A perilous experiment?

Here is my latest article in Humanitie. Mike (the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist) and I have both recently had experiences with religious evangelism. His is here.

Several months ago, some Mormon missionaries approached me on the street. I knew very little about their beliefs, most of it from comedians and atheist critics. So Deena and I invited them over.

I will blog later about what I learned of their particular beliefs. What I want to discuss right now is an experiment they asked us to try after our first meeting.

They asked us to pray.

I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand, praying feels like a betrayal of my values as a humanist. How could I sincerely ask for an answer from a god whose existence I believe to be improbable, undiscoverable, and irrelevant to living a good life? On the other hand, free thinking is at the heart of humanism. Prayer is an experience I had never tried before.

So I decided that, conducted carefully, praying would not betray my principles. I would try it – and perhaps learn something new about myself and my Mormon friends.

I had many questions heading into the experiment. Would I feel anything peculiar? How might I interpret it? Would I, in the limited but well-publicised tradition of sceptical converts, “see the light”? Would I have an unusual experience but shrug it off? Would I feel nothing at all?

I sat in a comfortable posture in a quiet room, closed my eyes, and asked aloud, “God, do you exist?”

I quieted my thoughts to make room for even the softest suggestion from an external deity. I sent my internal sceptic, who was clamouring to declare the whole exercise a farce, out to get tea.

Then I waited. I tried to be ready for any type of result – from a sudden Damascus-road conversion to quiet “promptings of the spirit”.

I was so still that all I heard for several minutes was the beating of my heart and the ticking of the electric clock. There was nothing else. Nothing that could be interpreted as a message from a god – not even a little thrill of what-if.

Later, I related this experience to the Mormons. They were undeterred. They encouraged me to keep trying: “God is not always heard the first time.”

Fair enough. No responsible scientist would draw a firm conclusion from just one data point.

So I continued the experiment, varying the format to get a sample of different styles of prayer: different postures, different forms of address, different questions. I prayed alone; I prayed with Deena; I even led the prayer at the end of our meetings with the Mormons once or twice. The result was the same each time: I was answered only by my own thoughts and feelings.

At a recent meeting, one of the Mormons promised, “If you keep trying, eventually you will get an answer.” Well, I have tried the experiment. I have set aside my reservations and sought the truth, true to my humanist values. And I have an answer. There probably is no personal god.

Now it’s time for me to move on to the next question, the next empirical adventure.

Photo credit:

Mormon temple image by user Ricardo630, accessed at Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.


6 Responses to “A perilous experiment?”

  1. mtnhumanist Says:

    The reason the Mormons use this technique is based on the idea (and my brain science is a little fuzzy here but I think I have the general idea) that the human brain will fill in the blanks if given an "assignment" absent any other stimulus (like "Brain, locate the voice of God"). We have evolved as creatures who use our intricate brains to fill in any gaps in our understanding almost automatically.Someone who is not as philosophically aware as the Friendly Humanist is bound to eventually feel a presence of hear a voice given all the positive reinforcements by the missionaries. From a technical standpoint, the Mormons have developed a pretty smooth tactic.The Mountain Humanistmountainhumanist.wordpress.com

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    MH, you are quite right. In fact, several of the features of Mormon proselytizing quite neatly exploit certain weaknesses in the natural human reasoning and decision-making process. Another is the highly social nature of it. The two (American) missionaries always brought along a local church member when they visited us (different ones), so by the end of our meetings we already had several acquaintances at the church. Imagine the power of that on someone who occasionally feels socially isolated (a common-enough feeling, even among well-adjusted people).I certainly don't get the feeling, at least at the lower levels of the Mormon church, that any of these clever psychological tricks are actually used cynically. I think the people we met really do believe that praying over and over again, with the hope of hearing the voice of God, is a reliable way to come to an objective understanding of reality.By the way (this goes for anyone), as long as it is on-topic, don't be afraid to link to your own blog. There is an extended version of the above comment in a post on the Mountain Humanist blog.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Interesting experiment. Of course, you've not disproved that God exists. You've only proved that He/it didn't talk to you. Many who believe in God would expect exactly this sort of result from your experiment. Still… it was brave of you to give it a try. Shows faith in your convictions.

  4. A new challenge « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of […]

  5. Duty and futility « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for […]

  6. Arnoldo Says:

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