Monday, March 12, 2007

Whisper a little prayer for me my baby

At the invitation of m’colleague Tim (who lent it to me) I’ve started reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. I suspect I will have a lot to say ...

I won’t do one big review as it would take too long and life is too short. I’ll just drop in comments here when and as I feel, as I go. Like now.

First impressions. Like all his books, it’s a joy to read. It’s witty, lucid, very well written, and invaluably informative in those areas where Dawkins is well informed. (He’s not always as well informed as he thinks he is but I’ll probably come back to that in another post.) His one page analysis of the excesses of Catholicism shows exactly why the Reformation was such a good, and long overdue, idea. His dissection of Creationism and Intelligent Design (amusingly described as ‘Creationism in a cheap tuxedo’) are all I need to point at if anyone ever asks me why I’m not a Creationist. And as for the prayer experiment ...

This, too, rightly gets the Dawkins treatment. This was an experiment set up to test via scientific means whether praying specific things for a specific group of people had the slightest effect. It was all done with the proper system of double blinds – the prayees (all hospital patients) didn’t know they were being prayed for, the prayerers didn’t know exactly who they were praying for (they knew first name and initial of surname, but had never met the people in question) and so on. Rather unsurprisingly, the experiment revealed that prayer had exactly no effect at all.

I take this with a pinch of caveats because I’ve heard a similar story in which prayer did work. I have no direct way of knowing which account is correct, but I strongly suspect it’s Dawkins. I won’t lean over backwards to give Deep Faith reasons for why it didn’t work, like some theologians he gleefully goes on to quote – I’ll just say that if you want to prove the existence of a thinking, reasoning intelligence then you don’t reduce it to the status of a lab rat; and if that intelligence is in the habit of handing out favours when and as he feels like, you don't treat them as a mechanical process that is there on demand. That’s the logical flaw of the experiment, never mind the moral and ethical ones.

Here is Ben’s take on prayer.

I was running low on petrol so I decided to divert from my ordinary route home from work, and go via Tesco to fill up. This means coming off the A34, driving up to the Tesco roundabout and turning right. With no traffic around, you can do this in 30 seconds. When Abingdon is having a Bad Traffic Day, like this day in question, it can take 40 minutes.

Forty minutes later, having finally crawled up to the Tesco roundabout, my schedule for the evening was already way off. So I just did a full 180 (UPDATE: I meant 360, gaah!) round the roundabout, back to the A34 in 30 seconds, and took an alternative route home that took a further 10 minutes. Then I had my dinner, went out to a meeting scheduled for later that evening, and filled up en route to that instead. At the garage, I met a lady from out of town who was badly lost and wanted directions to a particular road. Which I was able to give her.


I don’t know if she was religious; I don’t know if she had prayed for help in finding her way about town. It’s still entirely possible that as she drove away she sent up a quick thanks for meeting someone who could help her. I certainly sent up a quick thanks that I was able to help. Neither of us would imagine for a second that God had inflicted a Bad Traffic Day on Abingdon, inconveniencing hundreds of drivers with a knock on to thousands if you include family members, just so I could help the lady find Appleford Drive. (It's hard to imagine a loving God inflicting one of Abingdon’s Bad Traffic Days on anyone. Sodom and Gomorrah got off more lightly.)

My mental image is of a grid stretching out ahead of me. A grid of events, or non events, that affect everyone. My life, and the lives of everyone else, rattle through the grid randomly like pinballs. We bump into the events, we bump into each other. It's a chaotic, non-predictable process. Prayer is a way of bringing a bit more order into it. It puts you in a state of mind and being that gravitates more towards, or away from, certain events and lives than others. It makes you able to find some good wherever you find yourself. It puts yourself second and others first. It helps good spread out to encompass other people, not just yourself. And quite possibly – a bit like Dawkins’s Climbing Mount Improbable – it will bring you via a series of smaller events to a big event that, had you jumped straight there, would have seemed to be in violation of the laws of the universe.

Drat. I feel the need to give a particular key testimony in my life coming on. But not here. Maybe tomorrow.

[I thought of heading this post with another anagram, but "Richard Dawkins The God Delusion" is an anagram of "Swindled and rigorous thickhead". Which would be unkind, so I went with the Mamas & the Papas instead.]


  1. dawkins did a scientific prayer experiment? i find that hilarious!!
    there's a thousand reasons why i may not have worked. lack of faith from dawkins, lack of faith from prayees, God having alternative plans etc.

    i've found too many times where i pray for things that happen the next day to stop believing in prayer. it's just too real.
    i don't pretend to understand how it works, only that more often than not, praying is invalueable in my life.

  2. Congratulations on reading the God Delusion. I'm too scared. lol some Christian I am, hunh?

  3. It wasn't Dawkins who did the experiment, he just reports on it. I believe the experiment was done in the US.

    But yes. It's the old "when I pray, coincidences happen, when I don't they don't" thing.

  4. that's exactly what i was thinking, ben.

  5. I would trust God to know when it is best to help me. If he catered for my every prayer whim then I would be less of a person.

  6. I'm glad you seem to be mentally stimulated by RD. I agree with your views on prayer too but you described it without refering to a higher power. Isn't this more like secular hope? Either could concentrate the mind.

    ..and Djchallis, have you ever considered keeping a record of everytime something happens that you would have prayed for if you'd though of it in time?

  7. Daniel Wilkes3:52 pm

    Thanks for the article Ben, as I was saying at work, I've never read a Dawkins book myself.

    Have you read any others?

    I'd be interested to know of anyone who believes in god and the bible but doesn't believe in prayer. Have you ever come across anyone?

  8. I can think of several people who believe in God but not necessarily the Bible or prayer. I don't think I know anyone who believes in the Bible without also believing in prayer; if I did then I'd have said they're probably not getting the most out of it!

  9. Daniel Wilkes9:23 am

    Totally agree.

    Look forward to your next Dawkins post.

    See you Wednesday Ben, last week in the place we've known as home for 3 years. The Atlas Centre!


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