Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On the question of miracles

Last week at The Mad Hatters, Julie posted about the tragic loss of an airplane over the Indian Ocean. One young girl survived.

Julie asked - Miracle or Pure Luck?

I replied that, amazing and improbable doesn't mean impossible. Then I tried to give an analogy involving the unanticipated failure of a 'splonking plate rivet', and was that miraculous? It was late and I was a bit drunk, so maybe it wasn't the best example to choose (that's my excuse anyway).

Julie then said a very unexpected thing: "isn’t a miracle meant to be a good thing"?

Hmm, I've been thinking about this and I have to disagree. Here's why.

A certain New Testament figure healed a few individuals and raised one man from the dead John 11:39-47 - that's good (rather unimpressive though given today's medical knowledge. OK Lazarus was 4 days dead and buried, but these days people are routinely spared death by drowning or heart attacks etc when previously they would have been declared dead. I do not consider good medical practice to be miraculous).

He turned water into wine John 2:1-11. Well that's good I suppose, for the wedding guests at least.

He walked on water John 6:16-21 Not good or bad, unless there was a long term good from this which I've missed because of my limited knowledge of scripture.

The same figure cursed a fig tree so that it withered Mark 11:12-21. Definitely bad, for the tree anyway, and rather childish too for the son of a god.

And why did he have to put one man's demons into pigs? Mark 5:1-16 Forgetting the fate of the 2000 pigs, he just destroyed the livelihood of some unknown person(s). 2000 pigs! Was there any payment for that loss? How many people starved the next year because of that action? Definitely bad. Not just for the pigs but for the whole community.

And let's leave out the miraculous plagues and smitings of the OT. (smites, smotes smootes, smits, smuts, smottens?)

I stand by my 'rivet' analogy though. You see... remember the girl who survived the aircrash, maybe her seatbelt rivets were above average strong. Other people were catapulted around, she was restrained till the last moment and she hit the water largely unscathed. I don't know. Maybe her seatbelt rivets were below standard and came loose early. She was catapulted through an open door, because the door had failed, but then she hit the water 2 seconds later; lost in the ocean but largely unhurt.

Maybe she wasn't bleeding much, and managed to cling to some flotsam so she was not kicking her legs to stay afloat. The sharks ignored her for more obvious meat. Any which way, the rescue services came and she lives to tell the tale. No supernatural miracle. And I am not trying to trivialise her survival. May all luck go with her.

Hopefully from her counselling in trauma recovery, or perhaps not, some relevant details can be passed back to the air crash investigators. I do not mean she should be grilled about it, but anything she may remember may add to knowledge for future aircraft safety.

Back to miracles.
Now, I don't have duncanr's story telling ability, but just imagine:

You have been invited to a party, It's a long journey so you give yourself plenty of time. However, just as you climb into the shower there's a power cut. Never mind, you have a sluice down under the cold tap and continue getting ready. Then the zipper goes on your favourite outfit. Curses - find something else to wear. You are starting to rush when, for no reason, one of your contact lenses pops out. A few more curses later you decide wear your glasses, but they aren't where you thought you'd put them. After a frantic hunt you remember you left them in the car; now where are your keys? Eventually you find them in the fridge where you'd put them down while unpacking your groceries. Etc, etc... I could go on and on... But eventually you arrive at the party. Someone inquires about your journey.

"Don't ask!" You reply, "it's a bloody miracle I'm here".

This is simply a figure of speech, the same as a 'miraculous escape', it merely implies the improbable.

So what are real miracles?

Is it like this?
Fox News Miracle

Or is it like this? Lourdes

Quoting Wikipedia:

"On 11 February 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote Grotto of Massabielle. The lady later identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception" and the faithful believe her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lady appeared 18 times, and by 1859 thousands of pilgrims were visiting Lourdes".

"An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860, and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 67 miraculous healings which are stringently examined for authenticity and authentic miracle healing with no physical or psychological basis other than the healing power of the water".

OK, 67 healings from 200 million visits, that's a success rate of about 1 in 3 million, or 0.0000335%. Hardly impressive given that on rare occasions people spontaneously recover from serious illnesses for which medical science has no cure, or an attempted cure failed (cancer can naturally go into remission for instance). Compare this to a control group of 200,000,000 people and how many would have survived naturally with no divine intervention? I guess a lot more than 67. Miracles at Lourdes are a piss take. I would love to see the criteria which the Catholic Church uses to judge such phenomena.

What would convince me? An amputee regrowing a lost limb after 'taking the waters'. How many times has this happened? Never, not once, not even half a finger or a bit of an earlobe.

I have to ask, Why won't God heal amputees?


NobblySan said...

"why won't god heal amputees"?

You've hit the nail on the head here Andy. The religious lobby just don't have a leg to stand on.

Andy Holroyd said...

Strange but, I think, true. I have never seen anything in any scripture where a lost limb is regrown (bar mythology and hydras).

That's a point! If a deity could magic back a new limb, why not a new head? Moslem beheadings would be obsolete.

What a crappy god some people believe in.