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Blogalogue

Dear Michael,
It is an honor to discuss these profound matters with you again. I couldn’t hope for a wiser or more generous interlocutor.
I would like to take up your invitation to locate the “exact areas of disagreement” between believers and unbelievers. While we could proceed at a fairly general level–debating, for example, whether the prevalence of a belief is a marker of its truth–I propose starting from the concrete. Nonbelievers find themselves surrounded every day not just by abstract statements about, say, the compatibility of reason and faith, but also by quite specific claims about God’s attributes and effects in the world. I would appreciate learning how you would counsel a nonbeliever to approach such claims, since they are part of religious faith no less than metaphysics.
Perhaps, Michael, you share with me a certain despair at the gullibility of seemingly educated Westerners towards New Age quackery.


One homeopathic cure for illness prescribes pinning onto one’s lapel a piece of paper with the name of a homeopathic chemical written on it. There is simply no excuse in my opinion for anyone who has had the benefit of even a mediocre education to entertain such a claim. It is a betrayal of the loving, hard-fought victories of science not to ask the most basic questions of causality when confronted with homeopathy, astrology, crystal therapy, or any other such “alternative” theory of the world.
Last year, Pope Benedict the XVI canonized an 18th century friar, Antonio de Santa Ana Galvao, as Brazil’s first saint. Nuns in Brazil dispense pills containing little scrolls with prayers to Fra. Galvao wrapped up inside. In canonizing Fra. Galvao, the Church declared that ingesting those pills had helped cure a young girl of kidney disease and had allowed a woman who had had a series of miscarriages to carry a child through the first two trimesters of pregnancy after doctors declared her incapable of doing so.
I assume–perhaps incorrectly–that these two cases do not “merely” involve God intervening directly to help these two individuals. Rather, as I interpret the canonization–again, forgive me if I misunderstand–the Fra. Galvao pills were somehow instrumental in the outcomes–otherwise why bother to make or take them?
Now I am not for an instant suggesting that homeopathy and earthly manifestations of the divine belong in the same category. But for someone standing outside a religion, such claims as the efficacy, however sporadic and limited, of the Fra. Galvao pills present a rather formidable barrier to entry, I have to tell you, Michael. Should a neutral observer, in your view, assess the claims of homeopathy and of God’s workings in the world differently, or should our standards of proof be the same? How do you evaluate empirical claims from other religions–say, the assertion that America was peopled by lost tribes of Israel? Do you cut such a claim slack because it is religious or do you test it against what you already know about archeology and expect that it clear the same scientific hurdles as you would a secular revolution in our understanding of Bronze Age history?
I ask these questions, Michael, out of a sincere desire to discover where our two approaches to knowledge about the world diverge and to understand how reason and faith are compatible.

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