Daniel Dennett on why a scientific study of religion is necessary.

From the FEB/MAR 2006 issue of Seed:

Jesus, made from the elements.

Religion is such an important phenomenon that it is high time we directed all the magnificent truth-seeking tools of science on religions, to see what makes them work in the ways they do. I am not suggesting that science should try to do what religion does, but that it should study, scientifically, what religion does. Is there a good reason to oppose this? Those who are dubious about, or fearful of, the authority of science will have to search their souls. Do they acknowledge the power of science, properly conducted, to settle controversial factual questions or do they reserve judgment, waiting to see what the verdict will be? The ethos of science is that you pay a price for the authoritative confirmation of your favorite hypothesis, risking an authoritative refutation of it. Those who want to make claims about religion will have to live by the same rules: prove it or drop it. And if you set out to prove it and fail, you are obliged to tell us.

The potential benefits to religion of joining the scientific community are enormous: getting the authority of science in support of what you say you believe with all your heart and soul. Not for nothing have the new religions of the last century or two been given names like Christian Science and Scientology. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with its unfortunate legacy of persecution of its own scientists, has recently been eager to seek scientific confirmation—and accept the risk of disconfirmation—of its traditional claims about the Shroud of Turin, for example.

In spite of this progress, the church’s attitude toward science is still in disarray. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared that “new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis,” and while many biologists were cheered by this acknowledgment of the fundamental scientific theory that unifies all of biology, they noted with dismay that he went on to insist that the transition from ape to human being involved a “transition to the spiritual” that could not be accounted for by biology. According to the pope, the theories of evolutionary biology provided an acceptable account of the rest of the biosphere but were “incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.” Last summer, Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, published an op-ed essay in the New York Times emphasizing that the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is actually opposed to neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection.

According to Archbishop Schönborn, Catholics may use “the light of reason” to arrive at the conclusion that “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” is not possible, a conclusion firmly refuted by thousands of observations, experiments and calculations by experts in biology when they use their own light of reason.  So, in spite of some important concessions over the years—and an official apology to Galileo centuries after the fact—the Roman Catholic Church is still in the awkward and indefensible position of trying to lean on scientific authority when Catholics like what it concludes while flatly rejecting it when it contradicts their traditions.

We need to replace this partisan advertising with objective research. Consider, for instance, the question of whether religion is good for your health. There is growing evidence that many religions have succeeded remarkably well on this score, improving both the health and the morale of their members, quite independently of the good works they may have accomplished to benefit others. For instance, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are much less common among women in Muslim countries, in which the physical attractiveness of women plays a muted role relative to that in Westernized countries. Such early results are impressive enough to have provoked knee-jerk skeptical dismissals from some atheists who haven’t stopped to consider how independent these questions are from whether or not any religious beliefs are true. 

The results so far are strong but in need of further investigation. It might well be that believing in God (and engaging in all the practices that go with that belief) improves your state of mind and thereby improves your health by, say, 10%.  We should do the research to find out for sure, bearing in mind that it also may be true that believing that Earth is being invaded by space aliens who plan to take us to their planet and teach us all how to fly (and engaging in all the behaviors that are appropriate to that belief) improves your state of mind and health by 20%! We won’t know until we run the experiments. Since the benign effects that religions do seem to be having would probably diminish if skepticism took hold, regardless of whether it was justified, caution is called for. Many effects studied by psychologists depend on naive subjects who are relatively uninformed about the mechanisms and conditions of the phenomena. The effects are diminished or entirely obliterated when subjects are given more information. We should be alert to the possibility that the good effects, if they hold up to further scrutiny, might be jeopardized by anything that throws too strong a light of public scrutiny on them. On the other hand, the effects may be robust under a barrage of skeptical attention. We will just have to see.

One strand in the current wave of research on religion raises a more fundamental issue, in undeniable terms. Studies are now under way on the efficacy of intercessory prayer, “praying with the real hope and real intent that God would step in and act for the good of some specific other person(s) or other entity.” Scientists have plenty of resources already well in hand that could explain general health benefits to those who pray and practice and tithe; no supernatural forces would need to be invoked to account for such ambient health benefits. But if a properly conducted, double-blind, rigorously controlled test with a sufficiently large population of subjects were to demonstrate that people who are prayed for were significantly more likely to get well than people who got the same medical treatments but were not prayed for, this would be all but impossible for science to account for without a major revolution. 

Many atheists and other skeptics are so confident that no such effects could possibly exist that they are eager to see these tests performed. Those, in contrast, who believe in intercessory prayer have a tough call here. The stakes are high, since if the studies are performed properly, and show no positive effect, then the religions that practice it would be obliged by the principles of truth in advertising to renounce all claims to the efficacy of such prayers. On the other hand, a positive result would stop science in its tracks. After 500 years of steady retreat in the face of advancing science, religion could demonstrate, in terms that the scientists would have to respect, that its claims to truth were not all vacuous.

In 2001, a Columbia University study purportedly showed that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who were not prayed for. Published in a major scientific journal, Journal of Reproductive Medicine, the results were worth the headlines, since Columbia University is not a Bible Belt college that would be instantly under suspicion in many quarters. Its Medical School is a bastion of the medical establishment, and it supported the results in a news release that described the safeguards that had been taken to ensure that this was a properly controlled investigation. But to make a long and sordid story short, it has subsequently turned out that this was a case of scientific fraud. Of the three authors of the study, two have now left their positions at Columbia University and the third, Daniel Wirth, who had no connection with Columbia, has recently pled guilty in an unrelated case to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud—and turns out not to have any medical credentials at all. One intercessory prayer study is discredited, and others have been severely criticized, but there are still others under way, including a major study by Dr. Herbert Benson and his colleagues of Harvard Medical School funded by the Templeton Foundation, so there is no verdict yet on the hypothesis that it actually works. Even if studies eventually show that it doesn’t, there will still be plenty of evidence of less miraculous benefits of being an active member of a church, which is all that many churches have ever maintained. Moreover, the defenders of religion can rightly point to less tangible but more substantial benefits to their adherents, such as providing a meaning for their lives! People who are suffering, even if their morale is not improved in measurable ways, may well gain some solace from nothing more than the knowledge that they are being acknowledged, noticed, thought about. It would be a mistake to suppose that these “spiritual” blessings have no place in the inventory of reasons that we skeptics are trying to assay, just as it would be a mistake to suppose that the non-existence of an intercessory prayer effect would show that prayer is a useless practice. There are subtler benefits to be evaluated—but they do need to be identified.

The costs and benefits of religion need to be assayed with the scrupulous objectivity of science, but what about science itself, then? What dark cravings might it be satisfying? Might it not have its share of ignoble ancestors, or be driven by embarrassing lusts? The practical benefits that have driven the scientific quest are often there, to be sure, but perhaps just as often science has proceeded by an arguably pathological excess of curiosity—knowledge for its own sake, at whatever cost. Might science turn out to be an irresistible bad habit? It might be. So might religion.

One can acknowledge then, that science doesn’t have the monopoly on truth, and some of its critics have argued that it doesn’t even live up to its advertisements as a reliable source of objective knowledge. I am going to deal swiftly with this bizarre claim, for two reasons: I and others have already dealt with it at length, and besides, everybody knows better—whatever they may say in the throes of academic battle. They reveal this again and again in their daily lives. I have yet to meet a postmodern science critic who is afraid to fly in an airplane because he doesn’t trust the calculations of the thousands of aeronautical engineers and physicists that have demonstrated and exploited the principles of flight, nor have I ever heard of a devout Wahhabi who prefers consulting his favorite imam about the proven oil reserves in Saudi Arabia over the calculations of geologists. Every church trusts arithmetic to keep track accurately of the receipts in the collection plate, and we all calmly ingest drugs from aspirin to Zocor, confident that there is ample scientific evidence in support of the hypothesis that these are safe and effective.

But what about all the controversies in science? New theories are trumpeted one week and discredited the next. When Nobel laureates disagree over a scientific claim, at least one of them is just wrong, in spite of being an anointed prince or princess of the church of science. And what about the occasional scandals of fraudulent data and suppression of results? Scientists are not infallible, nor are they, as a rule, more virtuous than laypeople, but they do submit to a remarkable discipline that keeps them honest in spite of themselves, imposing elaborate systems of self-restraint and review, and to a remarkable degree depersonalizing their individual contributions. So while it is true that there have been eminent scientists that were racists, or sexists or drug addicts or just plain crazy, their contributions almost always stand or fall independently of these personal failings, thanks to the filters, checks and balances that weed out the unreliable work.

Through a microscope, the cutting edge of a beautifully sharpened axe looks like the Rocky Mountains, all jagged and irregular, but it is the dull heft of the steel behind the edge that gives the axe its power. Similarly, the cutting edge of science seen up close looks ragged and chaotic, a bunch of big egos engaging in shouting matches, their judgment distorted by jealousy, ambition and greed, but behind them, agreed upon by all the disputants, is the massive routine weight of accumulated results, the facts that give science its power. Not surprisingly, those who want to puncture the reputation of science and drain off its immense prestige and influence tend to ignore the wide-angle perspective and concentrate on the clashes of schools and their not-so-hidden agendas. But ironically, when they set out to make their case for the prosecution (using all the finely polished tools of logic and statistics), all their good evidence of the failings and biases of science comes from science’s own highly vigorous exercises in self-policing and self-correction. The critics have no choice: There is no better source of truth on any topic than well-conducted science, and they know it.

Adapted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from BREAKING THE SPELL: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett. Copyright © 2006 by Daniel C. Dennett

Originally published March 19, 2006

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