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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Science, Religion and Evidence

I read a lot of blogs, especially the ones over at Science Blogs. I'm also quite lazy, so I merely subscribed to the three channels I was most interested in (Brain and Behaviour, Humanities and Social Sciences and Medicine and Health).

Now, many of the science bloggers seem to be quite virulently sciency, in that they appear to regard the mere existence of religion as a personal affront. Now, personally I don't follow any religion (raised catholic, abandoned it following reading up on church history at around 12), but I am very interested in the experiences recorded throughout time by mystics, monks and saints.

I personally reckon that there may be some truth in all this religion stuff, at least the idea that humans can experience the numinous and/or sacred by working at particular practices. It is a fact that religiosity is associated with better health, and that forgiveness, gratitude and compassion appear to have substantial health benefits.

Now, finally we reach the meat of the post. Recently, a science blogger wrote an article entitled does theology progress. His major point appears to be that science jettisons theories the moment they contradict the evidence (well mostly, but thats a whole other post), while religions do not typically do this. While I would agree that many religious believers do not do this, i would suggest that the impetus of religion and spirituality is to keep searching until whatever it is that humans look for has been found.

Another issue that illuminates the science/religion divide is this: science offers descriptions, religions seem to offer interpretations. Put another way, science deals with information while religion deals with meaning. Now, I would argue that the social sciences, properly done can investigate particular sets of meanings, but i am doubtful that we will ever be able to reduce them to information or discover mathematical laws that guide their experience (then again, i could well be wrong on that).

I suppose my major point here is that while religion defined as the book or practices on which particular faiths are founded may not progress, the people reading the book certainly do, and this is what causes such wildly different interpretations of the same book and teachings. Of course, many people who profess to believe do not follow the teachings exactly (or even at all - how you can be a Christian and refuse benefits for the long term unemployed is beyond me), but the point is that the interpretation and meanings given to a particular scripture are not inherent in the text but rather emerge from the interaction of text and reader, and as such, the idea that religion is stale and unchanging seems to me to be absurd.

Woah, went a bit post-modern there. I think I should set out my stall somewhat more clearly though. I believe (this is my faith) that what people call God is an experience which we all have the potential to achieve through dilegent work. I believe that this process is entirely amenable to the study of well conducted science. I do not believe that the experience itself can be reduced to neural firings, but again I could be wrong there. The remembrance of it certainly is related to particular patterns of neural activity though.

Here's the kind of research agenda I would like to see:

1) Large, globally diverse sample
2) Longitudinal design
3) Measurement of practice, mood and other personality variables daily
4) Measurment of physiological data either by self administration (BP, HRV etc) and by clinicians on a monthly or weekly basis
5) Examination of different cultural beliefs and their relationship to the outcomes of practice.

This study would probably need to continue for 5 years minimum, to give us a decent chance of observing one of these experiences in controlled conditions.

Now, the funny thing is that the groundwork for this study has been done. The use of Mindfulness Based (insert problem here) therapies has become very popular in the last few years, and these are the kinds of people we should follow. They tend to come from different walks of life and cultures, and they have already been trained in meditation with minimal preconceptions.

Of course, we'd need to examine the different kinds of meditative practices, as they may well have differential effects. Again, some of the groundwork has been done on this but the long term focus is lacking.

Thats where I stand on this whole thing, anyway.

Also, i regard evolution (the arguments about, not the FACT of) as a distraction from this grand project, in many ways its more important to understand where we are going than where we came from. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive either.


  1. It seems one would have to be woefully ignorant of religion to suggest that theology does not change (whether it progresses is another question). Christianity today -- including Catholicism -- bears little resemblance to Christianity of the Middle Ages or the Roman era. Judaism, which I'm more familiar with, has changed radically from one based on animal sacrifice to one based on rules of daily life to the modern American liturgy-based experience.

    Just sayin'.

  2. I agree, but the notion that theology does not progress was not mine, rather it was the idea of a science blogger whom I linked to in my post.

    Personally, i regard religions as a fascinating area of study regardless of whether or not one accepts the justification or interpretations of the words.