Brian Edwards Media

What’s the Connection between Mary MacKillop and the Chilean Miners?

Associated Press

Thirty-three men are trapped more than half a kilometre underground when the copper mine in which they are working collapses. Nothing is heard from them for 17 days and there is the reasonable, if unexpressed, assumption that the men must be dead. Sixty-nine days after their ordeal began, all 33 men have been brought to the surface and reunited with their families. Only two require hospital treatment. The families speak of having prayed for the safe return of their husbands, lovers, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles… They thank God for his mercy. There is talk of ‘a miracle’.

The Shorter Oxford gives two principal meanings of the word ‘miracle’:

1)    A marvellous event not ascribable to human or natural agency, and therefore attributed to the intervention of a supernatural agent, esp. (in Christian belief) God.

2)    A remarkable or marvellous phenomenon or event.

The first of these definitions does not fit the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, since it is clearly attributable to the courage, intelligence, ingenuity, determination and compassion of other human beings. This remarkable and marvellous event was entirely the work of man. It was not ‘a miracle’ in the first sense of the word. God had nothing to do with it.  

Each year hundreds of events are described as ‘miracles’, not only by those affected by natural and man-made disasters, but by those charged with the objective reporting of those events – the media.  In general, their use of the word is either ambiguous or strongly suggestive of the first meaning:  a marvellous event attributed to the intervention of a supernatural agent.

When hundreds are killed in the collapse of a tenement building, the survival of a handful is deemed to be ‘a miracle’. But the real reasons for the handful’s survival will include such things as their age, state of health, location at the time of the collapse, the skill and determination of the searchers and rescuers, the resources available to them in terms of manpower, equipment, medical facilities and money, and a huge degree of luck.

When thousands are killed in an earthquake or tsunami, those same reasons for survival will apply, simply on a larger scale. ‘ A greater miracle.’

Yet in both cases – the tenement collapse and the earthquake or tsunami – survival was dependent on a combination of physical conditions, human interventions and luck. Use of the word ‘miracle’ in the first sense was therefore entirely inappropriate.

Those who believe in the intervention of a supernatural agent should be free to define what are in fact little more than rare, unexpected or highly unlikely outcomes as ‘miracles’, but the word is overused and misused by journalists, who have an obligation to be objective and precise in their use of language. All too often outcomes are described in news reports as ‘miracles’ when the more accurate and less loaded ‘amazing’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unbelievable’ would do.

Fairfax

There is, however, no doubt about what is meant by ‘miracle’ when speaking of Australia’s  first saint, Mary MacKillop. The 19th century nun is credited with two miracles both involving cancer sufferers who, it is claimed, were cured after praying to her.

I should say first of all that, from what I have read, Mary MacKillop was a pretty extraordinary woman, in whom goodness and compassion melded with independence of mind and the courage to confront wrongdoing and abuse  even within her own church.  

‘Saintly’ then perhaps. Though the term suggests too much sweetness in a woman of such strong will, regularly in conflict with her church’s male hierarchy.

But ‘a saint’? If I’ve understood things correctly, Mother MacKillop’s canonisation is a direct result of the Church’s final acceptance of her responsibility for the ‘miraculous’ cure of the two cancer sufferers who prayed for her help.

Several things bother me about that:

*By definition, such a conclusion cannot be evidence based. It is simply not possible to establish a verifiable causal connection between a prayer – a request made to a supernatural being – and remission from a terminal illness.

*There is absolutely no historical or scientific support for the existence of such a connection.  

*Remission from terminal cancer is commoner than one might think. In a recent article, Doctors attribute sudden cancer cures to biology, not God, The Australian reported:

Sydney oncologist David Bell, who co-wrote a book on so-called spontaneous remission – where cancer disappears by itself without any treatment – said he knew of about 400 confirmed cases worldwide over the past 150 years.

Despite having a “religious nature” himself, Associate Professor Bell said he was “very sceptical” of supernatural explanations for remarkable medical outcomes.

“I think there’s more likely to be a biological explanation for the rare (cases of remission) that we do see,” Professor Bell said.

“Yes, you can call it a miracle, but you don’t have to invoke divine intervention to believe that.

“I’m very concerned that a lot of people will mistakenly think, ‘I just have to go down to Mary MacKillop’s grave and pray, and I’ll be cured’, and come away disappointed.”

*The random selection of those to be cured suggests a capricious deity offering odds considerably worse even than Lotto. Why, of the millions of believers who daily seek relief from illness and pain, are so few chosen?  Why, of the thousands who have sought intercession from Mary McKillop, only two whose prayers were (officially) answered?

*The idea of God answering prayer, either directly or through the intercession of a saint, is directly at odds with the Christian doctrine of free will.

*And basically I think the whole thing is bunkum.

So there’s a connection between the rescue of the Chilean miners and the remission from cancer of the two women who prayed to Mary MacKillop. Both are ‘miracles’ in the secular sense of ‘remarkable or marvellous phenomena or events’; neither is ‘a miracle’ in the sense of  ‘a marvellous event not ascribable to human or natural agency, and therefore attributed to the intervention of a supernatural agent, esp. (in Christian belief) God.’

I’m an atheist of course, so you’re entitled to dismiss my entire argument as mere prejudice. But to do that you have to believe that a dead woman can intercede with an invisible being to cure you of cancer. But only if you’re lucky.

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27 Comments:

  1. Thank you for the reference to David Bell.

    I am an unapologetic sceptic.

    I was quite depressed this morning listening to an “interview” on National Radio discussing this canonisation.

    Within in my own very extended family group I have observed some very remarkable recoveries from cancer, and other unpleasantries. I have also observed several deaths.

    While lazy, or ignorant, media employees wanting to attract audience attention may like to use “miracle” in their “stories” it does not mean that miracles actually happen.

    If miracles happened we could never be disappointed by Lotto.

    If there was any thing “miraculous ” about Mary McKillop was that she lived long enough to do the things she did. She also got her way! Rightly or wrongly.

  2. Hi Brian.

    I get annoyed when people (especially the media) use language in lazy and ambiguous ways. eg. A very common one is for a reporter to say something like “three times larger than” when they probably mean “three times the size of”. (To me, “three times larger than” really means “four times the size of”.) Then it just gets sillier when someone says “ten times smaller than”, which makes no sense. It’s unnecessary and means the message depends more on who’s listening rather than who’s speaking.

    But at what point does it become acceptable for the Oxford English Dictionary to acknowledge a new meaning for the word as it’s used, if the language is changing? I see how the use of “miracle” is wrong, as you’ve pointed out, but from another perspective it’s just another meaning that the word has developed in today’s use.

    • But at what point does it become acceptable for the Oxford English Dictionary to acknowledge a new meaning for the word as it’s used, if the language is changing? I see how the use of “miracle” is wrong, as you’ve pointed out, but from another perspective it’s just another meaning that the word has developed in today’s use.

      Well, as I pointed out, there are (at least) two fairly distinct meanings of ‘miracle’. Then there are combinations such as ‘miracle cure’, ‘miracle drug’. Nothing supernatural is suggested in either of these usages, which suggest both amazement and speed of actiion.

  3. The Real Miracle

    When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

    Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

    “The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”

    Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

  4. Speaking as a long lapsed catholic, who had the bizarre experience of having a glass box of saintly bones paraded through his high school, I agree with your arguments. The mumbo jumbo side of religion has never appealed to me, although from what I’ve seen it seems to help some people.

    What gets my back up is the miraculous cures, or even just mild health benefits, claimed by any number of health supplements and pill suppliers, no proof required. This industry opposes regulations to even ensure they contain what they say, let alone have the effects claimed.

    • The mumbo jumbo side of religion has never appealed to me, although from what I’ve seen it seems to help some people.

      Certainly. There is no doubtiing the comforting nature of religious belief and I would not want to take that away from anyone. My mother was sustained throughout her difficullt life by her faith. Faith-healing may have psychological benefits for those who believe in it and there can undoubtedly be a connection between psychological and physiological effects. But, for the most part, faith healers are either deluded or charlatans.

  5. The word ‘miracle’ has strong semantic currency. The distortion and corruption occurs when those of the Faith (not all) are apt to apply the word to tragic events; not only as a matter for their convenience, but also selectively. With those instances, ‘miracle’ shouldn’t be applied in a religious context, but secularised. ‘Extremely fortuitous’ is a better substitute. And truer.

    The clamour to rejoice in the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, was more than an expression of religious affirmation and validation. It also came with an unholy fervour, especially, when political figures are seen to be engaged in this festival of rejoicing. They, too, see themselves as being recipients of a lesser benediction by way of association, enabling them to boost their religious conceits and/or personal stocks.

    To me, it’s redolent of the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: even if one does not believe in the legitimacy of being made into a saint, one feels impelled to obey its conventions of euphoric celebration, due to the belief — or calculated guess — that others find it deserved and therefore legitimate by way of sacramental recognition.

    Those (the sceptics) on the other side of the religion divide, must maintain a respectful silence; for fear of being labelled as Spoilers, Unbelievers, Blasphemers and Heretics.

    The analogy, of the survivors in a disaster or those having a terminal illness, where — some — of the Faith are quick to point to God invoking His Divine blessing upon them, thereby, granting them a Life Continuance. But what does it say about the friends and families of those who weren’t so fortunate? That, God was distracted and too busy to be caring about saving their own Loved Ones? Or that “They” weren’t worthy of His “saving” graces? Sort of like: “God’s will” that they should perish.

    And that comes with an inverted — and perverted — kind of Divine logic. Or it is true that “God works in mysterious ways”?

    • The clamour to rejoice in the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, was more than an expression of religious affirmation and validation. It also came with an unholy fervour, especially, when political figures are seen to be engaged in this festival of rejoicing. They, too, see themselves as being recipients of a lesser benediction by way of association, enabling them to boost their religious conceits and/or personal stocks.

      Nicely put, Merv. I’m afraid that ‘God botherers’, as distinct from those with a religious belief, are a real worry when they gain political office. My understanding is that Rudd was one such.

  6. While I’m sure Sister Mary McKillop was a worthy person, it strikes me that her canonisation is more of an advertising event to wavering Catholics in Australasia.

    As for miracles. I agree entirely with you Brian – Bunkum.

  7. “Miracle” is over used for sure. As is “expert”. Expert tells you nothing and gives credibility to people who might not deserve it. Lazy not to detail how someone is an expert rather than just announcing their so-called expertise. Thanks for letting me vent.

    • “Miracle” is over used for sure. As is “expert”. Expert tells you nothing and gives credibility to people who might not deserve it. Lazy not to detail how someone is an expert rather than just announcing their so-called expertise.

      It would be interesting to invite readers of this blog to submit a list of such overdone media usages. In fact, I think I’ll do that right now. Thanks.

  8. You may be interested in the discussion in the Skeptics’ Dictionary. http://www.skepdic.com/miracles.html

    I would regard myself as a practising Christian but I have difficulty in accepting that God inteervenes in such a random fashion.

    I firmly believe that God answers prayers but not in ways that we expect and freqently in ways that make us uncomfortable and challenge us. I do not believe in a God who makes life comfortable and cures us of every ill. I believe in a God that forces me to think for myself, to grow and to find my own solutions to problems but offers me support and guidance in those challenges.

    Some will no doubt think that as bunkum as well, but for me I have found it works.

    • I firmly believe that God answers prayers but not in ways that we expect and freqently in ways that make us uncomfortable and challenge us.

      Fair enough, Ben. But you are left with the difficulty of combining free will with divine intervention.

  9. Sorry to continue, but tthe folllowing is also interesting; the story of Mary M’s first miracle, especially the doctor’s closing comment

    http://www.smh.com.au/national/marys-first-miracle-20101015-16nmd.html

  10. Yep, the media regularly invoke ‘miracle’ in the supernatural sense.

    Equally irritating is the credence increasingly given by mainstream journalists to claims made by “psychics” and “mediums”. Again, I think part and parcel of the dumbing-down of the media over the last 20 years.

    Possibly also a corollary of religious trends. People are certainly moving away from organised religion and formal Christianity. For most, though, the destination appears to be not so much atheism (wish it was) but rather a vague, wishy-washy kind of New Age/Christianity/Psychic-Supernatural hybrid with the thoughts of the Dalai Lama thrown in for good measure (particularly, I suspect, among younger women).

  11. Although I agree with your general determination I consider miracles may occur given certain parameters(and even then the media tends to use poetic licence).Supernatural events are those which may occur outside our understanding of nature.Todays modern medicine would be considered to be a miracle(and possibly supernatural) in earlier times.God is actually our representation of The Unified Field Theory.

  12. “But you are left with the difficulty of combining free will with divine intervention.”

    I have doubts about divine intervention in terms of ‘miracles’, not that I would discount them entirely; there are to many strange and unexplained things on the earth. Or rather more poetically, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Brian, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    I believe I am given choices/guidance/support, the same as I give my own children, but in the end I can choose as I will. Some call it the voice of conscience; I like to think of it also as the voice of God.

    Out of interest what was your reaction to the closing comment of Professor Biggs in the SMH link, “She’s certainly the only patient in that period that I have seen survive.”?

  13. “And why is that, Markus ?”

    Partly from experience: it’s astonishing how many young, intelligent women I know who believe in “psychics” and “ghosts” and seem to blend these ideas into a New Age/Quasi-Christian belief-system.

    And partly from occassional polls/surveys reported in the media. A year or two back, a read a report of a survey carried out in both Oz and NZ which suggested that around half of women believed in ghosts and roughly the same proportion in psychic powers. Among younger women the proportion was something like two-thirds.

  14. The Final Word:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C61olIkvoks

  15. After the Outdoor Pursuits canyoning tragedy one of the survivors stated that God or a miracle had rescued him – can’t remember the exact words. At the time I (sarcastically) thought that that must mean that his prayers were obviously more pious, or something, than those of the other people who died. After all, they all came from a Christian school and thus one would assume that their prayers would have equal value.
    As a child I can always remember being very puzzled when an archbishop was killed in a plane crash. This sort of thing, I’m pleased to say, eventually lead me away from churches and religion.

  16. “They thank God for his mercy. There is talk of ‘a miracle’.”

    “This remarkable and marvellous event was entirely the work of man. It was not ‘a miracle’ in the first sense of the word. God had nothing to do with it. ”

    As ever, this kind of agenda-driven loose talk ignores the Law of Omnipotence, which says that God caused the problem in the first place. Omnipotence is not frangible, and connot be manipulated to suit.

  17. Brian,

    These several things bother me too, so I’m very glad you’ve written this post. Thanks for a clear articulation of the issues.

    As far as the language goes, I think it is important to use words that are as unambiguous as possible. Although “miracle’ has a restricted, secular meaning, I find it too loaded with cultural and religious baggage. We have other words at our disposal, as you point out.

    If anything I think you are too nice to religion. I know I am very non-confrontational when I talk with religious friends about their beliefs. Most New Zealanders are probably like me (or am I being too optimistic here?!). However, it seems to me that in our desire to minimise conflict, truth can become the casualty.

    I also think we need to balance the costs of religion against its purported benefits. As Dan Dennett points out, “Religion can certainly bring out the best in a person, but it is not the only phenomenon with that property.”

    Cheers,

    Jono.