Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lord, Liar, Lunatic...or Lourdes

Here is a thought for Easter from a scientific viewpoint. Was the resurrection of Jesus an illusion? I’m not saying that it was, but this question gives us an interesting opportunity to compare the process of science with the process of religious faith.

A famous fundamentalist evangelist of the 1970s was Josh McDowell, who was well known for turning the piercing light of logic upon the Christian religion and proclaiming that its fundamental tenets had passed the test of credibility. That is, he acted as if he was being scientific about it. Most famously, he posed the question of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not Lord, then He must have been a liar, for He claimed that He was, or a lunatic, for believing Himself to be. Lord, liar, or lunatic—a catchy phrase.

Catchy but wrong. If, in fact, you can eliminate the liar and lunatic options for Jesus, then the only possible conclusion is “Lord,” which is true only if McDowell considered all the possibilities. But there is a fourth possibility: the resurrection was an illusion, which people wanted so badly to believe that their minds created the beliefs.

This does not mean that the early Christians, or their successors, were lunatics. Perfectly normal people can have illusions; they become lunatics only if the illusion overwhelms their common sense ability to function in society. Because nearly everyone is vulnerable to bias and illusion, scientists use certain safeguards, such as the use of controls and specifying exactly what your dependent variable should be, in order to keep from falling into this all too human trap.

I will use a couple of examples from the Catholic Church, which is actually less prone to illusion than many fundamentalist sects.

First, consider the “miracle of Lourdes.” In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes in southern France. Not once, but eighteen times. Two of the things the Virgin told her were, first, that she (not just Jesus) had been immaculately (asexually, presumably through mitosis) conceived, and second, that if believers would dig a hole at the base of the grotto they would release a spring of water that would have healing properties.

Consider the claim about the immaculate conception of Mary. Some people say that this had to be revealed by the Virgin herself to Mlle. Bernadette, because Pope Pius IX had not declared this doctrine until 1854, only four little tiny years before Mlle. Bernadette’s visions, and during those four brief years Mlle. Bernadette could not have possibly heard about it. Of course, she most certainly could have known about it.

There is a spring from the grotto and it ejects enough water that people can go swimming in it. And millions have done so. The grotto of Lourdes has had 200 million visitors since 1860. Claims have been made that the waters cured nerve damage, cancer, paralysis, even blindness. The Catholic Church recognizes that many of these hundreds of claims have been delusions, but has certified 69 of them as genuine. We all know, however, about the placebo effect: almost anything can make you feel better, or even feel cured, it you sincerely believe it to be so. The placebo effect has long been the bane of pharmaceutical development. But the placebo effect works so well, especially if the placebos are expensive, that some scientists wonder if possibly the placebos should be used to unleash the body’s self-healing capacity. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted with the water from this spring, and no curative effects have been found.

The people who make pilgrimages to Lourdes (the second largest tourist spot in France after Paris) are not lunatics, but they are experiencing an illusion. The human mind, even a normal mind, sees what it expects to see.

Second, consider the “miracle of Fátima.” Based on persistent rumors, somewhere between thirty and one hundred thousand pious Catholics had gathered near this Portuguese town, fully convinced that some unspecified solar miracle was going to happen on October 13, 1917. They would latch onto anything out of the ordinary as a miracle. The people were watching the sun, many of them having smudged smoke onto glass to make solar filters. Some reported seeing the sun itself become a spinning disc in the sky, which careened toward the Earth and then zigzagged back to its original location. Others reported seeing multi-colored sunlight. Others saw both. Some saw nothing.

Since the sun is so big and so far away, this event could not possibly have happened any more than actual stars could fall from the sky the way the Bible says. So what did happen? The spinning and zigzagging could have been retinal after-images. Haven’t you ever seen these after glancing at the sun? Happens to me all the time, if I happen to look toward the sun and then away. What about the colors? Sometimes high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals can refract light into a rainbow of colors, even forming colorful bright blotches to either side of the sun. They may immediately precede a snowstorm. They are called false suns or sundogs. They can cause the appearance of three suns. I have seen them. If I had not studied the rudiments of physics, I might have considered them a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples might have wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was not really dead that their otherwise sane and normal minds played tricks on them. Christian apologists claim it could not have been an illusion because the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus rise from the dead. But it cannot be denied that they hoped He would. In one account, two disciples walked with a stranger, whom they did not recognize, upon the Emmaus Road. Only after he was gone did they “realize” that the stranger was in fact Jesus, but with a different face. This is exactly what a psychologist would expect to hear from someone who was experiencing an illusion.

The disciples weren’t crazy. They were just human.

Liar and lunatic are not the only alternative to Lord. There are two alternatives: Lord and Lourdes. Scientists never assume (or at least never should assume) that we have considered every possibility.

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