The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

April 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.

Click to read (and weep):

His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”

Here’s Benson’s homily:

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.

But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.

Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true  (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)

Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”

Benson goes on:

Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.

And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?

Finally, there’s this:

. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.

h/t: Jeff

67 thoughts on “The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

  1. I cringe every time people say the vaccines are a miracle and mutter “no they aren’t, they’re science” probably a little too loudly and not always to myself. If the vaccines are a miracle I guess Covid was the curse but why did we get that curse? Stupid. Stop saying stupid things people and read up on vaccines, especially mRNA vaccines and how it’s taken us decades to get here through slow, meticulous, scientific work.

    1. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is also the product of almost a decade of work by the team at Oxford University led by Professor Sarah Gilbert. And they have created working vaccines for other diseases using the chimp adenovirus vector. Prof Gilbert described her team’s work clearly and eloquently in this year’s Humanists UK Rosalind Franklin Lecture:

        1. The scientist, whose name eludes me, who wrote the paper on lipids for delivery, produced it I think 50 years ago at the Royal Free Hospital.

          1. Yes, which makes the “they rushed the vaccine and are using us as guinea pigs” narrative a bit inaccurate.

              1. Haha thanks for getting that. I feared people would correct me and miss that I was going for understatement.

            1. Someone needs to enlighten Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying to these facts, before they damage their own credibility… however, I think we are too late…

              1. Oh yes, we are way too late for that. They are also telling everyone that it most likely escaped from a lab even though the consensus is it did not. Then of course they go on Real Time with Bill Maher and Maher amplifies that conclusion.

        2. You know what really scares me as much or more than these religious buffoons? Purportedly educated people pushing total BS in major publications that science and mathematics are “social constructions” and “not real.” This has been going on moreso lately with mathematics but science is not immune to a pervasive anti-realism in publications. I’d like to know who is pushing this nonsense and what their real agenda is. If Covid-19 has proven anything, it’s that you can’t change reality by ignoring it wishing that things were different. All that does is cause more suffering and kill more people.

          Jerry Coyne was spot on about there being major bad consequences for turning off your BS detector and ignoring science.

          1. To think I used to make little jokes, when people told me how they sent their kids to religious schools because they taught a Christian view on all the subjects, about applying Christian math and now we have the equivalent. Well I got my comeuppance didn’t I?

          2. There are two books you might be interested in, Maximillian:
            ‘Knowledge and Social Imagery’ 2nd ed. by David Bloor, and ‘Science in Action’ by Bruno Latour. These books have had a huge influence on the way science educators think about science and how scientific knowledge is gained.

  2. I didn’t know until now that Lightman had a mushbrain side to him. Oh well. I still think his first novel, “Einstein’s Dreams,” is good. In fact, I was looking at it just a few days ago with the intention of reading it again soon.

  3. Well, one would certainly expect some actual evidence of the “lost tribes” of Israelites in N America, not to mention Joseph Smith’s golden tablets.

    1. The was – probably still is – a British Israelite Society that claimed, yes, that the British were a lost tribe!

  4. My question to theists: Why didn’t your god miraculously prevent the pandemic from happening in the first place?! If he had done so, there wouldn’t be any need for vaccines.

        1. The only real god is Mother Nature. I know she exists because she came to earth once in a margarine commercial. She warned us: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” /s [/s] (The second “/s” is to indicate that I was being sarcastic about the use of the first “/s”.) If Swift published his “Modest Proposal” today, he would probably have to add a “/s” at the end to indicate satire/sarcasm, or some people would take it seriously and he would start getting death threats.

    1. Because Yahweh likes to tease his creations. He teased Moses in the desert, he teased Abraham about killing his son Isaac, he teased Job….he’s a teaser by nature.

      1. Again I quote Mencken: “Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.”

        1. If I am wrong about Mother Nature being the only true god, I would go with one of the Native American trickster gods.

      2. Yes, from the Fall and Deluge to Covid, we can always count on God for the humorous touch. A real swell guy to hang around with.

    2. Another question to theists: If the scientific development of the anti-covid vaccines we now have was miraculously inspired by a perfect divine being, why are those vaccines imperfect (by having an efficacy <100%) rather than perfect (by having an efficacy =100%)?

      1. That’s an easy question: God provides perfect inspiration, but we imperfect humans screw up the execution. (Why God made the first two humans so imperfect that they screwed up the rest of us is a question above my pay grade.)

          1. Because our ancestors ate some specific fruit. As Diana says, this guy has a superb sense of humour.

  5. “After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA.” This “divine” action turns all these scientists effectively into mere puppets of god and thus is incompatible with the doctrine of free will, which I understand is essential to Mormon, i.e., LDS, belief. Perhaps Muslims and Calvinists would have no problem with this, because they believe in predestination/predeterminism, so anything produced by humans is ipso facto made by god.

    1. I think all Christians believe in free will. It’s supposed to be what makes humans so great. But a lot of doctrines are incompatible with free will of course; for example giving humans free will then punishing them for executing it. I think Calvinists only believe in pre-destination when it comes to getting into heaven. You’re either going or not and that’s decided before birth so forget this whole good works stuff. Of course that has theological inconsistencies as well because why be good? Why even be a Calvinist?

      1. Yes, this is the kicker: salvation by faith (Protestantism) versus salvation by works (Catholicism). And, yes, inconsistencies abound.

          1. Robert, I totally get your sarcasm. I want to suggest, though, that when religionists use the word “mystery,” it is, as with so many other religious things, a swindle. They don’t really mean mystery in the sense of something beyond human ken. They take the term as a shield against further inquiry and criticism. Religious belief for them is really the opposite of mystery; it is real, firm knowledge that they can rely on. Whatever the foundational book they consider holy, be it the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the Lotus Sutra, the Guru Granth Sahib, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the Urantia Book, or any one of many others, that book for them has all the answers to their problems and clears up any mystery to existence.

  6. Total mush brain. I would snort a little less derisively in his general direction if he used the space to urge conservative vaccine hesitant people to get the damn shot!

  7. Yesterday, I was so disappointed with the program CBS Sunday Morning. They closed with a video message from Francis Collins blabbing about how we should be grateful to god that the Covid vaccine was developed so quickly. He did say all the good Christians out there should be sure to get the vaccination, so I guess that’s something.

    1. Those kind of remarks always trigger a reflex in me to thank Satan. Our Premier always ends announcements with “God bless the people of Ontario” & I often say, right after hearing his God praising closing, “Hail Satan, Lucifer protect the people of Ontario”.

  8. Um. World wide flood but some rescued in the Ark. World wide epidemic but some rescued by vaccines. I detect a theme.

  9. I get confused. Are we thanking g*d for the vaccine or the virus. If he was responsible for one then he gets both. Also thanks for the 550,000 dead in this country alone. I guess we should give Don Trump some credit there as well.

    1. Incorrect. God is responsible for everything good that happens and humans are responsible for everything bad that happens (including natural disasters). Also, God will not intervene to stop rapes because that would be interfering with the rapists’ free will which is wrong, but God routinely manipulates doctors’ and scientists’ free will to make sure medical miracles happen so that we can glorify Him.

      /s (in case it’s not obvious)

  10. I can never understand why an omnipotent, omniscient god goes about things in such an indirect way. Instead of belatedly assisting scientists in the discovery of vaccines could he not have had a word with this out of control virus part of his magnificent creation – as in ‘ get a fucin’ move on and evolve yourself into something harmless!’.

  11. God is the UHOSE:


    He let’s everyone else do the work, and takes credit for good things, and none of the blame for the bad things.

    1. If God takes all the credit and none of the blame… ? What gives me this déjà vu feeling?

    2. God – the Divine Seagull.

      Flies in, vacuums up all the praise, craps over everything, and flies off.

  12. Maybe somebody knows the whole story and can correct me if I am wrong. My simplified understanding is that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the result of the same mRNA research. Many, many people have been working on mRNA vaccines for other viruses, such as HIV, but were having difficulty in being able to make a stable spike protein in the lab. The breakthrough came from a hard working researcher, Nianshuang Wang, now at the University of Texas, Austin. He tried all kinds of techniques for months and months before coming up with a viable method. Wang has been working for years alongside Dr. Jason McLellan. Once the virus genome was sequenced, I believe in China, McLellan got together with Dr. Barney Graham at the NIH Vaccine Research Center and this led to the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer. McLellan and Graham worked together in the past. But, if you ask any of these people, they will give you the names of many, many others that have been working in this area for many years. Wang is originally from China. The Vaccine Research Center at NIH was the brainstorm of Dr. Anthony Fauci some years ago.

  13. When I met my oncologist to discuss the treatment plan for my stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis a few years ago, his first words to me were “I am not in the business of miracles”. It’s all about science. He identified the appropriate drug for my particular condition and the treatment has been successful. Another victory for medical science. Nothing supernatural at all.

    1. I agree with normwalsh, great for you and for science. I wish my grandfather, who died at age 58, could have experienced some of those hard-won gains made by those tough-minded scientists but I’m glad so much has improved since 1985, while miracle business hasn’t changed one bit in the thousands of years of false hopes and claims. Stay well, stay strong! 💪🏻

      For the record, the only miracle I’ll accept is miracle whip, but I’d still rather have mayonnaise…and science.

  14. Apparently, then EVERYthing that happens is a miracle. I assumed a miracle was something that superseded science; for example, a covid miracle would be that the pandemic vanished, say, overnight.

    1. Like when people say “the miracle of childbirth”. No a miracle would be the fetus just teleporting out of the uterus into a romper. I think, like job titles, we are witnessing a miracle inflation.

    2. Yes, I like that line of thinking:
      Waking up in the morning is a miracle.
      Burgundy is a miracle and so is Gorgonzola.
      And so are piles and shingles,
      (now we may go the full monty (python)).

    3. “If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science.”
      Exactly Benson, you are absolutely 100% spot on there. So do it man, relinquish it!

  15. how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines?

    Indeed, He could have slowed it down! After all, if He put Covid on the planet, why would He want humans to get rid of it?

    More seriously, this is called the possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy. “It’s possible, therefore I have a warrant to believe.” Nope. That’s not how justification works.

  16. Without religion (human) resources and energy would be directed at reality and not at a fairytale.
    Brains would finally be committed to evidence-based solutions and reason.
    Perhaps then in tandem with environmental change we can start to ameliorate some of the other foibles of that evolutionary-based software lodged in our heads.

    1. Despite religion we do make some progress:
      We deem slavery, torture and child prostitution evil,
      and we know that malaria is not due to bad air.
      I’d go full Pinker there.

  17. All things dull and ugly
    All creatures short and squat
    All things rude and nasty
    The Lord God made the lot

    Each little snake that poisons
    Each little wasp that stings
    He made their brutish venom
    He made their horrid wings

    All things sick and cancerous
    All evil great and small
    All things foul and dangerous
    The Lord God made them all

    Each nasty little hornet
    Each beastly little squid
    Who made the spiky urchin?
    Who made the sharks? He did!

    All things scabbed and ulcerous
    All pox both great and small
    Putrid, foul and gangrenous
    The Lord God made them all.

  18. Yes I’m not saying we have not progressed I am certainly aware of the civilizing and pacification advances we have made. I’m just in a hurry to finish it off… 😁

  19. Hold your horses, Samuel Benson. The vaccines are not a cure; they are what mere mortals came up with to control the Covid blight your god couldn’t be bothered to eradicate. Also, I recommend that your god check out how mere mortals have relegated the smallpox virus to history. And before you claim that the eradication of smallpox is another miracle, what would be more of a miracle is for smallpox to have been eradicated before the invention of vaccines, the discovery of DNA, and the usefulness of the Germ Theory of Disease.

  20. Well, if God did help, he’s obviously taking the p**s. He knew this was going to happen for all eternity. Same with cancer, AIDS, polio, TB, leprosy, ALS, alzheimers, typhoid….

    Eternity should be long enough for anyone to get their s**t together. Come on G-man, the conclusion is unavoidable. You’re either:

    1) wickedly cruel
    2) too stupid
    3) infinitely lazy

    Probably a mix of all three to be fair.

    @God – your performance is below expectations, and this often happens in autocratic organisations like yours. You should consider creating an HR dept; provide written assurances that you will not banish them to hell fire, then encourage them to provide you with constructive feedback. They will also be able to create a training plan for you. In the meantime, there are some great books on overcoming procrastination – you should read one to grab a head start.

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