Faith and the Supernatural (Rodney Eivers)

  (06 July 08)

Faith and the Supernatural  

By Rodney Eivers.


Recently some research results were brought to the attention of a group with which I am associated that claimed to show that happy thoughts induced physical changes in DNA cell material. From such an observation one might well leap to seeing this as a mechanism by which prayer might effect healing.

One of the members of the group is a geneticist having some familiarity with this area of study. She was decidedly sceptical. I, too, having some background in biology (agricultural science) was uneasy about the claims. Unless it is backed up by orthodox research I am suspicious of anything that smacks of the supernatural.

While not following up this particular study, I did manage to call up the website of the source for the claim ( They do provide abstracts of research that, on the face of it, seem to be published in reputable journals including Proceedings of the American Psychological Association and Journal of Psychophysiology.  I can’t vouch for their authenticity as they are outside my fields.

I had a comparable experience several weeks ago when my son in Britain, a General Practitioner, sent me several pages from the British Medical Journal reporting some strange research findings. They implied that, in the circumstances studied, prayer had a healing effect going backwards. That is, people prayed for certain patients at a particular time in the present and the people who were prayed for had a better health outcome than the control groups in the past.

This is preposterous!

Is it some kind of sophisticated April fool joke? I have no idea. There was some positive follow-up to the original paper in the BMJ a year later.

If it is a practical joke I would be most annoyed.  This is the sort of playing around with people’s intellect that I don’t like. It is not so much that I lack a sense of humour.  It is just that it can lead me to distrust people and institutions so that they come not to be taken seriously when it really does count. My reaction is a variation on the story of the boy who called ‘Wolf!’ once too often.  So with the Heartmath ‘research’ and the BMJ article I am either sceptical or downright derisive.

Having said that, I recognise that I would be wise to exercise some restraint in the extent to which I rubbish what others might claim. There certainly remain many mysteries in the area of biology and the natural world. I for one, for all my education, can’t understand how electricity or gravity work. I can observe that they do work, but why or how they do beats me. History has many examples of pundits who have been way off track with their ideas of what was possible. For instance:

Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society 1895  - “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible!”

Western Union internal memo 1876 - “The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered”.

I think I read somewhere that one of the pioneers of computers in the 20th century opined that computers were unlikely to ever have any practical use.

This is not to suggest in any way that we should suspend our intellect. If crackpot ideas do emerge, let us put them to the test of objective scientific research and replication. Some of us may recall the fuss over ‘cold fusion’ of hydrogen some years ago.

The point I would want to make is something quite different. It is to do with the relation of all this to religious faith.  

Faith, it seems to me, does not mean putting a brick wall around our brains. My personal definition of faith is ‘that by which one acts’.  That is, we make certain assumptions about what is desirable and possible. We then do what is best for us on that basis. It doesn’t necessarily matter if an assumption is factually true or not. By acting on those assumptions something positive can happen which would not otherwise do so. Conversely, such action might also have a negative result and we would thus learn from our mistakes.

I remember an anthropologist once talking with people about the John Frum cargo cult movement in the Solomon Islands soon after the Second World War. In looking back over the excitement of that period, the islanders acknowledged that it was all a fantasy. “But it was an exciting and enjoyable time we had and we are glad it happened!”

I don’t know whether Christopher Columbus was scientifically convinced that the earth was a sphere (or perhaps a cylinder). My childhood school-time memories of what was said to justify his confidence was the observation that a ship ‘disappeared’ over the horizon as if going over a crest. The same observation however, might well have fitted in with the biblical idea in Genesis that the sky was a dome. That is, it might be curved but with a flat base. Anyway Columbus seems to have had a gut feeling about it. He did not even get to India or around the world but something very significant did arise from his ‘faith’.

Perhaps the matter of optimism is close to what I am getting at. I can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic. I have a hunch but no scientific proof as to which might be the preferred option. There may be some experience mixed up with the hunch but I can’t prove that life will turn out in a certain way. Because of my hunch I take on board the ‘faith’ that an optimistic view of life is going to have a more favourable outcome for me. I act on that basis and it turns out that a lot of good things happen which would not have happened if I had taken a pessimistic view.

So I would be optimistic because it seems right to me, not because some researcher or expert has demonstrated the benefits of optimism.

It may happen that someone like Martin Seligman (“Learned Optimism”) comes along who undertakes research which does indeed seem to indicate that optimism has benefits to physical health. That is a bonus. My ‘faith’ in optimism does not depend on it. Of course if the research shows clearly that optimism is detrimental to health that provides me with fresh data that I can then use to modify my ‘faith.’

So to get back to the happy thoughts and DNA or the retroactive healing through prayer: if research shows that they are actually natural rather than supernatural phenomena then that provides more useful data. The important thing for those who, like me, see positive value in religious faith is that our faith (our basis for action) be not dependent on the unproven phenomena. In fact, as a number of writers have pointed out, once something has been ‘proved’ to be factually true it moves out of the province of faith.

The fundamentalist or biblical literalist dares not give ground on any point lest her or his faith crash. Remove one prop and the whole lot falls down. The baby may well then be thrown out with the bathwater. My own father, not an active churchgoer, had the idea that if one believed in evolution as against creation, the whole of Christianity was groundless.

We who do seek an inspiring faith without leaving our brains outside the church door have a major task ahead of us in demonstrating a passion and basis for a faith which can match that of earlier generations in striving for a better self and a better world.

End of sermon! 


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