A Response To "The Skeptic's Prayer"
"The Skeptic's Prayer" is a tract taken from the Handbook Of Christian Apologetics, by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. I first learned of the tract when Jeff Lowder posted it to the Usenet newsgroup, alt.atheism. What follows is my response to the tract.
There is a serious problem with this "scientific" experiment. Suppose you try the experiment, and nothing happens right away. How long do you wait until you conclude that the experiment has failed to reveal the existence of God? If nothing happens, is it because God does not exist, or because God simply hasn't gotten around to answering yet, or because God is for some reason unable to contact us, or because God does not wish to contact us, or because of some other reason?
The notion that this prayer constitutes a "scientifically fair test of the Christian hypothesis" is a clear indicator that the people who wrote the tract wouldn't recognize the scientific method if it came up and bit them on the ass. Real scientists design experiments so that one set of results indicates that the hypothesis is wrong, and another set of results indicates that a hypothesis may be right, or at least isn't disproved yet. The above "experiment" does not indicate what set of results indicates an answered prayer, or what set indicates an unanswered prayer, or even what results indicate that the experiment is inconclusive. A scientist whose experiments suffered from this sort of vagueness would quickly be looking for a new line of work, possibly as a theologian.
The only way to fix this experiment so that it actually does what it is supposed to do is to be more specific about what results will constitute an answered prayer. Yet the authors rule out this possibility by referring to this sort of specification as "unfair restrictions." In other words, the authors feel it is unfair to set up the experiment in a way that might actually make the experiment meaningful. I leave it to you to decide why.
Again, there is no statement as to what set of circumstances constitutes "God revealing Himself." Suppose I pray this prayer, and the next day I find $20 on the ground. Has God revealed himself, or was I just lucky? Suppose I pray this prayer, and five years from now, a neighbor invites me to church. Has God revealed himself, or is this a natural consequence of living in a country where 90% of the population are Christians? Suppose I pray the prayer, and I'm in a car wreck two weeks later. Is God revealing himself, or is the price I pay for letting my wife drive? There is no way to tell.
Nor does the experiment rule out alternative hypotheses. Suppose that the prayer is answered (ignoring for now the fact that there is no criteria for what constitutes an answered prayer.) Does this mean that God exists and Christianity is true? Not necessarily. There are other possibilities. Maybe it was pure luck, or psychological delusion, or self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the prayer was answered by a Cartesian demon or some other mischievous supernatural force. We might even imagine that the syllables involved in the prayer trigger some unknown mechanistic phenomenon which answers the prayer. Or maybe the set of brain states that occur in a skeptic's mind while praying the prayer is what actually triggers the phenomenon. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of alternative possibilities which are not taken into account by this "experiment."
Skeptics may find this misuse of science upsetting, but there is a positive side to all this. Note that the authors of the tract have tried to make this appear to be a scientific experiment. Whether or not they believe it themselves, they clearly want others to think that the Skeptic's Prayer is a legitimate use of the scientific method to prove God's existence. This in itself is a sign that skepticism is slowly but surely taking the place of faith. It wasn't that long ago when the religious simply ignored science, or condemned it outright. But nowadays, even the most conservative of Christians are trying to make their religious claims appear scientifically sound. It would seem that science (and thus its methods) have gained the respect of a large proportion of the populace, such that science can no longer be ignored by those who don't like its implications. As a result, Christians dare not condemn science outright; they must instead make it appear that science really agreed with them all along. So we find things like "scientific" creationism, Dr. Hugh Ross' The Fingerprint Of God, Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and so on. All of these are attempts to make it appear that science is on the Christians' side. So guess what? The skeptics are winning. While it's still too early to toast our victory, we can take comfort in the fact that we've managed to dictate the terms of engagement.
Perhaps someday, real scientists will devise an experiment capable of detecting God and settling this issue once and for all. But the Skeptic's Prayer isn't it.
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