Religion and evidence-5: Miracles without god?

Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009), has an interesting professional history. A hematologist by training, she was asked in 1986 to analyze blood samples taken eight years previously from someone whose name and medical history were kept from her. Under her microscope she found all the signs of a kind of leukemia that usually results in death in at most a couple of years and so she was surprised to be later told that the patient was still alive and well. She was further surprised to discover that her analysis had been part of the process for the canonization of a would-be saint, Mere Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the order of Grey Nuns in Canada. The recovery of the leukemia patient was being credited to that potential saint as a miracle. Eventually, Duffin’s expert testimony that the recovery was scientifically inexplicable formed a crucial part of the successful canonization effort, and she was invited to Rome for the actual ceremony conducted by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

This event started her on a new career path as a medical historian. Her book has some interesting background on the canonization process, which came into its modern form with Prospero Lambertini who in 1740 became Pope Benedict XIV. He recognized the important role that science and medicine should play in adjudicating miracles and before becoming pope served in the office of promotor fidei (promoter of the faith), more popularly known as the ‘devil’s advocate’, whose role was to find holes in the case being made for sainthood. In 1983, Pope John Paul II reduced the size of this office and its importance has been greatly reduced in recent times.

Benedict XIV was the one who codified the canonization process currently in use. The process starts with a meticulous examination to make sure the person possessed ‘heroic virtues’ and led an exemplary life. If that is accepted, the person is recognized as being ‘venerable’. The next step is ‘beatification’ which requires at least one miracle. For the final elevation to sainthood at least one more miracle is required. (p. 16)

Perhaps because of her role in the successful process to canonize a saint, Duffin gained access to the files of more recent Catholic saints and her book examines the role of miraculous healing in the canonization process. In the concluding chapter of her book, she says that when she speaks of her work she is frequently asked whether she believes in miracles. After years of hesitation, she says that she now answers comfortably “Yes, I do.” (p. 183)

What makes this notable is that Duffin is not only not a Catholic, she describes herself as an atheist (p. 5). So what does it mean to say that one is an atheist who believes in miracles? She recognizes that this is a conundrum, that to acknowledge the existence of miracles is to challenge her own medical identity and her scientific outlook.

She explains that her belief in miracles is a ‘historian’s belief’ and explains what that means. In the course of her research, she has been impressed with the careful scrutiny that the Catholic Church carries out to ensure that what it certifies as miracles have genuinely passed rigorous tests that include the best testimony of scientific and medical experts, as well as of witnesses and contemporary records of the would-be saint. She has not found evidence of trickery and deception. As she says:

I believe in the good will and honesty of these witnesses, be they educated or illiterate, religious or atheist. I believe in the accuracy of the scribes and translators. I believe in the plausible wonder that these tales meant to the players and the people involved in their collection, transmission, preservation, and use as evidence. I believe in the remarkably careful scrutiny conducted by the Church officials with the help of the best science and medicine available at the time. These stories are true. As a result, they are indeed miracles. Rather than appealing to an abstract philosophical definition of “what is a miracle?,” this ensemble defines the concept pragmatically: these events were miracles for the people involved. (p. 183)

“[T]he “miracle” – the thing of wonder – had nothing to do with breaking natural law by replacing death with immortality; rather, it lay in the contemporary inability to explain the recovery.” (p. 185) (my italics)

There is nothing wrong in believing, as Duffin does, that the entire process was done in good faith and due diligence by the Catholic Church. Outright lies and frauds are usually easily discovered and the cautious Catholic Church would undoubtedly take steps to weed out fraudulent claims to spare themselves any future embarrassment that someone they made a saint became so under false pretenses. But assigning the label of ‘miracle’ to events that are inexplicable at the time of their investigation, as Duffin does, is problematic. The reason is that the word miracle is not usually used only in the temporary and historical way that Duffin uses, but also carries with it connotations of the existence of a causal agency that can transcend and overturn the laws of nature. When the Catholic Church certifies that an event is a miracle, they are not merely acknowledging current inexplicability. They are clearly attributing it to god’s intervention via the saint. Otherwise why would it constitute evidence for sainthood? They may hedge their bets and allow for the possibility that later scientific developments may nullify the miracle but until such time, they believe that god is responsible. A ‘godless miracle’ would be an oxymoron in the eyes of the church.

In the next post, I will explore further the reasons why I disagree with Duffin’s use of the word ‘miracle’ to describe the events she describes.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on miracles and sainthood

Richard Dawkins from Young Australian Skeptics on Vimeo


  1. says

    i believe we are too quick to label happenings a miracle.

    Miracle of birth happens countless times an hour just in California alone: not a miracle-been happening since dawn of time

    Man’s live saved by a bear pulling the passed out man out of a burning home: thats a miracle

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