March 07, 2007

How the Faith is not Superstition: An Open Letter to Anonymous

On one of my posts with The Pope & The Witch review, several other bloggers as well as I have been engaged in a debate with an anonymous commenter. I promised anonymous I would respond but life circumstances prohibited me from responding as quickly as I would have liked.

Anonymous is an atheist who feels that Catholicism (my guess is that anonymous does not limit his stance to Catholicism only but I'm sure I will be told if that is incorrect), as well as several New Age practices, are superstitions. What proof is there that any of it is true? Earlier Anonymous asked what proof is there in the Real Presence or that Transubstantiation occurred.

Now you can see why I was reluctant to just dash off a quick answer.

I am no theologian so if there are any theologians reading this blog, feel free to step in. My blog accepts anonymous comments.

I told Anonymous that I used to practice some New Age stuff and I don't anymore. Why don't I?

New Age is really a hodgepodge of practices pulled from a multitude of belief systems. New Ageism is hollow. It's not too much of any one thing. You don't learn enough about any one belief system. It's not a challenge. New Ageism, in my humble opinion, takes the most palatable teachings of various faiths. New Ageism does not make demands on the practitioner. You are usually not called to change your life. There really isn't just One God. There are several. It, in many cases, replaces a male dominent God with a female dominent Goddess. I left New Age behind because it's not Faith, it was just an external way of life. I did not feel any interior conversion or connection to any "higher power" when I practiced New Age. Others may have a different experience with New Age, I'm just recounting mine.

Faith to me, real Faith, should be more then just an external way of life. Sure, we see Catholics every day who remain Catholic because they were born Catholic but they don't practice the Faith or they don't believe half of it. The same indifferent practice of their faith could be said of some Jews or Protestants or Muslims. That way, is not True to me. For several decades it was, but not anymore. For Faith to be real it has to be practiced internally as well as externally.

I'm not going to go into a big long reversion story here. Some other posts on my blog have talked about milestones in my journey back.

To practice superstition, in my opinion, is to place an unnatural interpretation on natural events or to try and answer things that are unanswerable. Scripture says:

All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: but have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world (Wisdom 13:1-2).

Catholicism has been dogged by superstition for centuries. There have always been Catholics who insist they had visions or revelations. The Church has always taught that these are not to be taken at face value as true and that believers are to be cautious. The Church has very rigorous standards for proving the veracity of visions or revelations. Very few of these visions or revelations are officially sanctioned.

Obviously Faith can be perceived as trying to answer something that is unanswerable. But, I would say science, that you seem to respect, does the same thing. There has never been an answer to the ultimate question of what set off the creation of this planet or this galaxy or the life on it. Science has tried. Faith can fill in the blanks. I don't think you can have Faith without Science or Faith without Reason and vice versa.

I think most of us believe that there is "something" greater then ourselves and that there is a "code" to be followed. Even the atheists that I personally know say they practice the Golden Rule. Well, where does the Golden Rule come from? Divinely inspired Scripture: Matthew 7:12.

Do I believe that during the Mass the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Our Lord? Yes. A Catholic MUST believe this. You will, however, find Catholics who are barely cognizent of it. I don't happen to be one of them.

There have been numerous instances in history of the Body of Christ that we receive in the Communion Host at Holy Mass actually bleeding or becoming human flesh. The Church carefully studies these reports and has verified that some of these are true. Scientists have verified these as well-not just Catholic scientists. There is a list of approved Eucharistic Miracles here

I'm sure you will have comments to make! Let me know if I missed something. I tried to remember all your questions.

11 Comments:

Blogger Angela Messenger said...

When I was only 7 and completely unchurched I KNEW Holy Communion was something special. I KNEW I wanted this for myself. It's been a running theme in my life. No matter if I was attending Mass, not attending Mass, estranged from the Church - the Real Presence IS REAL! If God can make the world, the heavens and planets, etc. then why couldn't He come to us under the appearance of bread? Why? Why not!

March 07, 2007 8:22 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Cathy, you state well the difference between Biblical religion (Judaism and Christianity) and new age/paganism. Namely, the Bible does not try to spiritualize nature or explain physical phenomena in terms of spiritual causes. In fact, the Bible says very little about the workings of the physical world. It is rather more interested in the relationship between God and man. The Lord has given us an intellect to understand the order and beauty of what he has made.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Ps 19:1

Catholic physicist Stephen Barr does an EXCELLENT job defending Biblical faith against the charges of superstition and irrationality here.

March 09, 2007 12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that you think anyone who disagrees with your point of view is an athiest. Quite the contrary. I have respect enough for God to know that God is big enough to answer the biggest of intellectual challenges, the biggest of artistic challenges, the most offensive (or in this case, not really that offensive) challenges, and keep being God.

You have brought God down to your level by making him as petty as you are, by involving Him in your petty squabbles about doctrine, which has more to do with the church fathers than God than anything Jesus actually said. That you would do this speaks more to how little faith you have in God and how much control you seek to have over your faith experience,rather than letting God be God and work God's will in all situations.

In every situation where my back is up agaisnt the wall I have prayed for answers, sometimes the "Get me out of this" prayer, sometimes the "why is this happening " prayer. God works it out though. That you have such little faith speaks so poorly of catholicism, and the intellectual freedom of a great deal of historical catholic Scolars ( my fathers experience with the Jesuits being an example). Why spit on this for a moment of ego? You're only making yourself look like petty children out for the light of the tabloid camera light. You might make conservative talk radio, but what faith does it instill? You don't speak for me, my family or a great deal of other faithful catholics. We do not stand with you. We are embarassed by your lack of faith priorities. Where is your prayer for the poor? Where is your prayer for the wounded in war? Where is your prayer that this war might end (after all PJPII did condemn it). You seem to be a cafeteria catholic if ever there was one in terms of the issues you choose to protest about. I think that is kind of sad. With your prayer energy a lot of good could be done. But right now it seems a lot of energy is being wasted over nothing but drama. And drama is so... college. We've all moved on. Why haven't you.

March 09, 2007 11:01 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Anonymous: Why comment or read my blog if it's such an exercise in ego?

Why comment without bothering to really read anything else on my blog or even why I posted this particular open letter?

If you had bothered to do either you would see that I have posted on mercy for the poor and the mentally ill in the past.

If you had bothered to read further you would have discovered that I referred to this other anonymous (NOT YOU!) as an atheist because this particular person SAID they were.

It sounds like you are the one who can't move on. I've heard that social justice, social justice only refrain more times then I care to remember. Social justice is NOT the only arm of the Catholic Faith. It is important, I agree, but I can only blog so often. I can't cover everything. That's one of the many beauties of our Faith, there is a lot to it. Never at any time have I ever said the issues that you raise are unimportant.

You probably speak up for what you believe in and so do I. I'm tired of people and other Catholics disrepecting our Faith. It's long past time we did something about that which was the point of the entire vigil and my posts on the play here.

March 10, 2007 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Cathy,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my question and defend the idea that being Catholic is more “real” than New Age superstitions. I’ve read your post and would like to comment on it. As usual, I will be civil because, although we disagree, we don’t have to be disagreeable.

First let me say there are things in your post that I think should be answered but because it seems off topic to me, I won’t address them here. The most prominent statement that deserves discussion is “Where does the Golden Rule come from?” I’m going to leave this one alone for the time being.

You say superstition is to place an unnatural interpretation on natural events or to try and answer things that are unanswerable.

Your post, I’m sorry to say, didn’t make it exactly clear to me why you think Catholicism is something more than superstition so let me try to clear up the logic a bit. It seems to me you’re trying to say Catholicism is not superstition explicitly:

1) Because your faith provides an answer for things that science has not yet provided an adequate answer such as the Creation.

2) Because the superstitious person experiences a natural event and suppose it to be of supernatural origins while the Catholics experience seemingly supernatural events not explainable by natural means.

Assuming this is what you mean by Catholics not being superstitious, it should be enough for me to show that the explanations offered by your faith for the Creation is no better than that offered by science and to show there is a natural explanation for some perceived supernatural events. Does this seem reasonable?

Assuming you’ve answered in the affirmative, then off we go---but first a detour.

I think to address these things adequately; I need to give some background. I’ve been learning about skepticism and critical thinking and bad logic and how we all fall into the bad logic traps. It’s only human to not look at something in a non-critical way. But like the magician who tells you how the trick is done, it becomes obvious when it’s pointed out to us the ways in which we may either be deceived or the way we deceive ourselves.

Think of Toto exposing the Wizard of Oz. Oz had Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, and all the Munchkins fooled. There had to be a more plausible explanation for what they were seeing but because they were seeing it and because of their situation, they weren’t able to think critically and skeptically about the situation.

I’m advocating this skepticism because we’re talking about something extremely important, your faith and possibly your eternal soul if it exists. None of us would just take the used car salesman at his word simply because he says the car you’re looking at is in mint condition. Instead, you take the car to a mechanic you trust to have it checked over. You talk to others about their experiences with that dealership. You consult the Blue Book to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Experience has taught us that sometimes people can be mistaken and sometimes deceitful. If we’re not willing to be all trusting for such a simple, everyday item, how much more skeptical should we be about something so important as our religion. Shouldn’t we examine the claims of the Church or any faith with skepticism?

Some of the most obvious ways we make mistakes in our thinking include the following:

a) We prefer stories to statistics. It’s natural to believe someone who relates their personal religious experience while failing to look at the big picture. For example, a person of faith tells us how their home was saved during a wild fire because they prayed God would protect it. We conveniently forget the other 50 homes in the neighborhood that were destroyed even though those homeowners presumably prayed just as fervently and were just as deserving of having their homes saved.
b) We seek to confirm, not to question our ideas. We may believe in miracles and support our idea by citing the miracle healings at Lourdes. We may not stop to think some of these patients were misdiagnosed to begin with or that the body is capable of healing itself to some degree. Although these natural explanations are more plausible and still fit the data, we don’t consider them. We don’t consider why amputees, even those that visit Lourdes, have never miraculously re-grown a limb.
c) We rarely appreciate the role that chance or coincidence plays in our lives. The item to note here is the difference between the chance of something unusual happening and the chance of something specific happening. Take for example two people sharing the same birthday. If you randomly choose a group of 23 people, the odds are 50/50 that at least two of them will share the same birthday. A miracle? No, just simple statistics. To make the odds 50/50 that someone would have the same specific birthday as yours, you would now need 253 people in a group. It’s not unusual that some seemingly miraculous events should occur simply because of the sheer number of events or interaction that take place around us in the world every day. As a matter of fact, NOT having miraculous events happen would defy the odds and be a better indication that something unusual or miraculous is going on.
d) We sometimes misperceive the world. This happens most often when we’re waking up or falling asleep but can also happen when we’re tired, drunk, or if the lighting is bad.
e) We have faulty memories. Studies have shown that memory is not like videotape. We “reconstruct” our memories from what we believe to have happened and what seems plausible. You’re not likely to remember wearing a coat on a specific January day, but instead assume you were because Januarys tend to require coats. It’s also possible to “implant” memories. Other studies have shown children can be convinced they caught their fingers in a mouse trap if they are told this happened when they were younger by someone they trust. The children go on to fill in the details and even insist they remember the event after being told it never really happened.
f) We fall victim to wishful thinking. Sometimes when we want something so badly, we fool ourselves into thinking our wish has actually physical significance. For example, I once heard about a woman who had convinced herself she was in love with a man and that he was in love with her even though there was no evidence to back this up. She was so convinced of this, she planned their wedding, booked the church, reception hall, invited guests, etc. expecting him to arrive on the day of their wedding because she had prayed fervently on it and been assured by biblical scripture. Needless to say, when the big day arrived, when she stood there at the altar at the specified time in front of her friends and family, she was humiliated when the “groom” never showed up.
g) Sometimes people lie. Being basically upright, honest people who would not consider lying to others, we forget others may lie to us. The liar may do this from greed, out of malice, for attention or any other number of reasons.
h) Sometimes people genuinely believe weird things and because they believe them, they pass them off as truth. Probably none of us believe psychics can actually tell the future but evidence shows, many people believe they have actual psychic powers. Believing it, they tell their friends, children, etc. until they find a group that supports their beliefs.
i) We perceive patterns where there are none. Think about some of the weird superstitions athletes or stage actors may have. Actors say “break a leg”, even though we all know saying these words will have no effect on how the play is performed. Wearing the same dirty socks and always spitting over your left shoulder is no more likely to guarantee your team will win than anything else. How did these superstitions start? I’m not sure but some pattern must have been perceived and passed on until they’re believed to be real. Note that one of these superstitions affects an entire group (the actors) while the other is personal (the baseball player).

There is more I could add but will leave it there. I point these things out because we all, myself included, make mistakes in our thinking. It’s human nature. But if we really want to understand something and know the Truth, we have to be aware of these errors and systematically try to eliminate them. Just as importantly we shouldn’t take our conclusions past what the evidence allows. If we do speculate on something, we should always remember it is speculation and a better, simpler explanation may exist.

THE CREATION

There was a time when people couldn’t explain why the sun moved across the sky. The ancient Greeks thought it was pulled across the sky by the god Apollo. The reason for this explanation seems to be because they could think of no natural explanation for the suns behavior. They made the mistake of supposing because they couldn’t explain it, that no one else would be able to eventually explain the process. They, when presented with something they couldn’t explain, invoked the action of god. In this case, they were no more correct than if they had invoked the actions of leprechauns.

Isaac Newton, describer of the Law of Gravity and inventor of calculus, examined the motions of the planets using his mathematics and became convinced the gravitational tug of the planets on each other would throw them into unstable orbits and cause the planets to either crash into the sun or be thrown off into space. When Newton could not explain the stability of the planetary orbits, he supposed God’s continual intervention was the only explanation.

He fell into the logical trap of supposing because he couldn’t explain it, that no one else could explain it but about 130 years later, Simone Laplace, starting with Newton’s calculus invented the theory of perturbations. When he looked at his equations, he found the orbits of the planets were much more stable than Newton thought them to be. Newton was no more accurate invoking the actions of God than if he had supposed Spiderman was the source of the planet’s stability.

The point is, it’s normal and natural to invoke a supernatural explanation for something for which we have no current explanation. History shows us doing so tends to be wrong. It’s also doesn’t follow formal logic. You can see the absurdity of the logic by saying, “scientists can’t explain what caused the Big Bang, that’s why I think Zeus created the world.” It just doesn’t follow.

It’s true that science doesn’t yet have an explanation for what caused the Big Bang and we may never know but it’s OK to stop there and just say, “We don’t know.” It would be wrong to think because we don’t currently know, that it is unknowable or that it necessarily follows the thing has a supernatural explanation.

I’ve set out to show the explanation offered by Faith for the Creation is not better than that offered by science and I hope I’ve done so to your satisfaction.

SUPERNATURAL EVENTS WITH NATURAL EXPLANATIONS

We’ve not decided which supernatural events to examine but Cathy has graciously provided a link to a list of approved Eucharistic Miracles.

Let us take the first one, from Sienna Italy in 1730. In this story, it is supposed the preservation of the consecrated host over hundreds of years is evidence of a miracle. My task here is to show that which is seemingly supernatural could have a natural explanation.

The consecrated host was discovered in a locked box two days after being stolen, covered by cobwebs and dirt. The host was cleaned off and preserved either because the priests didn’t want to eat the dirty wafers or because the people demanded their preservation for adoration.

The continued preservation of the host over many days was then noticed. Possible alternative explanations for the preservation of the hosts include the priests cleaning any mold off them daily, a bored practical joker priest replacing the host to watch the wonderment of the fellow priests. Or possibly, given the large number of hosts made throughout the world, its entirely probable that a batch is “mis-made” that could have been adulterated in a way that delays or prevents its deterioration.

These hypotheses fit the facts and offer a simpler explanation over something supernatural.

Why would someone replace the hosts to perpetuate this continued “miracle”? One possibility is money. I cannot guess how much the churches around Lourdes bring in but I assume it’s substantial. Perhaps these hosts were “preserved” because of the donations brought by religious pilgrims. Perhaps the priests justified this to themselves because this “miracle” would strengthen the faith of the people and thought one little white lie was justified for the greater good of the Faith.

This sounds like a bit of a stretch but we know religion, even priest hood is no guarantor of good behavior. One has only to remember the deceitful behavior of Peter Popoff or the practical jokers that started crop circles or tracks of bigfoot.

Also the possibility that some hosts are naturally prevented from deterioration due to adulteration of the ingredients is a natural consequence of the “Law of Extremely Large Numbers” which is given enough events; something unusual is bound to occur.

The odds that a particular batch of hosts would not deteriorate is quite low but the odds that SOME batch of hosts would not deteriorate is fairly high. See item ‘C’ above.

Consider the alternative too. What if the hosts did deteriorate? We would never have heard of this and no one would have thought that consecration should prevent its deterioration. Indeed the article itself says, normally the hosts if dirtied, would be left to deteriorate on its own. Deterioration seems to be the norm and no one questions the special powers of the consecration when this happens. If you attribute the preservation to the consecration, shouldn’t you also attribute the deterioration to the consecration also?

Then 50 years later, the hosts are examined by the Minister General of the Franciscan Order. If one assumes the priests of the church have been regularly changing the host as they deteriorated, (presumably to bring in revenue and strengthen the faith of the people), by the time they’re being inspected by the Minister General, it would be extremely embarrassing and hurtful to the faith to admit they’ve been engaged in a hoax. Now they’ve got an incentive to continue the hoax which is to avoid being in trouble with such a powerful man and the lie continues.

These are all, I think decently good reasons to question the validity of this miracle. We know people lie, play practical jokes, make mistakes in their reasoning and that strange things sometimes just happen. I can think of well documented examples for all these behaviors but this response has gone on far too long.

The same type of skeptical reasoning could be applied to the rest of the story too. There was no good control on possession of the hosts to avoid tampering. Heck in 1951 the hosts were stolen again and presumably found but possibly replaced. It seems at all times, they were handled by those who want to believe in the miracle rather than a skeptic.

I can think of no instance of any supposed miracle ever happening when a committed skeptic practiced in the arts of deception (think magician) has ever occurred. Why is that? The most reasonable explanation is because those things we perceive to be miraculous is either natural phenomenon misinterpreted or someone out to purposely deceive.

I hope I’ve done a decent job of showing how these Catholic miracles could be reasonably explained away as natural phenomenon.

If you accept my arguments that saying God must be the cause of creation because scientists don’t yet have a complete explanation does not follow and that the miracles offered by the Faith are probably explainable naturally, then you must conclude Catholicism is no better than New Age superstition.

My main effort here has been to get the reader to admit to themselves that the Church might, just might, be at least a little bit wrong about what they teach. If you can admit this to yourself, you’ve taken the first steps towards skeptical thinking. If you continue to apply your skeptical reasoning skills to the Catholic faith, I think you’ll quickly realize that the Church has been fooling itself as well as you.

Best Wishes.

Patrick (formerly Anonymous)

March 11, 2007 8:57 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Patrick: Whoa. Long response.

I have done a lot of the critical thinking you are talking about. I did not come back to the Faith on a whim or because it was easy. I did a LOT of scrutinizing and reading.

I never at any time of my life, no matter how severely I was tested abandoned my faith or belief in God.

Did I have a problem with the institutional Church? Yes, for a long time I hated it because it did not want me to just do whatever I dang well pleased. Our culture embraces the idea that everyone can do as they like. Individualism and relativism are the new religions of our age. It is countercultural to live by a set of rules.

All the things you outline to me come down to a matter of trust. I think trust is hard for someone without Faith to understand. Sometimes, its hard for me to understand.

I trust that the Church is telling me the truth about consecrated hosts actually bleeding. I trust that the Lord loves me. I trust that God has a plan for me. I may be tested. There may, and will, be tragedies, but God has a plan.

The Church consists of flawed individuals. I am one. Our clergy and religious are not perfect and they make mistakes and sometimes do bad things. Yet, the consistent Truth always stands. This is why no Pope has ever repudiated the teaching of a predecessor.

We must as Christians be willfully submissive to God. I know a lot of people have major problems with that idea. But, none of us are equal to God.

Some of the phenomenon you repudiated are indeed, as I think I said before, supernatural. However, we can debate from now until the end of time and I will not agree that belief in these is superstition.

March 13, 2007 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cathy,

Fair enough. I've made my case and you've taken the time to review and think about it. I appreciate that.

Best wishes to you and yours and your friends.

Patrick

March 13, 2007 10:20 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Patrick: God Bless You. Come back anytime.

March 13, 2007 11:11 AM  
Anonymous Ali said...

Well, I feel like an idiot. I just realized that these posts are dated 2007, so um, yeah, that was a year ago. Sorry about that! I thought they were from this last week! Never mind!

Ali

March 12, 2008 4:15 PM  
Anonymous Ali said...

And my first comment wasn't even posted so my apology made no sense. That's it, I give up! :)

Great blog, Cathy!

March 12, 2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Ali: That's ok. Welcome!

March 13, 2008 6:28 AM  

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