Sunday, December 18, 2011

St. Bernadette

I know some Catholics. I was one.

Persons whose entire lives are simmered and stewed in religious dogma have particular difficulty looking critically at the assumptions underlying their faith.

A while back, I was trying to explain to a Catholic acquaintance that actual evidence for his religious claims was weak to nonexistent; that there really wasn't any objective proof that his narrative was correct; that by his standard of faith, competing narratives from other religions were as credible as his; and that, consequently, embracing one religion over another is a fairly arbitrary choice that is usually driven by considerations other than discernment of ultimate truth.

My acquaintance waved away my claims with the one bit of incontrovertible proof that his way was right: "What about the miracles?"

What about them? I said that miracles are a dime a dozen: all religious traditions have them. Why should I accept his religion's miracles and not the others?

To offer the miracles described in the New Testament as proof of the particular preeminence of the Jesus story is to evince a curious misunderstanding of religious history. Any new religion elbowing its way through the first century CE, as was Christianity, was bound to have an impressive catalog of miracles as part of its repertoire; these were necessary to demonstrate to potential converts its superiority over its many rivals.

Furthermore, I pointed out that the New Testament isn't a historically reliable document, and it certainly isn't an eye-witness account. It's an often inconsistent mess of interpretation and embellishment. (Of course, this isn't an argument I expect to win in a living room debate; it contradicts the foundational beliefs my acquaintance has held his entire life.)

I concluded that the entire notion of miracles as divine intervention was absurd, and using miracles to buttress a belief system was weak thinking.

My Catholic acquaintance thought that I was hopeless. He thought I should just believe, because, well, because he said I should. That's where we left it.

Some time later he forwarded me an email describing what he regarded as an apparently indisputable miracle, albeit one of more recent origin. In his own comments he said, "We all know there have been countless miracles throughout history. Try this one on for size." So I did.

The email described the miraculous preservation of the body of Bernadette Soubirous, who as a fourteen year old girl in 1858 reported seeing eighteen apparitions of a "small young lady" near Lourdes, France. Roman Catholics believe "the small young lady" was in fact the Virgin Mary, and Lourdes is now a famous Catholic shrine with its own substantial tradition of miracles.

The email claims that St. Bernadette's body, though never embalmed, has remained undefiled since her death in 1879. "After church officials decided to examine it they discovered her body is still fresh until today and if you ever go to Lourdes, France you can see her in the church in Lourdes. Her body isn't decomposing because during her lifetime, the Mother of Jesus would always appear to her and give messages and advice to all mankind on the right way to live on this earth. Many miracles have taken place in this place of Lourdes and still do until today."

St. Bernadette's body now lies in a glass-paneled reliquary that provides for public viewing. Photos included with the email certainly seem to support the claim that Bernadette's body has not decomposed. "This," said the email, "is one of the 200+ miracle facts of incorruptible bodies that can only be traced to most of the declared saints of the Roman Catholic Church."

As far as my Catholic correspondent was concerned, the email was a slam-dunk. Me? I just Googled "St. Bernadette's body".

Several good articles, including one from Wikipedia, and one on the web site of the Catholic network EWTN, describe how Bernadette's body was exhumed a number of times in the decades after her burial. During the first exhumation, the body was said to be "incorrupt", albeit shriveled and rigid. After exposure to the air the body started to turn black. The body was reburied.

During the second exhumation ten years later, a doctor described the body as being "practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. ... The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body." Even so, many parts of the body, including organs and muscle, were surprisingly well preserved.

During the third exhumation, imprints of Bernadette's face and hands were taken so that wax casts could be made. This was a common practice for bodies that were to be publicly viewed. The exposed parts of the body on display today have these thin wax coverings, and they account for its remarkably fresh appearance. What you see in the photos isn't a perfectly preserved face; it's a mask.

So, does St. Bernadette's body offer credible evidence of an actual miracle? Of course not. Many factors, all completely natural, determine if, how, and at what rate bodies decompose in various circumstances. Although St. Bernadette's body seems to have held up better than most, it is by no means perfectly preserved—at least not in any usual sense of the word "perfect". Had God wished to conduct a miracle, He could have done a much better job of it.

But my point here is not to debunk a miracle. Rather, it is to note the particular credulity on display, where the dubious claims made in an email bouncing around the Internet are enthusiastically believed, without question or pause for thought, and without even the barest due diligence. Religious belief is so disturbing in part because its standard of evidence is very low, and its demonstration of critical thinking is so often absent. The examples are endless.

Religious practitioners commonly believe that God routinely intervenes in nature and in human affairs, in matters extraordinary and mundane. The hand of God is implicitly seen in everything that happens.

Long ago, I was involved with the wedding of close friends. The ceremony was to be conducted outdoors, in the groom's parents' back yard, which had been beautifully prepared for the event. The rehearsal dinner was held on a lovely June evening. A soft cloudless blue sky dissolved into starry brilliance. Crickets chirped benignly. The weather forecast for the next morning's wedding promised zero chance of rain. Some of those present marveled that such good fortune was a sign of God's favor.

I woke around 4:00 AM to flashes of lightning. Impossible! The skies opened and the clouds let loose. A gray, drizzly morning forced the wedding indoors, to the church. By the time the ceremony was ending, the sky began to clear, and the remainder of the day was bright and sunny. What was God trying to tell us?

Maybe nothing. Maybe the weather just happens. Last night's blessing had become, not a curse, but just this morning's bad luck. That's how it is with religious types: they make it up as they go, to suit the circumstances at hand, and consistency isn't a big objective. Since God couldn't really be frowning on this special day, we needed a new explanation.

Then again, maybe it wasn't bad luck at all. Maybe God was showing us that what actually mattered was the sacred union we were witnessing, not the stage on which the ceremony was conducted. A lesson! God is big on lessons, and there's always one to be had. And with religion, you can generally take the narrative wherever you need it to go. Which is convenient, since God inevitably does a really poor job of clearly communicating his position. When it comes to discerning God's actions in the everyday world, religious types are generally reduced to reading tea leaves, but in a manner that seems (to them) coherent, even though it isn't.

Has our intellectual sophistication progressed so little in the past 20,000 years that we still choose to see, despite all we have learned, an inscrutable (or not) God in the myriad workings of the natural world? Alas, it would seem so.

Copyright (C) 2011 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 05, 2011

Oh my! Maureen Dowd on Newt Gingrich

Maureen Dowd on Newt Gingrich:
NEWT GINGRICH’S mind is in love with itself.

It has persuaded itself that it is brilliant when it is merely promiscuous. This is not a serious mind. Gingrich is not, to put it mildly, a systematic thinker.

His mind is a jumble, an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior.

Indeed. Read the entire column.

Copyright (C) 2011 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved