Voice of Reason: When Miracle Claims Tax the Spirit

Miracles, supposedly supernatural interferences with nature, have been reported since the most ancient times. Ironically--even in our own relatively enlightened culture--they continue to be touted.

One important category of miracle claims involves images that are said either to be supernatural in origin or to exude some magical power. Among the former are simulacra--images seen, Rorschach like, in random patterns. A classic of the genre is an image of Jesus discovered in the skillet burns of a tortilla in 1978. More recently, the dubious image of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich gained notoriety when it was auctioned on E-bay, selling for $28,000. Such "miraculous" images appear to be nothing more than the result of what one priest termed "a pious imagination."

Other notorious effigies are "weeping," "bleeding," and otherwise animated icons. Invariably, however, these are either discovered to be pious frauds or they are withheld from scrutiny. An example of the former was the statue of Our Lady of Fatima at a Catholic church in Thornton, California, in 1981. The sculpted virgin not only changed the angle of her eyes and tilt of her chin, reported churchgoers, but also wept, and even moved about the church at night. A bishop?s investigation, however, found that the movement of the eyes and chin were apparently only variations in photographic images, while the weeping and perambulations were branded a probable hoax.

Many claims involve supposedly miraculous relics--objects associated with a saint or martyr. Among the more macabre relics are the allegedly "incorruptible" bodies of saints, i.e. corpses that have "miraculously" failed to succumb to decay. Actually, however, in many cases artificial means, such as wax masks, have been employed to conceal their poor condition. Some appear merely to have to have become mummified (fostered by tomb rather than earthen burial), or otherwise preserved (as by burial in lime-impregnated soil which can convert the body fat into a hard soaplike substance that resists putrefaction).

Some Christian fundamentalists place special emphasis on what are called "charismatic gifts of the Spirit" which include, notably, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and even (among a distinct minority) demonstrating imperviousness to fire and poisons, including poisonous snakes.

Speaking in tongues--known as glossolalia--is an ancient practice, mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 2:1-­4), and recurring in Christian revivals through the ages. A professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, William T. Samarin, conducted an exhaustive five-year study of the phenomenon on several continents and concluded:  "Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly." The result is "pseudolanguage."

Another charismatic gift of the spirit is prophecy.  Among modern prophecies, the most attention-getting ones are those that predict the biblical apocalypse or other doomsday scenarios. For instance, the founder of the Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, predicted that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust, and her followers located themselves on a Montana ranch where they busily built nuclear shelters and stockpiled weapons. She frequently postponed the date of Armaggedon and explained each time that it did not occur as being the result of fervent church prayers. Countless such cases have occurred throughout history, not only attesting to the failure of prophecy but also bearing witness to the credulity of religious followers.

Taking up serpents is a practice of certain fundamentalist Christians (who read literally the passage from Mark 16:16-­18, "they will pick up snakes in their hands"). While poisonous snakes are indeed dangerous and must be handled carefully, unless snakes are hot, hungry, or frightened, they move little and are relatively non-aggressive. In the event a participant is bitten, the fact is attributed to lack of faith. The devout forego any medical help for a snake bite, but that does not mean they forgo all treatment, which may consist of rest, the use of ice packs, etc. Even so, some who are bitten do succumb, including, ironically, "the original prophet of snake handling," George Went Hensley, who died in 1955 of a snake bite sustained during a religious service.

The phenomenon of stigmata, the supposedly miraculous duplication of Christ?s wounds upon the body of a Christian, is especially prevalent among Catholics. Stigmata typically take the form of wounds in the hands--less commonly the feet, side, and brow (as from the nail and lance wounds and punctures from the crown of thorns). Some writers believe the explanation is an "auto-suggested effect," although experimental attempts to duplicate the phenomenon, as with hypnosis, have been ultimately unsuccessful. The most likely explanation for most cases is pious hoaxing.

Catholicism also has a long tradition of alleged visionary experiences. One of the most significant of the Marian apparitions was that claimed in 1858 by fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (now Saint Bernadette), at a grotto near Lourdes, France. Although the parish priest branded the affair a hoax, Bernadette?s several visions culminated in her being directed to a hidden spring in the cave that had "healing" waters. Despite "multitudinous failures" over the intervening years (one such failure being Bernadette herself, who suffered for many years from tuberculosis of the bone and died at age thirty-five), a few cases have been certified as miraculous. Independent medical investigators have found otherwise, however, observing that virtually all of the diseases that were supposedly cured were those that were susceptible to psychosomatic influences and/or were known to show spontaneous remissions. Emphasizing the uncertain nature of Lourdes? power, French writer Anatole France visited the site in the late nineteenth century and said, surveying all the discarded crutches, "What, what, no wooden legs???"

Of course one cannot prove miracles do not exist, but, invariably, when we subtract the cases which have been clearly disproved, or which have plausible counter-explanations, or that are inadmissible because they cannot be substantiated, there seems insufficient grounds for invoking a miracle. Instead we see how easily people are deceived--not only by pious frauds but also by their own wish-fulfilling natures.