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April 9, 2006
Testing Faith

Science and Religion, Still Worlds Apart

One October day in 1947, the director of the local bank in Marksville, La., woke to find that hundreds of fish had fallen from the sky, landing in his backyard. People walking to work that day were struck by falling fish, and an account of the incident by a researcher for the state's wildlife and fisheries department later found its way into the annals of scientific anomalies — phenomena waiting to be understood.

Fish falls have also been reported in Ethiopia and other parts of the world. Whether they are hoaxes, hallucinations or genuine meteorological events — maybe fish can be swept up by a waterspout and transported — scientists are disposed to assume a physical explanation.

The same kind of scrutiny is accorded to miracles — fishes and loaves multiplying to feed the masses and the like. But as two research papers published this month suggest, looking to science to prove a miracle is a losing proposition, for believers and skeptics.

Either you devise some mechanism to explain it away, as one of the studies attempts to do, or you show, as in the other, that no scientific basis exists. The skeptics continue to trust in science, and the believers in miracles. Science and religion become neither closer nor more distant, raising the question of just what the research was supposed to accomplish.

This month in The Journal of Paleolimnology (the science of prehistoric bodies of water), oceanographers from Florida State University and Hebrew University proposed a complex mathematical theory showing how "Ekman fluxes," "geostrophic flow" and other factors might have allowed a patch of ice to form amid the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee, allowing Jesus to walk across.

A decade ago, in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, two of these scientists, Doron Nof and Nathan Paldor, offered an explanation for another biblical event, the parting of the Red Sea. Under the right conditions, their model showed, winds blowing along the Gulf of Suez could have swept away the waters just in time for the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians, who would have drowned in the ensuing flood.

Other relics and events get the same kind of treatment, with reports regularly emerging on what X-ray fluorescence spectrometry or carbon-14 dating says about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Last year, a National Geographic television series, "Science of the Bible," featured researchers working to establish the plausibility of the New Testament's account of the crucifixion and the disappearance from the tomb.

These investigations often have the appeal of a good detective story, but it is never quite clear what to make of the results. Should believers be encouraged when a miracle is corroborated, lending credence to a holy text, or disappointed that what seemed to be a case of divine intervention might have been the outcome of natural forces? A miracle, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, is "a violation of the laws of nature." Finding that something is scientifically impossible would only make it more miraculous that it occurred.

This month's second study, appearing in The American Heart Journal, presented a negative result: cardiac patients who were prayed for had no better chance of recovery than those who were not. There wasn't even a placebo effect. Even worse, patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse, possibly because of performance anxiety.

However disappointing the outcome of the $2.4 million project was to the researchers and their sponsor, the John Templeton Foundation, most believers are likely to remain unfazed. One of the coauthors of the study, Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., noted that the study involved people praying for patients they did not know. Personal prayers and those from loved ones, he ventured, may prove more powerful. As he told a New York Times reporter, "You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don't doubt them." That is all the evidence most believers would require.

This has always been the quandary. Science and religion are not playing by the same rules. No laboratory finding can compel a person to give up what is taken on faith. Even if the study had involved friends and family members, a negative outcome would not have led many people to stop saying their prayers. Scrutinizing so delicate a process might disrupt it, some no doubt would reason, as when you draw too near a dandelion and explode its seeds with your breath.

In the 1902 book "The Varieties of Religious Experience," William James gave what he considered the broadest and most general definition of religion: "The belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." For all the advances science has made in the century since — relativity, quantum mechanics, computational theory — it has not found a way to measure the immeasurable, or prove that it cannot exist.