In my last blog post about this, I said:
It’d be worrying if this experiment worked, I discovered God, and it turned out that he wanted me to become violently antisocial.
It was a flippant line, and it’s probably not something anyone’s seriously concerned about. But, if they think that some sort of god might exist, and the Atheist Prayer Experiment might be an effective way to find out about it… why aren’t they?
A lot of people, after all, have done truly sociopathic and terrible things to each other, believing that they were acting in direct accordance with God’s will. Being an atheist, I find their claims to divine righteousness just as convincing as those of anyone who thinks God only wants us to do nice things. So why should the notion of a supernatural psycho be dismissed out of hand?
This seems to fall under Eliezer Yudkowsky’s header of privileging the hypothesis. Here’s how he starts describing what he means:
Suppose that the police of Largeville, a town with a million inhabitants, are investigating a murder in which there are few or no clues — the victim was stabbed to death in an alley, and there are no fingerprints and no witnesses.
Then, one of the detectives says, “Well… we have no idea who did it… no particular evidence singling out any of the million people in this city… but let’s consider the hypothesis that this murder was committed by Mortimer Q. Snodgrass, who lives at 128 Ordinary Ln. It could have been him, after all.”
It could, just as easily as it could have been anyone else – but then why single poor Mortimer out for special attention? Why apply any greater scrutiny to this one case, even if you claim not to be assuming that it’s any more likely?
The experiment I’m taking part in is being organised by a Christian group, and it’d be surprising if they weren’t harbouring some hope that a few atheists might come to find their god specifically, even if they’re careful to try and keep things general. The guy behind it asked us today, in the Facebook group, whether any participants would be saying their prayer in church this morning. I said:
Not me. Wouldn’t want to put off any of the other gods who might be tempted to get in touch with me, but who wouldn’t feel entirely welcome in a building devoted to one of the competition.
As I write this, the other five commenters have all been similarly negative.
You can’t be surprised that Christians have their own preferences, but it’s important to remember that, to an atheist, this assumption of Christian normativity is completely arbitrary. The idea that the God of the Bible truly exists, and is responsible for all creation, is literally as credible as any similar claims about Thor, or Zeus, or L Ron Hubbard. There is no good reason to suppose that Christianity stands out, for me, as being somehow more worth following up on than any competing religious claims.
And yet, largely without any deliberate intent, our ideas of prayer (not just within this experiment) are largely tied up with particular religious traditions, even for people who don’t believe in any of those religions. In discussions about what “god” means, and how we should be praying, most of the suggestions (coming largely from Christians who are really trying not to promote their own religion above the rest) are steeped in Christian tradition. Things like how many gods there are, their benevolence, the extent of their power, their involvement with humanity, their ascribed gender… There’s so much scope for variance in these and many more factors, and it’s really hard to uncover all the assumptions you don’t even realise you’re making because that’s the only way you’ve ever thought about God.
Even the idea that it’s somehow our responsibility to reach out to a god, and start forming a “relationship” with them, is normatively Christian. Sure, it’s part of a familiar tradition to suggest that God is waiting for us to ask for his guidance and grace and whatnot – but for all I know, God’s a tetchy sod who doesn’t want us bothering him, and he prefers atheists to devoted Christians because we do far less pestering. Or, if I pray to the wrong god, or in the wrong way, I’ll be annoying him more than if I hadn’t bothered trying. Or maybe I’m damning myself right now by wearing the wrong colour socks.
It sounds like I’m being flippant again, but only because the idea of a benign, paternal God, who wants us to ask for his help, is far more pervasive throughout society than a deity preoccupied with chromatically appropriate footwear. Remember, as an atheist, I have no reason to believe that the former is more likely to actually exist than the latter.
So, we’re a week in, and I’m still not getting a lot out of the actual prayer part of the experience. It wasn’t that many years ago when I would do this sincerely anyway, and the sensations are mostly the same, and quite familiar. No particular insights yet, but I’ve got a few more things to say about the ideas behind the experiment and how it’s playing out. Stay tuned.