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Is Religion Pseudoscience?

A review of the Special Divine Action Conference in Oxford.

A pseudoscience is a set of beliefs or practices that pretends at being science—that puts forth evidence and arguments which it says are scientifically sound, but in fact, are not. Pseudoscientists argue in support of new fundamental forces (e.g., Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance) and even entities (e.g., ancient aliens). The TV show Ghost Hunters is a prime example; they even have instruments—like voice recorders, EM meters, laser thermometers (and deluxe carrying cases)—which seem scientific, but of course, do nothing to detect ghosts. But all pseudosciences have one thing in common: The arguments and reasoning they put forth violate basic rules of scientific reasoning.

As an atheist and a logician, I’m often tempted by the notion that religion is just socially accepted pseudoscience (with tax breaks). After all, the arguments in favor of ghosts, alternative medicine, and ancient aliens, are very similar to the arguments for angels, the “power of prayer” and God. Sleep paralysis and hallucinatory visions are taken to be evidence for ghosts/angels, post-hoc reasoning is used in arguments for alternative medicine/prayer, and “unexplained mysteries” are counted as evidence for aliens/God.

But as tempting as this notion is, it’s difficult to see it all the way through. Although I know plenty of people whose religious belief is steeped in pseudoscientific thinking, I also know religious people who pride themselves in their critical thinking abilities. Does this mean that religion isn’t steeped in pseudoscience, or are these religious people who say they are critical thinkers just fooling themselves? I’d hate to think the latter is true.

This last month, I attended (and presented at) a conference on "Special Divine Action" (i.e. miracles) at St. Anne’s College in Oxford (July 13-16, 2014). It was sponsored by the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the John Templeton Foundation, both of which are dedicated to demonstrating the compatibility of science and religion. It was headlined by some pretty heavy hitters, including Oxford professor and Christian philosopher, Richard Swinburne. If anything would dissuade me of the notion that religion is pseudoscience, it would likely be this conference. I hoped to find champions who decried the pseudoscientific elements of religion, openly spoke against them, and instead embraced lines of thinking compatible with science.

I was partially successful in my conversations, where I met some wonderfully rational religious people who understood and cared about science. They helped me hone some of my own arguments and I hope I helped them hone theirs. Unfortunately, I also found creationists, people who believe in demons, new-ageism, and even defenders of the pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake. Some even refused to say Dawkins' name—saying instead “the D-word”—because (as someone suggested) he was like Voldemort. If you say his name, especially in Oxford, he might appear. And then there was the New Testament scholar who insisted that the idea that 21st-century medical doctors are more qualified to distinguish illness from death than 1st century Palestinians was just a conclusion driven by “Western bias.”

But what was most disappointing were the headliners—the keynote speakers, none of whom were academic lightweights, and all of whom were there to speak at the request of the foundations. Although a few of the talks were interesting, far too many were tinged with pseudoscience—and the biggest names seemed to be drenched in it.

Disappointment 1: Correlation Entails Causation

My hopes for science-friendly religion were frustrated on the first day by New Testament and Early Christianity scholar Graham Twelftree, who presented a defense of his criteria for determining, historically, whether a miracle has occurred. Unfortunately, his criteria endorsed a classic bit of pseudoscientific reasoning: post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this therefore because of this”). He took an unusual event’s proximity to a “religious context” (e.g. a prayer) as evidence for divine intervention. Worse yet, it turns out this was simply a way to justify his own miraculous belief (which was rooted in the same fallacious reasoning); during the Q&A, he revealed that his argument was motivated by his belief that his childhood asthma was cured by God because his wife prayed for him during an attack (when he was around age 20), and then he never had one again.

Forget the fact that his wife, and others, likely prayed for him many times when his attacks could only be stopped by medication, and that people outgrow asthma all the time. Even if this was the only time anyone prayed for him, and it was an even more serious disease, the fact that she prayed and then he got better is not a reason to conclude that the prayer made him better. Correlation does not entail causation; that’s why “after this therefore because of this” is a logical fallacy. This is the same reasoning you find in medical pseudoscience books, like Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures "They"Don’t Want You To Know. They are filled with countless anecdotes like “I did X and then I no longer had Y, so X cures Y!” Of course, in fact, X does not cure Y. As any scientifically minded person knows, only controlled double-blind studies can demonstrate such causation, and such studies have actually shown that X does not cure Y—whether X be a natural cure or prayer. My quest to find science-friendly religion was not off to a good start.

Disappointment 2: Almost Intelligent Design

Then there was Robert Russell, founder, and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He argued that randomness in the quantum world leaves room for divine action. Miracles are classically thought of as violations of natural law, but many at the conference thought of them simply as special divine actions in the world. Others expressed dissatisfaction with thinking that God breaks the natural laws that he himself wrote. Since quantum events are random and without a natural cause, if God were to cause them he would not be violating any natural law. Voila, a notion of miracles seemingly compatible with science. Interestingly, Russell noted, this makes possible theistic evolution; since mutations in DNA are the result of quantum events, God can direct evolution by causing certain mutations to happen at certain times.

While I found his talk interesting, and I am friendly to this definition of miracles—and I would hesitate to say that he was endorsing pseudoscience (he seemed to be a good scientist to me)—his thesis was not consistent with both traditional theism and scientific fact. Three things seemed to be wrong. First, hidden variable theories, which propose hidden causes for quantum events have already been disproven experimentally. Suggesting that God is the hidden cause of quantum events would seem to contradict these observations. Even if God only steps in occasionally, to cause select quantum events, that is still inconsistent with quantum theory—at least as I understand it—and thus God’s action would not be consistent with natural law, as Russell wants.

Second, interjecting a new entity to explain what is already sufficiently explained is not scientifically preferable—so interjecting God as the cause of quantum events is not scientifically preferable. Quantum events need no cause. Think of it this way. We know that heat is explained simply by the motion of molecules. But suppose that some scientist named Bob insists that the motion of the molecules is caused by a new, separately existing weightless substance (called caloric), that flows in out of substances as they heat and cool. I suppose that’s possible, but introducing a new substance to explain what already is explained is not scientifically preferable. It’s not the simplest (more parsimonious) explanation—it introduces a new entity. And it doesn’t help explain anything. In fact, it just raises more questions than it answers: What is the nature of this substance? Why is it weightless? How does it move molecules? Etc. There is no scientific reason for Bob to defend this hypothesis. Only if Bob is director of something like “The School of Caloric Studies” do we perhaps begin to understand his motivation for introducing it.

But third, and most troublesome, was Russell’s suggestion that God directs evolution by controlling mutations in DNA. This is incompatible with how we know evolution occurred, given what theists say about the nature of God. Through mere selective breeding we can direct evolutionary change quite quickly; think of how quickly we have produced different breeds of dogs. If we were able to dictate mutations on the genetic level, with the full knowledge of the traits that each gene generates, we could likely go from single-celled organisms to a rich ecosystem (which includes humans) in just a few million years. But evolution via natural selection, as it actually occurred, was extremely inefficient and took a few billion years; it meandered constantly (there are millions of dead ends on the evolutionary tree), produced countless useless mutations (it sometimes took millions of years for an advantageous genetic mutation to appear), and is extremely cruel (it took five mass extinctions to finally produce human life). If God directed evolution, he's about the most absent-minded, inefficient, and cruel deity one could imagine.

Disappointment 3: Swinburne

Then there was Richard Swinburne's talk on the resurrection of Jesus. (For those who don’t know, Swinburne was the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford from 1985-2002 and has published prolifically in defense of Christianity.) Let's set aside his gross overestimation of the historical reliability of the Scriptures and just consider his main argument. Unlike the biblical authors (e.g., John 20:31), who take Jesus' resurrection as evidence of his divine nature, Swinburne takes Jesus’ divine nature as evidence for his resurrection. In a nutshell, Swinburne argued that if you grant that his arguments for God's existence (e.g. the fine-tuning argument), and his argument that such a God would want to become incarnate, and would want to offer himself as a sacrifice for sins, and would also want to resurrect his incarnate self from the dead—grant him all of that—and it's likely that Jesus was divine and thus rose from the dead.

I can't express how disappointed I was in this argument. Basically, if you grant that specious argument for Christian theology work, then Christian claims about history are already likely and don’t need much evidence. I suppose this conditional statement is true. If I grant that God has decided to make something like the Jesus story happen in history—well, then I guess the best candidate for when and where God made that happen is around the time and place that Jesus lived. Likewise, if I grant Muslim theology, it's likely that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a horse named Barack; if I grant that God wants Karen Gillan to fall in love with me, it’s likely she will. But not only is this conditional trivially true, but such arguments also get things exactly backward—the miraculous historical events (like the resurrection) are supposed to be the evidence for the theological claims, not the other way around. What’s more, the difficult and interesting part of the argument is left unstated. All the hard work is done by arguments trying to establish the theological claims.

If such arguments obviously worked, I guess granting them for the sake of seeing what their conclusions entailed would be acceptable. But such arguments, to put it mildly, fall flat on their face—including the fine-tuning argument of which Swinburne is so fond. Not surprisingly these arguments are steeped in pseudoscience, misunderstand real science, and are essentially giant "mystery, therefore, magic" fallacies. Again, my quest for religion compatible with science was frustrated.

(To be honest, although I was disappointed, I wasn't surprised to hear this from Richard Swinburne. He’s argued, in print, that God allows millions to be killed in the third world by hurricanes and earthquakes so that we can experience the good of feeling compassion for them. Swinburne is very smart—and smart people are very good at coming up with creative ways to defend false things they want to believe. Swinburne’s argument for the resurrection was just more of the same.)

Disappointment 4: “Unsolved Mysteries”

But the most appalling lecture came from Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, whose bio boasts that he has authored 17 books—comprised of thousands of pages and tens of thousands of citations. He argued that modern-day accounts of miracles make the historicity of the biblical miracle stories more likely. Perhaps ironically, I think this modest thesis is true. Even in the modern world (although most of his examples came from the third world) stories still abound of people experiencing what they take to be miracles—even extraordinary healing miracles, like a blind man's iris growing back spontaneously. (A full account of his argument, and the stories he has collected, can be found in his 1172 page book Miracles.) So it's not unlikely that in first-century Palestine the same thing was true; reports of miracles were probably everywhere. After all, it was a pre-scientific age in which medical doctors and diagnoses did not exist, mass hysteria was common, the power of our senses to lead us astray was not appreciated, and people did not understand the nature of illness or injury and often mistook them for death. It’s not unlikely, therefore, that there were events that seemed to people to be quite extraordinary—even miraculous—during Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus was one of many apocalyptic preachers of the time to whom miracles were attributed; I’m sure many of those miracles stories are rooted in historical events too.

But what was disturbing about Keener’s talk, given the venue, was that he refused to actually apply any scientific or critical thinking to the miraculous reports that he gave. He was willing to admit that some of them could be explained but took the fact that he couldn't think of a natural explanation for others to be evidence of divine intervention. (This is, once again, the mystery therefore magic fallacy.) He took the fact that he knew the people involved personally (or was the person himself in one case) as a reason to think that what their senses or memory told them happened was exactly what actually happened. He didn’t even consider the possibility that their senses could be leading them astray, that their memory could be faulty, that their attention could have faltered, or simply that the stories had been exaggerated upon retelling. (In reality, of course, our senses, memories, and attention lead us astray far more often than we realize, and “amazing stories” are often exaggerated upon their first telling.) And after talking to him afterward, it became clear that he believes that the majority of these stories are not only the result of divine intervention but direct evidence for the truth of the Christian religion. In fact, he apparently even believes in demonic intervention, as he admitted to me that his experience with "curses" in the Third World caused him to rethink his “western theistic views.”

This lecture did the most to reinforce the notion that religion is just culturally accepted pseudoscience. I could have just as easily found a lecture on a collection of equally mysterious and unexplained occurrences at a UFO conference, a psychic reunion, a ghost convention—or on that old show “Unsolved Mysteries.” And just like these stories, Keener’s stories can be easily explained. In fact, it’s been my experience with such things that a little investigation will likely reveal that most of the events never happened—or at least didn't happen as his retelling suggests. For example, do a little research and you will find that the Amityville horror—the most widely known and corroborated "true story" of a demonic haunting—was completely fabricated. It’s likely not a coincidence that Keener’s medically documented stories were pretty easily explainable, and the seemingly inexplicable ones were always stories you had to take on people’s word. So perhaps modern-day miracle stories don’t provide evidence for the historicity of the biblical miracles after all; like modern-day miracle stories, they probably are so far removed from what actually happened that they cannot be regarded as historical.

(To be clear, I’m not saying that Keener is intentionally lying, or even that the people from whom he heard the stories are. I’m only saying that there was obviously a lot of gullibility and credulousness standing between the stories I heard and the events that took place—so much so that what actually happened likely bears little resemblance to the story as told.)

And I can’t bypass a logical critique of the argument. Keener’s miracle stories all spoke to the truth of Christianity—they involved prayers to Christ, lead to conversions to Christianity, etc. But of course, one could find just as many stories embedded in other religions that are equally inexplicable, that involve prayers to other gods and lead to conversions to other religions. What do we say about such stories? Well, either they are legitimate or not. If we criticize them and say they're not legitimate, then to be consistent we have to apply the same criticism to the Christian stories and arrive at the same conclusion. If so, the evidence the stories provide for Christianity evaporates. If the miracle stories from other religions are legitimate, then we are forced to say that they provide evidence for the truth of those other religions. And since those religions are contrary to Christianity, and even teach that it is false, they serve as evidence that Christianity is false. So, either way, the evidence modern-day miracle stories provide for Christianity evaporates.

What does Keener say about the miracles stories of other religions? “I don’t think God loves people in other religions any less.” In other words, the stories are true and it’s the Christian deity that is making these miracles happen. But, of course, this in no way answers the objection. Members of those other religions would say that it is their god who makes them happen, and that is responsible for making the Christian miracles possible. With no way to determine whose god is causing which miracles (both hypotheses predict the same miracles in the same circumstances), the evidence these miracle stories provide for any particular religion evaporates. At best, they provide evidence merely for the existence of a god about which we know nothing, or some kind of pluralism. But they definitely do not provide the evidence for Christianity that Keener claims.

Is Religion Pseudoscience?

Theists often complain that the “New Atheists” have the same understanding of religion as fundamentalists who are anti-science zealots that take their scriptures far too literally. Enlightened religion, they claim, rejects literalism and is compatible with science. People say the same to me when I express my concern that religion is socially acceptable pseudoscience. They assure me that enlightened religion is not. But when two of the world’s most distinguished academic organizations, devoted to demonstrating the compatibility of religion and science, put these kinds of arguments on display—during keynote addresses at an international conference—it’s hard for me to take this claim seriously. Definitely, certain theists’ religious beliefs are compatible with science, but they are the minority in religious circles—even, perhaps, academic religious circles. This doesn’t mean that religion is just socially acceptable pseudoscience—after all, religion does much more than put forth arguments which it says are scientific but aren’t. But it does mean that, for those who want religion to be seen as compatible with scientific reasoning, there is much more work to be done.

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