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Over 100 Russians hospitalized after drinking holy water

This is yet another example of what can happen when people ignore scientific facts for superstitions. The Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany was January 19, and the Russian Orthodox have an interesting superstition that goes along with it:

The Holy Spirit, coming down upon the water, changes its natural properties. It becomes incorrupt, that is, it does not spoil, remains transparent and fresh for many years, receives the grace to heal illnesses, to drive away demons and every evil power, to preserve people and their dwellings from every danger, to sanctify various objects whether for church or home use.

Yep, God is apparently so good at water purification, he changes its natural properties…whatever that means. The Russian Orthodox take this very seriously:

People line up in churches to fill their bottles with the holy water which is believed to have a curative effect. Many defy sub-zero temperatures and take a dip in an ice hole to cleanse themselves of sins and take advantage of the heath-giving properties of Epiphany water as it is thought that any water on this day, be it tapped water or a pond, becomes baptismal. The number of “walruses” increases by the year. In Moscow, some 60,000 people are expected to enjoy Epiphany bathing. The holy water doesn’t spoil and therefore needn’t be kept in a fridge.

And what’s the result?

More than 100 Russian Orthodox believers have been hospitalized after drinking holy water during Epiphany celebrations in the eastern city of Irkutsk, an official said Monday.

A total of 117 people, including 48 children, were in the hospital complaining of acute intestinal pain after drinking water from wells in and around a local church last week, said Vladimir Salovarov, a spokesman for the Irkutsk Investigative Committee.

Salovarov said 204 people required some medical treatment after consuming the water, the source of which was a stagnant lake. He said, however, that it was too early to say what caused the illness.

You know what? I have a feeling they’ll discover that it’s caused by some sort of bacteria or parasite in the stagnant lake, not by the priest praying incorrectly.

While these sorts of studies are fun for giggling at people who hold ludicrous beliefs, they’re also useful. People often argue that religion and science occupy different realms of knowledge, and that science cannot test religious claims. That is totally false when religion claims to affect the natural world. Here’s a simple test:

1. Get water from a pond on January 18th (this is your control)
2. Let priest pray on it for Epiphany.
3. Collect water from the same pond on January 19th.
4. Make observations:

  • Have all (or any) of the microbes in the water been destroyed?
  • Has the concentration of harmful chemicals decreased?
  • When left out, does the control water spoil and the holy water not?
  • When administered to ill patients in a double blind study, does the holy water significantly increase their health? (Okay, maybe giving pond water to sick people isn’t ethical…)

5. Repeat at multiple water sources.

If my hypothesis that Science Wins is supported, that falsifies their religious claims. They are outright wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s not a separate magisterium, and it’s not something we should respect. It’s a false claim with consequences. How many adults and children need to get sick with scientific explanations before people give up their superstitions? How is it ethical for churches to be telling all of these people that it’s safe to drink from this water when it’s not?