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Monday, May 14, 2012

Saints, rebirth and belief

All Italian Christians, and probably many Catholics around the world know of Saint Rita of Cascia. She is known as the "Saint of the Impossible", since her body is thought to be incorrupted (although she died in 1457), and because through her intercession impossible wishes can come true.
Part of my family comes from Cascia and my great-grandfather, being a doctor, a socialist and (hence) a reknown atheist was once asked by the local authorities to visit the body of the Saint to see whether it was really incorrupted. The rationale behind the choice was that only an atheist would have been honest in describing what he would have found. And, in fact, the doctor reported that the body was incorrupted (at least, I suppose, if compared to its age). Did he convert to Catholicism after that? No. Did anyone become a stronger believer because of his fundings? Possibly, but only because they fit with what they believed already.
Let us suppose that someone finds an ancient body which, because of impredictable circumstances, has been incredibly well preserved. Will she think that this was the body of a saint? Most probably not, unless she has further evidences of it. She will rather look for "scientific" reasons, such as extreme coldness, lack of humidity, etc.

Similarly, why is it so important to know whether scientific evidences are found in favour or against the core points of one's faith?  Jayarava addressed the topic of rebirth in a recent, interesting post. Unfortunately, comments are not allowed, perhaps because he received too many harsh answers. But why should readers overreact? Natural sciences speak about matter and can hence not really exclude ALL sort of continuity. Thus, if you think you have enough reasons to believe in rebirth, natural sciences will not make this belief unsound (conversely, if you want to believe that the earth has been created, say, 6000 years ago, you will have the problem of justifying why it has been created with fossils, etc.). Thus, what bothers one in reading that natural sciences do not support the belief in rebirth (nor in Heaven, etc.)? If one needs the support of natural sciences in order to believe in something, does not it mean that she is not really believing it? By contrast, natural scientists should avoid bold statements about the fact that they "proved" that rebirth, transubstantiation or miracles are impossible.

One might object that there must be consistency between what one believes as matter of fact and between what one believes because of faith. This is true, and the solution of similar conundrums is one of the reasons for the existence of theology. Theologians will, e.g., explain in which sense the two –seemingly contrasting– claims have to be understood.

What is really at stake when one looks for scientific evidences?

I already discussed this issue at length, especially with Aśvamitra and Vidya, see this post and this one, and the comments on them. 


ombhurbhuva said...

Stimulating post. I've made reference to it on my blog where I develop some ideas about epistemic duty at length. Von Hugel has interesting points about the stages of religious apprehension that must be gone through from the childish acceptance to the intellectual questioning to the spiritual/mystical.Most intellectuals in this modern age never make it through to the final stage to find an emotional/spiritual/mystical assurance. They fall down before the idol of the Great Empiric dressed by its attendants in the white lab coat they themselves wear.

elisa freschi said...

thanks, Ombhurbhuva. As I wrote while commenting your post, I see the problem in these terms:
"what is" differs from "what ought". The first is the realm of direct perception and so on until science. In the second realm, science can say nothing, just because its precinct of application regards only things which exist and not deontic realities (i.e., things which ought to be). As for the latter, then, we can rationally either be agnostic or have faith. Probably, the choice depends on extra-rational elements.

elisa freschi said...

Ombhurbhuva, I just wanted to add that I understood your point much better after having read your comment on Amod's blog (

ombhurbhuva said...

You were in the back of my mind.

अश्वमित्रः said...

(If one needs the support of natural sciences in order to believe in something, does not it mean that she is not really believing it?) Natural science is just a development of the universal belief in reality. People believe things _for reasons_, and we derive reasons from the evidence of our senses. It's really as simple as that. I come from a family that is very religious on both sides, and on my father's side, there is a tradition of study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One generation has been dying recently, and again and again I've seen how this modernist talky-talk about "two kinds of belief" and symbolic interpretation of the scriptures simply evaporates in the face of impending death. They die in hopeless terror like the unbelievers they always really were. The days when it was possible for sane and informed people to believe in Christian doctrine are over, at least in the west, which is why this religion has come to the still largely illiterate third world for a brief second wind before it finally gives up the ghost. Either you believe that the world was created six thousand years ago, that Jesus rose again, that heaven exists, or you don't believe. You may _think_ you believe it "symbolically", blah blah blah, but the truth (i.e., that you don't) comes out in the very end. There are other less crazy and more updatable things to believe in the world of religion, things that teach us more about reality and prepare us betterr for passing on. That's what brings us some of us to Indian religion.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Aśvamitra,

we had this conversation already and you know I disagree. I do not think that religion is just an evolution of our epistemological attitude towards understanding the external data. One believes for reasons, you are right, but the sort of reasons is radically different. On the side of religion weight reasons such as one's mystical experiences, one's acquaintance with pious people or texts, etc. NOT one knowledge about facts. Whether there has been or not a Mahābhārata war might be of interest for a Vaiṣṇava believer, but will never be the reason for one to conver to Vaiṣṇavism, and so on.

I am sorry for the losses in your family, but I would not underestimate the power of death on human beings. It is the ultimate experience and the fact that one is scared facing it does not necessarily mean that one did not believe at all, but just that one is sincerely open to the greatness of what is happening.

As for the six days account and the things you ought to believe in order to be a Christian, I cannot really follow you. It seems to me that you are attacking a straw-man no one is defending (or maybe someone, if you say that your Canadian friends did). Christianity emerges as the religion of faith as opposed to that of rituals, as the religion of love as opposed to human justice, etc. These points seem to be the core of it, whereas the ontological understanding you mention seems to me the one of either fundamentalists or people external to a religion, who have no grasp of its religious significance at all. It is as if I were to say "Buddhism is preposterous: who could ever believe that an elephant entered the womb of Māyā?".

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