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