Where scientists are looking for God
Lourdes, in France, has a reputation for miracles but are these ‘inexplicable’ cures evidence of divine intervention? Raj Persaud investigates
Dr Raj Persaud
CAN science prove that God exists? Debate over this issue has been sparked again with the publication of the latest meticulously conducted clinical trial of whether praying for the sick assists their recovery.
Two previous large studies – the last one published in 1999 – seemed to find that, astonishingly, seriously ill patients in Coronary Care Units improved medically if they were prayed for. However, the latest study of 800 Coronary Care Unit patients, published in the prestigious journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found no significant beneficial effect of prayer.
This publication coincides with a call from some scientists to cease this kind of research. No matter how rigorously conducted, it could never reveal the hand of God. Dr John Chibnall a psychiatric researcher at St Louis University School of Medicine, says a key element of all clinical trials is testing the dose-response relationship. But what kind of God would give more help to patients who were prayed for 10 times a day, as opposed to those who were prayed for just once a day?
Even if the latest disappointing results of the research on prayer spells the possible death knell of this particular kind of investigation, there remains one last natural laboratory where science is still being used to investigate God – the remote town of Lourdes in south-west France.
Every year about six million people from around the world visit the town because of its reputation for miraculous healings of incurable illness. Despite the age of scientific rationalism we are supposed to live in, the numbers of visitors are going up dramatically.
And, astoundingly, the miracles are still happening. Jean Pierre Bely, a French man, was confirmed as recently as 1999 by two separate medical and scientific committees associated with Lourdes as having been cured of multiple sclerosis (following his pilgrimage to the town) in a way that was scientifically inexplicable – the science code for a miracle.
The sick first started turning up in substantial numbers in Lourdes from 1875. They were attracted by a report that a blind man could see again after bathing his eyes in a spring discovered by a peasant girl, who had been told where to dig for it by visions of the Virgin Mary. Eight years later a local medical bureau was established properly to check allegations of miraculous cures, in order to protect the reputation of the town from fraudulent claims.
Some cynics would say these independent doctors and scientists are merely collaborating in an exercise in maintaining the powerful image or “brand” of Lourdes. Yet this committee, which has since grown in size and sophistication, will now spend years checking individual cases, with up to 250 different doctors interviewing and testing a patient, before a claimed cure will be accepted as not explainable by science.
Even at the end of this exhaustive process, the case is then turned over to an independent international medical committee, where another set of doctors and scientists re-examine the case and conduct further tests. Then the phenomenon is finally submitted to a vote among the investigating scientists – as to whether any other explanation other than a miracle is plausible. For example, was the condition accurately diagnosed in the first place?
The final part of the process occurs when the Church is invited to decide whether it wants to pronounce that, since the cure is inexplicable scientifically, it is therefore a sign of God’s intervention.
Given the scientific rigour of the process, Jean Pierre Bely had to wait a decade before his sudden ability to walk during a mass at Lourdes, despite previously suffering from a debilitating disease, was officially sanctioned as not explainable by science. The toughness of this scientific peer-review process explains why only 66 Lourdes cases since 1862 have made it to official “miracle” status.
It is intriguing that the Catholic Church puts up with such a small number of divine interventions, given that about 7,000 pilgrims have sought officially to claim that a miracle has happened to them since the medical committee has existed. Instead, the Church is relying on scientists first to validate the claim that an event cannot be accounted for by natural phenomena before religion proceeds to sanction a cure as a divine event. This would appear to be an implicit recognition by the Church that science is a privileged method for getting at the truth, a relationship with science that has never been officially acknowledged by religious authorities.
But if scientists and doctors can agree that some, albeit a small number of cases, are representative of phenomena beyond scientific understanding – is this evidence for something that exists beyond rationalism – in other words, proof of God?
Alexis Carrel, one of France’s greatest physicians in the first half of the 20th century and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on transplantation surgery, thought so. Carrel had been a sceptic and lost his Catholic faith before he went to Lourdes on an invalid train, out of scientific curiosity. He became especially interested in a woman he thought was too severely ill even to reach the goal of her pilgrimage. However, she made it to Lourdes, where her stomach was bathed in a pool and her large abdominal tumour soon disappeared – Carrel believed that he had witnessed a genuine miracle.
But sceptics such as the novelist Emile Zola famously asked why in Lourdes there are no piles of wooden legs alongside the crutches cast aside by those who had been supposedly cured, suggesting that these were not proper miracles, as they did not radically challenge fundamental laws of physics or biology.
There are many astonishing remissions of large cancerous tumours amongst the official miracles of Lourdes, though admittedly spontaneous remission of cancer is not unknown in the outside world. One study found on average about three spectacular cases each year are reported by surgeons in medical journals – another suggested that, depending on the particular cancer, up to one per cent might subside entirely of their own accord.
One theory is that spontaneous regression of a cancer represents a sudden mobilisation of natural host defence mechanisms. Since it is well established that our immune system is influenced by our emotional state, it is possible that strong emotions evoked by visiting Lourdes could have beneficial physical effects in suddenly galvanising an immune system to start attacking the cancer.
Two independent studies into spontaneous remission of cancer found psychological changes, occurring just before the physical disease began to improve dramatically, could be significant. Both found that resolving an existential crisis in the person’s life, a dramatic change in life outlook and a reduction in anxiety and depression, seemed to occur just before the cancer started to resolve by itself.
Indeed, a British study testing at regular intervals the mental state of pilgrims to Lourdes found that up to a year later, the pilgrimage had produced significant reductions in anxiety and depression – an effect equivalent to the strongest anti-depressants. But it is this ability of science to explain away religion with advances in understanding of brain and mind which suggests that science could be more an enemy of God than an ally.
For example, another recent study found that by brain scanning the spiritual while they were meditating, it was possible neurologically to account for the religious sense of transcendence – oneness with nature or unity with God. The brain scanner showed that during meditation the part of the brain responsible for orientation of the body in physical space, the parietal lobe – near the top of the brain – went to sleep.
People who have suffered damage to this area have difficulty negotiating their way around their surroundings. The sense of a self as separate from your environment could reside in this part of the brain, so now scientists can explain why the sense of self disappears during religious states.
But does the relentless advance of science mean the universe of phenomena that remain inexplicable gets ever smaller and so religion should eventually disappear? Dr Patrick Theillier, the head of the Lourdes Medical Bureau, acknowledges that authentic “miracle” cures seem to be getting markedly fewer in recent years, as what lies outside of scientific explanation appears to ever diminish.
Today, people do not need miracles to inspire faith. In a recent survey of the spiritual beliefs of American scientists, 39 per cent of biologists, physicists and mathematicians said they believed not only in God, but also in a god who answers prayers. The highest rate of belief was found in the field of mathematics, the language of the sciences.
In fact, the most recent attempt to review the link between religion and health found that across 42 studies, involving nearly 126,000 people, highly religious people were found to be almost a third more likely to live longer, for reasons that still remain mysterious. The best scientific theory is that religious and spiritual practices engender positive emotions like hope, and limit negative emotions like hostility, and this has profound long-term hormonal and immune system benefits.
So it would seem that if you follow the latest science, faith is, oddly, still the most pragmatic approach to a long life – but you should only start relying on prayer after you have exhausted what medicine and science have to offer – after all, isn’t that what the Church does in Lourdes?
Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London. His BBC radio documentary The Miracle Men can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4
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