Sometimes it’s hard to be a theist. You work hard to show the intellectual credentials of theism and then this happens:
In Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland 2000 people have signed a petition to prevent the removal of a tree stump from the grounds of the church. Are they diehard environmentalists? Nope. Eccentric tree-huggers? Nope. Hippies with a respect for every square inch of Mother Earth? Alas, no. They reason they’ve signed a petition – and set-up a makeshift shrine – and held prayer vigils complete with Rosary beads and candles – is because the tree stump bears the image of the Blessed Virgin herself. Allegedly.
Of course it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Several years ago the Mother of God appeared to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. Did she appear in a blinding light before the masses gathered in St. Peters square? Apparently not. Did she descend over Poland with a heavenly choir singing a thousand hallelujahs? Not quite. Instead the blessed virgin chose a more humble – albeit rather obscure – means of giving the divine thumbs-up to the deceased pontiff.
Mary appeared on a concrete wall of a grimy Chicago underpass. The human-sized yellow and white image seemed to have formed from road salt and rainwater that over time had spilt from the Kennedy Expressway overhead. Nonetheless, believers insisted that the stain was miraculous. To my eyes the stain looked fairly unremarkable; not so to the eyes of many faithful Catholics. To them it was most certainly a picture of Mary with her hands clasped in prayerful thanks and adoration. I tried as hard as I could – even with the help of an artists impression – I still couldn’t see how this water stain resembled what it was supposed to resemble. The best I could do was to see a man with a long beard and rather sinister eyes (much more Bin Laden than Blessed Virgin), and then only by holding the picture diagonally and squinting a bit.
Anyhow, 1000’s of people had eyes – and imagination – to see, and flocked en masse to the subway to pay tribute. The underpass was transformed into a shrine, complete with flowers and candles, and the faithful were found kneeling before the wall, praying and clutching rosary beads. Moreover, in an age in which traditional religious adherence is plummeting in western countries, church leaders on this occasion were more than happy to sit back and allow the hysterical idiocy to continue unchallenged and unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago even contended that the apparition reaffirms people’s faith, whether it is real or not. “These things don’t happen every day,” Jim Dwyer, a spokesman, added. Indeed they don’t, but they could if people wanted them to. Just look at the clouds, close one eye, and before long you could see a white fluffy image resembling God himself on his throne (perhaps with Elvis sitting on his right hand side).
Such things may indeed encourage people’s faith, but they do little for the credibility of religious believers. Moreover, many religious folks are shown to display a rather cavalier approach to truth: in effect they’re implying that they don’t give a toss if something is true or not, just whether or not it builds the faith of the brethren. But, shouldn’t truth be much more important than that?
Such phenomena are merely the latest in a long line of supposed theophanies. In years gone by we have had the name of Allah make an appearance inside a tomato, a hindu cow-god statue drinking milk (gotta love that porous rock, eh?), the face of the devil coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre buildings in the billowing smoke and fire, and, my personal favourite: the image of Mary gazing lovingly out at the faithful from a partly eaten ten year old cheese toastie, that was subsequently auctioned on Ebay, bought for $28,000 by an internet casino company, wrapped in plastic, and sent on a nationwide celebrity tour of the USA. The virgin Mary obviously likes her food as she has also been found lurking in a knob of popcorn and on a bacon flavoured potato crisp.
The truth is that people will see what they want to see, and we learn this fairly early on in life. Most of us as children have been out one day with a parent who decides to play the age-old “cloud game” – to see what shapes you can find up in the sky. We can find all sorts of things, but as any sane and rational person knows full well the things we see are not real. There isn’t really a giant mile-wide seagull in the sky. Just a big fluffy white cloud. Human beings, due to some weird quirk of psychology, are particularly adept at seeing faces in things. There’s a wonderful Twitter account called “faces in things” which testifies to some wonderful examples of this – many much clearer than divine tree stumps and cheese toasties.
It’s certainly not unusual to have a fascination for the mysterious. I can’t remember a time in my life when religious matters didn’t fascinate me. But I’d like to think that my approach was and is rational: investigating religious claims, studying religious practices, and reflecting on the phenomena of religious experience. Unfortunately a rational approach is of little interest to vast numbers of people who can’t be bothered putting the time and effort in. Instead they want a quick fix, an easy answer, an instant miracle to be a part of; and they want it so desperately that they’ll dive at any report – however wacky – so they can feel like they’re part of a generation that witnessed the miraculous. They care not for the leaps of logic required to reach their conclusions. Such types are highly frustrating, as reason simply will not penetrate the dark caverns of their credulous minds.
To be fair, in the case of the tree stump the church in question is officially taking a stance of scepticism. The parish priest has warned against worship of the tree, saying: “There’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree. You can’t worship a tree.” Indeed, but other locals are more than willing to brush that off. One parishioner offered: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together, from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers so what’s wrong with that?” And there we have that same old cavalier attitude to truth raise its ugly head again.
Noel White, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council’s graveyard committee has since given assurances that the stump will not be removed – despite only being a stump, right? Well, he adds: “Nature has a funny way of showing things up and let it be a freak of nature or something else but whatever it is, surely it is a wonderful thing to see so many people coming out to pray, especially young people who have been saying the Rosary in the church for the past few nights.” And thus I suspect the local church authorities are perhaps quite happy with the superstition. It’s swelling the ranks of the faithful, and probably bringing a significant cash benefit in its wake too.
“Maybe this is Our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”
Maybe that’s your way of not speaking the truth because the superstitious nonsense is bringing you congregants and cash?
It strikes me a really rather silly. Surely even just a smidge of rudimentary thinking can dispel the illusion. To those who think they see Mary: I’d really love to know how you have any idea what she looks like. Did I miss that part of the Bible that provides her vital statistics? Or did Saint Luke release an illustrated version of his Gospel? We are told that she was a young Jewish woman, but that hardly narrows it down. Presumably some young Jewish women were fat, some thin, some tall, some small, some hideously ugly, others stunningly attractive. For all you know you could actually be bowing before a Hindu goddess of destruction. Lets face it, this apparition is only Mary because a Catholic saw it first and said it was.
And just how well does this kind of thing build your faith? Do you believe in God even more now that you have looked at a tree stump and have seen an obscure image that you dubiously assume to be Mary? The next time a sceptic asks you to defend your grounds for believing in God, or challenges your faith in some way, it probably isn’t wise to open your defence with, “ah, well I saw this tree stump once that looked like the Virgin Mary.”
The reaction to this fluke of nature illustrates perfectly what so many people find distasteful about religion. Rather than engage in rational discourse too many religious people are happy to resort to illogical mental gymnastics. In this instance there’s a dodgy starting premise – that this stump is, objectively speaking, the image of a woman. From this highly questionable position we are asked to make the leap to believing that it is there as a result of design rather than accident, when there are no grounds whatsoever for believing it to be so. Only when we can say it was not a result of accident can we raise the question of who actually designed it. But such issues simply don’t arise in the minds of the miracle-hunters. It is simply assumed that it wasn’t a human being, but rather a certain God who is responsible. Again, there is no rational basis given for this belief. In fact, it might much more plausibly be a joke on the part of a lumberjack. Next, we are expected to leap further into supposing that this woman carved by the hand of God is indeed the virgin Mary rather than someone else. And finally, we are to presume that she is there to call people back to the church. None of this testifies to anything remotely like a reasonable approach to religion, and until such religious folks drop the silliness they will fail to convince anyone other than the most gullible.
Stephen J. Graham