An edited version of this review appeared in Skeptic 6 (2) (1998), 80-82.

Book Review: God: The Evidence

Review of Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence, Prima Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-7615-0941-0. 216 pages. $22.00 US.

Review by
Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 3G1.

For people without scientific training, especially those who have pursued advanced degrees in non-scientific disciplines, science has a certain cachet that inspires envy and fear. They envy science because its techniques are undeniably fruitful in a way that the liberal arts can only dream of: the germ theory of disease led to the annihilation of smallpox, the theory of electromagnetism led to radio, television, and the computer revolution, and an understanding of Newtonian physics helped put man on the moon. They fear science because its concepts are often couched in a mathematical language they don't understand, and because science doesn't offer support for their particular religious or political prejudices.

Non-scientists afflicted with this envy and fear react in two distinct ways according to their political affiliation. On the Left, the reaction is usually to deny science's privileged place as a way of knowing. Science, they claim, is just a human construct and as flawed as any other human pursuit. On the Right, the reaction is often to misappropriate the trappings of science to further political goals. Here two different methods are often used:

  1. (The polywater fallacy) Questionable scientific theories are treated as established facts with revolutionary implications. This fallacy is named for polywater, a supposedly revolutionary discovery that was later found to be caused by contamination.
  2. (The creationist fallacy) Well-established scientific theories are described as doubtful, either by misinterpreting established results, or by by elevating fringe dissenters to the status of reputable critics. The best known example is the treatment of the theory of evolution by "scientific" creationists.
As Ronald Bailey recently demonstrated [1], such revisionist science has a long pedigree among American neoconservatives. A good example is Gertrude Himmelfarb's 1959 book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, which one reviewer characterized as displaying "an advanced case of Darwinitis, a complaint that afflicts those of a literary bent and strong attachments to pre-scientific culture, who find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values" [12].

God: The Evidence is another example of this phenomenon, albeit more sophisticated than most. Its author, Patrick Glynn, has impeccable neoconservative credentials (he was a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute from 1989 to 1996), but no scientific training (he received a Ph. D. in English and American literature from Harvard). Glynn's thesis is that modern scientific discoveries make a strong case for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Despite the tenuous nature of the evidence presented, the book has received effusive praise from from conservative non-scientists such as Robert Bork, Andrew Greeley, and William F. Buckley.

Glynn's "scientific" case for God is based on three claims: (i) the anthropic principle from physics suggests that the universe was deliberately constructed to support intelligent life; (ii) religious belief is correlated with mental and physical well-being; and (iii) near-death and out-of-body experiences provide evidence for an afterlife. However, each of these claims is seriously flawed, because in each case Glynn relies on the polywater and creationist fallacies. He accepts dubious claims uncritically, doesn't know about or fails to acknowledge skeptical examination of these claims, or simply fails to understand the science involved. God: The Evidence cannot possibly be mistaken for an impartial review. It is, at its heart, a purely evangelical tract.

The book opens with a discussion of Brandon Carter's anthropic principle, first discussed in his 1974 article [4] and later the subject of a book by Barrow and Tipler [3]. There are actually several inequivalent versions of the anthropic principle ("weak", "strong", "participatory", "final"), but for some mysterious reason, Glynn conflates them all. (We know he is aware of the distinction because he mentioned it in a 1996 National Review article [6].)

The weak anthropic principle (WAP) is nothing more than the well-known 'selection effect' applied to man as observer of the universe. Here is an analogy: suppose a marine biologist is surveying the ocean's fauna by dragging a net through the water and classifying the organisms she finds. Suppose she discovers that every organism caught is bigger than one inch in diameter. Does the observed "one inch limit" represent some sort of "fundamental constant" of marine biology? No, it represents the size of the holes in her net.

A similar sort of selection effect applies to cosmology. The Copernican revolution consisted of the revelation that human beings do not occupy a privileged place in the universe. Glynn claims that the anthropic principle "spell[s] nothing less than the philosophical overthrow of the Copernican revolution itself", but this is a gross exaggeration. The WAP does not overthrow Copernican ideas, but simply modifies them: our position in the Universe is privileged because it is predicated on the fact that we are carbon-based life that evolved over billions of years.

Put in this way, the WAP is not particularly revolutionary, and certainly no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings. However, a variation on WAP exists, the strong anthropic principle (SAP). One dubious and speculative interpretation of SAP is the following, mentioned by Barrow and Tipler: "there exists one possible Universe `designed' with the goal of generating and sustaining `observers'." Although his muddled exposition makes it difficult to know with certainty, this is the version Glynn appears to endorse. But listen to what Barrow and Tipler themselves say about this interpretation: it "does not appear to be open either to proof or to disproof and is religious in nature." Ultimately, then, Glynn's argument reduces to showing that one bit of theology supports another. There is nothing scientific about it.

The plain fact is that the various anthropic principles have simply not had the revolutionary effect on science that Glynn claims. A truly revolutionary paper would get dozens, perhaps hundreds of citations per year in the scientific literature. By this test, the anthropic principle fails miserably. According to Science Citation Index, there were a grand total of two citations of Carter's paper in 1996.

Glynn's second argument involves the claimed importance of faith for mental and physical health. He cites studies purporting to show that the religiously committed have lower suicide rates, are less dependent on drugs and alcohol, and even have better sex lives. (Presumably nuns and priests were excluded from this last study.) Based on this, Glynn concludes that ``what we have learned ... points to a mind and body designed for religious faith'' (emphasis mine). He finds this an unfathomable mystery which points to the existence of God.

Oddly enough, Glynn doesn't take this kind of reasoning to its rational conclusion: namely, to use good health as a test to determine which of the many Christian sects is the true one. If he did, he might well conclude that Mormonism is the true faith [5] while Christian Science is heresy [10].

Nor does he point out that monotheism is a relatively recent cultural invention. If human beings are really "wired for prayer", then they are wired for belief in multiple gods and not the Christian god alone. Does this suggest the existence of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Pan?

But there are more serious problems with Glynn's health claims. First, most of his data comes from the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a Templeton Foundation-funded organization specifically dedicated to promoting religion as the key to better health. Second, Glynn doesn't explore any alternative explanations for the religion/health connection. Non-believers, for example, wouldn't benefit from the community support that believers find in their local church. American atheists might suffer from stress because they are a persecuted minority in a land awash in Christian belief.

Most importantly, Glynn doesn't subject the extravagant claims of faith-based medicine to any critical scrutiny. For example, he cites the work of Herbert Benson, without noting that serious questions have been raised about Benson's work [11]. He cites a study of Randolph Byrd purporting to show that intercessory prayer can improve health, but doesn't mention the known statistical flaws in Byrd's conclusions [13]. Neither does he cite a single study at odds with Byrd's, such as the 1965 study of Joyce and Welldon [8].

Even if Glynn is correct that the mind is designed for religious faith, must it follow that there is a Designer? Before 1859 one might have said yes. But now that biologists understand the theory of natural selection, there is no need for such untestable hypotheses. Perhaps there is a gene for what Paul Kurtz called the "transcendental temptation". If Glynn's data were correct, prayer might lower stress, resulting in better health and hence improved reproductive success. In time, such a gene would spread throughout the population through purely natural processes.

But then, Glynn doesn't understand biology very well. He seems to think, for example, that the anthropic cosmological principle has something to do with evolution (it doesn't). Although evolutionary biology has celebrated success after success, Glynn falls victim to the creationist fallacy, falsely claiming that "Darwin's theory ... is fraying at the seams" and "evolutionary biology gives every indication of being in the early stages of a ``paradigm shift''." Perhaps Glynn should try prayer to cure his Darwinitis.

Glynn's third argument is that near-death experiences (NDE's) and out-of-body experiences (OBE's) provide scientific evidence for an afterlife. Here is where Glynn's lack of scientific training and adherence to the polywater fallacy are most evident. He breathlessly reports near-death anecdotes, such as the man who claimed to witness his own operation from a point above the operating table, but doesn't observe that many of these accounts are known only through second-hand sources. He doesn't appear to know about Hövelmann's definitive critical review of the NDE literature [7], which includes the observation that the interpretation of NDE's is "structured by and largely dependent on cultural expectations". Glynn dismisses the interpretation of NDE's as hallucinations, despite the unmistakable similarities reported by Siegel [9]. He relies on the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who has been harshly criticized for "notoriously and conspicuously fail[ing] to present any evidence at all for her [claims about] survival" [7].

Glynn's credulous reliance on NDE's as evidence for God has embarrassed even generally sympathetic reviewers. For example, physicist Stephen Barr, writing in the National Review [2], sensibly asks what sensory organs the disembodied soul would use to observe the operating table in a near-death experience.

There are other howlers in the book. For example, Bertrand Russell is described as an "atheistic scientist", whereas in fact he was a philosopher and mathematician. Glynn describes modern philosophy as atheistic, when in fact it is non-theistic; the terms are not synonymous. He states that "modern science must surrender its long-standing pretension that it can supply answers to the ultimate questions", when science has never pretended anything of the sort.

Ultimately, Glynn calls for nothing less than the repudiation of rationalism itself: "reason has proved an imperfect guide to the ultimate truths about the physical world." (He doesn't explain how we are to distinguish among competing incompatible religious claims without using reasoning.) He claims that "reason rediscovers and reconstructs ... what Spirit already knows." It would be interesting to know if Spirit can formulate a unified field theory, prove Goldbach's conjecture, or find a cure for AIDS. Perhaps Glynn should pray for solutions to these problems, and let us know what the Spirit tells him. I won't be holding my breath waiting for his answers.


[1] Ronald Bailey, "Origin of the Specious: Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin?", Reason, 29 (3) (July 1997), 22-28.

[2] Stephen M. Barr, "The (Scientific) case for God", National Review (26 Jan 1998), 49-50.

[3] John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press, 1986.

[4] Brandon Carter, "Large number coincidences and the anthropic principle in cosmology", in M. S. Longair, ed., Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1974, 291-298.

[5] James E. Enstrom, "Health practices and cancer mortality among active California Mormons", J. National Cancer Institute 81 (23) (6 Dec 1989), 1807-1814.

[6] Patrick Glynn, "Beyond the death of God", National Review 48 (6 May 1996), 28-32.

[7] Gerd H. Hövelmann, "Evidence for Survival from Near-Death Experiences? A Critical Appraisal", in Paul Kurtz, ed., A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, Prometheus Books, 1985, pp. 645-684.

[8] C. R. B. Joyce and R. M. C. Welldon, "The objective efficacy of prayer: a double-blind clinical trial", J. Chronic Diseases 18 (1965), 367-377.

[9] Ronald K. Siegel, "Life after death", in George O. Abell and Barry Singer, eds., Science and the Paranormal, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981, pp. 159-184.

[10] William Franklin Simpson, "Comparative longevity in a college cohort of Christian Scientists", J. American Medical Assoc. 262 (12) (22/29 Sept 1989), 1657-1658. Corrigendum, 262 (21) (1 Dec 1989), 3000.

[11] Irwin Tessman and Jack Tessman, review of Hebert Benson's Timeless Healing, Science 276 (18 Apr 1997), 369-370.

[12] Anthony West, "Darwinitis: A Literary Complaint", New Yorker 35 (October 10 1959), 188-199.

[13] Jeff Witmer and Michael Zimmerman, "Intercessory prayer as medical treatment? An inquiry", Skeptical Inquirer 15 (2) (Winter 1991), 177-180.