Science vs. Religion Part 4: All in the Mind

Dr. Raj Persaud

Dr. Raj Persaud

The final talk at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was a talk by Dr. Raj Persaud a well known psychiatrist and TV personality (who has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently). Unfortunately, I found this talk to be the weakest of the four but this is somewhat understandable given that Dr. Persaud was a last minute replacement covering for Baroness Mary Warnock’s absence.

His talk was lacking any real underlying topic or coherent message and instead was a sort of mishmash of separate topics that seemed to have been cobbled together in order that the two topics of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ got a mention. As a result, I got the impression that his appearance at the event may have been due to a frantic last minute search (and a personal favour to the organisers) rather than because he had a lot to say on the topic of ‘Science vs. Religion’.

Despite this Dr. Persaud is an excellent public speaker and as a result his talk was enjoyable and it did present some interesting arguments. There was no overarching message in the talk that I could discern but there were two topics which I would judge as the main focus, they were:

1) Internals vs. Externals- Different personality traits and their relation to religious beliefs.
2) Bad Science Reporting- In particular the use of the word miracle in headlines.

Looking first at Internals vs. Externals; Dr. Persaud explained that these categories were frequently used in the fields of psychology and psychiatry and were based on distinguishing certain fundamental personality traits. ‘Externals’ are, as the name suggests, those individuals who tend to see the external forces acting on their lives as being mostly responsible for their circumstances and actions. Whereas ‘Internals’, in contrast, are individuals who tend to focus on their own responsibility and ability to control their circumstances and actions.

An example which illustrates the differences between the two would be the response to a failed job interview. Dr. Persaud explained that an external would blame the surrounding circumstances- the interviewers were biased, other candidates were more qualified, other candidates were given preferential treatment, this was not what God wanted for them, etc. etc. An internal, on the other hand, would look to themselves to explain the failure- I wasn’t prepared for the interview, I was lacking some required skills or qualifications, I didn’t perform my best, I wasn’t a suitable candidate, etc. etc.

Dr. Persaud also gave the impression that psychologists and psychiatrists tend to spend a lot more of their time with externals than they do with internals, as externals tend to avoid personal responsibility which can have negative consequences. In terms of religious belief, it seems that there is a significant tendency for believers to be externals which is quite logical given that most religious individuals are of the belief that there is an external God (or Gods) influencing and sometimes guiding their lives. Internals by contrast are more likely to be non-believers or at least believers who do not believe that God has a direct effect on their lives.

Dr. Persaud also explored the differences between externals and internals in their responses to tragedy. In particular that externals experiencing greater immediate relief as they interpret matters as being beyond their control. Whereas internals suffer more at the time but have greater scope for improvement as they tend to regard tragic outcomes as motivational opportunities to grow or change.

I have to admit to remaining suspicious of the usefulness of such a seemingly simple dichotomy as I suspect that every individual, whether a believer or non-believer, displays traits of both an external and an internal depending on the situation. However, it may well be a useful diagnostic tool and it certainly seems fair to say that some individuals are more focused on the external forces that act on their lives rather than their own ability to influence matters whereas others focus on their own personal resources. It is also undeniable that there are people in the world who occupy the extremes of both categories and it is perhaps these people with who psychologists and psychiatrists most frequently interact which potentially makes the differences between the two types more readily apparent.

The second major topic of Dr. Persaud’s talk was the problems with the portrayal of medicine and psychiatry in the media. This is a familiar topic to any who follow this blog or the writings of practically any skeptic however Dr. Persaud chose to approach the issue from a very unusual angle. He made some passing remarks about the problems with mainstream media accounts but then he turned his focus to science journalism and in particular the tendency to use the word ‘miracle’ in headlines. Using miracle to refer to scientific breakthroughs or discoveries as in ‘X is a miracle of modern science’ or ‘Scientists discover miracle cure’ was Dr. Persaud argued not only inappropriate but entirely misleading.

He contended that the word ‘miracle’ was prominent in religious tracts and was understood to imply ‘an event that violates the laws of nature’ and thus was entirely unsuitable for describing scientific breakthroughs which were the result of painstaking investigations into ‘the laws of nature’. He also suggested that using the word miracle creates the impression that scientists are unaware of how a treatment works or how it was developed which is obviously false in the case of scientific breakthroughs.

The tendency to use the word miracle in science writing was, according to Dr. Persaud, due to a lack of faith in the general public’s understanding of science and reflected a tendency in science journalism to try and grab readers attention rather than provide an accurate account. This then lead to an extended anecdote on making a documentary about the scientific committee for assessing miracles organised by the Catholic Church at Lourdes. It was an interesting diversion and a topic I’d like to look into but was somewhat irrelevant to the argument being made, accept as a further illustration of how miracles are associated with religion.

One recent illustration of Dr. Persaud’s point would be the recent New Scientists issue which ran with the title ‘Darwin was wrong’ on it’s front cover when the relevant article was only discussing modest scientific debates over specific aspects of evolutionary theory and no-one was contending that Darwin was wrong in any major sense (this event also provoked an angry response from some famous scientists).

However, overall I found his argument about the use of the word ‘miracle’ being a significant issue for science writing to be rather uncompelling. It is true that miracle has religious connotations but it is also true that the meaning of words change over time. As such, we understand that when someone says, for instance, that a pint of guinness was divine that they are not asking us to infer that said guinness was a holy entity. Instead, they are just expressing, their (valid) opinion that their guinness was very enjoyable. I think the same is true for miracle in science headlines.

In fact I made this point to Dr. Persaud at the talk, pointing out that miracle is used outside of religious contexts frequently in modern life and that it doesn’t carry the connotations of it’s religious origin. The example I provided to illustrate this was when an unexpected outcome in a football match is described as a ‘miracle recovery’, when this occurs I argued it’s quite clear that the commentator is not implying that the laws of nature were violated by the result and nobody takes it as such and the same reasoning applies to science headlines. Dr. Persaud took my point but he still disagreed that it was a suitable term for science journalism.

His talk concluded with some observations about the differences between science and religion. The most interesting of which were his concluding remarks that science is less immediately appealing to the human psyche because it can lead to the develop of non-comforting beliefs- that there is no divine plan for us, for example. And as a result, that religion is so much more widespread should not be surprising because religious beliefs not only tend to be comforting, by teaching us that we are never alone for instance, but also, given our evolutionary development, many religious beliefs fit us more intuitively. I’m sure many religious people would point out however that not all religious beliefs are comforting.

Anyway, that wraps up the reviews of the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event. There is no information yet about further upcoming talks from the Centre for Inquiry except for one about ‘Monsters from the Deep’ in November but I’m sure there will be more organised throughout the summer. I certainly hope so as I’ve found the last two events extremely interesting.

3 comments

  1. Chris,

    Good interesting article and enjoyable read. You say in Paragraph 9 “that you remain suspicious of a simple dichotomy” but then say that “such a diagnostic tool may well be useful” Did Raj Persaud indicate that it was a simple dichotomy?

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  2. He didn’t use the words ‘simple dichotomy’ that’s my opinion. I’m sure it’s regarded as quite a complex diagnostic tool but to me it still comes down to two labels. I don’t think it’s invalid just that there are dangers in getting too caught up in defining people in that way.

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