The Prayer Experiment, Week 1

The Prayer Experiment, Week 1 September 24, 2012

It’s been seven days. Since seven is the number of completion, I’d like to review how Week 1 of the Atheist Prayer Experiment has gone since I started.

I’ve been keeping a diary in which I’ve jotted the thoughts that came to mind during each prayer. There’s little to report, though the experienced Christians may be amused at my inexperienced approach.

It’s tough to stay focused, and items from my to-do list often float by … a TV in the next room is distracting … I prayed while driving to a church small group meeting, and it made me a more considerate driver … how is simply making myself open to the Deity’s input different from making a specific request? … What if someone saw me—would I be embarrassed? … I imagine calling out to the man in the dark room (from Mawson’s paper).

I’ve been trying to avoid criticisms of the process of prayer itself. I’ve posted about that before and have more to say, but this isn’t the place.

My original post has gotten a lot of comments, and many are from people who object to the entire experiment. What’s been a little surprising are the negative comments from Christians. Do they not know that a Christian organization is behind this? Are they anticipating no conversions and trying to downplay the quality of the experiment so they can tell us, “I told you so” when nothing happens?

They may be jumping the gun. Organizer Justin Brierley (“Atheist Prayer Experiment – Day 4 Update”) reported that one of the participants dropped out because the very act of researching the experiment made her conclude that, “I need Christ in my life.”

About 70 atheists are participating. As an actual scientific experiment, I’ll agree with most of the criticisms raised. But still—could a Christian ask for anything more? Given that I can’t say, “Father, I believe; help my unbelief,” what would a Christian propose instead? From the Christian standpoint, this sounds a lot better than any practical alternative.

The experiment is more than just praying. It asks participants to remain “as open as possible to ways in which that prayer could be answered.” The closest I’ve come was on Day 5, where I was working with a volunteer team at a local Boys and Girls Club. When I came home, I realized that I’d lost my red plastic “Good Without God” wristband that I’ve worn continuously for a couple of years.

Hmm—was God telling me something? But if so, what was it?

Maybe God was saying, “You can’t be good without God!” Maybe he was saying, “That’s what you get for helping a worthy organization! Do it again and I’ll punish you worse.” Maybe this was a general caution to be more attentive to my surroundings so that I don’t lose things like this again.

Even if this was a divine action, we haven’t established that this was the work of the Christian god, and an action as vague as this might mean different things coming from different deities. For example, red in Hinduism is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. If she did this, maybe the message was, “Thank you for the red wristband. You will be rewarded.” And so on.

Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not satisfied with finding a pleasing interpretation and running with it. Most intellectually appealing is the option that there is no supernatural message at all.

This reminds me of the numerology behind the predictions of our old friend Harold Camping (I’ve written about Brother Camping here and here). He concluded that the time from Jesus’s death until the beginning of Armageddon on May 21, 2011 (oops!) was 722,500 days. But 722,500 factors nicely into 5² × 10² × 17². Jumping into the highly accurate (or completely nonsensical, depending on the authority) science of numerology, 5 = atonement, 10 = completion, and 17 = heaven. So May 21 was the day of (Atonement × Completeness × Heaven) squared. Pretty cool, eh?

But even if you’re on board with Camping’s nutty project, how do you interpret this curious factorization? How about: Since Jesus atoned for everyone’s sin, and the human project is now completed, welcome into heaven, everyone! Why is this any worse than whatever Camping imagines?

And who’s to say what these numbers mean? Why doesn’t the 5 bring to mind the number of stones David picked up before he battled Goliath and suggest his doubt that God was going to help him? Why doesn’t 10 refer to plagues?

I’d rather stay on firm ground. I’ll leave the interpretations to the Jungians and the Tarot readers.

As a parting thought, let me share Mr. Deity’s admission that he doesn’t answer prayer.

Look—if somebody prays to me and things go well, who gets the credit? Me, right? But if they pray to me and things don’t go well, who gets the blame? Not me!

So it’s all good. I’m going to mess with that by stepping in? Putting my nose where it doesn’t belong?

Good deeds are the best prayer

— Serbian proverb

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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