Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide

11.3



The Atheist Prayer Experiment


Oxford philosopher, Tim Mawson, in a paper and then in interview on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? podcast (see 12Nov2012 and 17Nov2012), suggested that if atheists were to seek God, pray to God over a number of weeks, they should be able to have some evidence for or against God’s existence depending on their experience. (See http://www.premier.org.uk/atheistprayerexperiment for more discussion.) In the following discussion, I would like to claim that this might be good grounds to verify but not necessarily falsify God’s existence.

In the fall of 2012, 71 atheists agreed to participate in a 40 day experiment, taking a few minutes each day to ask God to reveal himself/herself/itself if God exists. Two people finished the experiment believing in God; one claimed to be undecided and describes herself as seeking faith; six failed to participate; 48 said they do not believe God was revealed to them. Some have not sent in responses by the time of this writing.
 
One atheist participating in the experiment at one point complained that it would be utterly petty for God to provide a self-revelation to him, particularly in the light of certain known evils and suffering in the world. Christians and other theists have offered reasons God has allowed such suffering, so until such arguments are defeated, this problem actually has no relevance to the possibility of God giving evidence to seekers. If God has good reason for allowing suffering and if God is one we might have good reason to desire to know exists and to whom we might relate, then there would certainly be nothing “petty” about seeking God. Obviously, this participant would seek no new relationship with God nor would it make any real change in his life if he were to discover that God exists. If many of the participants were of this or a similar attitude, it is not surprising that so few experienced any revelation from God. Should God honestly be concerned to communicate with someone like this? 
 
The Bible often speaks of the need to seek with all of one’s heart in order to find God (e.g., Jeremiah 29.13). I used to think that the most important first step in finding God was simply asking God for the truth and seeking God as a deeply felt need, and that this is preliminary to and more basic than seeking other kinds of reasons for belief. I now see that there is sometimes an even more preparatory step. For those who do not at least hope for God’s existence, one must first ask God for a desire to know God. 
 
By merely considering the possibility that a God exists who does truly deserve our commitment, some might be motivated to seek such a God. Also, considering the possibility that finding and knowing God could provide a fulfillment, an adequate reason for existing, one does not otherwise possess, some may begin to sense their need for God. 
 
Sometimes people will need to ask God for understanding in order to remove the barriers that keep them from wanting to know God. For some, the problem of evil so taints their view of God that until this problem is removed, they cannot even desire to know God or to seek to know God. For some, issues like the Canaanite genocide remove the Jewish or Christian God from consideration. Some skeptics require an unreasonably high degree of verification when God may want to provide only enough evidence that should be acceptable to any normal, rational person. People like this will need to ask God to help them to think rationally and to remove unwarranted prejudices against belief before they can assess the evidence God gives them. Ambiguous principles like Sagan’s
exceptional claims require exceptional evidence can give atheists enough stretching room to always reject even the most reasonable evidence. So sometimes there are preliminary steps to seeking God, steps that should involve asking for help and understanding from God. Some blockages like those just mentioned may have kept some of the participants from hearing from God.
 
Suppose that some of the participants did honestly seek nothing more than sufficient evidence for God’s existence without prejudice against God and with a willingness to submit to God were God’s existence discovered. Even if they did not do so
with all one’s heart, shouldn’t we expect that God would probably have answered such prayers? This common sense intuition does seem to fit some of the biblical claims as well. Not all of the biblical passages that speak of the need to seek God or to seek the truth from God indicate that one must seek with a deep sense of longing and emotional need. One passage just asks us to will to do God’s will (viz. John 7.17). 
 
So I’m almost tempted to think that if God exists (which I think is true), more of the participants should have received some evidence or indication from God of God’s existence even without a strong desire or sense of need for God to exist. But since we cannot consider this to be a strict scientific experiment, it is quite possible that if God exists then God has simply chosen not to do so within any prescribed time limits. We are dealing with a person, after all, not a machine which we can predict must act in a given way if the circumstances are appropriate. Moreover, we cannot set a definite time limit for this quasi-experiment since God may have special reasons for requiring more time. In fact, I would suspect that some people will not discover God’s existence or the truth of Christianity until many years from now. I have elsewhere claimed that some might not discover until after death. Until one attains an experience which gives one reason to believe (and assuming one has no other reason to believe), one should live with an honest agnosticism, never affirming or denying God’s existence. And one should never cease seeking this God.
 
I would conclude that these several factors imply that lack of self-revelation from God in the prayer experiment does not provide any good evidence against God’s existence. The many and various examples of people who have sought God and discovered Christianity to be true should, however, count as good evidence for God’s existence and Christianity. I will provide links to such accounts as this web site adds pages from its previous site. The first one I will note is that of
Richard Morgan.

Before closing, we might discuss one common objection to religious experience as evidence for a belief. Suppose one has an experience which can count as evidence for a religious belief. It should be accepted until the person becomes aware of other conflicting experiences. At that time one should do what anyone does who becomes aware of conflicting sense experiences such as optical illusions, hallucinations, or mirages. One should seek further adjudicating experiences to determine which one should be trusted. Recall that the method of seeking such an experience in this case should involve calling upon God under the assumption that this God deserves our highest commitment, is absolutely good, and is able to reveal this information. If no such adjudicating experience is forthcoming, and if one has not had the conflicting experience or experiences oneself (only other people claim to have had the conflicting experiences), one should continue to trust in one’s own experience. A person should withhold making a commitment to belief only if one has these conflicting experiences oneself. Finally, I should mention that if there is a God who will reveal such information, all religious seekers will not necessarily attain a religious experience as evidence. Some may receive or become aware of other kinds of evidence.


Dennis Jensen, July 2013 (revised, December 2013, October 2014)


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