bookmark_borderNegative study on intercessory prayer

Information on the Herbert Benson-led study on the possible health benefits of intercessory prayer has begun to appear in the media. The results appear to be negative.

(Disclaimer: the actual journal article appears next week. And I’m a physicist, not qualified to comment on the details of medical research anyway. And as some of the questions raised about prior positive studies show, doing this sort of research properly is very difficult.)

It’s interesting to see that the news article I link to says “Skeptics have said that studying prayer is a waste of money and that it presupposes supernatural intervention, putting it by definition beyond the reach of science.” Curious. Why on earth should something like this be beyond the reach of science? The balance of evidence for intercessory prayer and similar alleged parapsychological phenomena being negative is just what your stereotypical scientific materialist (such as myself) expects. But expectations can be wrong, and presumably I’d have to revise my views if investigations were to produce strong evidence against my expectations. And if investigations support my views, well, I’ll be a bit more confident about them.

I take a skeptical position, yes, but I’m not happy with skepticism being portrayed as wedded to this sort of silly “by definition” form of argument. I’m sure this study is going to attract no end of liberal theological comments that showcase typically evasive attitudes and contortions to protect faith from science. Why would any skeptic want to be drawn into that swamp?

bookmark_borderMethodological naturalism revisited

When countering anti-evolutionary views such as those put forth by the intelligent design (ID) movement, anti-ID commentators often refer to “methodological naturalism” as a “ground rule” of science.

I’m not entirely happy with this, but I don’t see any great problem either — provided we think of this “ground rule” as a pragmatic rule, not an a priori straightjacket on investigation.

We like to stick with methods that have a good prospect of working, judged according to our present knowledge of how the world actually works. We may be wrong. Hence anyone — such as any of the ID philosophers — is welcome to propose doing things differently, but the scientific community needs a damn good reason to depart from its tried and true methods. Whining about exclusion is not sufficient. But on the other hand, if the ID people were able to demonstrate that their way of doing things allowed us to learn a good deal more about the world, well, our methods are not set in stone and we’d have to change them.

So far ID has no signs of success in this direction, and I would guess a snowballs chance in hell of ever getting anywhere. So I wish they’d stop whining.

Still, I worry when anti-ID commentators give the impression that “methodological naturalism” is something set in stone, or that it jumps out of a philosophical hat without being connnected to real-world reasons concerning what works. When that happens, ID-sympathetic philosophers correctly object that it looks like we’re offering up an arbitrary prejudice as if it defined science (sez who?) and enforcing it by what boils down to force rather than argument.

I would prefer that we were more careful not to give them such an opportunity.

bookmark_borderAtheists and nonbelievers, by country

Adherents.com has data on the top 50 countries with the highest percentage of people who do not believe in God (though may not self-report as “atheists”) and the top 20 countries with the largest number of nonbelievers. The data comes from Phil Zuckerman, “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns,” in Michael Martin’s The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2006, Cambridge University Press).

The United States is #43 for percentage of nonbelievers, and #7 for absolute number of nonbelievers (after China, Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Germany, and France). The top ten countries for highest percentage of nonbelievers are Sweden, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland, France, South Korea, and Estonia.

UPDATE (April 4, 2006): Added a link to the Zuckerman chapter, which is available online.

bookmark_borderDistrust of atheists–further evidence

Internet Infidels executive director Keith Augustine has pointed me to another study which also shows that Americans distrust atheists. This report (PDF) by the Pew Center, issued March 22, 2006, lists Americans’ favorability ratings for various religious groups on p. 3 (table 5) from a July 2005 survey:

Table 5.
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Favorability Ratings of Religious Groups
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Opinions of ... Fav Unfav No opinion

Jews 77% 7% 16%
Catholics 73 14 13
Evangelical Christians 57 19 24
Muslim-Americans 55 25 20
Atheists 35 50 15
--------------------------------------------------
Source: Pew Research Center, July 2005

This result is consistent with the University of Minnesota data we commented on earlier.

I wonder how Scientologists would fare.

bookmark_borderSlavery and the Bible

Ed Brayton has been carrying on some very interesting discussions on a specific topic of biblical morality, the subject of slavery and why the Bible doesn’t condemn it. It’s fascinating to see how some Christians have tried to argue about the subject with him.

The subject of slavery in the Bible is one of the main reasons Ed came to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t the word of God. He sets out his initial statement in a post aptly titled “Slavery and the Bible,” where he argues against a specific comment by David Heddle from an earlier post. Ed argues that Heddle’s position–that the Roman law had to be obeyed–entails the result that we must condemn those who fought slavery in the U.S. while it was legal. He goes on to argue:

Now, a Christian might reply that Paul’s admonition only applies when the government’s law does not violate God’s law, but bear in mind that there is not a single verse in the Bible that condemns slavery and dozens of verses that support it. At no point in the 1400 years or so that God was allegedly speaking to various authors and inspiring them to put his commandments into writing did he ever inspire one of them to write that owning another human being was a sin; all of them assumed, like all other cultures of their time, that slavery was normal and acceptable.

There are extensive comments on this post, many of which are well worth reading. A number of replies led to Ed writing “Slavery and the Bible, Take 2,” which addresses a number of comments in more detail. This has been followed today with two more posts. In the first, “Mark Olson on Slavery and the Bible,” Ed points out:

In no other case in the Bible that I’m aware of, even on the most mundane of actions, does God bother to take halfway measures to get a moral point across. On even the most minor and irrelevant of things, like wearing different types of fabrics, his commands are simple and bold: do not do it, period. Yet on this extraordinarily important moral question, the Bible is not merely silent, it explicitly condones the institution.
Surely if God can find the time or interest to give us explicit moral condemnations of premarital sex and refusing to impregnate our dead brother’s widow, he can find the time or interest to explicitly say “don’t own other human beings and treat them as property.” But instead, the Bible explicitly declares that slaves are one’s property to be handed down to one’s children, and it doesn’t even say that you can’t beat them severely (as long as you don’t kill them immediately, according to Exodus 21, you can beat them to your heart’s content).
To take two statements, both allegedly from God, out of the very same text – one saying “love your neighbors” and another saying “slaves are your property, so as long as you don’t kill them you can beat them severely” – and pretend that it’s the first statement that he really, really meant and hoped would hold sway, simply is not credible to me. There is a conflict here, and it’s a genuine conflict; such shallow and silly rationalizations do not make it go away.

In the second, “Neufeld on Slavery and the Bible,” Ed points his readers to a commentary by Henry Neufeld, a Hebrew scholar and director of a Bible Institute, which he describes as “eloquent” and respects because it “insists on accepting what the text says rather than trying to rationalize it away.”

All of these links are to Ed’s blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, one of the many blogs hosted by Seed magazine’s Scienceblogs.com.

bookmark_borderOur Alleged Fallen State

There is a story that believers like to tell and it goes something like this: everyone is sinful. We are all tainted and filthy. We murder and steal and generally wallow in our lowly state. But religion lifts us up and brings us closer to God. Religious precepts makes us moral, so that we may rise up above our fallen state until the final day that sweet chariot swings low and carries us up to be with God.

That’s the story anyway. And it’s also a load of bunk. Since Pythagoras at least, the story is fueled by the powerful metaphor of verticality; the natural state is to sink “down” (hellish) and the way out is to float “up” (heavenly). It’s a testament to the ancient Greeks that the association of evil/down and heaven/up still holds us firmly in its grip. But today we know there’s no truth to it. No seventh heaven. No celestial spheres. No Hades. Just bedtime stories.

Another thought occurs to me. Scandal routinely hits religious believers like waves on the beach. One day the Diocese of Boston (or any number of cities) pays out millions to sexually-abused alter boys and another day a pious pastor’s wife murders her husband. I imagine that if you summed it all up – took all of the actual behavior as opposed to the rhetoric – you’d find that behavior is about equal whether people are atheists, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. In other words, our belief or nonbelief in this or that god has little if any bearing on our morality. In the end, I believe that the principles of humanism, in which we come to embrace prescriptively the notion that everyone possesses intrinsic worth, is the best way forward. Let’s once and for all disabuse ourselves of this bedtime story that says our goodness depends upon our nearness to God. Bracketing out the existence or nonexistence of such a being, let’s just admit to ourselves that there is no “fallen state.” Everyone enjoys the basic dignity of being human and we have the potential to do enormous harm or good whether we are religious or not.

bookmark_borderThe E-Word In Arkansas

“I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are,” says an Arkansas geologist and science teacher. “I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.” That and many other absurdities as reported by the Arkansas Times. The Times also reports that “several Arkansas public school districts” have intentionally crippled their science education and have purged the e-word “evolution” from their vocabulary. So these fifth-grade kids are growing up without a real science education. The Soviet Union set itself back decades with its fetish for Lysenkoism, which subverted genetics via political propaganda. It looks like here in the U.S. we’re continuing to subvert science education via religious propaganda — and our children are the real losers.

bookmark_borderThe secular oppose torture more than Christians do

Not surprisingly considering the content of the Bible, a Pew poll shows that 57% of those who are “secular” think that torture is never or only rarely acceptable, while only 42% of Catholics and 49% of white Protestants and white evangelicals feel that way. (I’m not sure why the poll only looked at white Protestants and evangelicals.)

The survey question was “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” The poll was taken of 2,006 adults between October 12-24, 2005.

The possible answers were Often, Sometimes, Rarely, Never, and Don’t know/refused to answer.

The results:

Total U.S. public:
Often: 15%
Sometimes: 31%
Rarely: 17%
Never: 32%
Don’t know/refused: 5%

Secular:
Often: 10%
Sometimes: 25%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 41%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

Total Catholic:
Often: 21%
Sometimes: 35%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 26%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

White Protestant:
Often: 15%
Sometimes: 34%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 31%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

White evangelical:
Often: 13%
Sometimes: 36%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 31%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

I score this one as a point against the thesis that religious people are more moral than non-religious people.

(Via Andrew Sullivan’s blog.)

bookmark_borderPlantinga on ID

Alvin Plantinga has an interesting comment on judge John Jones’s recent anti-ID (intelligent design) ruling.

Now, I find it hard to agree with much of what Plantinga is saying (as usual), but he also has a few good points. In particular, trying to define science in such as way as to exclude supernatural agents as part of scientific explanations is dubious. This “methodological naturalism” type of argument has long been useful for scoring political points against creationists, but it’s at best a useful first approximation, not the full story. Methods have reasons; they are not a priori principles. Depending on what kind of world we live in, some methods will be useful for generating reliable knowledge, others will not be so useful. In that sense, there is no sharp separation between the results and the methods of our sciences. And so “methodological naturalism” is also not something handed down from on high — it’s a practical, well-tested approach, not a prior constraint on scientific inquiry. (I would add that the success of methodological naturalism is a strong reason for thinking that our world is a strictly naturalistic kind of world.)

That being said, there are plenty of other reasons to reject the claim that ID is scientific — not its violation of a set of logical principles but its consistent failure as an ostensibly scientific enterprise. For more, see contributions in Why Intelligent Design Fails, which I edited together with Matt Young. It’s just out in paperback.

bookmark_borderThe Evolution of God

The other day I was chatting with friends and the subject of God came up. (Imagine that!) They knew I was an atheist and one of them, who had been reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, told me that one thing in the book left a lasting impact on her. She said that it had never quite occurred to her that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a very different portrait than that painted by Christianity. “If God didn’t like a neighboring tribe,” she remarked, “he would instruct an Israeli king to rise up and he’s help him to wipe them out.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

It’s always rewarding to see such an “a ha” moment because I’ve spent years trying to dissuade people from the mistaken notion that God is a concept that has been fixed among people for all time. The concept of God has changed radically over the centuries and means different things to different people. The ancient Hebrews were not monotheists. As Mueller coined the term, they were henotheists, or believers in “monotheism in principle” but “polytheism in fact.” They would not have denied the existence of other gods, the ones the Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and other neighbors worshipped. But Jehovah (YHWH) was special because this particular god established a bond with the Jews. The dictum to have no other gods before him is quite literally a reference to worship only him rather than to make libations to the other gods out there. (Today among Christians, for whom polytheism is an unknown concept, this is taken metaphorically to mean that one should focus on God rather than to chase after riches or “worldly” things.) The point is that monotheism and the conception of God evolved over time. It’s still evolving. A current fad among fundamentalists posits that God wants his believers to be rich. (What biblical basis is there for this idea? Hint: look to the new covenant when it comes to salvation but to the old one when it comes to wealth.)

One advantage the Hebrew conception of God has over the Christian conception is that is solves the problem of evil. The Hebrew God smites his enemies because they are the enemies of Israel; no logical paradox between omnipotence and omnibenevolence at all. Of course, this raises the question of whether such a being is worthy of worship but that’s for another day.