False Argument #25: What Have We Learned From Religion, Revelation, Prayer?

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Often in discussions of (a)theism, an atheist or unbelieving skeptic will say, "We've learned tons of things from science. What have we learned from religion, revelation or prayer?"

I've heard several variants of this argument that are more or less categorically identical, and much like the first move of a pawn influences the outcome of a game of chess, the subsequent responses also tend to follow with a uniform predictability: The believer either answers unsatisfactorily or not at all, or if the believer does answer, the atheist or unbelieving skeptic will typically deny that what the believer offered was actually learned from religion, revelation or prayer.

This is where I've seen most discussions on the matter come to a screeching halt. This is unfortunate, as the believer need only to realize that what's going on is an rhetorical farce, then rebut the atheist or unbelieving skeptic with a few quick and sturdy replies.

Let's take a look at an actual atheist's position in more detail:

What have we learned from religion? Doing science, even by theologians is not learning from religion. If one is doing science, it doesn't mean that religion can take the credit simply because the person in question is a theist… What have we learned by imploring god for an answer to something? What have we learned through prayer or divine revelation? These are all pretty much the same question and they all hinge on what we as humans can say has advanced our knowledge. I contend that our knowledge has never been advanced by prayer or revelation. That people have come away from such things and simply made stuff up, and sometimes they gotten a lucky guess, but we still couldn't say that we knew the thing they asserted until we went and did the hard scientific work of actually finding out how the world really works.
, Answer Bearer, April 21, 2009 10:34 AM & 11:24 AM

It's important to note that there are really multiple claims going on here. The first is that we've learned nothing from religion. The second is that revelation has never advanced human knowledge. The third is that prayer has never advanced human knowledge. Given the difficulty in proving many negative claims, especially unfalsifiable ones, I wonder why Anon is willing to offer an unfalsifiable three-tiered negative such as this, but that's a different story.

There are at least two methods of defense a believer can embark upon when met with this argument, and many valid responses can be made. Let's address the first claim first, that we've not learned anything from religion.

The first method of defense the believer might attempt is to simply provide what the atheist or unbelieving skeptic asks for. This seems easy enough, because in reality, like anything else out there, religion has taught us much, both positive and negative. I used to work with a Chaplain who had no shortage of stories detailing the many positive things religion taught inmates over the weekend. My own mother has shared in great detail how reading the Bible taught her how to better handle angry people. Another person remarked that reading scriptures from Buddhism taught her how to be a better, more ethical human being. In history, the Babylonians made important advances in astronomy that cannot be separated from their religious cosmology. In the positive, religion has taught us about the importance and depth of love we might have for ourselves and one another. In the negative, it has also forced us to confront the penultimate stubbornness of the human spirit, a stubbornness that can run so deep as to obscure our very perceptions of the universe we live in – and hopefully we've learned. 

We could go on, but there's really no use, as answers like these typically fail to convince the atheist or unbelieving skeptic, who will often simply deny that religion was ever the source of the learning offered. At this point, it can become a game of semantics. To me, reading and studying the Bible counts as religion, as does meditating on Buddhist scriptures. Regardless, there's a very logical and insurmountable reason why it is impossible to stray from this formula without one side acquiescing to the other.

Atheists and unbelieving skeptics already disbelieve in the main object of religion, revelation and prayer, which is God. So what possible benefit could become of suggesting an advance in knowledge was bestowed upon us by a being the interlocutor doesn't even believe exists? This seems good for little more than argument, and not the type of argument that's likely to resolve logically or without strong medicine. The atheist or unbelieving skeptic can simply take any examples offered, denounce that religion was their source, and just re-attribute them to something else. Ironically, this strategy can backfire in a way that is really most unfortunate for the atheist or unbelieving skeptic, but we'll get to that another day.

As far as the second and third claims, they are annoying flankings, but fortunately they lead us directly into the second line of defense. If the first claim was good for little more than an argument, the challenge to prove that revelation or prayer have actually provided advances in knowledge is good for little more than a laugh. If the primary line of defense is to adequately answer the challenge, the second line of defense is complementary and exposes the challenge as unscientific.

If Lister gave divine revelation the credit for his ideas on the use of carbolic acid in the scientific practice of antiseptics, how on Earth can that claim possibly be falsified? If Whewell gave prayer the credit for any of his interesting studies on ocean tides, how can that ever amount to anything beyond a just-so story?

The believer's complementary line of defense is to ask the atheist or unbelieving skeptic for an explanation of how we might prove that an advance in knowledge resulted from revelation or prayer. Since the closest they can possibly hope to get is to concede that a certain advance in knowledge is unexplainable, the atheist or unbelieving skeptic proposes an unfalsifiable challenge. This is the nail in their coffin.

Really, why would any atheist or unbelieving skeptic ever accept anything some believer claimed was revealed by God in prayer? These are the very same people that consistently and vehemently denounce attribution of unexplainable healing to God as superstitious and unscientific. On that logic, why should they accept the attribution of an unexplainable advance in knowledge to God? Such intrinsically demands that they believe God exists. Hence, I can only conclude that the argument here is an rhetorical device suffering from the same set of currently insurmountable epistemological challenges inherent in MiracleQuest, and I find that interesting.

Why do so many atheists and unbelieving skeptics sustain their disbelief by the believer's failure to provide currently epistemological impossibilities? Might this represent the converse phenomenon of the intrepid believer who keeps his or her religion safely tucked away in a little glass box?


  1. Karla


    Good post, well thought out.

  2. Don’t get it either. When I was a senior in high school, we studied in painstaking detail all the tidbit laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Va’Yikra and D’varim repsectively) – some of those laws here heinous, and I was disgusted by them even then, as a believing (albeit secular) Jew. Some laws specifically condoned genocide, rape, slavery, man-theft, hate-crimes (against idolators, homosexuals and zoophiles).
    Other laws spoke of goodwill that’s pertinent even today – such as “do not lend money with interest” (something that we don’t follow today as a whole nation :-P) – allow your slaves (yeah, Ironic, I know) a day of rest, etc.
    On the whole, Job teaches of humility, but it also teaches of how shitty God can be (he let a whole family of good people die just because some idiot angel tells him so and he thinks a new family would replace him? I remember thinking God’s pretty much an idiot in that chapter, although I would never admit it at that time)
    I think that people who paint the Tanach (dunno bout the NT) with too wide a brush tend to be rather ignorant about it – I dunno how widescale bible class is in America, but in Israel, it’s extensive and beyond that – it’s as extensive as religion studies in college –
    from my knowledge of OT theology, I can safely say that the bible has much to teach us – it’s just that a great deal (haven’t computed if it’s the majority or not) is deplorable.
    I distinctly remember even Richard Dawkins saying something similar (useful figures of speech, catchy legends, cultural value, etc.)

  3. nal


    If Lister gave divine revelation the credit for his ideas on the use of carbolic acid in the scientific practice of antiseptics, how on Earth can that claim possibly be falsified?

    How on Earth can that claim possibly be verified?

    The believer’s complementary line of defense is to ask the atheist or unbelieving skeptic for an explanation of how we might prove that an advance in knowledge resulted from revelation or prayer.

    Provide a Biblical passage that indicates knowledge that has only recently become available. Something involving astronomy, biology, geology, would be acceptable.

  4. Tommykey


    Chiming in here as an atheist, I would say this. One’s view of the universe, as shaped by religion, could definitely play a part in how one goes about trying to discover the universe and how it operates.
    For example, in the 15th century, arguably the various Muslim powers were about on an even keel with the Christian powers of Europe. We all know about the Arab contributions to mathematics and so forth. But we don’t have any examples of Muslim navigators trying to circumnavigate Africa or crossing the Atlantic, as we saw with European navigators in the latter half of the 15th century.
    Some of the Canary Islands are within sight of the African coast, and yet no North African Muslim state seems to have made any effort to colonize the Canaries. And without the Canaries, the discovery of the Americas by Columbus might never have happened, as the Canaries were the last landfall he made before crossing the Atlantic.
    Perhaps it is a broad generalization, and I have to issue a disclaimer that I am no expert on the history of the Islamic world, but one does not get the sense that Muslims had a spirit of exploration in them, of not only wondering what lay beyond the horizon, but of actually looking to see.
    What I mean by all this is not to say that Christian Europeans derived some kind of revelation from God through their religion, but that something about their mental mindsight, in spite of or because of Christianity, made them take that leap.

  5. cl


    Since there is no scientific nomenclature in the Bible, short of subjective arguments over interpretations of words, what you ask for cannot be provided. But let’s say it could. Let’s say there was scientific nomenclature in the Bible. Let’s say, as Ebonmuse suggests, that Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto you, E=MC^2!” If we are to call ourselves respectable skeptics, even that wouldn’t prove that Jesus was God, or that Jesus got the knowledge via revelation or prayer. It would just prove that we cannot yet reasonably explain a certain advance in knowledge.

    What I mean by all this is not to say that Christian Europeans derived some kind of revelation from God through their religion, but that something about their mental mindsight, in spite of or because of Christianity, made them take that leap.

    I agree with your example and understand the scope in which it was offered. I would even take it a bit further by arguing that God’s omni- qualities were part of humanities original realization that we could study an orderly universe. The concept of methodological naturalism as used today in science was developed by a believer. The alleged ‘divide’ between science and religion is only quite recent, and I honestly suspect at least some of it has to do with marketing strategies on behalf of large publishers and production studios. It is in their best interest to exaggerate conflict; in fact that’s one of the first things they teach screenwriters.
    Anyways, the only other thing I’d add is, the fact of Muslims not exploring the Canary Islands may or may not be evidence of an overall deficiency in the desire to explore. One could also argue that their “contributions to mathematics” represent exploration in another world that is just as real and just as relevant.

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