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Slot machine prayer

October 2020 | by Alan Thomas

Some readers may be aware of scientific experiments that have purported to assess the efficacy of prayer. It appears that some Christians decided that they could show that prayer works by such experiments and thus indirectly provide scientific evidence for the existence of God. I suspect most ET readers will be surprised by this and will not be surprised to learn such experiments did not produce positive results. And also not surprised to learn that such results have been taken up and ridiculed by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and used as evidence to support their view that God doesn’t exist. We are not surprised such studies fail to show that ‘prayer works’, not because we have any doubts that the Lord answers our prayers, but because we instinctively understand that this approach is wrong-headed.

Testing the existence of Dawkins

Let us imagine I am going to conduct a similar kind of experiment to investigate whether Richard Dawkins answers ‘prayers’ (requests emailed to him) and thus indirectly whether Dawkins exists. At this point I need to confess that I am a believer in the existence of Dawkins. I have not met him personally, nor have I heard or seen him, but based on his writings and the testimony of other Dawkins believers I am fully convinced he exists. I am aware that some have questioned the documents generally attributed to Dawkins, commenting on factual errors, illogicality, and frank contradictions, but notwithstanding such concerns I remain a believer.

However, I realise that to Dawkins deniers such belief means that I am not a scientist who is qualified to conduct such a scientific investigation, that my Dawkins faith clearly biases my approach and invalidates my interpretation. I disagree, of course, and am convinced I am fully able to conduct such an experiment (just as I am convinced my faith in God does not invalidate my regular scientific work).

My proposed thought experiment is to test the ‘Dawkins hypothesis’ by investigating the effectiveness of ‘prayers’ to Dawkins. Does Dawkins answer ‘prayers’? If not, his existence may be questioned. We would recruit 1000 participants who would all have to be Dawkins believers so they could ‘pray’ with faith. 500 would be randomly assigned to the active prayer intervention, which would involve these participants emailing Dawkins with their requests.

Such requests necessarily would have to be those that a being such as Dawkins could reasonably be expected to answer, e.g. ‘Please give me a new car’ or ‘I would like to go on a round-the-world cruise’. The other 500 would be asked to contemplate what they would have liked to receive from Dawkins if they had been given the chance. After a year we would assess whether those who prayed to Dawkins had more answered ‘prayers’ than the control group who simply contemplated.

In spite of my alleged bias, due to my belief in his existence, I feel pretty sure the answer would not support provide evidence that Dawkins answered prayers and thus for the existence of Dawkins. Richard Dawkins may prove to be generous and respond positively to a few requests, but at the same time many in the contemplating control group are likely to receive their wishes also by chance, aren’t they?

Thus, overall, I’m sure there would be no statistically significant difference between the two groups and so we would have scientific evidence to demonstrate the non-existence of Dawkins, wouldn’t we? Of course not. Why should Richard Dawkins respond positively to such outrageous requests from strangers, even if they respect him and are faith-based atheists like himself?

This is the point of my imaginary experiment. Why should God in these prayer experiments respond to such requests either? How many ET readers would have agreed to participate in such experiments? None, I hope. I wouldn’t. The approach betrays a woefully poor understanding of God and of prayer. These prayer experiments assume God is a kind of divine slot-machine, like one of those fairground grabbers which are guaranteed to pick up a prize toy for every coin you slot into it. You put in your prayer to God and out comes the answer, the ‘prize’ you wanted and which God is bound to give.

True prayer

True prayer happens in the context of a relationship, which means those who can pray to God are those who know him through faith in Jesus Christ, the Way to God and our great Mediator. Just as it would be quite reasonable for Richard Dawkins to delete emails from people he doesn’t know who make such requests, so God is under no obligation to hear and answer prayers from anyone and everyone.

And for those of us who have the privilege of access to our Father through Jesus Christ, our prayers are still those of frail, ignorant, and selfish children. We don’t know what is best for us. Many of our requests, even if broadly in the will of God, are unlikely to fit with his immensely superior knowledge of what is good for us. A key aspect of our prayers is that we believe our Father knows best and so trust that he will answer in the best possible way. We are convinced that his will for us is the best will and the one which will bring most honour to him, too.

Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.