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The Natural and the Supernatural

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: one deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created around 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life. Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: subjects in the non-prayed for group did just as well (or poor) as those in the prayed for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs; i.e., a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people keep them separated in logic-tight compartments, even scientists. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40 percent of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP, and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any God explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A God definable by science is not a God at all.

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Flying Carpets & Scientific Prayer

Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed
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In late 1944, as he cajoled his flagging troops to defeat the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, General George S. Patton turned to his chief chaplain for help.

Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather. I’m tired of these soldiers having to fight mood and floods as well as Germans. See if we can’t get God to work on our side.
Chaplain: Sir, it’s going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.
Patton: I don’t care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.

Although few attribute Patton’s subsequent success to a divine miracle, a number of papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals in recent years claiming that distant intercessory prayer leads to health and healing. These studies are fraught with methodological problems.

Fraud. In 2001 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers claiming that prayer for women undergoing in vitro fertilization resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50 percent, double that of women who did not receive prayer. ABC News medical correspondent Timothy Johnson, cautiously enthused, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results, but many physicians remain skeptical.” One of those skeptics was from the University of California at Irvine, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics named Bruce Flamm, who not only found numerous methodological errors in the experiment but also discovered that one of the study’s authors, Daniel Wirth, a.k.a. John Wayne Truelove, is not an M.D. but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, to which he has pled guilty. The other two authors have refused to comment, and after three years of inquires from Flamm, the journal removed the study from its Web site and Columbia University launched an investigation. (continue reading…)

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