The Times was delighted with this story. “Believers go on rack to prove God relieves pain” said its headline. “People are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.”
I don’t know where to begin. You’d have thought they needed only to look out of the window at the Martyrs’ Memorial to be reminded of an earlier experiment on these lines, conducted on the 16th October 1555 with two Protestant bishops, Nicholas Ridley and High Latimer. They didn’t need ethics committees in those days, but both men had bags of gunpowder tied round their necks after they had been chained to the stake so they could hope to die quickly. The experiment, recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was inconclusive.
One subject appeared to receive relief from pain:
And so the fire beyng geuen vnto them, when D. Ridley saw the fire flamyng vp toward hym, he cryed wyth a wonderfull lowd voyce: In manus tuas Domine, commendo spiritum meum, Domine recipe spiritum meum, and after repeated this latter part often in English: Lord, Lord, receyue my spirit: M. Latymer crying as vehemently on the other side: Oh Father of Heauen receyue my soule: who receyued the flame as it were embrasing of it. After, as he had stroked hys face with hys hands, & (as it were) bathed them a little in the fire, he soone died (as it appered) with very litle payne or none.
The other, however, did not:
But M. Ridley by reason of the euill makyng of the fire vnto hym, because the wooden fagots were laid about the gosse, and ouer high built, the fire burned first beneath, beyng kept downe by the woode. Which when he felt, hee desired them for Christs sake to let the fire come vnto him. Which when hys brother in law heard, but not well vnderstood, entendyng to ridde hym out of his payne (for the which cause he gaue attendance) as one in such sorow, not well aduised what he did, heaped fagots vpon hym, so that he cleane couered hym, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned cleane all hys neather parts before it once touched the vpper, and that made him leape vp and downe vnder the fagots, and often desire them to let the fire come vnto him, saying: I cannot burne. Which in deed appeared well: for after hys legs were consumed by reason of his strnglyng through the payne (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God) he shewed that side toward vs clean, shirt and all vntouched with the flame. Yet in all this torment he forgate not to call vnto God still, hauyng in his mouth: Lord haue mercy vppon me, intermedling this cry, let the fire come vnto me, I can not burne. In which paynes he laboured, till one of the standers by with his bill, pulled of the fagots aboue, and where he saw the fire flame vp, hee wrested himselfe vnto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpouder, hee was seene stirre no more, but burned on the other side, fallyng downe at M. Latymers feete. Which some said hapned, by reason that the chaine loosed: other sayd that he fell ouer the chaine by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakenes of the neather limmes.
Clearly, more research was needed and it was duly conducted through most of the next century all over Europe on both Catholic and Protestant subjects, as well as pagans, witches and occasionally Jews. The only conclusion to be thoroughly established was that a belief in God diminishes the distress of the onlookers. Eventually, it led also to a disontinuation of the programme.
What’s going on in Oxford today has nothing to do with real torture, nor, I suspect, with real religious faith. Thanks God for that, in his non-existence.