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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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