Friday, February 14, 2014

The Theist Prayer Experiment

Back in late 2012, Justin Brierley of the infamous Unbelievable? podcast presented an experiment in which, for a specific length of time, atheists would engage in some form of a prayer life on a daily basis. It was called the Atheist Prayer Experiment. The idea was to see if praying to God and asking him to reveal himself to them would set in motion a set of internal experiences that would result in atheists changing their minds about the existence of God. At the end of the day, the experiment resulted in 2 out of 71 participants moving from a lack of belief in God to some form of theism.

Not exactly a win for Justin and his crew, but interesting nonetheless. If nothing else, it was a refreshing break from the academically inclined nature of most interactions between the worlds of theism and atheism. After all, why shouldn't personal experience be brought into the conversational arena when the dialogue concerns belief in a being that supposedly has the ability to engage with his creation on the most personal level? I applaud Justin for his courage, and followed the experiment with eager anticipation.

Now that all is said and done, I figured I would make an attempt to issue my own challenge in a similar vein. But rather than challenging atheists to "try Jesus" and see what happens, I want to issue the challenge to theists this time. I begin, as the theists do, with a hypothetical truth claim - if God does not exist, one would expect experiential encounters with him to be a product of mental conditioning, illusion, and wishful thinking. What the believer interprets as genuine communication with the Divine would be nothing more than psychological self-stimulation, and could be potentially written off as such. If there is no God, or at least not one whom the believer has a "personal relationship" with, then all supposed indications of such a relationship should be capable of being called into question.

With that, I give you the Theist Prayer Experiment. There are three facets to it, and all three should be practiced in order to get the full effect of the test. They are as follows:


1. This one takes some work to get right. One needs to be very aware of the actual physiological impact of prayer in order to make it work. I will trust my audience to be rigorous. In prayer, one often experiences feelings of peace or tranquility, or alternatively, feelings of shame and guilt. But such feelings can often have a physiological component to them. Bear with me here. Pay very close attention to the physical (however subtle) changes that you experience while praying. Do you feel your spine tingling when the Holy Spirit is communing with you? Do your eyes tend to go back into your head? Does you engage in deeper breathing than normal? Does your chest tighten/loosen? What changes to you feel emotionally?

My challenge to you is this: Do not allow these physical symptoms to run their course. If the Holy Spirit is truly communicating with you on a spiritual level, such communication should not be impacted by a change in the physical aspects of the experience. In fact, if what you are feeling in your heart relies on what you feel physically, that is strong evidence that what you are experiencing may be purely physiological. Do you feel that tingle of the spine? Notice it, and refuse to feel it. Do you feel your breathing change? Notice it, and try to turn it off. Make the experience a fully spiritual one. See what happens. If you find that your communion with the Holy Spirit disappears without these physiological aspects in place, and you are left with nothing but your own mind looking back at you, it may be cause for question. It may be the case that your prayer life is purely a manipulation of your internal chemistry, and you may find that you have no basis for ascribing supernatural intervention to it.

2. This one is going to be unpleasant, and may in fact be impossible for some. I want to challenge you to "test every spirit" and see if you are actually communicating with a specific God, or are in fact communicating with your own mind. If you are a Christian, for example, the test works like this: prepare yourself for a serious session of prayer as you always would. Get on your knees, or into whatever position/location you usually prefer when you pray. Prepare your heart for God's presence. Now I want you to simply change the name of the Being in whose name you are praying. Instead of saying "God, I come before you in the name of Christ," say "God I come before you in the name of Muhammad your prophet." I know this will raise conscientious red flags, but if God knows your heart, he knows you don't believe in Islam and a simple experiment should not worry you. Simply pray the way you always do, but with the names changed. See if there is any difference besides your initial feeling of guilt. See if the spiritual communion with the Holy Spirit is any different. And be sincere. Don't hold back. Give yourself over to the God of Muhammad and see if there is any change whatsoever in how the experience plays out. Do you feel the same "spiritual" sensations when praying to a false god? If so, it may be the case that you have simply conditioned yourself to have particular feelings during a particular activity. It may be the case that you are simply playing emotional games with yourself.

3. A key aspect of one's prayer life is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with having laid a particular crises one is facing at the feet of Jesus. That feeling that "everything will be okay." Often this feeling comes with a sense that God has shown you a way out of your predicament. When praying, one's mind is often very clear of other distractions and can focus on the particular issue that one is being plagued by. One can pray for a fairly short amount of time and yet feel like the issue that drove them to pray in the first place has been completely resolved. The practical answer to the specific practical question will seem incredibly clear after it has been brought before the throne of God.

The challenge here is a bit different from the others. In this case, when you feel the need to ask for God's guidance on a particular problem, just take a few minutes that you would have spent praying and instead merely reflect on the problem and see if you can come up with an answer to it yourself. You will need to make sure you do this one several times in order to get the full effect. The thing you should focus on after having reflected on the issue is merely how you feel about it afterwards. Do you feel that you have come to the same peace about it that you would normally achieve after having prayed about it? Has merely applying reason to your current problem rather than asking for help from God made you feel the same internal satisfaction that you would usually get from prayer? If so, it may be time to ask yourself what the cause of your peace truly is.


These tests won't be easy, but you may find them to be quite illuminating. There is no harm in giving it a try. After all, if God is truly with you, you have nothing at all to worry about. He will vindicate your faith. Why not try it for a few weeks, and see how it goes? Be sure to leave feedback in the comments section below.


1 comment:

  1. an interesting premise, jay, and a challenge i find especially intriguing, given my fundamentalist background and upbringing. i hope that a least a few believers attempt it...

    the experiences of prayer and worship, and the correlation between 'pious', methodical action and physiological changes in mood or perception were constant reinforcements to the framework through which i viewed the phenomena. i'm not sure how i would have responded to the assertion that it was entirely an effect being produced in my head, but i know that i would have been incredibly wary of opening myself up to any experience through which a 'demon' or 'principality' may exert negative influence on myself. i can remember being warned about the difference between prayer and meditation, and how the participation in such practices was a surefire method to get oneself 'possessed'.

    it wasn't until i had let go of my belief in such dogma, that i was able to begin experimenting with the envisioned deity in prayer-like activities and internal dialogue, alternating appearance, mood, and attributes, and learning to recognize and be mindful of the physiological states which precede and proceed, and how much of a reliance i had placed on the cognitive tools developed out of these internalized techniques of praise, worship, and prayer.

    really, it's the idea it might be a necessity i find most intriguing. is this sort of behavior a common human coping mechanism, or socially constructed cognitive tool, that allows for information organization and awareness in all the members of our species, or is this effect limited to only specific types of individuals?

    the (self-admittedly non-scientific) atheist prayer challenge mentioned above seems to suggest that the act and repetition of theistic prayer request and worship actions could have a positive correlation with eventual belief in a deity, but i wonder how many started out with similar internal monologue-like actions and repurposed those actions to the challenges requirements, and how many were starting the practice without any such framework in place? how common is this activity, and is prayer just a subversion of a hardwired internal mechanisms humans already use to process complex, situational information?

    this raises nothing but interesting questions... which are usually the desired result from any good blog post.

    j. f. mcdropout