What should you do? One obvious thing would be to cry out, “Is there anyone there? If you are there, wise old man, please answer me!” This seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do, even if you think it’s highly unlikely the wise old man exists. The question of whether the wise old man exists seems to be a pretty important one – important enough that it’s worth checking. In fact, unless you think there is no chance at all the man exists, it would seem crazy not to call out. It’s not like you have anything to lose.
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Praying to stop being an atheist
Hopefully the analogy here is clear. You may not believe in God. But if you think there’s even a small chance that he exists, and you think the question of whether he exists is important, then it seems reasonable to pray to God to ask him to help you believe in him. More than reasonable, in fact: If you care about whether God exists, maybe you should pray to him. Or so argues Tim Mawson, an Oxford professor specializing in the philosophy of religion.
In his paper “Praying to Stop Being an Atheist,” published in the International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, Mawson lays out an argument that praying to God to help you believe in him is as reasonable as shouting, “Is anyone there?” in such a darkened room. “If you think that there’s a non-negligible chance that God exists, and you think that whether or not he exists is important, then (a few caveats/technicalities aside), you should pray to God and ask Him to help you out,” Mawson claims.
This seems like a pretty compelling argument. The issue of whether God exists or not seems like an important one with major implications for how you see the world, live your life, and think about death. Praying every now and then isn’t very costly – just a minute or two before you go to bed. If there’s a tiny thing you can do that has a small chance of shedding light on a hugely important question, why not do it?
What about the fairies in your garden?
Presumably you’re pretty confident that there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden (if not, I suggest maybe talking to someone…). But presumably you also can’t be completely certain: There is a sliver of possibility that your flowerbeds are inhabited by tiny fluttering creatures. And it wouldn’t take a lot of time or energy to shout down to the bottom of your garden as you prepare your breakfast: “Hello fairies! If you’re there, please reveal yourselves!”
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If Mawson’s argument is correct, shouldn’t we shout down the garden to the fairies too? While we’re at it, we should probably leave a note for the aliens that may or may not have landed in the field nearby, write letters to Santa Claus even as adults, and put our teeth under our pillows for the tooth fairy…right?
Well, not necessarily. The key here is to think about how important the question is and how costly it is to get more information. While it would be kind of cool to discover fairies at the bottom of your garden, whether fairies exist or not doesn’t seem to have the same implications for your life (and death) as whether God exists or not. Shouting down to the bottom of your garden every morning might also be more costly than you think: Possible side effects include disturbing your neighbors and seriously weirding out your family/housemates/passers-by.
Another concern you might have is that getting into the habit of praying might make you more likely to imagine God responding to you – more likely to delude yourself into believing he exists, even if he doesn’t.
However, as Mawson points out, the mere possibility that a test might give us a false positive (in this case making us believe in something that doesn’t exist) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the test. In science we do experiments all the time, and there’s always some possibility that doing the experiment will make us more likely to see a misleading effect – but this isn’t enough to make the experiment not worth doing. If it were, we wouldn’t be able to do any experiments – which would mean, among other things, no life-saving drugs or medical treatments. Additionally, the point of the experiment Mawson is proposing – seeing what happens if you try praying to God – isn’t about changing your belief in a black-and-white way, but rather a matter of seeing if your rational confidence in atheism changes.
Mawson admits that this idea of “praying as an experiment” goes both ways. “If a theist prays and gets no apparent reply, that should decrease his or her confidence in God’s existence. It’s precisely because this sort of prayer experiment is open to all kinds of outcomes that theists, agnostics and atheists should all engage in it.”
So, should you pray to a God you don’t believe in?
Mawson acknowledges that praying to stop being an atheist might not be for everyone. “You have to think that the question of whether or not God exists is an important one,” he says. “You also have to think that there’s a non-negligible probability of God existing; praying has to take relatively little effort; and you can’t be too concerned about it leading to deluded beliefs in your own case. But all of these conditions hold for a relatively large subset of atheists; for those atheists then, it’s true that they really should be praying to stop being atheists.”
At the very least, you can’t say that praying has nothing to offer you – if you think you should be spending at least some time reflecting on whether your atheism is well-grounded, praying seems like a good way to test your assumptions.
Am I going to start praying? I’m not sure. I certainly fit all the criteria above, and in some ways the “God question” seems so important to me that it suddenly seems crazy I haven’t spent more time thinking about it. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine how I could pray to a God I don’t believe in without feeling quite silly. But, since “feeling silly” is almost never a good reason not to do something, I’ll probably give it a go.
If you’re interested in hearing more from Tim Mawson about why atheists should pray, there’s a great podcast interview with him here. Premier Radio also conducted a really interesting “atheist prayer experiment” where 70 atheists tried praying every day for forty days; the results are discussed here.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty