Friday, October 16, 2009

Barney Zwartz and a miraculous discussion of miracles

(Above: Christopher Hitchens on the question of miracles. Hitchens haters and those who hate a lack of synch sound would do well to avoid this clip).

The ever reliable Barney Zwartz has recently struck gold by bringing up the question of Miracles: fact, fiction or figment of the imagination?, under the National Times badge, in a way which miraculously avoids raising too many actual, specific examples of miracles.

A simple, reliable, regular, common or garden example of a miracle at work on a daily basis is transubstantiation:

When at his Last Supper, Jesus said: "This is my body", what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread: these "accidents" remained unchanged. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes that, when Jesus made that declaration, the underlying reality (the "substance") of the bread was converted to that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Catholic Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist when the words are spoken "This is my body ... this is my blood." In Orthodox confessions, the change is said to take place during the prayer of thanksgiving.

However discussing that matter might have led to an inter-faith shouting match, especially as Protestants gave up on the notion of this particular miracle long ago, and now conveniently have an escape clause in relation to early miracles which suggests that, once God through Christ turned up to pass on his message, the business of miracles became redundant. So the resurrection was a one off event, and not many had front row tickets.

Try telling that to the Catholic church as it ferrets through assorted miraculous events as a way of elevating sundry good souls to the status of saints.

Here I should insert a disclaimer - I've never personally witnessed a miracle, nor met a miraculous person, and so can only discuss these matters by way of report or third hand accounts.

It's true that when I almost died under the knife, my mother attributed my resurrection to god, and since then I've had a tendency to assume a Christ-like understanding of the world. After all if you're pronounced as good as dead, each new day seems like a miracle.

But even my mother came to admit in the end that it might have had something to do with the diagnosis of the first doctor who failed to pick up my life-threatening ailment, and then the skill of the surgeon who managed to repair the damage. Sadly as I was under at the time, I never got to see the white light at the end of the tunnel.

I have met a person who was helped by a Filipino faith healer, but that person subsequently died, so I'm afraid their testimony is now part of oral tradition. And I have met an African witch doctor, and an aboriginal Kadaicha man, but neither offered me up either an example of their metaphysical powers or an actual miracle (or even banal good luck in a lottery, or obtaining a new lover by way of a hank of hair).

And whenever I tasted the wafer in communion, I had the nagging suspicion I was just munching on a rather dry dour tasting bread (of course you were meant to swallow it whole, but in a most unmiraculous way, it always seemed to get caught on my teeth or my tongue).

Amusingly if you happen to be celiac - well maybe not so funny if you're a celiac - you will find it very hard to go to communion, at least in a Catholic church, because of the scriptural belief that Christ used wheaten bread at the Last Supper, and that therefore communion bread must be made with wheat and contain gluten. No sensible confirmed celiac would risk the 'low gluten' wheat bread being peddled by the Church. Unless you believe in miracles.

But I digress. Back to Barney, and the way he does a fine job muddying the waters in relation to miracles, which as always involves a battle with science:

Non-believers often say, including on this blog, that if something obviously miraculous happened – say, someone growing a third leg from their shoulder blades – then they would believe, but I believe that is a rhetorical device fallaciously intended to convey an open mind. In fact, as Jesus said, they have all they need now. If they did see a miracle, they would simply doubt their senses or their sanity because for committed materialists – as opposed to the practical agnostics who make up most of the population – the absence of God, and therefore miracles, is a foundational faith commitment (i.e. beyond proof, a leap of faith. Atheists hate me saying this, but that doesn’t render it less true)

Well once upon a time some would have imagined growing a human ear on the back of a mouse as a miracle. Or cloning a sheep. So when you offer me up a third leg growing from a shoulder blade, all I can say is 'meh' - make it an interesting challenge for science. (These days of course parthenogenesis is a piece of cake for some species, so let's never talk of virgin births again).

And down in the comments section, Barney got called out on this eternal business of asserting that atheists are also in the faith business:

If faith is the position of believing despite the lack of material evidence, then Atheism is the position of accepting no beliefs unless sufficient material evidence is presented.

To say that Atheism is a faith is to suggest either that:

1) Atheists believe there is no God despite the lack of material evidence - which is wrong,
2) Atheists believe there is no God despite the abundance of material evidence - which is also wrong.

This sensible correspondent offered up the notion of confidence - belief that sitting on a chair will work out okay, subject to weight, structural integrity etc, as opposed to the faith required to sit on an invisible chair (but then again, I once had a cane chair collapse under me at a bar, proving once again how god is always determined to punish me).

Anyhoo, all Barney could manage was a feeble, dissembling comeback of an excusing kind:

Barney says: To be precise, I didn't say atheism was a faith, I said materialism was a faith. There may be atheists who are not materialists, but probably not too many.

To be precise, I didn't say gobbledegook was an expert argument, I said yadda yadda was an irrational argument. There may be big endians who are not little endians, but probably not too many.

Anyhoo, Barney rounds out the piece with a lapsed Catholic joke, and a throw to his readership, but not before this final piece of circular thinking:

For myself, as usual I want to have my cake and eat it. I believe in the theoretical possibility of miracles but never expect to see them. I watch the process of canonising Mary MacKillop by finding miracles attributable to her with a faintly perplexed eye. And if the sort of miracle that Dawkins demands as proof of God happened, I’d be as surprised as Dawkins himself (partly because I think a miracle has a theological purpose – Jesus rebukes those who merely want a “sign”).

Deep down, you have to suspect that Barney really doesn't believe in miracles, at least not the conventional religious kind favored by the Catholic church in its ongoing business of entertaining dumb believers with weeping statues and pieces of toast containing the miraculous shape of Christ.

A step below the dumb believers who think god might have saved them in a plane crash while casually killing off a couple of hundred fellow passengers, or helped their football team to the championship, in the process converting the opposing team and their supporters into outraged satanists.

Fortunately it's not just the tortured, labored, strung out process of canonising Mary MacKillop which can produce disjunctions in the minds of true believers, as Christopher Hitchens evoked in Less than Miraculous, his version of the canonization of Mother Teresa.

And it was fascinating a year ago with the death of Tim Russert to learn of superstitions sweeping through the Washington media - again as reported by Hitchens in Mourning Glory, The media goes overboard with "the Russert Miracles".

After reporting the signs and portents swirling around in the ether by way of email offering up miraculous events, Hitchens snorts:

... I remain unshakably certain on two points. The first is that no benign deity plucks television news-show hosts from their desks in the prime of life and then hastily compensates their friends and family by displays of irradiated droplets in the sky. (I bet you now that it won't happen for Brokaw or Williams or Olbermann, even if they all convert to Catholicism, and you know I am right.) My second bet is that Tim Russert, a man of firm but modest faith, would reject this foolish superstition and the silly cult of celebrity. This latter cult belongs to the material world, which, in the absence of a supernatural one, is the only world we have.

But does that make him a materialist or an atheist?

Never mind, superstition is everywhere, always has been and always will be. Especially when you get Barney offering up fuzzy thinking, which is the joy of all who want to teach the controversy of creationism, and revel in the joys of conspiracy theories, on the realistic basis that for every ten false theories, one might actually hit home:

“Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

“We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it. … By analogy, most conspiracy theories are groundless, but not all of them are.” (for the avoidance of doubt, Barney is here quoting Hugh McLachlan, Opinion: Do you believe in miracles?, high order tosh parading in the New Scientist as a way to excite theologians anxious to mix with those devilish secularist scientists).

Can I just settle for considering the stupidity of those who consider the world view of the Azande as a suitable basis for arguing that we must cultivate conspiracy theories on the basis not all of them are groundless?

By golly, I think that last point was totally incoherent. Time to stop now, before I'm miraculously blessed with coherence. Well with apologies to Jerry Maguire, perhaps I can muster the energy and resort to a final cheap shot:

It's personal and very important.
Hell! It's a family motto.

- Are you ready, Jerry?
- I'm ready.

Here it is.

Show me the miracle.

Show... ...the...
...miracle... !

- Say it with me, Jerry.
- Show you the miracle.

No, you can do better than that.

- Bob Sugar's on the other line.
- Show you the miracle.

- No, show me the miracle.
- Show me the miracle.

- Louder!
- Show me the miracle.

- You've got to yell that shit!
- Show me the miracle!

- Louder, Jerry.
- Show me the miracle!

Show me the miracle!

- You love this black man.
- I love the black man!

- I love black people.
- I love black people.

Show me the miracle!

you're still my agent.

Hmm, must go up and get that lotto ticket from the newsagent. Today's gunna be the day, I can feel it. Oh lord, it'll be so simple, I truly will believe. Just show me the money!

(Below: an old joke about miracles which deserves a re-run and a couple of weeping Madonnas for your miracles scrapbook).

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