Over in the Atheist channel, Bob Seidensticker of Cross Examined is experimenting with prayer. He’s signed up for an experiment run by Justin Brierley of the Unbelievable radio show (which you may remember from the time Hemant and I tangled on air). The program is asking for atheists to try praying for at least two to three minutes a day for God to reveal Himself to them (if he exists). After 40 days, the atheists are going to share their experiences and, if applicable, conversions.
Bob’s a Patheos blogger, and he’s been blogging about his approach. It’s hard going, which doesn’t surprise me. When I was an atheist, I didn’t find suggestions to pray particularly helpful (though the results of experimentation were sometimes farcical). I was curious what Bob would do with such an intractable problem, but I was given pause by this comment of his:
Okay—I’m in. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to be all that earnest—frankly, I don’t have much expectation of anything supernatural happening or even much desire for God to exist—but I’ll have a go. To any Christian who says that I’m not approaching this with much sincerity, you’re right. As I read it, none is required—as it should be. Sincerity comes after the fact; sincerity is earned.
It’s hard to get much out of something you can’t approach with sincerity. It’s not helpful to pretend you believe something you don’t believe, but it’s also not that helpful to just go through the motions of a religious ritual if you’re heart’s not in it. So I started trying to think about what, if anything, Bob or anyone else could do honestly. And I think the key is curiosity.
The only prayer I was ever really able to offer as an atheist was adaptations of the Litanies of Tarski and Gendlin. I might say:
If there is a god, I desire to believe there is a god.
If there is not a god, I desire to believe there is not a god.
Let me not become attached to belief I do not want.
Or, slightly less formally, “If there’s a god, I’d like to be able to notice that, insofar as I want true beliefs.” (Huh, I guess I never get that informal). The Litanies were something I could say totally honestly and did still represent some kind of petition if there was anything listening
But they’d probably get a little dull after 40 days, so the LessWrong post I really want to recommend to Bob and anyone else flirting with religion is “Leave a Line of Retreat.” The post takes Sun Tzu’s advice to always leave the enemy a line of retreat so they can see an alternative to death and applies it to crises (or pending crises) of faith.
“Make sure,” I suggested to her, “that you visualize what the world would be like if there are no souls, and what you would do about that. Don’t think about all the reasons that it can’t be that way, just accept it as a premise and then visualize the consequences. So that you’ll think, ‘Well, if there are no souls, I can just sign up for cryonics’, or ‘If there is no God, I can just go on being moral anyway,’ rather than it being too horrifying to face. As a matter of self-respect you should try to believe the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is, like I said before; but as a matter of human nature, it helps to make a belief less uncomfortable, before you try to evaluate the evidence for it.”
It can be a bit hard to figure out if you’re accurately imagining what the world would be like if a claim were true. It’s hard to figure out how good you are at thinking about the counterfactual honestly. So I’d like to give you a cheat code. Imagine Christianity (or whatever religion you’re thinking about) is a theological system in a work of fiction and you’re planning to LARP in that setting.
How would you live in that world? If God did exist, what would follow? What would be the worst knock on effect? What would be the best? What would you start or stop doing? What new constraints or freedoms would you operate under?
The stakes are low, you’re just role-playing. But now you’re in a position to think curiously. You’re not having a debate (with all the defensiveness that triggers), you’re getting to build something! You’re free to tweak and experiment to try to figure out the mechanics of this fictional world.
And, as you run into open questions or need more information, you should feel free to consult a manual (here, a religious friend, a priest, etc) and as your questions mount, ask the DM (which is to say God). I’m offering this as open advice to Bob, but if anyone’s experimenting with prayer or working through agnosticism, let me know if this is helpful.