Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

This Guardian article by Martin Robbins isn’t mainly about the irrationality of religion, but I thought one paragraph was delicious enough to be worth quoting. In a recent poll organised by the Church of England, whose results they subsequently represented in a decidedly misleading fashion:

31% of respondents said they would pray for peace in the world. Given the noticeable absence of world peace, there are only a few ways this plays out. Either nobody has got around to praying yet, in which case people are callous bastards; or God has ignored them all, in which case God is a callous bastard; or prayer doesn’t work, in which case the Christian movement is the equivalent of a town full of people still trying to call the number of their local Papa John’s 2,000 years after it closed down and the phone was disconnected, speaking at the error tone even though nobody has picked up, then spotting a pizza in the supermarket two days later and insisting that it must have arrived by the grace of Papa John’s.

Christians: pick one.

(Martin’s on good form today – read this one about Richard Littlejohn and the problems of press regulation as well.)

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So, this thing I was sorta doing officially wrapped up a few days ago. To be honest, my attention had drifted from it somewhat by then, and for the last ten days or so I hadn’t really been engaging. The Facebook conversations were becoming more frustrating than anything else, and the praying itself was just dull.

Seriously, when you’re not even particularly hoping for God to be there, talking to him gets really tedious. And I had very little of note to say. When I have things to say, there are people I say them to. Or there’s Twitter – admittedly I don’t tend to get much more of a response there than from God, but he’s never even RT’d me once.

Still, Justin’s asked for some feedback from the participants, and I feel like I ought to give some closing thoughts here too, rather than just leaving that whole thing hanging. My weekend was busy and it may be too late for this to be any help now, but here goes anyway.

1. Was God revealed to you during the course of the Atheist Prayer Experiment?

No. Which isn’t to say that nothing noteworthy happened to me over the course of a month or so, but if God can’t reveal himself in any way distinguishable from life simply taking its course, then he’s not worth paying attention to.

2. Did you find any value in taking part in the experiment?

At first I did, I think. It’s something that might be arguably worthwhile for an intellectual honest atheist to try, to see if it helps them understand what the rest of the world gets out of this strange activity. Most of what I got out of it was the chance to analyse other people’s arguments for or against the experiment (or prayer in general), and critique some of the assumptions (religious and non-religious) that many people seem to work with. It put me in a place to wrangle with some interesting theology in ways that are new to me, at least.

But there was an inescapable feeling of fruitlessness to it all, what with God’s non-existence.

Please share any relevant thoughts, experiences or feedback

Concise version: The god debate is ongoing and immensely multi-faceted; the Atheist Prayer Experiment has one small but potentially interesting part to play in it. Its significance (and the importance of its “results”) shouldn’t be inflated, but it needn’t be dismissed out of hand as an effort to engage people in an interesting discussion.

Less concise version:

If I’d been more inclined to verbosity over the past 40 days, I’d have stood up for positive atheism a lot more vehemently. Because the context demands it.

There’s no point paying any attention to something like the APE, if you’re just going to go along with its superficial aims, make an honest search for God, and admit when he doesn’t turn up that, well, this doesn’t prove there’s no god out there, in a way that the believers can nod and smile about and suggest that maybe if you keep searching with an open heart you’ll find him one day.

There’s only any point to it if you challenge the normative assumptions behind it. I don’t care what get-out clauses theists come up with about their god being picky in who he chooses to reveal himself to – God doesn’t need disproving any further than the obvious facts of reality have already done so. There is no god, for the same reason there aren’t any leprechauns who live in my beard.

In considering how a “revelation” for a praying atheist might go, it’s suggested that, until we actively seek God out, he may just “not want to intrude on your atheism”. But this is privileging a very particular hypothesis – one no more likely on the face of it than a god who doesn’t want to be bothered, likes atheists the best for leaving him alone, and takes every prayer directed at him as a personal affront.

Frankly, if your god is anything like Christians describe him, and is sitting out there and waiting patiently for me to drop everything, stop debating his existence, stop asking rhetorical questions, stop analysing the arguments of believers, and talk directly to him as if he were there, in direct conflict with what I strongly believe – and only then is he going to make his presence clear to me in even the vaguest of ways…

… then your god sucks.

My openness to the evidence for his existence has been amply demonstrated by the many times I’ve publicly announced my commitment to that very thing. I’ve been explaining for years, in as coherent terms as I can put together, why none of it seems convincing to me yet. But because I haven’t closed my eyes in silent contemplation lately, because I haven’t hit enough of his Christian-normative buttons, he’s still in hiding?

This is yet another arbitrary barrier, a hoop which no god has any reason to expect us to leap through. If there’s anything good to be got out of our knowing that he exists, he could do something about it at any time. If this kind of pettiness isn’t beneath him, he’s not worth my respect, let alone worship.

He also continues to let us murder and enslave and torture each other, without intervening to end all human suffering, because free will. This guy’s priorities are fucked.

My various other scattered thoughts about this are going to wait for another time, or I’ll just let them go. Suffice it to say that nobody’s isolated data points resulting from the APE should be considered persuasive in any direction. Ample data already exists in all the relevant areas, in forms much more amenable to appropriate critical analysis. It can be a useful way to acquire some direct experience, but there’s no need to tacitly support the continuation of the religious default setting.

There is no god. The fact that he didn’t answer my prayers needn’t even come into it.

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Christians don’t want us to be rational.

That’s a slightly unfair summary of a lot of the conversation around this experiment. I’ve been told a few times that I should “remain open” to “ways in which my prayer could be answered”, for instance. Is it a rational approach that’s being encouraged here? Nothing sounds unreasonable about keeping “open” to possibilities.

And yet, “open-mindedness” is a virtue often espoused by people who really just want you to accept their claims at face value without “closed-mindedly” asking any critical questions. Sometimes they’re so wrapped up in their own world that any reaction other than immediate acceptance is seen as debate-stifling ideological closed-mindedness; sometimes, they’re just on the defensive somewhat because they’re so used to having their extraordinary claims questioned and picked apart.

QualiaSoup has a great video about the real meaning of open-mindedness. Less helpful is the perspective of someone on the Facebook group earlier today:

It’s not that I’m closed minded to the idea, it’s just that I already know what’s true.

Sigh. It’s this kind of thing that prompts me into championing belief in Thor and leprechauns, so that the people on the other side can see what it’s like.

Any good rationalist should be “open-minded”, in that we should be willing to honestly consider the worth of new ideas when they’re put to us. But you can’t dismiss us as being closed-minded when we’re unimpressed with your anecdote of someone who had cancer and then prayed and then didn’t have cancer any more (yes, these have been put forward as arguments for something-or-other in the group) – especially when we explain why it is that common coincidences are not convincing.

What some people seem to mean when they say “just be open-minded” is something akin to “go anomaly hunting and cherry-pick your evidence to support our conclusions”. If anything good happens to you over the 40-day course of this praying thing, maybe that’s God making himself known in your life!

Sure. Maybe. Maybe every time the cat over-excitedly claws my legs, that’s God punishing me for supporting gay rights and not sacrificing any goats in his honour lately. Maybe.

There’s also a lot of suggestion that something we need to ask God for – rather than simply that he provide any evidence at all that he’s actually there – is some sort of a “change in myself”. What sort of change isn’t very precisely specified, but I’ve never heard any suggested prayers that sound even remotely like “Lord, please help improve my powers of critical thinking, so that I may more rationally analyse the evidence for your glorious existence.”

If their claims about God are true, then a greater capacity to accurately assess truth claims is the only kind of change that makes sense. But I don’t think that’s the idea. I think the implicit message behind this “change in myself” idea is that the change should be “stop resisting and just go along with it already”. God, please make me more gullible so that I might believe in you.

I’m ready to assess any evidence as best I can. But I’m waiting on something pretty special before I start believing in any god. It’s ludicrous to believe something without a reason, so give me a reason.

If you disagree with that claim, you should give me all your money. Why? No reason. Just believe.

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In the paper by which this experiment is largely inspired, the author notes that Bertrand Russell, when discussing what he might have to say to God in the afterlife if such things turned out to exist, reported that he “would chide Him for not having provided enough ante-mortem evidence of his existence”. I think Richard Dawkins has made similar comments, and it’d be near the top of my own list of questions too in such an unlikely eventuality.

The author suggests, however, that God might shoot back: “Well, you didn’t ask me for any, did you?” – thus apparently emphasising the potential importance of atheists following this Christian rigmarole of prayer to a god they don’t believe in, as I’m doing.

The paper ends on that rejoinder, but it’s not hard to imagine that Russell or Dawkins or I might have a slightly prickly response of our own. For my part, it might go something like:

No, but then I also didn’t ask any of the other thousands of gods humans have believed in over the centuries. Nor did I address every pixie, imp, sprite, or other mystical being sometimes alleged to exist, but who seemed far more likely to have been an entirely human creation. I guess I could have devoted every second of my waking adult life to personally imploring every imaginable supernatural entity to reveal themselves, but since none of them had ever given me a reason to expect they existed, asking them all for a reason seemed like a waste of time – yourself included. I did, however, ask your self-proclaimed earthly representatives – the priests and evangelists and so forth – for some scrap of evidence, on numerous occasions, but they always came up short. So what, exactly, was I supposed to conclude?

If anyone wants to play the role of God and fill in the next part of the conversation, feel free.

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One of Christianity’s big draws is the forgiveness thing. Yahweh’s way into that. If you’re really, properly sorry, you can be let off the hook for anything. (Well, almost anything.)

(I was going to use that link to send you to my YouTube video of me taking part in the Blasphemy Challenge way back when, but I look so young and hideous and wooden and my old webcam was so shit that I just can’t bear to. Anyway.)

This is often seen as being an easy way for Christians to avoid personal responsibility, and up to a point this is likely true for some of them. But for many, it can be a way for them to achieve a far less cynical kind of reassurance.

Guilt is often directionless, ethereal, hard to pin down, but equally hard to let go of. Zarquon knows that Christianity’s been an immensely damaging tool for ladling on the guilt over the centuries too, but in some hands, I can see how it might do some people some good.

Having someone forgive you – particularly someone authoritative and paternal – can, I suspect, often make it a lot easier to forgive yourself.

So in my prayer today, I did some apologising, and asked for some forgiveness.

Sorry, God, for breaking what was meant to be a 40-day run, and forgetting to do the prayer part of this experiment a couple of times.

Yeah, it felt a bit feeble. I didn’t get much of that euphoric rush of letting go of all my pent-up guilt in one big cathartic wave. I guess mostly because I wasn’t exactly feeling that torn up about anything to begin with. I could’ve tried to muster up some shame for the other participants who are working harder at this than I am, or for my sense of intellectual honesty, but actual guilt hardly seems worth bothering with.

I try to be aware of my limitations and failings. Insofar as they negatively affect other people, I think I should strive to apologise to those people and rectify my behaviours; insofar as they affect only myself, I think I should learn to do better, to work with my tendencies toward procrastination and laziness and navigate them as best I can, and forgive myself. I don’t need to feel sorry to God. The idea that I automatically owe him anything of the kind makes me feel indignant, and want to start ranting about the things humanity ought to hold him to account for.

But that sounds rather tedious. So instead I’ll re-tell a story I posted on this experiment’s Facebook group recently:

I had a quiet few minutes to myself just now, and thought maybe I’d use it for today’s prayer.

A moment later, I heard a disembodied voice from above, reassuring me that I was exactly where I needed to be, and heading in the right direction, and I relaxed.

As it happened, it was just the train driver announcing that this is indeed the 8:16 to Ramsgate, which I find quite compatible with a godless universe. But if you’re really keen to see *anything* as a sign… I guess this would count?

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Yesterday I took a slightly different tone with the Almighty, and cursed him to hell and back.

The standard form these prayers are suggested to take is of a gentle request, a humble beseeching. I’ve not had any results worth mentioning with that, so I thought I’d branch out and try insulting, offending, and denigrating him, hurling the kind of language and invective skyward which would make a dock worker… shrug indifferently at how unimaginative and tame my attempts at verbal abuse were, I imagine. But still. I got pretty mean.

I’ve talked before about why there’s no good reason to privilege the hypothesis that God takes any particular form, or wants any precise thing from us, or responds to any of our actions more than others. Christians suggest I should ask him to inspire me and enter my heart and whatnot, but maybe the god who actually exists isn’t like that. Maybe he doesn’t respond well to banal obsequiousness, but could be goaded into a reaction by sufficient taunting.

So I spent a few minutes telling him what a worthless piece of shit he is and where he can shove his omnipotence.

No luck there either, it seems. Back to normal today.

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One common point of discussion on the Facebook group for this experiment is just how we’re meant to be doing this prayer thing.

I can’t find the exact comment again now, but I think I read someone asking, essentially: “After saying, hi God, let me know if you’re there… what are we meant to do with the next 2-3 minutes?”

Personally, I tend to make my prayer requests waffle on a bit. For instance, today I’m going with:

God, if you’re there, please give me some kind of sign that I should believe in you. If a personal divine revelation is all I can expect, please note that the usual warm fuzzy feelings aren’t quite going to cut it. If the greatest power you’re capable of exerting over my world is less than what I can achieve by stroking the cat or giving Kirsty a hug – or, as some people on Facebook suggest, if you’re going to continue being petty and hiding from me unless I pray in just the right way – then God, God, I don’t even wanna know you.

Some may consider it a little crass to ask whether you take requests, but arguably not as crass as letting thousands of children starve to death every day all over the planet. So, if you’re open to suggestions, but you don’t want to appear in person or do anything too flashy, providing a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture via divine inspiration would do very nicely.

I sometimes go on like this for a while, and end up in something of a back-and-forth in my own head, debating the relative merits of certain suggestions, considering possible religious responses or excuses as to why such-and-such doesn’t undermine their faith…

I can have some good conversations with myself. But it’s worth remembering that they are just with myself. I’m a long way from seeing any reason to believe that this semi-voluntary internal dialogue is a product of anything more than my own imagination.

Things are definitely going on in my head as a result of all this praying. Interesting things, which give me some idea why some people might get ideas about God speaking to them. But there are so many more unambiguous ways that any deity could make me aware of its existence. Goldbach’s conjecture is just the first example off the top of my head. If God can’t come up with something at least that good, and is sticking with vague sensations and slightly odd coincidences here and there, then he’s not really trying.

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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.

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Backstory is here, if you need it.

I’m still deeply an atheist, but I’ve spent the last few days praying.

The first couple of days, I was speaking silently into a void, asking someone who isn’t there if they’d talk to me.

Today, I got an answer.

It went like this:

Yeah, I’m God. Stop bowing your head like that you dozy prick, even the ones who believe in me look stupid when they do that. Now go and set fire to a neighbour’s dog.

I’m not being flippant. A voice in my head said that to me. For all I know, it sounds just like God.

Fortunately, it also sounds exactly like what’s going on in my mind when I’m coming up with dialogue for a story. This is a pretty familiar sensation to me, and is a far better explanation for the above urgings toward canine arson. It’d be worrying if this experiment worked, I discovered God, and it turned out that he wanted me to become violently antisocial.

It certainly sounds like the kind of thing my brain would come up with, to make some sort of a point. But that kind of creativity is something that goes on in my head without my making any conscious effort to be creative.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is this unconscious/subconscious/whatever kind of creativity the sort of thing people might mistake for the voice of God?

I’m not claiming to have come up with an explanation for all of religion, here, but it’s hardly controversial to suggest that at least some “religious experiences” are entirely generated within people’s minds. And, given how complex and unintuitive human consciousness is, it’s no surprise that thoughts sometimes bubble up which don’t seem to be ours, which aren’t a direct result of any conscious decision-making.

If you’re sad, desperate, lonely, and really want to be reassured, then perhaps your imagination will come up with something to say – concocted from your own memories and hopes – which has the character of a benevolent external presence to it.

For many, the idea of an “inner critic” is more familiar, a persistent voice somewhere in your head which regularly undercuts and criticises everything you do. No matter how clearly you understand that this is a manifestation of your own self-doubt, it doesn’t feel like it’s really you saying these terrible things about yourself. The words and ideas appear in your head unbidden.

Creativity is not easy for us to intuitively understand, and much of the language of inspiration is shared with spirituality. Voices in your head, of one sort or another, are a part of what it means to be conscious. It’s the kind of thing people have turned to religion to explain in the past, and it can still trip us up today.

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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.

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