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The "Skeptic's Prayer" is introduced on page 411 of Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith, by Peter Kreeft & Fr. Ronald Tacelli.

The Skeptic's Prayer

This claim---that all seekers find---is testable by experience, by experiment. If you are an honest scientist, here is a way to find out whether Christianity is true or not. Perform the relevant experiment. To test the hypothesis that someone is behind the door, knock. To test the Christian hypothesis that Christ is behind the door, knock.

How do you knock? Pray! Tell Christ you are seeking the truth---seeking him, if he is the truth. Ask him to fulfill his promise that all who seek him will find him. In his own time, of course. He promised that you would find, but he didn't promise a schedule. He's a lover, not a train.

But---you may reply---I don't know whether Christ is God. I don't even know whether there is a God. That's all right; you can pray the prayer of the skeptic:

God, I don't know whether you even exist. I'm a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I'm not certain (at least when I'm completely honest with myself). So, if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hereby declare myself a seeker, a seeker of the truth, whatever it is and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me.

If Christianity is true, He will. Such a prayer constitutes a scientifically fair test of the Christian "hypothesis"---that is, if you do not put unfair restrictions on God, like demanding a miracle (your way, not his) or certainty by tomorrow (your time, not his). The demand that God act like your servant is hardly a scientifically fair test of the hypothesis that there is a God who is your King.

But all this King asks for at first is honesty, not faking a faith you do not have. Honesty is a choice of the will---the choice to seek the truth no matter what or where. This is the most momentous choice you can make. It is the choice of light over darkness, ultimately heaven over hell.

Honesty is infinitely more momentous than we often think. It is also much harder than we think. Our culture trivializes honesty into merely "sharing your feelings", telling others about the state of our nerve ends. That's not the opposite of dishonesty, that's just the opposite of shame or shyness. Shallow honesty seeks "sharing"; deep honesty seeks truth. Shallow honesty stands in the presence of others; deep honesty stands in the presence of God.

An often-raised critique of this prayer's presentation is its perceived vagueness regarding conditions and expectations (see examples of critiques here and here). According to proponents of this form of prayer, how much additional specificity and detail can be added beyond what Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli have presented?

In particular, I'm interested in the following aspects:

Conditions

For the Skeptic's Prayer to be effective, are there unstated implicit conditions beyond those mentioned by Peter and Ronald? For instance:

  • Is a single invocation sufficient, or does it require daily repetition over a few days, multiple times a day for an extended period, or even years or decades? The clarification on this aspect is not provided by Peter and Ronald. At a minimum, it seems they endorse trying the prayer at least once. However, they provide no guidance on frequency, intensity, or similar factors.

  • Are there thresholds to the level of skepticism a person must have before attempting the prayer? Can one be "too skeptical" for the prayer's effectiveness, and if so, are there strategies to overcome this limitation?

  • Is the skeptic supposed to undertake additional practices during the Skeptic's Prayer "experiment," like attending specific church services, fasting, reading the Bible, studying natural theology, or anything else? Or is merely praying for a few minutes sufficient, with no specified changes to one's daily life? While Peter and Ronald overlook this aspect, I presume it holds significant importance.

Expectations

How explicit can expectations be in the Skeptic's Prayer "experiment"? What should the seeker anticipate? Is an event expected, and if so, will it be clear and unmistakable? Can specific examples of this event be given to enhance the expectation's specificity, clarity, and detail? Peter and Ronald caution against expecting miracles, but what reasonable outcome can the seeker envision in their mind as something to anticipate with hopeful expectation?

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As I stated in my answer to your other question, I am a Christian and I do not think that framing this as a scientific question does justice to either science or Christianity. However, I am an advocate of non-Christians praying for God to reveal himself.

But first, a theological excursus: The excerpt quoted here makes a claim which, as a Calvinist, I see as a fundamental error in Catholic theology.

Honesty is a choice of the will---the choice to seek the truth no matter what or where. This is the most momentous choice you can make. It is the choice of light over darkness, ultimately heaven over hell.

This is literally true. However, the expectation that such a choice can be made without divine assistance is not. We (Calvinists and Lutherans) understand that the human will is bound by sin (i.e. desires and assumptions contrary to the true good) and so this pure choice of will, to choose God's truth, is not possible. You are not a disinterested observer. If you think you are, then you've deceived yourself. On an elementary level, the existence of God would alter the way you live your life so significantly it's somewhat absurd to think you don't have a bias to begin with. On a deeper lever, the sin is so deeply rooted in your nature that you can't possibly normalize for it and think perfectly objectively (1 Corinthians 2:14). Thus, the more proper skeptics' prayer would be something like:

God, I don't know whether you even exist. I'm a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I'm not certain (at least when I'm completely honest with myself). I know that I am not capable of evaluating the evidence objectively. So, if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hereby declare myself a seeker, a seeker of the truth, whatever it is and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me, because I cannot help myself.

Humility is key.

With that being said, let's consider your questions.

Conditions

Regarding your comments, the first two are not necessary conditions. The length of time that you spend praying is not relevant. I know some people who become Christian all in a moment, and others who took decades after they started their journey as a "seeker." That being said, most people's experiences lie somewhere in between those two extremes. The degree of skepticism is also not important.

Regarding your third condition, "attending specific church services, fasting, reading the Bible, studying natural theology," - these certainly matter. After all, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). There is not necessarily anything supernatural about this, after all, the messages you hear, books you read, and people you spend time with certainly do affect the way you look at the world.

One important condition that Peter and Ronald didn't make clear is humility. You cannot pretend to be in a position to judge or command God. And this is a fundamental difficulty: If God is real then you have no authority to judge him in any way (even whether or not he exists), while if God is not real, then you are perfectly within your rights to evaluate the "God hypothesis".

Expectations

How should you expect God to respond? Quite simply, God's response (if he chooses to respond) will be your conversion to Christianity. Yes, that is completely unmistakable. No-one becomes a Christian unwittingly. As I said above, you are bound by sin, and cannot lift yourself out of it. However, God can. This is the story of my mom's conversion. She prayed something very like the skeptics' prayer, and God's clear response was to give her faith.

So, my advice to seekers: pray for God to convert you. He doesn't need your help to accomplish this, you need his help. Pray for him to give you that objective perspective which is impossible to obtain by your own power. Pray that he will set you free from sin and make you new. God hears those prayers. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." (Psalm 51:17) Jesus says, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out." (John 6:37) If you come to him, he will not turn you away. So pray that the Father will bring you to him, if you would be a true seeker.


P.S. God is not concerned whether you are a theist or not. In (the Christian) God's eyes, being an atheist is no worse than being a Muslim or a Hindu or a Jew or a Neoplatonist. Simply believing that God exists is not anything like faith in Jesus. As the apostle James says, "You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that— and shudder." (James 2:19)

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  • I asked a new question, and I'd like to know your thoughts on it.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 18:27
  • No-one becomes a Christian unwittingly Millions of indoctrinated Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) children around the world would beg to differ.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Feb 6 at 9:32
  • If you don't know you're a Christian then you're not, simple as that. Everyone makes the decision for themselves some day. Commented Feb 6 at 12:04
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According to proponents of this form of prayer, how much additional specificity and detail can be added beyond what Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli have presented?

No additional specificity is needed, although more can be given. No additional specificity is reliably given in scientific proofs in general. For example, a little over a hundred years ago some thought that human flight was possible. Many did not. (This is a broad hypothesis but it has been succinctly stated.) Prevailing scientific consensus was that it was impossible. In general no proof that I am aware of purports even to be able to falsify it. It did not need to be falsifiable in order to be demonstrable.

For the Skeptic's Prayer to be effective, are there unstated implicit conditions beyond those mentioned by Peter and Ronald?

Only those established by God. They are published, including specific conditions and specific outcomes:

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. (James 1:5-6)

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:3-5)

There is not a single documented instance of either of these promises being unfulfilled when the prerequisites were met, despite millions of trials and corresponding data points.

To be clear, the requirement of faith doesn't mean the skeptic already needs to be convinced there is a God, since that would be circular. Rather, faith is confidence and trust. If the skeptic has only a little, he still gets to choose where to invest it. The act of asking God a question exhibits some faith. Further actions and activities in this vein will allow that faith to grow. Faith is not sterile. It is fertile. Tiny seeds can grow into great trees if they are nourished.

Are there thresholds to the level of skepticism a person must have before attempting the prayer? Can one be "too skeptical" for the prayer's effectiveness, and if so, are there strategies to overcome this limitation?

Perhaps this is like asking if it is possible to fail adequately to disinfect a surface by the application of too little sodium hypochlorite. Yes, it is possible to underdo it or fail to satisfy the conditions of a proof and miss out on the consequents through lack of diligence or inattentiveness. The same is true of any bona fide experiment. The asker should not assume that diligence is not required. If he is only willing to invest a soap opera's equivalent of effort to the question of whether there is a God, he should not expect his life to change dramatically. If on the other hand, he is willing to invest an accumulated lifetime of effort to pursuing knowledge of and faithfulness to God, he can expect miracles. Willingness is a choice, not some predestined or predetermined thing.

Is the skeptic supposed to undertake additional practices during the Skeptic's Prayer "experiment," like attending specific church services, fasting, reading the Bible, studying natural theology, or anything else? Or is merely praying for a few minutes sufficient, with no specified changes to one's daily life? While Peter and Ronald overlook this aspect, I presume it holds significant importance.

There is no procedural outline anywhere on Earth that is exhaustive. Many unstated environmental conditions are assumed to be within reasonable bounds (for example, atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, literacy, etc.). Yes, it is always possible to leave out important elements that should have been obvious, and yet that we too often learn we must not take for granted because of the propensity of experimenters to leave out important conditions. It frustrates lab students to learn they needed to leave the fume hood open or needed to wash their apparatus using distilled water before performing a titration. Perhaps this is one reason why Scripture consists of more than single page or a one-liner. The procedure requires thorough understanding in order to be fool-proofed. It is generally understood that this is the responsibility of the experimenter.

Is a single invocation sufficient, or does it require daily repetition over a few days, multiple times a day for an extended period, or even years or decades? The clarification on this aspect is not provided by Peter and Ronald. At a minimum, it seems they endorse trying the prayer at least once. However, they provide no guidance on frequency, intensity, or similar factors.

So it was with flight and every other discovery and even oft-repeated process that has considerable scientific rigor built into it. "We get there when we get there". Repeated applications may be necessary. This is true of trying to land rockets, parallel park cars, grow peas and removing plantar warts; no matter how scientific or well-practiced the subject matter is, there is room for failed trials as well as failure to continue to try. Without patience we can do nothing.

How explicit can expectations be in the Skeptic's Prayer "experiment"? What should the seeker anticipate? Is an event expected, and if so, will it be clear and unmistakable? Can specific examples of this event be given to enhance the expectation's specificity, clarity, and detail? Peter and Ronald caution against expecting miracles, but what reasonable outcome can the seeker envision in their mind as something to anticipate with hopeful expectation?

Knowing that God is real is clear and unmistakable, just as knowing that gravity is real is clear and unmistakable. The basic promise is that the person will be given witnesses and knowledge of the existence of God. The exact same specificity of expectations applies to any other endeavor promising knowledge, whether it be telling students they can know that gravity is real or that DNA is helical. There is special pleading applied by unbelievers to this category of knowledge. If the receipt of knowledge is deemed to be an "inadequately specific" condition, then science itself would be unscientific, because knowledge is the basic promise of science.

All sincere, truthful and honest expectations are allowable. Importantly this does require us not setting terms for God.

As has been demonstrated, vagueness is not the heart of the problem. Unwillingness to accept that we can know the truth of this matter for certain is.

As an illustration, consider a teacher who is trying to teach a student that 2+2=4. The teacher can use examples and allegories like putting two apples on a table, then putting two more, and asking the student to count. The student's ability to grok addition and generalize it successfully is not something the teacher can inherently or forcefully supply, no matter how many allegories, explanations or practice problems are given. It is left to the realm of the student's cognition and understanding of the examples given. This requires him to apply himself to what might appear to be a dark, foreboding and grueling endeavor, without a specific promise of a timeline as to when the knowledge will dawn on him. Much of that will depend on his own sincere efforts and experiences. A student disputing that 2+2=4 because he insists he does not know it or that it has not yet been "proven" to his satisfaction is ultimately epistemologically indistinguishable from his refusal to accept that there is a God, in terms of his ability to know it.

Even machine learning "agents" when fully trained, do not actually "know". The nature of addition was either given as an axiom or algorithm, or else it really is just using a function approximator with inbuilt libraries to produce a result when it is queried.

The same model applies to any truth claim that can be learned by experience. There are millions of true claims that billions of people do not know or think they know are true only because they have not applied themselves to learn and know for themselves. But this is the general sincere promise of science: That you too can know if you apply yourself to know (not if you just go along with groupthink because of peer pressure, funding or other inadequate reasons).

There is nothing inadequately concrete about a promise that you will know something, or can know it if you will apply yourself to learn it in the proper way. The absence of infallible deadlines and the need to sort through our own misunderstandings, misperception and ambiguity are simply facts of life and of science, and in no way are unique to the task of learning and recognizing that we know there is a God.

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  • "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed" - How can this requirement be satisfied by a seeker/skeptic? A skeptic who is a seeker precisely lacks the degree of faith and conviction in spiritual matters this verse seems to demand (especially if the seeker/skeptic lacks a conviction in the existence of God). If they had this degree of faith in God, they wouldn't be a skeptic in the first place. The solution to the problem demands that the problem already be solved to begin with, which is circular.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 0:01
  • (I didn't downvote by the way. I upvoted.)
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 0:04
  • 2
    @Mark Faith can be grown. Knowledge can be grown. Relationships can be grown. Love can be grown. Skills can be built. Give me a grain of mustard seed and in time we'll have a forest. God doesn't ask for the forest already. Many of us do not recognize the seeds we already have, including the seeds of full knowledge of the Divine. It is possible for a skeptic to ask in faith--he only has to invest what faith he has in God, and be diligent. God is not asking us to pretend to have more faith than we have. He asks us to be true to what we do have. "Lord, I believe--help Thou mine unbelief!"
    – pygosceles
    Commented Feb 1 at 0:16
  • This is a thoughtful answer, +1. I'm sorry to see how they treated you on the philosophy site. I've learned at least 2 things from time spent on the philosophy site: 1) it's way more dogmatic than Christianity Stack Exchange =) & 2) 2 Nephi 9:28 is an insanely accurate description of human nature. Commented Feb 2 at 5:28
  • @HoldToTheRod Philosophy isn't a hard science, so as they say "there are no wrong (or right) answers" (which I don't really buy into seeing as wisdom and unwisdom differ as day from night). It is a disappointing litmus test of some strong opinions, whereas there has never been more abundance of information to form opinions from. Indeed about the learning! It is all a very precarious stack. What I have learned is that if people are not grounded in Conscience, then anything goes and it is all pure arbitrariness.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Feb 2 at 6:22

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