4

The responses and reactions elicited by the question Is Christianity testable? on Philosophy Stack Exchange have been quite insightful. In particular, I would like to bring the reader's attention to two highly upvoted comments:

Plenty of such anecdotes can be found about other religions too. Even straight up cults like scientology. Are those also true? What is more even if we granted the fact that belief in Christianity or reading the new testament helps people put their life together, it is no proof of divine origin as such thing can be obtained by mundane means too. This is highly unserious on the part of Lennox. (41 upvotes)

So, Lennox has discovered the Placebo effect? Congratulations to him for this discovery. (9 upvotes)

On a more serious note, the comment about the placebo effect prompted me to conduct a cursory search for scientific articles to determine if this view has any merits from a scientific standpoint. That's how I came across this paper, titled Spirituality: an overlooked predictor of placebo effects?, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences journal. The abstract asserts the following:

Empirical findings have identified spirituality as a potential health resource. Whereas older research has associated such effects with the social component of religion, newer conceptualizations propose that spiritual experiences and the intrapersonal effects that are facilitated by regular spiritual practice might be pivotal to understanding potential salutogenesis. Ongoing studies suggest that spiritual experiences and practices involve a variety of neural systems that may facilitate neural ‘top-down’ effects that are comparable if not identical to those engaged in placebo responses. As meaningfulness seems to be both a hallmark of spirituality and placebo reactions, it may be regarded as an overarching psychological concept that is important to engaging and facilitating psychophysiological mechanisms that are involved in health-related effects. Empirical evidence suggests that spirituality may under certain conditions be a predictor of placebo response and effects. Assessment of patients' spirituality and making use of various resources to accommodate patients' spiritual needs reflect our most current understanding of the physiological, psychological and socio-cultural aspects of spirituality, and may also increase the likelihood of eliciting self-healing processes. We advocate the position that a research agenda addressing responses and effects of both placebo and spirituality could therefore be (i) synergistic, (ii) valuable to each phenomenon on its own, and (iii) contributory to an extended placebo paradigm that is centred around the concept of meaningfulness.

Keywords: spirituality, spiritual practice, salutogenetic effects, meaningfulness, placebo, neuronal top-down effects

How can a case be made against the view that the Christian experience is nothing but the Placebo effect?

9
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because this series of questions is reducing the subject of Christianity to mere skepticism and philosophical debate.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 2, 2023 at 0:22
  • 1
    @NigelJ My question goes exactly in the opposite direction: how can a case be made against such reductions. Hence the apologetics tag.
    – Mark
    Dec 2, 2023 at 0:53
  • 1
    I understand that, but this is not how to approach Christianity. We are advised by the apostle to avoid foolish and vain questions, not to study them and answer them. It is simply not profitable.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 2, 2023 at 2:18
  • 1
    I'm with @NigelJ on this one. Paul advocates that we should always be ready to defend our beliefs, but that's not what Mark has asked us to do. He's asked us to debunk a rationalization of why our belief isn't valid. This is a fine discussion on Philosophy, but it's a waste of time on a Stack that's dedicated to understanding Christian traditions. What's my case? I have faith. Why do I have faith? I can explain that, but if it doesn't meet someone's expectations, that's between them and God.
    – JBH
    Dec 2, 2023 at 3:16
  • 1
    "How can a case be made against the view that the Christian experience is nothing but the Placebo effect?" Besides what I said, the question is how does "Ongoing studies suggest....may facilitate...effects comparable if not identical...may under certain conditions..." provide much of an argument for the Christian experience being nothing but the Placebo effect?" Overreach much? Dec 2, 2023 at 3:31

4 Answers 4

2

Since Jesus warned about the placebo effect in the Gospel of Matthew, there's nothing groundbreaking here. Occasionally modern research discovers--and gives an academic name to--something God revealed millennia ago.

Furthermore, using cases of the placebo effect in spirituality to argue against all reports of spiritual experiences is but a case of the fallacy of defective induction.

--

Placebo in the 1st Century

History's most famous tax collector wrote this timely warning centuries before modern medicine began a vigorous study of the placebo effect:

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. (Matthew 24:24)

Jesus is teaching about His 2nd coming, and the clear implication is that both of the following statements are true:

  • There will be people coming and falsely claiming to be Christ
  • The real deal will come too

He is not teaching that all claims to be Christ will be true or all claims will be false; He's warning that the Christian experience will encounter people selling sugar pills.

What about prophets, signs, and wonders? Whether or not the office of prophet exists in the present-day is a view that varies widely by denomination, and that debate would be ill-suited to this question. A very large number of Christians believe that signs & wonders do exist in the present day--such individuals then recognize that Jesus is not warning against all signs & wonders (e.g. see Mark 16:17); He's warning that scattered among the legitimate gifts from God there will be snake-oil salesmen offering fakes.

See also Paul's warning to Timothy, that in the last days there would be people:

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (2 Timothy 3:5)1

There will be fakes, and God provided clear warning of spiritual placebos.

--

Formalizing the Argument

Those seeking an angle against Christianity are going much further than just saying that some reported spiritual experiences/blessings are placebos. As demonstrated with remarkably religious zeal in the linked post, Lennox's critics wish to cast doubt upon all claims of spiritual experiences/blessings.

This requires a logical step that is conveniently omitted from their arguments:

1: This specific sample of a reported spiritual experience is a placebo

2: Reported spiritual experiences in the population are placebos

This is an inductive fallacy. Imagine if this were applied to medical research.

A serious analysis of the reported transformative nature of Christian commitment--like a serious analysis in any other discipline2--would have to consider the reports on their own merits. It takes only 1 counterexample to defeat an inductive argument. Since I have repeated direct experience with counterexamples, I reject the inductive argument on the basis of the available evidence.3

--

Application

If one expects there to be real spiritual events and fake spiritual events, or is open to the possibility that there might be, the obvious follow-up question is how to distinguish between the two?

Note this acknowledgement from the National Institutes of Health:

Proven effective treatments can also generate a placebo effect (source)

This is a topic of great interest in my own faith; these resources (and many more like them) may be of interest:

Learning the language of the Spirit, like learning any language, is a process, not an event. But what starts out as gibberish can become clear. Yes, it's hard: it's supposed to be. If God gave us all the information without the effort and process--and specifically the personal transformation that results--it would only serve to condemn us: we would be accountable for disobeying against greater knowledge (see Luke 12:47-48). Thus, a merciful God teaches "line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" as we are ready to receive it (Isaiah 28:10).



1 - Note also verse 6, which provides an extraordinarily accurate commentary on the goals/results that generally follow from the nihilistic movement seeking to destroy Christianity in the last days, which Paul has described in the prior verses

2 - But will the methodology be exactly the same in spiritual matters? Of course not! Mastering humanity's present knowledge on any subject requires years of study--just on that subject. It would be a myopic God indeed who set up a system so methodologically inflexible that only a handful of people with advanced degrees could use it--this would exclude most people who have lived on this earth. In matters with temporal consequences God often lets us work out the answers ourselves; in matters with eternal consequences He reveals truth such that it is accessible to anyone from a fisherman like Peter to a physician like Luke

3 - For a discussion of the role that experiential evidence plays in every person's worldview, see this post

1

Short answer: Defining "Christian" according to the definitive source of that title (Acts 11:16) means that "the Christian experience" cannot be validly attributed to the Placebo effect, for while many claimed Christian experiences can be, yet there would be no Christianity if not for experiences that were of a supernatural power, which attested to the veracity of the gospel and thus to the reality of its Object, this being God/Christ.

As for asking that question as regards Christianity today in the testable sense, while we do not see the caliber and power of men as the apostles, (2 C. 6:4-10) nor the proportionate amount of profound miracles (esp. here in the largely post-Christian West) as seen in the establishment of the gospel and the resultant NT church (and prophets before them), yet God is still manifesting the resurrection power of the risen Lord Jesus.

Which has a scope that extend from souls of virtually every kindred and tongue, race and nation realizing profound basic effects in heart and life which correspond to what Scripture says, unto well-attested miracles of healings and deliverances etc. .

Amazing Video Stories, Christian Testimonies, Healing Miracles and Inspirational Stories

Certainly many experiences to many things can be attributed to a placebo effect, positive and negative, likewise miracles can be said to be due to purely natural means, however, that does not mean all warrant that.

And as said, Biblical faith actually rests upon the premise of supernatural events, which provides evidential warrant for faith in its Object, acting on which results in further testimony confirmatory of the warrant for that faith (and with negative effects as a result of disobedience also providing testimony to the reality of the Father one belongs to) .

Moses did not lead his mostly illiterate (I presume) people out of Egypt based upon just words, nor did Peter leave all to follow Christ based just upon words.

And in preaching such, Paul etc. saw many miracles attesting to the message of the gospel.

As for today, as said, God is still transforming lives beginning with a moment of conversion, which overall defies mere naturalistic causes, as well as still doing some miracles, though more are seen among the more needy of humble heart and faith.

I would challenge skeptics to look for a evangelical type church and ask the pastor for some candidates to interview who have realized such profound conversion, and speak to persons who knew them before and after, and examine circumstances and objectively analyze if all such can be attributed to simply natural causes.

And or watch many of these, by the grace of God.

0
1

In an attempt to answer my own question, I think Lee Strobel presents a good case in his book The Case for Grace: A Journalist Explores the Evidence of Transformed Lives:

Join investigative journalist and bestselling author Lee Strobel as he embarks on his life-changing quest to solve the riddle of grace. Along the way, you'll find the undeniable evidence of grace in the true stories of racists, addicts, and even murderers who have found new hope and purpose--all through the redemptive power of God's amazing grace.

In The Case for Grace, Lee offers an accessible explanation of the theology of God's grace, shown through the incredible, dramatic, can't-put-it-down stories of people whose lives were changed by the gift of grace--true accounts of people whose transformation and renewal are so radical that they seem to be best explained as the work of a gracious God.

Lee draws upon his own journey from atheism to Christianity to explore the depth and breadth of God's redeeming love for spiritually wayward people, traveling thousands of miles to capture the inspiring stories of everyday people whose values have been radically changed and who have discovered the "how" and "why" behind God's amazing grace.

Each story that Strobel shares in The Case for Grace contributes a piece to the puzzle of grace, showing us:

  • How grace goes beyond forgiveness to acceptance and even adoption by God
  • How it restores hope when none is left; how it extends to the most heinous circumstances
  • How it allows us to forgive those who caused our most intimate wounds--and even to forgive ourselves

Through it all, you will be encouraged as you see how God's grace can revolutionize your life--starting today.

In addition to this, and as PeaceByJesus's answer to How can a case be made against reducing the Christian experience to the Placebo effect? points out, the historical/testimonial evidence for past and present miracles offers additional grounds to think that the Christian experience is more than mere psychology. Conveniently, Lee Strobel also has a book about that, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural.

0

Christian experience is based on faith. The placebo effect refers to the case when a person believes he or she is taking a real medicine and receives health benefits even though actual medicine is not present in the placebo. In Christianity, faith IS the actual medicine. The person accepts as a matter of faith that Jesus has atoned for their sins and they can receive God's forgiveness as a result. There is no placebo, only faith in the religion. This is a fact whether one believes Christianity is true or false.

Christian experience often involves psychological benefits or the healing of psychosomatic illnesses, sometimes even miraculous cures. But even if Christianity were not true, there is no placebo effect because the "medicine" here is faith, not an inert physical substance believed to have medical properties. On the other hand, faith indeed seems to be a factor in the placebo effect.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .