Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Blasphemy, leaky plumbing, and the Weeping Cross of India

It is an interesting distinction, and one many people seem to be unable to recognize -- that there is a difference between being victimized and simply being told that you're demonstrably wrong.

I remember, for example, a former student of mine, a young African American woman who had a chip on her shoulder so big she could have used a visit to a chiropractor, who was in one of my math classes.  She routinely failed exams -- whether from lack of effort or from lack of ability was hard to tell -- but her low grades finally resulted in a parent conference.  During the conference, her mother said that her low grades in math were due to one thing: the fact that I was a racist.  I was giving her daughter low grades, she said, because I was prejudiced against African Americans, and considered them "less intelligent."

I tried (unsuccessfully) to point out that my attitudes toward people of other races had little relevance, especially given that this was a math class -- the girl was seemingly incapable of solving algebra problems correctly.  My marking a problem wrong had nothing to do with her race; anyone who had tried to solve the problem that way would have been marked wrong.

Of course, it made no difference.  People who make a career out of being victims have remarkably little respect for facts and logic.  Whether she thought that her daughter's wrong answers would have magically become right if her math teacher had had darker skin is a matter of conjecture, but that's certainly what it sounded like.

Which brings us to the case of the Weeping Cross of India.  (Source)

In the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, in Mumbai, there is a cross that began to drip water one day, resulting in a steady trickle that collected at the feet of the figure of Jesus.  Devout Catholics pronounced it a miracle, and began to show up by the hundreds to collect the "tears" in vials, stating that it was "holy water" and could heal people who were anointed with it.  Local church leaders jumped right on the bandwagon, circulating photographs of the miraculous statue, and encouraging everyone to come and witness the phenomenon.

One of the people who did is Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International.  He came to Mumbai on March 10, and after a brief investigation he discovered what was happening; a water pipe in an adjoining washroom had sprung a leak, saturating the wall behind the crucifix.  The water was being wicked up through the porous material of the cross, eventually seeping out and dripping onto Jesus' feet.

You'd think that the Catholic leaders would have a good laugh at themselves, and then hired a plumber, wouldn't you?  You'd be wrong.  Five church leaders, including Father Augustine Palett, the pastor of the church that houses the crucifix, were interviewed by a local news program and demanded that Edamaruku apologize for his "hostility."  He refused, and held his own news conference in which he explained his position, and described how the phenomenon had a purely natural explanation.  The priests responded by demanding that local law enforcement officials arrest Edamaruku for blasphemy, under a clause of Indian penal code that one may not "hurt the sentiments of a particular religious community."  As of this writing, the police are trying to locate and arrest Edamaruku, so far without success, so I'm uncertain as to how this story will end.

What occurs to me is, can these people really not see that there's a difference between being harassed and simply being wrong?  Edamaruku didn't say that the Catholics were bad people, or that they should be discriminated against; he simply said that they had made a mistake.  This is no more blasphemy than my marking my long-ago student's algebra problems wrong was racism.

And as far as India's anti-blasphemy law, under which Edamaruku may well soon be arrested; is it really reasonable that anyone should be able to claim anything, without challenge, simply by the expedient of adding, "and that's my religious belief?"  A statement that is factual in nature can presumably be verified, and its correctness determined by some means that is the same for everyone.  (This is called science, by the way.)  The water in the crucifix either is appearing by miraculous means, or it is not.  Edamaruku determined that it was not.  You do not suddenly turn the claim of its being a miracle into a factual statement by saying, "Oh, but it is my religious belief that the water isn't coming from a leaky pipe!" -- any more than 2 + 2 = 5 as long as you aren't a racist.


  1. One also has to wonder, if a member of one religious community makes a claim based on their belief, that's offensive to a member of another religious community based on their belief, which one you prosecute. Or if the law is selectively applied only to rationalists.

    It's a real shame when parents defend their children against having to learn anything. A total disservice.

    I wonder whether it would've done any good to pull out an answer key and say, "Look, why don't you re-grade your daughter's test?"

    Also, to be fair, it's likely that school was a very hostile environment to the mom. She was perhaps told she was wrong again and again, and never given much help to learn how to be right. She came to view school as a mechanism for subjugation.

    My mother used to work with women like this, doing remedial education -- for them, not their children. Once, she made the mistake of marking someone's paper in red ink; the woman in question brought a gun to school the next day.

    So, irrational though it might be, maybe students with this attitude might fare better if, say, you marked their papers with green ink, and instead of marking an X on wrong answers, made a friendly smiley face on the right answers, and for the wrong answers, circle the point they went wrong (if you can tell) and write, "What happened here?"

  2. Are they going to fix the pipe? Because otherwise the wall might miraculously fall down in a couple months.

  3. It appears that in that parent-teacher conference, there was some teaching going on. The mother, to the daughter. Parents who cheated through high school where as long as you got the grade you were after, the rest is history... passing that corrupted logic onto their progeny. Despicable.

    As far as the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, they know Edamaruku is right. Yet to admit his logic, they would lose this newly found revenue and notoriety... and they are willing to see Edamaruku in handcuffs to protect it. Despicable. I've got more piety in my little finger.

  4. It is an interesting distinction, and one many people seem to be unable to recognize -- that there is a difference between being victimized and simply being told that you're demonstrably wrong. tampa plumber

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