Book Recommendation: Medical Miracles

Back in September I linked to an article by an atheist doctor, Jacalyn Duffin, who confirmed a healing deemed miraculous by the Vatican. In the article she says she investigated over 1,400 miracle investigations by the Roman Catholic Church conducted between 1588 and 1999.

For Christmas I received her Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World. The book surveys the 1,400 miracle investigations alluded to above with a focus on the canonization process for saints. Its findings are general in nature, such as, what kinds of miracles are attested? Each miracle story is told in a few sentences in support of the more general point. This was disappointing, because I was hoping for a detailed discussion concerning individual miracles and why Duffin remains an atheist after surveying the evidence. Nonetheless, I’d give the book 4/5 stars since it should be judged on its purpose and not my wishes.

In the conclusion the author confirms her belief in miracles in at least some sense:

Do you believe in miracles? I am often asked that question when I speak about my work. After years of hesitating, now I answer comfortably, “Yes, I do.” It is a historian’s belief, and it challenges my medical identity.

I believe in the goodwill and honesty of these witnesses, be they educated or illiterate, religious or atheist. I believe in the accuracy of the scribes and translators. I believe in the plausible wonder that these tales meant to the players and the people involved in their collection, transmission, preservation, and use as evidence. I believe in the remarkably careful scrutiny conducted by the Church officials with the help of the best science and medicine available at the time. These stories are true. As a result, they are indeed miracles. Rather than appealing to an abstract philosophical definition in answer to “What is a miracle?” this ensemble defines the concept pragmatically: these events were miracles for the people involved.

The sheer number of healing miracles and their relentless stability command respect in this bottom-up approach to the definition. But I do not contend that these miracles represent all miracles imaginable. Far from it. They are mostly of one kind gathered for the specific purpose of serving the Roman Catholic process of canonization. The need for credible evidence has always pushed the selection process toward healings, by virtue of the witnesses, including doctors. The presence of an objective, educated, “nonpartisan” witness in the person of a physician was one factor that would favor healings over other wondrous events. The evidence was compelling. (pp. 183-4)

On the one hand, it appears that she is not willing to say the healings were truly miracles, but only miracles for the people involved. On the other hand, she offers very few natural explanations for the healings she recounts. Why she describes herself as an atheist, instead of an agnostic, is still left unanswered.

She does provide one other quote that stresses the scientific commitment of the investigators. Note how lame atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett’s explanation of the proceedings appears to someone who actually studied them.

The second surprising feature of the records is their deep commitment to scientific evidence and the essential ingredient of medical surprise. The extent to which the religious observers relied on scientific skepticism came to me as a genuine shock. In the process of canonization, religion draws from and is instructed by science — and not just any random science, but the best available. Daniel Dennett, a famous atheist, labels this process a form of going “through the motions.” But it is far more sincere, deliberate, and committed than his grudging words would suggest. With the exception of ignoring the events altogether, no other “motions” or methods are available to us mortals. Even Dennett must admit that there is no science other than that which is known today, and he overstates his premise that the process does not challenge its witnesses.

As this analysis of four centuries of inquiries has shown, the clerics question every witness and they readily defer to the opinion of scientists. They withhold a judgment of supernatural agency until they are convinced that the diagnoses are accurate, the investigations and treatments up-to-date, and the experts prepared to label the events inexplicable. In this sense, religion celebrates and endorses medical science, and it appears to have no need to refute it. Religion relies on the best of human wisdom before it imposes a judgment from inspired doctrine. When science provides a plausible explanation, religion will wait.

A corollary arises to this observation: religion sits more comfortably with medical science than vice versa. Of course, one advantage is that the process itself emerges from religion; the clerics are “at home,” the medics are not. However, medical discomfiture stems not so much from the details of individual cases, but from the heart of medical identity. As shown in chapter 4, some treating physicians expressed doubts about the entire process; similarly, a few experts hesitated to pronounce on the cures, as if cooperation would constitute a betrayal of their own belief systems. Their skepticism originates in the built-in commitment of Western medicine to the idea that diseases and their cures are not, and can never be, of divine origin. (pp. 185-186)

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