On a visit to the shrine, seeing the discarded canes and crutches, he exclaimed, “What, what, no wooden legs???”
Some of the most famous miracles of modern times, or so it’s claimed, are the miracles caused by the healing waters at the Grotto of Lourdes, in France. Pilgrimages by the faithful are a constant source of tourism dollars miracle claims, and apparently, since 1858, millions of believers have visited the Grotto, seeking a cure for whatever ails them, always hoping for a miracle. It’s reported that on one day, alone, over 55,000 showed up. Special baths are set up for people to immerse themselves in the miracle waters. Even if you can’t go there, you can send away for your own bottle of the supernatural H2O.
Yet despite the fact that millions of people have visited the grotto for a century and a half, the church has only recognized 67 actual miracles. In reviewing the medical conditions of the good folks who believed they were cured via a miracle, I find myself wishing I was a doctor, so I could determine whether these were the type of diseases or conditions that would have persisted but for a divine intervention, or whether they were the types of conditions that in a statistical sample of people, would have spontaneously regressed or remitted. Google, while helpful, is not adequate to the task. I can’t tell without medical expertise whether these anomalies were the type that could easily be cured, statistically cured themselves, or were not as serious as they were reported to be. Most medical experts will acknowledge that miracles can often be ascribed to the “possibility that the altered states of prayer, religious faith, and meditation may allow the process of self-repair greater freedom to operate”, so the claims have to be approached with some skepticism. I will note, though, that on the list, there is not one spontaneous regrowth of an amputated limb, nor, for that matter, any men cured of baldness.
If you remember the story, Bernadette Soubirous, who was 14 at the time, reported that she had visions of the Virgin Mary, who told her to scratch the dirt in the grotto, after which water came bubbling out. Ironically, Bernadette suffered from severe asthma her entire life, was bedridden for the last years, and died at the ripe old age of thirty five.
Yep. Apparently the miracle cures of Lourdes didn’t work on Bernadette.
The Church had originally set up a committee to investigate the miracle claims (which resulted in the certified cures listed above) but recently the panel of independent physicians charged with assessing miracle claims has decided that they will no longer do so. Prior to that, they had weakened the definitions of miracles, due to the medical community’s reluctance to say that any medical condition was “incurable”.
So what we have here is the inexorable progress of human knowledge taking over those places where religion previously filled in the gaps that ignorance used to create. There was a time when certain diseases were deemed “incurable”. Entire facilities, such as tuberculosis sanatoriums, were set up to isolate incurable and contagious diseases. Science and medicine, however, have reached the point where it’s not prudent, or even reasonable, to say that a disease is incurable. The history of medicine has shown that once incurable diseases are not incurable. Greater understanding of the biochemical, physiological and systemic processes of the human body give us greater confidence in our ability to combat disease. Imagine what we would have done with HIV 200 years ago? Today, we have a massive effort directed at finding a cure. Even cancer is not deemed hopeless.
So what does this do to the miracle business? For one thing, as shown above, theists have to be careful about what they consider incurable diseases. If nothing is incurable, miracles lose all their punch.
More important, if people become more educated about medicine and science, they stop expecting their church to cure them, and instead rely on their doctors. Secular miracles become more realistic than divine ones. Religion has always relied on the magical side of their theology to rope in the masses. As long as they believed in things that transcended their normal lives, they stuck with their churches. This is why Jesus performs so many miracles in the Gospels, at a considerably greater rate as the Gospels were written from Mark, through Matthew, Luke, then John. If he simply preached his gospel, without the performance art, he would have been no different than any of the other itinerant preachers that wandered through the area at that time. The writers had to make him special, or there would be nothing on which to base their religion. Without the magic, religion is nothing.
The concession by the church that they can’t proclaim miracles like they used to is a good sign that religion will eventually go the way of all flesh.