Science, religion debated as evangelical takes top NIH post

— -- Can we all get along? Maybe not when it comes to science and religion.

Just ask scientist Francis Collins, installed last month as head of the National Institutes of Health.

It wasn't just newspaper editorials — scientists such as Harvard's Steven Pinker, who called Collins an "advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs," criticized placing an outspoken evangelical Christian in the post.

On his first day on the job, Collins stepped down from the BioLogos foundation he founded to foster a rapprochement between the spiritual and the scientific worlds, after such complaints. "I want to reassure everyone I am here to lead the NIH as best I can, as a scientist," Collins said at an August briefing.

Amid the noise over books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion; the 2005 Kitzmiller court case that found "intelligent design" a form of creationism; and the Bush administration's 2001 announcement of a (since-overturned) religiously motivated policy limiting human stem cell research funding to a few cell families, it's easy to overlook what science says about religion itself. But it might explain why the religious-minded sometimes similarly view science with suspicion.

In the June Journal of Religion, Wendy Cadge of Brandeis University, for example, looks at the history of medical studies examining the "power of prayer" to heal the sick. Since 1965, about 18 studies have looked at the effect, to much controversy, with a 2006 re-analysis of past studies finding no health benefits to stranger's prayers.

But the studies, positive or negative, likely say more about the scientists than about prayers themselves, Cadge concludes. The first studies looked only at Protestant prayers, while later ones added Jewish, Buddhist and other prayers, reflecting growing cultural awareness among researchers of religious variety. Studies used double-blind clinical trial methods to assess prayers, which Cadge in a statement called "fraught with problems." Scientists couldn't know for sure if people in their "no prayers" control groups were truly not being prayed for, for example. And they couldn't agree on the right "dosage" of prayer.

"Scientists tried their best to study something that may be beyond their best tools," said Cadge. "And reflects more about them and their assumptions than about whether prayer 'works.' "

This kind of criticism doesn't keep scientists from studying religion. In the journal Evolutionary Psychology in July, for example, independent scholar Gregory Paul constructed a "successful society index" to try and analyze the societal effects of religious belief. "What theological, social and economic arrangement produces the best possible societal conditions?" Paul asks in the study.

Scholars have argued this question at least since 1776, when Edward Gibbon's first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire blamed Christianity for helping to sap the empire's resolve against barbarian invasions. More recently, the German economist Max Weber argued in 1904's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that Protestantism, broadly speaking, led to the development of modern economies.

In his bid to answer the question, Paul looked at 25 indicators of economic well-being, crimes such as murder, corruption, alcoholism and life expectancy in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Europe and the United States, and then compared them to surveys of religious devotion in each nation.

"Conservative religious ideology is a probable contributing causal factor of societal dysfunction," he concludes, bad news for the USA, the most religious country in his survey. "Specifically, the U.S. scores the most dysfunctional in homicide, incarceration, juvenile mortality, gonorrhea and syphilis infections, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, income disparity, poverty, (and) work hours," says the study.

Looks bad for religion, then? Not so fast, says sociologist Gary Jensen of Vanderbilt University. "Prior research has emphasized the good consequences of religion and Paul emphasizes the negative aspects," he says, with the results often depending on what factors are picked to base a judgment on.

Jensen's own surveys paint a more mixed picture of religion's impact on society. "God-versus-Satan religious cosmologies encourage homicide, while nations with belief in a benevolent God have low rates of homicide," he says, based on a 2006 Journal of Religion & Society journal study. "Both the 'religion good' and 'religion bad' perspectives are great oversimplifications," he says.