Theist Explaining Science to Atheists

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Some might consider this ironic: the theist explaining science to atheists. I don’t. I don’t see any reason why it should be surprising, even though some atheists think they have a lock on scientific reasoning.

Starting here in yesterday’s thread on “Five Things You Have Wrong About Christianity,” the atheists in the discussion are trying to push the idea of “scientific” prayer studies. What they’re showing is that they don’t understand how science works in such a setting.

They’ve been confusing experimentation with correlational research, they’ve shown they don’t understand how social research fails with “tainted” participants (subjects who know everything that’s going on behind the scenes), they’ve been failing to take confounding variables into account, and more.

This is about how science is done. Some people think that’s the atheists’ domain, but it ain’t necessarily so.

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18 Responses to “ Theist Explaining Science to Atheists ”

  1. I run into this a lot, especially in conversations about the mind-body problem. A lot of atheists seem to assume that their position is the scientific position, even if they are unfamiliar with the relevant sciences. That’s one problem with habitually falling back on the sciences to win debates. When you don’t have an argument you just call your position “science” and then ridicule anyone who disputes it for being unscientific.

  2. @Tom Gilson:

    Some people think that’s the atheists’ domain, but it ain’t necessarily so.

    There are few groups as repugnantly anti-scientific as the Gnu atheists.

  3. @Tom,

    I defer to your expertise … I am absolutely a layman when it comes to properly designed experimental studies. But I’m far from convinced it’s impossible to perform well designed, large scale prayer studies.

    If miracles are happening in the world, statistically, they should be detectable statistically. If the effects of healing prayer are completely undetectable — if we can find no correlation whatsoever between prayer and miraculous results — then prayer-miracles may as well not exist.

    It shouldn’t matter that God “isn’t blinded”. We aren’t testing God, we’re testing the prayer-healing hypothesis. All God has to do is whatever He would anyway, were it not for the experiment.

    I don’t see any good reason to think God should behave differently just because a study is in progress. On the contrary, as others have pointed out:

    1) He clearly hasn’t worried about being “hidden” at times in the past, especially in Biblical times;

    2) It makes no sense to suggest that clarity infringes our free will but hiddenness somehow preserves or enhances it;

    3) You seem unconcerned about the implication that God would allow thousands of people to die — people He would otherwise heal — just to remain hidden during a study.

    4) There are plenty of people, myself included, who would certainly rethink our unbelief if this kind of convincing evidence were discovered. We actually aren’t all blind fools prevented by our sin from seeing the obvious truth.

    It seems rather convenient that Christians get to make miracle claims whenever they please … claims which turn out to be impossible to verify systematically.

  4. BillB,

    Now you’re agreeing with me and acting as if it’s a disagreement. I’m saying that there are credible miracle claims, and they are associated with Christian prayer.

    What I’m disagreeing with is all the other so-called scientific prayer studies, with their scientifically incorrect assumptions. It is impossible in principle to design a valid prayer experiment (remember, experimental studies are distinct from correlational ones).

    You suggested a correlational approach, with which I agreed in the comment immediately following that one, though with great and significant cautions due to multiple confounding variables. See also here.

    I did not directly address your first follow-question. I apologize for that. I have written on that topic elsewhere, though.

    So I am not saying that God’s actions are undetectable. I am saying that certain approaches to detecting God’s work in the world — the ones you brought up in a few places on that thread — are irretrievably flawed. Not all are flawed, but those are.

  5. Let me also reiterate what I wrote here: there are God’s actions and then there are God’s actions. He created and he sustains all reality. Miracles are just one way he works in the world, and they comprise a small minority of what he does.

  6. Just to point out that there are trials out that show a positive correlation between improved patient health and prayer. What do you make of those BillB? Would they challenge you?

    I reject these for the same reasons I’ve laid out in my latest response to you BillB on the previous post (response #96 or some such). Such trails are in principle inherently flawed and a waste of money.

  7. It seems rather convenient that Christians get to make miracle claims whenever they please … claims which turn out to be impossible to verify systematically.

    But that cuts both ways, no? Uber-sceptics like Hume get to dismiss miracles because miracles are first defined as impossibilities. I’ve heard Craig Keener talk about his book and if nothing else he is trying to sift the wheat from the chaff.

  8. The trouble with scientific prayer studies is that there is no real control group. Sick people who are not in some manner being prayed for by somebody somewhere (even via a “Lord, help all the sick people in the world” prayer) simply do not exist. The category is empty, hence no control group.

  9. @Billy,

    About the health/prayer studies, do you mean the types of studies I am suggesting in these threads? Or more general studies, along the lines of “people who pray tend to have generally better health”?

    I’m less interested in studies correlating general religious practice with general well-being. That’s not to say uninterested. It’s just that miracle claims are more… well, interesting. 🙂 And more directly tied to the truth of the underlying religious claims — which is ultimately what matters most.

    Hume dismissed miracles because he defined them as extremely improbable events. But if they really happen with a statistically detectable frequency, then we should be able to demonstrate empirically that they aren’t all that improbable after all.

    Personally, I am not prepared to dismiss all miracles (including, e.g. the Resurrection) as Hume does. But I am getting rather tired of anecdotes.

    @Tom

    So I am not saying that God’s actions are undetectable. I am saying that certain approaches to detecting God’s work in the world — the ones you brought up in a few places on that thread — are irretrievably flawed. Not all are flawed, but those are.

    So … let’s get cracking! What are we waiting for? 🙂

    As long as you’re talking about some scientific (empirical, verifiable) means of detection, I can’t wait to see the results!

  10. BillB,

    I’m suggesting intercessory prayer trials. I’m not talking about general well-being associated with religious practice. For the 3rd or 4th time, please show me how you can determine that the control group is just that?

  11. According to WebMD:

    [S]tudies show that religious people tend to live healthier lives. “They’re less likely to smoke, to drink, to drink and drive,” he says. In fact, people who pray tend to get sick less often, as separate studies conducted at Duke, Dartmouth, and Yale universities show. Some statistics from these studies:

    Hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly.

    Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion.

    Elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly.

    In Israel, religious people had a 40% lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
    http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/can-prayer-heal?page=2

    It seems to me that these studies are correlative. That is, because religious people on average have healthier life styles they tend to live longer and recover more quickly from illness etc. Okay, I can buy that. Christians, after all, don’t believe that everything is miraculous.

    However, there is an important point that can be made here. Atheists who try, and sometimes succeed, in talking people out of their beliefs are actually killing people.

    And then there is one of the atheists favorite explantions for healings: the placebo effect. But if people don’t believe (looking at it from the atheist’s perspective), then there is no placebo effect; so then they don’t get well and they die sooner than they should.

    What again are the positive benefits of atheism?

  12. Thanks, everyone, for the responses. I’ll check out Tom’s links.

    @Billy,

    Surely in a large and well designed trial, the trial group will generate a statistically detectable signal over the “background prayer” noise of the control group?

    Otherwise, what’s the point of praying at all, knowing that anything I pray is likely to be swamped by background prayer?

    @JAD

    What again are the positive benefits of atheism?

    I hope I speak for everyone here when I say believing the truth is our goal. Nobody is interested in a false belief (whether Christianity or atheism) that happens to have some ancillary benefits.

  13. The point of praying is mostly to be in communication with our loving God and in alignment with him. It is primarily relational. The intercessory/petitionary (asking for things) part of it is important but secondary to that main thing.

    So that’s a sufficient answer for most Christians.

    The idea of joining in with other Christians to pray also has value in the unity it promotes and expresses. That unity is real, by the way, even with Christians we have never met or might never meet. One way I know this is by the quick connection I’ve had with fellow believers around the world, including many who are very different from me in cultural aspects, and many who are citizens of countries that are in conflict with my own. There’s a unity there that transcends all that.

    But if you want a quantitative answer too, it might be along the same lines as what’s the point of voting? If everyone had that attitude, where would it lead us?

  14. BillB:

    I hope I speak for everyone here when I say believing the truth is our goal. Nobody is interested in a false belief (whether Christianity or atheism) that happens to have some ancillary benefits.

    I agree. I believe the positive effects of faith in God is evidence that it is true. Prove me wrong.

  15. Again BillB, you have not offered any solution to the problem. In these trials it is possible – even probable – that both sets of groups are receiving prayer. What if tonight I pray to God for equal healing rates for all those patients involved in prayer trials?

    Given that these trails can’t fulfil one half of the criteria required for double blind testing the results are highly suspect. Expanding the trail doesn’t overcome this problem.

    I think that it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that God has larger eschatological goals behind answers to prayer, and that these are not apparent to us or our trials.

  16. @JAD

    I agree. I believe the positive effects of faith in God is evidence that it is true. Prove me wrong.

    Glad you agree. And I agree also, about your evidence. I would like to see more of it, hence the direction of my comments on this blog.

    @Billy
    What if tonight I pray to God for equal healing rates for all those patients involved in prayer trials?

    Now you’re the one treating God like a magic genie. 🙂

    It still seems pretty plain to me that if healing prayer has some effect, statistically, then it should be detectable statistically.

    I think that it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that God has larger eschatological goals behind answers to prayer, and that these are not apparent to us or our trials.

    And we don’t need to worry about God’s mysterious goals. All we are interested in testing is the believer’s conviction that healing prayer increases the probability of healing.

    If this is a true belief, it should be testable. “Healing” is a visible effect on the world.

    If it isn’t true, then there is no point in praying (for healing — Tom mentions other reasons to pray.)

    Your only real fallback seems to be that, while God has performed miracles in the past, He may not do so in future (or at least not in studies) due to “larger eschalotological goals”. Of course, this sounds to me like a prepackaged excuse should studies come out negative. But it’s hardly a good reason to avoid studies entirely.

  17. @BillB
    “If it isn’t true, then there is no point in praying (for healing — Tom mentions other reasons to pray.)”

    I was essentially with you right up until this point. If one’s only reason for praying for healing is simply to get a result, then I one needs to learn a bit more about spirituality. There are a host of benefits that could potentially come from praying for healing.

    Personally, I doubt that there is much, if any statistical advantage to prayer for theological reasons. I expect that God is going to do what is best anyway, and the only effect petitions would have on a good and omniscient God would be that the situation is slightly changed (which may create a context where a different response is best).

    This is over and above the fact that we don’t know how much prayer elsewhere is being received by these people, and the fact that God, in wishing to avoid being treated like a genie, may not want anything to be found.

    All of this strikes me as a massive distraction from the real reason why one ought to be praying: seeking to draw near to God.

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