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Faith in time of Rationality

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

The news report from London, “Was she cured miraculously?” by Hasan Suroor (The Hindu, August 20), raises several issues about the nexus between religion and irrationality and goes against the conventional wisdom that with the progress of knowledge, religion declines in its importance. As the subject of the report has ramifications for every religion worth its name, to place this write-up in perspective, a brief introduction of this report is necessary.

Going by the report, as a miracle is a pre-requisite for beatification by the Vatican, Mother Teresa’s canonization hangs on a tenuous thread of the testimony of an illiterate 30-year-old Bengali woman, Mrs. Monika Besra. The reason for this is Besra is believed to have claimed that she was “miraculously” cured of an “incurable” tumor with the posthumous blessings of the Mother, though at least three important references in this claim – miracle, incurable, posthumous-blessings – warrant dissection. The “official account” of Besra’s cure runs thus: In May 1998 she was diagnosed with a large tumor in her abdomen and for two months she was in acute pain, unable even to stand straight. One day, she “hobbled” into the destitute home run by Mother Teresa’s order in Raiganj, where first the sisters gave her medicine but when it did not work, they decided on invoking the Mother’s blessings. This they did on the first anniversary of the Mother’s death – September 5, 1998 – when two nuns tied the same silver medallion round Besra’s stomach that had been placed on the Mother’s body. Following this, Besra fell into deep sleep and when she woke up there was no sign of the tumor. A claim attributed to Besra in the report is: “My stomach became smaller and smaller. In three days it was completely all right. I am sure that Mother Teresa made me alright.”

But the claim has not gone uncontested. The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, would have it as one of the “most powerful alleged miracles supporting her (Mother Teresa’s) cause”, and the emphasis is obviously on the word alleged. The Observer, another British newspaper is forthright in its skepticism. Stating that even Besra’s identity had not been officially disclosed, it pointed out that “the excessive secrecy deployed by Mother Teresa’s order, and her successor, Sister Nirmala, in Mrs. Besra’s case” raised questions about the veracity of her claim, and claimed that there were “inconsistencies” in Besra’s account. The Observer correspondent in Raiganj quoted a doctor expressing doubt, while the archbishop of Calcutta, Henry D’Souza, has reportedly claimed, “Renowned physicians have certified that the disappearance of the tumor was nothing short of a miracle.”

Closely related to this miracle episode is an account “A Bold Claim: God Takes Human Form”, by Mr. Robert M. Price: A central figure in first-century Christianity was actually not a Christian. More has been more written about Simon of Gitta than about the apostles. Simon claimed to be the incarnation of the one, true God… Some scholars think Simon’s reputation for miracle working, along with his declaration of divinity, helped influence the Christian idea of Jesus Christ as God incarnate… Simon’s reputation for miracle working made him famous. He even impressed the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) by supposedly flying through the air. Around 175 AD, Justin Martyr reported that Simon was still widely worshipped in both Rome and Samaria. Martyr recognized the importance of Simon’s claim to divinity, and he argued strongly that Jesus was the One who embodied the “Divine Mind” of God. This became a central tenet of the School of Alexandria, the first Christian institution of higher learning founded in the mid-second century AD in Alexandria, Egypt. But it took another 300 years of theological debate before the Catholic Church officially declared Jesus was God incarnate, a paradox meaning he was both the Son of God and God.

The key usages in the above quote, namely miracle working, divinity, worship, incarnation, Son of God and God, are important to note. For though the meanings of none of these are still clear (miracle-working could as well mean magic, and in the not so distant past magic and religion were inseparable), all these usages are still bandied as banalities to buttress and legitimize religions, religious institutions and practices, and a juxtaposed reading of Prince’s account with Suroor’s report in the Hindu makes it abundantly clear that Christianity has not changed much ever since it came into existence about 2000 years ago.

As Mother Teresa, who brought succor to many through her “healing touch”, who dedicated her life to the wretched of the earth, by the great love she had for the poor till her last breath, and so on, is highly and widely revered in the world and the world would have certainly been a better place with more such Mothers, she is already and certainly on a very high pedestal in the “human pantheon” or in “the religion of humanity.” However, the issues focusing on her, raised after her death, have a touch of the “witch doctor’s dilemma.”

The centrality of miracles (in the sense of magic) in religions (what may be called “magico-religions”), and especially in ‘founded religion’ is common knowledge. In place of miracles, and often in addition to them, religions like Hinduism, which have no founders, have legitimating myths. Miracles and myths are in fact the life-blood and lifeboat of religions without which they will languish and sink.

While this is understandable in the context of ancient and medieval societies, in modern societies especially in the 21st Century, which are supposedly passing through “globalization” and shrinking the world to a “global village”, miracles and myths are not only anachronisms but deterrents to the growth and spread of science, scientific temper, and human progress, especially in multicultural, multi-religious, and also otherwise pluralist societies where social groups of divergent and often mutually incompatible belief systems have to coexist.

Understood thus, even in the modern context Vatican is tottering on a shaky foundation. It is one thing to declare Mother Teresa a saint or beatify her, as she was undoubtedly one of the noblest creations of Nature. It is quite another, that her sainthood or beatification should be contingent on someone proving, after the Mother is dead and gone, that she had and continues to have miraculous powers. To be fair to the Mother, she did not claim any such powers, she did not asked that she should be beatified, and for whatever is happening after her death she is not responsible. And given the kind of selfless work she has done will there not be thousands of Besra’s to come out with similar claims?

There has been no eyewitness account or empirically verified or verifiable evidence of any miracle in the world, and what pass for miracles are magic or hearsays. In this sense, the report about the “miraculous medallion” and the “miraculous powers” which the nuns would have others believe, from Besra’s case are in the realm of mystification, and even fabrication. If there has been any working of the probability factor and of the “law of the inevitable” it is certainly not in the realm of miracles and divinity.

If the medallion with or without the Mother’s blessings can cure “incurable diseases” then the Sisters of Charity would do well to go “global” with mass production of such medallions, and eradicate all incurable diseases from the world. If Mother Teresa obliged them in one instance when they invoked her blessings, it is quite unlikely that she will not do so in other instances. The claim which the nuns supposedly attributed to the doctors that Besra’s getting rid of her tumor, if at all that claim is credible, was nothing but miracle is in the nature of someone telling that she had a miraculous escape from an air crash or what not.

The Vatican’s persistence as purveyor of superstitions may be good for its own existence and persistence, and probably for the naïve and gullible sections of Christianity. More so, when of late there has been increasing debate and concern in the West about celibacy, sex and priesthood among the Catholics, and increasing demand to do away with celibacy and priesthood but not sex, inasmuch as celibacy is against human nature and to release their suppressed emotions, when occasions arise the celibates may use catharsis by going for overkill in matters concerning sex.

If the scientific community proves that whatever the Mother did was mundane though certainly noble, and attributing miraculous powers to her after her death is untenable, will the Vatican review the earlier instances of beatification and sainthood, and extricate the mundane from the divine and the human from the godly? That will be setting examples to other religions such as Hinduism and Islam. It will be in larger public, nay global, interest to dissect these issues, so that the world can gradually minimize the threats of obscurantism, irrationalism, fundamentalism, Talibanism, Buddha-bashing, and what have you.

To conclude, “Men will never be free”, wrote Voltaire “till the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. But what will men do if the king and priest are rolled into one? That seems to be the Vatican dilemma.

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