Scientific confusions about religion

By Douglas Anderson
2 Feb 2009

In the scientific community, there has been a significant increase in sightings of articles and studies on the "science" of religion. Various points of view, and occasionally overt agendas, emerge from the research. If a Templeton-like foundation is funding the study, for instance, the perspective seems to be a test of the hypothesis: God is 'up there', and we will prove it to you (at least insofar as measured by statistically significant outcomes), with the following randomized, double blind clinical trial.

Several years ago there appeared "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit". The study showed that "prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care". However, the critical reader was also warned that there were several limitations to the study. One problem was that there was no way to determine whether others might have been praying for the control group, those not supposed to be the beneficiaries of intercessory prayer.

Another problem was that the main result of the study was a rather meagre "10 percent improvement" in the short term cardiac health for those in the group for whom prayer was offered, as measured by a score that was "an estimate of the overall CCU (cardiac care unit) course".

One wonders what God was thinking while deciding how to weigh in on this exercise! If I sound cynical, it's because clinical randomized trials are notoriously expensive and difficult, and yet can be very influential in the definition and direction of clinical practice. I am both a Christian and a clinical scientist/neurosurgeon who silently prays before and sometimes during surgery. I'm also struggling to obtain funding for a clinical trial of a brain tumor vaccine to supplement the inadequate therapies we presently have.

I'm not suggesting that studies of religion's intersections with science shouldn't be done or are not important, but attempting to put God on the witness stand, demanding an accounting, and then suggesting that something has been learned, is, in my opinion, wasteful of resources that might better be employed elsewhere.

A different type of scientific analysis appeared recently in the widely read journal Science: "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality". Religious prosociality is "the idea that religions facilitate acts that benefit others at a personal cost". In this review and synthesis of nearly fifty articles, we learn that there is "an association between self reports of religiosity and prosociality" but that the association "emerges primarily in contexts where reputational concerns are heightened".

Further, behavioral studies searching for a "good Samaritan" effect in an anonymous encounter experiment document that "unobtrusively recorded offers of help showed no relation with religiosity in this anonymous context". It is telling from the article that only one variable produced a change in the behavior of study participants: "Whether participants were told to rush or take their time – produced differences in helping rates". We may have learned something there: religious variables aside, we all respond to the rush of modern life and sometimes lose our sensitivity to be an empathic and caring community – all of us.

That "active members of modern secular organizations are at least as likely to report donating to charity as active members of religious ones" should not be a surprise. For what and for whom this information might be useful is open to question. Clearly, more generosity is needed from all of us.

The authors suggest that more research is needed to "establish the specific conditions under which costly religious commitment could evolve as a stable individual strategy and whether these models need to take into account intergroup competition". They also suggest that "the extent to which religion is implicated in human cooperation, and the precise sequence of evolutionary developments in religious prosociality" are important questions.

These research interests might well be interesting for the fields of theology, psychology and sociology among others, and as the authors note, "This is an area of no small debate, but scientific attention is needed to examine precisely how individuals and groups determine who are the beneficiaries of religious prosociality and who its victims."

On the other hand, after reading samples of research on the nature of religious experience, examining the design of experiments and techniques used to probe these complex questions, one wonders, what do we really learn? The concern of scientists that "the same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may facilitate outgroup antagonism" may just as well apply to the scientific community as the religious.


'A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit', William S. Harris, PhD; Manohar Gowda, MD; Jerry W. Kolb, MDiv; Christopher P. Strychacz, PhD; James L. Vacek, MD; Philip G.Jones, MS; Alan Forker, MD; James H. O'Keefe, MD; Ben D. McCallister, MD, Arch Intern Med. 1999;159:2273-2278.

'The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality'. Ara Norenzayan, Azim F. Shariff. Science 2008 Oct 3; 322: 58-62.


(c) Douglas Anderson is a neurological surgeon and associate professor of neurological surgery at Loyola University Medical Center, USA.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

Keywords: religion | science
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