NPR touts Mother Teresa’s “miracles”

I’m not sure if National Public (NPR) radio has always been this soft on religion, but I’m sure noticing it now.  Yesterday the network broadcast a particularly egregious episode dealing with the two “verified miracles” required to canonize a saint (now including Mother Teresa). The good news is that the piece was only five minutes long, but it was still long enough to compel three readers to email me complaints about it.

The piece is “How the Catholic Church documented Mother Teresa’s 2 miracles,” narrated and presumably written by Tom Gjelten for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” You can hear it at the link or by clicking on the screenshot below and then on the arrow at the upper left of the destination:

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 8.18.08 AM

There’s also text at the link, which is similar but not identical to the broadcast. I’ve already written in Faith Versus Fact about the first miracle that got Mother Teresa beatified, the first step in sainthood:

The Vatican itself, which requires a miracle to beatify someone, and two miracles to make them a saint, is none too scrupulous about the medical evidence needed to elevate someone to the pantheon. The beatification of Mother Teresa, for instance, was the supposed disappearance of ovarian cancer in Monica Besra, an Indian woman who reported she was cured after looking at a picture of the nun. It turns out, though, that her tumor wasn’t cancerous but tubercular, and, more important, she’d received conventional medical treatment in a hospital, with her doctor (who wasn’t interviewed by the Vatican) taking credit for the cure.

NPR just alludes to the Besra case, but just said that “her stomach tumor disappeared”. (For more on Besra’s real medical treatment, see here, with a photo at bottom of this post.)

The main journalistic failure of this piece is its credulous acceptance of these “cures” as true miracles and not of natural origin (it notes only that “rationalists wouldn’t be likely to call these things miracles”, but they don’t say why). Do they know about spontaneous remissions and cures, even of cancer—remissions that don’t involve any prayer or extreme religiosity? If so, NPR doesn’t mention them.

To document that these really are “miracles”, NPR drags out a compliant atheist (quotes from the text):

A group advocating sainthood for Marguerite d’Youville, a nun who lived in 18th century Canada, for example, sought an alternative explanation for the sudden recovery of a woman with incurable leukemia who had prayed to the nun 200 years after the nun’s death. The assignment went to Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Duffin agreed to do the investigation, but only after warning the group that she was not herself a believer.

“I revealed my atheism to them,” Duffin says. “I told them my husband was a Jew, and I wasn’t sure if they’d still want me. And they were delighted!”

The group reasoned that if Duffin, as an atheist, found there was no scientific reason the woman should have recovered, who could doubt it was a miracle? In fact, after her investigation of the woman’s recovery, Duffin agreed that the woman’s healing was — for lack of a better word — miraculous.

Intrigued by the experience, Duffin investigated hundreds of other miracle stories chronicled in the Vatican archives in Rome. She came away convinced that “miracles” do indeed happen.

“To admit that as a nonbeliever, you don’t have to claim that it was a supernatural entity that did it,” Duffin says. “You have to admit some humility and accept that there are things that science cannot explain.”

I feel sorry for Dr. Duffin, who, though disdaining the idea of God, implies in her last sentence that because science can’t understand something now, it never will. We surely have cases of spontaneous remission without prayer; could she not have mentioned these? (The “miracle” of Monica Besra, in fact, was almost certainly a regular medical cure.) And yes, we surely won’t know the reasons for remissions and cures in the distant past, but we might be able to understand them in the future. It seems to me that it was Duffin’s responsibility here to push back harder against the claims that God did it, and not agree that the Canadian woman’s healing was “miraculous.” That word, like “spirituality,” plays directly in to the hands of the faithful. Far better if she had said “enigmatic”!

And couldn’t NPR have asked for a comment by somebody like Orac or Steve Novella, who could proffer a little more pushback against religion here? Could they not have mentioned the “intercessory prayer study” that showed no evidence that remote prayer had any effect on the healing of heart patients?

Finally, Gejelton calls on the religionists to explain why sainthood is so important:

“A saint is someone who has lived a life of great virtue, whom we look to and admire,” says Bishop Barron, a frequent commentator on Catholicism and spirituality. “But if that’s all we emphasize, we flatten out sanctity. The saint is also someone who’s now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of it.”

No other Christian denomination posits this notion of an individual in heaven mediating between God and humanity.

“It’s not a little supernatural, it’s completely supernatural,” says the Rev. James Martin, S.J., whose book, My Life with the Saints, recounts his own spiritual journey. “But that’s the difficulty a lot of people have with religion. The invitation is to say, ‘There’s something more than the rational mind can believe, and are you OK with that?’ “

No, I’m not OK with that, for over and over again we find that things that science hasn’t understood, and were imputed to God (lightning, epilepsy, magnetism, evolution—the list is endless) have later been found to have naturalistic rather than divine explanations. That should make one very wary of crying “God” about these “miracles.”

Now you might say, “Well, NPR is just explaining Catholicism.” Yes, that’s true, though I think they should have offered a more balanced view. But that aside, think about how it would sound if NPR did a piece on Scientology’s “theology,” reporting it with just the gravitas of this one.

Or, what if they did a bit on Christian Science and its claim of “spiritual healing,” trotting out someone like Dr. Duffin to say that yes, there are lots of prayer cures in Scientology, and we don’t understand them, so we have to have a bit of humility. (“Humility”, like “nuance,” is one of what I call “run words”: when you hear them, run for the hills, because you’re dealing with a bull-goose believer.)

If the Catholic church believes that saints are pipelines to God who can provide special cures, how come prayer to saints hasn’t restored lost eyes or amputated limbs? Why is it only diseases known to spontaneously regress that the incipient (or established) saints can “cure”? Isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?

It’s a blot on humanity that apparently rational adults can believe in such childish and fantastical stuff.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 9.01.28 AM

Monica Besra claims to have been healed by the Mother in 1998. She was suffering from tuberculosis and a tumour was detected in her stomach. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda/The Quint). Source.

h/t: James Blilie


  1. Posted September 1, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    False dichotomies and post hoc ergo propter hoc for all. You’d think the divine success rate would be higher than the conspicuous decline effect for the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (hence the word hospice).

  2. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink


    • GBJames
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink


  3. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    One attribute of miracles that seems to be overlooked, perhaps for obvious reasons, is their divine origin (the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, describes a miracle as an event ascribed to God). It’s no good just establishing that something very improbable, maybe even a violation of the natural laws, has happened. One must also show it was caused by God. And not just any god, but the one you think exists.

    In these cases, Duffin simply uncovers lots of unlikely events with no obvious explanation. That is insufficient to qualify them as miracles, although one might use ‘miraculous’ in the vernacular fashion. There must be strong evidence that some god did it – large hand emerging from a cloud and pointing, that kind of thing.

    Of course, even then one might think one is hallucinating (a more parsimonious natural explanation than the supernatural), so something more convincing yet would be needed, I think. Some criterion that identifies, in some unambiguous way, an event’s divine origin.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      A Catholic once explained to me that “miracles” can be separated from inexplicable or unexplained anomalies by looking for a factor which the former has and the latter doesn’t: did it increase someone’s faith in (the correct version) of God?

      God, you see, sends miracles to whom He will for just this purpose. So you will never see a genuine miracle which no Catholic considers to be a miracle. So lack of increased faith –> just unexplained unknown. It’s falsifiable.

      Are there Catholics who jump the gun and see miracles where there are none? Sure — but that’s an internal matter. Priests, theologians, and other Catholics are specially equipped to deal with that one. Butt out.

      • Kirbmarc
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        “God, you see, sends miracles to whom He will for just this purpose. So you will never see a genuine miracle which no Catholic considers to be a miracle. So lack of increased faith –> just unexplained unknown. It’s falsifiable.”

        That’s debatable. A sudden recovery from a life-threating illness is rather likely to increase religious faith in someone who is already inclined to believe.

        • Sastra
          Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          Well, yes. My friend the apologist was setting up a rather unlikely scenario — that some sort of surprising cure or other positive thing would happen and NOBODY who is either inclined to believe or believes with the intensity of a thousand suns then proclaims “why … it’s a miracle!!!”

          IF the event fails to increase faith, then the miracle claim is automatically falsified. It wasn’t a miracle.

          Of course, there’s not going to be a miracle claim in the first place if nobody attributes it to God, is there? Someone — I suspect it was my Catholic friend — seems to be unclear on the concept of ‘falsification,’ which leads to a further problem with the concept of ‘testability.’

      • Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I think that has such an obvious flaw I cannot believe it would only take one turn of the screw to realize it. Catholic theologians are dogmatic and medieval, but not stupid. What am I thinking of? The devil. If devils can convince someone of the power of god (by requiring it for protection or whatever), then assuming devils can do the “mysterious or inexplicable”, then *devils can perform miracles*, which sounds to me to be heretical.

        • Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          I was told by my parents that if you ever doubt the authenticity of a supernatural agent to ask it to say a prayer in Jesus’s name. They can’t bear to hear his holy name and will retreat if it’s mentioned.

          Thus, applying this to miracles means if you simply mutter a few words that include an appeal to Christ, you can be confident of the authenticity.

          I’d say you cannot make this stuff up, except that you can, and they do.

  4. rickflick
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I want to see one of those saints cause the regrowth of a limb on an amputee – before medical science can do it(limb reattachment is already with us). If they could do it, and they were as virtuous as they claim, they’d fix all the amputees and children with cancer and traffic victims – wouldn’t they? The question these stories suggest is: why are gods so dreadfully incompetent?

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      It wasn’t a miracle I wanted for proof of sainthood but for faith, when as a child, I learned that basilisk lizards could walk on water, persuaded my atheist father to buy me a pair (I had various reptile pets). If they walked on water, I was ready to Believe! I drew a few inches of water in the bathtub, put ’em in and waited, and waited, and waited. You’d think that if there were some supernatural something, which wanted people to believe, it would have accommodated my infantile desire. I didn’t realize that, given the laws of physics, that phenomenon wasn’t going to happen in our bathtub, Ain’t no miracle.

      • Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        LOL. But they do walk on water in tropical streams–I’ve seen them.

        Praise the Lord!

        • Richard Bond
          Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          One of my cats used to stalk the fish in my pond. One morning I caught him lurkng on the edge of the pond, waiting for a fish to hove into reach. I dropped a large sodden sponge from an upstairs window onto his buttocks. He reacted by hurtling across the surface at least as spectacularly as that lizard.

          Doubtless this will not make me popular on this site.

  5. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Dan Savage had a proper good takedown

    • rickflick
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Tim Minchin to the rescue!

  6. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Also, to the extent that these stories encourage people to look at photos, rather than seek medical treatment, the net effect will be more suffering and death.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Exactly what MT was trying to facilitate, according to her own words and certainly her actions. Very noble. In a very nasty, sadistic way.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Apparently Monica Besra’s doctor is ticked off at the claims of a miracle, apparently because he thinks it will discourage people from seeking genuine medical help.

      • Kirbmarc
        Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        “Apparently Monica Besra’s doctor is ticked off at the claims of a miracle, apparently because he thinks it will discourage people from seeking genuine medical help.”

        That’s a very reasonable concern, since more beliefs in supernatural cures often leads to less people seeking medical help, especially if medical help is costly and/or inconvenient.

  7. Kevin
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    The silver lining is the shadow of scientific reality we now live. The definition of miracle is so marred that it is asymptotically approaching pareidolia and children saved by ladders and ropes from wells.

  8. Stephen Barnard
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Yesterday I listened to part of an NPR piece on the University of Chicago letter. It was pretty bad, especially some snowflake junior making all sorts of false claims about the letter.

  9. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink


  10. MP
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    One more egregious outcome of this event, is that an Indian cabinet minister is leading a delegation attending the canonisation. Ironical considering the fact that the current government is a right-wing government and yet, it kowtows to “religious minorities” by participating in such farce, just to appear more “inclusive”.

    Had they been in opposition, the would have criticised the ruling party for the same action.

  11. Sastra
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “You have to admit some humility and accept that there are things that science cannot explain.”

    So, prior to her investigations, did Dr Duffin-House ALWAYS come up with the right diagnosis? She could explain everything? Was she, personally, without humility?

    Maybe so. She seems to think she represents “science.” The post given to her went to her head, I think.

    “But that’s the difficulty a lot of people have with religion. The invitation is to say, ‘There’s something more than the rational mind can believe, and are you OK with that?’ “

    Should I give you a rational or irrational answer to your question? Do I get to be unreasonable? Are you OK with that?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      The word “humility” is always a “run word” in religion discussions. In my experience, it has a 0% appropriate use- 100% weasel use track record. Suspension of critical thinking is NOT humility, and it is religious claims that are often quite arrogant.

      “Nuance” has in my experience a more mixed track record. I’ve heard it used in ways that were OK, but not always.

      The big problem here is that often folks want a nuanced discussion of religious claims, than make very UN-nuanced statements about atheism and-or science!!!

      OK, there is some lack of nuance in discussing religion in Dawkins (at least I think so), but the lack of nuance in Terry Eagleton’s book rebutting him is far far far worse!!

  12. darrelle
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Going by all that I have seen over the years about MT she seems to me to have been a thoroughly miserable person*. How fitting that the Catholic Church has seen fit to hold her up as a symbol of Catholicism at its best. Irony is alive and doing very well.

    * I mean that in both of the ways that could be read. As in she herself was miserable and she made life for the people around her miserable as well.

  13. Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “It’s a blot on humanity that apparently rational adults can believe in such childish and fantastical stuff.”

    It is quite the quirky thing that our minds are capable of taking something like supernatural claims to be true in the first place. It’s one thing for one person to hypothesize a supernatural entity as an explanation for why something happens, but something altogether different for anyone else to accept and believe in that assertion.

  14. Posted September 1, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Steve Pinker is the obvious choice, but he’s busy writing his next book.

    Before I comment on anything else, YAAAAY!!!

    Pinker is quite my favourite science writer.

  15. jeffery
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I would be PROUD to be called, “a rationalist”.

  16. Posted September 1, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    NPR is getting some backlash over it on their Facebook page

  17. jimroberts
    Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “No other Christian denomination posits this notion of an individual in heaven mediating between God and humanity.”

    Possibly because of naive acceptance of the verse

    1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus

    in one of the forged epistles of the NT.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 1, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Saints also act as mediators in Greek Orthodoxy, and in a few subcultures of Anglicanism.

      Among New Testament scholars, the polite term for forged is “pseudepigraphical”.

  18. Posted September 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes, we must all be humble in pointing out that scientists can’t explain it, but we can! With no evidence, no less!

  19. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    What, only two miracles? You’d think, if someone could do miracles, general altruism would lead them to do as many as they could manage.

    But evidently Bojaxhiu was as mean and miserly with her miracles as she was with painkillers and drugs for her victims.


    • rickflick
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, shouldn’t one miracle be enough? I mean if they don’t have confidence in the first one, why would a second grotesquely dubious testimony be of any help? On second thought, why any miracles at all? Couldn’t they just designate someone a saint based on appearance of humility while politicking for sainthood? Maybe a beatitude contest with a walk down a runway and answering questions about world peace.

  20. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 2, 2016 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Re the ‘miracles’ Duffin investigated, surely every disease has a certain (possibly low) rate of ‘natural’ cures or remissions. Just as every horse race day has a few ‘outsiders’ that come in against the odds. Collect enough of those instances and you’ll have quite an impressive collection of inexplicable (though not impossible) events.

    Hey, my avatar thingy has changed colour! Never done that before. It’s a miracle!


    • Posted September 2, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      I bet the Church wouldn’t be willing to submit their findings to peer review and try to show, for example, that the rate of spontaneous remission was higher amongst the people she treated or people who had purchased the magical pictures.

  21. Posted September 3, 2016 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    At least the comments on FB were blistering!

  22. Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    It is out of my compression the fact that millions of people, still, believe such nonsense, childish things in the age of supercomputers , practically unlimited science and technology. To me these people bodily are part of our age, but mentally they belong to 2000 years ago. They keep the same visions of the people that had no idea of microorganisms and atoms, for whom all these millions of discoveries that we made during this time were unknown. No, no we can not refer to these ignorant and primitive people , to refer to them you deny 2000 years human history. The time has arrived for us to call the reason and to get rid of bad traditions. This world will be a much better place without any religion at all.

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