The NYT touts miracles again

September 17, 2023 • 9:15 am

The NYT headline below is in line with the paper’s recurrent penchant for touting religion while at least admitting that some people doubt God’s existence. In general, though, if you read the headline, your first thought—if you’re not a diehard skeptic—is “yes, it’s a miracle!” (See the word counts at bottom.)

The miracle is a familiar one: a religious person is dug up after some time and their bodies are found to have been incorrupted—that is, they didn’t rot, shrivel, degenerate, or decay. Catholics often consider this a miracle, and the Vatican has a whole policy of inspection for incorruptibility, which can be seen as a miracle helping qualify the Incorrupted Person as a saint.

A famous example of this is Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), or Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. This case, once touted as showing miraculous incorruptibility, now shows the weakness of judging someone as “not decayed.” Although Soubirous was designated a saint based on other miracles, when exhumed 30 years after death, her body was declared to be in perfect condition. reports on three exhumations of Bernadette, the last in 1925. The inspecting doctor said this:

“What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.”

Remarkable! Except if you look even at Wikipedia, you see that not only are the visible parts of Bernadette’s body (on view in the town of Nevers) covered with wax, but there’s also this note with the photo below (my emphasis):

The body of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes with wax face and hand coverings, declared to appear incorrupt by a committee in 1909 (subsequent exhumations indicated corruption). (January 7, 1844 – April 16, 1879).

Atlas Obscura is even more skeptical:

As part of the canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times, in 1909, 1919, and finally in 1925, when she was moved to the crystal casket. Her body was pronounced by the church as officially “incorrupt,” but it seems the qualifications for that term may have been somewhat lax. In the words of the attending doctor in 1919: “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts… The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.”

After a few ribs were removed to be sent to Rome as relics, it was decided that the “blackish color” of her face might be off-putting to pilgrims, and so a “light wax mask” was in order. Her new face and hands were designed by Pierre Imans, a designer of fashion mannequins in Paris.

Yep, she was not incorruptible. She was rotting away.

Now it’s possible that Bernadette rotted somewhat more slowly than a normal body (perhaps due to special physical features of the body, casket, or soil; see below), but I can’t rule out with absolute certainty that God did it. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, science can’t be 100% certain about anything). But if God did it, why didn’t he just preserve her in perpetuity, with no need for wax or remaking of faces and hands? God can do that, you know, for He can do anything! Here we have another vexing question for Sophisticated Theologians™: why does God act so erratically with respect to the bodies of saints?

But on to the NYT, which reports on another “incorruptible” nun, whose face also has been be covered with a wax mask. There’s a racial dimension to this one, too, for as far as I know, this is the first incorruptible nun who was black. The NYT plays that up, of course, but I find the science of more interest.

Click on the screenshot below, and I also found the piece archived here.

An excerpt:

In life, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was known to her fellow nuns for her devotional poetry, her sense of humor and her fierce piety. “I’m Sister Wil-hel-mina,” she was known to say. “I’ve a hell of a will and I mean it!” A biography published by her order after her death at age 95 in 2019 described her as the little nun “who persevered in faith.”

In death, Sister Wilhelmina has become something much larger to some: a potential saint, a pilgrimage attraction, a miracle.

The transformation started this spring at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, run by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a small but growing conservative order whose headquarters are nestled in the rolling hills north of Kansas City. Four years after burying Sister Wilhelmina, the order’s founder, in a simple wood coffin in a corner of the property, the sisters decided to move her body into a customary place of honor inside their church.

My emphasis below in what seems to be a bit of fudging:

When they opened the coffin, expecting to find bones that could be easily cleaned and placed in a new box, they instead found what looked and even felt remarkably like Sister Wilhelmina herself. Her face was recognizable, even after years in a damp coffin, and the sisters said that her beloved habit was “immaculate.”

For the Benedictines of Mary, this immediately signaled that Sister Wilhelmina may be an “incorruptible,” a term the Catholic Church uses to describe people whose bodies — or parts of their bodies — did not decompose after death. Believers in the phenomenon say there have been more than 100 examples worldwide, mostly in Europe.

Michael O’Neill, who hosts a national radio show called “The Miracle Hunter” on the Catholic station EWTN, said that the case of Sister Wilhelmina, who was Black, was especially distinctive. “There’s never been an African American incorruptible; in fact there’s never been an American of any sort who’s an incorruptible,” he said. “So this is big news.”

Incorrupted, but after a paltry four years. But was she really that well preserved?

Here’s a photo of the body *(uncredited) from The Pillar, a Catholic publication:

Note that only her face and hands are visible (well, it would be salacious to show other parts), but The Pillar adds this:

In the case of Sister Wilhelmina, it is not clear how much of her body may be incorrupt. Photos circulating online seem to show a life-like face that has resisted decomposition, while skin on the nun’s hands appears leathery and dehydrated, but not rotting.

. . .The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints has norms on the examination process, which emphasize the respect due to the human body, he said. But there are no specific norms governing an investigation into whether a body is incorrupt.

In the recent Missouri case, Sister Wilhelmina’s canonization cause has not been opened, making the veneration of her mortal remains — and the prospect of an investigation — somewhat unusual.

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a May 22 statement, which noted the need “to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”

But when asked by The Pillar about what the investigation will entail — and who is responsible for it — a spokesperson for the diocese was not able to give a clear sense of the next steps.

Angelus, another Catholic publication, says this:

Cleaned and protected with wax, Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are now on display for veneration at the monastery. Following a May 29 rosary procession, the body will be encased in glass at the altar shrine, the religious community stated, adding that once devotion to Sister Wilhelmina has become “well established,” her cause for canonization “may be introduced.”

Another Catholic site shows her face (below), saying it’s covered with a “light transparent face mask”. If that’s true (and why any wax?), it is a remarkable case of preservation:

The NYT doesn’t say anything about a wax coating, or Sister Wilhelmina’s rotting hands. But they do manage to throw in one doubter toward the end, even though they dismiss science in the very next sentence. Bolding below is mine:

Inside the abbey walls, few openly question what they see before their eyes. To experts in forensic science, there are other potential explanations.

“It’s impossible to make many conclusions at all,” said Marcella Sorg, a forensic anthropologist and research professor at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. One of several explanations is the phenomenon of dry mummification, which can take place naturally if the body’s soft tissues stay dry enough. Factors include the person’s body fat, their diet in the days before death and the dryness of the wood used for the coffin.

For others, science is hardly the point.

Madeline Whitt, a clerk at the Hy-Klas grocery store in Gower, shrugged when asked if Sister Wilhelmina’s preservation was a miracle. “Even if it’s not,” she said, “if it brings more people to come and question things, then it is.”

Ms. Whitt, 17, has visited the abbey three times to see Sister Wilhelmina.

She attends a nondenominational Protestant church and said she had not ever seen a nun before her visits to the abbey. It was a “culture shock,” she said. But in a quiet, small town, it was also something to do.

In a 1,672-word piece. then, the NYT devotes 96 words, or 5.7%, to just one alternative naturalistic explanation. And there are others: after all, parts of Sister Wilhelmina are starting to degenerate, and for some unexplained reason they put wax on her body. If they are really looking for a miracle, leave off the wax!

And THEN they have the temerity to say that “science is hardly the point.” In fact, it is the entire point. Either there’s a naturalistic explanation for the incorruptibility of this nun’s body, or there’s not, and it’s supernatural. (I’m betting on the former.) And that distinction is precisely what Madelin Whitt meant when suggesting that people should see the body and “question things.”

Better yet, read up on forensic anthropology.  An Internet search for naturalistic explanations yields very little, even in the Wikipedia article. I’m sure there are explanations out there, though, and I suggest that readers look for them. In the meantime, although the NYT has mercifully ditched its weekly lucubrations on Jesus from Pastor Tish Harrison Warren, it continues to be very soft on religion. After all, the paper wouldn’t want to anger its “believing-in-belief” readers by acting like that nasty old skepic James Randi. Such doubt wins you no plaudits in religious America.

And I still want to know why God can’t make a saint’s body incorruptible without the use of wax.

h/t: Mike

Nancy Pelosi had Catholics exorcise her house after her husband was attacked

January 30, 2023 • 12:45 pm

I still think Nancy Pelosi was a terrific speaker and politically very astute, but when I hear things like this, it throws me into cognitive dissonance. Below is a headline and a short article from Business Insider, which drew from Mo Dowd’s piece in the NYT that I highlighted the other day.

What it says:

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had Catholic priests perform an exorcism of her house after her husband was attacked by an assailant looking for her in October, her daughter told The New York Times.

“I think that weighed really heavy on her soul. I think she felt really guilty. I think that really broke her,” their daughter Alexandra Pelosi told the paper.

“Over Thanksgiving, she had priests coming, trying to have an exorcism of the house and having prayer services,”  said Alexandra Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi has spoken openly about her Catholic faith.

Paul Pelosi was hospitalized with a skull fracture after being attacked at the couple’s San Francisco home with a hammer.

And verification from the NYT, from Dowd’s profile. I can’t believe I read that so fast I missed this bit:

Alexandra, always the id to her mother’s superego, was more blunt: “I think that weighed really heavy on her soul. I think she felt really guilty. I think that really broke her. Over Thanksgiving, she had priests coming, trying to have an exorcism of the house and having prayer services.”

What am I supposed to think now? Not only is Pelosi Catholic and pious, which means she has unsubstantiated and delusional beliefs about religion, but she also seems to believe in either Satan or demons!

Well, so long as someone does a good job in Congress for the Democrats, I suppose I can let this slide, but it still freaks me out.

h/t: Fred

60 Minutes goes to Lourdes to investigate medical miracles

December 21, 2022 • 11:15 am

Everybody knows about Lourdes, the town in southern France where Bernadette Soubirous (now a saint) said she had eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary beginning in 1858. The Grotto in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes has become a place of worldwide pilgrimage for Catholics (and, I suppose, other Christians) seeking relief from ailments and afflictions. The facility gets over three million visitors a year and as Wikipedia notes,

Yearly from March to October the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is a place of mass pilgrimage from Europe and other parts of the world. The spring water from the grotto is believed by some Catholics to possess healing properties.

An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860, and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 69 healings considered miraculous. Cures are examined using Church criteria for authenticity and authentic miracle healing with no physical or psychological basis other than the healing power of the water.

Tours from all over the world are organized to visit the Sanctuary. Connected with this pilgrimage is often the consumption of or bathing in the Lourdes water which wells out of the Grotto.

Of course nobody has, as a reader notes below, been cured of lost eyes or limbs, and I’d prefer a panel of skeptical doctors as opposed to “Church criteria”. Well, so be it.

I was told in an email from a reader one of my favorite shows, CBS’s “60 Minutes”, did a segment on Lourdes and its cures. Here’s the email I got from a reader:

Please ignore this email if you have commented on the 60 Minutes segment on Lourdes, I thought you might say something since I believe you watch 60 Minutes.  This Sunday’s show has a segment on Lourdes, emphasizing how medical experts for the church extensively research every claim of a miracle and find very few that are “medically unexplainable” and therefore a bond fide miracle.  Correspondent Bill Whitaker is amazed, and fails to ask the tough questions.  For example, he never asks about a control group of sick people that don’t go to Lourdes for a cure.  Do they have a greater or less number of unexplained cures or recoveries?  He doesn’t ask about amputees, does anybody get their limbs back or is that considered impossible for even God?

Here’s the 13½-minute segment that was broadcast. Listen for yourself.

Here are the seven criteria given by the head of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations for a miracle cure: “Diagnosis of a severe disease with a severe prognosis, person cured suddenly and completely, with no recurrence, and there must be no possible explanation for the cure.” Apparently 1 out of 100 claims of cures qualifies as a “miracle” according to the head medical examiner.

The highlight of the show is a nun (curiously named “Sister Bernadette”) who was diagnosed with cauda equina, an acute medical condition often caused by a herniated disc. She was completely better three days after visiting Lourdes and having heard the voice of either God or Mary within her. The committee of “skeptical” doctors who investigated her case apparently took eight years to decide that her condition was “medically unexplained.”  She thus became the “Seventieth Miracle of Lourdes.”

I asked my own doctor, Alex Lickerman—a crack diagnostician—about this, and he watched the whole segment. He said that cauda equina syndrome is a sudden condition that needs immediate medical intervention (it usually causes urinary retention and can lead to permanent paralysis if not recognized and surgically corrected), and he couldn’t understand how the Sister could have had cauda equina syndrome for half her life. He offered two other explanations, neither of which (nor the initial cauda equina syndrome diagnosis) could be diagnosed before her visit to Lourdes without a careful examination of the clinical symptoms, and, critically, an MRI. These alternatives are chronic low back pain and spinal stenosis, which can also be chronic and cause the symptoms experienced by Sister Bernadette.

I quote Alex:

Based on what she said, I couldn’t begin to figure out what she really had. It wasn’t cauda equina syndrome, though, I tell you that.

The lead doctor said, “We’re looking for a diagnosis.” The reporting didn’t support a diagnosis of anything other than chronic low back pain. He said they “repeated twice her imagery.” I’d want to see those images. That’s crucial. I’m highly, highly skeptical.

Of course I don’t buy this as a miracle either, for, absent evidence for a supernatural being, a naturalistic explanation has higher priors. Further, if Mary or God wanted to, they could regrow missing limbs or eyes, yet that has never happened. Why is it that diseases that we know never show spontaneous remission are also the ones that divine intervention can’t cure?

But I leave the readers to examine this segment and Sister Bernadette’s case, and to comment below.

Quote of the Day: A Catholic notes the benefits of Roe v. Wade while still opposing the decision

May 10, 2022 • 10:00 am

In today’s NYT you can find the op-ed below (click on screenshot to read), a defense of overturning Roe v. Wade written by Matthew Walther. As you can see by the subtitle, Walther is editor of the bimonthly Catholic literary journal Lamp

I suppose you could say that it’s to Walther’s credit that he admits that there could be bad socioeconomic consequences of overturning this bit of “settled law,” but in the end it’s clear that he thinks those consequences, good or bad, are irrelevant. As he says in his last sentence, “What is right is very rarely what is convenient.” For he sees the shelving of Roe v. Wade as equivalent to “the joyful fact of hundreds of thousands of additional babies being born.”

In fact, although he mentions that there may be some economic downsides of Roe v. Wade, in the main he seems to agree with this:

It is not possible to conceive of our present way of life — the decline of heavy and textile manufacturing and the rise of the service economy, financialization, the collapse of traditional familial and other social structures, the subsuming of virtually every facet of our existence into digital technologies — in the absence of the estimated 63 million abortions that have been performed in America since 1973.

and this:

[In the last twenty years], countless economists and social scientists have argued the opposite: that legal abortion is not only compatible with but also necessary for sustained economic growth. Among other things, reduced access to abortion is correlated with lower rates of labor force participation, reduced wages and increased job turnover.

If the actions of major corporations in states such as Texas, which recently banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, are any indication, America’s business establishment agrees. The boards of corporations like Citigroup, with a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, have announced that they will subsidize travel for employees who seek out-of-state abortions.

Opponents of abortion should consider the possibility that these corporations are correct in their apparent assumption that abortion contributes to the maximization of shareholder value. Are we prepared to accept the converse proposition, to invite a reduction in shareholder value by banning abortion?

So here we have a Catholic saying that the economic consequences of banning abortion could well have been good, but he doesn’t care because abortion is a fundamental wrong—it’s murder.

I don’t care that much about socioeconomic consequences, either, but for the opposite reason: I see abortion in the main as a societal and personal good, preventing the state from interfering from a woman’s ability to control her own body. The difference between Walther and me is that I don’t see a fetus as equivalent to a sentient human being, and would probably extend Roe v. Wade further than even the its present limits (first and perhaps second trimester).

And this difference comes from Walther’s Catholicism. Where, I ask, is the evidence (beyond that asserted by religious authorities) that abortion is identical to murder, even in its very early stages? There is clearly a developmental continuum in a fetus, with an abrupt break when the baby is born, and so drawing a line for when a fetus becomes equivalent to a person with rights, including freedom from “murder”, is purely arbitrary. Many Catholics, though, draw the line at a rationally insupportable stage: fertilization.  A “person” is not created at fertilization: we have a zygote that now will go on to continue development. That zygote is an undifferentiated ball of cells without mentation or the ability to feel pain. And there’s no evidence it has a soul or anything differentiating it from the embryos of any number of vertebrate species.

But I digress: read the article:

Here Walther asserts the equivalence of abortion with murder, which outweighs any possible negative societal consequences (my bolding).

The scope of the problem is far broader than economics. Research over the years has suggested that an America without abortion would mean more single mothers and more births to teenage mothers, increased strain on Medicaid and other welfare programs, higher crime rates, a less dynamic and flexible work force, an uptick in carbon emissions, lower student test scores and goodness knows what else. If you sincerely believe, as I do, that every abortion means the deliberate killing of an innocent human being, is there some hypothetical threshold for negative growth, carbon dioxide levels or work force participation rates beyond which the protection of that life would be too burdensome?

For me, the answer is no.

. . . .I believe that those who oppose abortion should not discount the possibility that its proscription will have consequences that some of us would otherwise regret. To insist, as opponents of abortion often have, that the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt cannot be right about the correlation between Roe and the reduced incidence of crime two decades later strikes me as a tacit concession that if they were right, our position on abortion might have to be altered.

So far, so good. At least he admits there’s a downside to prohibiting abortion, though he sees abortion as an act whose downside can never be large enough to warrant allowing it. But then he puts on his Tish Harrison Warren suit and says, “Well, let’s justify banning abortion by being ever so much nicer to the unwanted children who are born, and by creating an atmosphere in which they could thrive.” If only it were that easy! And even if it were, I would still say that abortion is a choice best left to the pregnant woman.

Walther continues:

For the same reason, opponents of abortion should commit ourselves to the most generous and humane provisions for mothers and children (paid family leave, generous child benefits, direct income subsidies for stay-at-home mothers, single-payer health care) without being Pollyannaish. No matter what we do, in a post-Roe world many children who would not otherwise have been born will live lives of utter misery, and many of our fellow Americans will be indifferent to their plight. If we wish to dispel the noxious argument that only happy lives are worth saving, we will have to be honest about the limits of social policy and private charity in regulating the turbid ebb and flow of human suffering.

The last sentence puzzles me.  A life that can be either “happy” or “unhappy” does not begin until a child is born. Yes, you can say that a fetus has a “life”, but it is not a noxious argument to say that one of the major benefits of abortion is that it prevents unhappy lives from coming into being. 

Here’s what I can live with: 60% of Americans are satisfied with keeping the Roe v. Wade prescriptions in place. I would go further, but this “settled” law seems to me a good compromise, though largely a compromise with religious people who wish to force their beliefs on the rest of us. The compromise is necessary, in religious America, to hold our Republic together, and it’s done a pretty good job in the last fifty years.

Could there be a downside of allowing abortion that’s so harmful that I would favor abolishing the practice? I can’t imagine one. There’s no chance it will drive the population to zero, and any economic consequences seem to me not harmful but helpful.  But in the end I see it as the right of a woman to determine what to do with her own body, and, like the First Amendment, that’s not something to be monkeyed with.

A Vatican astronomer writes to me

December 14, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I was just in the middle of writing about something more interesting than religion when a new email, highlighted here, arrived. And so I stopped writing to take care of this latest “flea”, as Richard Dawkins calls his captious critics. I’ll get back to the other stuff tomorrow.

Presumably because my Conversation essay on the incompatibility of science and religion was reprinted this morning on Yahoo! News, I have been getting a fair number of emails today from offended believers who reject my thesis that science and religion are incompatible. In that essay, but especially in my book Faith Versus Fact, I contend that while that both science and religion make claims about what’s true in the Universe (religion of course does other things besides assert facts), only science has a way of testing those claims.

To me this is the heart of the incompatibility, and its existence seems indisputable to me. There are a gazillion religions, all making different factual claims about the world and its history, and there’s no way to resolve them. That’s why so many religions remain on the planet, many of them hating those who adhere to other faiths. In contrast, there’s only one science (though the guy below disagrees), and Hindu scientists aren’t at odds with Muslim scientists or atheist scientists about the tenets of physics and chemistry.

If you’re a Catholic, like the writer of the email below, your theology and morality must to some degree rest on acceptance of certain central factual claims of the Church: the existence of a divine Jesus as the son/alter ego of a divine God, Jesus’s Resurrection, which expiates us of sin, and so on. If those facts be wrong, on what is your faith grounded? After all, as Scriptures say (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, King James Version):

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

So if Jesus didn’t come back to life—this of course assumes that Jesus not only existed, but was divine, claims supported by no evidence outside scripture—your Christian faith is useless. All three Abrahamic religions, like many other faiths, make factual claims that undergird their whole system of worship and morality.

Jesuits, of course, are more liberal than other Catholics, and perhaps more willing to interpret Scripture as metaphorical, but I’m willing to bet that this Catholic, a Jesuit, who’s Vice Director of the Vatican Observatory (I squelch my urge to make a Catholic pun) adheres to the myths about Jesus that undergird his faith. (He is, after all, a member of the Society of Jesus!) Presumably Fr. Mueller goes to Mass at least once a week and noms the wafer and quaffs the wine, accepting that some kind of physical but undetectable transformation occurs during that process. Presumably he goes to confession, thinking that if he tells his sins to another priest, God will expiate them. Well, I don’t know Fr. Mueller’s own beliefs save that he’s co-authored a book about why religion and science are compatible, and no, I haven’t read it, as it came out several years after my own. In fact, according to Fr. Mueller, I haven’t read anything substantive about the relationship between science and religion.

It’s the smarmy faux-niceness pervading this email—its sugary passive-aggressiveness—that made me decide to post it, which I don’t often do. Mueller’s note even ends with an invitation to visit the Vatican Observatory.

But it’s not just that tone that angered me. More galling was Mueller’s accusation that I haven’t read widely about the relationship between science and faith (he’s employing the Courtier’s Reply here), which is of course untrue. Apparently Fr. Mueller isn’t aware that I wrote an entire book on my thesis (with pages and pages of references), a book that of course he hasn’t read, since he’s responding only to my short article. Ergo, Fr. Mueller is even more guilty of the Courtier’s accusation.  Had he read my book—and it’s just one book, not the dozens he’d foist on me—he’d know that I already dealt with the first three points of his critique, including giving a very careful exposition of what I mean by “incompatibility” between science and religion.

Hiding yet another brickbat in his bouquet, Fr. Mueller assures me that he’s concerned to uphold my university’s standards of inquiry, as he himself has two degrees at the University of Chicago. Yes, I’m apparently guilty of shoddy scholarship. Even if that were true, though, at least I’m not guilty of believing in fairy tales.

I had drafted a reply to Mueller about the “standards of inquiry” that undergird his own beliefs, but of course I don’t know for sure what his beliefs are. But one thing is true: we know a lot more about our solar system than we know about the Catholic God or His purported sidekicks: Jesus and the Holy Ghost.

I decided not to provide Fr. Mueller with a list of all the reading I did about theology and its relationship to science, extending from Augustine and Aquinas down to Haught (does Mueller know I debated Catholic theologian Haught, who then tried to censor the video of our debate because he didn’t come off very well?), to Alvin Plantinga, Karen Armstrong, Ronald Numbers, the BioLogos Crew including Francis Collins, Ken Miller, David Bentley Hart, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, and many others—yes, the whole schmegegge of accommodationism.

I missed Rabbi Sacks’s book, but I did read the Dalai Lama’s. And I’m here to tell you that none of these people wrote anything that undermines my thesis about incompatibility. They really couldn’t, for they have factual beliefs based not on empiricism but on faith, Scripture, and wish-thinking, methods guaranteed to pull you into the rabbit hole of confirmation bias. At some point, one realizes that after reading 315 books on science and religion, you’re not going to find a new, world-shaking thesis in book #316.

I guess this will constitute my reply to Fr. Mueller, and I’ll call his attention to this post. But if you wish to chime in, please do so below. Remember, he’s trying hard to be nice (at least, that’s how it looks), so don’t bruise the man. Still, I find this kind of letter to be far more annoying that emails from straight-up creationists who say I’m going to hell and don’t claim that I’m their “colleague.”

Here you go:

Dear Mr. Coyne,

I recently read your article “Yes there is a war between science and religion” on the web site “The Conversation”.  If I may respond:

First: There is indeed a conflict between (on one hand) theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture and (on the other hand) science co-joined with philosophical materialism. If you had limited yourself to that narrow domain, your claims would be true, if unremarkable. However:

  • “Religion” is not reducible to theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture. That represents only a small part of world-wide religion — most notably, noisy Christian fundamentalists in the USA and sometimes-violent Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere.
  • “Science” does not necessarily include philosophical materialism. It is only in the English-speaking world that the notion is widespread that science entails philosophical materialism; in the rest of the world, that is decidedly a minority position.

Second: In modern scholarship, it is commonly understood that it is not possible to speak meaningfully about the relationship between science and religion. There are many sciences, and there are many religions. Serious and meaningful discussion is possible only in reference to particular sciences and particular religions.

Third: If you’re going to take Daniel Dennett (a “God-denier”) as your guide in defining religion, then shouldn’t you take take a science-denier, or an evolution-denier, or a climate-change denier as your guide in defining science? To express the point more soberly: Shouldn’t the conceptions of “religion” which you engage be intrinsic to religion (i.e. furnished from within religious traditions) rather than extrinsic (i.e. imposed on religion from without)?

Finally, I am surprised that you would make such sweeping claims about science-faith without showing evidence of having entered more deeply into the vast scholarly literature in that area. It doesn’t seem possible that you would be innocent of serious engagement with such scholarship, but if so a suitable first step could be John Haught’s God and the New Atheism. A fuller and more nuanced entree could be Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership. For historically sensitive exploration of the peculiarly American conflict between biblical fundamentalism and scientific materialism, there’s the excellent scholarly work of Ronald Numbers — for example, The Creationists (2006) and The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die (2018).

I write this message to you not only as a University of Chicago alumnus who is concerned to uphold the University’s standards of inquiry, but also in the spirit of the words of Pope John Paul II in a 1988 letter to George Coyne, who was then the director of the Vatican astronomical observatory: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”*

Thank you for your kind attention. If you should find yourself at Rome and you would like to visit the Vatican astronomical observatory at Castel Gandolfo, please feel free to contact me.

Collegially yours,

Paul Mueller

     MS Physics, 1996, University of Chicago
     PhD Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, 2006, University of Chicago
  Paul Mueller
  Vice Director
  Vatican Observatory


* JAC note: No, religion can’t.

Vatican uses most of “charitable” donations to a major fund for reducing the Church’s debt

December 12, 2019 • 1:30 pm

Direct donations from Catholics to the Holy See —a fund called “Peter’s Pence“—is a practice that’s been going on in one form or another since 1031, but was formalized in 1871 by Pope Pius IX. The money, which is in response to a direct appeal from the Pope, is supposed to be used for philanthropic purposes. Or so the website says. However, The Wall Street Journal, whose article on this “charity” is for some reason not paywalled (click on screenshot below), found that 90% of the donated money goes for non-charitable initiatives, with two-thirds of the total going to reduce the budget deficit of the Holy See—the administration of the Catholic Church and its diplomatic network. Click on the screenshot to read the article or, if you can’t get it, try some judicious inquiry:

The excerpt below is from the Vatican’s explanation of the Peter’s Pence fund:

Peter’s Pence Today

In the first year of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the proper meaning of this offering:

“‘Peter’s Pence’ is the most characteristic expression of the participation of all the faithful in the Bishop of Rome’s charitable initiatives in favour of the universal Church. The gesture has not only a practical value, but also a strong symbolic one, as a sign of communion with the Pope and attention to the needs of one’s brothers; and therefore your service possesses a refined ecclesial character”. (Address to the Members of the St Peter Circle, 25 February 2006).

The ecclesial value of this gesture becomes evident when one considers how charitable initiatives are connatural to the Church, as the Pope stated in his first Encyclical Deus caritas est (25 December 2005):

“The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers and, on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love” (No. 29)

This aid is always animated by that love which comes from God:

“For this reason, it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all of its splendour and does not become just another form of social assistance” (…) “The Christian’s programme — the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus — is ‘a heart which sees’. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” (ibidem, No. 31).

This clearly implies that the major purpose of the “offerings” from the faithful is to fulfill “charitable initiatives”.  But, according to the WSJ, this just ain’t so:

VATICAN CITY—Every year, Catholics around the world donate tens of millions of dollars to the pope. Bishops exhort the faithful to support the weak and suffering through the pope’s main charitable appeal, called Peter’s Pence.

What the church doesn’t advertise is that most of that collection, worth more than €50 million ($55 million) annually, goes toward plugging the hole in the Vatican’s own administrative budget, while as little as 10% is spent on charitable works, according to people familiar with the funds.

The little-publicized breakdown of how the Holy See spends Peter’s Pence, known only among senior Vatican officials, is raising concern among some Catholic Church leaders that the faithful are being misled about the use of their donations, which could further hurt the credibility of the Vatican’s financial management under Pope Francis.

. . . Under church law, Peter’s Pence is available to the pope to use at his discretion in any way that serves his ministry, including the support of his administration. The collection’s website says that, to support the pope’s charitable works, “Peter’s Pence also contributes to the support of the Apostolic See and the activities of the Holy See,” emphasizing activities that help “populations, individuals and families in precarious conditions.”

The assets of Peter’s Pence now total about €600 million, down from about €700 million early in the current pontificate, largely on account of unsuccessful investments, said the people familiar with the funds’ use.

The use of Peter’s Pence donations mostly to plug the budget deficit is particularly sensitive for Pope Francis, who began his pontificate by calling for a “poor church for the poor,” and has continually emphasized the church’s mission to care for and advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable.

. . .Peter’s Pence, a special collection from Catholics around the world every June, is billed as a fundraising effort for the needy. The Vatican’s website for the collection,, describes it as a “gesture of charity, a way of supporting the activity of the Pope and the universal Church in favoring especially the poorest and Churches in difficulty. It is also an invitation to pay attention and be near to new forms of poverty and fragility.”

A section of the website dedicated to “works realized” describes individual grants, such as €100,000 in relief aid to survivors of last month’s earthquake in Albania or €150,000 for those affected by cyclone Idai in southeastern Africa in March.

. . . Local church leaders echo the Vatican’s line when soliciting contributions. According to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The purpose of the Peter’s Pence Collection is to provide the Holy Father with the financial means to respond to those who are suffering as a result of war, oppression, natural disaster and disease.”

But for at least the past five years, only about 10% of the money collected—more than €50 million was raised in 2018—has gone to the sort of charitable causes featured in advertising for the collection, according to people familiar with the matter.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the money has been used to help cover the budget deficit at the Holy See, these people said. The Holy See consists of the central administration of the Catholic Church and the papal diplomatic network around the world. In 2018, the budget deficit reached roughly €70 million on total spending of about €300 million, reflecting chronic inefficiencies, rising wage costs and hits to investment income.

This of course is due in part to declining church attendance, as well as the besmirching of the Church’s reputation by the child-rape scandal. And, as the paper reports, donations to the PP fund dropped about 20% from 2017 to 2018, with further declines expected in this year.

In its “Peter’s Pence” article, Wikipedia indicates further abuses (the last reference, #22, is to yesterday’s article in the WSJ):

In 2019, it was revealed that the charity had secretly been used by people within the Vatican to buy luxury property in London[19][20] and to fund movies such as the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman.[21] It has also been used to finance the budget deficit of the Holy See.[22]

The upshot is that the Vatican is misleading its flock about where their money goes, and the Pope is complicit in this.  Although none of the Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not lie,” two are applicable here: “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Although the latter could be construed as forbidding perjury rather than lying, it’s been interpreted as lying. Regardless, if the Vatican isn’t lying here, it’s certainly being duplicitous. How many people would donate to “Peter’s Pence” if they knew that only one tenth of their donation went to help people in need?

CNN, Reuters and other media mainstream a “Jesus relic”, taking it for granted that Jesus lived and was born in Bethlehem

December 1, 2019 • 10:30 am

I’m back with a pile of exigent tasks, all of which are temporarily effacing the memories I had of my fantastic trip to Antarctica.  I see the Roald Amundsen is again crossing the Drake Passage on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula, so the passengers must have replaced much of their luggage that was stolen. But they’ve still lost two days of their voyage.

And so it’s back to the grind for me. First, grocery shopping, which I do early in the morning. When I turned on the radio on the way to the store, the very first thing I heard was Krista Tippett blathering on in her NPR show, “On Being”, in which she regularly emits Deepities whose profundity almost brings her to tears. (She clearly thinks a lot of herself, despite her emphasis on “humility.”) Hearing her whine about spirituality already put me in a bad mood, but when the show ended (yes, I’m a masochist), I thought I heard her say “This show is located on Dakota (or Lakota) land.”

“That can’t be”, I thought to myself. “Even the unctuous Tippett isn’t that woke!”

But sure enough, she is, and I should have known it. For if you go to her “On Being” site, which of course I did, you find this page-long acknowledgment of land theft (click on screenshot):

(It turns out that the Dakota and Lakota were two distinct groups with different languages, both under the umbrella of the Sioux nation.)

But read how “On Being” flagellates its back like a masochistic penitente. If their project in Minnesota is indeed located on Dakota land—it’s 12 miles away from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers which, according to the site, was considered “the center of the world” to the Dakota people—then why doesn’t Tippett give her headquarters back? After all, she says that “The United States’ land seizures were a project of spiritual destruction that denied the Dakota free and unhindered access to the land that fundamentally shapes their identity and spirituality.” If she’s complicit in destroying Dakota spirituality (and of course “spirituality” is her meat and potatoes), why doesn’t she do something to make up for it?

Well, yes, colonists and settlers quite often treated the Native Americans horribly, but a post facto breast-beating acknowledgment like Tippett’s doesn’t do anything but flaunt her virtue. How does it help the Dakota? If she cared, she could give a lot of her profits to the tribe, but I’m betting that isn’t happening. I find no indication of such contributions on the website—or anywhere else.

Okay, I’ve vented enough, and haven’t yet gotten to the lede.

. . . . well, not quite enough. But here’s the lede: an article from CNN reporting religious news that just appeared in many other places. In this case, a bit of Jesus’s reputed manger, for a long time kept in Rome, is now being permanently returned to Bethlehem.  And in most reports, the media, as CNN does in the headline below, hedges its bets by saying “relics are thought to be” from Jesus’s manger. But in the stories following the headlines, most of these sources take the existence of Jesus—and the Biblical narrative of his life—as being true. Read on (click on the screenshot):

First, the details and the requisite disclaimer (first bit in bold is mine):

Jerusalem (CNN) — A fragment of wood believed to be from Jesus’ manger is back in the Holy Land just in time for Christmas.

The tiny inches long relic was first taken out of the Middle East in the 7th century when St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, donated it to Pope Theodore I. It remained in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore until now.

The wooden relic arrived on Saturday at its permanent home in Bethlehem in time for Advent and the beginning of the Christmas season. Many Christians say it represents the very essence of their faith.

. . . Pope Francis allowed the relic to be returned to the region, according to Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land.

He told CNN that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been asking the Pope to return the stone and wood manger to Bethlehem for at least one Christmas season for years. “It was important, the request of Mr. Abbas, it was very important,” said Fr. Patton.
Okay, so they’re not buying whole hog the story that this is a piece of the manger. But then there’s this (again, my emphasis):
. . . Fr. Patton said the entire crib was considered too fragile to move. Nonetheless, he says the small wooden relic is an important symbol that will now be permanently enshrined inside St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem

This implies that what is taken by believers to be Jesus’s manger, as an entire crib, still exists. I had no idea!  The manger exists! And, looking it up, I found that, well, some bits of the crib do exist—at least some some slats. As reports, the same church in Rome from whence the fragment came, Santa Maria Maggiore (“St. Mary Majors”), is reputed to have a big piece of Baby Jesus’s bed.

Here’s the reliquary, which depicts Baby Jesus lying atop a bed of straw, which in turn is atop a cushion. There’s a manger (or a big hunk of of one) inside!

And some of the site’s description (bolding is theirs):

The reliquary was realised by Giuseppe Valadier in the early 19th century to substitute the previous reliquary from the 1600s that was stolen by Napoleonic troops.  Through the lucid crystal reliquary, you can make out some wooden slats in red maple that are typical of Bethlehem.  The relics date 2000 years to the time that Jesus was born. 

This raises many questions. Is the reliquary large enough to hold the whole bed? How do they know that the manger is 2000 years old? Did someone do carbon dating? And, if the date is right, would it be possible to extract some of Jesus’s DNA from the wood (after all, babies—even baby Jesus—do excrete, and excreta has DNA)? Most important: How did they know to save the manger given that Jesus didn’t fully show himself as the son of God until he was older? And who saved the manger?

Finally, when Napoleon’s troops stole the reliquary, did they really leave the enclosed manger behind? Did they know it was the manger?

Further, it’s not clear whether Jesus—if he lived, and I’m not at all convinced that the Jesus story is based even minimally on a real person—was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth. A piece by R*z* *sl*n in the Washington Post explains that most scholars think that Jesus was born in Nazareth, but the myth that he was born in Bethlehem was confected to fulfill a prediction from the prophet Micah.

So be it. I’ll let the religious scholars argue about where Jesus was born. I can finally get to the part where CNN takes for granted that Jesus was real and was born in Bethlehem. Read this (bolding is mine):

Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, lies in the West Bank, part of the Palestinian territories. For years Abbas has tried to work with the Vatican to encourage Christian pilgrims to make the trip to Bethlehem despite security and political concerns, according to Fr. Patton.

This clearly implies that Jesus lived and was born in Bethlehem; the first sentence is not a declaration by Fr. Patton. And so CNN gives credibility not just to the existence of a Jesus person, but also to the Biblical account of where he was born according to the Gospels of Mark and Luke.

Give me a break! This is like saying that “Paul Bunyan’s birth place lies in Minnesota”. It always bothers me that, despite the fact that there is no extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of someone on whom the Jesus myth is based—even an itinerant apocalyptic preacher—the mainstream media always takes it for granted that there was a Jesus, and that his story conforms pretty much to what the Bible tells us.

Isn’t the media supposed to be more skeptical than that? Shouldn’t the sentence above read: “According to legend, a person named Jesus was born in Bethlehem, now part of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank“? But no, the media simply assumes, and tells us, that Jesus lived. They’ve bought into the Bart Ehrman Fallacy, which is that the Bible must be true in part, at least in the existence of a Jesus Person, even if that Person wasn’t the son of God. (The sub-fallacy is that because most religious scholars think that Jesus was real, a Jesus Person must have lived.)

Reuters, the respected news agency, did the same thing in their article on the manger fragment (click on the screenshot, and note that this report is in the “Lifestyle” section”!)

They show the reliquary with a fragment of the manger. The first thing that needs to be done here is some carbon dating.

But again, while the relic is only “reputed” to be from the manger—the media isn’t that credulous—the existence of Jesus is taken to be true (my bolding in the excerpt below):

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A fragment of wood reputed to be from the manger where Jesus was laid after his humble birth went on display in Jerusalem on Friday, ahead of its transfer to Bethlehem for the official launch of the Christmas season.

. . . The provenance of ancient relics is often questionable. Still, they are revered by the Christian faithful, among them the coachloads of pilgrims who squeeze through a narrow sandstone entrance in the Church of the Nativity all year round to visit the birth grotto that is its centrepiece.

Note that while the bolded bit waffles about whether the wood is really from Jesus’s manger, there’s no doubt in the article that Jesus existed, and that his birth was “humble.” You can find this kind of unquestioning fealty to the Jesus story at other sites, too. National Geographic has dined out on the story for several years.

It’s time for the media to not only hedge on the provenance of these relics, but also on the existence of Jesus. (I note in passing that, according to Wikipedia, there are several places in Europe that claim to have Jesus’s foreskin, and one church that has his umbilical cord. But Jesus had only one foreskin! Like religions itself, these things can’t all be authentic!)

And so, as we swing into the Christmas season, and because I’ve returned from Antarctica, I present another rendition of the Nativity, sent in by reader Christopher Moss. This nativity scene was bought for his wife by her father, who was keen on penguins. Note that there is no manger (Jesus is cosseted under Mary’s belly), and why Joseph has a shepherd’s crook (or has he gone missing?) is obscure. And why is the angel penguin given wings when it already has them?

n.b.: Why Evolution is True comes to you from Algonquin land. 

Vatican launches smart “e-rosary” that connects to an app and tracks your “bead progress”

October 24, 2019 • 1:00 pm

No, this e-rosary is not a joke, but a real item launched by the Vatican, during the Month of the Rosary, clearly in a desperate attempt to keep young people wedded to Catholicism. You can read about this remarkable religious innovation at the two sites below (click on screenshot):

From Fox 35 Orlando:

Verification via the Vatican News:

Here it is!

And how it works (my emphasis):

In an effort to get more young people to pray for world peace, the Vatican has launched a $110 wearable digital rosary, called the “Click To Pray eRosary.

The “Click to Pray” eRosary can be worn as a bracelet and links to a mobile app that becomes activated when the user makes the sign of the cross. The beads of the bracelet are made of black agate and hematite, and the digital device is in the shape of a cross.

. . . Aimed at the peripheral frontiers of the digital world where the young people dwell, the Click To Pray eRosary serves as a technology-based teaching tool to help young people pray the Rosary for peace and to contemplate the Gospel,” the Vatican explained.

The smart rosary links to the official player app of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, called “Click To Pray,” that connects thousands of praying people worldwide daily.

Once the device is activated, users can choose whether they want to pray a standard rosary, a contemplative rosary or one of the thematic rosaries, which are updated annually. The smart rosary keeps track of and displays the user’s progress and tracks when each rosary is completed.

The part that needs fixing here is that apparently users still have to do manual work, moving the beads through their hands. If the Vatican were really savvy, they’d have the e-rosary move itself at preset times, making it even easier to use than the Buddhist prayer wheels that you can twirl in your hands, sending a prayer each which each revolution.