Monday, March 01, 2010

The Suarez delusion: The continuing story

You may remember Fr. Fernando Suarez the healing priest who hit the front pages a couple of years ago. Back then plans were underway to build a large shrine including a statue of the Virgin Mary taller than the Statue of Liberty on a mountain in Montemaria, Batangas. It was said that Montemaria is a special place and would become a healing center, perhaps the global healing spiritual center purportedly prophesied in one of the Medjugorje messages*.

But even before any makeshift chapel had been put up, people began flocking to the site to gather stones. You see, a Fr. Nap Baltazar had earlier gone to the site, sensing that it was somehow sacred, and saw the grassy area littered with stones. He gathered about a dozen of these pebbles and brought them back home with him, believing they can be used for healing, given the import of the Montemaria. Some folks began using them and experienced healing of sorts. After the news of this spread, you had all these faith-heads going up to Montemaria gathering miraculous healing stones which I presume they shared with friends and family. Since then there have been various accounts, including video testimonials, of conditions such as diabetes and cancer being treated and cured with these stones simply by rubbing them on the body.

However, on February 16, 2010 Suarez's group officially announced that plans for the said Montemaria shrine have fallen through; negotiations for the 5-hectare land have completely bogged down. Instead, the shrine will now be built somewhere in Tagaytay**. Given the specialness of Montemaria and the fact that its stones have been "proved" miraculous, it behooves us to ask whether Montemaria and its stones had ever been supernaturally special. If Montemaria was never "fated" to be the site for the shrine and healing center, what do the faithful now say about the stones? Do they admit the stones were in fact ineffective and did not have supernatural healing powers? Do they say the stones were effective and therapeutic while the illusion about Montemaria lasted but are no longer anymore? Will some cling to the belief that the stones were and will forever be miraculously therapeutic? Or would they say, as not a few have stated even before, that it is not the stones that heal but people's faith in their deity? As to this latter claim, it is interesting to note that early on some have already been saying that people don't even need to attend Suarez's healing Masses, that they can get healed simply by either praying, or watching an online video of Suarez's healing sessions, or even via cell phone text messages.

Now that Montemaria is no longer the blessed site, will newly picked stones from that mountain possess any magical powers? Perhaps people will now find the stones or some tree or the water in the new location of the shrine as possessing special magical powers. This is not unlikely since there have been some who've fantasized about Montemaria as the next Lourdes and Fatima. So be not surprised if in the coming years people begin raving about the healing waters of Tagaytay Shrine, and the sick from all over the country and the world come flocking. When that happens the government of Tagaytay will be the first to shoot me down for exposing religious quackery.

As for the advertised miraculous cures, they have not been investigated by medical experts. Presuming these testimonials are true and ingenuous, it is most doubtless that these infirmed who had rubbed the stones on their bodies experienced massive doses of the placebo effect. Think about it. These people had serious diseases which they wanted to go away, were religious/superstitious, and truly believed the stones possessed some magical powers which would cure them of their ailment. These are exactly the conditions that elicit the placebo effect. Moreover, when did these folks provide their testimonials? Well, certainly not on those days they were in pain or bedridden. Rather they gave their stories of miraculous healing at the time when they were (relatively) painless and in good spirits. Their pronouncement or videos are a snapshot in time, a frame in a movie that's months and years long. And so we should ask, Can we please see more of the movie, say, a frame from each week till the present, beginning well before the stone rubbing? Patently, if we're only given one picture and one where the patient is smiling, we're being afforded only limited and biased information. If I let you view only the video of my mom walking pain-free after acupuncture, you'd most likely be misled into believing that the acupuncture worked for her. But if I let you watch the epic length recording showing how her pain kept cycling--abating for two days and coming back to torment her for the next couple of days only to wane once again and wax and wane and... regardless of acupuncture and drugs--you'd come to a very different conclusion, right? More importantly we are not told what treatment these people had been receiving in conjunction with the stones. If I take antibiotics for a kidney infection and rub a healing stone on my lower back three times a day for ten days, I will most certainly get well. But which of the two treatments actually licked the infection? The magical stone, right? Well, that's what the superstitious will tell you since they cherry pick which events in the timeline they share with us and which one they choose as the cause of their recovery. So the question that always needs to be asked when we're treated to anecdotes and testimonials is: What haven't we been told? What crucial information have been left out? What's the whole picture? What are the biases in the information and how do we address them?

Given our current body of robust understanding of reality, what is the probability that some stone--or boulder for that matter--or tree, or pond, or what have you, possesses some magical, supernatural power that can cure such life-threatening diseases as cancer? Exceedingly infinitesimal of course. Prior plausibility for magical healing is, for all practical purposes, zero. So why would people believe in something extremely implausible? For one thing, these religionists already have implausible, irrational beliefs--deities. Deities are supernatural. They are not constrained by any laws of nature. All things are possible with gods. They're Magicians. Neither material reality, physical laws, logic, nor ethics constrain them. They transcend any and all of these. Thus, those who believe in deities with such attributes cannot but have a worldview wherein nothing is impossible and where plausibility and probabilities have no impact if not no meaning.


* I searched the Medjugorje messages from 1984 to 2010. There is no mention of a healing center or the Philippines. Messages from 1981 to 1983 don't seem to be available online.

** One feature of the religious mindset is how they come up with ad hoc rationalizations to deal with disconfirming events. Suarez, his group, his followers, Baltazar and his followers all "knew" that Montemaria was special. They publicized these sentiments. The stones were magical because of Montemaria's sacredness/holiness. Now that Montemaria is history, the rationalizations are pouring in. Suarez's group, Blessed Mary Mother of the Poor, Inc., has this unverifiable/nonfalsifiable excuse:
There is much pain in this decision [to let go of Montemaria], Montemaria having been our beacon and common aspiration for the last three years. However, the preferential will of God seems clear, and we must allow the Holy Spirit to lead.

Yeah, right. The know-it-all, omniscient, omnipotent, perfect god of theirs changed its mind. Do "oxymoron" and "contradiction" exist in their vocabulary? Their deity misled Suarez, Baltazar, et al. He tricked them into believing Montemaria was going to be the holy land. Either that, or these religion-intoxicated people will have to admit their sensors were totally on the blink in picking up Montemaria as their god's choice. Or, these individuals can just accept the truth--that they were completely deluded and it's time to grow up and face reality and the hard cold fact that there is no daddy and cop in the sky.

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