The National Institute of Theology

by PhilGoetz1 min read4th Oct 201127 comments


Personal Blog

Lots of charlatans spend lots of money advertising diets and health products that don't work.  We have a National Institutes of Health that, among other things, funds studies that make more-objective pronouncements on diet and health.

Argue pro or con:  It would be a good investment (payback would exceed opportunity cost) for the US government to create a National Institute of Theology, that would fund research into theological questions.  For instance:

  • How effective is prayer?
  • Which religions are the most effective (at healing the sick, making their adherents rich, or other metrics)?
  • What is the probability that someone will become happier, more productive, less violent, or commit acts of terrorism as a result of joining different religions (or not joining any)?

Everyone, religious and atheist, should be motivated to want the answers to these questions to become widely known.

(Yes, I know this would be politically impractical.  Pointing that out is not interesting.  What is interesting, is whether such a NIT would be beneficial, supposing it could be made.)

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It is already pretty clear that the answer is zero for prayer effectivity and spiritual healing. Having a government agency officialy stating that would cause no change in public opinion except slight increase in frequency of "government is suppressing religion" complaints.

Actually, I think that depends on the person and the circumstances. I believe that most people who pray do find it comforting, it gives them hope, it is calming. If they pray with others there is a sense of community and belonging. I believe it has much in common with meditation.

I do believe that getting the government involved would violate the principal of separation of church and state.

I'd put the chances near unity that this would become heavily policitized pretty much immediately, if implemented, and that this would taint any of its results. At least in the United States, policymakers stand to gain much more from flattering their respective religious bases (substantially different between parties, but theistic either way and not heavily invested in a rational approach to religion) than from publicizing potentially uncomfortable findings.

There is a similar center for medical pseudoscience in the US govt, created through the demands of a Congressional believer. There are strong patients-running-the-asylum tendencies.

Seriously? Take a look at NCCAM's results. There's an awful lot of "we found this concoction to be no better than placebo" and "that herb does not reduce the risk of cancer" there. From a Bayesian standpoint, NCCAM is doing the hard work of debunking: finding all the absences of evidence that are evidence of absence. Yes, they're spending time debunking stuff that should never have been bunked in the first place; and no, they're not immediately going around and shutting down the fraudulent herb-pushers — but there's a long way between that and the blind credulity you seem to be suggesting.

blind credulity you seem to be suggesting.

I'm not suggesting that it has reached that level (Tom Harkin, the big congressional sponsor, has complained repeatedly about it not validating enough pseudoscience), and agree that it gets mostly negative results when it funds actual experiments. The troubling parts tend to be slips, or channeling money and prestige to the merchants of madness.

That's really interesting! It shows that an institute created by someone who wanted a specific answer can get a realistic distribution of results.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Very interesting, and disappointing.

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That you started by mentioning government pronouncements on diet makes me think of the disastrously-wrong advice that the US government has given for largely political reasons, and primed me to think of a similar outcome for a National Institute of Theology. Besides, I don't think there are still interesting questions left to ask about religion; we already know the answers, it's just that people refuse to accept them because they're unpleasant.

I think you confuse theology and sociology of religion. Theology is about discussing God, not about discussing which religion has such-and-such an effect on people.

Either way, I'm guessing this would be about as bad as when Iran or Saudi Arabia does it.

In the US, it would also be an uncomfortable diminishing of the separation of church and state.

They're not allowed. The bible says, 'Jesus responded, "The Scriptures also say, 'You must not test the LORD thy God.'"'

In some cases, believers are allowed to hire non-believers to do things for them that believers aren't allowed to do.

In Judaism yes; in Christianity not so much, as Christianity claims its rules (and its salvation) are for everyone, not just for one people. Are Jews allowed to hire non-Jews to do things that violate the laws of Noah, which are claimed to be universal? I'd be surprised ...

er, the stereotype of Jews as moneylenders came about partly because of the Christian prohibition against moneylending. It's not a direct case of hiring someone to do a forbidden thing but it's close, and I think the precedent it sets would allow for the existence of a center of theological debunkment.

Everyone, religious and atheist, should be motivated to want the answers to these questions to become widely known.

And yet, they are not. Crazy thing, reality.

Citation needed. Atheists often claim that religious people don't want the true answers known, and religious people often claim that atheists don't want the true answers known.

I'm reminded of the guys who went out to search for the remains of Noah's ark. At least some of the people going out and looking for the Ark really expected to find something and change the world - these are the sort of people who would help empirically test religion. Some of the others were frauds - they would be against a test of religion if they weren't the testers. But what of the people who not only didn't search for the Ark, but predicted that it wouldn't turn anything up, and yet still believe in its literal truth? These are the sort of people who don't want to look too hard at their beliefs. They just want to comfortably believe what they like, and would not support uncomfortable prodding.

Well, looking at the number of heavily funded, widely publicized studies that settled issues like this for good, I'd be forced to conclude either... (a) these studies don't exist because no one is funding them or (b) the studies exist and everyone is ignoring them. That I haven't heard of any such study seems like fairly strong Bayesian evidence that, yeah, Manfred is right.

It would be a pretty bad investment considering studies of this already exist and are almost universally ignored. I also think you should say what you mean, where what you clearly want is a National Institute of Atheism.

I think people should refrain from thinking they can tell what I clearly want from what I say, as their error rate is high. You assume that I want an institute that will reach a foreordained conclusion, rather than one that will try to find correct answers. I hope you are in this case wrong.

I think you already think you know the correct answers. The institution's only purpose will be to add legitimacy to what you think you already know, so you can point to it and have others listen. I highly doubt you think there is any chance of the institute finding that praying to thor heals the blind while praying to jesus heals lepers, or whatever other possible result you can think of.

No, praying to Thor heals smallpox.

It would be a good investment (payback would exceed opportunity cost) for the US government to create a National Institute of Theology, that would fund research into theological questions.


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Ok, never mind. I just thought it was a fun idea.