Sunday, May 28, 2017

Bridging the Gaps

Most of the people in my social media circles are left of center, and that tends to mean that even the ones who profess a certain level of religiosity tend to be dismissive of the role of divinity in mundane events, even those that are unusual. Accordingly, they tend to look askance at people who rely on religion, rather than modern (Western) medicine. Discussions about the topic tend to end up with calls for relying on faith to be viewed as a form of child abuse by the legal system, and questions as to why people look to religion in such circumstances.

Occasionally, one comes across a case where the believers claim a certain obligation to "Let go and let God," as the saying goes. And this furthers the confusion. This has, I believe, less to do with religion, than it does with a certain inexactness in medicine.

There are stories of other great miracles that were brought about by faith that no one attempts to replicate today. Jesus is said to have feed a multitude with a few fish and a handful of loaves of bread - but if a food bank director who said that they would rely on God to stretch a few boxes of food into filling meals for the entire homeless population of a major city, you would likely have a difficult time finding someone who would take them seriously. And you would likely have an even harder time finding someone who considered skepticism of the director's claims to be disparaging faith in God. Given a certain quantity of food, one can generally predict how many people can be fed with it. You might be off by a few people here or there, but most people can come up with reasonable estimates, with a little training. The idea that a miracle would occur to multiply the food is likely beyond the expectations of even ardent believers.

But medicine is something different. A doctor could proclaim that a patient has only weeks to live, only to wind up seeing that same person again and again for years when the diagnosed condition doesn't behave in the manner expected. Diseases go into remission and people recover from injuries, seemingly at random, and in a manner or time frame that leaves the medical establishment at a loss. I suspect that most practitioners would tell you that there are any number of things that we simply don't know, or can't speak to with 100% certainty.

I think that it's telling that people tend to see miracles primarily (if not exclusively) in these places that have uncertainty in them - the "miraculous" outcome, while unusual, or perhaps even unheard-of, is not, however, manifestly impossible given our current scientific understanding. Were I to be in an automobile accident that required amputation of a badly mangled leg and put me into a deep coma from which most experts agreed that I would never recover, a respectable doctor could claim that one day, I might awaken. But that same doctor would lose pretty much all credibility were they to claim that they'd be unsurprised to enter my room, and find me with both my feet again. Similarly, while we might see the hope of someone who prayed for me to awaken to be reasonable, if they claimed to be be praying that my amputated leg would grow back, they'd widely be considered delusional.

By the same token, raising the commonplace to the level of the miraculous also strains credibility - while the flu can be fatal, few feel that divine intervention is the only reason why people survive. And so casting such as a miracle seems to be overdoing it.

The limiting of the miraculous to areas of uncertainty has the side effect allowing both sides to claim victory, seeing what they wish to see. Which ensures that the debate will likely never reach a conclusion.

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