Sunday, August 11, 2013

An Atheist View Of The Mystery Priest Story

This story of the mysteriously appearing and then disappearing priest who comes along to anoint young car crash victim Katie Lentz and pray for her and her rescuers is continuing to get a lot of press coverage.
The Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta blogs about this and his response, which, while somewhat friendly I suppose, is typical of the unbeliever. That isn't a criticism. Of course the person who doesn't believe in God or the supernatural is limited to natural explanations. But it is also the case that atheists do not always have a good understanding of the religious mind, and I think we see that in his blog. 
For example, Mehta points out that this story can be reported less sensationally:
The priest said the crew’s equipment would work… and it didn’t. In fact, another crew showed up and — surprise! — they had working equipment. If the priest hadn’t been there, the second crew would still have showed up. That’s not a miracle, that’s just good timing
The problem there of course - as anyone who is familiar with the Judeo-Christian worldview and the Bible itself can attest - is that believers do not limit their understanding of the word miracle to: acts which are contrary to the laws of nature.
I'm quite certain that Ms. Lentz, who was requesting prayer, would consider the "good timing" of the second rescue crew arriving in time to save her before she succumbed to her injuries both an answer to her prayers and a miraculous occurrence.
Mehta also has a little to say about the anointing with oil and again he displays his lack of understanding of the Judeo-Christian traditions:
Well, there’s no evidence it had any effect on Lentz’s condition. The priest could just as easily have spun around in circles three times and we would’ve seen the same results. But anointing sounds religious, mysterious, and magical, so people are quick to assume it had an effect.
But Christians do not think of the oil or anointing therewith to be magical or mysterious. The oil is thought of as a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God, the force through which God acts in His creation. That is why the Christian Epistle of James says:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (James 5:14,15 - NIV)  
Thus it is the faith signified by this ritual that is the means of healing, not some magic or mystery.
So as I pointed in a comment on my original post, this story is going to be interpreted according to the biases of the reader. It is either a "miracle" or a just one of life's odd coincidences. Just as the Cosmos we are all a part of is either a happy little natural accident or a purposeful creation.
Looking at things through the eyes of faith might (or might not) be a wrong way of looking at things, but it is certainly a broader scope than those who lack faith have. There, I suppose, is where a quote left yesterday anonymously in the comments section of my original post fits in:

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. (Thomas Aquinas)


  1. Pretty sure the term faith gets understood different ways by different folks - lots of terms suffer from this, especially terms used by believers and skeptics.

    I use it thusly: faith is believing on the basis of poor, untestable, or no evidence. Knowledge is believing on the basis of generally reliable evidence. Reliability of knowledge is increased in proportion to repeatability of the experience and/or how much the thing to be believed accords with all else that we (provisionally) know. Sometimes revolutionary new knowledge flies in the face of the old conventions and is slow to be accepted, but given undeniable experimental verification does eventually get accepted, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Generally, the accepted wisdom of the scientists is refined rather than overturned, and this is why weighing any new proposition against the body of already known knowledge is important in assessing reliability.

    Of course one whose view contains faith combines the realms of faith and knowledge and has to be a broader one than the view containing only reliable knowledge . Is this more in accordance with reality? Are there undetectable things? How the heck would anyone know? In the instance of Pluto, its existence was postulated prior to its observance because even though unseen, its effect on Neptune was regular and in accordance with known laws of physics. But with the alleged existence of unseen entities with no regular behavior, we are at a loss. 'You can't demonstrate it isn't, so I am justified in postulating it is.' has little weight with me. Your mileage may vary.

    I figure I am a bit more on the skeptical side than you, but not too terribly much. Unexplained mysterious things do fascinate. Sometimes the explanations contrived by the hard skeptics are pretty far fetched themselves! Me, I kind of think that the realm of the unexplained and mysterious will continue to shrink as man's knowledge grows, and I think you do too. But I can't prove that!

  2. Beautifully put. I still say you ought to start your own blog.

    However, if some of us disagree with your definition of faith as "believing on the basis of poor, untestable, or no evidence," then of course the mileage will vary on our journey.