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

The New York Times touts religious miracles as proof of God

December 26, 2022 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE:  Here’s what my primary-care physician, Dr. Alex Lickerman, says about the diagnosis of “glioma” below:

Glioma is a broad term used to delineate all types of primary brain tumors. The prognosis varies tremendously from type to type, with glioblastoma multiforme being the worst. You need a biopsy to determine which kind it is. Not being a radiologist, I don’t know how confident you can be in diagnosing tumor type purely on the basis of an MRI. If he truly does have only scar left, that suggests the original lesion was more inflammatory than anything. Again, without a biopsy, who the hell knows what this really was?

The New York Times applies stringent reportorial scrutiny to many claims: the value of vaccinations and mask mandates, the bogus argument that there’s no anthropogenic climate change, and so on, but there’s one thing it rarely scrutinizes—or at least applies a minimal level of scrutiny: the truth claims of religions. (As a matter of fact, the NYT loves all kinds of woo—especially channelers and dowsers.)

In a big “guest essay” by historian Molly Worthen, a piece which must have passed the editors, the paper claims to document lots of medical miracles as evidence for God. Against this hokum, she offers only one real skeptic, Michael Shermer, to contest miracle claims. Now I don’t know if Worthen, who writes a lot for the paper, is herself religious, but for all the passes she gives faith in this article, she might as well be.

It’s a very long “guest essay”, but I want to quote bits that support the view that there are real miracles of a religious nature, as well as the much smaller bits that question this.

Click below to read, or find it archived.

Worthen’s title question mentions two important issues. First is that of “proof”, which is really irrelevant to a scientist since we don’t think of empirical “proof” of God—or of anything.  We speak of the strength of evidence, which, to me, is strong for the formula of a water molecule having two hydrogens and one oxygen, and far, far weaker for an omniscient and omnipotent being who cares for each one of us.

Nevertheless, we can in principle get empirical evidence for gods. In Faith Versus Fact (pp. 118-119), I consider (as did Darwin and Carl Sagan before me) what evidence would convince me that there was a God. Indeed, I lay out a scenario that would convince me that this God would be the God of Christianity, i.e., the father of/part of Jesus.  Now this would be “provisional” convincing, for “absolute proof” is beyond the realm of science. But it would make me a believer.  The scenario involves restoring the limbs of amputees and so on, and of course we don’t see that (see below).

Second, the question remains that if there are inexplicable cures, Worthen wants proof that those cures were effected by God. I presume she doesn’t mean Vishnu or John Frum, as she mentions only Abrahamic conceptions of God.  There are of course medical remissions for which doctors have no clear explanation, but that still leaves us with either a naturalistic explanation we don’t understand, or God. Given the absence of evidence for God (see below again), and the prevalance of evidence that things once imputed to God (lightning, disease, evolution, etc. ) are now understood as naturalistic, I think the priors rest with naturalism.

On to the article. The centerpiece is the personal testimony of Josh Brown, director of neuroscience at Indiana University, and of his wife Candy, regarding Josh’s miracle “cure” of glioma, a form of brain cancer. It turns out, of course, that although the disease is almost invariably fatal, Brown got no official diagnosis or biopsy of glioma. (I should mention that the Browns are Christians.) Here is their story recounted by Worthen:

Candy Brown was nine months pregnant when her husband had a seizure in the middle of the night. “I went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning, I was in an ambulance,” he said. Two and a half weeks later, newborn in tow, they got his diagnosis: an apparent brain tumor called a glioma. (He provided The New York Times with medical records to support this account.) He was 30 years old. “Chemo, radiation and surgery don’t statistically prolong the life span with what I had. There was nothing to do but get ready to die, basically.” Doctors prescribed no treatment other than anticonvulsant medication to manage symptoms.

The Browns grew up in Christian families but not the sort that expected God to intervene ostentatiously in modern life. Still, he was desperate. He started traveling the country seeking out Christian healing revivals, dragging along his wife and baby daughter. “I needed to find out what was going on,” he said. “If there was any reality to it, I wanted a miracle.”

Candy Brown recalled more disturbing details: the morning after her husband’s diagnosis, they began to pray together, but mentioning the name of Jesus seemed to trigger a frightening physical response. “Josh shoots out of bed, starts turning somersaults,” she said. “I’d say, try worshiping Jesus, and he couldn’t say the name Jesus. I was thinking of the herd of pigs,” she said, recalling the unlucky swine run off a cliff by demon possession in the Gospels. “He was hoarse and exhausted. For that 45 minutes, there was such a palpably evil presence in that room that hated the name of Jesus. If I ever had doubted whether Jesus was real, I couldn’t now.”

Well, there’s your proof: not only God, but demons!  I’m amazed he didn’t vomit pea soup. But Josh got better!

Josh Brown began traveling with healing missionaries. He told me he saw things he couldn’t explain — like a blind man on a street in Cuba who appeared to instantly regain his sight after missionaries prayed for him. Months later, after many sessions of prayer for healing and deliverance, an M.R.I. revealed that his tumor had turned into scar tissue.

He quickly volunteered to me that he never had a biopsy, but doctors often diagnose this type of tumor on the basis of M.R.I.s and the patient’s symptoms. “One way or another, the tumor went away,” he said. “I’ve been symptom-free for 19 years. The doctors said very little.” The Browns felt grateful — and perplexed. “At that point I wondered why, when I had seen so many things that seemed miraculous and difficult to explain, why was there so little careful investigation of these things?” he said.

I’ve asked my doctor to assess this claim about glioma, so either return in a few hours or check the comments.

Convinced that God and Jesus had healed him against the power of Satan, Josh got a Templeton Grant (of course) to travel the world “investigating healing claims” (he found many, of course), and he later founded the Global Medicine Research Institute, which publishes studies of cures for which there’s supposedly no naturalistic explanation.

Below I’ll show some of Worthen’s piece suggesting (with a few caveats that Worthen quickly knocks down) that miracles are real, God-given events. First, the events witnessed, with a bit of a caveat:

In 2009, on a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Browns flew to Mozambique to investigate the healing claims of Global Awakening and Iris Global, two ministries focused on healing and revival. They brought audiometry equipment and eye charts to test people who requested prayer for deafness and blindness. The sample size was small — they tested 24 people — but they found statistically significant improvement beyond placebo effects and hypnosis.

“I was standing right there next to this woman who could not tell how many fingers were held up when you were a foot in front of her,” Candy Brown told me. “Then five minutes later, she’s reading an eye chart with a smile on her face.” She and her colleagues published the results in The Southern Medical Journal — not a prestigious publication but a respectable one with peer review — and she drew on the research for her 2012 book, “Testing Prayer.”

This is the kind of stuff that healing evangelists do all the time in the U.S., and of course it’s hokum.

Skeptics complained about the Browns’ methods and field conditions. They pointed out that the hearing tests were in a noisy setting, there was no control group and test subjects would naturally want to please those who prayed for them by showing results. “That simple trick explains why both hearing and sight appears to have dramatically improved among these poor, superstitious villagers,” one critic declared. (The study explained in detail how the researchers did their best to weed out false data.)

If you want to evaluate people’s experiences at a revival in rural Africa, you probably need to give up on double-blind studies in a perfectly controlled environment. But let’s imagine for a moment that researchers could meet such standards (and that an all-powerful deity humors us and submits to this scrutiny). They might persuade skeptics that something strange happened. But is there any evidence that would persuade a nonbeliever that God was behind it — that we do not live in a closed system in which all causation is a matter of natural laws?

And indeed there is such evidence! Medical histories! (My bolding):

Christians have sought to scientifically evaluate miracle claims at least since the 16th century, when the Council of Trent tightened up the verification process for canonizing saints. But the Christian God does not work in randomized, repeatable trials. He works in history. So maybe medical histories are a more appropriate approach. “Medical case reports rely on a different epistemology, which is more of a historical epistemology,” Josh Brown said. “It’s not something you can necessarily recreate, whatever the time course of a disease.”

In 2011 the Browns helped found the Global Medical Research Institute, which publishes case studies on the small number of inexplicable events that its staff members can scrupulously document — like a blind woman who, while praying one night with her husband, regained her sight and a teenage boy who depended on a feeding tube until his stomach suddenly healed itself during an encounter with a Pentecostal minister. “When we write these case reports, we’re not claiming these must have been a miracle of God, but these are the facts of the case,” Josh Brown told me.

The fact that you can’t use random repeatable trials to test God’s healing power is flat wrong. Of course you can, and it has been done—in another study, funded by Templeton, on the power of intercessory prayer in aiding recovery from heart surgery. Unfortunately, prayer didn’t work; in fact, those prayed for were marginally worse off than those who were not. No, medical histories themselves, unless the condition is NEVER known to show spontaneous remission, like amputated limbs, are insufficient. There are certainly ways to test religious healing, just as there are way to test antibiotics and other forms of naturalistic healing.

Next Worthen uses the large number of miracle-healing claims as evidence that it works (all bolding henceforth is mine):

But the Browns’ experiences and research — not to mention the abundance of healing testimony from other witnesses, especially outside the West — deserve serious consideration. Watertight proof of divine causation may be an impossible goal, but the search for it forces us to confront the assumptions that prop up our own worldviews — whether one is a devout believer or a committed skeptic.

. . .The Browns’ experiences are striking because they operate in one of the most antisupernaturalist subcultures in the modern world: secular academia. But in a global context — and we are in the midst of a worldwide Christian revival — stories of unexplained healing in response to prayer are common. (Although healing is central to Christianity, other religions claim their share. One Christian response is that God shows himself to non-Christians in partial ways, and some Christians I interviewed described non-Christian healings that, they claimed, later proved false.)

Scholars estimate that 80 percent of new Christians in Nepal come to the faith through an experience with healing or deliverance from demonic spirits. Perhaps as many as 90 percent of new converts who join a house church in China credit their conversion to faith healing. In Kenya, 71 percent of Christians say they have witnessed a divine healing, according to a 2006 Pew study. Even in the relatively skeptical United States, 29 percent of survey respondents claim they have seen one.

You can quarrel with the exact figures, but we are talking about millions of people who say something otherworldly happened to them. Yet most secular people — and even many religious believers — are oblivious to this or shrug off miracle stories on principle as motivated reasoning, hallucination or fraud.

If millions say it, well then it MUST be right!

But as Hume noted, the priors for “motivated reasoning, hallucination, or fraud” are higher than for the working of God, especially given that God hasn’t been able to regrow limbs or eyes or even make himself manifest in more obvious ways (Sagan mentions several, including God spelling out messages in the stars), and also that we know from investigations of American “miracle cure” preachers that they were simply committing fraud.

Worthen treats doubters as unreasonable skeptics, as if the evidence is so strong that she deems skepticism about religious miracle cures as a form of faith, dogmatism, and yes, even racist colonialism!

Western skeptics have disregarded witness testimony from places like Nigeria at least since David Hume complained in his 1748 essay on miracles that “they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” Such dismissal is more awkward for 21st-century secular liberals, who often say that Westerners should listen to people in the Global South and acknowledge the blindnesses of colonialism. “Some people claim that the best thing to do is to listen to people’s experiences and learn from them,” Dr. Chinedozi said. “Yet these people will be the first to find a way to disprove experiences in other cultures and contexts.”

Witness testimony in general has come in for a drubbing lately. Courts have overturned convictions when DNA proved that witnesses who sounded sure of themselves on the stand turned out to be horribly mistaken. Yet we rely on it all the time in the course of ordinary life. “If your epistemology is that eyewitness evidence doesn’t count, then there goes most historiography, journalism, even anthropology and sociology,” Craig Keener, a professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, told me. (He included Dr. Chinedozi’s and Dr. Adewuya’s stories in his book “Miracles Today.”)

Among those who deny miracles, “the presuppositions are so strong,” Dr. Keener said. “There’s a dogmatism there, just like a religious dogmatism. It looks to me like it’s so ideologically driven — if you’re starting from the standpoint that a miracle claim is not true if we could possibly come up with another explanation and one of the explanations can be, ‘We don’t have an explanation now, but maybe someday we will.’” When I asked Dr. Shermer what he thought about this analogy, he objected. Belief in future scientific discovery “is not faith,” he said. “It’s confidence that the system works pretty well from experience.”

Yep, there we have it. What are you going to believe: science or “lived experience”? Especially when that lived experience comes from the “oppressed” people of the “Global South” whose oppressors are of course us “colonialists”. But Worthen is completely ignoring Hitchens’s Razor: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Claims of miracle healing by God is a strong assertion, and “lived experience” does not suffice.  And, of course, the reason we need science is because a lot of our assumptions based on everyday experience are simply wrong.

Worthen’s piece goes on, ending with a bump as Bill Dembski, the doyen of Intellgent Design, is dragged onstage to say that he, too, believes in miracles, but that they “require scrutiny”.

What about the critics? Well, nearly all the tepid criticism offered by Worthen has already appeared in this post, but Michael Shermer is enlisted as the single Token Skeptic, only to be pulled offstage quickly:

Most professional scientists won’t go for this. “Case methods are fine as a way to start,” Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a historian of science, told me. “But how do you shift from case studies to more experimental protocols that are the gold standard?”

Dr. Shermer sometimes asks believers about all the times prayer fails to heal. “Their answer is, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ It’s just hand-waving,” he said. Divine mystery is central to Christian faith, but it creates problems for a scientific method premised on the assumption that the laws of cause and effect are uniform — and will yield up their mysterious ways if you test and measure again and again.

Earth to Ms. Worthen: there is no “laws of cause and effect” in science. But we’ll let that be and move on to the several questions I’d like to ask Worthen, questions that she really doesn’t answer.

1).  How do you know it’s the Christian God (aka father of Jesus) who did the healing? Yes, it’s often done by Christian preachers, but is there a control for religious healing by Muslims or Hindus? I doubt it. Therefore, you have no strong evidence that your God is the best God, or whether there are multiple gods. (This is the least important question I’d pose.)

2). If God wanted to make himself known, why does he do it through a few paltry miracles instead of making Himself manifest in undeniable ways, ways that Sagan discusses in The Varieties of Scientific Experience (a book I heartily recommend)? Can’t he spell out “I AM WHAT I AM” in the stars?

3). As Shermer notes, why does God pick and choose whom He heals instead of healing everyone? Worthen attempts an answer, but it’s not convincing. She brings in Candy Brown, who just punts, arguing that those who aren’t cured aren’t sufficiently vulnerable or hopeful.

If God can heal, why does he do it so rarely? The world is full of suffering people who pray with no relief. “Even people who believe in miracles often don’t pray for them because they’re afraid of disappointment,” Candy Brown said. “I’ve had people die on my watch. It’s incredibly painful. You ask, ‘Is it my fault?’” She speculated that many Christians’ belief that miraculous healing ceased after New Testament times springs from “protection against pain, protection against feeling ill will toward God or other people. It takes hope and vulnerability to be open to healing.”

For Christians, it also takes spiritual maturity to remember that miracles are not the point. Miracles are signs meant to help humans see the greatest miracle of all, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ— God’s ultimate intrusion into ordinary life, by which he eventually “shall wipe away all tears,” according to the Book of Revelation.

Well, maybe miracles aren’t the point, but they’re sure touted by Christians as proof of God’s existence. Absent evidence for God’s existence, there’s no reason at all to buy the stories of the New Testament.

4.) We saw a few days ago that one of the latest “miracle healings” at Lourdes was unconvincing, for, as my doctor said, the diagnosis was not believable.  I think the same may be true of Josh’s glioma. But one thing would be convincing to many: the regrowing of lost limbs or missing eyes—things not known to happen naturally. So why doesn’t God prove His power by growing back an arm or a leg, or restoring a missing eye? It’s telling that only those maladies not known known to spontaneously disappear are the very ones that we don’t see at Lourdes or other Places of Miracles. That, to me, is telling. In fact, there’s a whole website devoted to this vital question, “Why won’t God heal amputees?” The answer, of course, is that God doesn’t heal anyone, because God doesn’t exist.  (The faithful do have answers to the amputee question, but they’re laughable.)

In the end, Worthen comes off as just about as credulous as the Browns. Her vetting of the healing claims is laughable. Did she interview any skeptical doctors? And the New York Times comes off as even more credulous, because they actually published this stuff and offer no rebuttal save a few words from Shermer.

Why is the NYT engaged in so much faith-pushing? Could it be that it’s decided not to “follow the science” because the woke paper, like many woke people, believe in “other ways of knowing” or that “lived experience trumps data”? I would find that hard to buy, but if the New Yorker has gone down this route, so can the New York Times.

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.

The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

April 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.

Click to read (and weep):

His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”

Here’s Benson’s homily:

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.

But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.

Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true  (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)

Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”

Benson goes on:

Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.

And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?

Finally, there’s this:

. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.

h/t: Jeff

The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

July 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Here’s Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” not being very friendly towards accommodationists in his new video, “Can science and religion coexist?” He gives a firm “no”, and I have to hand it to him: he doesn’t pull any punches.

Now if you’ve read Faith Versus Fact (and if you haven’t, why not?), you won’t find much new here: even the debunking of one miracle that helped canonize Mother Teresa (the “curing” of Monica’s Besra’s tumor) is also in my book. But for those who haven’t read it, this is as good a summary of the conflict that you can get in a 16-minute video.  I do worry that it’s so anti-theistic that it will turn off those whose minds are open, but on the other hand I appreciate Hemant’s straightforward anti-theism.

Because nearly all of this is good stuff, I have only a few beefs; in fact, they’re such small beefs that they qualify as stew meat.

Re the statement: “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe. It would have helped had Hemant added that caveat, for religion would claim (falsely, I think), that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, but secular philosophy can, and gives better answers than any religion I know.

Second beef: There’s a bit too much concentration on miracles, which, says Hemant, are those phenomena that violate the laws of science. If miracles were observed (and I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact), one might tentatively conclude that there is something numinous out there. But Hemant declares flatly, “Actual miracles don’t happen. They never have.”  Indeed: I know of none that are so enigmatic and convincing that they make me rethink naturalism.  But I think a better tactic would be to say not only that there are naturalistic explanations for nearly all miracles, but to admit that miracles might happen but have never explained anything to the detriment of science. That is, a true scientific attitude might admit of the possibility of miracles—for science can never prove that something cannot exist—but would add that this is true in the same sense that we admit of the possibility of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster: things that, in view of history and empiricism, are so wildly improbable that, as with Hume, you’d put a higher probability on a lie or a mistake than on a true miracle.

At the end, Hemant has a useful discussion on why people still think science and religion are compatible despite his (and my) claim that they’re not. And he even disses the Templeton Foundation! Kudos for him!

h/t: Hugh

CNN uncritically covers a “miracle”

March 5, 2019 • 8:30 am

UPDATE: Now Seth Andrews has weighed in on the thread, and he has supporters! (Remember, Seth used to be a pious Christian.)


I suppose that if I weren’t an atheist, I wouldn’t notice things like this, nor pay attention to the media’s uncritical coverage of it. In this case the media is the liberal outlet CNN—so liberal that it swallows this story whole (click on the screenshot):

The entire story:

When firefighters arrived at Freedom Ministries Church in Grandview, West Virginia they were left stunned by what they saw.

A devastating fire — so hot that firefighters had to back out at one point — was ravaging through the building, the Coal City Fire Department said in a Facebook post.

But as they went through the charred wreckage, they noticed something extraordinary.

“In your mind, everything should be burned, ashes. Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed!!” the department wrote.

The Facebook post, which went viral, features compelling photos of a pile of about a dozen intact Bibles surrounded by the rubble.

“Though the odds were against us, God was not,” the firefighters added. No firefighters were injured in the operation. The cause of the fire is still unclear.

Here’s the announcement and pictures from the Facebook page of the Coal City Fire Department, which clearly sees God’s hand in this miraculous non-immolation of crosses and Bibles:


A few comments. First, if God saved the Bibles and crosses, why did he allow the rest of the church to be burned down? After all, he had the power to render things immune to flames! Second, CNN covers this without casting any doubt on the “miracle” explanation. Perhaps they could have asked a fire expert if there could have been a naturalistic explanation for this “miracle”. (I’m going with Hume here.)

Finally, why is a fire department, which is a branch of the government, thanking God so effusively on its webpage? Police departments aren’t supposed to do this, so why fire department?

The comments on this post are uniformly in praise of God’s mercy, without any irony. I could not resist leaving the following comment, which of course will be removed. But I hope it isn’t, as I’d be delighted to see the responses and the layperson’s take on the Problem of Evil:

There are over 3,000 comments, almost all of them praising the power of the Lord. (One other cynic said that Bibles might just ignite more slowly because they’re thick and paper is hard to burn.) While I didn’t peruse them all lest I get terminally depressed, read some of the comments to see how delusional America remains. Nobody questions why God would burn a church but save the Bibles and crosses.

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

The blind leading the bland: Nicholas Kristof interviews William Lane Craig

December 22, 2018 • 1:30 pm

When I saw the headline below in the New York Times, I wondered why the deuce Nicholas Kristof wanted to talk to William Lane Craig. But who could NOT read that article after the headline, wanting to see how Craig answered? (Click on screenshot and be prepared to facepalm.)

It turns out that this is part of a series Kristof is doing on Christianity—but again, WHY? At any rate, here are the predecessors:

This is the latest installment in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity. Previously, I’ve spoken with the Rev. Timothy KellerJimmy Carter and Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Here’s my interview of William Lane Craig, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University.

The interview is a gold mine of apologetics and laughs as Craig weasels and wobbles and waffles about Jesus, Scripture, and miracles. Have a look; I’ll put some of the Q&A below.

It’s hard not to reproduce the entire text! But here we go:

KristofMerry Christmas, Dr. Craig! I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?

Craig: Merry Christmas to you, too, Nick! I’m reasonably confident. When I was a non-Christian, I used to struggle with this, too. But then it occurred to me that for a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal! Given the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe (for which we have good evidence), an occasional miracle is child’s play. Historically speaking, the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is independently attested by Matthew and Luke and is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism. So what’s the problem?

Note the “(for which we have good evidence)” after he mentions God. That, presumably is Craig’s dumb Kalam Cosmological Argument (read the link), which somehow gets from the assumption that “all things have causes” to “God is the Christian god and Jesus is His son”. He adduces additional “evidence”, like “fine-tuning” later on.

The “problem”, of course, is that even if you accept the existence of a creator, that doesn’t get you to miracles and Jesus.  And “independently” attested by Matthew and Luke? Really? Were they both there when God manufactured a haploid genome and inserted it into one of Mary’s eggs? And how independent were these Gospels? Although “Biblical scholars” (i.e., believers) consider them evidence of the writers being independently motivated by God to write the Truth, I think it more likely that they’re recounting a common myth, or even copying each other.

But wait! There’s more! Craig does some bobbing and weaving after Kristof asks him why he takes the New Testament as gospel truth but not the Old Testament. You’ll enjoy Craig’s response. Then Kristof asks him about why he thinks the New Testament is inerrant. (To be fair, he’s pressing Craig pretty hard, but pressing Craig is like trying to wrestle a greased eel.)

[Kristof] How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he “burst open.” They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?

[Craig] I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How did his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the “questions that matter,” not how Judas died.

But don’t the core doctrines of Christianity include all of us being imbued with Original Sin, that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and that there’s an afterlife in which you either go up or you fry. It’s interesting that he says “leave the contradictions to us Christians” and then says the important questions are those that aren’t contradicted but also have no answers. But Craig does think there are “objective moral values”—since he believes in Divine Command Theory, he thinks that whatever God says is correct and moral by virtue of God having said it. Ergo, we can kill anybody who picks up sticks on the Sabbath and curses their parents. I wish Kristof had pressed him on that!

I like this exchange best.

[Kristof] Why can’t we accept that Jesus was an extraordinary moral teacher, without buying into miracles?

[Craig] You can, but you do so at the expense of going against the evidence. That Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms is so widely attested in every stratum of the sources that the consensus among historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus was, indeed, a faith-healer and exorcist. That doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles, but it does show that Jesus thought of himself as more than a mere moral teacher.

That reminds me of the famous passage from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where Lewis pretends to exhaust all the possibilities:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I prefer the Poached Egg Hypothesis, but that’s not acceptable to most people.

Several times in the interview Craig appeals to “the consensus of historical Jesus scholars”, a consensus that of course is based on construing truth from what’s in the Bible. And I’m deeply suspicious of that consensus, especially in the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for even a historical person on which Jesus was grounded.

I remain agnostic about whether there was a real person on which Jesus was based, and even about whether that person could have claimed magical powers (a bit more of a stretch), but, as Craig says, “that doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles.” Indeed—and there lies the rub that Craig avoids. Even if you accept the premise that some first-century charismatic preacher said he could do magic, that doesn’t mean that he could, or that such a person, now dead, continues to perform miracles.

And there’s this.

[Kristof] Over time, people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?

[Craig] I don’t follow. Why should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality just because of weakly evidenced, false claims in other religions? I champion a “reasonable faith” that seeks to provide a comprehensive worldview that takes into account the best evidence of the sciences, history, philosophy, logic and mathematics. Some of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the universe, appeal to the best evidence of contemporary science. I get the impression, Nick, that you think science is somehow incompatible with belief in miracles. If so, you need to give an argument for that conclusion. David Hume’s famous argument against miracles is today recognized, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, as “an abject failure.” No one has been able to do any better.

Although Kristof doesn’t ask him the logical question—”How do you know you’ve found the right god and the right faith?”—it’s implicit in the query. And Craig gives an implicit answer: that Christianity is not as “weakly evidenced” or as “false” as are other faiths. How does Craig know this? Not because the Bible is more credible than the Qur’an, but that Craig has personally experienced “the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” Yep—”self authenticating” (see the link for a takedown).  And really—”the best evidence for God from contemporary science” is the Cosmological Argument and the fine-tuning argument? I don’t think many physicists would say, “Yes, that evidence pretty much convinces me of a God.”

As far as Hume’s argument against miracles, which is basically that you should accept a miracle only if a genuine God-produced miracle seems more likely than false testimony or dubious claims, that doesn’t seem to me an “abject failure,” but rather an exercise in judicious skepticism. But perhaps you feel otherwise.

I have to say that publishing this interview seems rather dumb, unless it exposes Craig’s philosophical weaknesses to a public that, by and large, considers him serious and learned. But I think people would nod their heads in assent at Craig’s answers.

And perhaps that would be true of all of Craig’s interviews with Christians. But somehow I don’t think, despite Kristof’s hardball questions, that he’s trying to do a number on Christianity.

h/t: Barry

BBC: 62% of UK adults (and nearly 75% of young Brits) think miracles are possible

October 1, 2018 • 9:30 am

The other day I posted a list of the percentage of all Americans who believe various supernatural truth claims of Abrahamic religions. The proportion of Yanks who accept things like a personal God, miracles, heaven and hell, angels, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on, ranges between 54% and 72%. Brits, famously more secular than Americans, usually rank lower (i.e., more rationally) on these polls, but a new study commissioned by the BBC suggests that Brits are more credulous than I thought. Click on the screenshot to see the short article:

The survey was taken by telephone of 2002 British adults in August, and here’s their summary of the results (direct quote):

  • 62% of British adults believe some form of miracle is possible today
  • Nearly three-quarters aged 18-24 say they believe some form of miracle is possible today, more than any other age group
  • 43% say they have prayed for a miracle
  • 37% of British adults who attend a religious service at least monthly say they believe the miracles of Jesus happened word for word as described in the Bible
  • Half of this group say they have prayed for a miracle which was answered in the way they had hoped
  • But 37% of Christians have never prayed for a miracle

I’ll add these data in the article:

  • 59% of those who identify as Christian have prayed for a miracle
  • Half of those who have prayed (29% total) said their prayer was answered “in the way they hoped.” (That is, God said “Yes” instead of “No,” which could also count as an answer from above.)

The higher proportion of miracle-believers among young folk than adults suggests either that Britain is becoming more religious, which goes against all the data, or that the striplings haven’t yet come to their senses. As for the 43% of British adults who have prayed for a miracle, well, that’s just bizarre.

The article goes on to quote some believers who experienced or accept miracles, but then we hear of an accommodationist Sophisticated Theologian™ who thinks miracles are just metaphors:

Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, a Catholic hospital chaplain in Liverpool, says families will ask him to pray for a miracle to bring someone back from the brink of death.

He believes in those cases a miracle would be a terrible thing because it would be prolonging a life that is already at its natural end.

He also thinks you can be a Christian and interpret the miracles of Jesus in a different light.

He uses the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 – where Jesus fed a crowd with five loaves and two fish, as an example of how spontaneous generosity can cause a sense of wonder.

“One explanation may be that he inspired people to share what they had with them in their baskets,” he explains.

“So rather than magically producing food, it’s making food appear in another way. There are all sorts of ways it can be seen and still be wonderful.”

Well, Monsignor Fleetwood is reading his Bible VERY metaphorically, for here, from the King James Version, is Matthew 14:13-21 (my emphasis):

13 When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.

14 And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.

15 And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.

16 But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.

17 And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.

18 He said, Bring them hither to me.

19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.

20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.

21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.

That isn’t an outburst of generosity! The people didn’t HAVE food with them. They were hungry, and Jesus, after praying to God, miraculously turned two fishes and five loaves into enough noms to feed 5,000 people!

If the good Monsignor thinks that’s just a metaphor, then why couldn’t the entire Bible, including the Resurrection of Christ, be a metaphor, too? (I could argue that the Resurrection was just a metaphor for the spread of Christianity after its founding figure had been killed.) I love to watch these religionists pick cherries from the Bible.

Prophecies of doom! San Gennaro’s blood fails to liquify!

December 24, 2016 • 11:00 am

St. Januarius, or San Gennaro, as he’s known in Italian, is the patron saint of Naples, reputed to have died in 325 A.D. He’s celebrated with big festivals in Italy and New York, and you may remember that it was during this festival that Don Corleone (in the younger incarnation played by Robert de Niro in The Godfather: Part 2) assassinated the boss Don Fanucci, with the gunshots masked by the firecrackers in the streets.

But there’s a miracle involving San Gennaro, for a vial of what is reputed to be his blood (about 60 ml) is kept in a glass vessel inside a reliquary at the Naples Cathedral, where three times a year it’s exhibited by the priests. The “miracle” occurring when the solid “blood” liquifies and then becomes solid again. Although the Church won’t officially sanction this as a genuine miracle, they don’t impugn it, either, and won’t permit any tests on the blood except crude spectroscopy through the glass, which has shown some dubious indications of hemoglobin.

Here’s the “blood” liquifying in 2011; at about 3:04 the blood is certified to have liquified, somebody waves a handkerchief, and the crowd goes wild. It’s taken as a good omen (in years in which the stuff hasn’t liqufied, bad things have happened), and assures believers that God is in his Heaven.

Wikipedia describes the ritual:

For most of the time, the ampoules are kept in a bank vault, whose keys are held by a commission of local notables, including the Mayor of Naples; while the bones are kept in a crypt under the main altar of Naples Cathedral. On feast days, all these relics are taken in procession from the cathedral to the Monastery of Santa Chiara, where the archbishop holds the reliquary up and tilts it to show that the contents are solid, and places it on the high altar next to the saint’s other relics. After intense prayers by the faithful, including the so-called “relatives of Saint Januarius” (parenti di San Gennaro), the content of the larger vial typically liquefies. The archbishop then holds up the vial and tilts it again to demonstrate that liquefaction has taken place. The announcement of the liquefaction is greeted with a 21-gun salute at the 13th-century Castel Nuovo. The ampoules remain exposed on the altar for eight days, while the priests move or turn them periodically to show that the contents remain liquid.

The liquefaction sometimes takes place almost immediately, but can take hours or even days. Records kept at the Duomo tell that on rare occasions the contents fail to liquefy, are found already liquefied when the ampoules are taken from the safe, or liquefy outside the usual dates.

There are several naturalistic explanations for this miracle (first described in 1389) that you can read about here and here—explanations hindered by the Church’s refusal to permit invasive sampling (and really, what do they have to gain from that?)  The most viable seems to be that the “blood” is a thixotropic gel, that liquifies when agitated. At CICAP, authors F. di L.Garlaschelli et al. have replicated this phenomenon using materials that would have been available to fakers in the 14th century:

Thixotropy might prove a good hypothesis to explain this “miracle”.  Thixotropy  the property of certain gels to became more fluid, even from solid to liquid, when stirred, vibrated, or otherwise mechanically disturbed, and to resolidify when left to stand. Common examples of such substances are catsup, mayonnaise and some types of paints and toothpastes.

Thus, the very act of handling the reliquary, repeatedly turning it upside down to check its state, might provide the necessary mechanical stress to induce the liquefaction. A successful performance of the rite, therefore, does not need conscious cheating, while not excluding its occurrence, as gentle or sharp movements can certainly control the timing of the liquefaction.

Indeed, over the centuries, unexpected liquefactions have often been observed whilst handling the relic case for repairs.

In support of the thixotropic hypothesis, we made up samples whose properties resembled those of the relic. We used substances that would have also been available in the fourteenth century. After some testing with bentonite clays (producing a thixotropic but unpleasantly mud-like gel), we settled for a reddish-brown FeO(OH) colloidal solution.
This gel is the right shade of brown without the addition of any dye; it becomes perfectly liquid when shaken (See Fig. 1 ) and, just like the relic, can even produce the globo and bubbles on its shiny surface (The real boiling even of a volatile liquid in a closed vessel under such conditions is quite untenable).

All the compounds for this concoction could have been readily available to a Neapolitan artist or alchemist of the 1300s. CaCO3 (from chalk, i.e. limestone, or crushed eggshells) also formed the basis of many white pictorial pigments. K2CO3, available from wood ashes was also well-known, and can be used instead of CaCO3. FeCl3 is available in the mountains around Naples


Indeed, there were several reports in the 14th century of other “liquifying blood miracles.”

However, the blood failed to liquify on the third occasion this year, over a few days in mid-December. An article in Christian Today (CT)describes how Italian Catholics have reacted with fear, for when the blood fails to liquify, as it did in 1939, 1940, 1943, 1973, and 1980 (war and Nazi occupation, cholera epidemic, and earthquake, respectively), bad stuff happens. My view is that the latest failure is connected with Donald Trump. From CT:

Fears of more earthquakes in Italy, cholera and other prophecies of doom circulated on social media after the blood of San Gennaro failed to liquefy.

Gennaro, whose name is often rendered as St Januarius, lived in the third century and is the patron saint of Naples. He is believed to have been a victim of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecution.

At his death, it is said, some of his blood was collected by an onlooker and is to this day stored in Naples cathedral in a glass ampoule.

. . . When Pope Francis visited the cathedral in March last year, clergy said they observed the dry blood begin to turn liquid. The blood was said to have “half liquefied”. The three official liquefaction dates are in May, September and December but it does also liquefy for some Popes, although not all, when they visit the cathedral.

This month on the third annual date for the miracle, there were no signs of liquefaction. December 16 is the day Neapolitans remember the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 and the intervention of San Gennaro to stop the lava before it entered the city.

. . . Fears of more earthquakes in Italy, cholera and other prophecies of doom circulated on social media after the blood of San Gennaro failed to liquefy.


It would be great if scientists could get their hands on this blood, but that’s unlikely. However, the Catholic Church’s ambiguous stand on the issue is canny, for it allows the believers to remain believers without the Vatican having to endorse a sketchy “miracle.”

h/t: Matthew Cobb