Miracles and Medical Care

August 18, 2008

Via CNN comes this story detailing the ways in which people’s religious faith and belief in otherworldly intervention colors the way they deal with medical care. This issue raises some really hard questions when it comes to dealing with religion vs. science, belief vs. the lack of it. Take this case:

Pat Loder, a Milford, Michigan, woman whose two young children were killed in a 1991 car crash, said she clung to a belief that God would intervene when things looked hopeless.

“When you’re a parent and you’re standing over the body of your child who you think is dying … you have to have that” belief, Loder said.

Do you though? And does it really help in the long run to truly believe things like that?

We often imagine that these sorts of ideas are obviously comforting, but in my experience, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Unrealistic expectations can lead to bitterness. They can stall acceptance and take you out of a situation right when loved ones need you the most.

And in some ways, these sort of “comforting beliefs” don’t necessarily seem to bring the comfort they would logically imply. Heaven, objectively, should be an absolutely comforting idea that essentially solves the fear of death and heals all hurts. But in practice, the human psyche just seems to grieve no matter what one believes: beliefs are errant trivialities don’t really reach down into the deep, animal well of loss.

On the other hand, these sorts of reactions are, for many people, unavoidable. They can’t really be fought or regulated or even argued with.

The other issue here is that of the way a belief in miracles distorts people’s medical decisions, making them postpone taking loved ones off futile life support, and in countless cases, continuing pointless treatments when comfort, hospice, and simply preparing for death are more important.

It is true that there are occasional cases of so called medical miracles (though rarely are they without explanation and underlying causality). But as the CNN survey shows, beliefs about medical miracles are sort of like people playing the lottery: extremely unlikely occurrences are coloring and altering the decisions of masses that are, in the aggregate, probably not worth it. Should an incredibly unlikely, 1 in a million chance that someone who has been coded for hours will come back with any sort of brain function at all really be a gamble worth, well, millions of other futile medical efforts that only traumatize the family, cost millions more (that could be used instead to save the more likely savable), and sometimes even just make a patients final moments all the more agonizing? Probably not.

The problem is simply that its very easy to see futility in the aggregate, where likely outcomes seem inevitable, but simply not accept it in specific, where ideas of heroic salvation and turning a corner can never be fully dismissed.

And that’s sort of the bizarre part. If miracles could really happen, intentional miracles directed by a being like God, then it hardly seems to make sense to debate whether or not to keep someone on life support indefinitely. An all powerful being would be able to work its miracle on a person no matter what amount of medical care had been given or withheld. The idea, indeed, of “waiting” for a miracle, as if to give it more chances to happen, seems, in the context of a theism than envisions and all-knowing, all powerful God, utterly bizarre.

Update: Here’s an all too common outcome of many heralded medical miracles: while unexpected persistence can surprise, it just drags out the inevitable further, as with this premie who appeared to rally after being declared dead and then chilled (which slowed its remaining metabolism, only to die for real a day later.


“Loss of Faith” Headline at CNN misleading

August 8, 2008

Amphiboly is a pretty common problem for newspaper headlines, and given the way in which people form psychological impressions, misleading first interpretations can often color people’s attitudes even after they’ve figured out the correct one. You’d think that headline scribes would be a bit more careful.

Not here: CNN has a headline that reads: “Mega-preacher’s wife sued over loss of faith” The way I immediately read this was that the preacher’s wife had lost her faith, and was perhaps being sued based on various production and marketing contracts that relied on an honest profession of belief.

But, nope, it’s much crazier: the wife of our old pal Osteen apparently elbowed a flight attendant on a plane, and the woman is suing, claiming that, amongst other things, the errant elbow made her lose her faith. And, apparently, that the shove also gave her hemorrhoids.

I’m not sure which is less plausible. Can you really sue for loss of faith? If so, who would I sue?

Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!