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.