John Oliver / Prosperity Gospel and related topics

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RichardGarfinkle

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Preface: I'm a huge fan of John Oliver. He's running an insightful and hilarious humor/journalism show on HBO. I've commented on his stuff a lot in P&CE.

Last night (August 16, 2015) his major story was on the topic of televangelists. Here's a link to the piece.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg

It was both funny and distressing, but certainly not the first expose of them.

The major focus of the story was on the lax attitude of the IRS toward such preachers and their churches.

That actually isn't what this thread is about. It's more of a jumping off point.

Televangelist money raising has its theological basis in the prosperity gospel. That in turn has a complex history relative to Protestantism, Catholicism, and so on. But that too is a jumping off point.

Televangelists also tend to practice faith healing, which I could turn into a major rant, but again a jumping off point.

These two ideas are based on the concept that performing a spiritual action (in this case donating money to a church) leads directly to a real world benefit for the person performing the spiritual action. Directly in this case means without human or other earthly intervention.

In the prosperity gospel the idea is that donation leads to God giving you more money than you donated (there are recurrent references to sowing seeds and casting bread upon the waters).

In faith healing, the idea is that having faith (and giving money as a show of faith) leads to being healed.

For me as an atheist, it's easy to separate the claims of people preaching like these ideas from reality. The reality is that these preachers are conning vulnerable people out of money and as an added consequence, getting the ill to not seek medical treatment which might well heal them.

The separation is easy for me because I do not see a direct continuity between spiritual thinking and physical reality. Giving to a preacher will not cause healing or prosperity.

I see an indirect continuity through human decision and action. A person may, out of spiritual understanding, act to change the world and the lives of others. So, donating time, effort, or money to an organization that goes out and does good for people can be a worthwhile spiritual act.

But my attitude is decidedly not universal. There are many people who do believe in a direct connection between spiritual action and earthly effect without a medium of human effort.

So, for those of you who do have this idea, how do you distinguish between claims of such connection? What to you makes such a claim plausible?
 

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It really is a hilarious bit. And disturbing. John Oliver is turning into one of the best investigative journalists around, although he'd probably deny it.

I will say that, as a physician, the placebo effect is quite real and has an identifiable neurochemical basis. I think that is an important thing to note in this discussion. It doesn't cure cancer, but it can really make people feel better. It also may speed healing, in the sense that depression (as one example) has been shown to impede healing.
 

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It really is a hilarious bit. And disturbing. John Oliver is turning into one of the best investigative journalists around, although he'd probably deny it.

I will say that, as a physician, the placebo effect is quite real and has an identifiable neurochemical basis. I think that is an important thing to note in this discussion. It doesn't cure cancer, but it can really make people feel better. It also may speed healing, in the sense that depression (as one example) has been shown to impede healing.

"Mind over matter", as they say? But, yes, when I'm stressed and depressed, for example, my body tends to ache more, for some reason. (I guess because my shoulders tense a lot when I'm stressed and I would get headaches and stuff.)
 

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Most of my formative Sundays were spent listening to this. It always made me want to scream.

It's a cute trick, too, because it's the pinnacle achievement in unfalsifiability. If it doesn't work, that meant most likely you were doing it wrong, or the quip, "God did answer your prayer. He just said 'no'."

Adorable.
 
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juniper

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I see an indirect continuity through human decision and action. A person may, out of spiritual understanding, act to change the world and the lives of others. So, donating time, effort, or money to an organization that goes out and does good for people can be a worthwhile spiritual act.

But my attitude is decidedly not universal. There are many people who do believe in a direct connection between spiritual action and earthly effect without a medium of human effort.

So, for those of you who do have this idea, how do you distinguish between claims of such connection? What to you makes such a claim plausible?

Most of my formative Sundays were spent listening to this. It always made me want to scream.

It's a cute trick, too, because it's the pinnacle achievement in unfalsifiability. If it doesn't work, that meant most likely you were doing it wrong, or the quip, "God did answer your prayer. He just said 'no'."

That's the easy out! "God answers all prayers, just maybe not how you want him to."

I remember, as a child brought up in a Southern Baptist fire/brimstone church, praying fervently for a few nights for God to fix my eyes (I am incredibly nearsighted). Over and over I'd heard in church that if I prayed, really really believing in God's infinite power, then my prayer would be answered.

40+ years later, I'm still very nearsighted. ;)
 

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A particularly toxic version I see from time to time is when a critically ill child deteriorates or dies. I've heard family members essentially accuse the parents of not praying hard enough. Cruelest of the cruel.
 

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A particularly toxic version I see from time to time is when a critically ill child deteriorates or dies. I've heard family members essentially accuse the parents of not praying hard enough. Cruelest of the cruel.

The trouble I always have with some of these lines of thinking is that they don't spool out just a little farther. They conveniently stop shy of the bottom line. Are they actually suggesting that God is up there on the edge of His seat (throne?) going "Come oooooon. Come ooooon. Gimme just a few more deacons in that prayer chain. Just get me one more heavy hitter with a really good gift for Tongues and I can intervene."

It goes right up there for me with assigning Intent to weather events. Do tell - at what miles per hour does the wind become God's exasperated sigh? And why doesn't a really nice day mean we're doing everything right?
 

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It is possible I have some experience and insight into this question.

I used to work for this guy. Everything you see in this video, I saw week in and week out in some variation. I will attest from my own experience Mr. Hinn is not pushing people over. Those he "ministers" to are not actors. It may be some mass psycho-physiological phenomena, but it's not fake. Everyone there from Mr. Hinn, to his pastoral staff, his administrative staff, and members and visitors of his church/services are fully convinced of what they do, teach, and practice. That said, there are defiantly deliberate deceivers out there...some caught, some uncaught. I never saw anything I would consider fake about Benny Hinn...but neither can I anymore say that what he does is identifiable with the historic and apostolic Christian faith, except in name.

Among the things that convinced me to move on was the circus atmosphere of the services. It is in every respect that matters a kind of show, wherein the Holy Spirit is expected to be the performing elephant. You can only watch thousands of people fall down again and again or people knocked down by the "Spirit" again and again before this nagging itch at the back of your brain says something is not right about this. I saw lots of "miracles", a few perhaps real (mercy drops), a few perhaps a panacea effect (If I'm sick, and it gets me well, who am I to complain), but most didn't last. For example, I remember old man on oxygen who came to the service and got healed. That lasted about 3 days, then he was back on oxygen.

I was there when Mr. Hinn made silly and mistaken prophecies (Castro was about to die of stomach cancer, Comedy died with Lucille O'Ball. I was there when he said (as a matter of personal on the spot revelation knowledge) that each person of the Holy Trinity has a body soul and spirit...meaning there are Nine Persons in the Holy Trinity...I think he eventually backed off of that...but still. I can tell you that he is like two different people on and off stage. On stage he is a wild man. Off stage he is deeply introverted, and soft spoken...a quiet, almost timid looking/acting man. With his senior staff in his office, I couldn't say.

From that, I can surmise, other TV ministers might be like that to varying degrees as well. But like them, I can also say, Mr. Hinn has very rich tastes. A little he needed as his popularity grew to afford to keep his family's private life out of the limelight and protect the privacy of his children when they were little. I remember when he flirted with simpler living...giving up the mercedes and the rolexes, moving to a more modest neighborhood. That lasted all of two or three months. So...I can't say he does not rake in and keep lots of big bucks, he does. And on that note, like other big name preachers, He had two sometimes three sermons. The first on giving right before the offering. The Bible sermon, and often another giving sermon for another love offering, with plenty of "show" after the main sermon until the end.

Back to the show. What you see with Hinn and some others is "real" in that it actually happens as you see it. It's not faked. What is interesting to me is that while I was there I could do many of the same things (throw power, etc.)...really really, just not to the same degree. When I moved to another church thousands of miles away who believed what Hinn believed (though nothing of the same nature ever happened there that I saw), by in large, I discovered quickly that I could do nothing anymore. It was like a plug had come out of the socket. It just didn't work...it was troubling to me for a long while because I had to figure out what it all meant.

Eventually I did find some answers that did not challenge my belief in a present miracle working God, but yet accounted for the weirdness and hit and missness that I had been a part of for many years and had considered the restoration of gifts lost to the Church (for the most part) long long ago. The person whose writings ultimately opened my eyes was the Eastern Orthodox priest monk Fr. Seraphim Rose (talk about an indictment of our age). My first encounter with his writings made me furious. The same writings 20 years later seemed the very soul of wisdom. His critique of the Charismatic movement and its leaders amount to an observation that the "gifts" never seemed tied to the Holiness of the Holy Spirit nor to any particular active or extraordinary expression of holiness on the part of the gift user. Makes you go hmmm. Secondly, the practice of these gifts, the ginning up of expectation, the sentimental, emotion stirring music, the whole atmosphere of the gatherings suggested not Christian worship, but some sort of Christian Shamanism...and that's where a couple of very big lights blinked on. That is what at first made me furious...and what 20 years later made so much sense it gobsmacked me.

So, I do believe the spiritual and the physical are connected (not unlike a light source and frame of holographic film). That prayers are heard and answered. I also believe God is not a monkey in a maze to do tricks for us either to thrill us or prove His existence to us. If He's God, He's not an idiot and he knows what "researchers" are up to when patient "A" is prayed for (by whom?...and of what authority/effective experience), and patient "B" is not, and relative healing times are correlated to test whether "prayer" works. Silly silly silly. But then again I no longer believe that preachers both sincere and not who practice/teach the things you see in that video clip are in anyway expressive of genuine historical, authentic, apostolic Christian faith. It is a delusion, plain and simple...it may be counterfeit, but it is not necessarily fake.
 

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I used to work for this guy. Everything you see in this video, I saw week in and week out in some variation. I will attest from my own experience Mr. Hinn is not pushing people over. Those he "ministers" to are not actors. It may be some mass psycho-physiological phenomena, but it's not fake.

Yes. My mother went to see this guy. They were kept waiting for hours in a hot, crowded, elbow-to-elbow room with no seats, no food, no water, and not allowed to go to the bathroom or out for air (under threat of not being allowed back in after paying quite a lot for the tickets.) I do dare say the psychological stress effect is quite the lever in his show. I'm not sure I've ever seen my mother, a true believer and one-time Benny Hinn devotee, so dejected. There was no one who wanted him to be the real deal more than her. She had to process her disappointment in finding him a fraud. Of course, that certainly doesn't get back any of the money she sent to his circus over the years.
 

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I also believe God is not a monkey in a maze to do tricks for us either to thrill us or prove His existence to us. If He's God, He's not an idiot and he knows what "researchers" are up to when patient "A" is prayed for (by whom?...and of what authority/effective experience), and patient "B" is not, and relative healing times are correlated to test whether "prayer" works. Silly silly silly.

Are you saying that God would withhold intervention from a sick person who He would have normally restored health or reduce suffering for, because He was irritated over an attempt to quantify Him?
 

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I also believe God is not a monkey in a maze to do tricks for us either to thrill us or prove His existence to us. If He's God, He's not an idiot and he knows what "researchers" are up to when patient "A" is prayed for (by whom?...and of what authority/effective experience), and patient "B" is not, and relative healing times are correlated to test whether "prayer" works.

The problem with this stance (and the related stance that God must remain "hidden") is that it leads inexorably to the logical conclusion that no one can ever have any proof whatsoever that God heals people. Since God is omniscient, he will know not only when he IS being tested, but when something he does WILL be examined in the future. Therefore, in any such case, he will withhold his help. That means that any study, any falsifiable claim, any experience that has been, will be, or is being examined for evidence will come up false.

Which, strangely, is the same result that you get when all the claims are false in the first place.
 

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I find Prosperity Gospel very destructive. For reference, I'm Southern Baptist, raised in a small-town church. We weren't a fire and brimstone church, but there was a balance between expecting blessings and pragmatism. God helped those who helped themselves. If someone was sick, we prayed for God to connect them with skilled physicians. If someone was undergoing surgery, we prayed for the surgeon to do well. If there was a storm, we prayed for protection while we hunkered down in the storm shelter. If we had financial problems, we prayed for an interview to go well or for God to give us the wisdom to follow a budget. Etc.

A decade or so ago, I had the misfortune of getting involved with a man who wanted to start going to church together. I had my own church, but he insisted that we visit this one. The pastor of the church claims he doesn't preach prosperity, but it's really hard to reason that he doesn't based on my experience. My views might be biased because of the negative situation I found myself in, so for background:

The man I was involved with eventually exposed himself as being very vain and self centered. He craved attention. The church service was televised, and there was a segment where deacons (or elders or leadership... I'm not exactly sure what they called them) would invite people up to the front to pray for specific things. These prayers were often shown in close up on television. At the time, my mother had pancreatic cancer, and I finally figured out that the man was using me and my mother's disease to give him a good reason to drag me up front to pray. He was DVRing the services to see if he'd managed to make it onto the broadcast. When I refused to go to the front to pray after that, the relationship broke down.


So, anyway, maybe it was because of my mother's condition, but I really resented the pastor's message. It was all, God wants to bless you. If you're a good enough person, if you're a good enough Christian, God will give you peace. God will give you a good family. God will show you that perfect mate. God will give you that job you've always wanted. God will give you money. God will heal you. And, of course, if you didn't have these things, then you weren't being good enough. You weren't praying hard enough. You weren't giving enough. You didn't believe enough. If you were struggling, that was your fault.

At one point, we were up front praying, and I decided I wanted to go back to my seat because the deacon said something problematic for me, and the deacon actually told me (parroted by my boyfriend), that it was my fault my mother hadn't been cured because I was reluctant to pray with him (and not pray at all, which I was doing nearly constantly, but with him at that church on TV). Basically, if I wasn't doing it there, I wasn't doing it and it didn't count. When I was asked for money, I responded that I was already tithing to my home church and I was just visiting. I was told that God wouldn't bless that.

So anyway, there are lots of reasons I don't care for Prosperity Gospel. Honestly, I believe that God blesses us when it suits his agenda.
 
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heza

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Joel Osteen is odious.

And what gets me is that I feel like he's akin to Tilton (also, I can't talk about Tilton without linking to the Farting Preacher) and the like, but he gets a pass for being, what... more manipulative, more subtle about it? Any time I read an article about him, it's clear to remind me that he doesn't take a salary from the church but instead lives off the royalties of his books and speaking engagements. But the church has an online store that sells his and his wife's books. I can't find mention of it, but I doubt the church gets the money. What's telling about that to me, is that you usually have two types of church "resource" pages—those selling books (they already bought, like a bookseller) or recommending books by multiple leading Christian authors outside the church, and those who only sell books by the pastor and his family.
 

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No, I'm saying God is not going to be manipulated.

Right. Which, as the studies don't find Him, means He withholds relief to make that point in the event His creation dare look for Him in the numbers. That's interesting.
 
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Hello Richard, et al...

I think you are positing the question to someone like myself and I will attempt to answer. I graduated from a Health and Wealth Bible School and I am a former atheist. I am currently a pastor and have been for over 25 years. You can call me 'crackpot' if you like. I don't mind. I've been called worse.
I recently published a book that, if embraced, would correct many of the excesses (I will gladly share a PDF if you wish).
The doctrine is based in the Old Testament (Joshua 1:8; Deuteronomy 28) and is the foundation of the deuteronomic cycle. It is amplified by the healing ministry of Christ in the Gospels.
However, if you read the references, the idea isn't simply that we should sow into the church or ministry. Unfortunately, that is what people hear and that is what is focused on. Those who fail to give any balance are preying upon people in desperate need. They will get what is coming to them.
The balance is found in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14. It is basically a 'how to', when what you are doing isn't working--when you are living in the last half of Deuteronomy 28, instead of the first half.

1. Humble yourself. You are the problem. (Or as a more secular writer might write "What got you here won't get you there.")
2. Pray. Ask, seek, knock... search out what the problem is. What are you doing wrong?
3. Seek His face. Listen. Accept rebuke. What is the solution to your problem?
4. Turn from your wicked ways. Make the change, whatever it is, because doing the same thing will not get you a different result.

From a purely secular viewpoint, this process, applied after each disappointing result, would prompt and develop an ongoing personal transformation. It is a system of self-improvement and adaptation that works extraordinarily well.
Unfortunately, too many are more than happy to be duped by a microwave solution to a problem that really requires a slow cook solution.
Crackpot or crockpot... for what it is worth.
 
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Realspiritik

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These two ideas are based on the concept that performing a spiritual action (in this case donating money to a church) leads directly to a real world benefit for the person performing the spiritual action. Directly in this case means without human or other earthly intervention.

In the prosperity gospel the idea is that donation leads to God giving you more money than you donated (there are recurrent references to sowing seeds and casting bread upon the waters).

In faith healing, the idea is that having faith (and giving money as a show of faith) leads to being healed.

For me as an atheist, it's easy to separate the claims of people preaching like these ideas from reality. The reality is that these preachers are conning vulnerable people out of money and as an added consequence, getting the ill to not seek medical treatment which might well heal them.

I'm always curious about the way in which some individuals will attack the Materialist cause-and-effect claims of Prosperity Gospel while in the very next breath some of the same attackers will praise the almost identical Materialist cause-and-effect claims of pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement preachers.

Prosperity Gospel teachings aren't new. They've been around for thousands of years in Ancient Near East Wisdom literature. They claim to be based on Divine Law, but most of the time they're based on human ideas about who deserves reward and who deserves punishment. (It's pure status addiction.)

Our society still operates according to all the ancient precepts of Ancient Near East Wisdom literature, though we don't think of it this way.

The underlying philosophical framework is a devout belief in pure Materialist cause-and-effect classical physics.

We don't live in a universe mediated solely by linear cause-and-effect. So any philosophical system, whether ANE Wisdom, Prosperity Gospel, or allopathic take-this-pill-and-pretend-there's-no-placebo-effect medicine, is arguing the same side of coin.

Discussions about reality should probably include both Materialist data (classical physics) and non-Materialist data (quantum physics) in order to more fully capture the "big picture" of the universe we live in.

P.S. I'm no fan of Prosperity Gospel, though I'm a person of faith and practising (if heretical) Christian mystic.
 
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...it may be counterfeit, but it is not necessarily fake.

Bingo.

The placebo effect is indeed, incredibly potent. Western medicine knows this.

Friends and colleagues of mine have repeatedly confirmed this to me; that medical specialists will move forward and operate on a patient, knowing full well that it will do effectively nothing, because the associated "theatre" or surgery can so powerfully activate the placebo effect, the whole illusion self-fulfills and patient actually get better.

The inverse of this is also quite well known, being the nocebo effect--people getting sick because the theatre is also convincing, but in the other direction. It is for this reason surgeons will avoid operating on the elderly whenever they can; in such cases the theatre can have the opposite effect and undo any benefit that the intervention might have held. Taken through to it's logical extreme, and you have the Scientific basis for the effectiveness of Voodoo/Witchcraft; which are very very complicated to go into, but do in a sense actually work in of a fashion that is Medically explainable.

I suspect when it comes to Shamanism, faith healing, and charisma preaching: you have a very complex and (maybe even inseparable) combination of factors--ranging from some very talented people who have an innate 'sense' about the neurological and psychological realities of the human condition, that even Science has not quite unravelled--through to seemingly genuine people, who actually believe in what they do, and have discovered these leavers over human biology through other means, ie trial and error, genuine confidence from their faith, and osmosis/proximity to others who have also learned these abilities.

I suspect the damage is being caused, because people mistake proximity to this kind of "understanding" as some form of blessing/divine sanction in of itself. In reality, its simply a tool with both good and bad potential.
 
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ETA: Wow, I did not realize this was a zombie thread!!!

Whoops. Neither did I :(
I only found it on the second page, and didn't think to check the date.

It's no biggie is it? I've been waiting several years to wade into a discussion, exactly like this. Impulse got the better.
 

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From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain:

I got a good going-over in the morning from old Miss Watson on account of my clothes; but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could. Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.

caw
 

Victor Douglas

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I'm always curious about the way in which some individuals will attack the Materialist cause-and-effect claims of Prosperity Gospel while in the very next breath some of the same attackers will praise the almost identical Materialist cause-and-effect claims of pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement preachers.

Prosperity Gospel teachings aren't new. They've been around for thousands of years in Ancient Near East Wisdom literature. They claim to be based on Divine Law, but most of the time they're based on human ideas about who deserves reward and who deserves punishment. (It's pure status addiction.)

Our society still operates according to all the ancient precepts of Ancient Near East Wisdom literature, though we don't think of it this way.

The underlying philosophical framework is a devout belief in pure Materialist cause-and-effect classical physics.

We don't live in a universe mediated solely by linear cause-and-effect. So any philosophical system, whether ANE Wisdom, Prosperity Gospel, or allopathic take-this-pill-and-pretend-there's-no-placebo-effect medicine, is arguing the same side of coin.

Discussions about reality should probably include both Materialist data (classical physics) and non-Materialist data (quantum physics) in order to more fully capture the "big picture" of the universe we live in.

P.S. I'm no fan of Prosperity Gospel, though I'm a person of faith and practising (if heretical) Christian mystic.

I find Realspiritik's post very confusing. It appears to mix together a mixture of contrary belief systems, and leads to a conclusion that doesn't follow from his/her premise. Quantum physics is every bit as scientific and "materialist" as classical physics, and the Prosperity Gospel is, to be blunt, based on a type of magical thinking.

There is a very well known philosophical approach known as "Non Overlapping Magisteria" (or NOMA for short) which proposes that both science and religion (and, by extension, any "non-materialist" philosophical framework) are both equally valid, but are meant to be applied toward completely different types of problems and questions. Any empirical question regarding an objective phenomenon, that is a process taking place within the material universe involving matter or energy, is the proper domain of science and science alone. The question of what causes or cures diseases in the human body is an objective one, with a single set of empirically correct answers (though we may not know what those answers are) and therefore "belongs" to science, or some other empirical approach like trial and error. This even includes the objective effect of beliefs and emotions on health, like the placebo effect. Religion and philosophy should be regarded as having literally nothing whatsoever to say on the issue.

Regarding subjective questions, however, that is questions for which there are and can be no single correct empirical answer, that is all matters of value, principle, aesthetic judgment or personal feelings, can only be addressed by some sort of philosophical framework, of which religion is one. If it's a question such as whether or not the Mona Lisa is beautiful, the difference between right and wrong, or whether the poor deserve government relief, science (and objective approaches in general) have nothing to say. These are not objective questions and do not have objective answers. You have to get your answers from somewhere else (full disclosure: I am myself a practicing Christian).

This doesn't imply that personal values do not inform our interpretation of scientific results. Are nuclear weapons good or bad? You need to know the facts to help decide that, but the facts themselves will not provide the answer. Likewise, the latest findings from science can be used to inform our values and subjective beliefs. But ultimately, objective questions are best answered using objective means, and subjective questions by subjective means.
 
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