What Would Scientific Analysis of Holy Water Tell Us About Religious Belief?

holy water

It is difficult to imagine many substances that play a more important role in sustaining life than water. We need quite a lot of it to survive, and the same is true for most of what we eat. We recognize that not all water is the same. Some is safe to drink, some may be fine for bathing but would not be safe to drink, and some requires treatment before we would want to use it for much of anything. Even though we can no longer count on the availability of safe drinking water in some parts of the United States, most of us believe that this is something we should be able to count on.

I think we are all aware that water can be tested and analyzed. Anyone who has ever owned a swimming pool, hot tub, or fish tank has likely tested the pH balance of their water. This is a very rudimentary sort of analysis, but it is still quite useful. I recall receiving the gift of a microscope as a child and being fascinated by examining samples of pond water I collected. Once again, this was a very primitive sort of analysis conducted by someone who had little idea what he was looking for. When we think about the more complex analyses, we imagine scientists in labs doing important things like analyzing water samples for pollution or even assessing the safety of our drinking water. Most of us value this work and the expertise of those who do it. We recognize that our health often depends on it.

In this post, I'd like us to consider the topic of so-called holy water. I'd like us to ask ourselves whether it would be distinguishable from regular water if subjected to the most rigorous scientific analyses that might be performed on water samples. And finally, I'd like us to ask ourselves what this might mean for a variety of religious claims and those who believe them.

What is Holy Water?

Holy water is regular water, just like any other water, with one key difference: it has been blessed by a member of the clergy. Because we tend to hear the most about holy water in Catholicism, I will refer to the person who blesses it as a priest, but I recognize that some Protestant denominations who refer to their clergy using different labels may make use of it too. The act of blessing water to turn it into holy water does not appear to be terribly involved. It consists, more or less, of uttering some magic incantations over the water. The result is holy water.

Holy water is used in a variety of rituals. Once water has been blessed and become holy, it is regarded as being different from regular water in that it is now appropriate for use in various rituals. Clergy would, we presume, not want to use regular water because that would be less effective.

But What Does Holy Water Do?

Right, that's the question, isn't it? When we think of holy water being more effective, we have to ask more effective at what? I think I can clear that up. Suppose we have someone who is possessed by demons. If we were to place a drop of regular water on this person's skin, it would have no effect. A drop of holy water, however, would burn and cause the demon pain. Of course, this raises the question of whether the possessed person's skin would be affected or just the demon inside them. I assume it would be just the demon, but I'll leave it to the Christians who believe this stuff to sort that out.

Not crazy about the demonic possession example because you recognize that "demonic possession" often seems to be little more than Christianspeak for mental illness and/or that belief in it results in great cruelty? Consider instead the similar but perhaps even more dramatic effect holy water has on vampires and other fictional monsters. Strangely, it doesn't seem to have any effect on zombies, which has never made much sense given that they are supposed to be undead too. Perhaps they just have too much in common with the Christian "messiah" to be affected.

How Would We Test Holy Water?

Okay, we'll get back on track. Aside from filling one squirt gun with holy water and another with regular water and hunting for vampires or demon-possessed Christians, what I have in mind is the sort of rigorous lab analysis used to test water samples in other contexts. We could easily devise a sealed double-blind test where nobody doing the testing had any idea whether the samples were plain water or holy water. After all analyses were completed, the key identifying the samples would be unsealed.

My guess is that opening the key might not even be necessary because there would be no differences between samples. As long as all of the water came from the same source (i.e., a priest was provided with water obtained from one source and blessed half of it under close observation to prevent tampering), the samples would not differ in any way. It would not be technically difficult to conduct such a test, though I suspect that gaining the cooperation of a priest might be challenging. And I think we all know that running such a test would have no impact on what Christians believe even if the results were exactly what I've predicted.

What Does This Tell Us About Christian Belief?

It tells us that evidence matters little and that many Christians are motivated to believe what they believe by other factors. Simply put, they have a strong emotional attachment to their beliefs which makes them reluctant to change even when presented with contradictory evidence. If we were to run this test and the results came back showing significant differences between the samples so that the holy water really had been transformed in some miraculous way and replications showed this too, my entire worldview would change dramatically. I don't think anybody expects that this would be true for most Christians if my predictions were supported and the analyses of water samples found no differences. When they tired of making excuses, they'd just cling to faith (e.g., "I still believe because I know it is true no matter what the science says").

Does this sort of thing generalize to all sorts of other religious dogma? Absolutely! We could replace the holy water scenario with many others and find ourselves in the same place. The fact that someone's Communion wine does not contain blood will not change their mind either. We could also shift from Christianity to other religious traditions and find the same thing.

Should Evidence Change Religious Minds?

Yes, it should. It doesn't seem to do so very often, but it should. Of course, it is understandable that it doesn't. Religious indoctrination prepares people to cling to false beliefs long after they are shown to be false. That can be tough to overcome, especially when religious belief becomes such a core part of some peoples' identity.

But there is at least one other fascinating area where evidence should change minds quickly and easily but rarely seems to do so: how our news media presents information. Imagine that our holy water study was conducted and produced the results I've said I think it would. You can easily imagine how our mainstream news media would report it, if they bothered to report it at all. They'd insert doubt where there wasn't any. Their reporting would be more concerned with preserving the feelings of Christians who believe in holy water than conveying the facts the rest of us learned from the study. I am honestly not sure how we change this, but it strikes me as a significant problem that is maintaining Christian privilege, undermining secularism, and even facilitating Christian extremism.