Saturday, June 23, 2007


Stanley Fish, a columnist I recommend, wrote in the New York Times last week about “Atheism and Evidence”. His argument was an old one that one hears from the very religious – that truth is constructed, and both science and religion are based on faith, so one is just as valid as the other.

I will concede that science is also based on faith. We don’t have direct experience of all that science tells us, yet we choose to accept it, really on faith.

The question of which is the more valid hinges on how great a leap of faith is required.

In my entry from last week, I noted how while most Americans say they have faith in science, in practice they hold to very unscientific beliefs. People hold those beliefs simply because they seem to work OK for them. As a guide to a good life, religion works pretty well for many people.

One chooses the truth that one finds most fruitful as a guide to living one’s life. Religion for many is a kind of rule of thumb for righteous living.

This is only understandable if one recognizes that what we call “truth” is really just a proposition about reality. The religious tend to believe that Truth has a capital “T”, that there are fixed, eternal, immutable truths, just as the fundamentalists believe that species are fixed and immutable. Science tells us that everything is in motion, everything experiences constant change, nothing stands still but everything evolves.

Science starts from the hypothesis, which is a kind of proposition. Let’s assume that something will work, and then test it out in practice. If it works, it’s a valid guide to action. Science assumes that truth is not fixed, that what works under most circumstances will not work under all circumstances. But if “by and large, for the most part” (to borrow a phrase from Aristotle) it holds true, if experiments produce verifiable and repeatable results, we can trust the hypothesis.

Religion is pre-scientific – it offers truths that it does not feel obliged to prove through evidence. For example, many religions recommend faith in the power of prayer. Science says, rather than just accept that prayer is powerful, let’s test it in practice. Thus a large study funded by the John Templeton Foundation tested the power of prayer in practice – and found no evidence that it had any positive effect on the health of heart patients.

Many atheists will conclude that religious folks are acting irrationally when they pray. But I think we have to understand that the object of the healing power of prayer is not the person prayed for, but the person doing the praying.

Human beings desperately want to believe that they can have some power over the tempestuous world we live in. Believing in prayer gives them hope that they can somehow bring about a positive outcome, even in circumstances where they are quite powerless. Believing that one has power to bring about positive outcomes, that there is always something one can do, is a very healthy mindset. Prayer therefore has a very concrete benefit – otherwise people would not be praying.

One has faith in the truths that seem to yield the best results.

No comments: