My problem with Mother Teresa’s canonization
Today, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint. This naturally resulted in a flood of praise and criticism on social media. Contrary to the respectful tweet from the Prime Minister on the occasion, his supporters were NOT happy. They were critics of this step. In their eyes, she is fraudulent, and worst of all, she engaged in conversions (the prime majority fundamentalist objection to religious minority figures in India).
Those who admired Saint Teresa (must get used to not calling her Mother Teresa now) had their own reasons to cheer the long awaited development. In their eyes, her service to the poor and ill made her deserving of respect. Incidentally, this is something nurses in hospitals do routinely and get far less money for it than Mother Teresa got in donations for her cause. Nor do the see the service as a part of promoting their cause. Which does not negate the fact that she did serve like countless other organizations and people dedicated to service. Baba Amte, for example.
I don’t have a problem with religious conversions. In fact, I have often said in the past that the poor must be allowed to change religion as often as they wish and religious organizations wanting to increase numbers for their religion should be encouraged to pay them to convert and/or stay in the religion. This beats a lot of hatred and violence in the name of religion and would probably do something constructive for a change.
While there are disturbing questions about Mother Teresa’s ethics raised separately by several people, I think no one is perfect and if she had rendered significant service to mankind, it stands independent of criticism in other areas. Today is not necessarily a day for deliberate drawing out of every flaw, real or perceived that she had. In my view, regardless of the questions raised about her, her influence and role model for people was almost entirely one of service – which is not a bad thing.
My problem is with “Saint” and “miracles” that are required to declare a saint. The two “miracles” that proved her a saint were serious medical conditions that got “miraculously” cured by praying to her. To become a saint, the miracles have to be “scientifically inexplicable”. However let us not underestimate the refusal of a mind to understand explanations, which are inconvenient to what is desired. These “miracles” have been robustly contested by rationalists and doctors. I will not get into them here, because this article is not about the miracles either – even if inexplicable healings happened.
Hospitals, the world over are replete with stories of “miraculous recoveries” that doctors have no explanations for beyond having tried their best, and yet no one has bothered to declare them places of supernatural occurrence. Sachin Kalbag, the editor of
Mid-Day The Hindu, recently had a close brush with death and “miraculously” survived. His post delves beautifully into his contemplations on divine intervention as several unlikely coincidences happened that improved his chances of survival.
If a person who prayed to Mother Teresa made a miraculous recovery and a hundred who prayed to her did not, why is only one of them proof of a miracle? This was a woman routinely surrounded by the sick and dying, for whom she offered care (including medical) for decades and yet such a motivated effort found two miracles. After she died. What about the many who died? Are they proof of her NOT being inclined to save people more than inclined? Could it be that miracles started happening once her influence was gone from the world? What if someone had a freak road accident and died after meeting her? Would she be declared a malicious entity?
Selective vision is a wonderful, perception affirming thing. We see what we are looking for. You see cures in a hospital, miracles in a place of worship Even if 2000 people made unexpected recoveries in a hospital while only 2 did in the saint’s worship.
India is a country prone to belief in the supernatural. Partly because of a rich mythology, but largely because belief is the only thing a lot of people can afford when faced with very expensive needs, wants and problems. And yet, praying to Mother Teresa is NOT an appropriate course of action if you are diagnosed with a tumor or brain abscesses.
“Saint Teresa” is not about ill people finding care in her organization, or poor and ill people finding free treatment in her memory, it is about ill people being saved by praying to her. This is my problem.
For anyone living in India, miraculous cures are nothing new. Loads of Hindi films have them, usually when the villain is wiping the floor with the hero and just before the climax. Every family has a deity or three (or a more modern guru or mata they find) to pray to when things go wrong. From Baba Ramdev curing homosexuality to homeopathy curing cancer. From quacks taking people off necessary drugs because they “conflict” with their treatment to “faith healing” events in various churches. “Miracle cures” are a staple in India. There is nothing new about them. Why two miracles make a saint should be a question that even the most gullible believer in miracle cures must ask.
Does the canonization of Mother Teresa to Saint Teresa over two piddly miracles mean that the church admits that the countless faith healing events churning out “miracle cures” every week are bogus? I do hope so. It is overdue.
I had felt compelled to meet Narendra Dabholkar once, after knowing his views for years. I liked what he was doing. What he said. I agreed with his views about the dangers of superstition. We had a long talk, and he suggested that I become a member of their organization. I was ambiguous. I had a baby who was quite young. I had things I was doing. Not really time enough to get into stuff like that you know, I, who was writing an average of three posts a week on this blog (but not about rationalism), told the chap who quit his medical practice for such “stuff” because he had the foresight to see how the erosion of reason ruined us as a whole. I myself had a live and let live approach, even though I understood what he did, to debunk superstition and spread awareness of rationalism was necessary work. I participated in religious ceremonies though I thought they were bullshit and ineffective for whatever claimed purpose they were being conducted. I listened to people talk about various miracle workers while making no effort to encourage them to think things through.
“What is the harm?” I thought. People believed whatever would bring them solace. I remained in touch with ANS (Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti) articles and news though I didn’t interact with them much. I liked what they had to say, but I wasn’t “active” about my rationalism. Then, one day, I was numb. Reading news of Dabholkar being shot dead. Reading countless people on social media share his work, his views. I was one of them. I remembered his patient, extremely reasonable manner of explaining things. He was dead. What a waste. There are very grudging token attempts to nail his murderers. No real will behind them. Who would offend bastions of BELIEF? What was “justice” anyway? How could punishing a person or five compensate for the loss to people at large?
“There is real harm.” It was an expensive lesson. The silence of those who didn’t bother to work for necessary change, who didn’t want the inconvenience of offending people is what made sitting ducks of those who were doing good work. Pick off the voices, and silence dissent.
Belief in superstition is not just about faith, it is about controlling the gullible and it has a dark underbelly. The pretty side is where countless people find hope, as they look at a few well publicized miracles and play an emotional lottery hoping for a similar result, taking it as “luck” when the expected result doesn’t happen. The dark side is what happens to those who say “The Emperor has no clothes”. And Narendra Dabholkar is hardly the only one to face the ire of religious fanatics for trying to bring a voice of sanity.
Before someone says that it is the Hindu fanatics who killed Dabholkar, let me remind you of Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who had to flee the country for the crime of debunking a “miracle”.
This isn’t matter of being polite and not insulting someone who did “good work”, it is a matter of actively speaking up against wholesale encouragement to believe in the irrational, to stand up and be among the number of people who have a problem with the promotion of such beliefs, before the few who do it remain the standing ducks to be picked off one by one, like Dabholkar was, Pansare was, and open threats could be issued…. while the rest pretend to believe in rational thought but choose polite evasions and be “goody goody” rather than look bad disagreeing about “respect” of a “good person”.
You may afford to think that oh, you like Mother Teresa, therefore you will not look too closely at why she is being called a saint. Today is your day off for skeptical enquiry because it is a special absurd occasion. After all, in this world of selfish people, is it not a miracle someone wants to help people at all? You may afford to encourage a view that helping those in need is something only a saint is capable of (and thus exempt yourselves from having to do anything). You may say, oh it is a pity that people who question superstition get murdered and I promise to be extra skeptical tomorrow. I was like that. I learned my lesson with Dabholkar’s murder. It is one I won’t forget in a hurry.
Respecting selfless service ought to be good enough for you to not be required to defend the absurd either.
Update: A lot of people have commented on Twitter that the miracles were a formality and the recognition is for her work. Personally, I think the recognition is more about the church having people of worship native to India, so that more people are interested. It is a huge market, you know? But all that apart, there was nothing wrong with respecting Mother Teresa, or declaring her a Saint without the miracles too. Contrary to the belief of the few “rationalists” clinging desperately to this belief of the miracles being a formality, you have the usually sane Outlook Magazine reporting on how the devout still feel her presence, etc. Let us not even pretend that the “devout” don’t pray to saints to solve problems. Not even you are that gullible.