A prime example of how deeply shallow internet atheism is

…can be seen in this ridiculous “Atheist Prayer Experiment” currently being conducted elsewhere on Patheos:

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

I’m to pray for two to three minutes per day as sincerely as convenient and ask God to reveal himself to me. I’m to watch for signs of God’s presence in daily life.

After that, you can do an “experiment” in which you transparently fake being interested in a smart, perceptive woman and then declare her an idiot for not dating you, Bob.

This “experiment” is this week’s winner of the Tina Fey Over-The-Top Eyeroll Award:

I’m glad Leah’s becoming Catholic. But I miss non-silly atheism.

Bob: a word to the wise. All you need is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ll have it made. Carry on. Who can possibly predict what the fore-ordained outcome of your “experiment” will be?

“You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.” – Jesus of Nazareth, speaking to a certain Accuser in the desert.

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  • Bob Seidensticker

    Hey, Mark! Thanks for your interest.

    I agree–it’s pretty clear how this experiment is going to wind up. If you have complaints about the protocols in this experiment–admittedly unscientific by the organizers–you can take it up with them. I’d imagine that their thought is that it’s better to have an atheist pray than not, but perhaps you disagree.

    Best regards,
    Bob Seidensticker, Cross Examined blog

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m not sure a committed atheist is capable of prayer at all. Prayer requires a certain mindset that non-belief in a soul logically precludes.

      • If “prayer” is taken to be any kind of communication with the divine, then I think the only requirement would be the ability to communicate. A committed atheist would be extraordinarily unlikely to attempt prayer, but would not be “incapable.”

        On the other hand, if (as some mystics have it) “prayer” is a gift from God, then an atheist is no less capable than anyone else.

        So my hope is that Bob really intends to attempt prayer, in a good-faith engagement with those he disagrees with.

        • Ted Seeber

          Yes, exactly. To communicate- you need to believe the other end of the communication *exists*. I don’t see how that is possible with an atheist and God, and thus, prayer as communication is impeded.

          When I went through my phase of trying other religions, Transcendental Meditation came closest- but led me back to Catholicism and my present love of the Rosary.

          • Loud

            It is true that this experiment will not likely do much for him, but think about it.
            What if you were wandering, in the dark, thinking you were going the right way (dispite being warned beforehand that you were not) and convinced no one could possibly be be there to help you. But then you remebered that the same person who warned you it was the wrong way told you that their freind was somewhere near there, and that he would gladly help if you asked.

            Genuinely wishing to see if your friend knew even remotly what he was talking about, you call out, (a bit sarcastically) “Hello! Anyone there? A friend of mine, Bill, said someone was here who could help me!”
            The man who was there, knowing “Bill”, and having been asked by Bill to help you, would he just ignore you because he hears the sarcasim in your voice?
            I think that if we act as “Bill” and pray that God will reveal himself to the people conducting this expirement, then God may very well heed their prayers.

          • Fergus Gallagher

            “To communicate- you need to believe the other end of the communication *exists*.”

            Why is that?

            Imagine one has fallen down a remote cliff and stuck on a ledge. Even though one might believe no-one will hear one’s cries for help, one might nevertheless cry out and such cries may even be heard (communication established). Here we have communication without belief. (Any subsequent action by the recipient is irrelevant.)

            Mawson’s paper has the analogy of walking into a darkened room and calling out just in case someone else is there:

            “I suggest that the person who prays that God help him or her to believe in Him is
            as reasonable as someone who finds himself or herself shouting ‘Is anyone there?’ in
            a darkened room about which he or she has various reasonable prior beliefs. This is a
            room about the other occupier of which, if any, he or she has heard some controversy.
            Some say that in this room there is a wise old man in an ongoing relationship with
            whom they have found great personal satisfaction whenever they have entered the
            room and spoken to him. Others however claim that there is no such man, that the
            room only ever contains the person who goes into it. Finding himself or herself in
            the room today the person we are considering realizes that he or she has no other more
            pressing business to hand and shouts, ‘Is there anyone there?’; ‘If you’re there wise
            old man, please answer me!’; and perhaps a couple of other similar things, and listens
            for a reply.”

    • If you know the experiment will fail, what’s the point in conducting it?

    • Mark Shea

      Making noises in imitation of prayer is not prayer. “Your words fly up, your thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” paraphrased from Hamlet (III, iii, 100-103). This is a particularly juvenile stunt. That you imagine it is anything other than that simply demonstrates once again the urgent need for internet atheists to stop worshipping the intellect and start using it.

      Bonus point for the passive-aggressive “I’m not even doing this. Blame those guys over there” attempt to shift responsibility for this dumb stunt. Grow up, Bob.

      • To be fair, I think this is what John C Wright went through before his conversion. Maybe the rest of us should be praying that Bob gets an answer.

        (plus, it will mess up the experiment all to heck)

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          But John was sincere when he made that prayer. He did not believe in magic: that by simply reciting some words, God would respond like a vending machine popping out goodies.

          • Yes, very true, and I do think both a lot of christians and atheists nowadays seem to forget that God is an independent Being with His own wants, desires, etc.
            Still, I think He gets a kick out of surprising us so who can say how this experiment might go? Bob might get what he asks for yet not recognize it. Or something else we haven’t thought of yet.

    • Jared

      To steal a line from Marc Barnes, this is basically calling “Dad!!!” from your bedroom, not hearing a reply, and concluding you have no father.

      • beccolina

        While wearing your ear-buds and blasting your i-pod at full volume.

        • Jared

          And closing your eyes.

  • A Philosopher

    Well, your complaint really should be with Tim Mawson (or perhaps the editorial staff of the International Journal of Philosophy of Religion), since the “experiment” is just an implementation of his suggestion in “Praying to Stop Being an Atheist”.

  • I think this is the same blogger who posts essays “debunking” Christianity and the historicity of the gospels. I read one or two and was averaging about 5 facepalms a page, and had to give up. Usually, only Bob Price’s ravings earn the vaunted Quintuple Facepalm Palm, so that’s pretty elite company. (At least Price has an excuse: Yog-Sothoth stole his brain.) Do they even realize that people who actually study this stuff on a daily basis, rather than on a mock-intellectual drive-by basis, merely pity them?

    This is like George Carlin’s “may God strike me dead right now if he exists” routine, only without, y’know, the funny.

    “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

    • I stumbled across one of those the other day and felt compelled to write a comment urging him to actual make rational arguments so that there was a starting place for conversation.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Facepalms don’t do it; arguments do. If you find errors in my posts (not too hard to do, I imagine), help me out and point them out to me.

      Cross Examined

  • This reminds me of the time when, early after I became Catholic, someone challenged me to develop a relationship with the Blessed Mother by asking her to send someone to sit with me at Mass. Three weeks in a row I — reluctantly — complied, asking God NOT to let anyone sit with me if I shouldn’t be doing this. Three weeks in a row, a new stranger tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they could sit with me.

    Years after I recounted this story in the first edition of “With Mary in Prayer” (Loyola), I met fellow student at the seminary who had my book in hand, and offered to sign it for her. She looked shocked. “You’re the AUTHOR?” Turns out, she had read my story about the pew-mates, and told Mary that, if this story were true, to send someone to sit with her at lunch that day. “I never thought she’d actually send the author of this book!”

    All that to say, God has a way of breaking through to even the most tentative, half-hearted attempts to reach out to him. His mercy is unfathomable. Who knows what is in store for these determined atheists?

    • Certainly, atheists have begrudgingly “prayed themselves into the Church” before. I believe this was the case with John Wright, and I’m sure others have similar stories. But there was a movement of the Spirit, an intention somewhere, even if hidden, to be open to grace. Somehow a mocking public “dare” like this is of a different character altogether.

  • Rachel K

    Well, we’ll see what happens. God is an utterly shameless opportunist. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

    • I love your quote. It makes me want to amend the verse:

      “God’s shamelessness is still greater than man’s highest nobility.”

      Hmm… needs more work.

  • Alias Clio

    I don’t think we’ll ever have non-silly atheism again. Most atheists educated after the baby-boom generation are simply too ignorant not to say silly things. It’s not their fault, poor dears. It was their teachers and school boards and education systems that decided they didn’t need to know anything about anything, as long as they knew where to look for the answer to any question they might have.

    I realised the truth of this when I was trying to debate with some atheists in a Slate comments section, and discovered that they did not know that Christians are not obliged to accept *all* the moral teachings of the Old Testament (i.e. “an eye for an eye”, etc.), because there was this person Jesus who gave us a new book… One person actually responded to this, “Typical Christians, always cherry-picking what to believe in the Bible.” I mean, really, what can you say to someone like that that will make any sense to him? He doesn’t know anything and when someone like me tries to inform/correct him he assumes I’m offering argument, not instruction, out of bias. Sigh.

    • Mark Shea

      Yes. The great self-sealing bubble of reddit atheism has stumbled upon a device for making sure it never has to listen to informed Christians again. Whenever a Christians tries to point out that the reddit atheist is ignorant about actual facts of Christian belief and practice, the reddit atheist and the herd of independent minds who hang on his every word shout, “Courtier’s Reply”, plug their ears and go on saying the ignorant and documentable false things their hermetically seal minds want to believe. Clever as only deeply stupid people can be.

      • Will

        Or they say “You don’t fit MY stereotype, so you aren’t a REAL Christian.”

        • Jared

          I’ve actually seen one guy, over at escapistmagazine, claim that “Westero Baptists are the true christians” (presumably because they are the easiest to argue against).

          • Andy, Bad Person

            one guy, over at escapistmagazine, claim that “Westero Baptists are the true christians”

            Which is especially hilarious because even they deny being Christians. But we know. Oh, we know.

          • Ted Seeber

            Actually, it’s because they’re not Christians by Fred Phelp’s own preaching. They are the Davidian Secret Police (I forget the actual hebrew term he uses that he stole from the Old Testament).

            • Mark Shea


            • JoFro

              Wait, is this true? Hve Westboro Baptist said they are NOT Christian? Could someone send me a link?

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Notice how he implicitly buys into fundamentalism: that one’s beliefs come from a (naively prosaic) literal reading of the Old Testament. Yet the faith does not come from the book; the book comes from the faith. It’s not a matter of picking and choosing, it’s a matter of the interpretations found in the Traditions.

      But Late Moderns are accustomed to reading instructional manuals and don’t recognize anything more complex. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” is a good starting point.

    • Scott W.

      Christians are not obliged to accept *all* the moral teachings of the Old Testament (i.e. “an eye for an eye”, etc.),

      Just a quibble I suppose, but Christians are obliged to accept all the moral teachings of the Old Testament. “Eye for an eye” is not a moral teaching, but a proscribed punishment which has been superseded by Christ’s admonition of mercy for sinners. Thou Shalt Not Kill is a moral teaching (divine command) that still is as binding today as it is in the Old Testament. This is why the scoffer’s God-Hates-Shellfish argument is a non-argument.

  • MG42

    I know that he’s hardly a perennial favorite if yours but I thought you might find this mini-homily by Fr. Andrew Greeley interesting, perhaps even worth pondering.

    (This is a true story about the power of prayer. No explanation is offered)
    “Once upon a time an anthropologist, one of Margaret Mead’s many husbands, noted that the natives on his little South Pacific island prayed fervently over their yam gardens after they had planted them. Very interesting, he thought. Poor superstitious people. They think that prayer can actually improve the fruitfulness of their gardens. So he chuckled to himself about their naivete and credulity. Then he remembered that he was a scientist and that in principle he ought to attempt some kind of controlled experiment before he dismissed the natives as ignorant savages.
    So he decided that he would plant his own yam garden in two spots that seemed exactly similar in style and sunlight. He also resolved to tend each of the gardens with equal care. Then he would pray over one and not the other. Unfortunately he didn’t know any prayers. But he did have a Hebrew bible with him. He didn’t understand Hebrew, but he could pronounce the words from the after-school class of his youth. So he read a couple of passages each day from the bible over one of the gardens. He later admitted that he probably cultivated the garden over which he did not pray with more care, because he really did not want the prayer to work. But it did. He had no idea what to make of the outcome of his experiment and repeated it several times. Each time prayer worked. What does one make of this story? Maybe that God is a comedian!”

    • Ted Seeber

      I make it out that something else is going on that only God knows about- kind of like how the Bali Water Goddess keeps the ecology of that island in balance.

  • Faith

    I’m praying for Bob!

    • I’ll join you!

      • Rosemarie


        I was just about to suggest that maybe we should join him in his prayers. You beat me to it.

  • victor

    I’m not really sure how the Patheos business model is set up, but it has always bothered me (just a little) that the revenue from the ad impressions (but never clicks) I get whenever I visit Mark or Tom’s blogs could be subsidizing such foolishness elsewhere on the site.

  • Leo White

    Alphonse Ratisbonne, an agnostic, did a prayer experiment with remarkable results: http://romancatholicblog.typepad.com/roman_catholic_blog/2007/08/the-miraculous-.html

    • Mark Shea

      And with considerably different intentions.

  • After that, you can do an “experiment” in which you transparently fake being interested in a smart, perceptive woman and then declare her an idiot for not dating you, Bob.

    I have suggested to an atheist friend that he pray to God that might be to reveal Himself to my friend. It’s not a bad suggestion in and of itself. However, I understand your objection to the experiment. I have railed against those who tend to suggest that God is a cosmic vending machine. You pray (insert coin in slot) and then the desired result comes back. Such thinking forgets that there is a person on the other side of the conversation.

    Here’s my suggestion as an alternative stupid experiment. Test the fidelity of your girlfriend or wife for 40 days. Each day send a different man to seduce your girlfriend or wife. Obviously, she fails the test if she gives in to the seducer. But after 40 days of passing, do really know if she might have failed on the 41st day, or 100th day, or whatever? Have you really proved anything if she passes? In any case, suppose the 40 day results are accepted, and you tell your girl friend or wife that she has passed the test! If she is your girl friend and she has some level of wisdom, she should dump you. If she is your wife, she should think that she has made a terrible mistake in marrying you. In any case, no woman should be with that sort of man.

    This all seems to be a set up for a lose-lose situation.

    • Mark Shea

      Exactly. This is what I’m referring to when I speak of the emotional and social cluelessness of so many internet atheists. They may know math, but the fundamental ability to grasp the most elementary aspects of relationship seem to elude a whole lot of them. What’s amazing is that even with such a deeply contemptible approach to relationship on Bob’s part, God will be laboring with might and main to break through the intellectual pride, smugness, and disdain for him to find *some* kind of toehold. He may surprise Bob. But Bob looks to be attempting to be well-fortified against any real encounter with him, so we’ll see.

      • There is a reason it’s a growing idea that many atheists/agnostics have some level of aspergers or some other social issue.

        • Ted Seeber

          the sad part is that one of the reasons I’m still Catholic is because of my Asperger’s: I’m a neurodiverificationist, but I really can’t stand normal people most of the time. The ONLY place in the world I can get expected behavior from neurotypicals is in a Catholic Mass.

  • Back when I was an atheist, I tried a similar thing. I didn’t pray a “reveal yourself to me” prayer. I prayed the Lord’s prayer, figuring that I might as well use the correct form, since if there was no God, there was nothing to worry about. Hah! I was converted before I got to “Give us this day our daily bread.”

  • The most memorable post I’ve read by John C. Wright was his conversion story, to which you linked, Mark. Of course, his effort at prayer was an empirical experiment in good faith, and, in terms I’ve read elsewhere, God knew what it would take to convince him. I agree that some of this seems a little silly–particularly shown by a “convenient” sincerity–and even maybe mocking, but I agree that it’s better to have an atheist pray than not.

    • Mark Shea

      So do I. However, this does not give any indication of being prayer. 🙂

  • Heather Price

    I’m banking on God’s sense of humor–and praying for Bob, too. “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”
    I’m chuckling at the thought. Be merciful, God. He’s new at this.

  • Tommy Jeff

    His cynicism is discouraging and his experiment and argument is so simplistic. If he wants to know about Christianity he should study it and not play silly games…however I do hope that he is converted…

  • SeraphicFather

    whether or not this prayer will “work” and God will reveal himself will depend on the heart of the one who is beseeching for, ‘Blessed are the pure of heart…” There is a fundemental arrogance in asking God to prove himself.

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    First time I said the rosary, I didnt believe any of it. In fact, I voiced my intention before beginning that rosary as “If you’re real, ask your Son to show Himself. If you’re not, its just a half hour wasted.”

    A week and a half later, Jesus spoke directly to me through the Eucharist, and I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t believe, but I was open. I wanted it to be true, I just didnt believe,

    If Bob goes in not wanting it to be true, he’s never going to even notice the signs when they do come for him.

  • BobRN

    Seems to me the whole premise of the experiment is that God is obliged to meet us on our terms. If I do this, God must do that. If God doesn’t do that, then I’m free to conclude He doesn’t exist, or He doesn’t care. It’s not my fault, then, if I fail to give Him the worship that is His due, or if I disregard His revelation, because I did what I was supposed to do to get God to do what He was supposed to do, and He didn’t. So there!

  • Brian

    Genuine Question. Full disclosure first. I’m an atheist who cannot stand ‘reddit athiests’ , further to that rudeness and ignorance in general.

    I’m reading Mr. Shea’s reaction to this suspicious “experiment” and I largely agree with what he has said. Intention would have to be important for something as personal as prayer. However, couldn’t the opposite intention (genuinely believing you’re talking to God) blind you from the Truth (whatever it may be?)

    Allow me to explain, going in with a bias, either for or against something tends to lean people towards the outcome they want. So in the case of Bob’s disingenuous prayers, he may, to quote Hezekiah Garret, “never going to even notice the signs when they do come for him.”

    However, couldn’t the same be true for those with the intention of speaking to God? Is it not possible that they may be looking for signs, and find them, but they are not from God? As is the mysterious invisible nature of this beast, so to speak, how can one tell a genuine connection to God as opposed to someone delusionally attributing something to God that isn’t? How would you tell the difference? It seems to me that it would be up to the person’s conscience to decide whether or not it’s true. Also, is it not possible for someone to pray in an entirely mocking gesture only to be flabbergasted when God/Jesus/Vishnu/etc reveals themselves to the skeptic? Surely this would be a great way of God proving himself to the skeptic?

    • Is it not possible that they may be looking for signs, and find them, but they are not from God?

      Yes. If you’re basing your belief in God only or primarily on messages you believe you receive in prayer, then your faith, while it may be genuine, is on pretty shaky ground. Luckily, I don’t think anyone in the real world actually does.

      How would you tell the difference? It seems to me that it would be up to the person’s conscience to decide whether or not it’s true.

      Jesus said: “By this shall all men know [including yourself, I’d guess] that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” If you find your relationship with God in prayer leading you farther into holiness and love of neighbor, then that’s a good sign you’re on the right track.

      Also, is it not possible for someone to pray in an entirely mocking gesture only to be flabbergasted when God/Jesus/Vishnu/etc reveals themselves to the skeptic? Surely this would be a great way of God proving himself to the skeptic?

      That depends on the skeptic’s attitude, state of mind, and willingness to take seriously his own astonishment and obey, along with a whole host of other factors. I assume the Omniscient knows those factors better than I do, so I don’t presume to judge.

  • I see no downside here. God bless him, and may his prayer bear astonishing fruit.

    • I agree. In 40 days of 2-3 minutes each, perhaps some earnest contemplation and openness might slip in.

      Let’s pray that God does show himself, even to this mocker and that his heart not be hardened so that he will respond. What a glorious sign this would be to the unbelievers.

  • Forrest Cavalier

    By setting up experiments to observe photons as waves, the physicist will find no particle.
    The outcome of the experiment depends upon the choices of the observer.

  • So, Mark, exactly why is “shallow” supposed to be bad?

    I’m a physicist (Ph.D., Stanford, 1983), and I never remember a serious physicist denigrating something in physics as “shallow.” If it is wrong, “false” is enough. Indeed, many, many truths are “shallow.”

    In fact, most crazy conspiracy theories are “deep.” The complex explanations that the “birthers” have come up with are so deep as to be difficult to fathom. The simple truth, that Obama was in fact born in Hawaii, is “shallow.”

    My observation has been that the derogatory term “shallow” (like “insensitive,” and many other fashionable buzz-words) is a term used by people who know their opponents are right, but simply do not want to admit it.

    Somehow, this is not the sort of rhetorical ploy I recall from the man from Galilee, who seemed to prefer simple, blunt speech.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Mark Shea

      How’s this?: Insincerely pretending to pray in order to make fun of honest Christians who invite you to pray in sincerity is stupid. And shallow. Blunt enough? I could go for “white sepulchre”, “blind guide” and “hypocrite” if you like. Jesus used those terms for insincere people like Bob.

      • Mark wrote to me:
        >How’s this?: Insincerely pretending to pray in order to make fun of honest Christians who invite you to pray in sincerity is stupid. And shallow. Blunt enough?

        No, just silly.

        Everyone knows what the “experiment” was about: making the point that whether or not prayers are answered is essentially subjective. People who are Shaivas often find that Shiva “answers” their prayers. Those who are Vaishnavas often find that Vishnu answers their prayers. And, those who adhere to certain branches of Buddhism find that various Bodhisattvas answer their prayers.

        Of course, someone who was really shallow might suggest that this supports the hypothesis that religion is simply a badge of group identity lacking any objective validity but merely subjectively reinforcing one’s loyalty to the group.

        But, I would not want to be that shallow.

        All the best,


  • Fergus Gallagher

    “Insincerely pretending to pray in order to make fun of honest Christians who invite you to pray in sincerity is stupid. ”

    You should be directing your ire at the Christian organisation which set up the experiment.

    • Fergus Gallagher

      Also note that the experiment is not aimed specifically a Christian god.

    • Mark Shea

      The Christian organization invited people to pray in sincerity. Nothing wrong with that.

  • To be fair, it’s a Christian radio station, following a paper from a Christian philosopher, who have asked atheists to try this “experiment” for 40 days. I’m not sure whether it’s a sensible approach or not, but the responsibility for this is not with the atheists this time.

  • erich

    “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”

    Well that’s convenient…

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Wonder how many are wearing the Miraculous Medallion during the fourty days?