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, www.peterspence.va, 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 mdrevelation.org 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.

Ken Miller wants our government to embrace MORE Christian values

October 15, 2019 • 9:30 am

I cross-posted my post about Pompeo’s Christianity to Facebook, and, surprisingly, Ken Miller, a biology colleague and an observant Catholic, weighed in. Since this post is public, I don’t have any qualms about posting our exchange here:

The trick is, of course, that by “genuine Christian values,” Miller means “those Christian values that I like”. In other words, he’s embracing a form of the Euthyphro argument, because Miller’s “Christian values” are those that have nothing to do with the dictates of God or religion, but align with what he likes (and with what secular humanists espouse). Miller’s set is cherry-picked from all the Christian values, many of which aren’t so congenial but just as genuine.

I admire Ken for his work against creationism, and for the liberal social views he espouses above, but he simply doesn’t get to be the arbiter of what “genuine Christian values” are. And it’s a bit misleading to conflate humanistic “Christian values” with “Christian values per se”.

Watch that space; others may weigh in, or Ken and I might have further exchanges.

“Tell No One”: a documentary about pedophilic Polish priests that’s making a big stir

May 18, 2019 • 1:30 pm

This is a powerful, moving, and stirring film that will make you very angry at the Catholic Church, for it details—sometimes graphically—the sexual abuse of children by priests that was rife in Poland. The abuse is only now being put in front of people by this new movie, “Tell No One”. It’s two hours long, free on YouTube (below), and I found it mesmerizing. Victims, now grown, relate their abuse in detail, sometimes confront their aged abusers, and recount their frustrating and futile attempts to get the Church to take the abuse seriously. As we’ve seen in so many places, the Church just transferred the dog-collar rapists from one parish to another, most of them never receiving any serious punishment or even sanctions. The heartening thing is the tenacity of the survivors to get justice—or at least get their story told—and the sympathy of those who helped them, and of the two men who made this film.

One thing that was driven home to me is how easily these priests could convince children to participate in their depredations, for, especially in Catholic Poland, a priest is almost a Christ figure (one person even mentions that). And you can see first hand how the abuse had lifelong effects on the victims: trauma, anorexia, and suicide attempts.

And this is the Church—supposedly God’s rock on Earth. It’s infuriating. The perfidy of this institution is infuriating and shameful.

If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning movie, “Spotlight”, set in Boston, this is a complementary movie, for it’s a documentary and also allows you listen to the victims. You can see the pain in their eyes and hear it in their voices as they tell their stories.

According to the Associated Press and 9News from Australia, “Tell No One,” is making a big stir in Poland:

“Tell No One,” a film financed through a crowdfunding campaign, was released on YouTube on Saturday. By Monday, the documentary had more than 8 million views.

It triggered soul searching in a country where there is no higher authority than the Catholic Church and its clergy.

“Why do priests commit such crimes? Why did the bishops not react as they should? Why, for years, did a conspiracy of silence prevail among the clergy?” journalist Andrzej Gajcy asked Monday on the news site Onet, voicing some of the uncomfortable questions confronting many Poles.

The primate of Poland has thanked the brothers who made the film, Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, for their “courage.”

“I apologize for every wound inflicted by the people of the church,” Archbishop Wojciech Polak said Saturday.

The Vatican’s ambassador to Poland, Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, also expressed sympathy for abuse survivors on behalf of both himself and Pope Francis.

One more bit of data:

In March, Polish church authorities said they had recorded cases of 382 clergymen who abused 625 victims under the age of 18 since 1990.

The documentary presents new evidence that priests who were known to be pedophiles were transferred between parishes instead of pushed out of the church or referred to police.

And those are only the recorded cases.
The movie is in Polish but has English subtitles, and if you can spare two hours I urge you to watch this. Thanks to Malgorzata for calling this to my attention.

Is the Pope Catholic?

March 18, 2019 • 1:30 pm

Here’s a video from the British comedy game show QI (“Quite Interesting”) about the official title of the Pope Francis. It turns out that it’s not “Pope”. Further, you’ll learn that THE POPE IS NOT A CATHOLIC! In fact, the man who is officially the Pope is also NOT a Catholic. Listen and learn.

h/t: Michael

John Henry Newman gets his second (bogus) miracle; stay tuned for sainthood

February 14, 2019 • 12:30 pm

As you know, to become a saint in the Catholic pantheon a candidate has to have performed two documented miracles, which are ostensibly debated in the Vatican after being stink-eyed by a hired nay-sayer, the literal “Devil’s Advocate“. (Hitchens was the Advocatus Diaboli for Mother Teresa’s canonization, but apparently they didn’t find him convincing.)

Now, according to the BBC and other sources (click on screenshot below), the second critical miracle has been approved for John Henry Newman, and so he’s on the fast track to sainthood—the first English saint in a long while. Newman (1801-1890) began as an Anglican and then, converting to Catholicism, became a cardinal and was beatified nine years ago (that’s step 1, which requires only one miracle).

The first miracle was “curing a man’s spinal disease.” Wikipedia says this about the pair:

In 1991, Newman was proclaimed venerable by Pope John Paul II, after a thorough examination of his life and work by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  After this, Jack Sullivan, a man studying for the diaconate in Boston, Massachusetts, was on the verge of complete paralysis in 2000 and 2001 and claimed to have been miraculously healed after praying to Newman. The miracle was investigated and confirmed by the Vatican. Newman was beatified on 19 September 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI on a visit to the United Kingdom.

A second miracle, necessary for his canonisation, was approved by the Vatican in November 2018. This miracle concerned the healing of a pregnant American woman from a life-threatening condition. The decree approving this miracle was authorized to be promulgated on 12 February 2019.


The Torygraph gives a bit more information about this second miracle:

The Church claims the recovery had no scientific explanation and attributed it to Newman’s intercession.

“An expectant mother was suffering from unstoppable internal bleeding which threatened the life of her child in the womb,” the diocese of Westminster said on its website.

“She had long been a devotee of Blessed John Henry, and in prayer she directly and explicitly invoked Newman’s intercession to stop the bleeding. The miraculous healing was immediate, complete, and permanent.”

The Diocese’s website adds no further information.

So I wrote my doctor asking if there are known natural causes for stopping internal bleeding during pregnancy, and of course there were. As the doc wrote me (my emphasis):

The devil is in the details. There are many causes of uterine bleeding during pregnancy.

Here’s just one from UpToDate:

Threatened miscarriage. Uterine bleeding in the presence of a closed cervix and sonographic visualization of an intrauterine pregnancy with detectable fetal cardiac activity is diagnostic of threatened miscarriage. The term “threatened” is used to describe these cases because miscarriage does not always follow uterine bleeding in early pregnancy, even after repeated episodes or large amounts of bleeding. In fact, 90 to 96 percent of pregnancies with both fetal cardiac activity and vaginal bleeding at 7 to 11 weeks of gestation do not miscarry; the higher success rate is associated with bleeding at the later end of the gestational age range [10,11]. Uterine bleeding in these cases is likely due to disruption of decidual vessels at the maternal-fetal interface. These separations generally cannot be visualized by ultrasound, but sometimes appear as a subchorionic hematoma. Management is expectant.

“Management is expectant” means the bleeding usually stops on its own. Hope that helps.

Yes, it helps. So what we have here is a “miracle” that occurs regularly without the intercession of prayers to saints. But of course that characterizes all the medical miracles touted by the Vatican. When an amputee regrows an arm after praying to a beatified candidate, then we’ll talk!

h/t: Kevin