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. . .