Can Religion Be Tested for Truth?

By Luke Nix

Most of the time, I’m not too fond of using the term “religion”. I normally prefer to use “worldview” because it is more clear about what all a belief-system entails. However, for this post, I will use the term common for the question posed in the title: Can religion be tested for truth?

Religion Tested Truth
Many years ago, I would not have even thought to ask if religion can be tested for truth. I never thought much about it, because the obvious answer to me seemed to be “Yes”. Apparently, though, many people are questioning whether religion can be tested for truth today. Some even say that religion can’t be tested, thus such a term as “true religion” is an oxymoron. A common slogan that I hear is, “You can’t put God in a test tube”. I thought that I might take a few minutes to break this down and form some kind of defense for the idea that religion can be tested.

Just to get us started, I want to give a basic definition of “religion”. I want to go with “a series of beliefs and practices”. If we further define “beliefs”, we find that beliefs are a series of propositions about reality that one trusts accurately reflect reality. If someone were to say, “I believe A”, they are saying that they trust that A accurately reflects reality.

Some people have stated to me that a person can have a religion that has nothing to do with reality. I beg to differ. If a necessary part of religion is a trust that a proposition accurately reflects reality (belief), then religion must have something to do with reality. What’s really great about most religions of the world is that they tend to not just make claims about how we should live (practice), but they make claims about reality- propositions that are claimed to accurately reflect our world. This makes it quite easy to test the religions of the world for truth.

It seems to me, though, that people have forgotten that “religion” includes beliefs. They tend to think that “religion” is merely a series of practices or routines. In this context, the claim that religion cannot be tested for truth makes a little bit more sense…but not much. No, practices don’t have a direct “truth value”, but they do have a “moral value”, and “moral value” is determined by propositions about reality being true. The “truth value” of practices are indirect, but that is not to minimize their “truth value”. The “direct” vs. “indirect” distinction comes into play when we are trying to figure out the “truth value”. For beliefs, the “truth value” can be found directly by testing it against reality. To find the “truth value” of a practice, we must test the “truth value” of the beliefs that necessarily lead to the practice.

A while back, I wrote an article about right beliefs being required before right action (practices) can be performed (here). However, I think that I would have to adjust and nuance that position a bit. If one does not have the true beliefs, they can still perform right actions. However, I would say that right action is useless without right intention (which is derived also indirectly, from beliefs). Notice that I did not say that it is “wrong”, just “useless”. Of course, “useless” implies a purpose. So, if a religion posited no purpose, then practices could be neither useless nor useful- they would just “be”. Whether or not actions possess a “use value” depends upon purpose existing (a proposition that contains truth value), and that can be derived by testing the truth values of propositions of a religion that claims purpose does, in fact, exist.

That purpose exists, is not enough, though. We would need to determine what the purpose actually is before we could determine right intention, which would lead to useful action. Not only must an action be right, but it must also be useful to possess a positive truth value. It is possible to have a right action that is useless to the purpose.

In order for us to know that our actions are the true actions that we should be performing, we need to know if the basis of those actions accurately reflect reality. We can know if the bases are true by testing them against reality. If our bases (beliefs) do not accurately reflect reality, then we must adjust them to accurately reflect reality. When we have accurate beliefs that inform accurate practices, then we have an indication of the true or correct religion.

Any religion that makes claims about reality is subject to being tested. Whatever is responsible for this universe has (un?)wittingly handed itself to humanity in a test tube. If what is responsible for the universe is an intelligent Being, then It has given us the tools to discover It. We can even test the identity of the intelligent Being if different religions claim different things about the creation (reality) created by its intelligent Being. If there is no intelligent Being responsible for the universe, that is testable also. We just need to gather the claims about reality from the different religions and put them to the test.

Check out this post from Bill Pratt: Can Science Test for the Supernatural?*

This post from J.W. Wartick: Can We Evaluate Worldview? How to Navigate the Sea of Ideas

And this post from Wintery Knight: Ground Zero: Why truth matters for preventing another 9/11-style attack

Other Related Posts

Can We Be Good Without God?

Can You Trust Your Senses and Reasoning?

Nature vs. Scripture

Great Websites For Testing Christianity Against Reality

Reasons to Believe

Reasonable Faith

Risen Jesus

Stand to Reason

Apologetics 315


*Thanks to Greg West at The Poached Egg for finding this article.

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11 replies
  1. jcb says:

    Yes, many assertions can be tested. Prayers have virtually no causal power in the world: one cannot pray cancer away, or pray a building into existence, etc. Testing has shown this to be the case.
    The great thing about this article is that it rightly implies that (usually) for one to accept a claim, even a religious claim, as true, one should first make sure that Science proves that it is true. Science shows that many religious claims are false. The article should have provided examples of religious claims that can be tested, and which have been proven true.
    Actions aren’t usually Right, unless one means, some actions fit a particular standard: the runner at the starting line is “right” to wait until the starting shot is fired. That is, not waiting is unwise, will be penalized, etc. Such things can indeed be tested.
    Of course, testing what created our universe is virtually impossible at this point. No, we don’t know the creating force to be an intelligent being, but we could gather all the religions together and let them know that. (Virtually) Every positive assertion, like “my cat created the universe” will be proven to be false (or not known to be true, not supported by any known evidence).

  2. BEH says:

    First, ‘science’ doesn’t prove anything, if by prove you mean certainty. If you simply mean that science shows that one paradigm is more likely than another, then I would agree. I’m just not sure how you meant to use the term “prove”.

    You mentioned that the author should have provided examples… I would like it if all of us commenters lived up to this standard. For example, you make the claim that “Prayers have virtually no causal power… Testing has shown this to be the case.” Yet you do not provide any examples. Let me help you out. A Meta-Analysis of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, by Masters and Spielmans in 2007 indicates that on the whole, there is no statistically significant effect of prayer on the health of those prayed for. (

    The problem with this particular analysis, and with all of the individual studies included in the analysis, is that they treat prayer in a way that the Bible does not. In other words, the expected outcome in the scientific experiments is not the outcome demonstrated in the Bible. For example, the Apostle Paul mentions that he has some physical or mental health issue for which he prayed to God for relief, but the issue remained (2 For. 12:7-9). The Bible, as a whole, does not support the assumption that God is like a vending machine – we prayer, he complies. These studies are based on a simplistic and thus, inaccurate understanding of scripture. So the finding of these studies don’t really speak to the actual efficacy of prayer.

    I agree with you regarding the authors’ attempt to characterize actions as “right” or “true”. It was confusing to me. In my opinion, the action “I put on a pair of jeans this morning” is not an action that I would even think of in terms of ‘right’ or ‘true’. I think those kind of characterizations should be limited to actions that have moral consequences. So I think your example of not ‘jumping the gun’ at a race is an excellent example because there are moral consequences (stealing, lying). I think the author is trying too hard to make an action better or worse, depending on the beliefs behind the action. So a Christian and an atheist are lined up to run a marathon. Both wait for the gun to fire before beginning the race. The Christian does it because he believes it is objectively wrong to steal a place from another runner or to lie about one’s actually race time. The atheist does it because she believes that it is subjectively wrong to steal and lie. Is the Christian’s action more ‘right’ than the atheists’? I don’t think so. From my perspective, as a Christian, stealing and lying are linked to objective moral standards – that is they are wrong in and of themselves. So, based on my moral worldview, the atheists is performing an action that is objectively morally good, regardless of their motivation to do the action.

    • TGM says:

      The concepts of “proof” and “evidence” are often conflated and misunderstood in ordinary conversation. It can be frustrating to untangle what people mean when they use those words, but I don’t see there is much to do about it besides seeking clarification.
      Regarding prayer, you suggest intercessory prayer experiments “treat prayer in a way that the Bible does not.” Perhaps, but there are some things worth addressing. First, not everyone who prays accepts the bible as an authority. There is a hint of “no true Scotsman” in your objection that prayer is only correct according to your understanding of the bible . But second, and far more importantly, nearly every instance of prayer that I encounter is about asking for something specific and quantifiable from a god. And this can be tested in a reproducible, statistically measurable way. So, though sympathetic to your disagreement, under very commonly accepted criteria, prayer is, at best, worthless.
      Not much to disagree about otherwise. Nice commentary.

      • Andrew says:

        I would like to elaborate on BEH’s comment regarding prayer in biblical terms. Jesus himself prayed that the Father would spare him the death on the cross, which was denied so that God could bring salvation to the world by Jesus’ death. Paul’s prayer for healing was denied so that God could demonstrate his power through Paul’s weakness.
        So one thing to point out is that God does not answer prayers merely to give us what we want or what we think we need. He says we should seek his interests first and all these things will be added to us. God is more concerned with our spiritual health than physical, for example when he says he loves to give wisdom to those who ask (Proverbs 2 and James 1). He says he will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. He wants to prepare us mentally and spiritually to leave this world and stand before him, and in fact he says he will use suffering to accomplish this.
        Answers to prayers like these are what God loves most to give, and they are at the same time the most difficult to quantify scientifically.
        It might not be a satisfactory explanation for non Christians, but I would argue that prayer in that sense is not useless. If all we want from God is physical healing then we haven’t fully understood what Jesus’ sacrifice was really for nor what God is intending to accomplish as a whole in this world.

    • jcb says:

      Yes science doesn’t prove anything with certainty. I meant science proves that certainty things are probable. As to prayers, your evidence seems to support my assertion that prayers don’t have much causal power (to do amazing things: cure cancer, etc.)
      So we agree prayer doesn’t work like a vending machine, but it looks like it barely works it all. Yes, it works if a human hears your prayer and decides to respond by doing something about it.
      You indicate that Biblical prayer is different, but I didn’t understand how. Can you explain?
      When you say that the Christian waits for the gun to fire because it is objectively wrong, what does that mean, if anything? I said, it was wrong in that, it violated the rule, and will be punished (probably). Using words like Objective and Subjective here don’t clarify anything, it seems.
      But yes, Christians avoid stealing because they think a god doesn’t want them to do that. Atheists avoid stealing because they want to treat people nicely and fairly. Neither view is “right” per se. But also, neither view is “objective” any more than the other. To say “X is wrong in and of itself” is to say nothing, it seems. Feel free to explain though if I’m mistaken.
      You seem to say to agree that stealing often has the property of being responded to with a visit from the police, and that others don’t like their stuff being stolen. But then you say stealing also has the property of being objectively morally good. What is that property, and what shows that stealing has that property?

      • BEH says:

        Thanks for your response. The “objectivity” and “subjectivity”, I believe, does in fact have important implications regarding the testing of anything, even the truthfulness of religions.

        When science is used to discern what is “true” about the natural universe, do we want to know what is true from the perspective of the scientist, or do we want to discover what is true, independent of the scientist, and true of the thing being studied in-and-of itself? I think that latter.

        I place a pencil on a table, and I state “The pencil is on the table?” Is that true? The answer is yes. I then put a box over the the table. You can no longer see the table top, or if I have removed the pencil from the table. I again state “The pencil is on the table.” Is my last statement true? It doesn’t depend on whether you can see the table top, or if you believe that I removed the pencil when I covered the table. It depends on the position of the pencil. The truthfulness of the statement is only dependent on the object (the pencil), not the subject (you or me). That is objectively true.

        If morality or moral behavior reduces to your opinion or my opinion, then who cares? Why should your opinion or preference hold any more sway than mine? That’s why discussing things that are that are only subjectively true is pointless. I’m not going to spend time discussing what the best flavor of ice cream is.

        • KR says:

          “If morality or moral behavior reduces to your opinion or my opinion, then who cares? Why should your opinion or preference hold any more sway than mine? That’s why discussing things that are that are only subjectively true is pointless. I’m not going to spend time discussing what the best flavor of ice cream is.”
          How about the issue of accessibility of guns – or drugs? Or the issue of people’s freedom to move across borders? Or the issue of same sex marriage? Or the issue of universal health coverage? Or the issue of money in politics? Or the issue of capital punishment? Or the issue of big vs small government? Do you think these are worthy of discussion? These are all moral issues, can you tell me what the objectively correct position is on these matters – and how you know?
          If you can’t demonstrate to me what the objectively correct position on these issues is, how would you suggest we resolve them? Do you have a better method than the one most societies seem to be preferring: a democratic system of government where such matters are decided by a political – and entirely subjective – process?
          What I’m seeing is an “appeal to consequences” fallacy: you don’t like the idea that morality is subjective so you reject it. However, your preferences have no bearing on reality. Moral values are either objective or they’re not. If your claim is that they are, you need to justify it. If there are objective moral values, what are they – do you have a list? How did you access these moral values and, crucially, how did you determine that they are indeed objective rather than subjective?
          Bonus challenge: can you provide an example of a moral disagreement that was resolved by one side demonstrating that their position is the objectively correct one?

          • BEH says:

            I disagree that my view commits any sort of fallacy. I have not even mentioned consequences – so how did you draw that conclusion based on what I wrote within the context that I wrote it?

            It’s not about having a list – that is a childish approach to significant discussions or disagreements. A fruitful discussion, however, cannot occur if all reduces to preference. Then it simple means that there is no actual “right” or “wrong”, only the preference of the majority.

            Speaking of Democracy, ours is based upon the view that there are objective (unalienable) rights – they are not subject to the preferences of the majority.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Beh, by the Founding Fathers’ original ‘self evident truths’ slavery was allowed. This only got changed through the process of war. It wasn’t because anyone managed to establish slavery was objectively wrong. This backs up KR’s point.
            Fruitful discussion over the right course of action doesn’t require objective rights and wrongs, only shared base ideas to agree on.
            What makes you think a God existing would make any difference to the question of whether objective morals exist? What evidence can you present for the existence of objective morals?

          • KR says:

            “I disagree that my view commits any sort of fallacy. I have not even mentioned consequences – so how did you draw that conclusion based on what I wrote within the context that I wrote it?”
            You wrote: “If morality or moral behavior reduces to your opinion or my opinion, then who cares? Why should your opinion or preference hold any more sway than mine?”. That’s you telling us the consequences of subjective morality, is it not? Since you offered no evidence in support of objective moral values, it would seem your argument is based on your distaste for these consequences. I still maintain that this is fallacious.
            “It’s not about having a list – that is a childish approach to significant discussions or disagreements.”
            Why? If moral values are objective, this would make them facts. These facts should be demonstrable, i.e. it should be possible to list them. If you don’t know what these objective moral values are, what reason do you have to believe they exist?
            “A fruitful discussion, however, cannot occur if all reduces to preference. Then it simple means that there is no actual “right” or “wrong”, only the preference of the majority.”
            The only way it doesn’t reduce to preference is if you can demonstrate these values as factual – which is what I’m asking you to do. The fact that you even think there’s discussion to be had is a tacit concession that we’re talking about opinions rather than objective, demonstrable facts.
            “Speaking of Democracy, ours is based upon the view that there are objective (unalienable) rights – they are not subject to the preferences of the majority.”
            As Andy has already pointed out, it would seem that the right not to be owned as property was not an unalienable one at the time. Do you think slavery is objectively wrong? The constitution is often described as a living document, since it can be changed by the democratic process, i.e. the preferences of the majority.

            So no examples of objective moral values resolving moral conflicts? My question remains, if you can’t tell me what the objectively correct position is on the examples of moral conflicts I gave (or any other ones you can think of), how do you suggest we resolve them? If objective moral values are powerless to resolve moral conflicts, then they clearly can’t serve as a guide for our behaviour. If the only method we’ve ever seen applied is entirely subjective, what reason do we have to believe that objective morality even exists?

        • jcb says:

          Trying to discover what is true according to science about reality is our best bet. Trying to study the thing in-and-of-itself is nonsense. If it is not, show how that can be done.
          When you study the pencil on the table, you are using science (observation, the senses) to learn this. It might not be a pencil, but for the time being, it is our best estimation of reality. This is science, not a study of the “thing in itself”. That the table is still on the table is something we have learned from experience/science, about object permanence, i.e., that an object that was there will probably still be there after we put a cover on it, and then remove the cover. “the pencil is on the table” is true, given what our senses told us, and given what reason also adds when reflecting on what the senses have told us (such as that objects that where sensed at point A will probably still be at point A, even if they are covered temporarily).
          You might also notice that the sense in which “the pencil is on the table” is objectively true has nothing to do with god, and everything to do with our experience/science/the senses/reason.
          Morality is about preferences, not opinions. And we care about our preferences. So who cares? We do! But no one ever claimed that my preference should hold sway over your differing preference. And no, it doesn’t follow that discussing preferences is pointless. If you have the same preferences, and I say, You Should go see that movie that I enjoyed (and thus you probably will too), that isn’t a pointless thing to say to that person.
          What you decide to discuss with another is not relevant to this discussion. At best, you are right that some discussions are pointless, which is true, and doesn’t help prove god, or show that anything I’ve said about morality is incorrect.


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