Why am I praying to stop being an atheist?
I mean, I guess that’s a fair enough description of what I’m doing. I’m going to be going through certain ritualistic motions, much as I did back when I used to believe in something worth praying to and do it sincerely, in a way that some Christian believers suggest might prompt God to come out of hiding and reveal himself to me.
No, after putting it quite like that, it doesn’t sound a particularly fruitful way to spend my time to me, either.
But I think there may be something to be got out of it. Not what the organisers of the project might be hoping for; the odds of God’s existence are as negligible as they ever were. But an intellectually honest, personally experienced response and description of what really happens when someone actually does what numerous Christians keep bugging us to, and “opens their hearts to Jesus” (insofar as a strong atheist is capable of such), might be a useful resource going forward.
Do I want to stop being an atheist? For most purposes, “No” is a perfectly good answer to that, but I’ll expand a little more here. (I don’t know how much that attitude would undermine an attempt to pray my way out of it, but them’s the breaks.)
What I want is for my beliefs to align with reality. For my brain’s map of the world to correspond with the territory as closely as possible, as unclouded by bias and irrationality as I can make it. If God exists, I desire to believe that God exists, and so forth. A devotion to truth is as much openness as you’re going to get out of my heart. Anything beyond that, and you’re expecting me to be gullible and/or have “faith” *shudders*.
What I also want is some context in which to examine the motives and assumptions behind an experiment like this. I want to expand on my limited awareness about the psychological effects that prayer can have on people, and maybe learn what people experience while talking to nobody, which they feel compelled put a religious explanation to – as well as exploring what more likely explanations there might be for whatever (if anything) happens to me.
The guidelines on what should constitute an atheist’s prayer are fairly loose; the main suggestion is to stay nearer to an “Is there anyone out there” theme than trying to attract, say, Yahweh’s attention in particular. Don’t ask for specific miracles, just that something be “revealed”. It should last 2-3 minutes a day, and the experiment runs for 40 days.
So, my technique (at least to start – feel free to suggest improvements) just involves sitting quietly, somewhere without too many distractions, closing my eyes for what feels like about the right length of time, and verbalising in my head a general request to any entity capable of detecting the message, that they make themselves a part of my life in some way. I’m not sticking to a particular script, just thinking through the suggestion and then pausing for a minute or two.
Day 1’s primary observations: It feels much the same doing this as it did back when I actually thought there was a super-being out there who can read my thoughts. The main difference now is the added bewilderment at how that idea didn’t used to creep me the fuck out.
The extra layer of quiet when my fingers aren’t tapping on the keyboard, and I’m not concentrating on anything in particular, is not unpleasant. It doesn’t come with the layer of reverence that commonly descends when you’re accompanied by a few hundred other people in a beautiful old building – which just supports the obvious fact that the psychology of expectations plays a huge role in how people experience something like prayer.
But I’m not looking for some mild, hard-to-describe feeling. I have those all the time. Often it’s wind. It’s never provably been God. So he’s going to have to try harder than that.
He’s got 39 days left.