Miraculously Speaking

We have a person at work that throws around the word ‘miracle’ rather copiously. This week after a particularly snowy day she walked into work and went “The morning commute was so bad, it is miracle that I made it to work on time”. This got me thinking about how people view miracles and what influence it plays in our lives and belief systems.

There was this joke that was very popular when I was growing up. It went something like this:

A guy goes to a priest in a church and asks the priest, “Father! how do you define a miracle?”. The priest takes a minute to reflect on the question and then a smile crosses his face. He tells the guy to close his eyes and proceeds to give him a really hard slap across his face. To the surprised (and mildly sobbing) guy the priest goes,” Son, did it hurt when I slapped you?”. The guy, looking up in incredulity goes, “YES”. To which the priest replies calmly, ” Well! it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t hurt!”.

Whether you call minor coincidences, random positive events or unexplained events as miracles, the fact remains that belief in miracles is very very popular. The need to divest your rational thought to an experience in faith is very high in this country.

The table above shows three quarters of the population have really strong beliefs in miracles. One wonders is there is a correlation between the above numbers and the drop in U.S.’s math & science rankings in the world.

In India, a country that is a perfect cocktail of God men, spiritual practices, rituals/pseudosciences, belief in miracles is also very high.There is the God man who materializes objects, or the idol that bleeds milk  (or some random liquid) or the guy who claims he can ward away evil spirits with a talisman. In all the cases the sequence follows the same three step process:

Step Description
The Set Up “I have a friend who told me about this” Or ” I was driving and heard about this and decided to check it out” Or ” We heard about this Baba and wanted to check him/her out”
The Description “My Friend described this thing that was amazing”, ” I saw with my own eyes the milk was flowing”; ” I saw with my own eyes when he materialized the object”; “He had this really bad ailment and he was magically cured when he got the blessings”
The Outsourcing This is where reason/logic gets outsourced. This goes like this, ” I am a sane and scientific person, how can u explain what I saw/experienced” OR ” There have been many scientists that have looked into this and they cannot come up with an explanation” OR ” How do you explain the person had a tumor and one week after meeting with this Baba it went away”

My own views on miracles can be summed up in the figure below:

There has been a lot of progress made in the field of debunking these miracles, although with some collateral damage. Indian rationalist – Sanal Edamauku had to flee the country after the Indian courts invoked an arcane Blasphemy Law to prosecute him when he disproved miracle claims of a statue of Jesus bleeding holy water. Other rationalists have been working hard to debunk these miracles in the hope of waning the public from being duped by these charlatan God men.

Miracles when combined with religious exploitation makes for a potent and lethal combination. You are literally at the corner of Susceptibility and Indoctrination. I would have loved to close with a dissertation from David Hume on Miracles and contrasted that with the current day belief in miracles statistics.

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Blurred Lines – From Superstition to Pseudoscience

Growing up in India we had usual plethora of Gods stacked up in the “God corner”. In addition, there were the other usual suspects – a sealed pot of water from the Ganges, various dried herbs and a ton of other knick knacks – collections from various temple visits. Superstitious beliefs were intricately interwoven into the fabric of life and culture. They ranged from the harmless to the macabre. Reflecting back now it is interesting to see how these beliefs consumed you and became part of everyday life.

Prayer had to be done facing a specific direction. Idols were supposed to face a specific direction. Never understood this. Seems counter intuitive given the proposition that God is omnipresent.
Then there were auspicious days and auspicious times. Don’t leave on a trip unless it was an auspicious day (or time). Don’t embark on a new business venture unless it was an auspicious day. Parties and religious functions usually were followed by complex rituals to get rid of the “evil eye” or the “jealous eye”. If someone fell sick after relatives visited then “aha” it was the evil eye at work.A good portion of these superstitions are harmless and is an extension of OCD like behavior. Knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed, don’t pass the salt by hand etc. all things that grew from culture and folklore and are usually harmless. In this Web Md article – Psychology of Superstition, sense of security and confidence are some of the key benefits from having harmless superstitions and rituals.

The real problem starts when this morphs to pseudo sciences and belief in dangerous rituals.

Astrology is pervasive in our society. A frivolous indulgence in the daily horoscope column to check if Mars will be messing with the S&P index is one thing. Relying on astrology for every decision in your life takes it to a different level altogether.
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Career Changes, Marriage, Love, Financial Decisions, Property ownership, business ventures, education etc…..the list is very long. This culminates in the head of the Indian Space Research Organization seeking blessings from a temple visit to ensure auspicious start to India’s space launch to Mars.
The assassination of Narendra Dhabolkar an Indian Rationalist who drafted the Anti Superstition Bill was horrific and tragic. It resulted in passing the bill by two Indian states to criminalize practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, and magic remedies to cure diseases. Although this is a good start there is a lot more that needs be done to address many more superstitious beliefs like Vastu Sastra (Feng Shui), fortune telling, traditional medicine men etc.
This brings me to our recent stateside buzz with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debating Ken Ham president and founder of Answers in Genesis-U.S., and the “creator” of the Creation Museum. I was saddenend by the announcement of the debate. I am an ardent fan of Bill Nye and his contributions to inculcate a curiosity in science and reason into the public discourse. However as Dan Arel wrote on the Richard Dawkins website “Scientists should not debate creationists. Period.”  “Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to,” Dawkins said in 2006. “For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.” (link to WaPo Article).(Source:www.fsteiger.com )
Some things can’t be a debate anymore and pseudo science cannot be taught in school curriculum. It is depressing to read this map of public schools in the US that are teaching creationism as a viable option to evolution. This is like teaching Astrology alongside Astronomy as a science (oh wait! the Indian University Grants Commission is offering funding to create departments in Vedic Astrology).  Unless there is more awareness and advocacy (at the risk of hyperbole), we may end up with something like this: