Social Science and Other Miraculous Signs
If your average college-educated millennial were to rewrite the first chapter of Genesis, it would probably look something like this:
In the beginning, God created big data, and it was good.
We live in a world of number-crunching. Predictive algorithms, factor investing, targeted ads, regression analysis, machine learning, digital humanities, data security, Bitcoin, Facebook, Snapchat—even clouds and cookies. Most of our wealth, security, personalities, and habits are reducible to two-digit strings. Statistics are the golden standard for proving claims in public discourse, and it seems impossible to convince anyone of anything unless you’re 95% confident that it’s true.
Most people in the body of the modern West’s bell-curve think about religion like a hypothesis test. The post-Enlightenment null hypothesis is that God is dead. The alternate hypothesis is that God exists. Like any good statistician, most people reject the null hypothesis unless they observe conspicuous data points that the null hypothesis can’t probabilistically explain. If they see enough extreme outliers, these empirically-minded people will, presumably, follow where the data leads—even if the data leads to Zion instead of Zarathustra. No one typifies this view better than renowned public intellectual and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. In the final chapter of his humanist manifesto, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Pinker prosecutes religion for its reckless disregard for scientific fact.
Building on previous research, he claims that the evidence in favor of Christianity, specifically, falls overwhelmingly short of overturning the Nietzschean null hypothesis. Before he will believe in Jesus Christ, this twenty-first century secularist demands an outlier, much as the first-century Pharisees demanded a miraculous sign:
…the biologist Jerry Coyne argues that the existence of the God of scripture is a perfectly testable scientific hypothesis. The Bible’s historical accounts could have been corroborated by archaeology, genetics, and philology. It could have contained uncannily prescient scientific truths such as “Thou shalt not travel faster than light” or “Two strands entwined is the secret of life.” A bright light might appear in the heavens one day and a man clad in a white robe and sandals, supported by winged angels, could descend from the sky, give sight to the blind, and resurrect the dead.
Pinker and the Pharisees are perfectly rational—who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a miracle before believing in a miraculous God? It would certainly make things easier if a giant whale sprung from the Charles River and swallowed up celebrity Harvard professors writing large books in their offices in William James Hall, or if Jesus Christ came down in the middle of Harvard Yard and broke one Tatte pastry into enough croissants to feed all 5,000 tourists congregating around the John Harvard statue. But in the modern West, for whatever reason, God doesn’t speak to us that way anymore. And absent the miraculous fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes—and absent the willingness to listen for whispers—most people aren’t finding enough evidence to reject the idea that God is dead. For the body of the bell curve, uncritical understanding of popular science seems to confirm Pinker’s claim that “the factual tenets of religion can no longer be taken seriously.” The superficial split between religious faith and natural science, however, has been around for much longer than Pinker’s attempt to re-enlighten post-enlightenment thought. Long before R or Stata, scientists and skeptics have marshaled empirical arguments against theistic thought. Nothing is new under the sun—not even data-driven deicide.
What’s interesting about Pinker’s analysis, though, is that it attempts to sound God’s death-knell on an entirely different bell. Enlightenment Now doesn’t cite selfish genes to prove God’s irrationality. It cites social-scientific data to prove God’s irrelevance.
Pinker argues that the world doesn’t need religious faith to get to heaven. Thanks to the secular forces of reason, science, and humanism, homo sapiens have made massive progress in achieving new levels of human flourishing. The data is stunning; seventy-five figures tell a story of hockey-stick-shaped human progress across the past few centuries. Worldwide, life expectancy rates have more than doubled since 1760, basic education rates have nearly quadrupled, and GDP levels have increased exponentially. Fewer men die in battles, fewer women die in childbirth, fewer children die from starvation. More leisure time, more democracies, more years of schooling. Pinker’s data debunks even the most high-profile first-world epidemics: both suicide rates and self-reported loneliness in Western countries have declined since the 1970s.
Like it or not, the world is getting better. And it’s getting better in spite of—Pinker might even say because of—neo-Enlightenment secularism in the modern West.
Christians committed to the fact of a fallen world shouldn’t call down fire and brimstone on Pinker’s statistics. The data is compelling. No matter what Twitter says, Planet Earth is, materially at least, a much better place than it was a few centuries ago. But the clearer the data, the muddier the follow-up questions. If everyone’s getting richer, why is there still a Harvard Square Homeless Shelter? If fewer people are dying violent deaths, what about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting? If fewer people are depressed, why is mental health such a hot topic at American universities? In short—if life is getting so much better, why does it seem to be getting so much worse?
Pinker wrestles with this problem at the beginning of Enlightenment Now. Under his analysis, the counterfactual negativity comes mainly from sensational news sources and “counter-enlightenment” movements like tribalism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. There’s certainly some truth to this assessment. But the gap between collected data and lived experience points to a bigger problem in Pinker’s account than the shouting match between Fox and CNN.
Humans don’t live in statistics. We live in stories. Rising worldwide GDP levels don’t help the homeless man outside the Harvard Book Store play his out-of-tune ukulele when the January slush-storms freeze his fingers. Plummeting homicide rates across the globe don’t comfort the South African missionary volunteer whose brother was just murdered in front of his wife and two sons in the family living room. Declining suicide rates in the United States don’t keep the first-year Ivy League cross country runner from leaping off the roof of a four-story parking garage when the pressure gets too high.
The arc of the material world might bend in the right direction in the long run, but when the world we experience in our finite lifetime becomes the unlucky micro-exemption to the happy macro-trend, it’s hard to find solace in statistics. When we suffer, it’s hard to find meaning in a historical mean. When we live in the tails of the distribution, it’s hard to take shelter under the body of the bell curve. For all its preoccupation with humanity, social scientific humanism tends to lose sight of the human.
Pinker’s metrics give us little recourse for persevering whenever our local stories clash with the global statistics. His parameters for human flourishing are material—health, wealth, education, opportunity. These needs are undoubtedly crucial to a prosperous life, but what about meaning, morality, a sense of cosmic belonging—those things that sustain us when our material conditions contradict the optimistic world-wide trends? Is there not more to human flourishing than a full stomach, a fat wallet, a stamped diploma, and a rolling office chair? Acing Pinker’s indicators would give us a long life of comfortable toil full of health, wealth, education, opportunity, and—at the end of it—full time to wonder why it all mattered in the first place.
Ivan Ilyich has already given one answer to that question. And thankfully for us, so has Jesus Christ.
Christianity fills the gaps in the secular humanist’s worldview. God commands us to contribute to, if not initiate, the rising material indicators that Pinker deems so essential to human flourishing. Christ’s disciples are to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick, love our neighbors, forgive our trespassers, work with our hands, and act as faithful stewards of the resources He has given us. But God doesn’t just promise us a better world; He promises us a new one. God will remake and restore His fallen creation, and no matter how much this world improves while we’re on it, the glory of our progress is nothing next to the glory of His regress—the return of the king to a world made shining like it was at the start of Creation.
But unlike secular humanism, Christianity doesn’t lose sight of the individual in this cosmic upward trend. Jesus didn’t die for humanity. He died for you, for me, for the homeless man playing the ukulele outside the Harvard Book Store, for the missionary in South Africa, for the suicidal athlete, for each person. The promise of Psalm 139 is that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, individually fashioned to play a part in the great story unfolding from Genesis to Revelation. No amount of trend-defying material want can keep us from realizing our role in that narrative. Our lives—our flourishing—is anchored to a bedrock unmoved by circumstantial seas.
This idea that Christianity harmonizes universal and individual stories of human flourishing is compelling for Christians, but what reason do people outside the faith have for accepting it over the data-backed claims of secular humanism? The answer, it turns out, is data.
Professor Tyler VanderWeele of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality and Director of the Human Flourishing at Harvard, is conducting compelling research on what it means for human beings to flourish. His statistically rigorous longitudinal studies measure a broad range of indicators—happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. In a recent study, VanderWeele, found that associations with flourishing across these indicators were markedly higher for individuals who participated in communal religious activities than for individuals who practiced spiritual-religious beliefs privately.
But perhaps more surprisingly, the study found that social support only explained a small portion of the associated flourishing boost. In other words, people involved in religious communities didn’t score better on flourishing metrics only because of the social benefit of Sunday potlucks. They scored better because of the combination of a community directed toward a religious purpose—the kind of transcendental meaning that escapes purely materialist indicators.
In another compelling study, VanderWeele found that individuals who practice forgiveness—reconciling with a person who has wronged them or swapping enmity for charity towards that person—were associated with a number of health benefits. Turning the other cheek, it seems, is a statistically robust way of securing lower levels of depression, reduced substance abuse, higher life satisfaction, and higher social support. (One might even say that Jesus knew a thing or two about healing medical problems.)
With data, then, we have empirical reason to suspect that the Christian worldview—this story that redeems both the world and the individual in it—is on to something, both in terms of its transcendental purpose for humans and in the ethic it exhorts them to live. Today’s social scientists, it seems, are huffing and puffing up a mountain only to find Peter and Paul at the top, wondering what took them so long.
There are, of course, important limitations to this argument. One is the nature of social science. Research results vary based on the quality of the data, the design of the experiment, and the questions that the researcher asks. Pinker and VanderWeele are at the top of the field, but so-called empirical science can quickly turn into torturing data into false confessions. It’s important to take these results with a grain of salt, for if social science loses its saltiness, what good will it be?
The second qualification is more fundamental. Even if all the perfectly designed social scientific studies in the world confirmed the overwhelming benefits of Christian beliefs and practices, what would that prove? It’s difficult to make this kind of empirical case for Christianity without turning faith into a kind of Jamesian pragmatism—or, in C.S. Lewis’s more evocative term—the golden staircase to Heaven that we use to reach the barber shop on the second floor. Research like VanderWeele’s is nothing to build a faith on, nor is it intended to be, but it does make an encouraging and compelling case for the empirically-minded modern Westerner to pay attention to Christianity.
We shouldn’t take this data as the definitive proof overturning today’s God-is-dead null-hypothesis. But we should take it as a sign that God speaks to us through science. Whether it’s the gaps in Pinker’s humanist analysis or the confirmations that VanderWeele is finding for the Christian worldview, God whispers to us in the language of our time and place, through evidence we can understand, through signs we can believe.
Would our generation accept the kinds of miracles that Jesus performed for the first-century Israelites? I’m not sure. I’m inclined to think that we’re more likely to believe the signs given by longitudinal studies and linear regressions and invent a way to explain away the miracles with more natural science. But in either case, we should adjust the evidentiary standards for the great hypothesis test of God’s existence to accord with the kind of evidence we’re willing to believe.
Until then, we can open our eyes, tune our ears, and thank God that on the first day, He created big data. It’s our culture’s mode of discovering—or perhaps rediscovering—the signs that point to Christ. David had the stars, the apostles had the scars, and we have statistics.
 Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking, 422.
 Ibid., 433.
 Ibid., 54, 237, 85.
 Ibid., 159, 57, 73, 256, 202, 238.
 Ibid., 279.
 VanderWeele, T. J. (2017). Religious Communities and Human Flourishing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(5), 476–481.
Lauren Spohn ’20 is a Junior in Currier House studying English.Tags: big data, CS Lewis, democracy, faith, Harvard University, humanism, Jerry Coyne, love, narrative, psychology, reason, religion, secular, social media, social science, statistics, Steven Pinker, story, suffering, Tyler VanderWeele, violence