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Sep 28 2007

The hidden god hypothesis

Believers in god are usually willing to acknowledge that they have no convincing empirical evidence for the existence of god. But at the same time, the claim is made that god could reveal himself/herself any time he/she chose. So why is god’s presence hidden?

People who believe in god invariably explain this with one version or the other of a ‘mysterious ways clause’ (MWC), which argues that god has good reasons for keeping his presence hidden from us and that our mind are too puny to understand the reasons or that he has deemed that we are not yet ready to receive these truths. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card to wriggle out of a tight situation. The very fact that you have to invoke such an escape clause should be a strong indication that there is no rational reason to believe in god.

One argument that is often brought forward is that the personal experiences that people have had of god’s presence is evidence of god’s presence, and that just because this kind of evidence does not meet the standards demanded by science does not mean it is not valid. Such people argue that they have had some personal experience of god in their lives and this is evidence enough for god’s existence.

There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not. If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? Why not simply come out with definitive proof? I have already stated what kind of proof would be really convincing to anyone. God could take over all the TV stations worldwide and announce that next Tuesday, starting at noon, the Earth would stop spinning for 24 hours, so that we would have a 48-hour day. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could dispute god’s existence. The Bible says that it has been done before (the stopping the Earth’s rotation part, not the TV broadcast of course). In fact, most religions proudly claim that god has shown herself directly to the world in the past. For Christians and Jews, for example, all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and the whole story of Jesus’s resurrection, are supposed to be revelations of god, so clearly god was not always interested in hiding his existence. Why would a god who long ago seemed perfectly willing to reveal himself time and time again suddenly become coy now?

Some believers try to produce empirical evidence for god. One sees occasional excitement around experiments to test the existence of god by seeing if (say) prayer is effective. For example, in 2001 there was the much publicized Columbia University Medical Center study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine that, based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for. The statistical significance was p=0.0013 (meaning that such a result was likely to occur by chance in less that 13 occasions out of 10,000, which is better than the usual standard of p<0.05 which is considered acceptable for sociological and medical studies, but is much worse than the standard for physics experiments which is p<0.0001.) This result was trumpeted as 'proof' of the efficacy of prayer and thus implied that is was also a proof of god.

But it soon became clear that there were serious problems with the protocols of the study, and subsequently the lead author of the paper Rogerio Lobo, who was head of the Columbia University department of obstetrics and gynecology, said that he had not been even aware of the study until six months after it had been completed and withdrew his name from the paper. It turned out that a second author of the study Daniel Wirth is a lawyer who had elsewhere claimed evidence for faith healing. He was later imprisoned for fraud in an unrelated matter. The third author Kwang Cha is also a businessman who owns fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Seoul. He left Columbia University and refuses to talk about the study. He was later also accused of plagiarism in another paper by the editor of that journal. (See God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger, 2007, p. 96 for more details.)

Given the strong desire of religious people to find evidence for god, one sees these kinds of prayer studies repeated all the time, and on occasion even produce positive results. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2001 said that praying for patients reduced their length of stay in hospital (p=0.01) and duration of infections (p=0.04). But another study by Duke University, a three-year, double-blind one published in 2005, found no significant effect of prayer in improving patient recovery. Yet another study, published in 2006, of people scheduled to undergo coronary bypass surgery also found no beneficial effect for intercessory prayer. In fact, the group of patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. (See Stenger, p. 99-102 for more details.)

The media are quick to seize on initial reports of the possible scientific evidence for god, but not as enthusiastic when more careful analysis reveals that there was nothing there after all.

But my puzzlement with these kinds of exercises is more basic. Why would god choose to signal his presence on the very edges of statistical significance? Even someone sympathetic to the idea of god would have to concede that god seems like a shy suitor trying to give out subtle signals of interest without being obvious about it. What’s the point? Why not hide completely or appear openly and unambiguously?

Again, religious believers can appeal to the MWC, that god has a reason that is unknown to us to play peek-a-boo. But at some point use of the MWC becomes overkill. Using it to explain the existence of something big like suffering, to say that suffering is a great mystery, lends a certain grandeur to that particular admission of ignorance. Invoking the MWC to explain little things like the borderline statistical significance of experimental results makes it seem trivial.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in the other war. . .

Lara Logan reports on waste in Afghanistan.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Brendan

    I’m sure you’ve already seen this before, but this website parallels your questions: http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com/

    I’ve found following up ‘does god answer prayers?’ with ‘then why doesn’t he heal amputees?’ is usually the end of the smugness encountered when forced to justify my beliefs.

    Of course, it usually ends with someone throwing their hands in the air shouting “Because He just doesn’t work that way!” instead of actually thinking about the question.

  2. 2
    Zar

    This will be my final post for today. I don’t mean to be a pain, but th elogic yused on tsi site is painfully bad to me. At any rate, I’ll do runign commentary , and edit out only parts where I sumerise for easy.

    “Believers in god are usually willing to acknowledge that they have no convincing empirical evidence for the existence of god. ”

    No they aren’t. Most beleiver sin God actulaly try to convenced those who don’t beleiv ein God with evidence. THis is simply projecting ones own Biases onto other people.

    You asusme that there is no evidence for Gdos existance, and Religious folks ( Rleigion ebign misdefined as beleif in an interventionist deity) simply beleive on Faith. Faith also is misdefined, as Beleif withotu evidence.

    But if you bothered to read any books at all by those who beelive in God, or listen to their actula beleifs and statements, you’d swiftly realise that they don’t amdit that there is no compellign evidence for God’s existance.

    “But at the same time, the claim is made that god could reveal himself/herself any time he/she chose. So why is god’s presence hidden?”

    The short answer is, it snot.

    People who believe in god invariably explain this with one version or the other of a ‘mysterious ways clause’ (MWC), ”

    No they don’t. And again, your simply projectign onto others a non-existant argument.

    “which argues that god has good reasons for keeping his presence hidden from us and that our mind are too puny to understand the reasons or that he has deemed that we are not yet ready to receive these truths. ”

    By usign the term “his” you prove that your excuse for puttign god in lower case is not valid. You claimed elsewhere ont he blog that god is spelle din lower case becuase its a generic beong an dnot a spacific individual. I stated that the gramatic structure of the sntences, and points of the argument, make this impossble. Now I have a final proof. You said “his”. His is a directive comment. It means you are speakign of a spacific individual.

    So, when you spekll god in the lower case, ti snto because its a generic. And it is insulting, nto to menton bad grammer.

    By the way, the “MWC” isn’t a real argument. THe mischarecterisation fo what people actulaly say about God however sort of reveals a contempt in the presentaiton for theists.

    And since no one relaly makes this “Get out of Jail free” argument, I skipped the next sentence.

    “One argument that is often brought forward is that the personal experiences that people have had of god’s presence is evidence of god’s presence, and that just because this kind of evidence does not meet the standards demanded by science does not mean it is not valid. Such people argue that they have had some personal experience of god in their lives and this is evidence enough for god’s existence.

    There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not.”

    THATS not a logical contradiciton, sicne no oen argues the Mysterious ways clause , and its a strawman argument. In reality most Beleivers, such as Christians, or Muslims, or Jews who are THeistic, woudl argue that Gods preasenc eis Manifdst often int he world, and there is Imperical evidence vor Gods existance.

    The contradiciton is an invention.

    “If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? Why not simply come out with definitive proof? ”

    Many wodl argue that he has. Again, your allowign your own biases to corrupt your thinking, and projectign explnanations onto oposnants of your atheism that they dont actulaly hold to or use.

    “I have already stated what kind of proof would be really convincing to anyone.”

    ACTUALLY you just sort of arogantly presented a “Here’s what I want” argument.

    “God could take over all the TV stations worldwide and announce that next Tuesday, starting at noon, the Earth would stop spinning for 24 hours, so that we would have a 48-hour day. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could dispute god’s existence. The Bible says that it has been done before (the stopping the Earth’s rotation part, not the TV broadcast of course). In fact, most religions proudly claim that god has shown herself directly to the world in the past. For Christians and Jews, for example, all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and the whole story of Jesus’s resurrection, are supposed to be revelations of god, so clearly god was not always interested in hiding his existence. Why would a god who long ago seemed perfectly willing to reveal himself time and time again suddenly become coy now?”

    He didnt, and those expeirnces wheren’t common even in the Bible. Again, you act as if the bible is full of them, and that they happened on a dialy bsis in Biblicla narriatves. Have you even read the bible?

    Please spare me the usual “I was a Chreistian” line, the truth is that you seem wholly ignorant of the Bibles content.

    Just because Grandios Miralces did happen int he Bible, doesn’t mean the Bible acted as if they where ocmmon events.

    “Some believers try to produce empirical evidence for god. One sees occasional excitement around experiments to test the existence of god by seeing if (say) prayer is effective. For example, in 2001 there was the much publicized Columbia University Medical Center study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine that, based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for. The statistical significance was p=0.0013 (meaning that such a result was likely to occur by chance in less that 13 occasions out of 10,000, which is better than the usual standard of p

  3. 3
    ZAR

    THIS will be my last post for today.

    However, the enture article above is spurious.

    For one thing, more beleiver sin God do not think there is no Imperical evidence for Gods existance.It is also mor common to find a THeist sayign God has reveale dhimself, and does daily, than to find oen who says hes Hidden.

    And God doesn’t tease us with Tantilizing glimpses, He’s pretty regularly recurring.

    Also, the poitn abotu Prayer and studies is false. Both statisticlaly, int he numebrs Mano gives, and logicllay. Mano inflates the numebrs agaisnt Prayer owrkign by comparign the sample to the overall population, which is a manipulaiton tactic, whilst also depicting only oen study with positive results, and two negative, and while forgetitng other factors. he also depicts the study that yeilded positie result sin a bad light by listign problems with individuals invovled. He seems ot wan ot bais his reader, and selectivley use research.

    ( For the record, the reason peopel did more poorly in coronary’s when told they woudl epayed for was stress and Anxiety. When told they’d be rpayed for, they asusmed the problem was worse, and thus stressed over it, causign complicaitons.)

    That said, it is also stated that Miracles occure ditn eh Bible, so why has t been so logn sicne God has doen them, when he did them back then? THis is a red Herring. If one acutlaly reads the Bible one realises that its not chocked full of miracles on erery page, and those drastic miraculous occurances where rare evbven in the Bible. THus why folks where always shocked by them. If miracles where a dialy occurance they’d not be.

    No, Miracles arent commonplace int he Bile, and often happen eyars, decades, even centuries apart.

    Also, Mano, you are proven to be raher false in one thing oyou said to me earlier. You said you spelled god in lower case because it was a generic, and nto an individual, god you spoke of. Gramaticlaly this canot be true, and the sentnece structures rendered this imposssible. But now we have a final evidence.

    “There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not. If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? ”

    THE term “He” refers to an individual, and is always a reference to a spacific being. THis is nto a generic god your speakign of, and the word clealry indicates a spacific individual.

    Its obvious that the author here wants to condescend toward beelif in God, and want sto prove it worng, but simply projecitnones own ahteism onto a topic, and tryign to demean the ubject of debade ( hence god and not God) will nto suffice as logical reasoning.

  4. 4
    Zar

    Sorry for the doune post, I checked back before logging off, and didn see my former post, so reposted a short form of the previous. I didnt mean to decieve, or repeat the same points.

  5. 5
    Roger Easson

    I am interested in this hidden God Hypothesis. Most particularly, I am interested in it from a history of ideas approach. How old is this notion? Where did it first arise? It doesn’t seem to be Egyptian especially, and neither Roman nor Greek. My guess is that it is to be found only in the Abrahamic religions. Any ideas?

    Thanks for your work

    Roger Easson

  6. 6
    Alice

    “based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for”

    Were these women aware that they were being prayed for?

    The mind is an extremely powerful mechanism and good thoughts lead to good results…

    http://www.thepregnantplan.com

  7. 7
    Mano

    Alice,

    The women were supposedly not aware that they were being prayed for.

  8. 8
    Gail

    Wow of all of the topics to discuss this is a pretty controversial one for sure!

    I like that you bring up studies (especially the Duke study that is a double blind) that are scientifically done with statistics that don’t corroborate the claims that people make.

    I understand that there is the power of positive thinking but how that translates into divine intervention is a whole other deal in my opinion.

    You could write about 10 more books on this!

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