The problem with asking science to be religion-friendly

Previously: The scientific study of prayer

In a way, it’s strange for religious believers to be so invested in the belief that prayer works. If God is all-knowing, perfectly good, and perfectly wise, why would he need our input on how to run the universe? In spite of that, the belief that prayer works is still very important to many believers.

How important? Important enough that for some believers, astronomer and science-popularizer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) marked himself as the enemy when he said:

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours. (There is still a religion, Christian Science, that denies the germ theory of disease; if prayer fails, the faithful would rather see their children die than given them antibiotics.) We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 milligrams a day of clozapine. The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives (The Demon Haunted Worldpp. 9-10).

I want to briefly return to the subject of chapter 3. Some people who would like critics of religion to just be quiet are particularly concerned about public statements by scientists, because they worry about how criticisms of religion by scientists will affect the acceptance of science by a religious public. To them, Richard Dawkins is the ultimate disaster for public acceptance of science.

Anyone who thinks that way should pause to consider the above quote. In context, Sagan wasn’t trying to bash religion but to praise science. It comes from a book, The Demon Haunted World, where Sagan also said:

Of course many religions—devoted to reverence, awe, ethics, ritual, community, family, charity, and political and economic justice—are in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the findings of science. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion (p. 277).

I’ve heard people who wish Dawkins would be quiet about his criticisms of religion cite Sagan as an example of what scientists should do. Yet for comments like his comment about prayer, conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza lists Sagan among the ranks of authors of “anti-religions and anti-Christian tracts” (What’s So Great About Christianity?pp. 24-25). I’ve found this is a common reaction to Sagan among more conservative believers.

Maybe here you decide that even Sagan wasn’t nice enough to religion, and scientists need to work on being even nicer. Here’s the problem with that: judged by the standards medical science uses every day to figure out what treatments do and do not work, prayer does not work. Asking scientists to never mention a basic fact like that is a lot to ask.

Many religious believers will respond that science hasn’t shown prayer doesn’t work, because it may be that God specifically ignores prayers done as part of a scientific experiment. But it’s always possible to find some way to save the hypothesis you like in the face of contrary scientific evidence. You can do the same for Freudian psychoanalysis, or homeopathy (which uses treatments too diluted to contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient), or any other quack treatment.

Another response here is to appeal to slogans like, “you can’t prove a negative” or “science never proves it’s conclusions.” Both of these slogans are wrong, though. The first is wrong because every positive statement entails negative statements and vice versa. To claim that you can only prove positive statements is to say we can’t prove Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, only that he stayed dead.

The claim that science can’t prove anything seems to come from the fact that science doesn’t proceed by way of mathematical proofs. But the mathematical sense of “proof” isn’t usually what we mean by the word. When prosecutors aim to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they don’t present a mathematical theorem that this is the case. (They also don’t worry about the possibility that all the evidence against the defendant was fabricated by magic.)

And prayer is just one example, which I’ve been using in part because it’s such a good example of scientific thinking in action. I talk about more examples in future posts.

  • Joe

    Perhaps we could ask Mr D’Sousa what is the probability one’s credibility could be tarnished if he were to, say, become engaged to a woman half his age while still being legally married to another woman.

    …or is it an answer to prayer?

  • Veronique

    Thanks Joe – that made me look up D’Souza and find out what he has been up to :-). There is no scientific basis to prayer – how could there be? The prayer is to a supernatural being? No study has ever found any positive bias towards prayer.
    I cannot see a marriage or even meeting for a coffee between science and religion. They start from utterly different bases. I can no more understand a religite who cleaves to faith and belief than that religite can understand my lack of faith and belief unless there is, at least, some observable and objective evidence.
    The religite can not conceive of a mind that doesn’t encompass faith – this is why he can only talk about atheism as a ‘belief’ albeit a wrongheaded one :-).
    He also talks about ‘different ways of knowing things, the world, the universe and everything’. How on earth would a scientist and a religite even manufacture a common meeting ground that has any worth to it?
    Sorry – I just can’t see it. Not now, not ever.

  • AnneDroid

    This post seems to me to be buying into the big old myth, which is untrue but which suits atheists, that modern people need to choose between their faith on the one hand and science and reason on the other hand. Science and reason belong to us all not just atheists.

    • Chris Hallquist

      No, YOU’RE buying into a big old myth! Nya nya.

    • Nelmonster

      You could be right that people can chose faith AND science. They get an extra,added bonus; Cognitive Dissonance!

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  • LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume

    Poor AnneDroid, no matter how people define faith, it always ends up as blind faith! Haughty John Haught, declaims against people using faith in the way of blind faith as that can lead to bad things, and claims that true faith takes over the entire being [ What is the difference?] , and Alister Earl McGrath declaims that first believers get the evidence and then use faith for certitude, but both then mean in the end, that although they rely on real science, in the end they will never abandon faith, hardly the tentative position of science and reason!
    Then they might state that why, they do accept that tentativeness, but as science will forever say that evolution is real, whilst we tentatively accept it as we understand its parts like selection and drift, new knowledge will change what we think about those parts, they do so with their faith, in that they accept God as forever true, but their understanding of Him can change. No, because their God as that square circle cannot exist and without referents cannot exist, whilst we have mountains of evidence for evolution.
    Theists never will make a case for Him no more than people can for the perpetual motion machine, and that’s by analysis, not by dogma or a priori. We naturalists then need not traverse the Cosmos for evidence against Him nor have omniscience ourselves.
    http://igtheist. Both declaim why He cannot exist!

  • LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume
  • MNb

    I think you should address the ambiguous meaning believers give to words like proof. When questioning science and/or atheism they demand absolute certainty. When it comes to their own opinions they way too often think slight indications good enough. That’s a double standard.
    Btw math doesn’t prove anything either. You think Pythagoras’ Theorem true, because some colleague of mine showed you a convincing derivation? Try to apply it on the surface of a globe. All math depends on unproven axioma’s. Math is just one big tautology.
    The best evidence humans can have is the agreement of theory/hypothesis/deduction and empirical data/induction. Prayer notoriously lacks that.

    • eric

      I agree; I think many of these arguments end up resting on the double standard Mnb mentions. When it comes to non-religious beliefs, believers are perfectly happy to use normal terminology for what counts as sciencific evidence, proof, etc… But talk about religion, and suddenly absolute philosophical certainty is required for any negative statement.
      Nobody gets upset if I claim “science proves I could not have flapped my arms and flown out my window yesterday. That’s impossible.” But if I say “science proves Jesus could not have risen from the dead. That’s impossible,” suddenly believers will pick nits about what the technical requirements I must fulfill before I use the words ‘proof’ and ‘impossible.’

  • labman57

    Sanctimonious, scientifically-illiterate, theocracy-minded politicians and pundits such as Palin, Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, and numerous socially-regressive state legislators have redefined what constitutes science to fit their own point of view. Therefore, they equate real science with natural phenomena under the control of God.

    What they don’t understand is that science is not merely a body of knowledge accumulated over the centuries, it is also the process through which this knowledge is attained. And so simply declaring that something is true because it says so in the Bible (or any other literary source) cannot be construed as science if that “fact” or “idea” was not the result of a valid, structured, self-critical scientific process.

    “God works in mysterious ways” is a religious rationalization for what these folks really mean:  “I have no freaking clue how natural phenomena happen, nor how the process of scientific observation, experimentation, analysis, deduction, and discovery further our understanding of the universe”.

    The allegories and parables presented in the Bible are akin to a docudrama — a fictional account of early human history inspired by and loosely based on actual events.  These scriptures were designed, in part, to provide answers for people who asked questions about matters which they could not yet comprehend and to provide guidelines for expected moral behavior as determined by the religious order of the time.

    Spirituality is another matter entirely.  Organized religion and spirituality are related, but not equivalent.

    There is nothing inherently mutually exclusive between the belief in a supreme spiritual entity – and with it, an inward search for meaning and purpose — and the convictions of the scientific method.  The apparent conflict arises when one equates the existence of “a Higher Consciousness” with the validity of the allegories in that popular work of fiction known as the Bible. 

    In other words, spirituality and respect for science are not mutually-exclusive predilections.

    One should not be so insecure as to believe that there is not enough room in the universe for both to exist and flourish.

    • Patrick

      “There is nothing inherently mutually exclusive between the belief in a supreme spiritual entity – and with it, an inward search for meaning and purpose — and the convictions of the scientific method. The apparent conflict arises when one equates the existence of “a Higher Consciousness” with the validity of the allegories in that popular work of fiction known as the Bible. ”

      What about the conflict between science’s general admonition to meter the strength of your conviction in a proposition to the evidence you have that the proposition is true, and the complete lack of evidence for, and indeed the surfeit of evidence against, the proposition that a “supreme spiritual entity” exists?

    • eric

      There is nothing inherently mutually exclusive between the belief in a supreme spiritual entity – and with it, an inward search for meaning and purpose — and the convictions of the scientific method.

      Sure, there could be some gods whose existince is not inconistent with science. But:
      (1) Its irrational to prefer any one such god over all the other theoretical entities that sicence is not inconsistent with.
      (2) The common fundie conception of Yahweh (as an active, interfering, tri-omni deity) is not in that group.

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  • MNb

    “Sanctimonious, scientifically-illiterate, theocracy-minded politicians and pundits …”
    I wish that were true. But I have followed and read a few intelligent and well-educated believers last four, five years and bar one they are not fundamentally better than the potheads Labmans mentioned. Just look at the enthusiasm and lack of skepticism among those believers when they found out about fine-tuning, which is just another way to redefine science to fit their belief systems.

    “There is nothing inherently mutually exclusive …”
    I won’t contradict this, but I observe that even most intelligent and well-educated believers do a damn bad job to show it. Moreover I suspect that the deity that fits best when science and religion are reconciled is The Flying Spaghetti Monster (no Problem of Evil here). Somehow I don’t see masses of theologians and philosophers of religion convert to Pastafarianism; it can be very amusing to suggest it to them.

  • MNb

    A wonderful quote from Richard Feynman: It is not unscientific to make a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is. Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers — because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers”. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I might have said to him, “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely. That is all.

    Now apply this to the god-question.

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