My copy of the lively science magazine “New Scientist” just arrived. I was pleasantly surprised to see the current issue was devoted to God and the science of religion. Most especially, it seemed to be saying that secularists and atheists shouldn’t be too hasty in dismissing the notion of God as nonsensical.
Unfortunately, the tone of some of the pieces fell a little short of that admirable sentiment. On page 47 I got to a piece by Victor J. Stenger. He pointed out that a survey revealed that 93 percent of scientists don’t believe in a personal god. Well, so what? He is presumably trying to infer that these are the people who should really know; that scientists are the sole bearers of true wisdom and what they don’t know isn’t worth knowing!
He goes on to say that, if God really exists, there ought to be scientific evidence scattered around that we can pick up on. I agree with that. But only if the scientists are honest, competent and using right tools for the job, surely?
Pretty soon, he gets really foolish. He says that experiments on a world beyond matter will “prove” that God doesn’t exist. I really don’t see that reasoning: we know that there are information fields and forces beyond our immediate knowledge. That doesn’t prove there is no God.
So already, my enthusiasm is waning. Stenger is not somebody to light my intellectual fires!
He takes on the question of intercessory prayer – prayers on behalf of others. If we can prove intercessory prayer works, he says, then there must be a God. Still pretty weak reasoning in my view, but I let it pass. But then he drops up to the eyeballs in bull’s doo-doo; he claims there is no proof that intercessory prayer works.
Excuse me? Stenger is either bone deep lazy, stupid or dishonest. There are a number of robust studies that show the positive effects of intercessory prayer. He just conveniently side steps them.
I don’t care how many hundreds of studies failed to prove any effect. You can’t prove a negative, you can only fail to prove your hypothesis. Any number of reasons, such as bad observations, badly designed study, wrong protocols, can lead to a negative result in an experiment.
Plus our own dear old Bill Tiller has shown convincingly, with robust studies, that the experimenter’s intention influences the outcome of a test. Simply put: if you don’t want to find evidence of God, you won’t.
In fact the main study usually quoted, which purports to “prove” that prayer doesn’t work, was so bad it borders on a hoax.
This is a 2006 large medical study by Benson, Dusek, et. al., which found that long distance intercessory prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. The study begun almost a decade ago involved more than 1,800 patients in six hospitals at a cost of $2.4 million. By the current scientific model this study was “rigorously designed”, it was said.
In fact it was a sham. The people who prayed were inexperienced and used an absurd “intellectualized” technique that no intercessory healers would dream of doing. The participants were given only the patients’ first names and the first initials of their last names. This is probably not a serious obstacle to an experienced healer but for an inexperienced person it might nullify their ability to connect and provide healing. Participants were instructed to include the phrase “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”
It could never work done Benson’s way.
[Benson, Herbert, Dusek, Jeffery A., et. al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal, Vol. 151, No. 4, April 2006, pp. 934-942.]
As I said, negative studies don’t prove much—often they are due to nothing more than incompetence or dishonesty of this sort.
Compare and contrast another study (1984) by Dr. Randolph Byrd, a Christian cardiologist. 393 patients, admitted to the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital, over a 10 month period were randomly selected, by computer, to either a 201 patient control group or the 192 patients who were prayed for daily by 5-7 people in home prayer groups. This was a randomized, double-blind experiment in which neither the patients, nurses, nor doctors knew which group the patients were in.
Dr. Byrd discovered a definite pattern of obvious differences between the control group and those prayed for:
- None of those prayed for required endotracheal intubation compared with twelve in the control group requiring the insertion of an artificial airway in the throat.
- The prayed for group experienced fewer cases of pneumonia and cardiopulmonary arrests.
- Those prayed for were five times less likely to require antibiotics.
- The prayed for group were three times less likely to develop pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid.
- Fewer patients in the prayed for group died!
I quoted this study in my book “Cancer Research Secrets” and pointed out that Dr. Larry Dossey, M.D. has referred to Dr. Byrd’s experiment, stating that “If the technique being studied had been a new drug or a surgical procedure instead of prayer, it would almost certainly have been heralded as some sort of breakthrough”
The real importance of this experiment is that it stands up to scientific scrutiny. Dr. William Nolan, who has actually written a book debunking faith healing, acknowledged honestly, “It sounds like this study will stand up to scrutiny…maybe we doctors ought to be writing on our order sheets, ‘pray 3 times a day.’ If it works, it works.”
So by paragraph 7 in Stenger’s piece, I knew he was a very poor scientist. But then he really lost it.
In paragraph 8 he decides to debunk near death experiences. Quite why he imagines that’s evidence for a god, I am not sure. But he says tests have been done on NDEs that show they are a delusion. Get this…
In NDEs people report floating above the operating table and watching everything below. So whether this is a real experience or a hallucination (I think he means an hallucination) can easily be tested by placing a secret message on a high shelf, out of sight of the patient and hospital staff. This has been tried and no-one reporting an NDE has yet to read the message (I think he meant has yet been able to read the message).
This is a ludicrous test. Point one: how many times have you failed to notice a written message, when you have been wide awake and at work? I gave up using post-it notes because I find I just don’t “see” them after a while. It is easy to overlook a written message and especially so if you are in a shocked state, such as being driven out of your body by anesthetic gas.
Point two: who says that exteriorized entities have to have the power of reading and language? We may know what’s going on in OR (theatre). An illiterate farmer knows what’s going on but may not be able to read or write. People who have experienced an NDE report hearing words spoken by the surgeon, etc. But that’s only memory, not necessarily linguistic competence. The person may be able to understand the words that were spoken only after coming round from the anesthetic!
So, I concluded that Stenger is very unscientific and probably just an anti-religious bigot. Like a lot of pretend scientists, he just cherry picks articles and papers that support his prejudices and beliefs. They jokingly call that being scientific!
I liken it to a doctor who has lots of scientifically-tested drugs on his desk. When the patient reports a problem, he says, “I think I’ll try the red one,” and then calls it medical science!
If you think I’m judging Stenger harshly, let me give you one final quote. He says, “If God is the creator of the universe, then we should find evidence for that in astronomy. We do not. The origin of our universe required no miracles…”
The fact that our universe, full of uncountable hundreds of trillions of suns, trillions of galaxies, quasars, dark clouds, nebulae and the whole damn thing, sprang into being from absolutely nothing (so the theory goes) was not a miracle?
I wonder what Stengler’s definition of a miracle really is?
(Victor J Stenger is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His new book is called God and The Folly Of Faith)