How Much Religious Falsehood Is Acceptable?
I am returning to the Ed Feser exchange because it relates to a question I have been pondering about sophisticated Catholics and other Christians.
I had asked Mr. Feser if he could suggest an experimental design to test the efficacy of petitionary prayer, in light of his claim that religion is “scientific.” He pointed me to his book, where I will find sophisticated arguments for the existence of God as the “uncaused first cause,” he says.
The answer was nonresponsive, and not only for the “courtier’s reply” problems so ably set out by Bradlaugh and several readers. I’m not asking for a logical proof of God, but simply for a way to verify an oft-praised sign of his love for mankind: his response to believers’ prayers. “Rational arguments” for God’s existence answer the question of how to test the efficacy of prayer only if answering prayers is a necessary attribute of God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.” That assertion strikes me as an even more imaginative leap of theology than usual.
Mr. Feser displays an impatience with the practice of religion, so I will remind him of one of the most frequent topoi of Christians: If someone recovers from a devastating heart attack, say, it’s because God answered the prayers of friends and family (we won’t ask why the cardiac patient in the next hospital bed, equally prayed-over and–we should surely assume–equally worthy, died). After nine miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania in 2002, believers posted a sign: “Thank you God, 9 for 9. (Either God was busy or the prayers were defective in 2006 when twelve miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion).
I was not asking for an empirical test of God’s existence, but just of his effects in the world, which are claimed to be real. The Templeton experiment, while crude in its details, was at least a start.
(Perhaps the apologist’s response is: well, we can’t measure the incidence of prayer efficacy, because it happens on such a random, sporadic basis. But if that is the case, then the claim that “God is just” falls apart. A just God would treat equally meritorious petitions alike—the bare minimum standard for justice.)
Mr. Feser is equally miffed to be asked about the Fra. Galvao pills, which contain tiny scrolls with prayers written on them. The Vatican attributed a live birth following multiple miscarriages and a recovery from kidney disease to the ingestion of the pills, when it canonized the Brazilian eighteenth-century friar Antonio de Santa Ana Galvao last year. Mr. Feser can’t even bring himself to name the pills, referring instead to the “magic pills or whatever the hell it is she was going on about.”
In dismissing my questions, Mr. Feser chastises me for taking my cue from “unsophisticated religious believers,” whose understanding of religion is “always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base.” But the religious beliefs that I have asked Mr. Feser to explain are not some fringe behavior of untutored yokels, they are propounded by Church authorities themselves. It is ministers, priests, and pastors the world over, not just their unwashed flock, who thank God for answering prayers. And the Fra. Galvao pills are manufactured and distributed by nuns, with the presumed blessing, so to speak, of the Vatican, not to mention being officially recognized by Rome in canonizing their namesake.
Several readers have suggested approvingly that the church “spoon-feeds drivel to the masses” in order to bring them into the fold. I can’t tell if Mr. Feser shares this cynical view of the priesthood. Perhaps he thinks that ministers and priests merely tolerate “partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base” beliefs, rather than actively promote them. (Though the Fra. Galvao pills and petitionary prayer are official practices.) But whether the priesthood solicits or merely allows false beliefs, shouldn’t sophisticates like Mr. Feser (and also Michael Novak, who has said that he does not “like” the Fra. Galvao pills) strive to combat them? Doesn’t it matter whether someone lives in truth or in falsehood? We hear that God is Truth. Why, then, not make sure that everyone has a shot at it? Maybe Mr. Feser or any other religious sophisticate could put together a list of the “partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base” beliefs of everyday believers, so that the Church can correct them.
Unlike Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, I don’t take a consequentialist approach to religion. Hitchens and Harris argue against religion on the ground that it has caused great harm in the world. That line of reasoning does not interest me. Even if it could be proven that on balance, religion has done more good than harm—and clearly, religion has achieved great good–I would still argue for religious skepticism, simply because I believe that it is better to live in truth than in delusion. The idea that we are superintended by a loving, just God strikes me as a delusion, in light of the daily slaughter of the innocents.
But maybe sophisticated believers think that certain delusions are acceptable in the service of a greater Truth.