Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Christian Prayer Experiment - Bring It On

I am a longtime listener of Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? program which is available as a free podcast download from iTunes.  Hosted by Justin Brierly, the show is rather unique in that it regularly presents debate topics relating to atheism for a primarily Christian audience.  Brierly is a Christian and makes no bones about his theological biases.  However, he is a very fair interviewer and is unafraid of exposing his listeners to discussions which often challenge the root of some of Christianity's most firmly held beliefs.  A search of the show archives reveals a treasure trove of the world's most fascinating minds relating to the philosophy of religion.  Just to name a few, I have greatly enjoyed the shows featuring (in no particular order): Bart Eherman, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Stephen Law, Denis Alexander and Robert M. Price.  I remain hopeful that future guests will include Graham Oppy, Stephen Maitzen, Matthew McCormick and Randal Rauser.

In the most recent show, unveiled on Saturday, November 10, 2012, Brierly released the results of his much touted Atheist Prayer Experiment.  The admittedly uncontrolled experiment, inspired by philosopher Tim Mawson's paper Praying to stop being an atheist Int J Philos Relig (2010) 67: 173-186, invited atheists to pray for 40 days for God to reveal hismelf to them.  In fact, Mawson argues in his paper that atheists have an epistemic obligation to engage in the experiment.  I tend to agree with Mawson because, if an atheist engages in the experiment (regardless of the results), they will have at least some evidence to rebut or corroborate the existence of God.

Brierly has described the results of the experiment as follows:

Of the 71 who signed up:

2 have reported that they now believe in God (Kendra and Kelly)

2 failed to take part in the experiment

52 have said they did not receive any revelation of God's existence through prayer. Some of these stopped praying at an early or later point in the experiment, or failed to pray on some days, and some prayed for the entire duration.

15 have not yet reported back with their results as yet.

Before learning of the results, I had expected a higher percentage of the participants to describe some kind of revelatory experience.  Why?  Because, in my experience, the mind has an incredible capacity for creating sensations.  I often say, only half-sarcastically, that if you go into an empty room expecting to hear voices and wait long enough, you will eventually hear something.  If you doubt this anecdote, go no further than the experience of bereaved persons who claim to have spoken to the deceased after the death.  Of course, almost all of us have had experiences of the mind creating sesnory effects that we know aren't real.  Lucid dreams are perhaps one of the best examples.  I have only had a couple of these in my life (at least that I can recall at present) and they are mind blowing in vividness: you can feel the wind in your hair, the texture of objects around you and it is very difficult to discern that your surroundings aren't real.

In any event, I submit that the results of the Atheist Prayer Experiment revealed that, if God does exist, he/she/it does not bother to actively make his/her/its presence known to non-believers.  In this regard, I rely on not only those who did not report a revelation but the two who did.  Time doesn't permit me to delve into the specifics of the positive results here except to say that they are sketchy at best.

Upon hearing the results, I sent the following tweet to Brierly (who uses the twitter name @UnbelievableJB):

Oxford medical student and Christian apologist Calum Miller (@DoveTheology on twitter), who has also appeared on Unbelievable?, has asked me to expand on the above suggestion and I'm more than pleased to do so.

First of all, Christians who concede that their God has not and will not directly comunicate with them in any shape need not participate.  My suggested "Christian Prayer Experiment" is only aimed at those Christians who either already claim to communicate with the Almighty or, if they have not engaged in such a direct communication, admit it to be a very real possibility.

So exactly what am I suggesting?  I suggest that Brierly invite anyone who currently identifies themself as a Christian to engage in the same "experiment" which Mawson urged on atheists.  Pray for 40 days and ask your God to reveal Himself to you.  After completing that exercise, the participants can explain whether their faith has been strengthened, weakened or unchanged and, more importantly, explain why.  Unbelievable? could then convene panel of, say, regular guest David Robertson (Pastor of St. Peter's Free Church in Dundee, Scotland) and an atheist representative such as Law to counterbalance the discussion.  If granted the opportunity, I would be more than pleased to participate.

* As a postscript, some may be interested to know why I declined to participate in the Atheist Prayer Experiment.  The answer may surprise you: I had already performed one.  The result: one of the most mind blowing revelatory experiences that you could possibly imagine - one that I would be willing to place alongside Saul's vision on the Road to Damascus.  The explanation: lucid dreaming just before waking following a night in which I smoked two Romeo y Julietas.


  1. If god had given me the patience and the inclination to pray for him for 40 consecutive days, then if he did indeed reveal himself in that period, I would, of course believe in him. But, since I don't have those characteristics, which only he could have imbued into me, he has failed at the first fence and so he either doesn't exist or is in hiding... Besides, I've just finished praying to John Frumm and was going to try Huitzilopochtli next.

  2. I take it they were instructed to pray to the God of Christianity? I am wondering because how do they know that they didn't get an answer because they prayed to the wrong God?

  3. To make the results more compelling, the Christians could pray and ask God to reveal himself to all the participants in the same way - maybe with a keyword or shared vision. Since none of the participants know beforehand what form the revelation would take, this would be a good way to test whether they were actually in contact with the same/any deity (assuming the participants are anonymous and cannot collude until after they've reported on their experience).

    Or they could simply pray for God to reveal himself directly to the unbelievers, but I assume they've already been doing that and simply shrugging off the lack of results as obstinacy on the part of the non-Christians.