Better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes – my debate about miracles on RTE TV

On Sunday I debated miracles on RTE television’s Spirit level with host Joe Duffy; Fr Richard Gibbons, parish priest at Knock; Louise Hall, author of a book on Medjegorje; and Dr Michael Moran, a member of the Lourdes medical miracle assessment committee.

Extract 1 – Better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes

Extract 2 – Are the Medjugorje miracles a con?

Full debate

Some of the key points that I made during the debate were:

The cure rate at Lourdes is about 1 cure for every 3 million pilgrims, far less than the statistics for spontaneous remission of cancer.

The last official cure was in 1989, so in the past 25 years you have a better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes.

In 2008 the Pope offered a plenary indulgence to anyone who went to Lourdes, that would get you out of purgatory quicker and into heaven quicker.

Coincidentally, that was just after the Vatican had launched Vatican Airlines, that was bringing people on pilgrimages to Lourdes.

In 2012, the University of Vienna found that 86% of holy water has bacteria consistent with fecal matter, and that holy water from Lourdes has caused hospital patients to be infected.

People who attribute cures to God typically don’t attribute getting the illness to God in the first place. They only attribute to God outcomes that they like, not outcomes they dislike.

Whatever happened in Medjugorge when people thought they saw the sun dancing, it happened in their minds. If the sun had actually danced, everyone in the world would have seen it happening.

Catholics who believe that the sun danced over Medjugorje typically don’t believe that the moon was split in two over Mecca. Religious people are typically good at noticing the flaws in other religions’ miracles.

At best we can say that things happen that we don’t understand. We should be happy to say that. Adding in an explanation (that it is God) turns it from a mystery to a con.

Two issues arose in the debate that I didn’t have an opportunity to respond to, which I will clarify here.

Vatican Airlines

Firstly, after I said that the Vatican had launched Vatican Airlines shortly before Pope Benedict announced free plenary indulgences for pilgrims who travelled to Lourdes during 2008, Dr. Michael Moran said that there isn’t an airline that he is aware of called Vatican Airlines.

Here is a Reuters article from 2007 about the launch of Vatican Airlines. It reads:

While some passengers only turn to prayer when jolted by turbulence, the Vatican made it standard on Monday by launching the world’s first airline for Catholic pilgrims.

Complete with Vatican logos on headrests and air hostesses’ uniforms, the inaugural flight traveled from Rome’s Fiumicino airport for the shrine of Lourdes in France.

The charter flight’s slogan spoke volumes about what its clients are doing above the clouds: “I’m Searching for Your Face, Lord”.

“It is a spiritual journey,” explained Francesco Gherra, one of the pilgrims who boarded Monday’s inaugural flight hosted by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the former head of Italy’s bishops.

The Vatican aims to serve 150,000 pilgrims a year on its chartered Boeing 737, run by Italy’s Mistral Air.

Destinations range from the shrine of Fatima in Portugal to Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments from God.

In-flight entertainment on the way to the world’s holy sites will, somewhat predictably, be religious in nature, the Vatican said.

Splitting the Moon

Secondly, after I asked the Catholics on the panel whether they believed that Mohammad split the moon in two, Elisabeth in the audience said:

“Our friend Michael Nugent said earlier that Islam says that Mohammad supposedly split the moon. There is no such thing in Islam. It is mentioned to us that the moon was split, and it is God Almighty Allah who mentioned it to us. We don’t pray or worship Mohammad.”

Here is my understanding of the issue, and I am open to correction. There is no single authoritative interpretation of the Quran and Hadith. The Quran does not attribute any miracles directly to Muhammad. Some sources including Hadith say Muhammad in Mecca was requested to show disbelievers a miracle, and he showed them the splitting of the moon. The As-Sunnah Foundation of America attributes various miracles to Muhammad.

I’m happy with any Islamic theological interpretation of the event, because I don’t believe that the event actually happened. I highlighted the supposed splitting of the moon over Mecca, to contrast with the supposed dancing of the Sun over Medjugorje. The point that I was making was that people of one religion can easily see the flaws in the supposed miracles of other religions, and vice versa.

Here is what says about Surah 54:

1. The Hour has drawn near, and the moon has been cleft asunder (the people of Makkah requested Prophet Muhammad to show them a miracle, so he showed them the splitting of the moon).

Here is what says about Surah 54:

In this Surah the disbelievers of Makkah have been warned for their stubbornness which they had adopted against the invitation of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). The amazing and wonderful phenomenon of the splitting of the Moon was a manifest sign of the truth that the Resurrection, of which the Holy Prophet was giving them the news, could take place and that it had approached near at hand. The great sphere of the Moon had split into two distinct parts in front of their very eyes. The two parts had separated and receded so much apart from each other that to the on-lookers one part had appeared on one side of the mountain and the other on the other side of it. Then, in an instant the two had rejoined.

The As-Sunnah Foundation of America was founded by a group of concerned Muslims from many backgrounds and specialties who are striving to promote the unity of Muslims and understanding and awareness through education.

Here is what it says about miracles attributed to Muhammad:

A number of miracles were bestowed upon and performed by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to establish the proof of his prophethood. The greatest miracle bestowed upon him was the revelation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is miraculous in a number of aspects: Its linguistic perfection and inimitability, its validation by recent historical, archaeological, and scientific discoveries, its prophecies and so on. Unlike the miracles of other prophets before him, the miracle of the Qur’an is eternal. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also provided us with a number of true prophecies.

Below are accounts of the some of the other miracles of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) . Before reading these, it helps to know something about the Science of Traditions (Arabic: Ahadith), an exacting and comprehensive system developed by early Muslim scholars to verify the chain of transmission of these accounts, as well as investigating the trustworthiness and capability of every narrator at every level of the chain. This thorough authentication process ensures that these accounts are real, validated narrations of the sayings, actions, and tacit approvals of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

The Traditions mentioned below are all from Sahih al-Bukhari, the most authentic collection of ahadith.

Splitting of the Moon
Food Multiplication
Water Multiplication
Supplication for Rain
Lights to guide Companions
Crying of the stem of the Date-palm Tree
Glorification of Allah by the Prophet’s meals
The explusion of a liar’s corpse by the Earth
The Speech of the Wolf
The Prophet’s Night Journey to Jerusalem and Ascent to the Heavens

As I said, I’m happy with any Islamic theological interpretation of these supposed miracles, because I don’t believe that any miracles actually happened.

Better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes – my debate about miracles on RTE TV

12 thoughts on “Better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes – my debate about miracles on RTE TV

  1. I could not imagine this debate taking place on RTE 5 years ago. That an atheist can be invited onto a mainstream tv station to partake in a panel on a religious tv show is a salute to the progress made by you and Atheist Ireland since its formation.

    The other panelists had no idea how to deal with the questions you raised. TV shows like this are usually entirely composed of idiotic affirmations of faith that go unchallenged.

  2. Thanks, Michael! Despite being heavily outnumbered, you really hold your own. They do get confused when their statements of “fact” are challenged, don’t they… Of course Louise had a book to sell and the priest was doing his job, but I found the doctor particularly appalling. A medical doctor, believing in miracles and not caring that the waters are bacteria-laden? Good grief, I shudder to think what it would be like to be his patient. And he gives talks to medical students… Oh dear…

    Bravo to people such as yourself, who work hard on disabusing people’s minds on the subject of a god or gods. Keep up the great work of cutting through the woo!

  3. That was very clear and very informative. I found Michael that you came across very prepared for that debate to the detriment of your colleagues on the panel who had a great vested interest in promoting either Knock, Medjugorje books or Lourdes. The comment above is correct that this type of debate would not have had airtime a few years back and for this reason. It just takes one person to stand up and say the emporer has no clothes on, fair play to you for calling it as you have been for the last many years. This resonates with many many more people than a census might indicate and promotes critical thinking…or just thinking. Some of the responses were funny ,in my humble opinion ( it wasn’t Mohammad but Allah who split the moon ……. Ah that makes sense then) but no more than other beliefs and people are entitled to them no matter how much I may disagree with them and your respect came across as well which is vital, well done.
    This is where you are needed Michael as a voice of reason and this was great, I’d say a few people watching saw through the miracles new clothes. Thank you.

  4. “it wasn’t Mohammad but Allah who split the moon”

    You could say she was splitting hairs. Bwahahaha… sorry.

  5. So they’ve found that water taken from some of these shrines has been contaminated by faecal matter. Damn, that’s just nasty.

    Given the wealth of the RC church, one must wonder why they don’t invest in some water treatment facilities at these places. After all, if you’re gonna have a miracle cure, it’s generally best to insure it doesn’t make people sick.

    BTW, this debate has been given a shoutout by Jerry Coyne over on WEIT.

  6. Very well done.
    Facts and figures combined with a friendly and polite manner.

    When will you be on again?

  7. I don’t know how you deal with such ignorance without Hulking out. I’d need to dope up on beta-blockers.

    I imagine there must be a portrait of you in your attic with a furious look on its face.

  8. “better chance of dying than being cured at Lourdes” is a very good coinage. You stood out with your red shirt and the few lines they gave you.

    As I notice often in these debates your weak spot, and that of all atheists, in such debates is that we are typically the person who has to bring the “bad news” for wishful thinkers. We rain on someone else’s parade and its never pleasant for people who are mostly driven by “emotional arguments”.

    I liked that you placed some emphasis on that it is simply human to feel connected with others in some large events. We have that at concerts, in the stadium, at demonstrations and other such events whenever you feel part of large likeminded crowd. I think mentioning that was important, even if it might appear weaker to fellow atheists than the fact-freighted sentences you delievered before.

  9. I agree, it is a step forward that we are now part of the national media discourse on these issues, particularly on a religious programme.

    The default position, however, was that even a doctor was discussing the supposed miracles as if it was part of normal medical practice to make such assessment.

    Regarding future appearances, it was a once-off. They have a different panel for each show in the series.

  10. First time here (via Jerry Coyne’s site). Another well-reasoned and well-spoken episode by an atheist. Thank you, Michael!

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