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.

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