Who's Counting: Math vs. Miracles

— It sometimes seems to me that news coverage of miracles is more extensive than coverage of scientific breakthroughs.

Popular accounts of miracles (as well as of mysterious prophecies) have always appeared in supermarket tabloids, where they’re almost as common as unhappy celebrities.

In recent years, however, they’ve surfaced in magazines, newspapers, and periodicals of all types, on radio and TV, and in books and movies. In May, Newsweek reported that a large majority of Americans of diverse religious persuasions believe in miracles.

Two weighty miracle stories, in particular, have received a lot of recent attention. Since they provide a convenient prism through which to examine the concept of a miracle, let me very briefly describe each.

A Nun And Three Prophecies

The first concerns Mother Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress, nun, and social worker who died in 1955. The long process to sainthood for Drexel is finally nearing an end. Drexel’s canonization hinged upon official certification, completed only a few months ago, of two posthumous miracles that have been attributed to her. Both involved the unexplained cures of sick children.

A more well-known miracle, the Fatima story, dates from 1917. Three peasant children in the small Portuguese village of Fatima are said to have witnessed a sequence of visions of the Virgin Mary during which she revealed to them three prophecies. The first two were long ago interpreted as foretellings of World War II and the rise and fall of Soviet communism. The final one, made public just two months ago (the full text was released on June 26th), is said to have foretold the shooting of Pope John.

That Mother Drexel was an admirable, compassionate, and selfless woman who divested herself of her considerable fortune and made the world a better place I have no doubt. Nor do I have any reservations about the sincerity of the Portuguese children or the piety of their many devotees.

It’s with the general notion of miracle that I have difficulty.

Everyday Miracles

What does the word mean? If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day. Just ask any lottery winner or bridge player. Any particular bridge hand has a probability of one in 600 billion of being dealt. It won’t do, however, to look at the 13 cards dealt to one and proclaim them to be a miracle.

So far, no problem. But if a miracle is intended to indicate some sort of divine intervention, some questions come naturally to mind. Why, for example, do so many in the media and elsewhere refer to the rescuing of a few children after an earthquake as a miracle when they attribute the death of perhaps hundreds of equally innocent children in the same disaster to a geophysical fault line? It would seem either both are the result of divine intervention or both are a consequence of the earth’s plates shifting.

The same point holds for other tragedies. If a recovery from a disease is a considered a miraculous case of divine intervention, then to what do we attribute the contracting of the disease in the first place?

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