On Miracles and Saints

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Last October 21, 2012 Catholics in the Philippines celebrated the canonization of Pedro Calungsod. He became the second Filipino to become a saint as recognized by the Vatican; the first was Lorenzo Ruiz.

Before demolishing the superstition surrounding saints and miracles, let me define the terms I will use to avoid confusion.

According to Merriam Webster dictionary, a miracle is an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs or an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment. In this discussion, it is the first definition that applies. A saint is a person officially recognized especially through canonization as preeminent for holiness or a spirit of the departed in heaven. Again, the first definition applies in this discussion.

For a person to become a saint, he or she must have allegedly lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation, exemplary as defined by the Roman Catholic church. And, more importantly, the candidate for sainthood must have at least two miracles attributed to the intercession of the said person.

Now, I will not dispute whether any person has indeed led a virtuous life. It is a question of subjectivity in the sense that different people will have varied opinions on the matter. For example, Osama bin Laden may be considered a saint in the eyes of the Muslim jihadists, while Stephen Hawking may be considered a morally corrupt person in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians because he does not believe in any god.

Whatever sketchy details of Calungsod’s life are not for me to debunk as there is hardly any verifiable evidence of his martyrdom. It is obvious of course that any biography of his will likely be exaggerated in favor of his church. In fact, the Catholic church claims that his martyrdom was committed In Odium Fidei (‘In Hatred of the Faith’), meaning he was killed because of religious persecution. Nonetheless, I find the whole idea of martyrdom a sham.

Why was he killed? Because he took part in converting the indigenous people into his beliefs. What’s so wrong about this, you might ask. For starters, this meant that he accompanied priests who told the native people of Guam that their religious beliefs are not only false but that they, the missionaries, have the one true religion. There is nothing commendable in this endeavor. In fact, in those days, converting the locals was a step to taking over their land. Remember this was in the 1600s at the height of the “Age of Discovery” when the competing naval powers in Europe sent ships all over the world in the quest to become the dominant nation. Once the invading marauders have portrayed themselves as heaven-sent benevolent masters, the natives would be easily conquered without having to fire a single shot.

What makes Calungsod’s martyrdom even more appalling is that he was killed because he apparently enraged the father of a baby girl who was baptized without his consent. So, not only was he complicit with the taking away a father’s right to choose how his child should be raised, he is also a party to denying an innocent girl’s freedom to choose her own religious beliefs. How can a child exercise the “free will” that the Catholic church claims she has when she could not object to anything as she was still a baby? Screw logic, you will be a Catholic, whether you like it or not.

To those believers who say that we should just respect each other’s beliefs, I ask with sincerity: Did the conquistadors and priests respect the beliefs of all the indigenous people of the world? Hell, no. They demonized the native peoples’ beliefs, destroyed their sacred objects and places of worship, raped their women (hint: “missionary position”), and took their lands, all in the name of a god which in all likelihood does not exist.

This reminds me of an anecdote about an Eskimo and a priest which goes like this:

‘If I did not know about god and sin, would I go to hell?’

The priest says ‘No, not if you did not know’

Then the Eskimo says ‘Then why the hell did you tell me?’

But I digress. Now on to more important things. As mentioned earlier, it takes at least two miracles for a person to be declared a saint. The first one is for beatification and a second is needed for canonization.

According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer website:

“Cebu Archbishop Emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, the postulator for the cause for Calungsod’s sainthood, revealed that he submitted a case to the Vatican about a female patient in a Cebu hospital in 2003 who suffered cardiac arrest and was declared brain dead. The woman returned to life after her family prayed through Calungsod’s intercession. The cardinal refused to reveal the woman’s name, saying only that she is working in Cebu. The cause for sainthood was passed on to a group of theologians who verified that the possible miracle was made through Calungsod’s intercession.”

So far, there has never been any verifiable evidence for the efficacy of prayer. The scientific studies done to investigate the power of divine intervention in the recovery of dead or dying patients have mostly shown that prayers have no effect whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what religion the patient or the praying persons has, prayer has never been proven to work.

So why does the average religious person of any faith believe in miracles? (Most liberal theologians and science-inclined believers do not belong in this category.)

One possible reason is the “god of the gaps” fallacy. It goes something like this: because no explanation has been found sufficient for a phenomenon, therefore God. Not only does this glorify ignorance, it smacks of idiocy of the lowest level. We know from history that people have resorted to the supernatural to explain natural phenomena. For example, lightning was a deep mystery and the ancients have regarded it as a demonstration of the awesome power of this or that god, that is until science came along and says it’s just super high energy static electricity.

Humans have a need to know the answers. It’s this curiosity that the “god-of-the-gaps” argument tries to satisfy. Unfortunately, it does not satisfy and merely stops a person from going further.

By using this argument, believers would make it seem that their gods thrive on people’s ignorance. (This is probably why the liberal theologians and science-inclined believers are less likely to buy this as I alluded to earlier.) Who would want to worship such a deity?

Nobody may know exactly how the said woman came back alive after being declared brain dead. But it is no reason to conclude that the Catholic god or Calungsod had anything to do with it. Perhaps the attending physician made a mistake in pronouncing too early the death of the woman. Maybe the woman’s brain readjusted itself by some still unknown biological mechanism. It is like claiming that because nobody saw who killed a man, therefore his neighbor must have done it. If we demand proof beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, an even higher standard is set in science for such unbelievable assertions. As Carl Sagan succinctly expressed it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Another possible reason for belief in miracles is confirmation bias. This is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses while disregarding any evidence to the contrary. While this may be acceptable in a court of law where legal counsels routinely try to suppress incriminating evidence, this would be contrary to how science works. As human beings with egos, some scientists do try to highlight the data which would prove their pet hypothesis. But fortunately, there is such a thing as peer review where other scientists would try to verify their findings through thorough investigation and experimentation.

Confirmation bias is so commonplace that it has achieved a level of acceptance among the general populace. We can see and hear this in commercials; the most notorious are those incredible claims of the so-called “alternative” or “all-natural herbal medicine.” And judging by their numbers, it seems that these products sell very well.

It must be emphasized that confirmation-biased testimonials are not good evidence for anything, be it miraculous healing or magic panacea. People who make these claims often exaggerate to make up for the lack of independent evidence. And since no one can contradict their claims, it would often become accepted as truth.

But let us for a moment play along with the idea of a miracle by a saint. Suppose we say that indeed the woman came back to life after being declared dead by her doctor and that Calungsod made the necessary paperwork(?) to intercede for her to the Catholic god. What does that tell us about the kind of god Calungsod had faith in?

It raises the issue on the alleged benevolence of this god. Why would a perfectly loving god subject his faithful people into much suffering even to the point of death or near death? Does this god enjoy the abject misery endured by millions of people since time immemorial? And what is so special about this particular woman? What makes her more deserving of this god’s better treatment than, for example, those children who are dying of cancer? As far as the reports go, she suffered a deadly cardiac arrest. Unless proven otherwise, we can safely assume that she was probably more than forty years old as heart attacks are usually associated with older people who led unhealthy lifestyles.

In claiming that her survival was a miracle of the Catholic god through Saint Pedro, believers trivialize the non-survival of millions of other people who weren’t so lucky. The usual cop-out of “God works in mysterious ways” does not hold water. It misses the point completely. It merely reinforces the idea of a feudal lord who arbitrarily grants the requests of his serfs from time to time if he feels like doing so. This isn’t surprising when you take note of the words believers often refer to their deities, words like king, lord, prince, master, worship, humble, glorify, serve, exalt, and praise, all remnants of the medieval politics.

The whole miracle sainthood business is just a thinly-veiled attempt at filling the collection box. It works on the (often correct) assumption that people will buy a product on mere hearsay and on little or no evidence. One must believe in it even if it could not be justified rationally.

In the grander scheme of things, the people’s belief in miracles only shows how incredibly petty and cosmologically insignificant their deities are. In all the vastness of the Universe with more than a hundred billion galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets, their deities are intent on micromanaging the affairs of a species of bipedal apes among millions of other life-forms on a relatively tiny planet orbiting a small star among several billions in this galaxy. It is anthropocentrism the size of a super-massive black hole. It assumes, wrongly, that the entire Universe is centered around humans. (We must remember how the Roman Catholic Church persecuted Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno because of this.) It is sheer arrogance in the face of what science has discovered, especially in astronomy and biology, because we are hold no special place on Earth and even more so in the bigger picture of the Universe.

If their deities are truly universal and infinite, then they would not be bothered to interfere in human affairs. To do so would reduce their existence to the level of feudal overlords. Thus, the gods’ characteristics are mere reflections and projections of the humans who worship them. Not the infinitely powerful and inscrutable gods they vigorously say they have.

It is not my intention to indiscriminately bash beliefs but to merely shed some light of reason on the matter. If any claim, be it political, religious, or scientific, cannot be scrutinized and criticized, then it is a claim not worth of anyone’s attention. As we are, or so we claim, Homo sapiens, we must always try to use our own minds in understanding the world around us and demand evidence instead of relying on what other people tell us.

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