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.