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Less than Miraculous

Christopher Hitchens


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.


ReligionDuring the month of October, 2003, I must have been called several times a day by media outlets wishing to know what I thought about the "canonization" of "Mother" Teresa. I had been, as far as I know, the only witness called by the Vatican to give evidence against her. (The present pope, in his feverish campaign to make as many saints as possible, has abolished the traditional office of "Devil's Advocate," so I drew the job of representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono. Fine by meI don't believe in Satan either.) I told my journalistic inquirers what I had told the panel of priests and monsignors before whom I testified: it's really none of my business who is beatified or canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. I am not a Catholic. Its rituals and observances are less than nothing to me. I object only when the mass media report a propaganda event as if it were to be taken at its own face value. Reading the papers or glancing at the television, one could have got the impression that His Holiness the Pope was the accepted moral tutor for the entire world, instead of the leader of a traditionalist sect that calls its ostensibly celibate and virginal officials by parental names like "Father" and "Mother" and opposes almost every kind of sexual expression while making allowances and excuses for adult-infant penetration.

One of the features of this cult is its belief in miracles, and one of the conditions that must be met by its candidates for sainthood is their supposed ability to intervene, from beyond the grave, to cure earthly diseases. Just as the Virgin Mary seems to appear only to believing Catholics, so miracles tend to occur only when a requirement for them is specified. In order for "Mother" Teresa to be "beatified"-the technical first stage of full canonization-a miracle attributable to her posthumous efforts had to be certified. And a Bengali girl was duly found to claim that her cancerous tumor had vanished after a ray of light emanated from a picture of the departed nun. (You will not fail to observe that the girl already had such a photograph in her home and was praying to it.)

Any doctor will tell you that inexplicable or "miraculous" recoveries occur almost every day in major hospitals. This doesn't happen as often as, say, the discovery of a clot or a malignancy in an apparently healthy person (no divinity yet invented will claim the responsibility for that), but it does occur. The test of a "miracle," whether we employ the term either in its secular or its religious sense, is that there is no evident medical or scientific explanation for it. And since the Bible itself tells us that Pharoah's conjurors and magicians could work miracles (which I bet they couldn't), we have at least biblical authority for saying that the occurrence of a miracle does not prove the truth of any religion. Of course, the girl in Bengal might have recovered anyway, with or without a wonder-working picture.

But the beatification bureaucrats did not even trouble to meet these standards. The girl's physician stated plainly that she had not had a cancer. She had had a cyst. And the cyst had not responded to prayer. It had responded to a prescribed course of medicine. The patient's father concurred with this account. Had anyone interviewed the doctor, in order at least to test the claim that medical science was baffled by the recovery? No, they had not. In other words, and even by the unexacting methods employed by saint-hunters, the "miracle" was a palpable fraud, of the sort that might have embarrassed a medicine-man selling colored water from the back of a covered wagon before cantering away to the next credulous township.

But this was not at all the sense that one received from the mass media, which very often reported the "miracle" without even troubling to mention the contrary evidence. A miracle was required for the process, and it had been found. End of story. The best that even skeptical reports could do was to cite those "for" the miracle and those "against," as if by quoting both sides they had fulfilled the duty of objectivity. Some say wooden statues bleed and stone statues weep, and some say not. Who knows? We report . . . you decide.

This is irresponsible as well as stupid. Many serious Catholics have moral problems with the concept of the miraculous, because it leaves unexplained the dilemma of unanswered prayers from innocent and trusting sufferers. What is to become of them, unless their entreaties happen to coincide with the needs of a deceased celebrity for still more adulation in the afterlife? In India and in many other countries, the poor and sick are preyed upon by quacks and charlatans offering supernatural remedies for well-known and treatable maladies. Many Indian doctors and rationalists protested the beatification of "Mother" Teresa for precisely this reason: it made the task of preventive and curative medicine still harder. Those of us who are proof against miraculous claims for the more obvious reasons-that the laws of nature do not respond to petitions and that what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof-have a tendency to forget that this vulgarity and hysteria also increases the sum of misery on Earth, without at all diminishing it in the false promise of the afterlife. But our media, so crudely materialistic in so many ways, is also anti-materialistic at just the wrong moments.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.


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