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September 22, 2009

Comments

Anthony

Ha ha. Fantastic.

James S

Strange there's no citation or statistics to go with this "fact".

David

James,

“Strange there’s no citation or statistics to go with this ‘fact’.”

Strange too that the proximity of a particular box of rotting bones should supposedly make healing more likely and felicitous. (“God may work miracles in the presence of those relics…”) And what of those whose hearts are pure and pious but whose bodies are too frail to make the journey? Or those too poor to scrape together the air fare? It all seems a bit… arbitrary, even cruel. Mysterious ways, indeed.

The only reputable studies I can recall offhand indicated a statistically insignificant number of instances of remission of certain ailments, i.e. a number no greater than would be expected in the normal course of events and irrespective of the proximity of magic bones. Contrary to Ms McDonagh, it isn’t “a remarkable number” at all, unless she means remarkably small, all things considered. Given the numbers of believers who visit Lourdes in search of miracles and given the emotional intensity involved – and the presence of unlimited power from above - one might expect something a little more statistically and physiologically dramatic. Hence the remark about prosthetic limbs.

http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD000368/frame.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_healing#Criticism

sk60

"Lourdes is littered with discarded crutches, but not a single prosthetic limb."

Or glass eye.

David

“Or glass eye.”

Well, quite. If some benign higher power is present, it seems remarkably ungenerous in the treatments being dispensed.

Given the possibility of placebo effects and the psychological variables in pain management, I also wonder what happens to those – the vast majority - who make great efforts to visit Lourdes (or some other site) and experience no benefit at all. Perhaps their condition is even made worse by the stress of travel, etc. Will this lack of cure be taken as a sign of some personal failing – of being insufficiently pious, or of being rejected by their deity? I wonder if there are studies regarding people being made worse due to negative placebo effects and crushing disappointment.

KMcC

The atheist Anatole France was taken to Lourdes and shown the wheelchairs and crutches. His response: 'No wooden legs?'

Alvin Lucier

I do remember a 'God Hates Amputees' meme [for want of a better word] a couple opf years ago.

Ralph

I went to Lourdes on holiday a few years ago and I didn't see a single discarded crutch. Just lots of ill people.

Chris S

An interesting question would be: do people with prosthetic limbs or glass eyes seek to go to lourdes for healing?

David

Chris,

Maybe people with prosthetic limbs and/or glass eyes don’t feel the odds are good enough to justify the excursion. I also get the impression that the brandishing of sockets and stumps would break some unspoken rule. Which itself raises questions… I mean, for some reason – and I’m not quite sure why – I suspect stump brandishing would be looked on as somewhat vulgar, possibly ridiculous. Though it’s not clear to me why presenting such disabilities - as opposed to, say, cancer - should be viewed as any more vulgar or inappropriate.

ECM

I read blog posts like this w/ something akin to bemusement: after all, in the end, does it really matter if the healing was psychosomatic or via intervention by a higher power to the people experiencing it? Nope, but a certain class of person insists on mocking it since the rubes dare to believe in a higher power in this age of unfettered reason, wherein we know all there is to know about the brain, the body and the mind and anything that doesn't fit the status quo (picked up in some half-paid attention to 10th grade biology or 11th grade physics class) is fair game for the post-mod intellectual.

(And I'm not even a theist, but I am generally not amused by the sheer scorn and snark heaped upon those that dare have a system of belief that a. does not line up with their own, b. which generally does more good than harm to the believers (witness numerous studies about the relative health and happiness of believers in God versus those that don't) and c. actually does not impact the people that are dishing out the scorn except that it allows them to mock for sport, from 10,000 ft., those they so love to scorn.

David

ECM,

“…after all, in the end, does it really matter if the healing was psychosomatic or via intervention by a higher power to the people experiencing it?”

Well, from an epistemological point of view it matters quite a bit, though I grant you those visiting Lourdes may have more pressing concerns. I suppose it might matter if one were interesting in reproducing any effect, optimising it, and making it available to others in pain. And I suppose theologians might find it matters too, though possibly for different reasons.

“…in this age of unfettered reason, wherein we know all there is to know about the brain, the body and the mind and anything that doesn’t fit the status quo (picked up in some half-paid attention to 10th grade biology or 11th grade physics class) is fair game for the post-mod intellectual.”

Who here says anything remotely like this? A recurring theme here is the limit of what can be claimed. And there are questions raised by a belief in relics and faith healing – some of which are touched on above. From a philosophical point of view, the assumptions are… interesting. And the shortcomings of Ms McDonagh’s argument warrant at least a raised eyebrow. It isn’t a matter of “daring to have a system of belief that does not line up.” (What’s daring about bald assertion, circular reasoning or begging the question?) It’s about the feebleness of the comment piece and the questions it doesn’t touch.

James S

"Unfettered reason"? Wow. McDonagh's article could use some fettering *with* reason.

witwoud

The placebo effect of Lourdes could easily be measured by building a replica Lourdes a little way along the hillside, identical to the original but without a history of Marian Apparitions. Pilgrims would be sent to one or the other on a randomized, double-blind basis, and at the end of their visit would be asked to say whether they 'felt better' or not. It's such a simple idea that frankly I'm amazed it hasn't been done before.

David

Witwoud,

I suspect you’d have to replicate the global mythology to go with the replica Lourdes, which could be tricky. We’ll need a bigger budget. And possibly a time machine.

ECM,

My basic point is this. If Ms McDonagh wants to defend relics and faith healing, she really ought to scrape together a half-decent argument and be prepared to support her claims. It’s a basic minimum. Instead, she bangs on about “the Dawkins tendency” and “reflexive hostility” while making exactly the sort of blunders that atheists criticise. There’s an obliviousness to it. For instance, one shouldn’t say things like this and expect to be taken seriously: “Lourdes is littered with discarded crutches and we can argue the toss about whether it’s a result of psychosomatic healing or divine help. But a remarkable number of those miracles of healing have been independently verified by doctors with no church connections. And that’s a fact.”

Is this just a rhetorical flourish or is Lourdes really “littered” with crutches discarded by people who suddenly no longer need them? Doesn’t the cause of any alleged effect matter? Is she saying believers should just make do and accept whatever suits them, whether it’s true or not? What have reputable studies actually said on the subject? And why are none cited, despite repeated requests? (Saying “And that’s a fact” really doesn’t cut it.) Have doctors actually verified “miracles,” or just a very few, statistically insignificant, incidents of (possibly temporary) remission, the causes of which may well be something other than divine intervention? And isn’t she playing fast and loose with the word “miracle”?

McDonagh’s woolliness reveals not “daring” but incuriosity.

Pete

Good links, interesting subject. I am going to visit Therese's old bones when they come to my city. I'm ambivalent about the whole faith healing and miracle bit. On the one hand, I don't think you can do an empirical test on whether prayer works in healing because with prayer you are dealing with a supernatural person, who will not behave in the same way as a chemical substance. On the other hand, when something miraculous is attributed to God, empirical evidence should be scientifically examined and the case falsified where possible.

Looking at Lourdes, there are 67 miracles officially recognised by the Church.
http://www.lourdes-france.org/upload/pdf/gb_guerisons.pdf
The Medical Bureau at Lourdes was set up for the purpose of examining purported miracle healings. The vast majority of claims are rejected for serious consideration immediately, but each year a handful of five to seven are investigated further. Eventually, if they can come up with a case which is 'medically inexplicable', the local Bishop gets to decide on whether or not to officially recognise the miracle.
http://www.lourdes-france.org/index.php?goto_centre=ru&contexte=en&id=491&id_rubrique=491
I kind of like the Church's unwillingness to credit any old miracle story. It is very much in the spirit of Saint Thomas, who stuck his fingers in the holes to make sure Our Lord really had been killed and physically raised, and wasn't just a ghost.

As for the piles of crutches, I don't know about that, and I'm not sure that is proof of anything much. I do like the story of the wheelchair-bound man who was lifted, chair and all, into the pool at Lourdes. When he came out he wasn't cured, but his chair did have brand new tyres.

David said "Given the possibility of placebo effects and the psychological variables in pain management, I also wonder what happens to those – the vast majority - who make great efforts to visit Lourdes (or some other site) and experience no benefit at all. Perhaps their condition is even made worse by the stress of travel, etc. Will this lack of cure be taken as a sign of some personal failing – of being insufficiently pious, or of being rejected by their deity? I wonder if there are studies regarding people being made worse due to negative placebo effects and crushing disappointment."

I would refer you to the story of Job. The idea of God dispensing wealth, health and suffering according to how deserving one is was rejected by the jews a long, long time ago. A pilgrimage is as much an inner/spiritual journey as it is a physical journey. If that spiritual development overspills into a physical manifestation such as growing back a limb, then that is a gift and not something one should expect as a matter of course. None of us deserves to be miraculously healed as if it is a right. In fact, what the Church tells us is that we're all filthy, undeserving sinners, living off the grace of a benevolent, loving God whom we ought to feel lucky to have.

ECM says, "in the end, does it really matter if the healing was psychosomatic or via intervention by a higher power to the people experiencing it?"

Yes and no. It doesn't matter in that all healing, whether miraculous or not, comes from God. But it does make a difference if you're talking about healing according to the physical mechanisms God laid down, or healing caused by God breaking his own physical laws.

As for a fake Lourdes to use for control purposes, it is called Medjugorje :)

David

Pete,

“I do like the story of the wheelchair-bound man who was lifted, chair and all, into the pool at Lourdes. When he came out he wasn’t cured, but his chair did have brand new tyres.”

Like the business with the prosthetic limbs and glass eyes, that sort of captures the flavour of the issue. Even taken on its own terms, there’s a certain… randomness. Given the misfortune involved, it may sound a bit sneery and mean; but there is a surreal aspect that’s not entirely trivial and is hard to avoid.

Pete

Not sneery and mean at all. Even the church demands a high standard of evidence before accepting a cure as officially miraculous.

I think the mistake some here are possibly making is that they expect God to 'prove' his existence to them thru miracles, again as if He has some sort of duty to satisfy their intellect.

As for the comment on randomness, this again comes from thinking we deserve miraculous healing as a matter of course, and from failing to recognise God is a person with agency, not some medicine which reacts in the same manner with each application. In the Gospels, Jesus did not treat everybody in exactly the same manner.

David

Pete,

“As for the comment on randomness, this again comes from thinking we deserve miraculous healing as a matter of course, and from failing to recognise God is a person with agency, not some medicine which reacts in the same manner with each application.”

Well, I don’t presume any such sense of entitlement, nor do I claim to know what kind of thing God would be, or what other priorities and commitments He might have. But the apparent randomness remains, and thus the surrealism.

I suppose it stems from an assumption that God would be consistent and fair, as perceived by puny humans. So by their nature people will want to know what the deal is. For instance, why might a person with cerebral palsy claim some miraculous physical salvation, yet someone no less benign with a condition no less awful experience no benefit at all? Are there unfathomable cosmic proprieties to be observed? If there are, it isn’t clear what they might be. And so it isn’t hard to see why some might conclude that God, so conceived, is erratic, mercurial and somewhat negligent.

Pete

Well, those who follow God often die in particularly grisly ways, and Christ made clear that this suffering would be the lot of those who follow his way. The rewards promised in the Sermon on the Mount are clearly rewards that aren't about to materialise in this world (those with a thirst for justice will be satisfied?! GTFOOH!)

As for the suggestion that God is inconsistent and unfair, that again sounds like presumption. It's pretty miraculous that we're here at all, so lets not be ungracious just because demands for miracle healings aren't answered.

David

Pete,

“As for the suggestion that God is inconsistent and unfair, that again sounds like presumption.”

Yes it is, as I said, but you can see how it’s arrived at. While it isn’t my assumption, a belief that God ought to be consistent and fair isn’t altogether unreasonable. (It’s the kind of thing people often look for in a deity.) Of course it’s quite possible there could be cosmic variables that are unknown to puny humans and that have great bearing on the matter and will confound expectations. That said, the problem with tolerating apparent inconsistency and unfairness is that it can leave one susceptible to any two-bit hustler who happens along: “Yes, I know it looks erratic and terribly unfair, but you’ll just have to trust me on this. Now do as I say and give me your wallet.” (Or its metaphysical equivalent.)

“It’s pretty miraculous that we’re here at all.”

I think it’s pretty remarkable that anything is here. Though I’m not at all sure how one would calculate probabilities in this particular instance…

Pete

It is meaningless to talk about probability. Instead be grateful.

Peter

Is not the whole idea inextricably tied up with the idea of a pilgramage, both literal and spiritual at the same time? This is not a form of alternative medicine like homeopathy that can be tested in a lab. I doubt even the Church believes it is likely to work for the fellow who lives just down the street from the cathedral. "Hemorrhoids bothering you again, dear? Why not pop over to the catherdral after lunch?" Although I suppose he might advised to try Fatima.

David Gillies

If Lourdes really is littered with crutches that sounds awfully dangerous. You could trip over one and end up in a wheelchair.

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