The Miracle of Fatima

On May 13, 1917, three Portuguese children in the town of Fátima, a small village seventy miles north of Lisbon, claimed to have witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary. According to the account given by Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, Mary had appeared to them, clad in luminous white, above a holmoak tree in a pasture known as Cova da Iria. She urged the children to say the Rosary every day to bring peace to the world, and promised she would return on the 13th day of each of the next five months.

According to the legend, the children returned to the site in the following months, where the apparitions of Mary appeared on schedule as promised. Reports of the vision begans circulating in the community, drawing pilgrims to the site, although no one except the three children ever saw Mary. On July 13, the apparition granted Lúcia three prophetic visions. She also told the children that when she returned in October, she would perform a miracle so that all who were there would believe.

Prophetic fever swelled the countryside, and on the appointed day, contemporary accounts record a crowd of around 70,000 people at Fátima. What allegedly happened next has passed into Catholic legend:

"Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was Biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws - the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people..."

I'll discuss this tale in a moment, but first, the three prophecies. The first one contains no content other than the usual gruesome fantasizing about the torments of the damned. The second is more specific:

The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes... If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church... In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.

Although most of this is vague, conditional or simply false, it's true that World War II did break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. (Actually, to be precise, Pius XI died in February, while Germany invaded Poland in September of that year.) Catholic apologists have hailed this as a miraculous prediction. And yet, all are agreed that this prophecy was not revealed to the world until 1941, after the events it claimed to foretell. The mention of a future pope by name is suspicious, since prophecies hardly ever commit themselves to such specific, verifiable details. The most likely scenario is that this prediction was, in whole or in part, fabricated after the fact.

And what of the third? After being kept secret for decades, it was finally revealed to the world in 2000:

And we saw in an immense light that is God... a bishop dressed in white... we had the impression that it was the Holy Father. Other bishops, priests, religious men and women going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other bishops, priests, religious men and women, and various lay people of different ranks and positions.

No doubt you're wondering what all the fuss was about. That seems to have been the general reaction, and Catholics have struggled to find an event which fits this foretelling. Some claim this was a prophecy of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, although most of the specific details don't fit that scenario (the pope in the vision dies, which John Paul did not; he is assaulted by a small army, not by a lone gunman; and his death is accompanied by the deaths of many other clergy). Interestingly, there's a cottage industry of Catholics who claim that this isn't the real third vision, that the Church is still holding back the real prophecy in whole or in part - a tacit recognition of the fact that the prophetic content of this one is disappointingly generic.

Finally, consider the miracle of the sun. What's interesting is that, although many witnesses claimed to have witnessed a miracle, they did not all agree on what it was. Some said that the sun changed color repeatedly; some said it spun and moved around the sky; some said it became possible to look directly at the sun without harm to the eyes; some said to have seen visions of Mary's face. Some people claimed to see various combinations of these. Importantly, some people who were present at the site claimed to have seen nothing out of the ordinary at all. Most apologetic reports claim that 70,000 people witnessed the miracle, but every Catholic site I've seen reprints the same six to eight testimonies. Most likely, these apologists are simply assuming that everyone who was present saw it.

Some skeptics have suggested that some unusual weather phenomenon, such as a sundog, took place there and gave rise to the miracle claims, but I don't think any such explanation is necessary. I think human psychology alone can account for what happened. EWTN unintentionally provides a key piece of the answer, in its excerpt from the testimony of Alfredo da Silva Santo:

When Lúcia called out: "Look at the sun!" the whole multitude repeated: "Attention to the sun!" It was a day of incessant drizzle but a few moments before the miracle it stopped raining.

Consider: Who would have made the pilgrimage to a rural village of Portugal, to stand in a muddy field all day in the rain, all because three peasant children claimed there would be a miracle? Clearly, this situation would only attract the most fervent of the faithful, the people who were already strongly predisposed to believe in Marian apparitions and other miracles. To judge from similar cases, the pilgrims present that day probably worked themselves into a highly emotional state, praying, singing hymns, perhaps starving or flagellating themselves as the vision had previously suggested. And then, when the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy of expectation, one of the children dramatically points upward and cries out, "Look at the sun!"

To a crowd of eager believers in a suggestible state, this suggestion is all it would have taken. Pilgrims in a state of religious ecstasy, dazzled by looking at the sun, may have convinced themselves that they saw it move or that it changed color, or that they saw a vision of Mary's face. Any such report would have spread like wildfire among the crowd, and as is human nature, once one person reported a miracle, dozens of others would doubtless have agreed that they saw it as well. From that point, all it takes is the normal process of drift and mutation that always occurs when a rumor spreads, resulting in exaggeration of the most salient details, the addition of others that fit with the tale, and suppression of the ones that don't. Human suggestibility and eagerness to believe are the best explanation of the tale of Fátima; and lacking any tangible evidence that anything unusual occurred there, Catholic believers have no firm ground on which to claim otherwise.

January 26, 2009, 7:42 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink52 comments

Black Magic for Fun and Profit

A few months ago, I signed up for the mailing list of a site that has the chutzpah to call itself "Real Magic Spells". Practically every single day since, I've gotten a highly entertaining e-mail from the site's proprietor, one Frank Stevens, who endlessly boasts about how he's the real deal, how his voodoo spells really work (unlike all the other fraudulent sites out there), how much labor and danger he had to go through to learn this, how the powerful elders of voodoo magic are furious with him for revealing their deepest secrets, and so on. His offer to teach the world to cast genuine black magic spells is complete nonsense, of course, and I'm sure he knows that quite well. But if he ever wants to consider an alternative career, I'd bet he could make a good living as a screenwriter or a fantasy novelist.

Here's an excerpt from one of his letters, which begins with the subject: "Lift a Car with One Arm!"

Question: Can we human beings tap into this type of super-human strength on command?

Answer: Yes and no.

Yes, we can do seemingly incredible things at will. Yes, we can improve whatever we are doing - and do so instantly.

Yes, we can make what appear to be quantum leaps forward.

But no, we cannot make these leaps unless we learn how to harness the power of mental pictures and ....

Harness the power of magic.

And if you sign up right now, there's more:

* Bonus 1: Beginners Love Spell.
You can successfully perform this love spell after you only been studying for about 1 hour!!!

* Bonus 2: Financial Improvement Spell
You can get rid of your money worries TODAY.

* Bonus 3: Voodoo on Non-Believers Special Report.
You can easily do spells on people who do NOT believe in Voodoo.

* Bonus 4: Some of the best sources for Information on Voodoo in the world.

* Bonus 5: Voodoo Defense.
Learn exactly how to defend your self from other peoples attack magic.

* Bonus 6: Revenge Spell.
I am still considering taking this one out of the course because it is too powerful.

* Bonus 7: Horse's Healing Spell.
This healing spell regularly performs miracles.

Another e-mail along the same lines claims that, if "you want $500 for that new air conditioner," you can perform the "Financial Spell" and "proceed to find $500 in 3 minutes flat". I have to admit I'm curious. Plenty of magic believers claim they can acquire wealth supernaturally, but even so, the claim is usually that it arrives through mundane means in due time. But in three minutes? How does this work? Do bags of money just materialize next to you, or do they drop from the sky on command? (Also, do "Voodoo Defense" and the "Revenge Spell" cancel each other out? What happens if one person performs one and the target performs the other?)

As usual, there are dismissive words for the skeptics:

The main reason people do not test their belief in magic is because they are afraid that it is NOT real. OR...

They are afraid that it is real and that they will have to give up their excuses for failure.

Are you brave enough to take the power of real magic and make it your own?

One might think Mr. Stevens is going out on a limb by making such specific and testable claims about his supposed magical powers, but I assume the risk is small. There will always be those who think that the confidence with which a claim is advanced is a reliable guide to its truth. And those who deeply invest their identity in any kind of supernaturalism will always find excuses and rationalizations for the method's failure - "it was my fault for not believing enough" is a perenially common one. To take advantage of a promised refund in the event of failure would be admitting to themselves that what they trusted and believed in is not real. Most fervent believers would rather give up a few dollars than face that upsetting truth. No surprise, there are plenty of con artists who make a handsome living by skimming off the top of that tendency.

August 8, 2008, 6:37 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

Regulate Psychics? Hell, Yes!

Via Reuters, a story out of the U.K. that made me very happy indeed: British "psychics" are protesting a new consumer-protection law which they fear will require them to offer actual proof of their alleged powers.

The law currently in force in this area is the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which does in fact make it illegal to fraudulently claim to possess psychic or clairvoyant powers. But the key word is "fraudulently" - meaning that any enterprising prosecutor would have to prove that not only that the defendant has no psychic powers, but that they were aware of this and deliberately set out to deceive. This is a high bar to surmount, which is why the Act has hardly ever been used to prosecute psychic claimants. (Oddly enough, Northern Ireland is specifically exempted. I guess fraudulent psychics working there luck out?)

But now, as part of an effort to harmonize consumer-protection laws across the European Union, the Act may be repealed. The new regulations proposed to replace it ban "treating consumers unfairly", and psychics worry that this language could be used against them, to force them to prove their claims are genuine. Gee, you think?

Organizers [of the petition drive] say that replacing the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 with new consumer protection rules will remove key legal protection for "genuine" mediums.

They think skeptics might bring malicious prosecutions to force spiritualists to prove in court that they can heal people, see into the future or talk to the dead.

Excuse me - "malicious" prosecutions? How on earth would that be malicious? If a psychic is the real thing, surely there can be no harm in asking them to prove this in clear and convincing fashion with objective evidence. If a psychic is phony, and the practitioner is duping the gullible with false claims, why would it be malicious to prosecute them for this? Any other business that uses false claims in its advertising is liable to prosecution. Why should psychics get a special exemption from that ordinary and reasonable standard?

Here's the answer that gives the game away:

"If I'm giving a healing to someone, I don't want to have to stand there and say I don't believe in what I'm doing," said Carole McEntee-Taylor, a healer who co-founded the Spiritual Workers Association.

..."By repealing the Act, the onus will go round the other way and we will have to prove we are genuine," McEntee-Taylor told Reuters. "No other religion has to do that."

No other religion has to do that. Clearly, the psychics see themselves not as businesspeople, but as religious practitioners - and as such, they believe they should be exempt from having to present proof. Because, of course, anything that is "religion" does not need to present any proof for its claims, and it is unfair to ask otherwise. This is exactly what atheists like Sam Harris are speaking of when they refer to the corrosive, dangerous effects of faith, in that it elevates ordinary claims above the necessity of testing and criticism.

But I do agree that it would be unfair to ask psychics to offer proof of their powers while exempting other religions. So, let's take this even further! Any supernatural belief system that claims to offer tangible benefits - healing, prosperity, discerning the future - should be put to the test and have to prove that it can deliver on its claims, the same way as any other business which sells a product. It's insane that anyone who makes a specific claim to be able to deliver services in exchange for money can avoid any kind of testing or scrutiny by slapping the label "religion" on his business.

As I wrote in "A Call for Truth in Advertising Laws", many religious frauds make explicit, specific claims about what they can deliver. Real businesses, as opposed to businesses selling superstition and pseudoscience, never get away with this. No legitimate pharmaceutical company can claim its drugs can cure some illness unless it goes through multiple rounds of double-blind testing to prove this. Food companies can't claim their products can prevent heart disease unless there are well-designed studies to show it.

Why should psychics and miracle-hawkers be held to a different standard? Why not make faith healers and psychic surgeons go through double-blind studies that track recovery rates? Why not put cold-readers and mediums to the test? Present them with five unknown people, whom they cannot see and who do not give feedback, and ask the psychic to perform a reading for just one - then have the five separately rate that reading's accuracy to see if it applies well to only one of them. Why not see if clairvoyants can read the symbols on Zener cards and check if they can do any better than the 20% rate chance would suggest?

The possibilities are limitless, and it's no wonder psychics are terrified. Ask them to actually prove their abilities, as opposed to exploiting the gullible and credulous under poorly controlled conditions, and their whole industry would melt away. Make no mistake, they fear a real test because they know they could not possibly pass. And that makes it all the more imperative that we skeptics push for real tests, to demonstrate that psychic powers are a sham and a delusion, and that their claimants are enriching themselves by shamelessly preying upon and exploiting people who are eager to believe.

April 19, 2008, 11:30 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink29 comments

Do You Really Believe That? (V)

Anointing the Sick

The New Testament's Book of James gives some very unusual instructions on how to treat illness:

"Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

—James 5:14-15

In eras when human knowledge was far less advanced, it's not surprising that people would turn to superstitious practices such as prayer and anointing with oil in an attempt to cure illness. What's far more surprising is how many people still believe in these practices today, despite our far more advanced knowledge of scientific medicine, as well as ample evidence that faith healing does not work.

The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, makes anointing a regular practice, and claims that it offers physical healing:

At the conclusion of the service of the Sacrament, the body is anointed with oil, and the grace of God, which heals infirmities of soul and body, is called down upon each person.

...The Sacrament of the Unction of the sick is the Church's specific prayer for healing. If the faith of the believers is strong enough, and if it is the will of God, there is every reason to believe that the Lord can heal those who are diseased.

The Assemblies of God says the same thing:

In the Assemblies of God we believe neither the laying on of hands nor anointing with oil is indispensable for healing, for often in Scripture healing takes place without either. But at times the touch of a praying person and the application of oil are an encouragement to faith, and such a practice is enjoined by Scripture (James 5:14-16).

And, as Jeffrey Shallit reports, Prof. Clifford Blake of the University of Waterloo is an unabashed believer in faith healing through anointing and other, equally mystical methods:

Some people believe healing was only in the time of the Bible. But he knows it is happening now. When he began to use healing oil, he got more consistent results.

Granted, there are also Christians who believe the anointing is merely symbolic. And the reason they believe that should be obvious: because it is abundantly obvious, to those who know how to think critically, that anointing people with oil is not an effective method of curing illness. If there was any evidence that this was an efficacious treatment, we can be sure it would be universally employed in every Christian church, and would not be explained away as symbolic. But as scientific medicine has progressed and our ability to work real cures has increased, superstitious practices like this have become increasingly superfluous and have gradually faded away (although, as shown, there are still plenty of holdouts).

Certainly, the Bible's description of this does not seem like mere symbolism: it says clearly that "the prayer of faith" will save the sick, and in conjunction with the oil, "the Lord shall raise him up" (the Greek word, egeiro, means "to cause to rise", i.e., from a seat or a bed). My question to modern believers who view this passage symbolically is, if you know this doesn't work, how do you know that - and do you apply that same standard to the rest of the Bible? And to those who still use faith healing and dabs of magical oil, in an age of genetic manipulation, transplant surgery and antibiotics, my question is: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

March 23, 2008, 12:18 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink120 comments

Magic Spell Jesus

A few weeks back, I was looking through my traffic logs and found someone who came across my article "The Power of Christ Compels You" via the following Google search:

I'm guessing my article wasn't what this person was looking for, so I ran the search myself and found the following essay: How to Plead the Blood of Jesus for Deliverance and Protection.

This remarkable essay is founded on a deep belief in what I can only call Christian magic. It claims that "pleading the blood of Jesus", a specific type of prayer which it explains precisely how to conduct, will create supernatural protection for the life and possessions of the claimant against real-world disasters. It helpfully lists the basic things that a Christian can invoke the blood of Jesus to magically protect: your house ("will help protect you against fires, break-ins, burglaries, natural catastrophes or any type of bad accidents"), your car ("will help prevent you from getting into any serious auto accidents, along with helping to prevent any break-ins or theft of your car"), your finances ("will help protect you from all of the scammers and con artists that are out there trying to scam and steal all of your hard earned money"), your children ("will help protect them from any possible abductions, serious accidents or life-threatening illnesses"), and yourself, to personally protect you against all of these catastrophes. Unbelievably, the site even claims that this spell will protect against earthquakes, tornadoes, lawsuits, and plane crashes!

The site insists that, like any good magic spell, the words must be spoken precisely and specifically:

You will have to Plead the Blood on each of the above six items to get God's full protection on it. You have to be very specific on the things that you will want covered and protected under His Blood.

Evidently, despite being omniscient and presumably knowing what people need, God parses all prayers like a lawyer does a contract, only granting the exact boons the believer asks for.

It even adds the specific magical gestures that help the believer's spell work most effectively:

The other thing that you can do is to hold out your right hand, palm facing forward when actually Pleading the Blood. The Bible tells us that the right hand of God is His hand of power and deliverance. When you Plead the Blood, you are going on the offensive. By holding out your right hand when Pleading the Blood on the basics, you are showing God that you mean serious business with Him, and that you have every intention of pulling down His divine supernatural protection to cover you on all of the basics that you are Pleading the Blood of His Son on.

as well as how long the magical protection lasts:

I have personally found out the hard way that if I want God's full protection on all of the above items – that I have to Plead the Blood on the night before the beginning of the next month. In other words, if I want God's protection for the month of May, then I have to Plead the Blood on all of the above on the last day of April.

I'd suggest to the authors of this site that they try testing their magical powers in a controlled fashion to see if they have any effect whatsoever distinguishable from chance, but I suspect few theists' beliefs are as blissfully uncontaminated by evidence as the writer of this essay. As with all believers in magic, Christians who use these spells will remember the hits and forget the misses, attributing the inevitable failures of prayer to some sin in their lives or simply to a change in God's unknowable will. The terminally superstitious may use these magical beliefs as a crutch to help them get through their daily lives, but it is a crutch that is only hobbling them further, when they would do far better to stand and walk on their own two feet.

March 14, 2008, 8:34 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments

Conflicting Miracles

"Saint Jnanadeva is revered for his Bhagavad Gita translation and commentary in the Maharastrian language. Among several miracles that established this 13th-century saint's reputation, the most famous involved a water buffalo. Challenged by the arrogant brahmins of Paithan that he was not qualified to recite the Vedas, Jnanadeva replied, 'Anyone can recite the Vedas.' He placed his hand upon a nearby water buffalo, which proceeded to correctly chant Vedic verses for more than an hour."

"Thousands flocked to temples in Sri Lanka in early August 2006 after media reports that 'miracle rays' could be seen emanating from statues of the Buddha. As news of the extraordinary phenomenon spread, traffic was held up throughout the capital city of Colombo and its suburbs as large numbers of people visited temples and roadside Buddha statues.

...'Thousands vouched for having seen rays emanating from the chest of the Buddha statues and considered it a miracle,' according to an article in a Sri Lankan newspaper."

"I was heartbroken that my boyfriend decided to leave the relationship, so I had the Retrieve A Lover spell cast. Within a week of the spell casting, he called 'just to talk.' After some pleasant talks and catching up, he asked to see me again.

I felt he had started to turn around. I decided to date someone else just to see. He is absolutely crazy about me now and DOES see the good in me that I had hoped he would.

I am a college grad with a highly professional job. I was looking for answers. I got them.

I was so thrilled that I had the Money Spell cast a few months later. Within days I got a letter from the child support office that my child support was increasing by $172 a month!"

"In Kirtland, Joseph Smith made friends with a local resident, John Johnson. The Johnsons and several others visited Joseph at his home in 1831. Mrs. Johnson had been ill for years with a lame arm. It made her unable, for example, to lift her hand above her head. One of the group asked Joseph if God had given any man power to heal Mrs. Johnson. A non-member of the Church records what followed:

A few moments later, when the conversation had turned in another direction, Smith rose, and walking across the room, taking Mrs. Johnson by the hand, said in the most solemn and impressive manner, 'Woman, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I command thee to be whole,' and immediately left the room. The company was awe-stricken at the infinite presumption of the man, and the calm assurance with which he spoke. The sudden mental and moral shock - I know not how better to explain the well-attested fact - electrified the rheumatic arm - Mrs. Johnson at once lifted it up with ease, and on her return home the next day she was able to do her washing without difficulty or pain."

"Narrated Anas:
A man came to the Prophet on a Friday while he (the Prophet) was delivering a sermon at Medina, and said, 'There is lack of rain, so please invoke your Lord to bless us with the rain.' The Prophet looked at the sky when no cloud could be detected. Then he invoked Allah for rain. Clouds started gathering together and it rained till the Medina valleys started flowing with water. It continued raining till the next Friday. Then that man (or some other man) stood up while the Prophet was delivering the Friday sermon, and said, 'We are drowned; Please invoke your Lord to withhold it (rain) from us.' The Prophet smiled and said twice or thrice, 'O Allah! Please let it rain round about us and not upon us.' The clouds started dispersing over Madinah to the right and to the left, and it rained round about Madinah and not upon Madinah. Allah showed them (the people) the miracle of His Prophet and His response to his invocation."

"On May 13, 1917, a vision appeared to three shepherd children near the village of Fatima in Portugal. On a cloud that hovered above an oak tree they saw the shining figure of a woman, 'a beautiful Lady from Heaven'. The lady told the children - Lucia, 10, Francisco, 9, and Jacinta, 7 - to meet her in the same place on the 13th of each month until October.
On the first two visits only the children claimed to have actually seen the lady, but on the third and last visit, a crowd of 50,000 gathered, on a wet and dismal day, to see the last apparition. This time the shining lady, again invisible to all but the children, announced her identity: she was Our Lady of the Rosary, and she told them three 'secrets' about the future.
Then something shocking happened.
The rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out. At first it seemed to start spinning and then it began to plunge crazily toward the earth. The crowd was terrified. After a moment the sun returned to its normal position and then, twice more, repeated the same maneuver."

"These miracles were common enough in Rome, and among others this was believed, that when the Roman soldiers were sacking the city of Veii, certain of them entered the temple of Juno and spoke to the statue of the goddess, saying, 'Wilt thou come with us to Rome?' when to some it seemed that she inclined her head in assent, and to others that they heard her answer, 'Yea.'"

—Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1517)

Although our age is somewhat less credulous than past eras, human society is still awash in miracle claims. As the above examples show, they come from every faith and belief system, and they run the gamut: faith healings; weather miracles; snake-handling and poison-drinking; speaking in tongues; statues that move, weep, bleed, speak, eat or drink; miraculous prophecies and foretellings; psychics who claim they can view distant locations or communicate with the dead; "deliverances" from demons and evil spirits; spells and prayers to bring love, health and prosperity; "incorruptible" bodies; levitation and bilocation; divine manifestations in burned food and water damage; stigmata; multiplication of food and oil; speaking animals; and many more.

One of the greatest English-speaking philosophers of all time, David Hume, saw the fundamental problem with all these miraculous stories in his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

To make this the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.

...This argument may appear over subtile and refined; but is not in reality different from the reasoning of a judge, who supposes, that the credit of two witnesses, maintaining a crime against any one, is destroyed by the testimony of two others, who affirm him to have been two hundred leagues distant, at the same instant when the crime is said to have been committed.

In other words, Hume says, the conflicting miracle claims of various religions cancel each other out. These religions cannot all be true, since they make incompatible theological claims. (I note for completeness' sake that they can all be false.) We can safely assume that, if a religion is false, any miracle claims advanced in its name are exaggerations or frauds. It follows that when considering whether any particular miracle claim is true, we must consider all the miracle claims of all other religions to count as evidence to the contrary. And since there are so many of these, no matter which religion's miracle claims you're considering, the vast number of miracle claims from other religions which stand in opposition to it make the claim under consideration very probably false. It's as if there was a vast crowd of people, and whenever any one person stands to assert a claim, the entire rest of the crowd shouts out to contradict him.

Although it's useful to debunk particular miracle anecdotes - and I have nothing but admiration for the dedicated skeptics who go out to investigate every new wild-goose chase - this argument shows why we don't need to. Seven hundred years later, no one can really know for sure whether a water buffalo spoke on one occasion in the 13th century. But the burden of proof is not on the doubter to disprove. The burden of proof lies on the person making the claim, and no apologist for any religion can offer any evidence for their miracles that is superior to the evidence offered by any other. Thus, these stories offer no grounds for making a decision among all the faiths that promote them. If any miracle could be repeated, tested, under reliable and controlled conditions by independent observers, that would be something. But, so far, no religion has come anywhere close to meeting this high burden of proof.

The sole argument a theist could offer to dispute any of this, which I have no doubt will be offered by some, is for them to say that their miracles are from God, while the "miracles" of other religions are false signs performed by demons to mislead the unwary. But since any member of any religion can use that argument in exactly the same way, it is no help in deciding among them. It may soothe the troubled minds of the faithful, but it cannot have any persuasive force to anyone who is not already committed to one belief.

February 18, 2008, 9:24 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink98 comments

Georgia's Rain Prayer Farce

It may be the 21st century, but you wouldn't know it from stories like this:

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue stepped up to a podium outside the state Capitol on Tuesday and led a solemn crowd of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on his drought-stricken state.

"We've come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.

These past few months, the American South has been suffering from its most severe drought in decades. So far this year, northern Georgia has received half the amount of rain it would usually have gotten by this point. Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main reservoir, may run dry in as little as three months if the rains don't come. Undoubtedly, this is a serious crisis - which makes it all the more ridiculous and embarrassing that the governor of an entire state is engaging in a superstitious magical ritual which he hopes will change the mind of his omniscient, infinitely intelligent god.

The logic behind intercessory prayer makes no sense. Does Gov. Perdue suppose that Georgians' prayers will bring to God's attention a need of which he was not previously aware? Is God forgetful, so that he needs to be reminded to send rain each year? Or did God knowingly cause the drought for reasons of his own - and if so, what arrogance it would be for a Christian to assume that they know better than God what God should do and that they can persuade him to alter his plan!

Worst of all, it seems clear that this event made no effort to be inclusive, but instead employed the full machinery of the state to promote a Protestant Christian belief system in an atmosphere resembling a revival sermon:

A church choir belted out "What a Mighty God We Serve" and "Amazing Grace" as a keyboardist swayed to the rhythm. While preachers spoke, worshippers chanted "amen," and some stood with eyes closed and arms outstretched.

...The hourlong event was billed as an interfaith ceremony but only three Protestant ministers joined Perdue, who is a Baptist, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Thankfully, this egregious violation of separation of church and state did not go entirely unchallenged. The Atlanta Freethought Society was in attendance to protest, with some welcome words of reason, and most of the media articles about this event that I've seen at least noted their presence. Their press release put it best:

This is embarrassingly foolish, a great mistake, a waste of taxpayer money, and unconstitutional on its face.

Defenders of the faith may say that the state is in crisis, human efforts can't help bring rain, and there can't be any harm in praying, so why not try it? But if that were the case - if this truly was a desperate last resort - then we should expect the governor to try everything that might help. Why not sacrifice some livestock? Perform a rain dance? Bow towards Mecca? It can't hurt, right? But Gov. Perdue hasn't tried any of these things. Doubtless, that's because the real purpose of this event isn't to seriously petition God for rain; it's to put on an ostentatious show of public piety for his constituents. If it were otherwise, he could simply have encouraged people to pray at home - which would have been bad enough, but less offensive than this farce.

If Lake Lanier runs dry, the consequences would be catastrophic. On the other hand, if the rain returns in time to avert disaster - which is not unlikely, considering that rain is statistically inevitable given enough time - we can be sure that Gov. Perdue and his religious cronies will claim that their prayers saved the day. But even in the worst-case scenarios imaginable, it's a certainty that no one will call prayer a failure or think to blame God. In this scenario, as in others, religion has positioned itself in a no-lose situation. A more rational government, meanwhile, would not waste time imploring the gods for help, and would instead have used the crisis as a springboard for setting up water-conservation measures (such as reuse of graywater), in the hope of averting a similar disaster in the future. As Mark Twain once said, "It is better to read the weather forecast before we pray for rain."

November 14, 2007, 8:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink84 comments

On Incorruptibility

One of the stranger supposed miracles in the Christian catalog is the miracle of incorruptibility. More common in Catholicism (I have yet to come across any Protestant examples), this term refers to a saint or holy person whose body miraculously refuses to decompose after death, instead remaining intact and even lifelike.

This apologist site lists some of the more prominent Catholic incorruptibles, though as is usual with apologetics, considerable exaggeration has crept in. For example, regarding one of the most famous incorruptibles, St. Bernadette Soubiros, the site reports how doctors were amazed at the supposedly flawless preservation of the body over fifty years after death. Yet when a reliquary was being prepared to display Bernadette's body (it is still on display today in a chapel in France), a decision was made to create wax masks to cover her face and hands. Visitors to Bernadette's shrine today are seeing wax, not skin. The Catholic site tactfully claims that this was done to cover up a "slight" skin discoloration on the face, but does not explain why a slight discoloration would require a full-face wax mask and wax to cover the hands as well. The Wikipedia article on Bernadette says, probably more accurately, that at that time the face had a blackish tinge and the eyes and nose were noticeably sunken.

Still, the surprising degree of preservation of this and other corpses does merit closer examination. What could account for a body remaining more or less intact for decades?

In some cases, the answer turns out to be obvious in retrospect. Consider the story of St. Margaret of Cortona, whose body has remained incorrupt and whole for over seven hundred years - seemingly a great miracle. Yet a recent forensic examination, commissioned by the Catholic church and described in the June 2001 edition of Discover, revealed the startling truth:

As Fulcheri gently lifted the hem of her dress up over her legs, all those assembled began to murmur. Several long incisions streaked along her thighs; other, deeper cuts ran along her abdomen and chest. Clearly made after death, they had been sewn shut with a whipstitch in coarse black thread. Saint Margaret had been artificially mummified.

The pathologists who examined Margaret's body later unearthed ecclesiastical records that told the whole story: the people of her town had asked the church to embalm her when she died. This had been done, with remarkable thoroughness. But the records of this fact had been lost, and over time, people forgot the circumstances of her preservation and simply began to assume that it was a miracle.

This story raises the question of how many other "incorruptible" saints might have undergone artificial preservation. Nevertheless, embalming does not seem to be the whole answer. The article notes that some other incorruptible bodies have been examined and showed no similar signs of human handiwork. Is this a miracle, or are there natural processes that can preserve a body?

If incorruptibility is a miracle, it is not solely a Christian one. Consider the case of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Russian Buddhist lama who died in 1927. Allegedly, he told his followers to exhume his body 30 years after his death, and when they did, they found it still intact, undecayed. The corpse was reburied, but 45 years later, in 2002, it was exhumed again and again discovered to be perfectly preserved. To this day, Itigilov's body is on display in the monastery in Ivolginsk, still sitting in the lotus position:

The lamas have dressed his body in a golden robe, with a blue sash laid across his lap. His eyes are closed, his features blurred, though the shape of his face and his nose certainly resemble the 1913 photograph. His hands remain flexible, his nails perfectly trimmed. His skin is leathery but soft. His head is still covered in short-trimmed hair.

(Other Buddhist monks, known as sokoshinbutsu, are also known to have well-preserved bodies, supposedly as the result of ritual ascetic practices they carried out prior to death.)

The fact that incorruptibility occurs in people other than Christian saints makes the miracle explanation considerably less likely. Far more likely is that natural processes, perhaps rare or only operating under the right circumstances, can conspire to preserve a body even in the absence of any special measures. As it happens, some candidate processes that fit the bill are known.

One example is called adipocere. In a damp, alkaline environment, fatty tissue in a body can undergo a chemical reaction that turns it into a hard, waxy, soaplike substance (which is why adipocere is often called "grave wax"). As Cecil Adams notes, the end result is a cadaver which looks "like something you'd find in a wax museum" ("albeit the George Romero wing", he adds dryly - which is fitting, considering that most claims of incorruptibility have more than a tinge of the macabre). Adipocere inhibits decomposition, preserves the shape of the body like a cast, and can last for centuries. It is very likely the explanation for many incorruptible corpses.

Another candidate is mummification. If left in a very cold, salty or dry environment, a body can become desiccated and resistant to decay. (Decay typically requires at least some moisture - this is why honey does not rot or ferment, because its low moisture content makes it impossible for bacteria to grow in it.) Natural mummies like Otzi the Iceman are well-known. Though these bodies may not be completely lifelike, they do remain intact, and with a little pious imagination (and perhaps some judicious use of wax), it's not hard to see how another claim of incorruptibility could be advanced.

Most important, and seemingly never considered by apologists, is this: How common is it for a body to remain intact? Many religious beliefs arise from the fallacy of counting the hits and forgetting the misses. Since most bodies are not exhumed, this is especially apt. It may be that postmortem preservation is common, but we do not know because we usually never check. In the absence of detailed evidence, the few undecayed bodies we know of should not be proclaimed to be extraordinary, and if these incorrupt Catholic saints are just a few among a much larger category of examples, the claim that their preservation is due to God's special favor would swiftly collapse.

September 8, 2007, 9:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink42 comments

AU Under Attack!

Despite the serious-sounding title, I'm laughing as I write this post. Yes, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is under attack. Yes, the perpetrators are a group of radical Christian dominionists who want to turn this country into their own vision of theocracy. Yes, their aim is to cause great harm and possibly even death to members of Americans United. So why am I so unconcerned?

Because the attack is being waged through prayer.

In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State.... Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing. They are those who lead the attack.

It seems that Wiley Drake, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, California, recently issued a press release on church letterhead endorsing former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Republican presidential primary. Drake also promoted Huckabee on a church radio show, and made it clear that he was endorsing Huckabee not just as an individual but in his official church capacity:

"I believe Mike Huckabee is, indeed, a man that I can endorse. As Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, I put out a press release to that effect."

Naturally, Americans United took note, asking the IRS to investigate this blatant violation of U.S. tax law. Churches are tax-exempt organizations, and one of the restrictions that comes with that status is that they cannot endorse or attack specific candidates for office. If a church wants to endorse a specific candidate, there is no law preventing them from doing so, but they must rescind their tax-free status.

Furious at being caught out, Drake hastily issued a press release asking Christians to pray "imprecatory prayers" - in other words, prayers asking that God use his supernatural power to injure or kill someone - targeted at AU. Drake specifically suggests following the prayers modeled in "Psalm 109... [a]lso chapters 55, 58, 68, 69, and 83". Here are some of the prayers he presumably means:

"Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

—Psalms 109:9

"Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell."

—Psalms 55:15

"Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth... let them be as cut in pieces."

—Psalms 58:6-7

"Do unto them as unto the Midianites; as to Sisera, as to Jabin, at the brook of Kison: which perished at Endor: they became as dung for the earth."

—Psalms 83:9-10

Apparently alarmed by these threats, Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists announced that he would be praying counter-prayers, and was enlisting others to join him. (Perhaps he envisions his prayers as a sort of supernatural antiaircraft fire, shooting down the hostile prayers as they fly in to attack their target.)

While I appreciate Dr. Prescott's concern, I can assure him that his efforts are unnecessary. AU and its employees are not in danger. Prayer is a useless superstitious ritual that cannot directly affect anything outside the believer's own mind. No matter how many people Drake gets to pray along with him, the greatest effect their prayers will have is to slightly stir some air molecules around them. We ought to greet this ridiculous threat with the same amused disdain with which we would regard a witch doctor who announced that he was going to cast a hex on AU by dancing in circles and sticking pins into wax dolls. Both these rituals are powerless relics of a credulous age.

Mainstream believers will doubtless dismiss Drake as a fringe kook. But he is not the first Christian conservative to fantasize that his prayers have magical power to strike down his enemies. Recall this incident from the 700 Club in August 2005, in which Pat Robertson asked God to kill some sitting Supreme Court justices so that George W. Bush could appoint replacements:

"Take control, Lord! We ask for additional vacancies on the court."

...Lynn noted that Robertson has a history of controversial activity, whether it's commanding hurricanes to go out to sea or smiting communities that incur his wrath. He once speculated that Orlando might be hit by a meteor for allowing gay flags to be flown on city streets.

(And let's not forget when Robertson, like a none-too-subtle mafiosi, suggested that God would smite the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania with natural disasters to punish them for voting out several pro-creationist school board members: "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city.")

All levity aside, there is something to be concerned about here. It's not the prayers themselves that should concern us, for it's been amply documented that prayer does not work. The real issue of concern is the hateful, aggressive attitude that lies behind them, the one which holds that believers are always entitled to have their own way and that anyone who opposes them is an evil infidel who deserves suffering and punishment. This attitude fosters militarism and intolerance and encourages religious groups to think that they never have to compromise or cooperate. At its worst, it may even tip the mentally unhinged over the edge into actual violence.

August 16, 2007, 7:41 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink54 comments

On Magic(k)

Throughout history, groups such as the Puritans have railed against what they see as the overly elaborate and ostentatious ceremony and ritual surrounding religious events. But despite the fulminations of religious reformers, ceremony and ritual are not superfluous add-ons to faith, but very much at the core of it. Belief in the supernatural is usually intended to give the believer a sense of control over events, and a highly elaborate, ritualized ceremony is often more effective at this than a simple, unadorned prayer. The ritual gives the practitioner a sense that they are doing something to bring their will to fruition, rather than leaving it all up to the whims of an inscrutable deity.

This tendency perpetually recurs in Christianity, but it can be seen most clearly in modern New Age religions such as Wicca. As opposed to prayer, Wiccans believe that performing certain rituals can give them direct influence over the workings of the universe. Practitioners of these rituals often call them "magick", rather than "magic", presumably to differentiate themselves from Harry Potter or the professional conjurers on TV. This is a frivolous and ridiculous coinage, and I will not go along with it. Magic is magic, and this post will refer to it as such.

Many so-called magical practices lend themselves to mockery even more easily than most religious practices, especially when the intent behind them is so obviously to fleece the gullible. Consider this apparently serious site, whose creators soberly inform us that they are "an Elfin tribe" and "nature spirits in human form". Among the pieces of magical paraphernalia they're hawking is the following:

The Merlin Flipper : An Instant Decision Maker
When you are having trouble with a Yes-No answer, this very special spell disc from Merlin's Cave can help you find the answer that is right for you. All you have to do is to voice the question whilst flipping the disc into the air like a coin. As this disc has been impregnated with a special spell, you will find that 'Fate' will take a hand and cause it to fall with the answer is 'Right For You', uppermost.

"Like" a coin - because, take note, this is most emphatically not an ordinary coin. If it was, there would be no way to justify selling it for twenty-five American dollars. I hear this site's next product will be that miracle of divination, the "Gandalf Octo-Sphere", which is guided by the invisible hand of Fate to show the humble seeker the true answer to his entreaties, but only after being vigorously shaken.

Or take this "Negative Energy Shield":

At a mere £65.(each) it will render you, invincible to all forms of Psychic Attack: giving you full defence without you feeling a thing. By reflecting the energy back at the sender, your assailant soon begins to realise that they are hurting nobody but themselves and so they desist leaving you to enjoy your freedom. It will ward off the stress and strain of modern life and help you to cope with all of the frustrations and irritations that can build up into up - tight situations which result in a high level of Anxiety and Nervous Tension.

As my girlfriend said upon reading this description: "I already have one of those. It's called a tinfoil hat."

Or, consider the much-touted "magic pebble":

If this very special pebble is placed in a container of clear spring water it will after ten minutes or so, have a profound effect on the energy level of the water, turning it into a very powerful Healing Elixir.

...This, is because it raises the Angstrom Energy Level of the water and thereby increases its potency by an amount that has a very beneficial effect on all living things. For the good of your health, we unreservedly recommend that you drink this water, every day. According to Prof. Angstrom, the average healthy person has an energy level of 6.5Å to 7.0Å. In order to stay healthy, we should eat food and drink that has an energy level of seven of more Angstroms.

(Combine this product with some homeopathically prepared water for twice the pseudoscience in every glass!)

Apparently, the creators of this marvel are banking on their customers not knowing that an angstrom is a unit of length, equal to one ten-billionth of a meter. Claiming to raise the "angstrom energy level" of a glass of water makes about as much sense as promising to increase a person's intelligence by ten miles per hour. As far as the illustrious "Prof. Angstrom", he was a real person (his full name was Anders Jonas Angstrom), but he also died in 1874, so I find it highly unlikely that he first took the time to endorse a crackpot New Age website selling pebbles its proprietors picked up off the sidewalk.

And, of course, no magic vendor would be complete without some good old-fashioned love spells:

This formless flint with a highly erotic shape, has been impregnated with a very potent magic spell or thought form and for many centuries has been known affectionately as 'Old Nick's Finger'. This very powerful virility charm for men has the effect of making your body more sensitive and your mind more relaxed, whilst also increasing your libido and fecundity. For best results, keep beside your bed.

Seriously, why on earth would anyone buy this? If it's sexual potency you want, there are plenty of spammers who will be only too happy to sell you the latest pharmaceutical innovation - which, however much it says about the misguided priorities of drug companies, at least has the advantage of scientifically verified efficacy.

But so I'm not accused of picking on easy targets, let's consider a slightly more serious perspective on magic. The following is a love spell excerpted from The Wicca Bible, by Ann-Marie Gallagher, which discusses magic without quite so many irresponsible claims:

Cast this spell on a waxing moon, preferably on a Friday, ruled by lovely Venus.

...Leave the water for this spell out in the moonlight prior to closing the circle. In magic the Moon is a patron of the tides and this spell asks that a lover comes to the supplicant at the right time.

...1. Light the red candle, saying: "Passion burn bright like the Moon above me that I will meet with one who will love me."
2. Hold the rose quartz in one hand and the clear quartz in the other and visualize yourself walking on a seashore. A new love walks out of the waves toward you. As you walk toward each other, bring your hands together and transfer the clear stone to the hand holding the rose quartz.
3. Place the stones in the chalice and pour in the water, saying: "May the light of the Moon bring the gift I desire. Washed in by the tide and blessed by the fire."
4. This fire is the candle flame which should be allowed to burn down completely.
5. Leave the stones in the chalice for three days, remove them and place together in the red cloth which should be tied tightly into a pouch with the cord and worn about your neck for one moon cycle.

One wonders, how were the methods and ingredients of this spell and others determined? Are there records of past Wiccan researchers who tried different colors of candles or cast the spell on different days of the week? Or do these practitioners simply claim to have acquired their knowledge through oracles?

Unlike the site discussed before, The Wicca Bible does not make extravagant claims about the efficacy of magic to control the external world. In fact, it offers so many provisos and disclaimers that it is sometimes difficult to tell if it is claiming magic rituals have any supernatural effect at all. Its discussion of healing spells, for example, says that "healing magic is not about curing terminal diseases..." (indeed not - you need science for that) - but rather, "if those suffering with terminal or chronic illnesses feel that they will benefit from having strength, calm and tranquillity sent to them, then this is the healing that we can send." (Then again, it does say that "Sometimes spells do have remarkable results").

These elaborate disclaimers are the theological equivalent of the fine print at the bottom of used-car ads. They inform overeager believers that their supernatural ritual usually will not have dramatic effects, lest the practitioner become disillusioned - but on the other hand, they hold out an implicit, wink-and-nudge "But hey, you never know..." In this respect it's similar to Christian apologetics which counsel the believer not to expect blatant answers to prayer, but coyly mention the amazing miracles which they claim happened in the past. The goal is to get believers to live in a state of constant expectation and excitement, but never to expect anything actually verifiable, so they do not lose hope and deconvert.

As part of this, magic practitioners invariably apply their powers to large, complex problems not susceptible to controlled conditions - finding love, getting a promotion, telling the future - where failure can always be blamed on unpredictable factors. Can magic prove its worth in a situation where success is clearly distinguishable from failure? Is there a magic spell that will, for example, make a dice roll turn up a particular number more often than chance would dictate? Can magic practitioners use their deep and intimate connection to the intricate web of the universe to discern which of the five Zener cards an experimenter has selected, at a rate greater than the 20% average of random guessing? Have healing spells ever been compared to placebos in a double-blind scientific study? Such tests have never been done, because they would prove that claims of magical ability are nothing but futile wishful thinking.

June 25, 2007, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink22 comments

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