The God Meter

A week or so ago, I attended “Darwinian Evolution in the 21st Century,” the 21st Regional Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science (Friday evening and Saturday, April 7 and 8, 2006) at the University of Colorado. The conference kicked off with talks by Rob Pennock and Betty Smocovitis on Friday night and continued Saturday with eight contributed papers. Anyone who is in the Boulder-Denver area at roughly this time next year will doubtless be rewarded by attending the 22nd conference.

Victor Stenger of the University of Colorado presented a talk called “ Can Science Study the Supernatural?” He concluded, correctly in my opinion, that it can. Indeed, Professor Stenger considers that we are studying claims of the supernatural when we study ESP, near-death experiences, the Shroud of Turin, or religious visions or miracles. Some of these turn out to have plausible natural explanations, but we could not have said a priori that they would necessarily. Many people accept studies of the supernatural when “supernatural” is interpreted to mean ESP or near-death experiences but demur when the question is phrased, “Can Science Study Religion?” or “Can Science Study God?” as opposed to the broader “supernatural.” I will argue, with Professor Stenger, that science can indeed study claims of religion when those claims are factual statements about the natural world or purport to be factual statements about the natural world. But I will take issue with his contention that science has disproved the existence of God and show why I think it is a politically dangerous argument.

Professor Stenger cites several studies of distant intercessory prayer, wherein people prayed for strangers to recover from a disease. He accepts three such studies as being properly blinded and randomized: Mayo Clinic, Duke, and, most recently, Harvard et al. None of these studies yielded a positive result. It is possible that the objects of the prayer had a lot of “unauthorized” people praying for them, so the background noise wholly obscured the effect of the experimental prayer group, but the experiments are sound in principle if not in practice and exemplify a scientific study of religion.

Professor Stenger proposes a brilliant thought experiment: Suppose that a distant intercessory prayer experiment had been conducted, and it turned out that the prayers of Catholics were answered in the affirmative, but the prayers of Jews, Protestants, and Muslims had no effect above the control group (those who were not explicitly prayed for). We would look very hard for natural explanations, examine the experimental protocol in detail, replicate the experiment, and so on. Let us suppose that we could come up with no natural explanation, however improbable. Let us then, for argument’s sake, concede supernatural intervention, presumably by God. Yes, Professor Stenger is proposing a God-of-the-gaps argument. But let us assume that the odds in favor of a natural explanation are so slim that science will have proved the existence of God, perhaps even (according to Professor Stenger) the Catholic conception of God. The point is made: Science can in principle investigate God.

The failure of distant prayer studies and other scientific evidence have led Professor Stenger to conclude that God does not exist. I have examined much of the evidence myself (, and I agree with him. (You could argue that empirical evidence is not appropriate inasmuch as a belief in God may properly be based on faith. But religious believers commonly cite evidence, often anecdotal, to support their beliefs, so I take it that evidence really matters, in spite of protestations to the contrary. What is at issue is the kind and quality of evidence.) People have searched high and low for evidence of a deity, and to my mind convincing evidence has not been found. An empiricist is justified in concluding, at least tentatively, that it has not been found because a deity does not exist.

But Professor Stenger goes further and claims that science has conclusively disproved God. His God detector, as he says, is pinned at 0. To paraphrase a questioner, maybe he has it set on an insufficiently sensitive scale. Maybe it is set on the 1-megagod scale, whereas it needs to be set on the 1-god scale.

Professor Stenger did not wholly address the question but responded that he was referring to the benevolent Christian God. Again, I agree with his conclusion, inasmuch as I think that evil and misfortune count decisively against a benevolent and omnipotent God, and any theodicies I have ever read are but lame rationalizations.

The claim that science has conclusively disproved God is what your physician might call a diagnosis of exclusion. That is what she uses when she has no firm idea what you have. Let us say you go to the doc complaining of fatigue, muscle and joint pains, and physical weakness. The doc fails to find anything wrong with you and tells you, by exclusion, that there is indeed nothing wrong with you (or it is all in your head). The next day (or so it seems), medicine discovers a new syndrome, fibromyalgia. The etiology of fibromyalgia is unclear, though it may be related to autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Nevertheless, it is a recognized syndrome, and there is after all something wrong with you.

The physician’s diagnosis was justified when she made it, but it was a diagnosis-of-the-gaps argument and promptly disproved. Professor Stenger’s argument is likewise an atheism-of-the-gaps argument, and, whereas I think it is most likely right, I cannot agree that it is conclusive. Indeed, it is the same diagnosis of exclusion that intelligent-design creationists use when they claim that we cannot figure out how the bacterial flagellum has evolved, so therefore it did not.

I am concerned that strident arguments linking science to atheism are counterproductive. Creationists claim that evolution and religion are incompatible (though they usually mean their version of religion). If they ever convince the public to automatically link science with atheism, then evolution is done for, and it will take science down with it. Rightly or wrongly, many people believe in God, and many of those same people support evolution and oppose creationism, whether intelligent-design creationism or other. Force them to choose between their religion and science, and a great many will probably choose religion, to the detriment of science.

The argument that science has disproved God, besides being wrong, puts religious believers who support science into an untenable position and risks alienating precisely those people whose support we desperately need.

Acknowledgement. Glenn Branch read and commented on this article in draft form, but he is not responsible.