find something that confirms their hopes. Some flowers are found on the front doorstep – the dealer thanking them for paying him? A lack of burglaries? The dealer must be protecting their house from burglars. They’ll keep looking until they find something.
    The skeptic who isn’t taken in by the car dealer’s scam may do similar investigating to see whether or not the dealer is the sort of person who does random acts of kindness, and thereby determine whether or not the dealer is someone you might want to buy a car from. However, if they haven’t already invested in a car, they’re less likely to feel a need to justify that investment by convincing themselves that fortunate happenings are due to the kindness of the car dealer. They may well experience similar things to the believers, but they won’t be motivated to jump to the conclusion that every little fortunate thing was orchestrated by the car dealer; they’ll only believe if they can find a compelling trail linking the dealer with some fortunate occurrance. Of course, if the dealer isn’t doing this, and is just a con artist, then the skeptic will never find such a trail of evidence. Which will mean, of course, that they haven’t investigated sufficiently thoroughly – because if they had, they would surely have found evidence of such actions by the car dealer, like the believers did. If the car dealer is prone to acts of random kindness, then anybody who searches properly will find them. If someone properly searches and doesn’t find such evidence, then this would mean that perhaps the car dealer isn’t so honourable as he’s made out to be, and perhaps those who have invested so much were unwise to do so. But if you have invested a large amount of money in that car you really want, the last thing you want to find out is that you were tricked and you’re not going to get it – so naturally, anyone who failed to find evidence that the dealer is honourable and likely to provide that car, must have not been looking hard enough.

  • bbk

    You can stop trying whenever you feel it’s a waste of your time to keep going. However, that doesn’t mean that you can conclude that you really did do it correctly and that the fact that you didn’t discover anything isn’t because you were doing it wrong.

    Let’s say you have a rash. So you go to the doctor and he gives you an ointment. But it doesn’t work. So you go back a few weeks later and he gives you a different ointment. You keep doing this for years and the doctor tells you to trust him, that he’s a professional, that you just have to stick with the program and your rash will eventually go away.

    But let’s say that in the meantime, you decide to cut out a certain food and it turns out that you were in fact allergic to it and it was causing the rash. Problem solved! So now you go back to your doctor to tell him about all of this, but to your dismay, he gives you another lotion and tells you to keep trying!

    This is the problem. Atheists don’t quit trying because nothing ever worked for them. They quit trying because they found a better solution. Atheists see theists trying things in vein as well – the only difference is that the theists seem to believe that they don’t have a choice, that if their way doesn’t work then nothing will. You can rest assured that no atheist has ever seen a theist pray for something and get his wish. It doesn’t happen. Ever. The question really isn’t about atheists needing help in deciding if we’ve given it a good enough try or not. The question is when will you recognize that your answers don’t work, at least not for us?

  • jack

    There is, of course, a deeper problem with prayer, one that surprisingly few believers seem to think about: the god most of them believe in is alleged to be all-knowing and all-loving. He already knows what’s best for us, wants what’s best for us and is able to do anything. He already knows what we want, whether or not that is what’s best for us, and whether or not we express our wants in prayers, in writing or in Morse code. If we believe in him, and truly love and worship him, he already knows that and doesn’t need for us to demonstrate any of that by bowing down in supplication.

    So what is the point of praying at all?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Atheists see theists trying things in vein as well –

    So that’s why religion is the opium of the people :)

  • Jerri Mack

    As a response to theists who say that doubters’ prayers go unanswered because they are doing it wrong: given that God apparently desperately wants us all to believe in him, why would he not respond unambiguously to a sincere request? How can ANY attempt to communicate with the Deity be done incorrectly [unless the prayer is greedy or for something immoral]? And if theists say there is no response because the prayer is not sincere, what an opportunity to change a sceptic’s heart and mind! It seems, then, that only believers’ prayers can ever be answered, and the record shows that to be a pretty hit-or-miss situation.

  • Chad

    Great post Ebon, and great comments here. Prayer was one of the first rituals to fall by the wayside in the years leading up to my deconversion. Among all the Christian rituals which I practiced, it made the least sense, was the most difficult to do since it was subject to a multitude of different forms, and yet I tried the hardest hoping (in vein :P) that it would work. The sheer lack of ration applied to the subject of prayer by those who practiced it, plus the lack of easily identifiable scientific confirmation in a number of tests contributed greatly to my eventual departure from Christianity. The entire practice of prayer reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes. If no one other than the Emperor’s yes-men can see his clothes, there’s a good chance he’s butt-naked.

  • Vlad

    I don’t think any Muslim would suggest going to Mecca as a means of conversion. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mecca#Prohibition_for_non-Muslims)

  • kennypo65

    Religion isn’t the opium of the masses, it’s the placebo.

  • Sebastian
  • RipleyP

    A very enlightening thread, I really enjoyed the analogies as posed by TEP and the Nigerian scam. The analogy is enjoyable as it highlights for me the dissonance of diety followers saying how did they get scammed while ignoring themselves being scammed.

    I think the whole pray game is rigged in so many ways. I mean you can pray for something and you will either get it though the diety delivering, confirmation bias, random chance or you won’t get it. Did prayer fail when you didn’t get it? Well the proponents will suggest that the deity works in mysterious ways and what ever randomly happened was meant to be.

    There are just so many “outs” for the deity pushers that I can’t seem to keep up any more. I am also not shown any reliable proof that the deity did deliver.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I think in light of some of the responses to my comment I should clarify it.

    My point was aimed at what I thought Ebonmuse was after: a Christian or theist tells someone to pray and they’ll get an understanding of God, the atheist tries for a while, it doesn’t work, and gets told to try it differently. At what point can that atheist stop?

    My answer was: whenever they want. The corrolary was that they can’t then conclude what, well, most of the responses concluded: that the Christian hasn’t had such an experience, that it’s all confirmation/emotional bias on their part, or that the atheist was doing it correctly and so there is no experience to be had there. None of the data supports that strong a contention, and that getting evidence of that is really, really difficult. But you don’t need to conclude the Christian wrong to say that it’s a waste of at least your time to stop trying.

    My comments were meant to forestall comparisons to scams and wishful thinking that not only would the atheist not have sufficient evidence for but that can be turned back on the atheist (ie that they didn’t, say, recognize the experience as such because of their bias).

    One of the main reasons I hold this view is that while I am a theist, I don’t seem to get the same sort of experience from prayer as the people who would be telling, say, Ebonmuse to pray to find God. As a consequence, I never recommend praying to find God and don’t pray all that much myself. But I’m not so quick to dismiss it entirely; there may be something there to find. I just can’t find it myself.

    There is a middle ground between “Prayer proves!” and “Prayer is bunk!”, and that’s what I’m advocating for.

  • Kogo

    *The corrolary was that they can’t then conclude what, well, most of the responses concluded: that the Christian hasn’t had such an experience, that it’s all confirmation/emotional bias on their part, or that the atheist was doing it correctly and so there is no experience to be had there.*

    Of course it does. Prayer never works.

    *None of the data supports that strong a contention*

    There is no such data: Stop making things up.

    *My comments were meant to forestall comparisons to scams and wishful thinking that not only would the atheist not have sufficient evidence*

    Tough: That’s exactly what prayer is: An effort to get people to navel-gaze and mentally masturbate rather than actually take control of their own lives and world.

    *There is a middle ground between “Prayer proves!” and “Prayer is bunk!”, and that’s what I’m advocating for.*

    No, there isn’t. You are simply stupid and wrong to say that. Prayer is bunk, full-stop. If it worked, it would, y’know, WORK.

  • heliobates

    …that the Christian hasn’t had such an experience, that it’s all confirmation/emotional bias on their part, or that the atheist was doing it correctly and so there is no experience to be had there.

    Who’s saying that the experience wasn’t real for those believers? I’m certainly not. When I cry at the end of Old Yeller, that’s a real experience for me (changes in breathing, tears, post-nasal drip, changes in my self-talk…), but the experience didn’t arise because a real dog really contracted real rabies and was really euthanized by a real boy in real time on the movie screen in front of me.

    But if you’re telling me that a believer, talking to the air, is really experiencing something really caused by something else really outside that believer’s mind. I think I have good reason for telling you that you’re wrong:

    None of the data supports that strong a contention, and that getting evidence of that is really, really difficult.

    The study of cognition is an entire subfield of neurology, psychology and social psychology. We have rafts of experimental evidence to show that, in all other circumstances people’s cognitive processes mislead them (counting the hits…, confirmation bias, post hoc rationalization, pareidolia, natural failure to reason probabalistically…). But we don’t have any evidence to show that the act of prayer somehow suspends cognitive biases.

    We also have increasingly sophisticated and robust naturalistic models for observable reality and they confidently exclude supernatural explanations on both methodological grounds and a posteriori inferences.

    So, in this context, I don’t think that a believer is saying “I’m having this experience”, and most of us are saying “no, you’re not!” Instead, the believer is saying, “this experience is caused by God”, and we’re saying “nope, there’s no reason to believe that it’s not all in your head”. And we’re perfectly justified in concluding this.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    heliobates,

    I disagree, because while psychology has shown that those sorts of things can be involved and have an impact, you haven’t shown that that is true in this case. Again, they can level the same charge against the atheist who “fails” to discover God through prayer, and we have neither the direct access to their experience nor any sort of valid psychological test to prove that that cognitive misleading is actually occurring. You may believe it so, but you do not know it to be so, and you aren’t going to be able to get the evidence to know it so.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Let me use another example: me and art.

    I, personally, don’t get a lot of art. Especially abstract art. People will say that you can get all these wonderful aesthetic experiences from these things and I always end up unimpressed by them. They often will tell me to look at things a certain way or with a certain mindset and it doesn’t work for me.

    Would I be justified in using those cognitive biases to say that there is no such experience or aesthetic value to them, and that abstract art is a scam? Absolutely not; the evidence cannot support it.

    So why would it be different for prayer? Note, again, that you don’t have to conclude anything or accept that something supernatural exists or stop being an atheist or anything like that. You just have to accept that maybe they get a legitimate experience that indicates something to them from prayer that you don’t.

  • Kogo

    *You just have to accept that maybe they get a legitimate experience that indicates something to them from prayer that you don’t.*

    Yeah. And that’s pretty much exactly what I don’t accept.

    There is ample evidence that religion IS a scam: That it is used to separate people from their money, freedom, rights, and independence. Plus, what’s been said above: There’s ample neurological evidence that prayer is just internal monologue. And epidemiological evidence that prayer for healing doesn’t work. (And no, I don’t accept the b.s. counterargument that “god doesn’t do tests” because admit it: If there WAS a detected effect, your lot would STILL be crowing about it).

    Oh and art visually exists, whether you understand it or not, so no dice on the analogy.

    If god existed, then he would be *thunderously* evident. But he isn’t. Ever. Since there is no evidence he exists, he clearly doesn’t. Hence, prayer is stupid bullshit. A scam.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Kogo,

    First, please stop assigning people into “lots”. I’m pretty much not in any lot you’d care to assign me to, especially since I’d say that with the experiments on prayer actually run finding something wouldn’t have meant a lot.

    Anyway, saying “religion is a scam” is your own personal belief, and you’re entitled to it. But you aren’t getting there from this discussion on prayer; you’re taking it from other arguments. Fair enough. But the context of this discussion is specifically about that, and there’s no reason to think that the “evangelists” Ebonmuse cites are scammers themselves, and that they aren’t getting from prayer what they claim to get from prayer. So that’s not relevent.

    As for art, the claim is not about the painting existing, but about it possessing certain aesthetic qualities that, yes, people claim exist — sometimes even objectively! — and that they claim I will see if I look at that piece of art. I fail to see them. Does that mean that those aesthetic qualities really don’t exist, or that I’m justified in saying they don’t exist?

  • Kogo

    *Anyway, saying “religion is a scam” is your own personal belief, and you’re entitled to it.*

    Right, but since religion is nothing more than personal belief elevated to the level of universal axiom, you are obligated to accept my personal belief as a valid. As I have been lectured a million times, You Simply MUST Respect Other People’s Beliefs, No Matter How Silly They May Seem.

    My belief is that evangelism contains zero truth, hence it is INHERENTLY a scam. You must “respect” that belief. Whatever the hell that means.

    Suck it.

  • heliobates

    I disagree, because while psychology has shown that those sorts of things can be involved and have an impact, you haven’t shown that that is true in this case.

    You have it backwards. Believers’ only proof that prayer results in “something” is their own subjective experiences which cannot be objectively examined.

    My position, however includes the evidence that people misrepresent their experiences, even to themselves. So you then need to explain how the act of prayer, which can only be “observed” through anecdotal reportage, is a distinct and separable human activity, and one that automatically suspends cognitive bias.

    I don’t have this burden, because I have the rest of the cognitive continuum on my side.

    In other words, I’m more justified in presuming (until shown otherwise), that prayer is a natural activity, and therefore inseparable from the continuum of human cognition, than you are in insisting that something supernatural—which suspends normal cognitive processes—is going on.

  • Kogo

    *First, please stop assigning people into “lots”.*

    God does it, why should I?

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

  • jack

    Verbose Stoic,

    The fact that you are engaging us atheists on this blog tells me that you are not the typical theist. Maybe you have some doubts about your religious beliefs. Maybe you’re one of those folks who identifies as “spiritual but not religious”. I don’t know, but I’d be interested if you would care to elaborate, and I’m especially curious about what attracts you to Daylight Atheism.

    Your comments in this thread suggest that you don’t use prayer to ask for favors, like “please cure my daughter’s cancer” or “please help me get a better job”. Am I right? It seems you use prayer more as a way of triggering some kind of emotional experience that has something to do with your relationship to a perceived god. If so, I’d be interested in more details about the content of those experiences. Is there any visual imagery? Do you hear voices? Or is it just a matter of a change in emotional state?

    Full disclosure: I ask in part because I’m working on a book about such things.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Kogo,

    Since I don’t say that about respecting beliefs, you don’t get to demand that from me as if it’s suddenly fair. At most, I say don’t declare that you know something when you don’t.

    heliobates,

    The problem with your stance is in my art example: by your logic, I’m justified in making the same claims against them that you make against prayer, and demanding that they prove that there is some aesthetic quality there. After all, I have the same evidence and cognitive backing as you do. But it doesn’t make sense since those cognitive factors are not, in fact, present in all such experiences. They may really be able to experience something you can’t, and so may be having a legitimate experience. You don’t have to believe it, but you can’t tell them not to believe it. I’ve already conceded your ability to presume what you want, but I don’t think you’re justified in saying that your presumption is better than theirs. You have potential psychological influences; they have the counter of “But I really experience it!”. Who’s right? Psychology cannot provide the evidence to overturn the experience they themselves think they’re having, and they can’t provide the evidence to you (even if they could get you to experience what they experience). It’s an ultimate example of talking past each other.

    jack,

    I actually don’t generally pray, period. I pray when I attend services, which is massively occasional. When I do pray, it’s more of a conversation than anything else (a set of formal prayers followed by a conversation) but I don’t really seem to get any actual experience in any way, nor do I get answers. In hindsight, it might feel a bit differently than just thinking or rehearsing a conversation, but nothing that can’t just be explained by it being directed at an actual (supposed) target.

    Yes, I’m quite odd.

  • Jim Baerg

    VS #39
    Your comment about ‘getting art’ suggests that you have been confused by a deficiency of the language(s) we speak.

    In the March 2011 Analog Magazine there is an editorial _Adjectives That Aren’t_, in which it is pointed out that there are adjectives like ’round’ which denote a characteristic of the object & then there are adjectives like ‘delicious’ which are used like they denote a characteristic of the object, but which actually denote a relationship between the object & the speaker.

    The sentence “This painting is beautiful.” is neither true nor false until it is completed with a statement of to whom it is beautiful.

    In the case of prayer: If someone is claiming that it helps them emotionally then it is like saying the painting is beautiful, there is no point in disputing it. If someone is claiming that it cures cancer, it is demonstrably false.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Jim Baerg,

    Actually, I’m referring to actual theories about aesthetic qualities. Some people think they are really there and can be judged. That level would be, to my understanding, before classifications of beautiful or ugly, and would encompass those.

    As such, I should be able to identify them even without actually appreciating them. I, personally, generally can’t.

    That being said, I thought the original post was talking about experiencing God through it, not about getting neat surprises from prayer, so that’s the basis of my claim.

  • heliobates

    As for art, the claim is not about the painting existing, but about it possessing certain aesthetic qualities that, yes, people claim exist — sometimes even objectively! — and that they claim I will see if I look at that piece of art. I fail to see them. Does that mean that those aesthetic qualities really don’t exist, or that I’m justified in saying they don’t exist?

    I agree, we are talking past each other. You and I seem to have completely different approaches to evaluating truth claims.

    People may claim that “aesthetic qualities” “exist” as “properties” of a piece of art, in the same way that colour and texture are properties, but they’re wrong about that too. Why do you fall for the bannana in the tailpipe trick?

    And I’m sorry, you can’t dodge the “does this exist” quandry by simply presuming it.

    I’ve already conceded your ability to presume what you want, but I don’t think you’re justified in saying that your presumption is better than theirs.

    But my presumption is better than theirs. I’ve already explained why.

    You have potential psychological influences; they have the counter of “But I really experience it!”. Who’s right?

    I am. Because we’re not arguing about whether or not the experience exists. Hey, schizophrenics really hear voices telling them to do things. What’s at issue is the cause, and you keep dodging that.

    Psychology cannot provide the evidence to overturn the experience they themselves think they’re having, and they can’t provide the evidence to you (even if they could get you to experience what they experience).

    I don’t know how else to say it: the experience is always real. But the experiencers are wrong about what’s causing their experiences, and I’ve already explained why I think this is so.

    Give me the occular proof. Show me the “there” in prayer.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    heliobates,

    You seem continually willing to assert that things are wrong when you don’t actually know that. Why can’t there be properties can, say, generally produce aesthetic experiences that aren’t just the properties of colour or texture? Why are you so sure they aren’t there, or that you even know what they mean when they say that? You’ve got nothin’, but you’re pronouncing as if it’s all settled. It’s not.

    Yes, we have different approaches. Mine — quite oddly — is not to dismiss something completely and claim that someone is just wrong until I can prove it. That doesn’t seem to be yours, unfortunately.

    I’m not dodging the cause. I make no claims about what causes their experience, because I have no way to prove what that cause is. You can cite all the cognitive psychology you want, but those biases are not involved in all of our experiences, and you can’t prove that it just is involved in their case. You can claim it more likely — because they’re in conditions that could led itself to those biases — but as I said you aren’t unbiased yourself. Getting into a fight over whose biases are misleading whom isn’t productive and none of you have the evidence to settle that. So it’s best to leave it.

    You can think them wrong, but that doesn’t actually make them wrong.

  • bbk

    The corrolary was that they can’t then conclude what, well, most of the responses concluded: that the Christian hasn’t had such an experience, that it’s all confirmation/emotional bias on their part, or that the atheist was doing it correctly and so there is no experience to be had there.

    You can have an experience and it’s still 100% in your head… There is nothing mutually exclusive about this, so your statement is wrong. I don’t like it when this way of reasoning is used by religious/spiritual people to suggest that atheists are incapable of a special kind of experience and that this makes atheists lacking in some capacity, that they don’t have access to the full breadth of human experience. That’s simply not true. Atheists aren’t telling you that you did not think, perceive, or feel something. You did. Atheists perceive, feel, and think all of the same kind of things that theists do. The only difference is where we draw a line between reality and what’s in our heads. It is only theists who hold these common experiences apart as something special.

    Your other suggestion, that we don’t have what it takes to decide if prayer does or does not work, is predicated on your claim that we can’t experience all of the same things. We can, and that’s how we can tell that there really isn’t anything special that we haven’t already done or felt.

    Moreover, your claim also implies that we, who don’t even believe in it, still have to extend a special privilege to religion that we wouldn’t extend to anything else. It would be wrong to take a child’s security blanket away if we applied the same standard to it as we do to prayer. And we absolutely need to reserve the right to judge whether or not prayer works. When a Christian Scientist lets his children die by praying for them instead of taking them to a doctor, we, as a society, reserve the right to judge whether or not prayer works or if the parents have to get locked up for manslaughter. We have no choice but to make that decision to ensure that justice takes place.

    @Kogo, I don’t think the tone of your comments is justified. Why do you feel the need to completely rip apart the theist? This post invited them to comment, so please respect the invitation that has been extended to them.

  • heliobates

    You can claim it more likely — because they’re in conditions that could led itself to those biases — but as I said you aren’t unbiased yourself.

    Of course I’m biased. I stated that up front. I even gave you links to my most important biases.

    You seem to think that biases switch on and off. I’m persuaded by the research that they’re omnipresent parts of our cognitive functioning, though they can be partially tamed. I don’t think I was in any way coy about that!

    Getting into a fight over whose biases are misleading whom isn’t productive and none of you have the evidence to settle that. So it’s best to leave it.

    Okay, I respect the fact that you’re not interested in discussing this further. But I think you’re wrong about the evidence ;o)

    You can think them wrong, but that doesn’t actually make them wrong.

    No, being wrong is what makes them wrong. And believers are probably wrong about the source of their experience. You think that I can’t determine that they’re wrong, but you’re wrong about that. We could back up and clear up some of the places where we’re talking past each other but you just told me you’re not interested so this is me dropping it.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    bbk,

    My statement is correct in context of a discussion where a theist says “If you pray, you will experience God!” and the atheist tries and fails to get that experience. That fight would be over there’s a real experience there at all, or just a “fake” one caused by cognitive biases. I suppose it could also cover a case where there’s an experience but it isn’t indicative. But the point still stands: the atheist can’t prove that they are getting a mistaken experience or are making mistakes about their experience, and the theist can’t give that experience to the atheist. Without that, there’s no argumentative ground to cover. As I said, it’s like aesthetic qualities to someone who can’t experience them. And in the context I’m in, it’s clear that they aren’t experiencing the same thing as the person praying does, so that contention doesn’t work in that context.

    “Moreover, your claim also implies that we, who don’t even believe in it, still have to extend a special privilege to religion that we wouldn’t extend to anything else. It would be wrong to take a child’s security blanket away if we applied the same standard to it as we do to prayer.”

    But the issue there is that you do, in fact, recognize the experience they’re having. You just want it to have a different cause. That’s not the case in the examples given and that I was replying to. And note that _I_ don’t get those experiences either, and I don’t consider it an insult for them to tell me that I don’t experience things the way they do, or as much as they do. It may be better that I don’t. There may really be nothing there to experience. Or there might be. But if they’re right and that experience is indicative, and I don’t get it, I don’t get to say either a) they have a “false” experience or b) that I’ve had that experience and it wasn’t all that indicative.

    We all, in fact, can be limited in what we experience by various factors. I myself am, in fact, horrible at visualization which means that I don’t experience things the way you do. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong than me, just that if, say, you want me to learn something by studying a diagram or picturing something it will not work. So if that idea of different experiences is your issue, I’m telling you it shouldn’t be, nor is that idea sufficient to make an epistemic claim.

    (I’m also not talking about “Pray and get goodies”, since that also wasn’t in the original context.)

    heliobates: “You seem to think that biases switch on and off. I’m persuaded by the research that they’re omnipresent parts of our cognitive functioning, though they can be partially tamed. I don’t think I was in any way coy about that!”

    I only think that the presence of those biases doesn’t always taint our experiences enough that we can’t trust what those experiences are telling us. In short, you can’t call them wrong because their experience might be biased by those features. If you do that, then all experience and belief and thought is useless, including science. That’s not what you want, surely.

    “No, being wrong is what makes them wrong. And believers are probably wrong about the source of their experience. You think that I can’t determine that they’re wrong, but you’re wrong about that. We could back up and clear up some of the places where we’re talking past each other but you just told me you’re not interested so this is me dropping it.”

    I think that we’re talking past each other in a different way than you think. When I claimed that it was best dropped, I wasn’t saying that our discussion should be best dropped. Remember, I don’t get the experiences either, so I’m not advocating praying to get a specific experience that proves that God exists. But I’m in the unique position of thinking that there might be something to get at through prayer, but being skeptical that praying really does it. As such, I can see how you and the praying theist are talking past each other and aren’t — and, in my opinion, can’t be — on the same page in terms of proving the other person wrong.

    So, if you have evidence or arguments that you think can prove them wrong, I’m all ears. I just don’t think you have any [grin].

  • bbk

    VS, You admitted that atheists can experience the same things that theists do, that it is just the perception that differs. But then you went further and claimed that the perception implies that the experience itself could have been different. So which one is it, according to you? Let’s not make this conversation so vague and abstract as to be devoid of any meaning. I want to be perfectly clear on where you draw the line between an experience that all human beings are capable of and the claimed spiritual experiences that only certain humans claim to have access to. Is it because the experience itself is of a different sort or because the theist is taking the same thing that you or I felt, too, and claiming that a) it was God, and therefore, b) you or I must not have felt the same thing. It seems that you’re going for the two part answer here, but it puts you in a position of using circular logic.

  • heliobates

    Is it because the experience itself is of a different sort or because the theist is taking the same thing that you or I felt, too, and claiming that a) it was God, and therefore, b) you or I must not have felt the same thing. It seems that you’re going for the two part answer here, but it puts you in a position of using circular logic.

    Well said, bbk.

    VS, if you are interested in discussing this further, we can’t really go anywhere until you explain how and why you think that the experience of a believer during prayer is caused by something supernatural.

    Telling us “well you can’t say that it’s NOT caused by anything else, so don’t rule it out” is a dodge. I have no reason to expect that causal and cognitive models which apply in every other situation are suddenly suspended when a “true” believer prays (or “truly prays”, which is which?)

    I do agree that biases, though pervasive, don’t completely prevent us from trusting our senses, and usually our cognition. However, the more committed we are to an idea, the further away the experience is from externally-observable causes, the more emotionally invested we are, the greater the likelihood that our biases are kicking in. Pretty much the only antidote is, as a scientific approach demands, the insistence on sources of public knowledge and experience that can be externally verified. In other words, we have to set things up so that our biases get canceled out or mitigated by our methods.

    So, okay, the experience exists. We have a cognitive model that says “people manufacture experiences, confabulate memories, and often even lie in the face of social pressures (real or imagined)”. But the act of prayer somehow insulates them from this, in ways that cannot be observed or confirmed. Not. Buying. It.

    A believer goes into a room, says some words to the air, comes out and says “I felt God’s presence”. Okay, I’m sure that the believer did feel “God’s presence”. But was it a supernatural god causing the experience? If it was, how could you know? If you can’t know, what justifies leaving that possibility open, when doing so means that causality and the models that describe reality for every other situation would have to be suspended or modified in some unspecifiable way?

    Here’s a good TED talk that backstops this idea.

    To sum up: I don’t think that you are putting forth a good explanation here, because it’s too easy to vary and it doesn’t even attempt to explain the phenomenon.

    P.S. Paul Zak’s post on how we con ourselves is also a useful read in this situation.

  • heliobates

    Something else occurred to me, VS.

    One possibility you seem to suggest is that Ebon and other sceptics may have stopped at N attempts, when N+1 might have been required. In other words, a disbeliever just didn’t get the magic words right, or didn’t have the right mental attitude, etc — a mysterious “X factor”. I cannot help but wonder if you’ve really considered the implications of this: that our expectations and beliefs somehow change external reality.

    The other consequence of your position is that the experience of the believer is created by believer+action+X=God, and the disbeliever, perhaps because she lacks the requisite belief structure, somehow has X knocked out as well. So God can’t screen the call of a believer with the right mindset who mumbles the right magic words.

    So, which is the more parsimonious explanation: there’s God + X involved in prayer, neither of which can ever be observed, or believers, who have a prior strong expectation of a certain experiences, find that their minds do in fact manufacture those experiences?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    The other consequence of your position is that the experience of the believer is created by believer+action+X=God

    Yes. This also has an application in the “I want” type of prayer. Last year I wrote a whimsical piece called“The awesome power of a lunchtime prayer” in which I said

    desiring outcomes that you yourself have a reasonable chance of effecting can also add to the appearance of voodoo. Positive thinking, affirmations or prayer may motivate us to put more energy and thought into making the world conform to our desires, making the apparent cause and effect even stronger.

  • bbk

    desiring outcomes that you yourself have a reasonable chance of effecting can also add to the appearance of voodoo. Positive thinking, affirmations or prayer may motivate us to put more energy and thought into making the world conform to our desires, making the apparent cause and effect even stronger.

    The self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s such a simple concept yet so hard to wrap one’s head around all the mind boggling ways in which people internalize it into their everyday lives.

    Spouse 1: My psychic said we’re going to break up.
    Spouse 2: Your psychic doesn’t know anything.
    Spouse 1: I’m leaving you for someone who is in touch with their spirituality.

  • monkeymind

    So God can’t screen the call of a believer with the right mindset who mumbles the right magic words.

    That’s why they invented Calvinism. So if you don’t feel god’s presence, you are probably an extra in the grand scheme of things; god created you to provide the agon for his real protagonists, and besides, hell can’t burn itself, you know!
    ETA – I thought real, true Calvinists were only in history books, but I recently encountered one who believes in election, predestination and all the rest of it. Mindblowing!

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    bbk,

    “VS, You admitted that atheists can experience the same things that theists do, that it is just the perception that differs. But then you went further and claimed that the perception implies that the experience itself could have been different. So which one is it, according to you?”

    Um, I’m not sure that I said any of that, actually …

    Okay, stepping back. My argument is over what I think was talked about in the original post and in the blog post, which is this case:

    Theist says “Pray, and you will have an experience that will prove to you that God exists”. Atheist tries and gets no such experience, nothing that they, themselves, would claim to be anything like what the theist says they get. They are, therefore, missing that experience. They don’t experience what the theist does when the theist prays. Why? I, personally, say that I don’t know. Yes, beliefs could impact it, but that could apply to both sides. As for me, I don’t experience that either and so am closer to the atheist than the theist in this case.

    The case where both the theist and atheist agree that they had the same experience but are simply arguing over what caused it is a different argument, to me.

    “I want to be perfectly clear on where you draw the line between an experience that all human beings are capable of and the claimed spiritual experiences that only certain humans claim to have access to.”

    I make no such claims at all. Either side, actually. I can’t think of too many experiences that all human beings are actually capable of, and never claimed that spiritual experiences were special in that regard. Again, my analogy of aesthetic qualities works well. I don’t get “aesthetic qualities”. Others, however, claim to. Is this because of something to do with me, or something to do with them? Are they right that there are aesthetic qualities and I just miss it, or am I right that there are no such things and their experience is something else? My answer: I haven’t a clue, and can’t see any easy way to settle that unless I can experience what they experience. Which I, personally, can’t.

    heliobates,

    “VS, if you are interested in discussing this further, we can’t really go anywhere until you explain how and why you think that the experience of a believer during prayer is caused by something supernatural.”

    This is a completely different topic. I think that they may be right and it might be caused by God, but I’m not convinced it is. If you want to get into that sort of discussion, you run into problems because, to them, the experience itself would be convincing. One cannot reject clear experiences of something because that thing would violate your philosophical commitments.

    “Telling us “well you can’t say that it’s NOT caused by anything else, so don’t rule it out” is a dodge. I have no reason to expect that causal and cognitive models which apply in every other situation are suddenly suspended when a “true” believer prays (or “truly prays”, which is which?)”

    But who’s asking you to? I’ve never asked you to claim the cognitive stuff not present, just that you apply it in the same way you apply it to everything else and don’t just dismiss an experience a priori using them. As for causal, that again would have to be addressed if they really had the experience they were having. None of this means that you have to believe them, but they have no reason to judge their experiences by your philosophical presumptions. And that’s why there’s no way to settle the question.

    After all, they believe that something “supernatural” exists, and that that doesn’t cause major issues for all of the other areas that you think it might. Why in the world would you think that that concerns them at all?

    “Pretty much the only antidote is, as a scientific approach demands, the insistence on sources of public knowledge and experience that can be externally verified.”

    Of course, for a personal experience that simply can’t happen. Science doesn’t let you rule it out just because it is indeed a case that science can’t actually study.

    “So, okay, the experience exists. We have a cognitive model that says “people manufacture experiences, confabulate memories, and often even lie in the face of social pressures (real or imagined)”. But the act of prayer somehow insulates them from this, in ways that cannot be observed or confirmed. Not. Buying. It.”

    Also. Not. Claiming. It.

    “One possibility you seem to suggest is that Ebon and other sceptics may have stopped at N attempts, when N+1 might have been required. In other words, a disbeliever just didn’t get the magic words right, or didn’t have the right mental attitude, etc — a mysterious “X factor”. I cannot help but wonder if you’ve really considered the implications of this: that our expectations and beliefs somehow change external reality.”

    That’s not my position. My position — that you accept — is that our expectations and beliefs can, in fact, impact what we experience. Both ways. And to go further I might claim that the atheist’s worldview is about as likely to impact their experience as the theist’s. So, all things being equal, I take both at their word about what they’re actually experiencing, and say that the atheist cannot say that their failure says anything convincing about the existence of God … but also that that failure does mean that the atheist is reasonably unconviced. Both sides, again, simply don’t have the right evidence to convince the other.

    “The other consequence of your position is that the experience of the believer is created by believer+action+X=God, and the disbeliever, perhaps because she lacks the requisite belief structure, somehow has X knocked out as well. So God can’t screen the call of a believer with the right mindset who mumbles the right magic words.”

    I’m not sure I get what this means. Can you clarify it in a little more detail?

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Steve Bowen,

    Your piece raises an interesting philosophical question: if we could change reality simply by really, really believing it to be true, how could we test that?

    Let me relate another example to you. A while ago, I curled. Towards the mid to the end of the season, I had gotten good enough to, generally, make easy shots like guards and such without too much trouble. In one game, the skip called for a guard, but I saw that there could be an in-off that would be a better shot. However, knowing that I wasn’t good enough to make that shot, I tried for the guard … and ended up missing it. Horribly. However, I actually made the in-off.

    Now, objectively I was a good enough curler to not miss that badly, but not good enough to make that shot. Could my visualization and thought have actually made that shot happen?

    How would you test it? How would you test it as opposed to other explanations such as “fluke”, which is less probably than an explanation of my years of watching curling having made me be better at it than I thought?

    How would you test that believing that you have the correct change might make it so that you do?

    Note that, yes, this would have a big impact on prayer as well, but would be supernatural and have more impact on the world than God existing ever could.

    And note that I’m not saying that this actually is the case. I’m just wondering how to go about seeing if it is scientifically, which would introduce “doubt” and “trying” into the picture. What if you can change how things are only when you aren’t really trying?

  • bbk

    Theist says “Pray, and you will have an experience that will prove to you that God exists”. Atheist tries and gets no such experience, nothing that they, themselves, would claim to be anything like what the theist says they get. They are, therefore, missing that experience. They don’t experience what the theist does when the theist prays. Why? I, personally, say that I don’t know. Yes, beliefs could impact it, but that could apply to both sides. As for me, I don’t experience that either and so am closer to the atheist than the theist in this case.

    Again, you have to clearly define the term “experience” if you want me to understand what you are talking about. Are you talking about the perception being different than the atheist’s perception, or is the “experience” itself, the real physical manifestation of something that actually happened?

    This is going to be a sticking point for me until it’s clarified. The one thing you cannot do is claim that the theist and atheist experienced the same exact phenomenon but yet they didn’t because of how the theist perceived it.

    I’ll provide examples of why this is important. If I hand you a nickel and a dime in change, but you perceive it to be a quarter and a penny, then is it my failure to “experience” it as a quarter and a penny that is at fault or your failure to recognize it as a nickel and a dime? Was the experience one of a nickel and a dime or a quarter and a penny? That’s what I’m trying to ask you here.

    This is important because of the many different things that people claim to be spiritual experiences. For example, if two hippies drop some acid, both of their brains will be affected by the LSD in the same exact way and they will suffer the same kind of impairment. But the one hippy may say to the other, after the fact, that the LSD helped him “converse with God” and he goes on to be a devoted theist while the other one isn’t convinced and stays an atheist who still happens to like getting high.

    And let’s not kid ourselves – every single religion in the world, including yours, has some strategy for sensory augmentation or deprivation that’s used to produce “spiritual” experiences. Whether it’s by fasting, chanting, meditating, drugs, adrenaline (snake handling), sleep deprivation, self-flagellation, sexual deprivation, emotional distress, bonding (oxytocin)… all religions rely on one or more physiological techniques that we can all experience but that theists triumphantly claim to be supernatural and spiritual when they do it.

    Then there’s the whole thing about seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or a tree bark. We’re all clearly seeing the same thing but theists claim that it is a spiritual event to them. We understand how they perceive the vague amorphous blob to resemble a veiled woman’s silhouette, but that’s the end of it – that’s how we know the rest of the claims are nonsense. Then there are the thousands, countless instances of outright fraud – crying statues, bleeding paintings, counterfeit relics, and all manner of trickery that nevertheless succeed in arousing “spiritual” reactions from theists who are absolutely sure that they can feel a divine presence even though they are essentially getting conned. And lastly, it’s also a fact many of us atheists are formerly theists and we have in our past had these sort of “experiences” during religious rites and we recognize that we were mistaken, that those past experiences were no more spiritual than the same exact things that we’ve experienced many times since then.

    So it’s important for you to answer my question about what exactly you mean by “experience” and be very clear about it or else I will be forced to conclude that you can’t overcome the atheist arguments against the spirituality of common experiences.

  • heliobates

    VS:
    I completely disagree with you on this:

    One cannot reject clear experiences of something because that thing would violate your philosophical commitments.

    That’s where you’ve been losing me all along. You’re granting “clear experiences of something” and I’m not. FWIW, I used to be a big-time New Ager, and even a WTC/911 “truther” at one point. I had all kinds of “clear experiences”. I now have what I think are really good reasons to conclude that it was all in my head.

    Maybe that is the difference: you haven’t had The ExperienceTM. I have. Or something really close to it. I think I’ve seen this problem from the inside.

    … but they have no reason to judge their experiences by your philosophical presumptions. And that’s why there’s no way to settle the question.

    I think I finally see what you’re getting at.

    After all, they believe that something “supernatural” exists, and that that doesn’t cause major issues for all of the other areas that you think it might. Why in the world would you think that that concerns them at all?

    I’ve never been concerned with what they’re concerned with so this point doesn’t bear.

    Of course, for a personal experience that simply can’t happen. Science doesn’t let you rule it out just because it is indeed a case that science can’t actually study.

    Again, we disagree. Science can study it. It is studying it. Neuroscience is years ahead of what the general public understands about these issues.

    Also. Not. Claiming. It.

    Very. Difficult. To. Distinguish. From. The. Argument. You. Are. Making.

    I’m sure I’m equally to blame for that. We have probably hit the point of diminishing returns, so I’m going to bow out. I’d have to go all the way back to epistemology. I have a strong feeling we’d bog down pretty quickly after that.

    Props to you for keeping your head and supporting your arguments.

    I hope we have many more such disagreements ;o)

  • heliobates

    Damn, bbk.

    This is a total case of “wish I’d typed that”.

    You’re going after exactly what I was trying to say.

  • Nathaniel

    Verbose, if I ate a certain type of mushroom, I could have an “experience” of unicorns tap dancing on my head. Would you consider this a “real” experience?

    If you object, given the presence of mood altering substance, what if I were to do something outlined in this article?

    http://www.cracked.com/article/127_5-ways-to-hack-your-brain-into-awesomeness/

    Could the visual and auditory experiences be considered possibly real, like what happens with prayer? If not, why not?

  • MS Quixote

    I thought real, true Calvinists were only in history books, but I recently encountered one who believes in election, predestination and all the rest of it. Mindblowing!

    I’m pretty sure DA has a regular Calvinist reader & commenter. :)

  • bbk

    @heliobates maybe you would have had better grammar lol. Looks like VS might have decided not to respond, though…

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Verbose Stoic has been busy and so hasn’t had the time to respond to much over the past day or so …

    Anyway …

    bbk,

    “Again, you have to clearly define the term “experience” if you want me to understand what you are talking about. Are you talking about the perception being different than the atheist’s perception, or is the “experience” itself, the real physical manifestation of something that actually happened?”

    Um, I don’t use the terms differently. And if I did, I’d probably claim that a perception was more related to the “real thing” than an experience. When I say experience, I mean experience. To use your analogy, I’d say that person A experiences a quarter and a time and person B experiences a nickel and a dime. That’s what they see. That says nothing about what is, in fact, really there.

    So this thing that you are insisting I define is really only an indication that we really weren’t looking at the terms the same way.

    The rest of the comment aren’t things I’m talking about, so I won’t address it except to say that, yes, figuring out what experiences really indicate things matter. But the case I think was referenced in the beginning was a case where the atheist at least accepted the possibility that the praying theist might be having an experience that would indicate God, but that the atheist when praying gets nothing like that experience.

    “And lastly, it’s also a fact many of us atheists are formerly theists and we have in our past had these sort of “experiences” during religious rites and we recognize that we were mistaken, that those past experiences were no more spiritual than the same exact things that we’ve experienced many times since then.”

    This, again, is a different argument. If you and that theist can agree that you had the same experience, then you can start talking about whether the properties of that experience really do indicate God or not. There’s little I can do to help you in that case, and again don’t think that was what the original post was aiming at.

    heliobates,

    “That’s where you’ve been losing me all along. You’re granting “clear experiences of something” and I’m not. FWIW, I used to be a big-time New Ager, and even a WTC/911 “truther” at one point. I had all kinds of “clear experiences”. I now have what I think are really good reasons to conclude that it was all in my head.

    Maybe that is the difference: you haven’t had The ExperienceTM. I have. Or something really close to it. I think I’ve seen this problem from the inside.”

    Those good reasons, though, shouldn’t be philosophical commitments, by which I mean that you can’t say “Well, if that experience really reflected reality, then there’d be supernatural things, but I don’t like the idea that supernatural things exist, so it doesn’t reflect reality.” You can be skeptical about it, but not in any way that anyone else but you would care about, and certainly not in any way that would allow you to pass judgement on their experience and what they take from it, if they don’t share those commitments. That’s all I’m saying.

    I’m not even granting that they’re actually having clear experiences. I’m just saying that they claim to, and you can’t use a philosophical commitment to say “No, you can’t be.”

    “I’ve never been concerned with what they’re concerned with so this point doesn’t bear.”

    So then what are we disagreeing about? They don’t care about your commitment to naturalism, and you don’t care about their view. If it all comes down — mainly — to that disagreement you and they cannot settle that in any rational way. You will have to agree to disagree. That’s pretty much all I’m saying about these cases.

    “I’d have to go all the way back to epistemology. I have a strong feeling we’d bog down pretty quickly after that.”

    Why does everyone always want to stop at the part I like [grin]?

    Nathaniel,

    I’m afraid I don’t really get the point of the Cracked article, but I can certainly see the difference between cases where what you’re doing explicitly and generally gives “false experiences” and cases where none of that is involved. My contention is far more modest than the one I think you’re ascribing to me. My contention merely is that you cannot presume such influences without demonstrating that they are actually present. You don’t get to say that bias is involved, for example, unless you can show that it did impact the experience.

    If you’re trying to get at something else, let me know.

  • bbk

    Um, I don’t use the terms differently. And if I did, I’d probably claim that a perception was more related to the “real thing” than an experience. When I say experience, I mean experience. To use your analogy, I’d say that person A experiences a quarter and a time and person B experiences a nickel and a dime. That’s what they see. That says nothing about what is, in fact, really there.

    Perfect. That clarifies your position to me so I can respond to it accordingly.

    Unfortunately, I have to say that I cannot put a any weight on people’s personal perceptions, especially if those perceptions go against a verifiable truth. In my analogy, we would have many ways to verify what the coins really were, in reality, and therefore we would have no choice except to say that one person was utterly wrong, no matter what their perception was. We wouldn’t let them get away with saying they had 26c when in reality they only had 15c. They couldn’t turn around and buy something more expensive than the face value of those coins. So their personal perceptions are irrelevant and there is absolutely no reason for any other person to give them the benefit of a doubt that they really had received something different than what we saw empirically.

    At this point you may be thinking that prayer is different, that it deserves the benefit of a doubt because we have no empirical way of knowing. But yet, it’s really not any different. If a Christian Scientist lets his kids die because he prays for them instead of taking them to a doctor, we have no choice but to put him in jail for murder. That is the empirical reality – his kids were sick and he refused to get them help even though he could have. That is the standard we have to live up to because if we don’t, than anyone in the world could do whatever they please and get away with it by saying that they prayed. I could take a gun and shoot my best friend in the head and later claim that I’m innocent because I prayed that you wouldn’t die beforehand. That’s not a joke, that’s what it would mean if a society took prayer seriously. Religious people try it, too – like those countless of murderous women who killed their own kids and thought they could get away with it by claiming that they believed they were getting rid of demons. But a secular society can’t honor that. And I’d hate to live in a theocracy that did.

    Just to apply a consistent, evenhanded standard, I have to treat all prayer and spiritual experience this way. I can’t just say that the evil prayer wasn’t real but the harmless prayer was real. None of it was real.

  • bbk

    One of the most odious abuses of prayer is the Catholic sacrament of Confession. What kind of society are Catholics creating when a man can cheat on his wife, secretly confess it to a priest who tells him to say 30 Hail Mary’s and 60 Our Father’s and all of a sudden the indiscretion never happened? That’s disgusting. That is exactly the sort of outcome that we are going to get if we allow for people to claim that their perception of having had a spiritual conversation with god is just as real as the things they’ve done in the real world. But it happens every single day, millions of Christians do this almost daily and it leaves us all worse off for it.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    bbk,

    The coin example is one where it is clearly verifiable. But if the other person was saying that they were really seeing a quarter and a penny, you’d first try to get them to look closer and maybe point out features that would get them to see that it was a nickel, and you might flip it over so that they can see a really distinguishing feature, and so on. But if, after all that, they still say — and seem genuine — that they see a quarter, there’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. All you can do is refuse to take that as payment and risk them being mad at you for trying to rip them off, and you being angry at them for trying to rip you off, and go your separate ways.

    I consider the prayer experience the same sort of case.

    The rest of your arguments are odd being raised against me, who doesn’t think that prayer generally works for those sorts of things [grin]. And I do agree with some of the consequences and what has to be done. I’m not convinced, though, that we’d do those things because we’re right or because we’d have to because we don’t know if they’re right. Ultimately, this comes down to the same thing as above: if we generally disagree, we have to work out how to respond to that, and I think your suggestions not unreasonable.

    But the sort of praying theist I’m talking about here is just the one who asks Ebonmuse to try it since it will prove the existence of God to him.

    And onto Confession,

    Penance isn’t actually limited to prayers; the priest can indeed ask the penitent to do other things as well. So, 30 Hail Marys, 50 Our Fathers, and tell your wife. The idea behind Confession is that the person comes in legitimately feeling sorry for their sins, they do penance, and it is forgiven. But you have to come in actually regretting it. I also don’t think the official doctrine is that it never happened, but that you are forgiven and you should try to not let it happen again. For Catholics, it isn’t just a “Ah, clean slate, now I can go on sinning” but is supposed to help you not sin again. Being human, we keep doing it, but we certainly aren’t supposed to use it in a sense of “It doesn’t matter if I sin because God will forgive me anyway.”

  • bbk

    VS – US criminal law states that the accused have to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore we cannot have any doubt about the guilt of a parent who kills their children over a religious belief. Could it really have been “god”? Shall we really know? I’m sorry but it just doesn’t work that way. Either you have to give up your reasoning, the US legal system has to change so that we can throw just about anyone in jail because they might have been guilty, or else religion can be used to legally excuse even the most depraved crimes. Do you see what I’m saying here? It’s logically impossible for me to give in to your position and grant religion a special privilege without completely giving up my secular empiricism and my standards of justice. Not only is it disastrously unappealing, but it asks me to make a very special exception to a particular set of beliefs that don’t deserve any special consideration.

  • http://www.orderingdisorder.com Dan

    I will not attempt to speculate on anyone’s situation in particular, but I will say with surety that:
    - praying because your friend told you to, even though you don’t really care, obviously won’t work
    - praying without believing prayer might work, will not work
    - praying with the intent to prove that prayer does not work is self-fulfilling
    - praying with no desire to actually learn whether God exists is pointless
    - praying with no desire to follow the answer, should you receive one, is pointless
    - praying using someone else’s words (prewritten prayers) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate your own thoughts
    - praying to someone besides God (i.e. a saint) is not praying to God, and will not work

    These are the sorts of things that people are doing wrong when they say they prayed and it didn’t work.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    These are the sorts of things that people are doing wrong when they say they prayed and it didn’t work.

    Praying while facing the wrong direction
    Praying while watching a soft porn dvd
    Praying while…
    The list is as long as your imagination. Besides if you do hit on a combination of actions and attitudes that gives you a positive result, what’s to say you are not just being a superstitious pidgeon?

  • heliobates

    These are the sorts of things that people are doing wrong when they say they prayed and it didn’t work.

    Do believers ever have anything to backstop them beyond special pleading?

    Apparently, in the instance of prayer, and only in the instance of prayer does a person’s belief states suspend the workings of the observable universe.

    Here’s what I’d like to know: The omnipotent God apparently only answers if the believer gets the magic spell right. So does God ever get to choose not to answer?

    According to Dan, if he’s going to be coherent, “no”.

    I think I have total philosophical and empirical justification for calling “bullshit”.

  • Douglas Kirk

    I will not attempt to speculate on anyone’s situation in particular, but I will say with surety that:
    - praying because your friend told you to, even though you don’t really care, obviously won’t work
    - praying without believing prayer might work, will not work
    - praying with the intent to prove that prayer does not work is self-fulfilling
    - praying with no desire to actually learn whether God exists is pointless
    - praying with no desire to follow the answer, should you receive one, is pointless
    - praying using someone else’s words (prewritten prayers) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate your own thoughts
    - praying to someone besides God (i.e. a saint) is not praying to God, and will not work

    - Praying is pointless

    There. Fixed.

  • monkeymind

    - praying to someone besides God (i.e. a saint) is not praying to God, and will not work

    How do you know? I think you haven’t really tried. But if you pray to a saint just because your friend told you to, or just to prove that prayer to saints won’t work, or using someone else’s words (Hail Mary), it won’t work.

    These are the sorts of things that people are doing wrong when they say they prayed to a saint and it didn’t work.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    praying to someone besides God (i.e. a saint) is not praying to God, and will not work

    But if you pray to an ex-pope they get to be a saint apparently

  • heliobates

    It’s the banana in the tailpipe routine.

    Seriously, watch the TED talk I linked upthread. Deutsch is talking about exactly this issue.

    The assertion that prayer—iff the supplicant is doing the spell correctly—results in an experience of God is a bad explanation because it’s too easy to easy to vary, and doesn’t explain the phenomenon.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I will not attempt to speculate on anyone’s situation in particular, but I will say with surety that:
    - praying because your friend told you to, even though you don’t really care, obviously won’t work
    - praying without believing prayer might work, will not work
    - praying with the intent to prove that prayer does not work is self-fulfilling
    - praying with no desire to actually learn whether God exists is pointless
    - praying with no desire to follow the answer, should you receive one, is pointless
    - praying using someone else’s words (prewritten prayers) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate your own thoughts
    - praying to someone besides God (i.e. a saint) is not praying to God, and will not work

    This is, of course, an excellent example of the very phenomenon I described in my post:

    …the biggest problem with requests to try prayer is that they’re a bottomless hole. No matter what you do – say the sinner’s prayer, pray the Rosary a hundred times, go to Mass every week for a year, pray to a particular saint, spend half an hour per day sitting silently in front of a box of wafers, or even perform an exorcism on yourself – if it doesn’t convert you, there will always be theists who’ll tell you, in the most polite way and with the best of intentions, that you’re doing it wrong, and that you should try something else if you really want to experience God.

    But I’d like to focus on a more interesting question. Dan, you claimed “with surety” that none of the above approaches will work. How do you know this? By what means did you acquire that knowledge?

    After all, there are a great number of theists – billions of them, in fact – who would contradict one or more of the conditions you stated with such confidence. Hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics believe that praying to saints does work. Countless multitudes of theists of every denomination, including evangelicals, believe that prewritten prayers work perfectly fine (i.e., the “sinner’s prayer”). You and I both know it wouldn’t be difficult to find people who believe that God will answer prayers even if the person praying doesn’t necessarily believe that it will work.

    So, why should I believe you and not them? Again, how did you come to know what you claim to know? If you can answer this question in an objective way, it would be very helpful to us and offer a compelling reason to believe you and not the billions of other people with different beliefs.