New York Times column by atheist touts real miracles produced by incipient saints

We’ve already met Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, when, on NPR, she gave credence to “miracles” supposedly caused by a postmortem Mother Teresa. Duffin, an atheist, has studied the Vatican’s methods for ruling out naturalistic causes of the cures used to validate sainthood (it takes two such miracles), and she agrees with the Vatican’s assessment. These things have no naturalistic explanation, and thus are “miracles” by Duffin’s lights (see below).

Well, Duffin is dining out on her god-of-the-gaps arguments, for she has a new and similar piece, “Pondering miracles, medical and religious” in the Opinion section of the New York Times. Here she discusses a remission from acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which led to a woman’s long-term survival—an apparent cure.

This is very rare, but Dr. Alex Lickerman, a medical colleague of mine, combed the literature and found several examples of cures of AML without treatment (the “miracle” cure was accompanied by treatment, presumably chemotherapy). So these aren’t unknown, and there’s no mention of prayer in the other cases of cures. And, although Duffin claims that we can’t understand the cure she mentions, there are definite factors associated with remission and cures in the published cases. One is the specific mutation causing AML. The other is the presence of viral or bacterial infection: getting infection makes you more likely to have a remission or be cured. That’s presumably because those infections activate the immune system, which then fortuitously attacks the cancer cells. (In fact, one doctor tried “infection therapy” against AML, with perhaps some limited success.)

The correlation of spontaneous cures and remissions with particular mutations or infections suggests a naturalistic rather than a divine cause. After all, God and Mother Teresa should be able to cure all AMLs, not just particular types.

The bit that makes Duffin say her case is a genuine “miracle” is that after treatment the AML patient had a remission, then relapsed, was treated again, and had ANOTHER remission—this time a permanent one. She doesn’t know of any cases of double remission leading to cure, and indeed, there may not be any reported in the literature. But does that mean that, according to Hume’s principle, divine intercession is more likely that natural causes? I don’t think so. Even the most deadly diseases can sometimes spontaneously disappear, and since cases are so rare, we don’t know why. Again Duffin is falling into the God Gap: validating miracles because we don’t have a naturalistic explanation.

I’ll write more about this later, perhaps for another venue, but I want to quote a few paragraphs showing how credulous—and postmodern—Duffin is, to the extent of both dissing science and equating it with “faith.” Excerpts from her article are indented; my comments are flush left.

If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle. She had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care. The church finds no incompatibility between scientific medicine and religious faith; for believers, medicine is just one more manifestation of God’s work on earth.

I’m not sure why the importance of “the best of care”? Wouldn’t miracles be even more convincing without care? And why are the remissions always for diseases in which we know of spontaneous remissions and cures without prayer? After all, as has been pointed out repeatedly, we don’t see missing limbs and eyes regrown, yet miracles should be able to produce these as well. (“Why won’t God heal amputees?” is even a website!) That itself is one of the strongest arguments against medical miracles.

Duffin’s piece goes on (my emphasis throughout):

Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.

Note the bit in bold. Pure science-dissing, and I need say no more. But wait! There’s more!

I also learned more about medicine and its parallels with religion. Both are elaborate, evolving systems of belief. Medicine is rooted in natural explanations and causes, even in the absence of definitive evidence. Religion is defined by the supernatural and the possibility of transcendence. Both address our plight as mortals who suffer — one to postpone death and relieve symptoms, the other to console us and reconcile us to pain and loss.

More postmodernism: Science-based medicine is just another “system of belief”! Sorry, but there’s a huge difference about how we establish the “facts” in science versus in religion. You can read Faith Versus Fact to see the argument, or my Slate article “No faith in science.” Here we have, however, more postmodernism. Finally, Duffin’s last paragraph:

Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.

Notice the scare quotes around “facts”. This implies that religious facts, like miracle cures, are pretty much like scientific facts. The last sentence is both ludicrous and invidious, touting the po-mo principle that “lived experience” always denotes “truth.” Well, just because someone thinks a miracle is supernaturally based doesn’t make it so. They used to think that lightning and magnetism were supernatural phenomena, but we’ve learned otherwise. Were they once “miracles” but no longer? Here Duffin is mouthing words that have no substance behind them, but fall sweetly on the ears of believers and faitheists.

I discussed this article with a colleague who made some trenchant and critical remarks. Asked whether I could name him/her, the person responded:

How about my being identified as a thinly disguised anonymous colleague and friend, for plausible deniability should I ever need surgery?

And my colleague’s take, quoted with permission:

So how can an atheist, and a doctor, publish such tripe? It’s dangerous tripe, too, because people at the margins who read it could tilt their treatment (or worse, the treatment of their children) toward prayer rather than reality. Three things are going on here, I think:

  1. Many doctors don’t think like scientists. Professionally, they are descendants of medieval barber-surgeons and apothecaries, and at various times in the history of medicine, there have been efforts to inject scientific standards into the profession (including the urge for evidence-based medicine today—why isn’t that a tautology?).
  1. “The history of science” is largely a postmodernist discipline, and I wonder if that’s true of the history of medicine as well.
  1. The Second Culture of humanities-oriented public intellectuals is sentimentally attached to religion, perhaps because they think the enemy of their enemy (scientific thinking) is their friend.
  2. Note, too, the key conceptual confusion in the article:

a. Science can’t explain everything, because many phenomena in nature, particularly in biological systems, are stochastic, and scientists are not Maxwell’s demons who can keep track of the position and velocity of every molecule.

b. Science can’t explain everything, because there are occult phenomena in nature that are  beyond its reach.


  1. Posted September 7, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Once again, the floodgates of credulity have been installed without backwater valves.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Medicine is one thing – but hospitals are genuine business operations. That means customers choosing elsewhere for treatment of they get a bad feeling about the place and people. this doctor has an incentive not to alienate victims of religion…. But hey, that’s true for me – doesn’t mean it’s true for them! Or you! Everyone can choose what’s true…. Somehow that sarcasm doesn’t work….

  3. Kirbmarc
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    “Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians.”

    This is the worst part of Duffin’s article, and you are correct in identifying it as the poisonous fruit of postmodernism.

    According to postmodernism there is no such thing as reality and everything is simply part of a “narrative” which people tell to each other. Any narrative is equally valid.

    This is a very dangerous position to have for someone who works as a physician.

    Patients routinely self-diagnose themselves. Should physicians “respect and tolerate” those self-diagnoses?

    Should physicians simply “respect and tolerate” every possible diagnosis that anyone suggest, just because it’s “as true for them” as the phyisician’s diagnosis?

    I’m pretty sure that Duffin would answer to both those questions with “nos”.

    And yet just because there is no case in literature of a double remission she argues that a religious explanation is “just as true” as simply admitting that there are no recorded precedents for this event in scientific literature for now.

    If someone suggested that the double remission was due to the intervention of an extra-terrestrial sapient species, or due to infection from the blood of a vampire or of a werewolf their ideas wouldn’t likely have received “understanding and tolerance” from Duffin.

    And yet, thanks to postmodern influences, the strong belief of the patient and of church authorities in a supernatural intervention requires “respect” for the strongly believed “alternative narrative”.

    This is a dangerous attitude to have, because it encourages physicians to acquiesce to the beliefs of the patient, to the possible detriment of medical practice.

    Articles like this are part of a post-modern attitude towards science which has lead to people with anti-scientific beliefs demanding that their beliefs must be given “respect and understanding” by, for example, refusing transfusions for their children or denying their children a cure in favor of “traditional medicine”.

    A revealing passage in Duffin’s article is this:

    “I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.”

    Duffin seems rather naïve.The church seeks to avoid potential humiliation when a miracle is “debunked”, that’s why they focus explicitly on cases when there is no clear explanation of what happened.

    Believers may claim not to care about an empirical confirmation of their beliefs, but in the case of the cult of saints we’re talking about a money-making business which the Catholic Church exploits at its fullest.

    Of course the church has a vested interest in avoiding scandals and focuses on the cases where they can fill gaps in knowledge with supernatural intervention. The last thing that the Catholic Church needs these days are more scandals.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Duffin has poor experience with science. She could use some lessons, like, we recently thought we saw evidence for cosmological inflation…turned out to be dust (*).

      And worse, as you point out, she wholly misinterprets the level of focus the church puts into making sure there is NO clear explanation for what happened. That’s not science. It’s the opposite. Make sure all evidence is unfalsifiable and then you will be immune to criticism.


    • somer
      Posted September 8, 2016 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      Its so annoying that expectation of evidence is portrayed as arrogance – all the more so when people in rigorous disciplines start telling the public that faith is as good as fact as a general standard in everyday life – I’ll accept often we simply have to make quick common sense judgements of what we think needs to be done which do not necessarily have direct evidence, and that the provenance of science proper does not extend everywhere in everyday life. For many people it helps in things we can’t change or really don’t and aren’t likely to know much about for some time – but when its used to deny things for which there is good evidence its unacceptable. Or when its claimed science is often a kind of faith and form of unquestioning authority on a par with religion. And its downright irresponsible coming from a doctor; Ive heard (and argued with several) religious and non religious colleagues or friends – even highly educated or very well paid people placing trust in chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopathy, the evil of every possible application of gene technology etc or even questioning the necessity of certain vaccines because they are supposedly harmful. The religious are the most extreme on this but occasionally some left people are almost as much. Lately i notice a tendency of regressive leftists to be respectful of religion generally so long as it is not economically right wing Protestant fundamentalist (i.e. pro capitalist)

      I personally think, though that moderate religion has its place but it needs to be moderate and it needs to respect evidence.

  4. Pliny the in Between
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Physicians, like everyone else, are a diverse group. I’m not sure how true it is now but in my time it was commonplace for people to enter the profession because of a calling. For some it was a sense of social duty, for others it was what we would call spiritual but for many it was linked to specific religious indoctrination.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Statistics also show that a higher percentage of physicians are religious than any other group of scientists.

    • eric
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I know a guy who switched over from chemistry to pre-med because quantum mechanics was ‘too hard.’

      As Jerry and his friend note, medical doctors are not necessarily scientists by training or inclination. They can be, in cases such as MD/PhD’s who do medical research, but the majority of professional MDs probably aren’t.

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        The overwhelming majority of physician’s with whom I’ve worked were either scientists or very scientifically minded. But there’s a lot more to being a good doc than just knowledge and sound methodology. That’s were thing can get a little muddled.

  5. Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.” — attributed to Hippocrates.

  6. Historian
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Under what possible criteria can Duffin claim to be an atheist? It seems to me that giving credence to miracles by definition means belief in a supernatural entity, which is exactly the opposite of what an atheist subscribes to.

  7. busterggi
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    So just how does Dr. Duffin differentiate ‘real miracles’ from ‘demonic interventions’ which occur to non Christians? I mean, they can’t be miracles because they didn’t involve prayers to the triune deity for that deity to answer.

    i look forward to the results of her study on this.

  8. Kevin
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    But even a healed amputee is becoming pretty blurred with reality. Within 100+ years we will make remarkable progress in the area of providing functional cybernetic limbs.

    Christian miracles stand to be some of the most obscure, pedestrian, and provincial crap. How about something amazing, like a Category 5 hurricane sitting over Florida ready to take hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and then just vanishes. I would consider that a minor miracle. Or a near earth asteroid that we know can not be stopped and will end us all and then it just vanishes. That would be a miracle.

    • busterggi
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Sorry but mostly god is busy providing parking places, finding lost keys and choosing winners of high school football games.

      Priorities you know.

  9. Posted September 7, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    So, according to the Pope, Saint Theresa has the power to cure cancer — never mind that she’s dead.

    Now, many of those reading these words will understand that Theresa loved suffering far more than she loved those who suffered, and that that is ample explanation for why she, in her post-mortem state, has only cured two cases of cancer.

    But let us pretend for a moment that she, despite being worm food, really is as loving and as compassionate as her propaganda machine portrayed her. Most of us actually are loving and compassionate to some degree, so pretend that you’re in her position: despite death, you can cure individual cases of cancer.

    Who amongst us wouldn’t devote our immortal careers to curing cancer? Would we not each, at the least, take up residence at some hospital and spend at least 40 hours a week curing everybody in the cancer ward, using some sort of triage protocol if necessary?

    So why doesn’t Agnes do so?

    And never mind Agnes…innumerable millions people over the ages have actually been as compassionate as she wasn’t. Why hasn’t Jesus endowed them with similar powers?

    For that matter, shouldn’t Jesus himself be putting in 80-hour weeks supervising this celestial surgical squadron? Perhaps with the occasional periods of overtime when there’s a run of particularly bad cases?

    We do so ourselves. Most of us would gladly keep doing so after death — and especially oncologists!

    Yet…the most infamous saint of the 21st century barely managed to pull it off in two highly-questioned cases?

    Clearly, the gods are much less powerful than alleged. Or maybe they’re too busy in rehearsals for the celestial choir to have time for such inconsequentialities like curing cancer in mere mortals?



    • Randall Schenck
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Since you are asking all of these questions please add this one to the pile. g*d created everything, would include cancer as well, So why would Theresa be undoing what the great one saw fit to do? And then proclaimed a saint for interfering?

      • Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Oh, the Pope has that one answered. You see, there once was this enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard. The woman in the garden turned out to be in cahoots with the wizard’s serpentine evil brother, and the two of them tricked her husband into joining their cult with an initiation ceremony focussed around eating fruit cocktails. Unbeknownst to the guy, this had the side effect of laying bare the shoddy construction of the angry wizard’s subcontractors, at which point the rotten foundation started to collapse so spectacularly that we’re still trying to prop it all up to this day.

        What the Pope can’t explain is why the oh-so-dedicated Saint Teresa can only cure a pair of very questionable cancers, and why she’s not spending at least as much time after death “helping” the downtrodden as she did when alive — especially since she’s now got these sniny new magic healing spells to play with.

        Or maybe that is the problem? She’s too busy partying it up with Papa Doc to have time to waste on curing cancer?




  10. DrBrydon
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I repeat my earlier objection: How does the Vatican know that it was prayers to Mother Teresa that were the ones that resulted in the cure? Indeed, how do we know that it was Catholic prayers that were efficacious? Perhaps some acquaintance who was Protestant or Hindu prayer directly to a deity. Did god and the Pope play twenty questions, and at the end god said, Yes, it was Mother Teresa? Even if I was inclined to believe in a deity, and miracles, I’d still want to see all the names in the hat before the drawing to be sure they didn’t all say Mother Teresa. I bet the Pope palmed it.

    • Mike Cracraft
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to see all of the people in Saudi Arabia praying to Teresa to cure their medical ills. I wonder what would happen.

    • Desnes Diev
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      “I repeat my earlier objection: How does the Vatican know that it was prayers to Mother Teresa that were the ones that resulted in the cure?”

      Do they care? To brand a saint is mostly a marketing affair, and if patrons don’t complain there is no need to look for details.

    • eric
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Its also a head-scratcher how they get from MT to therefore Jesus. Let’s say for sake of argument that we are convinced the woman prayed, and MT’s ghost came down and touched the patient and cured them. The only rational conclusion to be drawn from these “facts” (again, just for sake of argument) would be that (a) ghosts exist, and (b) some of them can heal people. That’s ancestor worship, not Catholicism.

      • Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        That’s ancestor worship, not Catholicism.

        You write as if the two are different. A strange suggestion, especially considering the continuity between ancient Roman religions as ordained by various Emperors.




  11. Merilee
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink


  12. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    One of the many problems I have with attributing such validity to lived experience is that it only applies to things for which there is mass delusion, like religion. An inexplicable remission that the patient is convinced was brought about by the fairies at the bottom of his garden would not be taken so seriously.

  13. Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that Duffin isnt what any of us would call an atheist. I’d almost say that because of what she claims she cant be an atheist by definition…but perhaps she defines an ‘atheist’ as anyone who doesnt go to church on a regular basis.
    I think her claim to be an atheist is just a ploy to give her endorsement of miracles more credibility

  14. Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Real miracles. Is that like real magic?

    • busterggi
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Ever since Dr. D. was a child and her uncle pulled a nickle out of her ear she has known magic is real.

  15. Posted September 7, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    NPR doctor-shopped to find this one (who is mush-brained on miracles).

    Reminds me of how the designers (at a former employer) would engineer-shop to try to find a structural analyst who would give them the answer they were looking for.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      I’ve done that with structural engineers before now.

      Most structural engineers are concerned with keeping things as light and economical to manufacture as possible. Because when you’re doing a multi-storey building with hundreds of precast beams, every extra inch of concrete (repeated hundreds of times) not only costs $$$ but the extra weight requires yet more stiffness for earthquake resistance. Structural engineers (and aeronautical and automotive ones) have weight-saving ingrained in them.

      This is absolutely not a consideration in the case of underground pumping stations and storage tanks where a primary requirement is to stop the damn thing floating. It’s almost comical watching a structural engineer battle against the ingrained instinct to save weight.

      Incidentally, I think maybe doctors resemble engineers more than scientists. They both need a big range of background knowledge, a range of techniques and solutions, but they’re not (in most cases) into doing new research.


  16. eric
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Panda’s Thumb addressed this too. To answer the other commentator’s ‘what kind of atheist could she be,’ personally I think she’s sincerely atheist but accommodationist, and attempting to play semantic word games to bolster the church’s practice. Her bit about ‘inability to explain’ is referring to the use of the term ‘miracle’ to mean an unexplained and surprising outcome. But the church is looking for a ‘miracle’ corresponding to the meaning of a physics-defying act of God. They are not the same meaning. The Miracle on Ice and the Miracle of Bread and Fishes are not the same sort of event, even though they both use the word ‘miracle’ in a legitimate semantic way. In the same way, a miracle of cancer remission is not the same thing as the miracle of healing-by-ghost. Duffin is playing on his dual meaning.

    Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science.

    …and here she is completely getting canonization wrong, too. The RCC isn’t looking to merely acknowledge great humans, they’re looking to attribute supernatural action to an event. And of course this sort of evaluation should consider science, because as what we can do through technology changes, what we can’t do and think is impossible changes too. As the latter category shrinks, what counts as a miracle (in the ‘physics-defying act of god’ sense) shrinks too. Moving a person from London to Paris in an hour? That’s a miracle if you lived in the 16th century. But its just an uncomfortable ride in an overcrowded Airbus in the 21st.

  17. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm, I’ll have to remember to ask my quack if he’s an atheist or a delusionist next time I see him.

  18. Posted September 7, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Does anybody know a concise, generally-accepted definition of “miracle”? It seems to me a miracle has to be:

    1. Something that’s not just unlikely, but something impossible. As in, couldn’t possibly happen under that natural laws of the universe.


    2. Somehow we would have to be absolutely certain, not only that it really happened, but that it was impossible.

    So, not just unlikely, not just unprecedented, and not unexplained, either (because we would have the explanation, “it was a miracle, no question about it”).

    To me that sounds like something that could never, ever happen in the real world. in other words, an actual miracle is a logical impossibility!

    On the other hand, a miracle makes a dandy literary device — an element of fiction.

    Hence my question — is there a working definition of “miracle” that gets around this problem?

    • eric
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Like many words in English, ‘miracle’ has a range of meanings. I don’t think the solution here is to insist each word have only one denotation. IMO a better solution is to point out that Dr. Duffin is switching between meanings pretty freely, in a way that confuses the issue – and that such switches do not really support the RCC’s conclusion, they’re more of a semantic sleight-of-hand trick.

    • Posted September 7, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      No, you’ve pretty much nailed it.

      It’s worth noting that miracles are the calling cards of the gods; the way that you know that an entity is a god is because of the miracles s/h/it performs.

      And, as such, it’s actually essential that miracles must be actually, really, truly, honestly impossible outside of fiction.


      Because the gods are the puppets of the priests. The whole point of the gods is to be an unquestionable authority, and for the priests to wield that authority as the official spokesmen of the gods.

      So…if you know the gods are authorities, and you know that because of the miracles they perform…then it’s vital that no random schmuck can come along and replicate the miracles of the gods and thus usurp their (and the priests’s) power.

      Of course, anybody can come along and claim that some new god performed come new miracle…but that’s a tough game to muscle into. Why should you trust this newcomer when the tenth-generation priest is telling you he’s showing you the way to Hell?




      • steve
        Posted September 8, 2016 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        “s/h/it” I see what you did there!

      • Posted September 8, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        The author of (the relevant part) of Exodus knew this – hence the bit about Moses and Aaron dueling (and one-upping) their Egyptian counterparts.

        • Posted September 8, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          Good catch! Hadn’t thought of that one in those terms.



    • Kevin
      Posted September 7, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Here’s some other definitions that Christian’s normalize:

      • 100 people fall of out the sky. 99 of them live. It’s a miracle only one died (probably a heathen)!

      • Guy get’s staph infection, loses his arm, nurse tells him it’s a miracle he’s still alive!

      • Earthquake hits five seconds after car exits a ramp that collapses causing millions of dollars of damage. It’s a miracle no one got hurt.

      To be a Christian is to truly believe in the incontrovertible selfishness that surrounds the benefit to oneself and others while simultaneously wishing for and justifying suffering of others.

  19. Hempenstein
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    My uncle, Loren C Hurd – a metallurgical chemist and member of the Manhattan Project, came down with leukemia in the early ’50s. He was one of the very first to go into remission after a splenectomy, and died of a massive heart attack ~5yrs later (1957). Since I was only seven then, I never learned why someone thought that a splenectomy might be effective in that regard, and from once reading about it I gather that only a certain type of leukemia (forgotten which, but only ~4% of all) is amenable to that treatment. (His son-in-law, an MD, once told me that my uncle is listed in the paper describing the results as patient LH, in case anyone here prowls ancient medical literature.)

    In any event, nobody in the family EVER attributed the remission to a miracle.

  20. jeffery
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t this woman an, “AINO”: “atheist in name, only?”

  21. Filippo
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 7:59 pm | Permalink


  22. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    “If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle.”

    I’d say it was a sodding miracle, at least the ‘through prayer’ bit. By any definition of ‘miracle’.



  23. Tom
    Posted September 8, 2016 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Just another attempt to label chance events as miracles.

  24. Pete T
    Posted September 8, 2016 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    If post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies had a catchier name perhaps more people (including doctors) would spot them.

  25. Posted September 8, 2016 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Such approaches could be viewed as an odd form of Positivism, with the major modification that it assumes the supernatural as real and that it can sometimes act on the natural world, which is then empirically verifiable. Original Positivism ruled that out, and yet replicated catholocist traditions in the Religion of Humanity.

    This approach is possible when you consider this “experiment”: every terminally ill person on the planet receives a picture of Celing Cat, and we then verify the miraculous effects. Some will be healed and we quickly have our two miracles together. This then suggests that Ceiling Cat, or perhaps Healing Cat, are real.

    Of course this cannot work, and Karl Popper is credited for pointing out the importance of falsification, declaring Positivism dead.

    But Positivism was a step away from the metaphysical and in opposition to religious beliefs, and it would be fitting if catholocism, lagging behind the times, is trying to overcome that opponent. One benefit is that positivist views are widespread and we are perhaps even in the Age of Confirmation, surrounded by such riches of information that anything is possible when you just believe strongly and look for evidence.

    • Posted September 8, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      The first positivist I know was Cardinal Bellarmine, Galileo’s accuser, who insisted (contrary to Thomism) more or less that scientific realism was heretical. (Duhem makes this exact point, but thinks it is a *good* thing, more or less.)

      Positivism is more science-friendly than many *current* religious epistemologies, but that’s not saying much.

  26. Sastra
    Posted September 8, 2016 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    “Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians.”

    While it may be influenced by postmodern relativism, I think this attitude is more directly descended from what I call the Little People or Simple Folks Argument: the religious aren’t like us: they can’t handle the truth; they don’t care about the truth; they’ll never change so give up before you start.

    “Simple Folks have simple, uncomplicated beliefs in miracles and magic which meet their needs. Who are we to introduce a way of thinking to them that is foreign to their nature? Who are we to try to take away their security blanket?”

    “Faith is a wonderful thing if it makes people happy, if it gives them meaning and identity. So let’s treat religious claims as if they were expressions of meaning or identity. Throwing cold water on the idea that spontaneous remission is a legitimate “miracle” is like saying art is for “losers” or telling someone they shouldn’t love their children.”

    Thus go the faitheists — atheists who choose to interpret faith in terms of its emotional content rather than its epistemic methodology. Faitheists look upon the Simple Folks while in Therapist Mode. Instead of considering whether a “miracle” is an act of God or not, use those scare quotes not to emphasize the tentative nature of the claim, but the tentative nature of human frailty. We all need our “”””””miracles.”””””” Let’s leave it at that and celebrate the Simple Folks capacity to be simple, and folks.

    The religious eat that crap up with a spoon. They’ll ignore the underlying insult because an atheist smiles upon them in approval.

    • Posted September 8, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      “Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians.”

      While it may be influenced by postmodern relativism, I think this attitude is more directly descended from what I call the Little People or Simple Folks Argument: the religious aren’t like us: they can’t handle the truth; they don’t care about the truth; they’ll never change so give up before you start.

      It would depend very much on the context. If you’re an oncologist and a patient describes the support he’s getting from his prayer circle at his church, it isn’t your place to dissuade him from his superstitious views. Of course, if the patient then goes on to explain that that’s why he’s refusing chemotherapy…then it’s time to bring him back down to Earth — but gently. Adults have the right to informed consent, and that includes the right to refuse treatment, even for bad reasons.

      It could go even farther…imagine, say, a prison with a diverse religious population. It would be entirely appropriate for the State to provide for chaplains of various religions for prisoners who request them — provided, of course, the chaplains didn’t engage in any proselytizing and so on. Not only appropriate, but prudent. You’re not going to convince the devout amongst the prisoners of the follies of their faith, whether you think you could or not. And it would be, frankly, unnecessarily cruel to deny them the comforts of their religions at the same time as you’ve deprived them of so much else.

      Note, of course, that I’m not suggesting that the chaplains should substitute for qualified mental health professionals, or that prison staff should directly encourage religious activities, or so on.

      But it is important to recognize how important religion is to people, and to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to tolerate religious follies. If you wouldn’t try to deconvert Grandma on her deathbed, you should’t bar a priest from holding a requiem mass in a prison cafeteria (to continue the example).




      • Sastra
        Posted September 8, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Oh, I agree. The appeal of both faitheism and the Simple Folks Argument partly lies in the fact that we absolutely should apply a principle of charity to situations in which they’re called for. Live and let live, respect others, etc. The problem arises when the response has changed from diplomacy to pandering because the issue is public and the question of truth has become important.

        • Posted September 8, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          Yes, lots of people have trouble with context switches…and advocates of faith are eager to prey on that difficulty.



  27. Posted September 8, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    “These things have no naturalistic explanation, and thus are “miracles” by Duffin’s lights (see below).”

    Dr Duffin. sorry to be so politically incorrect, but your logic is ridiculous.

    The reasoning is argumentum ad ignorantiam, the appeal to ignorance, rejected by John Locke.

    You might as well say, “My patient got sick and died for no known reason, therefore it must have been a punishment by God.”

%d bloggers like this: