What Do You Find Most Interesting or Surprising About the S&R Discussion Today? Victor Stenger Answers

I find it surprising that most scientists, believers and nonbelievers alike, refuse to apply their critical thinking skills to matters of religion. Unless religious teachings impinge directly on their work, such as in opposing the teaching of evolution or, more recently, in denying global warming, scientists prefer to follow Stephen Jay Gould’s dictum that science and religion occupy two “non-overlapping magisteria.”

The National Academy of Sciences is regarded as the defining voice of science in America. Its membership represents the elite of U.S. scientists. It has taken a strong position that science has nothing to say about God or the supernatural. Most other science organizations have followed its lead.

The rationale usually given by those who reject any role for science on religious matters is that science concerns itself, “by definition,” solely with natural phenomena. Since the supernatural is unobservable, then, they assert, science has nothing to say about it.

However, while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?

In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS, reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.

Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions—The Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke universities—have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.

For my second example, over a period of four decades extensive investigations have been made into the phenomenon of near-death experiences in which people resuscitated from the brink of death report a glimpse of “heaven.” Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations. No prediction has been made of some future catastrophe that later occurred on schedule, and not for lack of opportunity given the many natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornados—of recent years. Similarly, no divine revelation has provided an answer for any currently unanswered question in science, history, or theology, such as the where in the universe we will find extraterrestrial life or the location of Noah’s Ark.

Now, I am not saying that these negative results prove conclusively that the supernatural does not exist, although a good case can be made that the absence of evidence that should be there can be taken as evidence of absence. My point here is that, in principle, experiments such as these and others could have provided direct evidence for a world beyond matter.

So, scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

Furthermore, the Gould attempt to divide up the territory by ceding the moral domain to religion takes away the individual’s right to have input on moral and ethical questions, leaving those issues to scholars who interpret ancient texts. This sounds like Shariah law to me. Moral behavior is observable, and science is the best method to investigate the observable world.

Victor Stenger is an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii, an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, and the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist and the new book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

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11 Responses

  1. [...] HuffPo features a column by Victor Stenger—”Scientists and religion“—that’s reprinted from “Science + religion today.”  His point is to dispel the old canard that religion can’t test God or the supernatural. (I [...]

  2. Dean Wilber says:

    While i don’t see much use in trying to find out if prayer causes healing at a distance or that it causes God to intervene i very much would like to knowif experiencing an altered state of consciousness or having a vividly imagined imaginary friend has physical health benefits

  3. NBeale says:

    Stenger is a scientific fraud. This excellent paper by Luke Barnes on arXiv demolishes his claims about the fine tuning of the universe.

    See also here and here for a discussion.

  4. Peter Clarke says:

    Skeptics like Stenger always cite the Mayo Clinic (and Harvard and Duke) study on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer, because the results were so resoundingly negative. But they ignore the many (20-30?) other such studies, many of which gave a marginally significant positive effect. I’m not claiming the other studies are convincing, but I do think citing just the most negative study as if it were the only one is misleading. It should also be pointed out that a strong positive result could scarcely be expected in these studies, because they were performed in religious countries such as USA, where even patients in the “no prayer” group were probably being prayed for by many friends.

  5. Tom Veitch says:

    Regarding near-death experiences, Stenger says “Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations.” This is not an accurate statement.

    A fairly common report from people who were declared clinically dead and then reanimated is that they saw and heard verifiable events in the room where their corpse was located, as well as people and events in other locations. Furthermore they often report seeing these events not from the position of the body but “floating near the ceiling.”

    Stenger’s failure as a scientist is that he feels compelled to dismissively explain away such reports, rather than investigate further and perhaps come to a conclusion opposed to his bias.

    Indeed, I find it remarkably unscientific that the testimony of “thousands of such reports” is summarily dismissed as worthless — as if the human mind is not to be trusted as an instrument of scientific observation!

    The truly scientific use of these reports would be to treat them as objective data in themselves, and analyze them statistically and comparatively to see if they point to something unseen — much as we detect the existence of earth-like planets by the way they affect the light of distant stars.

  6. Mike says:

    Stenger is correct in asserting that if the “supernatural” has no effect on the physical world, there is no reason to “worry” about it. But he is incorrect in his assumption that all religions assert that their idea of the supernatural should affect the physical world.

    Most adherents to modern religions do not claim that their practices alter causality in objective reality, but rather, that our “spirit,” the part of being human that distinguishes us from ordinary matter, that allows us to qualify as a conscious observer rather than a rock hurtling through intergalactic space, are what their religion does its work on.

  7. fred says:

    Humanity has no idea about the scale of intelligence in the universe, we know next to nothing about the universe; is reality what we say it is or is it like an iceberg with the great mass invisible? If humans subscribe these unknowns to the supernatural that at least has the benefit of modesty rather than hubris dressed up as certainty

  8. Hominid says:

    The absence of knowledge is not license for make-believe.

  9. JB says:

    Well, you know, if those engaged in the pursuit of science can declare that something doesn’t exist, it obviously cannot exist. It’s just absolutely impossible. Scientists, we know, are rarely wrong. And if lots of scientists say something is true, they can never be wrong. Ever.

  10. GC says:

    Not here to with an axe to grind, but it I do enjoy a good paradox.

    If a supernatural being, such as God, didn’t want to be discovered by a scientific study, he would simply refuse to participate in the prayers offered as part of the study.

    In fact, the bible records that exact type of reaction when Jesus refused to give a sign to a group of important religious men. Matthew Chapter 16.

    So the question is, do we not see God because he is not there, or because he doesn’t want to be seen? How do you make a study for that?

    If God is real he must be laughing at us sometimes, if not…. bring on the nukes I guess; its all just a big chemistry experiment.

  11. Adolfo Orozco says:

    Stenger is correct in looking for material evidences of supernatural origin, but he view to the wrong side. There are more than 5,000 medical curations perfectly documented in Lourdes. The Medical Bureau, with internationnaly renowned Physycians from all over the world, with no religious credentials, had documented with full medical files, prior to the visit to Lourdes and after the visit the presence of curations totally inexplicable for the science.
    The desaparition of cancers, tb, and other ailments, pratically instanteous whose only possible cause is the prayer and the faith.
    Is absurd the allegation of stenger that religion be used to forecast disasters and the cases he uses to prove his point are the ‘soft’ cases´. In general the atheists do not go to the ‘hard’cases as the miracles at Lourdes

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