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, May 20, 2024

Rules for miracles

In today's News of the Surreal, we have: the Vatican is tightening the rules on what it's willing to call divine supernatural phenomena.

It's tricky business, isn't it?  In science, there's a well-established protocol for evaluating the strength of a claim, involving stuff like evidence and logic (and, if possible, a statistical analysis of the data).  But how do you do that in religion, where the only real rule is God does whatever the hell he wants?  Most of the claims of miracles are, by definition, one-offs; after all, if the same sort of thing kept happening over and over, it wouldn't be a miracle.  It's not like when Moses saw the Burning Bush, he was able to say, "Okay, let's compare this to other times we've had booming voices speak out of a flaming shrubbery, and see if this is a real phenomenon or if maybe I shouldn't have eaten those suspicious-looking mushrooms at dinner." 

So now, according to the new rules, bishops are being given the unenviable task of deciding whether a given apparition or miraculous healing or whatnot is real.  The first hurdle, apparently, is to determine if it is an outright lie to make money -- and the problem is these sorts of claims are ridiculously lucrative, so such scams abound.  The apparition of the Virgin Mary in the little village of Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, wherein six adults were supposedly blessed for their faith and told such surprising revelations as "don't have an abortion" and "same-sex marriage is naughty in God's sight," led to it becoming the third most popular pilgrimage site in Europe (after Fátima in Portugal and Lourdes in France).  Over a million people visit the shrine every year, bringing in huge amounts of revenue; in 2019, sixty thousand young Catholics from all over the world descended on the village, accompanied by fourteen archbishops and bishops and over seven hundred priests -- despite the Vatican making the rather equivocal statement that such pilgrimages were okay "as long as there is no assumption the [apparitions of Mary] are confirmed to have a supernatural origin."

One of the many gift shops in Medjugorje [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Sean MacEntee, Virgin Mary Statues (5778409684), CC BY 2.0]

Don't try to tell me that religion isn't big business.

Once the bishops determine that any given claim isn't simply fraudulent, they issue a nihil obstat ("there is no obstacle") decree, which is the religious version of "Whatever floats your boat, dude."  Nihil obstat effectively says, "Okay, fine, we can't stop you from worshiping this thing, but we're not saying it's real, either."  In the new guidelines, bishops are warned against going from there to stating outright that the phenomenon is divine in origin; issued prematurely, the Vatican says, jumping from nihil obstat to "this is a message from God" can lead to "damage to the unity of the Church" and could "cause scandals and undermine the credibility of the Church."

Well, yeah, that's the problem, isn't it?  There is no good evidence-based litmus test for differentiating between a "real" supernatural event (whatever that means) and a mere delusion; if there was, the event wouldn't be supernatural, it would simply be natural.  So we're still down to the sketchy grounds of having a bishop say, "I prayed to God and God said it was so," which then hinges on whether the bishop himself is telling the truth.

Because I can't think of any times bishops have been involved in hinky stuff, can you?

So the new rules don't really solve anything, just kick the can down the road to give the impression that there are now hard-and-fast rules for determining the veracity of something that by definition doesn't obey the laws of nature.  The BBC article where I learned about this story (linked above) ends with what has to be my favorite line I've read in a news source in months, to wit: "And so the Vatican, an institution peppered with mysticism, and which still communicates via smoke signals when electing a new pope, will be hoping its new rules can regulate claims of the supernatural."

Heh.  Yeah.  The Catholic Church, of course, is kind of in an awkward position, because they do more or less accept science most of the time, as long as the science doesn't fly in the face of the status quo.  The Big Bang Model was actually the brainchild of an astronomer who was also an ordained priest (Monseigneur Georges Lemaître) and the Vatican stated outright that the Big Bang was completely compatible with Catholic theology in 1951.  They officially pardoned Galileo in 1992 (better late than never), and have at least refused to condemn biological evolution.  But the fact remains that -- as the writer for the BBC News stated -- the entire institution is rooted in mysticism, which is a deeply unscientific approach to understanding the world.  I suppose I'd prefer this sort of waffling to (say) the views of the fundamentalists, who pretty well reject science in toto, but it still strikes me that trying to play it both ways is not gonna turn out to be a winning strategy.  Once you accept any kind of evidence-based criteria for establishing the truth, you're solidly in science's wheelhouse, and -- despite the "non-overlapping magisteria" stance of people like evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould -- the result for religious claims has almost always been a solid thumbs-down.

In any case, there you have it.  New rules for miracles.  I guess it's a step up from the bumper sticker I saw a while back that said, "The Bible said it, I believe it, and that settles it," but given the other options, I'm still going with the laws of scientific induction any day of the week.


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