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catallaxy in technical exile

Scientific analysis of religious claims: Removing the taboo

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Religious commentary has for centuries been directed toward the practitioners and results of scientific inquiry.  However, it was and is taboo to direct scientific inquiry and commentary at religion.  There are some who are beginning to direct such inquiry toward religion. Publication of their results has resulted in no small amount of vitriol.  Some recent examples follow:
Medical study questions the power of prayer – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found. And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post- operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.

For those of you with access to the American Heart Journal, you can find the HubMed view of the abstract here.  The groups practicing intercessory prayer were all Christian, with two of them Catholic and one Protestant.  I suppose you could argue on the basis of this that intercessory prayer from those particular denominations was discounted, but that other religious groups’ power of intercessory prayer is still unkown. In fact, I think that’s all that you could say from the article. However, given the history of contradictory and statistically unsound studies that have been published, it could be said that this is the first conclusive study on intercessory prayer for heart bypass patients. Since I believe and support this study, I’ll point out a few people who have issues with the conclusions:

Daily Musings proffers the typical anecdotal refutation:

The following article just caused me to have to post it along with my own real – life observations. The study is BUNK and anyone familiar with trying to scientifically measure a spirtitual issue will have to agree. The study has the form of a study, but not the substance. You cannot simply recruit several CHURCHES TO PRAY FOR SOMEONE AND THINK NOONE PRAYS FOR THE OTHER CONTROL GROUP. From a Biblical perspective it is clear that the prayer of a righteous man works a lot (paraphase). Now, I will simply stae that I have seen prayer work MANY times personally and also talked with many others who had the clear results of prayer in their lives. I repeat, to say prayer does not work is BUNK.

Linda shares her opinion on Catskill Eagles:

Each person assigned to pray was given the patients first name and last initial, like Melissa B., but what if there’s 68,700 Melissa B’s in the world? How does the prayer find it’s target? What if the people praying threw in a prayer after all for all the people no one was praying for?

shouldn’t God know who you’re praying for? He knows everything, after all. And He’s all-powerful, right? Or not:

Which brings me back to the study. The researchers gave God a deadline. That’s a bit arrogant don’t you think? The study measured the patients after 30 days. Maybe God was addressing more urgent needs, children with AIDS in Africa, the brave men and women who are our nation’s military, the shattered and homeless. Who are we to say what timetable He should be on. So if you pray for a “successful surgery with no complications”. . how do you know, in 30 days, whether the results will sustain the person, or only hasten their death six months from now.

What’s the upper limit to how many people God can save at once?

To be fair, these are just some of the latest opinions on the story that I found on Technorati. I’d like to see some perhaps better-supported arguments if you have them or have found them elsewhere. This has not yet drawn a lot of vitriol. I expect that to come tomorrow, when people get back to their normal working week and blog-reading procrastination.

Another case of this taboo occurred a few weeks ago, sparked by some newspaper articles on Daniel Dennett‘s new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin Group 2006) (ISBN 067003472X). There’s a review of it here. Letters to the editor regarding the New York Times’ controversial review are here. I’d link to the review, but it’s behind NYT’s registration, which I have not and will not participate in. If you want to look at it, you can find it from the linked page. “Evolution News and Views,” a misnomer if I ever heard one, is of course quite happy with Wieseltier’s review. After all, the site is merely a mouthpiece for proponents of Intelligent Design. It’s so bad that it really deserves a post of its own, and perhaps it will get one later. Hell’s Handmaiden takes what I think to be a reasonable look at the problems with the original book review here.

This, I predict, is the beginning of a much larger trend, a “New Enlightenment” in which religion is stripped of its taboo protection. The reactions of those who disagree with the findings should be, at the very least, educational.  In a way, I think this has a parallel with economic analysis, which often ruffles people’s feathers when uncomfortable conclusions are reached.


Written by Admin

April 3, 2006 at 5:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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