Category Archives: Religion and Science

Pray for Me, Doc!

I remember reading over the years about experiments funded by the mysterious Templeton Foundation that studied whether prayer could really heal. They’re odd experiments, in a way, since no scripture I know of claims anyone who prays can heal, much less at a distance, and no religion I know of has ever claimed prayer-healing proves the existence of God.

The New Testament certainly shows Jesus and (in the Book of Acts) his disciples walking around first-century Palestine healing sick people – usually by touching them, not praying for them, — but these signs are used to reveal the divine nature of Jesus and the Twelve, not everybody else. In fact, Simon Magus’ claim to be a healer in Acts is taken as evidence of evil.

So Christian scripture, at least, very much limits the ability to cure the sick to Jesus and his inner circle.

But there’s an understandable modern impulse to test the God hypothesis in a lab setting, and so we have a series of well-publicized prayer-healing experiments, described by Harvard neurohistorian (coolest job title ever) Anne Harrington in her recent article “The Placebo Effect: What’s Interesting for Scholars of Religion?” in Zygon.

In 1988, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital recruited a group of born-again Christians to pray for coronary patients. There was a control group of patients who were ignored. There was no overall prayer benefit detected in terms of mortality; however, the prayed-for group showed statistically significant improvements in 6 of 26 kinds of complications. Evangelicals site this study as a win for God, but the results were underwhelming.

Ten years later, a double-blind study of AIDS patients, also in San Francisco, was more encouraging. One group was prayed for based on a name and picture, while a control was not. Neither were told. In the end, the prayed-for group had slightly better outcomes than the control. God: a weak 2 points.

However, the best study yet, run by Dr. Herbert “Relaxation Response” Benson and published in 2006 in The American Heart, involving 2,000 patients at six sites, had a surprising outcome.

First, patients who were prayed for did not fare any better than those who were not. Second, a group of patients who were prayed for and told actually did worse than a group who’d been prayed for but kept in the dark.

Benson hypothesized that those who were told their doctors were seeking divine intervention for their coronary condition might have been freaked out.

What have we learned today, girls? Once again, God has evaded detection in the lab. And if you are a doctor and decide to assign a prayer group to cure a seriously ill patient — for God’s sake, don’t tell them!

God on the Brain

We were looking at lab experiments demonstrating the healthful benefits of prayer and meditation. Other, less spiritually-minded researchers have approached religious phenomenon as a kind of pathology, much as Freud did.

In the 19th century, a link was noted between some kinds of epilepsy and religious fervor. This link was studied by Norman Geschwind at Boston’s V.A. Hospital in the 1970s, who claimed temporal lobe epilepsy could cause religious obsession.

A decade later, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger built a “God Helmet” that bombarded the temporal lobes of healthy people with an electrical storm and could fake – he claimed – a “spiritual” feeling. Persinger got a lot of attention for his helmet but an attempt in 2005 in Sweden to duplicate his findings failed. Atheist Richard Dawkins put the helmet on and didn’t feel anything but mild nausea.

Another team at the University of California at San Diego claimed to have identified the “God Spot,” a specific region of the frontal cortex that is overstimulated during religious ecstasy.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Richard Strassman gained global attention for his claim that many so-called religious phenomenon were caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogenic compound occurring naturally in trace amounts in the brain.

And Dan Hamer at the National Cancer Institute inspired cover stories in both Time and Newsweek after isolating a specific gene called VMAT2 that he claimed correlated with “spirituality.” It mediated the production of neurotransmitters related to our moods, although only an atheist would think religion always makes people feel good.

Now we had a “God Gene” to go with the “God Spot.”

Then there was backlash as even committed materialists like Persinger and Hamer realized media were overstating the case. In a New Yorker article, Dr. Jerome Groopman concluded: “To believe that science is a way to decipher the divine, that technology can capture ‘God’s photograph,’ is to deify man’s handiwork.”

One methodological problem, of course, is that most religious people aren’t mystics, and it’s a long pilgrim’s progress from a nun in a tube to explaining a global social movement.

Even as the Dalai Lama himself addressed 14,000 neuroscientists at a conference on the topic of the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in 2006, a different Canadian team found not one but six regions activated by prayer, including the caudate nucleus (memory and love) and the insula (sensations), and concluded: “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain.”

And one of the team members even compared such experiments to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, which sought to explain behavior using skull shape.

Interestingly, while the researchers may have believed they were explaining God away, some of the nuns involved in the original SPECT scan studies themselves felt the opposite: excited God himself could be seen, at least indirectly.

Who’s right?

This Is Your Brain on God

Happy New Year, Seekers! Welcome to another year of Searching for an Answer to the Ultimate Question.

The Big Banana has proved particularly slippery to locate in a lab, which doesn’t stop people from trying.

So far, lab tests for God have attacked religious phenomena from two flanks – as what William James in his classic Varieties Of Religious Experience called “healthy-minded” and “sick-minded.”

On the former track, studies in the 1960s showed church attendance correlated with better health. That this effect wasn’t due solely to social support was later verified in comparisons of secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.

Also in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard began to study the “relaxation response,” the physiological benefits of mental states such as prayer and meditation. And a generation later, as brain imaging equipment grew smaller and cheaper and the West rediscovered Tibet, meditating brains (including the Dalai Lama’s) were subject to even greater scrutiny. They were found to have higher baseline levels of activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the brain’s center of attention and well-being.

In addition, practiced meditators were calmer, less easily startled because their “amygdalas are less trigger-happy,” in the words of Harvard neurohistorian Anne Harrington.

Starting at the turn of the millennium, researchers shifted from observing states of relaxation to “explaining” religious phenomenon.

In a well-known experiment conducted in 2001 by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, meditators and nuns were strapped into a jet engine-like machine called a SPECT scanner and injected with radioactive dye at peak moments.

The scans also showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. More interestingly, there was decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region in the top rear of the brain responsible for orienting us in space.

Conclusion: the feelings of “unity” and “oneness” reported by mystics in many religions may be caused by prayer-induced spatial disorientation.

Speculation abounded, with one team of neuroscientists even suggesting that the Christian trinity and the historical evolution of religions mirrored the three parts of the human brain – the brain stem (survival), limbic/hippocampal (emotion), and neocortex. (In the 4th century, Augustine already made a connection between the trinity and a three-part human brain, although he claimed the cause-and-effect flowed the other way: that we mirrored God.)

One of the original SPECT researchers, Andrew Newberg, cautioned in a 2010 interview: “One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that.”

Next Time: Is God just an epileptic brain lesion?!

Durkheim for Dummies

Ponticulating in the pews last Sunday — don’t look it up: I invented that word, — a question occurred. Who, exactly, are we worshipping?

Stick with me here. It gets delirious.

Yes, we’re quite clear it’s the Christ (a title, not a name) who rose on the third day “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” And yes, we’re all pointing forward at a big statue of Mary, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to the tamale-like Salma Hayek.

And yet, Emile Durkheim had a better idea. He’s a sociologist, not a theologian, who sifted through the same reports from aboriginal Australia as Sigmund Freud did to mash up his hilarious Totem and Taboo.

Durkheim was more systematic than Freud, and probably closer to the truth. In fact, his theory of religion is one believers should avoid, because it crawls into your combat zone and makes going to church more ambiguous.

What? Durkheim worked in the late 19th century and emphasized the causal role society plays on individual action. Religion, he said, is “an eminently social thing.” His point seems obvious, probably because he told us: People are far more acted upon than acting.

Two words: Baaa baaa!

Australian religions Durkheim knew worshipped “totems,” or symbolic objects representing animals and plants. In itself, the totem is worthless. It is endowed with sacred qualities by the tribe.

Here’s where it gets weird, bros. The tribe’s totem represented the tribe itself, in sacred form. The “cockatoo clan” identified itself with the cockatoo. The totem is identified with the cockatoo, but sacred.

Can you see where Durkheim’s going? Nobel Prize for you! Make it two — you’re a genius.

Take out the rock (or whatever the particular symbol of worship happens to be), and what are the cockatoo people actually doing?

Well? Ideas?

They’re worshipping THEMSELVES! For Durkheim, religion is an elaborate set of rituals whereby a society imbues ITSELF with sacred value. The particular “theology” behind these acts is so much smoke and mirrors: it has no reality.

Wow. If you’re like me, the moment I heard this bad boy, it was like a lovely explosion of yes. It feels like it could be right.

So back to St. Mary’s Basilica in Minneapolis last Sunday. We R.C.’s are looking at a man we are supposed to emulate. That man became us (human). The congregation is explicitly called the “body of Christ.” And we even have a “totem” in the Eucharist. Take out the packaged wafer with the cross on it and what have you got?

A thousand dour Minnesotans worshipping themselves.

Religious Epistemology for Absolute Blithering Idiots

Is there a God?

After five months, let’s face it: religious epistemology is the ground under our teepees here. And in the spirit of trying to make ourselves make sense, at least to ourselves, let’s say what it is and is not and why to care. Fear not, friends!

Epistemology is the study of how we know anything. Religious epistemology is how we know God. Specifically, two questions: Is belief in God rational? If not, is it at least reasonable? Rational means compatible with rules of logic and coherence. Reasonable means acceptable by some sane criteria, which may or may not be rational.

So knock-knock: God? Common argument: Belief in God is not rational because (1) there is no evidence to support it, and/or (2) there is evidence to the contrary. The “Problem of Evil” (Why do assholes get rich and nice guys get lupus, “God”?) is the most common chorus for (2). We can’t solve that one here. Argument (1) is probably the single most common justification for atheism since David Hume. It’s what Bertrand Russell supposedly said on his death bed: “Not enough evidence, God.”

Note that (1) does not prove there is no God, the same way debunking every UFO sighting does not prove there are no ETs. It just says: Belief is not rational right now.

Okay, so what kinds of “evidence” are acceptable for believing in God? To strict rationalists, only two: Self-evident, meaning obvious once understood. (Anselm’s ontological proof goes here.) Or Clearly evident to the senses, which needs no expl.

Even believers might agree God is neither self-evident nor evident to the senses. So belief is irrational – right?

Hold button. Breathe. Press play. Believers respond in two ways. First, they can claim there is evidence for God. Intelligent Design types are here, who say the universe is too finely-tuned or life way too complex to deny God. Problem is, the march of time seems to fill in a lot of “gaps” where God used to be.

Second, they can say the test itself is flawed. In fact, before Hume and Kant, for long millenia, nobody’s faith hinged on any evidential test. Anselm would hardly have hung up his cassock if shown his “proof” was all wet. Even now, there can’t be a McDonald’s booth-full of believers who got faith from scientific evidence. Feels like the rules of boxing imposed on mixed martial arts, huh? Something’s off.

Force a modern gal, she’ll tell you her beliefs are based on premises derived from evidence. Push her, she’ll admit some of this evidence doesn’t come from her senses but from other people she’s got no reason to doubt, like actors, I mean, doctors. (This used to be called deferring to authority, but we don’t do that.)

We think our beliefs come from evidence that, if clearly seen by any sane person, would be shared. Right? But if post-modernists and magicians taught us anything, it’s that our minds are absurdly subjective and our senses second-rate. Example: Psychologists have shown that people routinely overestimate how important they are to the world to a laughable degree, yet in the immortal words of Journey, we don’t stop believing.

This story continues. The teepee stands another night. Whew.

The Conflict of Science & Satan (aka the Vatican)!

Draper BookAs we were saying, John William Draper’s History of the Conflict of Religion and Science has set the story arc for much of the modern blah blah on faith and reason. Which is too bad, because even a quick glance at the book (as opposed to positive glosses by Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, William Manchester, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Dawkins) reveals it to be an orgy of anti-Catholic buggery from cover to cover, without even the decency of a wrap-around footnote or bibliography.

Draper’s mega-bestselling diatribe has twelve chapters, eight of which contain the word “Conflict” or “Controversy.” Chapter II sets an ominous tone: “The Origin of Christianity — Its Transformation on Attaining Imperial Status.” (Close up on the Pope polishing his jack-boots!)

Writing in 1876, Draper notes optimistically “there is a great and rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith,” particularly among “the intelligent.” Whew!

Of course, it’s still true that “divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction.” As he sees it: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests in the other.”

In particular, “the Papacy … insists on a political supremacy … and a restoration of the medieval order of things” — which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate description of Catholicism in the 1870s. That was the era of the idiot-megalomaniacal Pope Pius IX and his infamous “Syllabus of Errors,” which condemned, among other things, free speech, public schools, and the separation of church and state. As well as the First Vatican Council, which gave us Papal Infallibility and explicitly demoted reason to a status below that of faith. Modern Catholics (like me) look back with well-earned embarrassment on this reactionary moment.

Draper’s story quickly becomes a battle between Good and Evil: “Science … has never attempted to throw odium or inflict social ruin on any human being,” he says.  On the other hand, Satan — I mean, “The Vatican … They have been steeped in blood!” (He likes exclamation points, as does The God Project Dot Net!)

Draper’s simple narrative begins with Christianity and “its incorporation with paganism” at the conversion of Constantine. The first big Conflict he (puzzlingly) calls the Southern Reformation. Somehow, as Draper sees it, the Church’s insistence on Creeds and whatnot caused the Roman Empire to lose the Middle East, which then became a thriving center of science, while the Christian West descended into the Dark Ages.

Draper sees the 16th Century Reformation not as a conflict of Protestants vs. Catholics but as a chapter in the battle of Reason vs. Power-Mad Evil. Luther, though religious, stood for “intellectual freedom.” And so into the 19th century, which he sees as a battle of rational progress against “divine intervention” (i.e., irrational stasis).

Seeing history as a series of progressive conflicts is very Hegelian, of course, and Draper’s narrative is of a piece with Hegel’s prevailing thesis-antithesis-synthesis system. In fact, the system overwhelms the facts, as Draper recklessly edits, misquotes, unbalances and otherwise distorts a history he probably knew to fit the epic script he definitely believed. And I think he knew exactly what he was doing: “It is impossible to comprehend justly the doings of persons who lived many years ago,” he warns us in the Preface.

As Johns Hopkins Professor Lawrence Principe points out in a sweet set of lectures on “Science and Religion,” Draper’s book “is not good history: historical ‘facts’ are confected, and causes and chronologies are twisted to the author’s purpose.”

For example, Draper blames the Catholic Church’s bias against sex for depressing the population of Europe during the Middle Ages. Another battle: Lust vs. the Pope. Draper says it is well-known that the “generative force [i.e., horniness] will double a population in twenty-five years.” But England’s population “scarcely doubled” from two million to four million between 1066 and the Reformation. According to Draper’s “math,” England’s population in 1500 — without the evil influence of Rome — should have been 2.1 trillion. (p263)

Draper has a chapter on the age of the earth and of course trots out (with no citations) the statement that “the Fathers of the Church” believed that “the date of Creation was comparatively recent, not more than four or five thousand years before Christ” and that “the act of Creation occupied the space of six ordinary days.”

However, our friend Augustine — about as Church Father-ly as it’s possible to get — wrote early and often that the Biblical “days” of Genesis could not possibly be literal days because time requires change, change requires matter, and God had not created matter in the beginning but only light. So time did not exist … in the beginning. The six-literal-day thesis has always been a fringe opinion, especially among Catholics.

And so on. Draper had a near contemporary, a Cornell historian named Andrew Dickson White, who also published a book in 1876 (“The Warfare of Science“) and a much longer, two-volume doorstop called “A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology” 20 years later. Despite having footnotes, White was no more judicious than Draper. He’s now known as the guy who made a century of American schoolkids believe that before Columbus, everybody thought the Earth was flat and the Church opposed sphericity, on principle.

In reality, anyone who looks out at the ocean horizon can see the world is round, and the Ancient Greeks had done exactly that.

* Since this is now officially my longest post ever, I figure there’s no harm in really going for it and making it longer … I recently read a fun historical mystery set in the 17th century, part of a series by a young woman named S. J. Parris featuring the mystic-scientist Giordano Bruno. Coincidentally, this series is very much in the tradition of Draper and White, Sagan and Bronowski: Parris sets a very rational astronomer (Bruno) against the Church, and claims on almost every page that Bruno’s belief in a heliocentric universe and planetary systems made him a hunted man. White says the same thing (“[Bruno] was hunted from land to land”). However, the historical record is much more ambiguous. Apparently, we don’t know why Bruno was persecuted, but according to historian Frances Yates, he was certainly a self-proclaimed magician who worshipped the Sun and wanted to start his own religion. And, of course, solve mysteries.

Science & Religion: The Smoking Gun, Found!

There is a persistent myth that science and religion are historical opponents — the Roman church pulls out big guns when a scientist appears. In fact, science itself wasn’t even a respectable “profession” until the 18th century — really, the 19th — and to this day scientists are just as likely to be religious as anybody else. Newton, Kepler, Boyle, Darwin, even Galileo — they all believed in God.

Yet I know at the Cranbrook Academy for Boys, where I misspent by youth, I was told that the Catholic Church martyred Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial was typical of the church-truth relationship.

“Studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.” — Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion” (p.ix)

No, the myth of warfare is just that: a story, written by a person, that went viral and spun out of control until it found its way into textbooks (since revised). Unlike other myths, in the case of this so-called Conflict Thesis, we actually know the writer.

Hola, John William Draper! Draper was an English minister’s son — see trouble a-comin?! — who studied chemistry and emigrated to Virginia in the 1830s, and later became a chemistry professor at New York University. He claimed to have taken the first photograph of a person ever (his sister) and the first photo of the surface of the moon.

Draper wrote prolifically, and in the 1870s was asked to contribute a volume to a popular series published by Yeomans on the topic of Science & Religion. In 1874, he published his instant best-seller “History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.” Hugely popular, widely translated, it set the tone for mainstream understanding of the topic to this day.

In fact, the book is still in print, with great atheists like Richard Dawkins citing it as a credible witness to the evils of religion, and lowly Amazon reviewers crowing, “I found this to be an amazing book!” (Jake D, Louisiana)

Sadly, what its many New Atheist fans don’t know is that Draper’s book has been thoroughly, entirely and devastatingly dismissed as a credible work of historiography for decades now. Historian Colin Russell summarizes the verdict: “Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact, that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study” (from Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, p. 15).

Draper’s book is basically anti-Catholic propaganda, the kind of polemic 21st century Americans have forgotten. (Draper’s sister — to whom he was, um, oddly close — converted to Catholicism and changed, as he saw it, not for the better.) In the mid-19th century, “Catholic” had many of the same connotations “Communist” would come to have a century later: anti-American, foreign, totalitarian, sneaky. There were violent anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844, for example, and 20 people DIED. Yikes.

As a historian, Draper is a fine chemist. He’s sloppy, doesn’t cite sources, takes quotes wildly out of context, makes unsupported assertions, and radically distorts the facts. All leading up to “Chapter XII. THE IMPENDING CRISIS” — which is … you can guess, or wait till next time.