I wrote a quick blog about Russell Brand’s podcast with Alister McGrath today… take a look! I empathised a lot with Brand because his position isn’t that dissimilar to mine about 10 years ago.
I did a talk about this subject recently, but some of the points are in this article in Christian Today.
Science is given an authority in our culture that often ignores its limitations – this is potentially dangerous. It’s also referred to by people who don’t understand it. Particularly in the social sciences, there are many opportunities for bias and misunderstanding. Take a look!
I am on a bit of a writing break at the moment – but felt I should very quickly respond to this report of a recently published scientific article. The Guardian’s headline is “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds” and it’s been published elsewhere, including the Daily Mail, Time and other esteemed outlets.
This is rubbish, and worthy of The Guardian’s excellent former ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre. Why?
- Social science experiments such as this have limited application to the wider population, for a number of reasons. Psychological experiments often test issues in artificial ways that can’t be extrapolated to real life.
- This particular study seems to have a serious design flaw: the use of the ‘dictator game’ as a measure of altruism, when it has been critiqued to be more a measure of susceptibility to peer pressure. See this post from John Baskette for details. Even if it was a good measure of altruism, the other problems with such experiments still apply, and experimenter demand effects are common confounding variables.
- The fact that this study is in a biology journal, when it is a social science study, makes me wonder if it was rejected from journals where a rigorous and learned peer review would have taken place. Biology and psychology are very different disciplines, with very different experimental designs.
- The children being tested were from USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Are these countries representative of people as a whole? How did they select the religious children, from which kind of religious communities were they? As anyone who has faith will know, even within one particular religion, there is wide diversity of practice and belief. There is very little information on sampling – how the researchers chose the schools and children involved, which seems as though it would have a crucial effect. For example, if their USA school was one run by the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s likely that Christian children would not be representative of Christian children as a whole!
- The researchers appear to have a particular axe to grind. They say at the end: “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.” To make such a politically loaded statement in the conclusion of a research article indicates a degree of experimenter bias.
- The fact that the experimenters claim their findings ‘robustly demonstrate’ less altruism in religious children, and omit all the usual qualifications about generalising from experiments that are in good quality social science papers, again suggests experimenter bias and poor interpretation.
- There are other experiments that could suggest that religious people are more altruistic. These are barely mentioned in the paper. Of course, such experiments also have limitations in how they can be generalised and should have lots of qualifications too. But they should surely be given more weight and discussion in a report that finds the opposite?
[Update] Since I wrote this, more learned souls have been pointing out other problems. George Yancey points out the lack of control variables, along with other similar criticisms; and William M Briggs points out problems with the statistical analysis. And atheists who have understanding of the social sciences are pointing out the problems with this study.
This article is so poor, that I’m sure I could find more flaws if I spent more time on it, but I’ve just whizzed through. It’s a shame that it is being taken seriously by media and public alike. Please add any other flaws you see in the experiment in the comments below.
One of my favourite books I’ve read recently is “Why Us: How science discovered the mystery of ourselves,” by Telegraph columnist and doctor, James le Fanu. It’s said to “reunite science with sense of wonder” and it’s well worth a read. Essentially it’s a critique of Darwinism or materialism as an explanation for living phenomena, though not from the perspective of religion. The author seems to have spiritual beliefs but of an unknown variety.
Personally I find it lacking some depth in terms of its critique of Darwinism – and there were facts that were not taken account of. However the book neatly summarises one of my biggest problems with the New Atheist arguments that use science to attempt to disprove the existence of God. Science is presented as if it has already answered all the questions of life, or at least the big ones. But nothing could be further from the truth. As we unravel the complexities of molecular biology – more problems arise. What seemed to be a simple explanation for phenomena becomes much more complex, or even untenable.
I agree with atheists that this is not a reason to therefore decide “ah well, God did it then”, the infamous “God of the gaps.” The book has a tendency to do this (though it is with a “life force” rather than God, in keeping with the author’s beliefs) But it is a reason to generate humility and awe for the world around us. It’s important to acknowledge that despite all the efforts, all the research, all the great minds working hard on their subject, to the end that now, no one person could possibly know and understand all of the scientific discoveries and results we’ve achieved, at least in one lifetime – we still just don’t know. There is so much to learn, to understand. it is a mind-bending and humbling truth. Anyone who says we know it all, just exposes their total ignorance of all that we know.
It’s a well-written and interesting book, and a great place to start exploring this topic. Don’t let the anti-Darwinism put you off, it does make interesting points and it’s not anti-science.
This is a great clip from a good debate between Christian William Lane Craig and atheist Peter Atkins, with a wonderful short answer to the question, ‘Does science tell us everything’.
Watching it led me to reflect on why some people are desperate to believe what they believe. What’s the underlying motivation? It’s a charge most often levelled at Christians, as Atkins does here. Yet I think it’s as likely to be on any ‘side’ in a God debate. Such desperation likely to lead us to think irrational thoughts that can’t be backed up – Atkins demonstrates this in this video, I think. So, why are people so desperate to believe what they do?
In 2013 and 2014 I did some work for the Keswick Convention, turning some of its Bible talks into articles.
One of my favourites were the talks from John Lennox, which became a series of blogs for Christianity magazine. Here’s an excerpt from the first one:
What we are going to discuss is absolutely fundamental. The first page of Genesis is the charter of all human dignity and value. In the next 5 days, we will challenge, in the name of God and the Bible, the prevailing naturalism, that is regarded as the default in our culture.
Genesis is a thorny subject for Christians, who tend either towards accepting evolution and seeing Genesis 1-2 as some kind of allegory, or they are six day creationists. The subject causes a lot of arguments.
It all obscures the real beauty of Genesis 1-2 – the calling of creation ‘good’, the importance of living things and particularly humans to God, our vital responsibility in looking after the Earth and everything in it: there are so many crucial insights into our world in this short bit of text.
I think I am unusual in being happy with the scientific evidence for evolution (though I often think bigger claims are made for it than can be currently justified) – but I don’t think Genesis 1-2 is only an allegory either. I think there’s no need for the polarisation that currently exists, and we end up missing the point.
I think Lennox is near this position too – his talks are well worth listening to. You can get them free on http://www.keswickministries.org, or read a summary in these blogs. I’ll pull out some more stuff from them in the coming weeks, hopefully.