Sunday, December 03, 2006

Experiments and Brute Facts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In my previous post, my goal was to answer Ernie's question about what I was willing to bet my life on, as well as to challenge him to consider the possibility that those things that he values most highly might be better served by leaving behind beliefs that inhibit the successful expression of those values. There were, however, other issues that I left unaddressed so as not to distract from that main point. Answering those issues is my purpose here.

The issues of which I speak relate both to Ernie's previous post in this dialog as well as to the Five Empirical Tests of Theism that he suggested in the context of another discussion. While this latter post was not strictly intended to be part of this discussion, I believe that its intended purpose is relevant to the point Ernie is trying to establish, that theism and particularly Christianity represent a uniquely powerful force for good in this world.

Regarding his five empirical tests, let me first point out the importance of his title, which is accurate and significant. The title is not "Five Empirical Tests of God's Existence" but "Five Empirical Tests of Theism". Theism is belief about the existence of a god or gods. I have said previously that our beliefs have significant impacts on our actions, and it is quite possible that belief in God (or gods) can have positive results without that belief actually being true. To be sure, if it could be shown both that the belief was more beneficial than disbelief, yet false, that would leave me in a bit of a bind, since I could not choose to believe just for the benefits. Since I hold an essentially utilitarian view of ethics, I would also have to view correction of these false beliefs in others as unethical, an unattractive position to be in. But since we have not yet arrived at the point where belief in God has been demonstrated to be both maximally beneficial yet false, that difficulty can remain unsolved.

Having said that, the outcomes of some of the experiments would be illuminating.

While I am not familiar with any studies related to drug and alcohol addiction, a somewhat related topic is that of recidivism among those released from prison. Prison ministries are fairly common, particularly those affiliated with Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, and in 2003 a study was published in which the "InnerChange Freedom Initiative", a program developed by PFM, was found to dramatically reduce recidivism rates, a result which has of course been trumpeted by various Christian groups across the country. But like so many such studies, it was deeply flawed. In particular, this particular study compared recidivism rates of those prisoners who completed the InnerChange program with the rates of those prisoners who entered secular programs. This introduces a substantial selection bias, since it had already been shown that failing to complete such programs was a strong predictor of recidivism. When this bias was corrected for, those prisoners that completed the InnerChange program were found to have the same or slightly higher recidivism rates than those in the secular program.

I first read about this in Slate. Its author, Mark Kleiman, correctly points out that these results only reflect the effectiveness of particular programs, not all possible Christian (or secular) programs, a complication that must be taken into account in Ernie's various experiments. Media Transparency also examines the InnerChange program, more from the angle of the government funding religious programs, but it also refers to the Slate article as well as the original University of Pennsylvania study, which, despite being so widely applauded by Christian groups, was never published and is no longer available on the University of Pennsylvania website. Finally, this news article from Florida State University discusses a meta-analysis by Dan Mears of studies examining the effectiveness of faith-based programs. While the whole (short) article is worth reading, this statement is significant: "What we did find was weak support for a religion-crime relationship, inconsistent measurements of 'faith' and 'religion,' few methodologically rigorous studies, and significant questions about program implementation and the theoretical foundations of faith-based initiatives."

Ernie's third suggested experiment relates to the viability of a community, indeed a whole society, inhabited by non-religious people. He demands that this society borrow nothing from Christianity, which strikes me as an interesting qualification. Christianity itself and Judaism before it have borrowed extensively from other religious and philosophical traditions, and as I have tried to make clear, that there might be some overlap between the moral tenets of Christianity and those of a secular humanist society would not be at all surprising. So I think the experiment as stated is unfair, both by giving Christianity the benefit of what it has taken from others while denying the secular society the option to do the same.

As an example on the theist side of the third proposal, Ernie suggests the Pilgrims. This example is instructive in several ways, indirectly. First, the survival of the Pilgrims depended on the native Indians several times over. The site where they eventually settled had already been cleared, having been previously occupied by the Patuxet Indians, who abandoned the site after all the inhabitants died in a smallpox epidemic (a disease brought to the New World by Europeans). Such epidemics were estimated to have killed over ninety percent of the native population, clearing the way for easy European colonization. In fact,

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, called the plague "miraculous." In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: "But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection." (source)

Additionally, the Indians helped provide the Pilgrims with food, both voluntarily and otherwise. Now, these facets of what it took to survive do not really address the kinds of issues that Ernie is emphasizing (governance, education, legal systems, etc.), but they do introduce some ideas that I will return to later.

There is, however, another way in which this story touches on Ernie's experiment. We are so used to looking at the story from the point of view of the Pilgrims arriving in the New World that we tend not to think so much about how the Native Indians arrived there to begin with. Christianity has been in the Americas for just over 500 years. People have been here for at least 13,000 years, arriving in one or more small groups across the Bering Strait during the last ice age. In a very real sense, they were the first colonists. While I do not pretend to know what kind of religious beliefs those people had, they were almost certainly not monotheists and they surely did not borrow anything from Christianity, as was true of the entire world for thousands and thousands of years. In short, I think there is entirely adequate evidence that mere viability after ten years is unlikely to tell us very much. In fact, ten years is entirely too short a time to develop the kind of complex societal functions that have developed far more slowly everywhere else.

Going back to Ernie's Wanna Bet, I must take exception to something Ernie wrote there:

Atheists and secularists can whine all they want about superstition and luck, but the "brute fact" is that Western civilization -- including the very prosperity and security that enables the survival of freethinking skeptics -- was built on a foundation of Christian theism.

This is not remotely a brute fact. Western civilization was influenced by any number of philosophical, religious and political traditions, as well as by various environmental factors. Western civilization has significant roots in Greek thought that pre-date Christianity. When Christianity became the official religion of the (decaying) Roman Empire, it oversaw a decline that was reversed only after nearly a millennium, and then with significant intellectual help from Arabic (yes, even Muslim) intellectuals that had preserved the writings of Roman and Greek philosophers that Christian scribes had destroyed (oftentimes if only to re-use the parchment). Democracy was (as far as I know) first developed by the Greeks and its introduction to the United States was part (or a result) of the Enlightenment, a movement that sought to divorce society from much of what it had inherited from its earlier (Christian) heritage. Ernie himself alluded to the significance of this contribution months ago:

To be sure, the Enlightenment rebels were quite right in their critique of medieval authoritarianism. And their noble accomplishments in the field of social justice, civil liberties, education, and science are nothing short of heroic, and proved (quite literally) revolutionary.

Many of these heroes of the Enlightenment were Christians. Many were not, though some would still have called themselves theists, and perhaps the rest deists. For the most part, however, the Enlightenment did not grow out of historical Christianity so much as respond to it, react to it, and sometimes oppose it.

As I quoted above, Ernie also claimed that "the very prosperity and security" that we enjoy traces back to Christian influences. Again, the causal linkage here is highly questionable. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel describes a variety of factors that affected the comparative success of various societies around the world. His conclusion is that various geographic and biological factors, particularly the availability of domesticatible plants and animals in combination with certain geographical features, lead to the ascendancy of Western civilization. (The diseases that wiped out so many Native Americans derive from the urbanization that was made possible by highly productive agricultural practices that were in turn made possible by the aforementioned plants and animals.) While his conclusions are debated among experts, it does not appear that Christianity is considered by any of them to be the true source of that ascendancy, nor do the suggested alternatives appear to derive directly from Christianity. While Ernie may argue that Christianity was the foundation for what occurred, he cannot claim it as a brute fact.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
A very reasonable critique. One clarification, though: I wasn't really writing those "tests" for you, but anti-theists who appeared to be claiming there was nothing of value in Christianity (though perhaps I misinterpreted them as well). You are (fortunately) willing to admit that Christianity might have something worth borrowing from, which enables us to have a very different discussion.
-- Ernie P.

Alan Lund said...


I understood that your proposed experiments were not part of our discussion, and tried to make that clear in my second paragraph. Still, the ideas seemed relevant to our discussion and the point I think you are trying to make there.