The Interpretation of Evidence

Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Charles Darwin’s cousin, hypothesized that monarchs should live longer than other people. Not because they were somehow superior to their subjects, but because millions of their subjects prayed for their health.

Well, it turns out that Galton was, empirically speaking, wrong about the monarch’s life. (Or, perhaps, more people were praying for their monarch’s demise!) But the fact that one of the 19th century’s leading scientific minds—a Darwinian no less—came up with such a hypothesis testifies to our instinctive belief in the connection between faith and health.

This connection was the subject of a recent Time magazine article entitled “The Biology of Belief.” Some of the material will be familiar to long-time BreakPoint listeners and those familiar with the work of the late David Larson.

As Time puts it, “a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health.” Just for example, people who regularly attend church are less likely to die in a given year than those who don’t. And people who believe in a loving God have a better chance of recovering from a serious illness than those who don’t.

There are even studies that suggest, as Galton intuited, that being prayed for, whether you know it or not, makes a difference.

But as mathematicians constantly remind us, the fact that two things, like church attendance and good health, are statistically associated doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. It could be a coincidence or, in this case, it could be what you might think—regular churchgoers are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors than non-churchgoers.

Or it could be that correlation is causation. The evidence continues to mount that that is the case.

In other words, despite the mounting evidence that faith does improve health, some people still say there is nothing supernatural about it. So, Time tells us, many researchers and scientists resist the clinical implications of these studies.

For example, they point to studies that show how parts of the brain light up like a Christmas tree during prayer and meditation. We believers believe that it’s God who designed the brain that way, but they say it is nothing more than evolutionary biology and neuro-chemistry. They try to explain away the sense of peace we experience in prayer or worship in purely material terms. So, they reason, why compromise the practice of medicine with so-called “metaphysical mumbo-jumbo”?

Paradoxically, this skepticism helps us to understand what faith truly is. As I wrote in my book The Faith, faith is a complete view of the world and humankind’s place in it. It’s a way of knowing . It is not a feeling. Christians should and do pray even if their brains don’t light up. We entrust our lives to God even if it makes no difference in medical outcomes.

Why? Because of what we know about God—that He Is and that He loves us and rewards those who seek Him.

Likewise, for those who proceed from the assumption that everything in the universe can and must be explained in purely material terms, when it comes to faith and medicine, no amount of “scientific evidence”—powerful though it is—will suffice.

They just can’t get their brains around it.

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