Sunday, April 01, 2012

Putting the Lord God to the test?

I've just done something which is dangerous for anyone with high blood pressure: I read below the line on a blogpost about religion. It's okay: my blood pressure is fairly low, a blessing inherited from my paternal grandfather. However, some people appear not to have such a benefit, as the thread at Lib Dem Voice demonstrates (link).

The story relates to the Advertising Standards Authority's decision that a Christian group cannot put up posters saying God answers prayer and heals people, on the basis that it is not a warranted claim. (The Lib Dem link is that Tim Farron, party president, is signatory to a letter criticising the ASA for its ruling.)

Predictably, the priestly caste of atheism are all over this one. Apparently, there are scientific studies which demonstrate that God doesn't do any such thing: you get people praying, or not praying, and the results are no better than placebo. However, this sounds like an extremely thin basis on which to found one's objections.

A fairly quick, if slightly irreverent, way to demonstrate the problem is a thought experiment: suppose you were the Almighty, and some puny human researcher wanted to do an experiment on you. How might you be inclined to react?

Precisely.

But I can really do no better than to quote C. S. Lewis:

Theology is, in a sense, an experimental science.

If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. The will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side.

If you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.

If you want to get to know a human person, but he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. In this case the initiative is divided.

When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on his side. If he does not show himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find him.
(Mere Christianity, p. 164, lightly edited)

This really does summarise the problem with running experiments on a person who, by hypothesis, is immaterial, omniscient and omnipotent: you can't bottle him or capture him, he knows what you're doing, and he can do what he pleases. 'Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test,' indeed: for even if you should, he may be unwilling to play along. What you need is God to reveal himself. Now, where might he have done that?

3 comments:

John said...

I think the issue is rather that the claim is not testable. Of course there are no studies that show God doesn't answer prayer. But neither are there any that show he does, and therefore claiming that God answers prayer is stating as a fact that for which there is no testable evidence.

Phil Walker said...

That may be the claim of the ASA: I haven't read the adjudication. But it's certainly not the claim of the Dawkins brigade, who are most definitely out in force. According to them, prayer has been demonstrated to be no better than placebo.

Do you think that people ought only to be allowed to state that for which there is testable evidence?

Greg said...

I think that two mistakes are being made here:

1) People are treating God as some sort of law of nature, with a linear response that can be tested. Phil's made it abundantly clear why that's set up to fail.

2) The ASA (seemingly) and the commenters (definitely) have either decided that all truth is scientific truth, or that science is the only truth that is allowed to be advertised, or at least they've failed to credit us with the intelligence to understand that all statements about God(s) are to be interpreted in the light of "This is what we believe, it's not scientific". (b) is of course discredited by the existence of political advertising.

I do wonder what proportion of the objectors are mistaken / blinded by their own dogma, and what proportion are simply in it to get one over on those nasty religionists. As for the ASA, this sounds like yet another instance of the nanny state. Anyway, I hope Phil's learned his lesson: never read the bottom half of the internet.