During my first year of graduate school I went through a brief crisis of faith, largely due to the influence of a particular professor who was especially adamant in his religious skepticism. In fact, you might say he was—pardon the oxymoron—a dogmatic skeptic. After a few weeks in his class I found myself struggling with doubts of my own and entertaining the thought that my Christian commitment was based on a lie. What if, after all, God did not exist? I recall one evening as I went to pray sensing the potential absurdity of what I was about to do—quietly thanking and praising a fictitious deity, and making assorted requests to someone who was not there. The usual feeling of God’s presence, an ineffable intuition that was reliable until then, was gone. What to do? I suppose I could have allowed that feeling, or the lack thereof, to dictate a decision not to pray at all. But as I sat there I tried to make a rational assessment of the situation. If there really is no God, I wondered, then what harm will it do to pray? At worst, I mutter to myself for a few minutes and perhaps benefit from the meditative discipline involved in the process. On the other hand, if God is real, despite my failure to sense his presence, then he will hear my prayers and perhaps respond to my pleas to make his presence known to me again as before. And perhaps he will reward me by giving me more assurance than ever that he is real since my prayers in that state would be an even greater act of faith than my usual prayers prompted by the confidence that he exists. I’m not sure how lucid this reasoning was, but that was my thought process.
So I prayed. I prayed then and several other times during that period to the God who might be there. And as the days went by, my assurance of God’s existence did return—and yes, stronger than ever. Would that confidence have returned eventually had I ceased praying? I don’t know. But I’m glad I did it, since I believe that not only did God hear those prayers but it was also a good exercise in devotional perseverance. The Scriptures tell us that God rewards those who earnestly seek him, and this would seem to apply just as much to the person who doubts his existence as to the person who is confident that he is real but simply wants to learn more about him or grow closer to him.
Some would label this approach to finding God a “devotional experiment.” If you are agnostic or even a less-than-dogmatic atheist, and you recognize at least the possibility that God exists, then try praying to the God who might be there. You never know what you might discover as a result.
As I’ve been thinking about this lately, I quite coincidentally stumbled upon an upcoming article in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion by philosopher T. J. Mawson (who teaches at St. Peter’s College in Oxford) in which he argues that atheists have an epistemic obligation to pray that God would help them to stop being atheists. I have not read the article (because it’s not yet available in print and I don’t have an electronic subscription to the journal), but it appears that Mawson’s claim is that given the mere possibility of God’s existence and the monumental significance of his existence and our devotion to him, if he does exist, then one should invite God to correct one’s misimpression that he does not exist. Thus, says Mawson, atheists should pray that God will put an end to their religious unbelief. An arresting thought, indeed. And, no doubt, it will be irksome to some atheists. Yet perhaps there are some who would follow Mawson’s counsel and dare to pray, as I did, to the God who might be there.
“The usual feeling of God’s presence, an ineffable intuition that was reliable until then, was gone. What to do? I suppose I could have allowed that feeling, or the lack thereof, to dictate a decision not to pray at all. But as I sat there I tried to make a rational assessment of the situation. If there really is no God, I wondered, then what harm will it do to pray? At worst, I mutter to myself for a few minutes and perhaps benefit from the meditative discipline involved in the process. On the other hand, if God is real, despite my failure to sense his presence, then he will hear my prayers and perhaps respond to my pleas to make his presence known to me again as before.”
I found this section particularly interesting as it relates to “feelings”. I have experienced this in relation to God in not all that dissimilar of a manner. I have also experienced it in my “love life”. In college I dated a girl my sophomore year. It was a blossoming relationship. Being apart over the summer brought up some difficult relationship problems. While we worked through these long distance over the summer, upon our return to school my junior year, we both agreed the spark was gone. Its not that we disliked each other, but at the same time, there was just no “feeling” in the relationship. I distinctly remember sitting down for a conversation where we basically decided, that while we could both easily have walked away from the relationship at that point, yet there was no reason not to just carry on for a while longer and see where it took us. Within two months we were engaged and have now been joyfully married for close to 8 years.
I guess I just point to this to say, feelings are fickle. They are definitely important, but at times they will fail us, or go “dead”, but our knowledge, experience, past relationship can carry us through theses times and just plugging along can return us to times of great feelings again. After all….as you and I both reasoned….what could it hurt?
I suppose that if I were building a tower of knowledge or beliefs for myself, this sort of prayer would be at the bottom of it. I am still struck with the potential absurdity of God from time to time in the face of the world’s awful facts. This sort of prayer has seen me through several horrible facts. Yes, the world can suck the breath right out of you. It is a cruel place. But what cause is there for any hope if there is not someone more powerful than me fighting to redeem it? For me, this sort of prayer is the difference between choosing hope or despair. And I will agree with C.S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters) that despair is a grave sin, bringing death where God would give life.
Interesting post. Thanks for sharing this experience. During the times that you prayed and even in between what reasons did god give you that kept you from straying away from belief? You mention only that praying made your belief stronger, but not why. Would you mind expanding on that? Many years ago when I would pray to god nothing ever happened. I didn’t feel anything, think anything. I just waited and…nothing. This is why I’m very curious what you experienced during and after your prayers.
Good question. As I recall, it was only my sense of awareness of God that dissipated during that period, rather than my being convinced that the evidences for God were somehow suddenly lacking. And I recall consciously reminding myself of some of those evidences (the existence of the universe, the presence of living things, consciousness, etc.) in order to combat the loss of my immediate awareness of God. But for whatever reason, at that time I was impervious to the import of the evidences.
As for the “awareness of God,” that is difficult to describe, but I would compare it to the feeling you might have when someone else is in the room when you don’t see or hear them (though at the level of the “numinous”). I would also emphasize that the “feeling” has a moral quality to it, as the awareness of God is closely associated with the “sense of ought,” as Kant would say. And it is also deeply connected to my sense of love and being loved. When I was going through that spell of doubt, I felt a sense of abandonment, I suppose. The assurance I had that I was loved absolutely and that, as Julian of Norwich once said, “all is well, and all will be well,” had faded. But after praying several times these things returned as well as the more direct, though very subtle, personal “perception” of God.
As to why the praying made my convictions return, my belief is that it was simply God affirmatively answering my prayers by restoring my sense of his presence. All of the other factors (including my continuing in my skeptical professor’s class) remained constant. Perhaps for this reason I could construe the entire experience in terms of further evidence for God’s existence. But I am more inclined to simply regard it as one chapter in the history of our relationship—as mysterious and ineffable as that often is. I hope this helps.
Hi Dr. Spiegel! It’s been a while. Hard to believe this year marks my ten-year anniversary since graduating from TU. I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity to study under you, even though we come to very different philosophical conclusions about many issues, not the least of which is our fundamental worldviews.
One of the reasons I deconverted from Christianity is the double standard with which Christians judge other religious faiths. For example, you would probably be skeptical of someone who claimed that they believe with absolute certainty that they perceived the presence of the god of Zoroaster, Wiccan Goddesses, of the Prophet Muhammad. (Or perhaps you would attribute it to demonic activity.) I don’t single out Christians for this. It would seem that the vast majority of religious believers of all faiths practice the same double standard: skepticism is only a virtue when it’s applied to a religion not one’s own. (An argument in support of this claim can be found here: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/03/outsider-test-for-faith_20.html)
The same can be said of the standard Christian approach to and application of science. If a person claimed an encounter with a deity in their backyard that provided instructions to write a new holy book–let’s call it the Shrub God and the Book of Shrub, respectively–and the person claimed the same level of awareness and perception to the deity as you to yours, you would probably attribute it to a psychological disorder of some sort. But the same psychology when applied to Christians isn’t valid, because Christianity is true, right?
Another reason I deconverted is that I prayed to the God who might be there countless times and never had the prayer answered affirmatively. Perhaps this is because I’m not one of God’s elect, or maybe I’m under the influence of demons. (Or perhaps it’s because my father died when I was 3 and I’m practicing the “faith of the fatherless”–I’ve read the introduction to your book and bought it over the weekend. I look forward to the read.)
I truly appreciate the dialogue you pursue with atheists, Dr. Spiegel. It’s refreshing and rare. I hope we can keep the dialogue going.
Thank you for the reply and yes it was very helpful and interesting. So, if I understand correctly, your “sense of abandonment” subsided when you prayed, confirming your belief that god was there? Would that be accurate? I suppose it is difficult for me to imagine that feeling (the feeling that god is there) since I don’t recall ever having it, except for when I was a child and early adolescence. In 1997 I became an agnostic until roughly mid 2005 I believe, I would officially consider myself an atheist.
Since I’m writing I thought I’d also mention that I recently bought and read your book. You’re a very good writer, though I didn’t agree with your conclusions and felt most of the arguments were flawed, it was an interesting read nonetheless. I had actually read a paper by Paul Vitz about four years or so ago that argued the same thing. I thought it was an interesting theory but didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. I just knew that I stopped believing after some Christian friends recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator and after reading that, going back and forth and reading the scientists’ and christians’ arguments, and after several months of this it seemed obvious to me that the science was there and showed there wasn’t a god. I also knew that all the atheists I had spoken with began to disbelieve for the same reasons.
Have a good day.
Thanks for this post and pointer to the upcoming article by Mawson. I’ll be curious to read it. I wonder if he will point to Pascal at all, given the seeming affinities with the Wager. Speaking of which…Arizona Atheist and I have a good exchange going @ my blog re: your book for those interested.
So good to hear from you! And thanks for your comments. In response I have a few observations. First, I do think you’re right that many Christians maintain a double standard with regard to the credulity or skepticism they maintain toward worldviews. But perhaps this simply reflects the fact that most of us have strong worldview commitments, even to the point that none of us really has an “objective” or neutral perspective. This is as true for the naturalist/humanist/atheist as it is for the religious believer. And it is as true for the person of science as it is for the scientifically ignorant. (See Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.)
Second, I would agree with, rather than reject, many, perhaps most, of the core beliefs of most religious folks, whatever their religion. This is especially so with regard to devotees of Judaism and Islam, with whom I agree about their basic theistic metaphysics—most of the attributes of God, the belief that God created the world, that God has spoken via a written revelation, etc. In fact, any religious perspective that affirms the reality of the supernatural or the transcendent is one with which I can agree to that extent. So when devotees of other religions claim to experience God or supernatural reality, I take that as a confirmation of our more general agreement as believers in a transcendent reality. Yes, we disagree about the basic character of the deity, but I heartily affirm their belief that there is a supernatural reality to be discussed and wondered about.
Notice the parallel here with science, by the way. Scientists disagree about all sorts of things, even when they share the same theoretical paradigm. Their disagreement does not undermine the reasonableness of the general paradigm to which they subscribe. Nor does it mean that they should abandon their more specific views about which they disagree. Rather, it simply means that they need to dialogue and debate about why they disagree on those points. Sadly, many scientists don’t have the patience to do that. And, of course, this is true of many religious folks as well.
I am intrigued by one of your remarks toward the end of your most recent comments. You say that you discovered that “science…showed there wasn’t a god.” I wonder what you mean by this since, by definition, science is limited to studying the physical world, and God is a supernatural being, transcending the cosmos. For this reason, science could never disprove the existence of a deity. In fact, even with regard to our knowledge of the cosmos, science cannot prove the non-existence of many (any?) particular physical things.
Perhaps you would rather say that you opted for naturalism/atheism because you prefer to have a worldview inspired exclusively by naturalistic methodology, or something like that. Or perhaps you would say that naturalism/atheism seemed more reasonable to you the more you saw that the major arguments for theism/supernaturalism failed. (Though one must be careful to remember that apparent absence of evidence for X is not equivalent to evidence for the absence of X, particularly when X is a transcendent being.) In any case, science could never prove theism to be false.
I remember studying Kuhn and really enjoying the philosophy of science. I hear what you’re saying about worldview commitments, but surely you aren’t arguing for wholesale philosophical skepticism?! The real question is which worldview commitment is more rationally sound and most likely to be as objective and neutral as possible. Despite what Kuhn and Polanyi might argue about “incommensurability” and “tacit knowledge,” there is still, I believe, as C.R. Kordig posits, a “common observational plane” that allows for science to achieve the highest degree of objectivity possible from an epistemological standpoint. We reap the benefits of this common plane daily in the form of modern medicine and other modern conveniences that are often take for granted. Scientists are, of course, fallible in that they may be inclined to dismiss alternative theories based on presuppositions and prevailing paradigms, but the scientific commitment is, ipso facto, to be cognizant of one’s own presuppositions and to seek maximal objectivity by evaluating all available evidence, to the point of being open to revising one’s previous commitments. This is what makes science so powerful: one of its commitments is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it means abandoning previous theories and commitments. It may not be easy to do so, and many may in fact resist it, but I would argue that it is a superior means to knowledge than religious experience any day of the week. Most Christians–or religious believers of any ilk for that matter– do not make such a commitment to pursue neutrality and objectivity and would rather chalk something up to being a divine mystery that simply requires faith in their own brand of religion than revise their commitments. Again, absent wholesale skepticism, which approach has the likelihood of being more objective, neutral, and more likely to uncover the truth about reality?
Your point with respect to shared views amongst religious believers appears to reduce to a tautology: religious believers (“supernaturalists,” if you will) believe in a supernatural reality. (Unless perhaps I’ve missed something and you now hold to some form of universalism?) Surely you must admit that the beliefs about that reality vary widely and are more often than not mutually exclusive, so which God should atheists pray to? Perhaps since the Christian God didn’t answer my prayers I should try praying to Vishnu? Or should I direct my prayers to Supernatural Reality in general? (Sounds like pantheism to me.)
The analogy of scientific disagreements to religious ones fails, in my opinion. I would be curious to see one modern scientific disagreement with equal paradigmatic or worldview import as the disagreement between a Christian fundamentalist and liberal Christian theologian over the nature of God and the afterlife, let alone a Christian fundamentalist and a non-Judeo-Christian religion such as Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
Hi Mr. Spiegel,
Thanks for the reply.
So, if I understand you correctly, science could never disprove god’s existence, and yet in your book you seemed to subscribe to intelligent design, an alleged science that can detect “design” in the world; an idea you used pretty heavily when making arguments for god that atheists tend to disagree with. If I.D. is a science, then it too cannot possibly detect such a “transcendent being” as god and the intelligent design proponents are wasting their time.
Even more, the christian god is said to act within the world, and therefore science should be able to detect such activity, such as prayer as one example. But there has yet to be a study showing any effect on health and prayer, other than chance and the very obvious placebo effect. Fine-tuning arguments have been shown to be false, as well as countless other design arguments that are trotted out. Examples? Let’s take an argument from your book, The Making of an Atheist. On pages 44-45 you argue:
“Even more basic than the laws of the universe is the fact that there is a universe at all. The now well-established scientific fact that the universe had a beginning is a powerful pointer to divine creation. Astrophysicists tell us that about 15 billions years ago – give or take a few billion years – all of the matter of the universe was condensed into a single, infinitesimal point. Then…BANG (or perhaps BOOM, no one is quite sure which), the matter exploded at roughly the speed of light, and the universe has been expanding ever since. This Big Bang theory essentially affirms the biblical idea that there was a beginning to space and time […]The reason it is proper to inquire about the source of the universe is that we know it had a beginning. As such, the universe demands a causal explanation, since whatever begins to exist has a cause.”
The big bang doesn’t infer a beginning; it’s simply an observation about the known universe. Science has been proposing an eternal universe and there are models showing how a cyclic big bang model is consistent with all the known laws of psychics and all observations. See Neil Turok and Paul J. Steinhardt’s book Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang for more information.
So, in one case you’re correct. One of the reasons I disbelieve is because the theistic arguments for a god are unconvincing, and another reason is because every supposed scientific argument (design, fine-tuning, etc.) for god has been shown to be flawed. Either that, or it’s simply a “god of the gaps” argument, which even you say is “sheer intellectual laziness” and that [i]nferences to astrophysical or biological design should be made only informedly and cautiously, when the possibility of any naturalistic explanation can be ruled out.” (36)
Those are some of the reasons I take the position that science has shown there is no god (though I am perfectly open to any possible future evidence). I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Arizona Atheist is busy with his pal John Loftus smearing the oppositon with phony accusations.
Talking about setting up posts to target them etc. just today on the Loftus blog.
He does not want discussion. He wants publicity and to set you up.
What in the world are you talking about? You sound a bit disturbed there. Feeling a bit paranoid, are we? You also don’t have your facts right. I am not plotting anything, nor setting anyone up. You need to go back and reread what I said. Here I’ll even copy the comment:
I feel for you Mr. Loftus. I’ve been a target of countless smears and character assassination attempts and it’s not the least bit fun. My detractors’ smears took place nearly uninterrupted for about a year and a half! It’s exhausting and frustrating having to constantly defend yourself instead of having actual discussions with people. You’re so right. If someone resorts to these unethical ploys they are the ones who have no argument. What’s even more amazing is that these supposedly ethically superior christians are the ones doing this! Hypocrites all around!
My advice (though time consuming) is to post on your blog all of your detractors and their other identities and post it for all to see. Expose their lies and if you run across any of them in the future link to the well-research posted you created exposing them. That way you don’t have to keep repeating the same things over and over again when defending yourself. Just link to that post and say, “These charges are all false. It’s all right here at this link. Go take a look.” That seemed to work for me. I haven’t had too much trouble since I confronted one of my detractors with all the evidence. Amazingly enough (or perhaps not) even when confronted with the damning evidence that he lied about me, he still denied it, but he seems to be ignoring me since that last discussion. One still keeps at it, but the other two seemed to have gotten the message.
All I said is that if he can find the evidence against these accusations to post them in order to expose these liars. This is all assuming this is true and I have no reason to doubt it since I’ve had people lie about me in the past and I wrote him to tell him how I sympathize with him and gave him some advice on how to handle it because what I did worked for me. How you can so distort what I said makes me wonder if you’re trying to sabotage a nice discussion I’m seeking with Mr. Spiegel. What reason would I have in doing such a thing as attacking him in some way? He seems like a nice guy. I do not agree with him, but I am very curious to hear his opinion on things and to discuss his book if he’d like.
But if you can find proof that either myself or Loftus is ‘plotting’ anything by all means please post it and let me know about it. If not, everyone will see this for what it is. Just another dishonest and hypocritical attempt at a smear campaign.