Thursday, December 5, 2013


As children, most of us were taught that the world was created and is governed by a personal God who attends to our individual actions and who can answer prayers but who doesn’t always give the answers that we are seeking.  So how do we know that God is actually there, that he is paying attention, that he answers prayers?  Those of faith reply that the Holy Spirit or other agency speaks to us internally and that we need to rely on that internal voice.  

But there’s another approach, and that is to rely on science and rational thought.  This approach makes no assumption that something is true because an authority (viz., scriptures) has stated it is true.  Instead, it relies on objective observation, rational analysis, and the scientific method to gain a better understanding of the world and to find solutions to the problems we confront.  

And there’s an easy and objective way to see which approach actually works, to compare the efficacy of reliance on faith and prayer with reliance on a scientific, rational approach to furthering knowledge.

Let me cite just one example: Childhood cancer.  Since the early 1960s the five-year survival rates for virtually all forms of childhood cancer have risen dramatically.  For acute leukemia, for example, the five-year survival rate has risen from 5% to nearly 95%.  This is probably the most dramatic, but the success rates for treatment of other childhood cancers have also improved dramatically.  For example, the success rate for treatment of non-Hodgkins lymphoma has increased from 7% to 80%, and for osteosarcoma from 20% to 70%.

And these increased success rates are directly due to . . . the application of science.  Of course.  

Think about it.  Prior to the development of a scientific approach to the solution to these problems, there were untold millions of children who contracted the disease, suffered, and ultimately succumbed, despite their parents’ and other loved ones’ faith and prayers.  And the consolation: It was God’s will.  Then along came science and the success rate increased from 5% to 95%.

Lest one argue that I have cherry-picked my example, I could also have mentioned smallpox, polio, TB, scurvy, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, and myriad other diseases that, while not entirely eradicated, have been reduced to very low levels of incidence, at least in developed countries where medical (read science-based) treatment is widely available.  Of course, none of the success in treating these diseases has been due to prayer or faith; all of it is due to science.

Some may argue that they know of cases where medical science had not worked but where prayer had.  First, simply because we may not always know why some people recover from diseases does not mean that there wasn’t a physical reason for the recovery; it just means that we don’t have complete knowledge of the reasons.  Second, the scientific method cautions us that we cannot base a conclusion on one or only a few examples.  There are too many unknown factors that could be responsible, requiring that we do controlled studies involving enough cases to provide statistically reliable results.  That is fundamental to the scientific method.  And when such controlled studies are done, there is no credible evidence for the efficacy of prayer in the treatment of disease.

Some may also contend that faith and prayer, on the one hand, and science and rational analysis, on the other, work in separate spheres and that they deal with different matters.  But that simply isn’t true either.  One cannot assert that for some areas a scientific approach is appropriate whereas for others the proper approach is through faith, prayer, and reliance on our inner self.  The plain truth is that the history of advances in knowledge have come through science, not through reliance on authority or faith.  It has always been a one-way street, with all the traffic going in one direction.  

Consider such matters as thunder and lightning, the heliocentric solar system, the earth as round rather than flat, the causes of earthquakes, the principles of evolution, the causes of mental illness.  The list goes on and on.  And the pattern is always the same: Initially, for want of a better understanding, such matters were declared to have supernatural causes, beyond human understanding or control.  As scientific knowledge advanced, one by one the explanations based on supernatural causes were abandoned and faith had to shrink its claimed compass of knowledge.

© 2013 John M. Phillips

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