Bad Science for the cause of Secularism

New Scientist recently published the results of a study which shows that people’s ideas about God’s values tend to match their own, and researchers are using this to conclude that religious people impose their own beliefs on God, thereby creating their very own perfect being, and validating their own views. The article can be found here.

There’s just one problem I have with the analysis of the results: correlation doesn’t imply causation. Let’s see what else we may be able to find with this kind of scientific “research.” Perhaps we can prove that driving a smart car makes people environmentally conscious, or that people choose political parties based on which one they voted for in the last election. Maybe atheists don’t believe in God because they don’t go to church. While all of these claims could – to however miniscule a degree – be argued on the basis of possibilities and correlations, most of us would agree that they are definitely not representative of reality in most cases.

For the same reasons, you cannot conclude that a person is casting their own values upon someone else, just because there is a match. Isn’t it possible – in fact, quite likely – that once people have an idea of what constitutes the values of the Almighty, they attempt to align themselves along the same straight and narrow?

Before I was a Christian I had one set of moral views. Upon the intervention of an authentic experience with God, I faced a dramatic shift in my priorities and attitudes, and a radical re-calibration of my moral compass. I’m confident that this story is not unique – that it is the story of a majority of my fellow “believers.” Thus, it happens so that my value-system attempts to reflect the values of God, or at least the way I see Him. “Ah, but,…” you say, “the way you see Him is determined by how you want to see Him.” Well, determining what I “want” isn’t exactly provable. If you use that argument we’re back to the traditional atheist claim that we believe because we want to. If that reasoning is acceptable, I suppose it is equally acceptable for me to deduce that you don’t believe because you don’t want to – a claim which is unlikely to garner consensus.

Religion, at least as my Christian experience has shown, is about outward learning and internal conviction. I mean that we seek knowledge and understanding of all things, which we can do through traditional scientific methods, but we also must account for that thing that is intangible and untestable; that voice that is crystal clear, yet inaudible. This is where faith becomes incredibly personal, and it is one aspect of Christianity that has been placed under the heaviest scrutiny. It is impossible to quantify or qualify personal thought or feeling. We can analyze the biological events, but we cannot explain their cause or meaning, other than to reason that there is some evolutionary need. Yet, how is such an explanation different from saying that God builds us for certain purposes and needs?

This mixture of outward learning and internal conviction does not always produce the same conclusions in all people, which leads to different doctrines and personal beliefs. Unfortunately, you never hear preachers say that this is okay – that one person, one church or one denomination cannot have everything  figured out, and that each of us has an inherent freedom to search for the truths of God independently. It’s bad P.R. to tell people to listen to you, then say they don’t have to listen to you. But it’s true.

What is revealed by the fact that people’s values are matched to their idea of God’s values? Only that religious people want to be better people. Where I’m from we consider that a worthwhile aspiration. And now that it has been backed by research perhaps it will convince the secularists that religion is actually good for society.

The researchers involved in this study have made significantly tainted assumptions, based not on an objective position, but by the influence of the secularist motive. This study isn’t science – it is an attempt to reduce religion to mere superstition; the meaningless byproduct of desperate but inadequate minds. I would hope that the champions of diversity and tolerance would agree to disagree on this, but I am afraid that the scope of diversity has certain impenetrable boundaries, and my Christian beliefs place me in the least favorable position.

8 Comments

  1. Well thought out post—I enjoyed the read. I have a couple things to lay bare if I may.

    I do agree that science can be bias in its assertions about faith. From the experimental perspective, the experiment cannot be without influence from its experimenter—mostly a natural, yet at times intentional calibration. I also agree that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”—a classic fallacy of “Questionable Cause”.

    However, there is an admittance that goes unbearable by the theist: a matter of purporting subjectivity in the guise of their belief. You stated that,

    Isn’t it possible – in fact, quite likely – that once people have an idea of what constitutes the values of the Almighty, they attempt to align themselves along the same straight and narrow”?

    Whether one believes or not, intellectual honesty must be upheld, even if it’s pragmatically unfavorable. Because the “Almighty” (as you presume) is incomprehensible even unto the believer, Theological Non-Cognitivism must be posited until validity is disclosed—no one apprehends what god is (quintessentially), ergo the validity of the claim (us like god) is inductive at best.

    The experiential aspect of humanity is individualistic—it is based on the subjective poise of that individual alone—thereby, constituting a standard on the merit of subjectivity would be a mistake—the very thing religion has employed. Christianity as I know it is based on experience and that’s fine—as long as it doesn’t bastardize the myriad of other religious/non-religious experiences.

    Basically, science is flawed—however, its natural discourse is steeped in deductive logic—antonymous w/ religious experience. Is not subjectivity the superstition of the soul?

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

    1. Arius,

      Thank you for taking the time to add to this dialogue. My issue lies with the bold and unyielding statement that is made in the article, which can be taken directly from the headline: “Dear God, please confirm what I already believe.” I think it is an unfair presumption on the part of researchers who, like many modern scientists, seem to discount religion based on a simple formula – that if it isn’t verifiable it isn’t real. They have effectively painted a one-way street that leads all scientific inquiry to a default position of secularism.

      Deductive logic can provide us with an immense degree of understanding, and it is with eagerness that people of faith should pursue truth, with respect only to accuracy and not whether results support a particular theology. However, empirical research does have limits, which become frustratingly clear when confronted with the ever so mysterious human soul.

      Time will tell, but I have doubts that we will ever fully understand why we are excited when we purchase a gift for a loved one, why we feel driven to learn and teach, or what makes us create and appreciate art and music. Yet, while we cannot capture them in the lab, we know they are very real. We do not attempt to discard them in an effort to stay scientifically objective – they simply and indisputably exist. We are only left to the challenge of discovering their role in this uniquely human experience.

      Where science cannot provide a conclusive answer, it should refrain from making conclusive statements, lest the real answers be lost and forgotten.

  2. Depends on what you mean by “religion.” The word means many different things, but it generally refers to a set of beliefs about the way things are and how to apply those beliefs to our lives. How much of that should be considered subjective and how much should be considered objective is, well… subjective. It is a fairly broad philosophical question.

    Clearly, there must be a point where we set a standard measure of truth. We have reality that can be proven, reality that can be reasoned, reality that cannot be tested, and every position in between. In truth, few things (perhaps nothing at all) can be absolutely proven reality. After all, you must admit that we are quite limited in our ability to test and understand every infinite possibility. Modern discoveries would have sounded absurd 200 years ago. No we have theories of multiple universes and quarks, though I was taught in high school that this universe was the only one and atoms were the building blocks of matter.

    Science is a constant search, which often must revise itself.

    I say we let religion and science play well together in this search. There’s no reason to kick anyone out of the sandbox. Religion and science both produce good and bad claims. What is sensible will carry weight and contribute to our understanding of reality, the rest will be put on the back burner for later investigation.

    I would suggest two great books on these subjects: “What’s so great about Christianity” by Dinesh D’Souza and “The End of Secularism” by Hunter Baker. I also hear “The Reason of God” by Tim Keller is really good.

  3. I like the discourse here. What can be labeled as objective and subjective—would you agree w/ this:

    Spinach is green (objective proposition)
    Spinach taste great (subjective proposition)

    Now based on propositional logic, a statement must bear a truth value—one can be right or wrong—however, both can’t be correct. This is based on the objectivity of the claim. Both propositions are objective—albeit, the conclusions are not. Both pertain to Spinach—however, the latter conclusion is steeped in opinion (taste great)—experiential in nature. Would you agree thus far?

  4. I would suggest that both are experiential. Sight and taste are faculties of the senses, which differ from individual to individual. The question really lies in how we define the terminology and how we build psychological constructs of meaning. We agree to label a certain wavelength of light “green” and we use that to determine how closely spinach matches the criteria. Individuals who suffer from colorblindness may report different conclusions, but we say they are simply wrong. Can we be so sure?

    The process of determining the quality of taste is different. While we begin with the same sensual input, it is combined with psychological factors that tell us whether the taste is a pleasing one or not.

    Thus, it seems that we accept as “fact” anything that is appears constant and is verified by the vast majority, and “opinion” any observations that differ according to individual factors. By this somewhat arbitrary measure, yes, to say spinach is green is “fact” and to say it has a pleasant taste is “opinion.”

    A statement must indeed be either true or untrue. However, we – as a community of both religious and non-religious truth-seekers – must acknowledge that while we can logically deduce there is but one absolute reality, our attempts to map it out are forever subject to our faulty perceptions. This is a frustrating notion because it essentially reduces every known fact about the universe to “We’re pretty sure that this is the way it is.” But science can’t operate like that – it needs hard, reliable, dependable facts.

    Because of this, I believe many in the scientific community assign exaggerated truth values to certain theories, and treat others as though they are unworthy of any serious consideration. We can look to the most fundamental question: does a supreme being exist? Though no discovery in human history provides clear evidence either way, the default answer of secular science is “No.” A definitive statement is made without definitive evidence. In my view, this is a distorted approach to scientific inquiry.

    The better approach would be to say “All things are possible, some things appear likely, and other things seem fairly reliable.” We are always one discovery away from a radical shift of our understanding. I think we all know that, but no one wants to admit it. As a result, those of us who hold to beliefs that have not been given the stamp of approval from the scientific community are told that our beliefs are mere fairy tales – a statement that is not only an overstep of authority, but a dangerous threat to progress and democracy.

    1. True science acknowledges that no one can ascertain absolute knowledge. We can w/ honestly admit that reality is not the total picture–rather, individualized experiences, and opinions of ourselves, affected by culture, environment, biology, etc…

      This, however, does not expunge the theist–it must be applicable to believers as well, not just science. In this manner, all is subjective–yet, we must acknowledge the consequences w/ nobility and intellectual honesty: that our beliefs are self-effacing–both are right and wrong–for both methodologies belong in the realm of subjectivism, and the integral man must uphold the summation of his assertion: that not all opinions are equal, and albeit there are aspects that cannot be proven, there are such things that can be proven wrong, emphatically.

      No longer do we subscribe totem poles controlling weather, or that storms are spirits of an entities wrath, or for that matter, seizures are caused by demon possession (the reason for so many deaths in medieval times)–these are a few things out of many that have been proven false–it’s no wonder science has been the enemy of religion for eons.

      Cornell West, in his book “Democracy Matters” poses a phrase of “willful ignorance“, implying the rigorous restraint of acknowledging what is. If we are all truth seekers, then theism and science fall under subjectivism–again, providing the differentiation between valid arguments and sound ones–subjective statement?

      Note: you alluded the fact that albeit, color and taste (the latter being a thing of preference, while the former is biological) is not Spinach real, or will you say how do we know what spinach is? If the latter applies, then it’s applicable to god as well. Remember, possibilities, don’t provide sound arguments, just valid ones–my agnostic-atheistic poise prefers the latter–but what else do we have.

  5. Here’s a more challenging one:

    Vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream.
    It is wrong to torture a child for fun.

    Which one is more factual? My goodness, is the moral assertion more factual than the one about ice cream???? And maybe it is possible that religious claims might also be true. Maybe even factual.

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