The Nature of Evidence: Science vs. Religion

Lawrence Krauss has a new op-ed in the LA Times criticizing the Catholic Church’s loose definition of what constitutes evidence. As you probably know, being named a saint requires the sufficient demonstration of at least two miracles, and the late Pope John Paul II recently met this requirement by “curing” a woman in Costa Rica in 2011 (of what, the article does not say). A panel of doctors ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

The problem, as Krauss notes, is that inexplicable remissions happen in medicine somewhat frequently. Are all of these miracles, or is it more likely there is still some aspect of these diseases we still do not adequately understand (remember that medicine, despite the authoritative white lab coats worn by its practitioners, is a relatively recent discipline just now finding its footing as a science)? The Catholic Church is all too ready to declare instances like this “miraculous” without ever considering the more likely alternatives. This stands in direct contrast to the scientific ethos, which gives as much attention to trying to prove ideas wrong as it does to trying to prove them right.

In the mid 1800s, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France. Millions have since visited that site in hopes of being cured of their ailments, physical or otherwise. The Catholic Church has kept records of any claimed cures in Lourdes, and more than 60 have been ruled “miraculous”. Of course, it’s not difficult to compare this figure to the number of visitors to the site, year in and year out, and to compare that figure to the average spontaneous remission rate in most cancers and popular diseases. Unfortunately for the church, the latter number is actually higher – meaning, essentially, people who don’t visit Lourdes actually have a higher chance of spontaneous cure than those who do.

Between standards of evidence, there is probably no wider gap than that between the Vatican and science. Claims of miracles are not trivial – if true, they would indeed point to a higher power, and of something beyond our everyday experience. Therein lies the importance of being skeptical, of not settling for substandard evidence in the form of personal testimony or “God of the gaps” arguments (ie. we can’t explain it – therefore, God). As Carl Sagan summarized so well, we have to be careful not to yield to personal preferences in our search for truth, and acknowledge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Krauss’ Full Article Available Here: Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles – July 7, 2013 – LA Times

“Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire.” – The Brown Scapular and Catholic Superstition

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

A garment said to protect you from eternal fire.

When I was nine or ten, my older cousin introduced me this thing above, which if you’re not familiar is called a brown scapular. It was once a full body garment, worn over the shoulders, but has evolved into what is now basically a necklace. You drape it around your head and one of the cloth squares rests on your chest and the other on your back. I remember where we were when my cousin first showed me this thing, pulling it out from under his shirt. We were beneath a row of four large pine trees on the edge of a creek that ran through the backyard of our grandparent’s house. He didn’t know what it was called, but he knew what it did – it protected you from the tortures of Hell.

That was, at least, what his parents had been convinced of, having recently converted to “Traditionalist Catholicism” (a more conservative form of Catholicism that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council). His entire family, including his older sister and younger brother, began wearing brown scapulars at all hours of the day – not even taking them off to shower. Such devotion to brown scapulars can be traced back to the 13th century, when the Blessed Virgin herself supposedly appeared to Simon Stock, the superior general of the Carmelites, telling him: “Take, beloved son, this scapular of thy Order as a badge of my confraternity, and for thee and for all Carmelites, a sign of grace. Whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire. It is a sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.” Well, with a claim like that, it’s no wonder that so many people throughout the centuries have believed it. You can even find supposed “proofs” for its efficacy here: The Wonders of the Brown Scapular.

Flash forward hundreds of years to the present and we still have priests telling believers that a cloth garment can invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary at the time of one’s death. We have parents telling their children (children!) to wear this piece of cloth lest they die with too many sins on their back to avoid eternal punishment. We have cousins scaring cousins under pine trees in their grandpa’s backyard (if you haven’t yet, check out Richard Dawkins moderating a panel at the AHA conference on “Religious Child Abuse“).

And yes, at ten, I fell for it. Right there, under the pine trees. I hunted down a brown scapular and got one for my little sister, too. I wore it at school for a few days, quietly, until in gym class I had to change my shirt and a friend of mine asked me what it was. I explained, and he hesitated for a moment before saying something that I can still remember clearly, something that made me feel like a fool, something that was perfectly correct, and something that immediately broke the spell of superstition I had embraced:

“That’s stupid.”

It was stupid. I put my shirt back on and threw the thing away after lunch.