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The Critical Distinction Between Science and Religion

Publication Date: 2006-11-02

This article makes interesting points about attempts to quantify human experience. What happens, for example when you try to measure a sunbeam with a ruler, reducing it to what which can be quantified? What happens when you try to measure a child's reading experience with DIBELS?


The view that all human experience can be reduced to the function of biological activity may be satisfying to scientists, but it is anathema to theologians. The researchers Marguerite Lederberg and George Fitchett recognize this problem in an interesting article with the provocative title "Can You Measure a Sunbeam With a Ruler?" In it, they explore the scientific problems with attempts to reduce the experience of religion to the measurable quantities of science. The point of their title is to reiterate a longstanding concern in science: the difficulty of quantifying human experience. By attempting to measure a sunbeam and in so doing reduce it to that which can be quantified by a ruler, we lose the character of the sunbeam itself. While such measurement may be possible, it cannot capture the essence of the sunbeam and in fact may distort it.

Trying to quantify religious experience by counting the number of times a person reports attending church, the most commonly used index of religious involvement, is like trying to measure a sunbeam with a ruler: It may be possible, but the essential character of the experience is lost in the process. It is like trying to quantify the aesthetic experience of listening to a Beethoven symphony by counting the number of times a listener smiles. No doubt we could conduct brain-imaging studies to demonstrate differences in the activity of cerebral structures while listening to the Ninth Symphony and to white noise. Would that tell us anything about the aesthetic experience? Would it mean that this experience is explained by the activity of that specific brain region? Is that all there is to it? Is the majesty of listening to Beethoven, viewing the Grand Canyon, or appreciating the vastness of the universe merely the product of increased activity of certain regions in the brain? And could we reproduce these experiences simply by administering the right medication or electrical stimulation?

As productive as this strategy of reductionism has been and as promising as it continues to be for science, we ought to question seriously what insights it yields in the study of religion. Religion and science are independent approaches to knowledge, and neither can be reduced to the other. Religion and science are fundamentally different, with the former relying on faith as a source of wisdom and the latter demanding evidence. Religious truths generally are considered to be enduring and not subject to change. Scientific truths, on the other hand, are completely dependent on evidence, and as new evidence emerges, scientific truths change accordingly.

For these reasons, attempts to understand religious experience by scientific means can never be satisfying to religion. They can satisfy only science.

Using the methods of science to examine religion has another seemingly unintended consequence: It has led to attempts to establish the relative merits of different religious traditions by scientific means. After all, if we can determine scientifically whether frequency of attendance or frequency of prayer is associated with health outcomes, then shouldn't we begin to test whether the type of service makes a difference? If we are truly interested in collecting information relevant to health outcomes, then we should want to know whether it is better for our health to attend a Catholic mass or a Quaker meeting. Are Orthodox Jewish services better for our health than Reform services? Is there a health advantage to praying five times a day, as Muslims do, as opposed to the three times of Orthodox Jews? Why is it acceptable to determine that more-frequent attendance at religious services is better for your health than less-frequent attendance, but it is not acceptable to determine that Christian services are better for your health than attending Jewish or Muslim services?

Most researchers in the field of religion and health do not address this matter. My guess is that if they were asked, they would oppose contrasting the health benefits of different religious denominations. But why should they object? Presumably, the objection to studying the different health effects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, is that it would be offensive if we discovered that one religion was superior to the other two. The offense lies in the implication that those who practice the medically less beneficial religions would be better off converting to the medically more beneficial one.

Such a recommendation would be seen as out of bounds by most people. But why should it be? Attending services at an Orthodox synagogue or a Catholic church is a religious behavior that we can measure, just like attending services more or less frequently. Why is recommending conversion from one religious denomination to another for hypothetical health benefits more offensive than recommending that people who attend services only once per month attend more frequently because the latter, some believe, is better for their health, or recommending that people increase the amount of time spent praying?

We are on dangerous ground here, and the danger lies once again in a critical distinction between science and religion. It is a distinction that proponents of the religion-health connection obliterate, whether they intend to or not. Science permits us, in principle, to answer these questions. Without a doubt, we could conduct a study contrasting the health effects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example. It could be done in precisely the same way that researchers have examined the effects of higher versus lower frequency of attendance at religious services, or greater or lower frequency of private prayer or reading the Bible or listening to religious radio programming. From the scientific perspective, there is no fundamental difference between using religious denomination or religious attendance as the predictor variable.

Although science allows us to conduct such a study, ethics and religion ought to tell us how ridiculous such a comparison would be. In today's world (and in the past as well), we have ample evidence of religious strife. This should not diminish the value that religion has for many people, but no one can dismiss the fact that religious factionalism has been responsible for conflict at the societal and familial level for thousands of years. Even if we could, hypothetically, demonstrate that Protestant prayer is better for one's health than Catholic prayer, why would we ever want to do so?

It undoubtedly is true that we can submit religious ritual and experiences to scientific study to determine if they are associated with beneficial health outcomes. But to do so runs the risk of trivializing the religious experience, making it no different from other medical recommendations made by physicians. If attending religious services becomes no different than consuming a low-fat diet or getting regular exercise, a great deal will have been lost. Bringing religion into the world of the scientist must by definition reduce religion to measurable indices that strip it of the sense of transcendence that distinguishes it from other aspects of our lives. Doing this dumbs religion down, making it so bland and universally acceptable that it has lost all of its meaning.

Ironically, this reductionism is precisely the problem that many in the religious community have railed against. Steven Goldberg, author of Seduced by Science, wrote, "When prayer is innocuous, it is no rival to the materialistic view of the world." Bringing religion into the "laboratory" of the scientist cannot help but contribute to the inevitable comparisons of the "scientifically established" virtues of one religion, or one type of religious practice, over others. In a world riven with religious factionalism and strife, it's hard to think of a worse idea.

is a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University. This essay is excerpted from Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, published this month by St. Martin's Press.

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