Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Test of Faith - Laying a Fleece

"If you pray to God, He'll give you a sign."
David Wilkerson passed away earlier this year. He was 79 and was involved in a fatal car accident. There's a slim chance you recognise the name; if so it's most likely as the author of "The Cross and the Switchblade", a bestselling true story of his decision to leave a comfortable rural parish to minister to drug addicts and gang members in inner city New York.

It's a good read and by all accounts he did excellent work with good intentions and self-sacrifice. Critics may point to one false prophecy, but this pales in comparison to his positive contributions. It is not my intention to criticise the chap. I mention him by name because in his book I found an excellent example of a test for God I'm often advised to try.

This goes back to Gideon in the Old Testament. An angel told him to marshal troops to attack Midianite invaders, using miraculous fire to prove the pedigree of their message. Gideon was a skeptical chap and asked for more proof. He said in prayer that he would lay out a fleece, and if the morning dew made it damp while keeping the surrounding ground dry he would take this as a sign of God's will. The following morning his woollen wear was damp and the surrounding ground dry. 

Showing a good grasp of experimental design, he tried the converse and prayed that on the following night a second fleece would be left dry while the surrounding ground would become damp with dew. Again, the sheepskin test was passed. Thus convinced, Gideon and God chose the three hundred finest warriors by means of a drinking competition and killed 120,000 Midianite soldiers. [Judges, chapters six through eight]

Sorry, I'm jumping around a little here. David Wilkerson wanted to be sure leaving his rural parish for New York gangland was the right decision, so he also laid a fleece before the Lord. In his case he said an appropriate sign would be raising exactly the right amount of cash to start his mission.

There are many Christians who disagree with this approach. They make a reasonable case, and if you count yourself among them I offer no counter argument. You may enjoy the rest of the article as a curiosity, but the remainder doesn't apply to you. If, on the other hand, you are in favour of laying fleeces, I'd like your help.

How do we design a fair experiment? I'd rather not go to battle against the Midianites on this one. I don't possess a fleece and I've no desire to visit the more undesirable areas of New York. The three most common criticisms I've encountered when I've tried this test are:

  • You may have been asking God to do something that was not in His plan
  • Your test is far too strict and precise
  • You could have been insincere in your prayer
With this I turn to a book on experimental design. (Snake Oil Science by R Barker Bausell - excellent read.) Barker Bausell states that when designing experiments, we should "accept as significant any differences between groups that would occur by chance alone less than 5 percent of the time." This is the standard convention used when investigating medical cures, educational approaches, or anything else amenable to experimental investigation.

What is the simplest test we can devise? I quote one below, discussing a hypothetical test of a coin that is thought to land on heads more often than tails:
Using our definition of statistical significance, this would mean that if you flipped your coin five times and it came up heads five times in a row, then your purchase should be regarded as an indicator of your financial acumen[...] Why? Because the probability of flipping a heads on the first trial would be ½ or 0.50, the probability of flipping two heads on the first two attempts would be ½ × ½ = 0.25, that of flipping three heads out of three tries would be 0.125, the chance of obtaining four heads in four attempts would be 0.0625, and the probability of getting five heads on the first five attempts would be ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × = 0.03125! Because this number is under 0.05, it meets our criterion of statistical significance.
If it is valid to devise tests of this nature I see no reason why a coin toss could negatively affect any divine plan, so hopefully that counters objection number one. The test is no more strict or precise than any other experiment, hopefully countering objection two. On objection number three, how do we control for my sincerity? I feel I've tried this test with sincerity on several occasions but I understand why you might not be ready to take me at my word. I'll even acknowledge the risk that I'm deceiving myself, however small.

I may be insincere. But if you're a Christian, believe in laying fleeces, and have read this far you're likely sincere in your faith. Here's what I propose. We have a brief Skype conversation. You make a sincere prayer that God reveals himself to me through the experiment outlined above, show both sides of the coin and flip it five times. If you're right I'll publish the video - I get a thousand hits a month so you'll reach many atheists. To contact me just comment below and we'll set something up. I check comments daily.

If you're normally in favour of asking for a sign but find yourself unwilling to try this, I'm interested in hearing more from you. Please consider commenting below.


Servaas Hofmeyr said...

Unless I misunderstand what you're saying, I don't think the point of the fleece or amount money raised was to create a method but an asking for a sign on which they were willing to act? Maybe rather ask whether positive/also ask whether the outcome being the expected one is how when tests whether it was God's voice heard? If that is even the point at all?

Servaas Hofmeyr said...

Sorry, my touch screen messed up that last bit: ...Maybe rather/also ask whether a positive outcome,ie. that which was expected, is accurate for testing whether one did in fact hear God's voice? If that is the point of all this even?

Geoff said...

Hi Servaas,

Thanks for commenting. That's a fair point - what some might see as a positive response could just be coincidence. That's really why I went with the coin flip. While a false positive is a possibility, it is a vanishingly small one.

I do hear some people who see divine interaction in prayers for, say, good weather, and feel that this is perhaps failing to fully grasp the probabilities.

Have I understood your question correctly?