Share the gospel or preach good principles?

A randomised trial of religion has surprising results

Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.

So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1

The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘

As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’

Competence testing for theology scholars

Only let them loose if they’ve proved themselves

Theology scholars like to write ‘Introductions’ to things, and they like to talk about the ‘Problem’ of other things, such as the Problem of Evil or the Problem of God. They do not usually write on anything useful or testable like the Problem of Trapped Wind. Even though, you would think, it would be a good exercise to start on something smaller before reaching out straight for the Transcendent.

How are these people appointed? It turns out that theologians appoint each other. In effect, they mark their own homework. This is convenient for them because words/pontificating/opinions (NB: exactly what I am doing here) comes cheap, whereas facts come expensive and the budgets of theology departments do not generally run to them.

I have a particular problem with Introductions. An Introduction, for example to a book of the Bible, is a long compilation of what earlier theologians have said about that same book, selected according to the prejudices of the current writer. Introductions usually include a discussion of authorship. And Introduction-writers will exercise themselves with things like The Problem Of Isaiah (how many people wrote it); or the Problem of John (that the writer of the book of Revelation, called John in the book itself, is a different person from the author of the Book of John, whose never calls himself John in the book, but implies that he is.) With us so far?

We can cut through this. No theologian should be allowed to opine on the authorship of books of the New Testament without first being tested. This is easily arranged. Give them some books in various genres, written by livibg authors, and get them to theorize who wrote what. If you pass you, you get the job, if you fail, out you go, you charleton, to the World, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth and the need to work for a living.

What to do when you find yourself on a ‘darkling plain’

Don’t panic. Examine the rogue data

In a previous post I looked at Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem Dover Beach– the best atheist hymn I can currently think of:

the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

And I pointed out that I know of people of whom it is not true. Their pain and loss is suffused with a joy and life that is quite umistakeable to anyone who talks with them.

This is so important. These are rogue data-points that do not fit on Matthew Arnold’s dismal curve. They are also like stars in the universe, holding out the word of life. Anyone who is interested in facts and evidence, and especially atheists, ought to make a point of meeting up with them. They are often conveniently found in churches. If you’re concerned with truth, interrogate the data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis; especially, I might note, if your hypothesis is about life and death and meaning. You might find, if you are a north-facing atheist, as it were, that our human home also has a south side, and the sun is blazing.

Two eyes are better than one (2)

How science can be earthed by contact with friendly theologians

In a recent post I speculated about ways that grasping truth through science can enforce a kind of rigour onto theologians to make them better theologians. Now the reverse question. What can theology do for science? I think plenty.

1. Monomaniacal materialism is not the answer to everything. Science observes and measures, then theorizes, then measures again. (At least on its best days.) This is fantastic for scoping out the material universe, for understanding how things work and how to fix them, for inventing things, for curing cancer. These things matter a lot. But not only are they not everything, they are not even nearly everything. What does it all mean? Do I have significance? What is love? What is a good life? Science can only scrape away at the patina of these questions. On its own, scientific perspective leaves a hole bigger than the Universe unfilled in our hearts. We need help from elsewhere, stories from outside, revelation from the Unknowable.

2. Skulduggery. Theology joins with post-modernism in pointing out that science will be flawed as long as it is carried out by humans — humans who are all prejudiced, all likely to shut our ears to opposing arguments, inevitable in our misuse of academic power and prestige because we abuse every power and gift of God. Scientists are sinners, like the rest of us, held back from our worst, like the rest of us, only by cultural strictures and the grace of God.

3. Science doesn’t do transcendent. It sort of can’t; science would have to un-science itself to do so. But that leads to a lopsided perspective. Science cannot (by definition I think) see beyond cause and effect to an Uncaused Cause. Quantum physics sometimes talks about the quantum vacuum, an eternal, uncaused thing from which universes spring. But that is striking a match in the darkness and hoping to create a Universe of suns. It is too much to ask, I think, for a mere quantum vacuum to somehow lead to consciousness and love and purpose. Only an Uncreated God, ‘source of all being and life’ as the creed says, can do justice to the Universe that science sees and sees but does not comprehend, that it measures and measures but does not know.