By Nicholas Covington
Article ID: 143
Can miracles occur today?
Let’s look at the evidence by examining three kinds of miracles: One type is “Marian apparitions”. Another is the spontaneous remission of cancer, in which malignant tumors reduce or disappear, and can’t be attributed to any standard medical treatment. The final type is what I call “mundane miracles”, seemingly inexplicable and fortunate events which people attribute to the supernatural.
I wrote this article for two reasons. First, I am genuinely curious about these strange events. They need explanation, and could perhaps tell us something meaningful about reality. Second, the faiths that we Westerners are most familiar with (like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) all depend upon the idea that miracles occurred in the past. If there is insufficient evidence that miracles occur today, or if there is evidence against miracle claims, this presents difficulty for those who want to argue that miracles occurred in history.
Imagine the following: you’ve poured yourself a glass of soda, then you set it down and walk out of the room. When you walk back in, there is more soda in your glass than when you left. How do you explain this? Did someone add soda to your glass, or did more soda somehow emerge spontaneously? Since you have experienced the law of conservation every moment of your life without a single exception, it’s extremely unlikely that it’s been broken here. On the other hand, you have probably experienced people playing jokes, or a faulty memory. These second set of alternatives must be deemed far more plausible than the first, unless some extremely strong evidence is discovered which vindicates spontaneous soda generation.
Let’s examine some modern-day miracles.
From 1900-2007, Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, allegedly made 386 reported appearances. Out of all these, the Catholic church has deemed only eight as authentic. The rest are undecided or negative. How are these appearances judged? According to one source, the Catholic Church judges a Marian apparition as authentic based on the following criteria:
1) The facts in the case are free of error.
2) The person(s) receiving the messages is/are psychologically balanced, honest, moral, sincere and respectful of Church authority.
3) Errors in doctrine are not attributed to God, Mary or another saint.
4) Theological and spiritual doctrines presented are free of error.
5) Moneymaking is not a motive involved in the events.
6) Healthy religious devotion and spiritual fruits result, with no evidence of collective hysteria.
These criteria are rather problematic. For one thing, how do we know that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are correct? We don’t, so using doctrinal correctness as a criterion to judge these apparitions is spurious. Other criteria, such as “the facts in the case are free of error”, “the person(s) receiving the messages is/are psychologically balanced, honest, moral, sincere…”, “Moneymaking is not a motive” and “Healthy religious devotion and spiritual fruits result” are really only preliminary questions. The sanity and honesty of the witness must certainly be established before we begin to investigate whether the apparition was real. However, the fact that we have established that the witness is sane and honest does not by itself indicate that the apparition actually occurred. Roughly one in two hundred people are schizoid personalities and are prone to hallucinate, even though they are otherwise sane and normal people.
The Church’s criteria do not allow us to establish that these apparitions are real beyond reasonable doubt. At best, they act as a filter to remove some obviously false Marian apparitions, though even this is questionable. One could always wonder if some extremely well-documented and genuine Marian apparition has been discarded because it collided with Catholic dogma. I certainly hope this isn’t the case; I hope the Church would sooner change its dogma than ignore a powerfully convincing apparition.
I do not have the time or resources to sift through the 358 negative cases. If someone has information on one of these cases that shows it is genuine then I will consider it. But, for the time being, let’s just focus on the eight supposedly authentic cases.
Only five of these apparitions were witnessed by multiple people. I believe it is fair to discard the other three. Psychologists have shown that about 8% of men and 12% of women (who exhibited no signs of mental illness) had at least one hallucination in their lifetime. It is therefore not surprising that, over 107 years, three honest individuals exhibiting no sign of mental illness would hallucinate the Virgin Mary, especially given the fact that millions and millions of Catholics lived during that time period.
What about these five apparitions witnessed by multiple people? Let’s look at two of the most popular cases. First we’ll examine the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal. Here’s what one source said :
“Many agreed that a major miracle had occurred. Only the children saw the Virgin appear, however. One of those who witnessed and reported the strange solar phenomena was Avelino de Almeida, a reporter who had ridiculed the so-called miracles at Fatima in previous articles. His photographer did not see it, but shot pictures of the mesmerized crowd looking into the sky. There is no independent verification of the solar phenomenon, and no movement or other phenomenon of the sun was registered by scientists at the time.” [Emphasis mine]
Paranormal researcher Joe Nickell points to three reasons for thinking that nothing supernatural was involved in the Fatima “miracles”:
1) The reports of the “sun miracle” are contradictory. Nickell writes,
“Some claimed that the sun spun pinwheel-like with colored streamers, while others maintained that it danced. One reported, ‘I saw clearly and distinctly a globe of light advancing from east to west, gliding slowly and majestically through the air.’ To some, the sun seemed to be falling toward the spectators. Still others, before the ‘dance of the sun’ occurred, saw white petals shower down and disintegrate before reaching the earth.”
2) The sun is viewable by everyone in the world, and yet no one outside of Fatima reported seeing anything unusual about the sun that day, indicating that the events could be explained better by, as Nickell put it, “mass hysteria and local meteorological phenomena such as a sundog (a parhelion or “mock sun” – see the picture above for an example).
3) Several eyewitnesses said they had been staring into the sun prior to the event. What they saw may have been due to optical effects that result from what’s clinically called “temporary retinal distortion.”
Next we travel to Egypt, where a series of Marian apparitions took place in Zeitoun, between 1968 and 1971. Two researchers described the apparitions like this:
“Witnesses’ descriptions varied between two main types: small bright, short-lived lights nicknamed ‘doves,’ and more enduring, less intense, diffuse patches of glowing light.”
I’m surprised by this. When someone says that they have seen Mary, the mother of Jesus, one would think that they saw something like an actual woman, hovering in mid-air and radiating brilliant light, who left no question as to who she was. But, no, these people saw amorphous lights and interpreted them as being Mary. From this fact alone I’m tempted to dismiss the entire incident, and indeed, to dismiss all similar apparitions of other religious people. For example, the reports of Jesus’ post mortem appearances in the earliest accounts (from the apostle Paul), are sufficiently vague. Here we might suppose that the early Christians simply saw a flash of light or something similar and assumed it was Jesus, just as people saw a flash of light in Zeitoun, Egypt and interpreted that as Mary.
Let’s also mention a possible cause of such appearances. Here’s an explanation from the previously-quoted article:
“Canadian neuropsychologist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University and his American colleague John Derr (1989) analyzed seismic activity in the region from 1958 to 1979, and found an unprecedented peak in earthquakes during 1969. They state that ‘The ‘narrow’ window of significant temporal relationship between luminous phenomena and earthquakes is within the classic time frame of more acceptable antecedents (e.g., microseismic activity) of imminent earthquake activity.’ It appears that the Marian observers were predisposed by religious background and social expectation to interpreting the light displays as related to the Virgin Mary.”
This is curious: what does it mean that there is a significant link between earthquakes and ‘luminous phenomena’? According to Persinger and Derr, seismic activity can actually cause flashes of light. Although the mechanism behind this is not completely understood, there are certainly some good reasons to think that luminous phenomena are caused by seismic activity. Persinger and Derr did another study in which they found that the number of UFO reports in the United States sharply increased in the 1960’s when the U.S. experienced more seismic activity than it had in several decades. Furthermore, areas of the U.S. that experienced the most seismic activity also produced the largest number of UFO reports.
Spontaneous remissions of cancer
A “spontaneous remission” occurs when a cancerous tumor reduces in size or disappears, and the change cannot be attributed to the ordinary effects of medicine. This first intrigued me when I listened to Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University. He discussed it in episode 401 of the Infidel Guy show. Habermas proposed spontaneous remissions as being possible modern day supernatural occurrences – miracles. Habermas also hinted that those who interpret such things as miracles would make them more open to believing that miracles occurred in the past.
The discussion might make me believe in a supernatural aspect of reality, including the existence of gods. Specifically, if there were observed and well-documented miracles. I knew I had to research this. Initially I was open-minded but skeptical: doctors and scientists do not know everything about cancer, and so what appears miraculous or mysterious to them may have some unknown non-miraculous explanation. Humanity simply does not yet know enough to deem these things “miraculous”.
During my research I found that spontaneous remission often coincides with a feverish infection. That is extremely strange if the remission is caused by a supernatural power. Can’t a guardian angel get rid of cancer without causing a fever? Further research indicated that there were natural explanations for these infections. For example, an infection may “reactivate” the immune system which then can remove the tumor. Although explanations such as this are only plausible (and not proven), any plausible natural explanation defeats plausible supernatural explanations.
The supernatural spontaneous remission hypothesis prompts many other questions. For example: why don’t the supernatural powers simply prevent the growth of these cancers in the first place? Why is it that the angels/gods/whatever only cause spontaneous remission of cancer 20 times per year? I hope that, if some must be neglected and not cured, it’s because the supernaturals are working on other important issues, like world hunger.
When I was young, I attended church. One Sunday, a traveling evangelist came and told us a story about something that happened to him in Africa: his car was low on gas, and didn’t have enough to get to where he needed to go. But, he started the car anyway, and decided to drive as far as he could. Surprisingly, he managed to finish his trip, and when he looked at his gas gauge it showed the same amount of gas as before – it hadn’t changed. This evangelist believed that this was a miracle.
I believe this man was telling the truth (I knew him fairly well and saw that he wasn’t talking about these things for personal gain), but I disagree with his interpretation of the event. The car I own now has a terribly inaccurate gas gauge: when I come home at night, it might say I have a quarter-tank left. When I start the car again the next morning, it will say I have over a half-tank of gas. The evangelist’s gauge may have been malfunctioning around the time that this incident occurred. In fact, dirt and corrosion can disturb wiring connections and cause a gas gauge to read incorrectly. I happen to know that the areas of Africa that this evangelist visited often had unpaved dirt roads. You do the math on that one.
If this is indeed a miracle, we must also ask: why is it that God kept this man’s car from running out of gas in Africa, but failed to keep millions of poor men, women, and children on that very same continent from starving to death? It just doesn’t add up.
This is an example of the rather mundane miracles that people claim to experience. When we add to this the frequency of exaggeration, outright lying, illusion (like being fooled into thinking something occurred when it only looks like it occurred, like watching a magician’s trick and seeing the impossible), trickery (did someone trick the person into believing a miracle happened?), hallucination, and bad reasoning, we see that these kinds of reports are not good evidence that a miracle has occurred.
Whenever you hear a miracle claim, don’t believe it unless you can get solid answers to questions like:
Who witnessed the event?
What do we know about the witnesses?
How many people witnessed the event?
Might they have ulterior motives for reporting what they did?
In their own words, what exactly did they see, and does that make sense?
Are there any plausible natural explanations for what they saw?
Always explore and question accounts of “miracles”. Nothing can be taken for granted in these investigations, because people often interpret highly unusual (but inconclusive) evidence as pointing to the supernatural, when it is clear that they have no business in doing so.
1) JC Tierney, “Marian Apparitions of the Twentieth Century” (2009)
3) I discuss this in my article “Jesus’ Resurrection and Mass Hallucinations” (2009)
5) Sacred Destinations, “Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima” (2009)
6) Joe Nickell, “The Real Secrets of Fatima”, Skeptical Inquirer, November / December 2009.
7) Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, “Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millenium” Skeptical Inquirer May / June 2000.
9) John S. Derr and Michael A. Persinger, “Luminous Phenomena and Seismic Energy in the Central United States” (1990) Journal of Scientific Exploration 4, pp.55-69.
10) Uwe Hobohm, “Fever and Cancer in Perspective”, Cancer Immunol Immunother (2001) 50: 391-396.
12) The reason that I feel justified in stating that any plausible natural explanation is sufficient to defeat the claim that something supernatural has occurred is because a natural explanation only assumes that the natural world exists (which of course is proven), while supernatural explanations assume the existence of an unproven supernatural realm. Natural explanations carry a lot more weight for this reason, and must receive more preference than supernatural explanations of otherwise equal value.
13) Challis, G. B., & Stam, H. J. (1990). The spontaneous regression of cancer: A review of cases from 1900 to 1987. Acta Oncologica, 29, 545-550. Challis, G. B., & Stam, H. J. (1990). The spontaneous regression of cancer: A review of cases from 1900 to 1987. Acta Oncologica, 29, 545-550.
14) Randy Rundle, “Troubleshooting Your Gas Gauge” (1997).
None of the scientific literature which I have cited actually argues that spontaneous remission of cancer is miraculous. These claims are made mostly by nonscientists, such as those mentioned in this article.