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Scientists and Religion

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This essay first appeared on Science & Religion Today.

I find it surprising that most scientists, believers and nonbelievers alike, refuse to apply their critical thinking skills to matters of religion. Unless religious teachings impinge directly on their work, such as in opposing the teaching of evolution or, more recently, in denying global warming, scientists prefer to follow Stephen Jay Gould's dictum that science and religion occupy two "non-overlapping magisteria."

The National Academy of Sciences is regarded as the defining voice of science in America. Its membership represents the elite of U.S. scientists. It has taken a strong position that science has nothing to say about God or the supernatural. Most other science organizations have followed its lead.

The rationale usually given by those who reject any role for science on religious matters is that science concerns itself, "by definition," solely with natural phenomena. Since the supernatural is unobservable, then, they assert, science has nothing to say about it.

However, while supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena. Anything observable is subject to scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it?

In recent years, right under the nose of the NAS, reputable scientists from reputable institutions have vigorously pursued several areas of empirical study that bear directly on the question of God and the supernatural. Any one of these experiments was capable of providing evidence for at least some aspect of a world beyond the material world. I will mention just two.

Teams of scientists from three highly respected institutions -- the Mayo Clinic and Harvard and Duke Universities -- have performed carefully controlled experiments on the medical efficacy of blind, intercessory prayer and published their results in peer-reviewed journals. These experiments found no evidence that such prayers provide any health benefit. But, they could have.

For my second example, over a period of four decades extensive investigations have been made into the phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs) in which people resuscitated from the brink of death report a glimpse of "heaven." Despite thousands of such reports, not a single subject has returned with new knowledge that could be tested by further investigations. No prediction has been made of some future catastrophe that later occurred on schedule, and not for lack of opportunity given the many natural disasters -- earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornados -- of recent years. Similarly, no divine revelation has provided an answer for any currently unanswered question in science, history, or theology; such as, where in the universe we will find extraterrestrial life or the location of Noah's Ark.

Now, I am not saying that these negative results prove conclusively that the supernatural does not exist, although a good case can be made that the absence of evidence that should be there can be taken as evidence of absence. My point here is that, in principle, experiments such as these and others could have provided direct evidence for a world beyond matter.

So, scientists and science organizations are being disingenuous when they say science can say nothing about the supernatural. They know better. Their policy of appeasing religion for presumably political reasons only empowers those who are muddling education and polluting public policy with anti-scientific magical thinking.

Furthermore, the Gould attempt to divide up the territory by ceding the moral domain to religion takes away the individual's right to have input on moral and ethical questions, leaving those issues to scholars who interpret ancient texts. This sounds like Sharia Law to me. Moral behavior is observable and science is the best method to investigate the observable world.