2012-10-08

My mini prayer experiment

I frequently listen to the podcast of the Unbelievable radio show from the London based station Premier Christian Radio. The program has frequent debates between Christians and non-Christians. In September the host of the show, Justin Brierly, initiated the Atheist Prayer Experiment, where atheists are challenged to pray 40 days for 2 to 3 minutes a day for God to reveal himself. This experiment is based on a paper by Christian philosopher Tim Mawson titled "Praying to stop being an atheist"(1). In the paper Mawson opted that Atheists who consider the possibility of God existing to be non-zero have no reason not to pray for God to reveal himself (the paper is written from a clear Christian perspective, referring to the deity as "God" and capitalizing the personal pronouns but states that the prayer should be sufficient for any god). Mawson compares the exercise as entering a dark cave of which you hear that a wise man is in the cave. He argues that even if you're not sure that is the case, there is no reason not to call out to the man to see if you get a reaction.

As I made clear in another (old) log post, I lack believe in anything supernatural and I actually disbelieve in the existence of the Christian god. In that regard, I consider myself a strong atheist. Still, I do not have an undeniable proof that the Christian god (or any other god for that matter) does not exist, so in my opinion I qualify the type of atheists that Mawson referred to. I think the far majority of atheists qualify, even Richard Dawkins, one of atheism's primary advocates wrote in his book "The God Delusion" that he is not absolutely certain that no gods exist(2). I think Mawson has a point. It is also common argument from theists to ask "have you asked God to reveal himself to you?". Well, now there was an opportunity to do just that.

I wrote an email to Justin Brierly, requesting more information about the experiment. In the email I gave an example of what I would consider a verifiable experiment. I wanted the experiment to be specific so anyone could verify if the revelation happened or not. Justin read my email on air(3). In response Justin said that the idea was to make the request broad which is in line with Mawson's paper where he stated that you should not request to "turn this water into wine". In this I disagree with both Justin and Tim Mawson as you then leave the interpretation open to confirmation bias and I doubt that the term "experiment" can be justly applied. For this reason I decided to forego participation in the experiment. I think there is a biblical precedence for clear verifiability of God's revelation. The examples of Gideon and his woolen fleece (Judges 6:36-40) and of Thomas who wanted clear evidence of the resurrected Jesus (John 20:24-28) come to mind. What's more, like the "water into wine" example by Tim Mawson, these examples require an unnatural act. I do not need that, but I need something specific that is determined up front, not retrospectively, to consider it a revelation.

I also frequent the site http://www.biblesupport.com that makes modules available for offline bible study software on Windows PC's (e-Sword), Windows Mobile phones (Pocket e-Sword) and Android devices (MySword). There I go by the handle "Atheist Rob". The reason for this handle is not to stir conflicts but to make clear where I am coming from. I have written a few scripts that can convert one type of module into another and made those available on the website. If any user of the site wants to steer clear from any "atheistic product", he or she should be aware of that. That said, I have mostly positive experiences of my interactions on that site, even if I disagree with the members on theological issues.

With one of the users I had a conversation that touched on the prayer experiment. He suggested to have a prayer experiment of our own, where not only I but he and some other Christians would also pray for God to reveal himself to me. I made it very clear what I would consider a revelation and after some prayer on his side, he concluded that the experiment should continue. He suggested that we try the praying for a week. The first day of praying would be September 15th 2012 and on September 23th we would evaluate if God had revealed himself. If what I prayed for would happen, I would believe in God's existence without a single doubt in my mind. That would not mean that I would believe in every Christian doctrine (like a young earth) and it would not even necessarily mean that I would worship God, but I would surely believe that he existed. I created a document with the specifics that I would pray for. I encrypted the document and made the encrypted version available online. I also calculated a SHA-256 hash of the unencrypted document and posted that in a tiny blog post named "Verifiability". I posted that so that when I would write this blog post, readers of this post could verify that the content of my prayer was made up front.

I prayed for 8 nights, sincerely, for God to reveal himself. The texts varied slightly from night to night, but my prayer went something like this (in Dutch but translated here):
Dear God, I don't believe in you, but many people do. If you do exist I want to ask you to reveal yourself to me. The way I know you revealed yourself is if a specific person reacts to me on the website www.biblesupport.com. This should be someone that I went to the "J.C. de Miranda" high school with in Paramaribo, Suriname. It should be someone who I knew at the high school but who I have not had any contact with since my departure from Suriname in 1990. This person should place a reaction on my blog page on the website where I write about the argument from morality. He should react surprised by my open proclamation of my atheism and should have expected that I would either be religious or spiritual, given my interest in religion when attending high school. If this happens, I will believe you are real and proclaim that believe. This I pray in Jesus' name.
 Not too bad for an atheist is you ask me. On the 23th of September I checked the website one last time before revealing the password to the document. Even while writing this blog post, no such reaction of an ex-schoolmate has been made. I revealed the password to the encrypted document (MJEOMDmrWj427P6CecA4, decryption can be done with AEScrypt) and made the unencrypted version available online. Anyone who is interested can verify the sha256 hash to this document and can verify that I have written the document before September the 16th, when I posted the "Verifiability" blog entry. Windows users could use the "md5deep" tools for this, Linux users (and I assume Mac users as well) can use the sha256sum command.

I shouted, there was no answer.

What do I conclude from this experiment? Not that God does not exist. I can conclude however that either he does not exist, or he does but does not want to reveal himself to me, at least, not yet. It has strengthened my disbelief though. I think I played by the rules of the Christian doctrine except maybe that I did not interpret random signs with an extremely strong Christian bias. That last part is a bridge too far for me. So if now a Christian says to me "why don't you ask God to reveal himself to you", I can honestly say that I have and that there was nothing there. If the Christian god does still exist and has the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence as the Christian claim, he is perfectly capable of convincing me. I will keep studying the bible and other religious material, purely out of interest in the subject matter, but regarding the answer to the question if God exists, I think I am justified to take on a passive stance and assume the null hypothesis.

  1. T.J. Mawson:  Praying to stop being an atheist
    International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
    June 2010, Volume 67, Issue 3, pp 173-186
    Abstract at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11153-010-9227-8
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability
  3. The audio of the episode is available at http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/aa266028-8748-4d6b-8024-88f44b49f7b6.mp3. The relevant part is in the feedback section at the 1:12:30 mark)

4 comments:

Gary Cummings said...

I find your prayer strange because.
the prayer as already been answered.

Dan DeSantis said...

Maybe I shouldn't comment on a dead thread, but I'm curious as to why you would post this without any further explanation. Do you have a link to or a screenshot of the fulfillment?

Dan DeSantis said...

Ah. I expected that to be formatted as a reply to Gary. Please take it as such.

Rob Wolfram said...

Thanks Dan! Indeed, I made my request of the divine in such a way that anyone can verify it. If my prayer would have been answered, I would have been overloaded with messages showing that. I have not...