Less than Miraculous

Chris Mooney

If there’s a silver lining to the recent widespread promotion of the paranormal on television, its that some of these shows are downright embarrassing–and many audiences are smart enough to know it.

These are difficult times for the skeptic community, with the mainstream media pandering to religion and the paranormal as never before. Much of the trend seems inspired by the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s recent R-Rated bloodfest for the big screen (otherwise known as “The Passion of the Christ”), not to mention Christian right preacher Tim LaHaye’s bestselling Left Behind novels. Now, TV network executives want in on the sanctimonious action, and have grown obsessed with creating shows—both in fictional and documentary format—that shill for religion and the paranormal.

In recent months, ABC and Peter Jennings have paid homage to UFO myths, while other networks have served up brain rotting delectations such as NBC’s “Medium,” a series about a crime-solving psychic that was allegedly inspired by “the real-life story of research medium Allison Dubois.” CBS, meanwhile, recently canceled a Wednesday night installment of “60 Minutes” and plans to replace it with, among other things, “a series in which Jennifer Love Hewitt talks to dead people.” We can only expect more of this sort of programming in the near future.

The influx of paranormalist schlock has, understandably, outraged skeptics. And certainly, this sort of programming isn’t making Americans any smarter. But at the same time—and if only to stay sane—it may be wise to view recent developments with some equanimity, or even humor. After all, in their interminable quest for higher ratings and dumber programming, the networks run a high risk of seriously embarrassing themselves in front of their audiences. Indeed, they’ve already begun to do so.

This realization came to me as I tuned in for one of the many groaners airing these days on primetime, a May 18 NBC Dateline special entitled “The Mystery of Miracles,” anchored by Stone Phillips. Nestled just before NBC’s “Revelations”—a fictional show that also exploits paranormal fixations, in this case about end times—the program was clearly a low-budget presentation meant to cash in, yet again, on the American public’s insatiable appetite for television programs that promote religion and spiritualism. By the end of the show, however, I didn’t feel so much depressed as amused. With “Miracles,” NBC had clearly gone off the deep end, and not even my two viewing companions (neither one a self-identifying skeptic) could refrain from laughing out loud at the program.

“Miracles” focused on a trip by a group of U.S. Catholic tourists to a Bosnian site called Medjugorje, a kind of Las Vegas for miracle-hunters, and just as exploitive. But despite ample miracle-mongering at this site, Dateline NBC failed to produce a single claim that was even modestly convincing. Instead, virtually every anecdote backfired in a way that left my friends and I on the verge of giggles. Consider a few examples from the program:

The Perspiring Statuary. Early on in the program, the Medjugorje tourists visit a bronze statue of Jesus, quickly proclaiming a miracle because the statute is—gasp—wet. “The statue on the grounds of the town’s main church is oozing liquid,” intones Stone Phillips. “Residents say the inexplicable dripping has been going on for the last four years.” The viewer is never explicitly told what kind of substance the “liquid” actually is (although on screen it looked like simple water). Instead, we hear the following from one of the American pilgrims: “This is really a piece of heaven you can touch, you can put your hand on.” If seeing a wet statue is all it takes to produce a “miracle” in the minds of these tourists, then we’re clearly in for a rough ride—and sure enough, “Miracles” only goes downhill from there.

The Miraculous Misdiagnosis. Before too long we encounter Artie Boyle, a Massachusetts resident who visited Medjugorje after being diagnosed with “what appeared to be a very aggressive and potentially life-threatening cancer,” one for which his doctor had scheduled “drastic surgery.” But when Boyle was touched by one of Medjugorje’s famed religious “visionaries,” he claims to have experienced a miracle, which included “a sudden rush of Christian faith” as well as “a sudden sharp pain in his chest.”

So, was Boyle miraculously healed? Um, not exactly. When Boyle went home to Massachusetts, his doctors did indeed cancel the scheduled surgery—but not because of any divine intervention. Instead, after re-diagnosing their patient, they realized that Boyle actually suffered from “a rare, slow-growing form of cancer,” which hadn’t spread yet. But Boyle still suffered from cancer. He had not been cured, merely re-diagnosed. At least as far as I’m concerned, there’s a big difference between doctor fallibility and divine intervention.

God Lights Up Another Cigarette. Still, Boyle fared far better in Medjugorje than another American tourist centrally featured in Dateline’s “Miracles” program: 65 year old Cathy Myers, a smoker for 45 years and, not surprisingly, a victim of emphysema. According to Dateline, Myers decided to visit Medjugorje because a friend had allegedly experienced a “medical cure” there, and Myers hoped for the same for herself—namely, that the visit would miraculously help her quit smoking.

“Miracles” then proceeds to dramatize Cathy’s symbolic, emphysema-impaired struggle to climb Medjugorje’s main mountain, described in the program as “a steep, treacherous journey, devoid of paths and strewn with jagged rocks.” But don’t be too impressed by these alleged obstacles. The program also shows us young children making the hike, and later we learn that another American tourist reached the top in a mere two and a half hours.

Poor Cathy, however, can’t make the climb the first day because of her emphysema. (No divine intervention helps her along.) The next day, she tries again and finally succeeds, but the grueling “pilgrimage” hardly results in a miraculous payoff. Instead, we learn at the end of the program that despite the inspiration of Medjugorje, Cathy fails to quit smoking, her nicotine addition ultimately proving much more powerful than God. Hardly surprising, and definitely not miraculous.

Our Lady of Prompt (And We Do Mean Prompt) Succor. But “Miracles” still has not reached its low point. That only arrives when the show interviews Ivan Dragicevic, a Medjugorje “visionary” who claims—get this—to be visited every day by the Virgin Mary at precisely the same time: 6:40 pm. That is, unless Dragicevic decides the plan needs to change, in which case the mother of Christ promptly re-jiggers her own schedule. Let’s go to the transcript:

PHILLIPS: At 6:40 every evening.
Mr. DRAGICEVIC: That’s right.
PHILLIPS: Every single day…
Mr. DRAGICEVIC: Every single day.
PHILLIPS: …she comes to you.
Mr. DRAGICEVIC: Yes. And we speak every single day.
PHILLIPS: You don’t have to be in Medjugorje?
Mr. DRAGICEVIC: Absolutely no.
PHILLIPS: Whether it’s here in America or in…
Mr. DRAGICEVIC: Australia an—it doesn’t matter for this.
PHILLIPS: (Voiceover) But when DATELINE interviewed Ivan, he told us the appointed hour would change. Sitting down with us so late in the day was apparently cutting it too close for heavenly comfort. Instead of 6:40, he said the Virgin Mary had agreed to come back later, at 10 PM.
PHILLIPS: So like any good mother, she’s flexible when she needs to be.

(No mention in the program is made of how the Virgin Mary handles changing time zones.)

Dragicevic’s claims about a Virgin Mother guided by a stopwatch represent an affront not only to common sense, but also to serious religious belief, which is cheapened by the notion of divine forces constantly intervening in everyday life. Indeed, more sophisticated religious thinkers like Bishop John Shelby Spong, interviewed towards the end of “Miracles,” realize that if God truly acted in this way, then we would immediately be forced to ask why He allows so many tragedies to take place without intervention. In short, you might say that uncritical belief in miracles itself poses a powerful threat to the validity of faith.

Spong’s voice of reason, however, is the rare exception in “Miracles,” which tosses miracle claim after miracle claim before its audience without even an ounce of skepticism. The show even relates the tale of the so-called ”holy toast“: A piece of moldy cheese and bread was recently auctioned on eBay because of an alleged resemblance to the Virgin Mary. And it sold for $ 28,000. That’s how low phony miracle claims can go—and NBC has shown ample willingness to make the descent into ridiculousness right along with them.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.