Where to begin? So we have this very dedicated GetReligion reader who has been sending us URLs pointing to coverage of a skeptic's battle to condemn Catholic leaders in India for having anything to do with legitimizing a statue of Jesus that may or may not be weeping. Before we get into a recent report in The Guardian about this controversy, let me stress two things right up front:
(1) As a total First Amendment absolutist, I cannot imagine a blasphemy law that I would applaud, in large part because they are almost always used as a way to crack down on the rights of religious (or secular) minorities or on freedom of expression in general. That's important for reasons that will soon become clear.
(2) I think there are cases in which believers in a variety of faiths have tried to fake miracles, for reasons both lofty and crass. However, I have seen cases of events, visions, healings, etc., that simply defy easy explanations. So I think it's fine to doubt claims of the miraculous. However, I also think that it's important for skeptics to doubt their own doubts.
With that said, here we go:
When water started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.
So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland.
Now he is calling for European governments to press Delhi into dropping the case. And on the first leg of a tour around EU capitals on Friday, he warned that India was sacrificing freedom of expression for outdated, colonial-era rules about blasphemy.
Now, this story addresses two important topics. The first is the use and abuse of blasphemy laws in India. The second is whether Catholic officials are refusing to shut down some kind of spiritual fraud. It's the second issue that has me rather puzzled.
Why? You see, this story contains absolutely ZERO factual material that actual describes the statue or its location. It also contains zero commentary from anyone who actually disagrees with Edamaruku's assertions, other than for the assumed reason that they want to attack his right to voice his criticisms.
Does this matter? I mean, after all, the skeptic is automatically right. I mean, right? Here is what we are told:
Edamaruku, who has the support of rationalists and atheists such as Richard Dawkins, is well known in India for debunking religious myths, and was already unpopular among Indian Catholics for publicly criticising Mother Teresa's legacy in Kolkata.
When the state "miracle" was pronounced, he went to Mumbai and found that the dripping water was due to clogged drainage pipes behind the wall where it stood. His revelation provoked death threats from religious zealots and ultimately charges of blasphemy under the Indian penal code in the Mumbai high court.
Now, part of the problem is that the art used by The Guardian -- click here to look at that -- does not appear to be of the actual statue involved in this case. For example, this statue stands away from the wall. It's hard to imagine sewage water -- as claimed by Edamaruku -- dripping onto a statue that is located far from the wall. Are there pipes carrying sewage running through the high, peaked ceiling of this chapel?
Meanwhile, the image at the top of this post is from an Asia News report on this controversy. It shows a completely different statue, yet one that is also located far from a wall that might contain faulty plumbing, let alone plumbing high enough to drip down onto the statue. Again, is this sewage supposed to be running through faulty pipes in the ceiling of a church sanctuary? What's the other option, that the church architects -- long ago -- designed the plumbing to run under the floor and then up and through this statue? Really?
Anyway, my journalistic point is not -- heaven forbid -- in support of India's blasphemy law. Also, I am not declaring that Edamaruku's claims have been disproven. What I am saying is that the news team that produced this alleged news story was not interested in any of the facts -- physical, spiritual or otherwise -- linked to debates about this statue. The skeptic's claims are simply accepted as, well, gospel. There is no need for any journalistic work on this topic, no need for descriptive facts, no need for the voices of those who doubt the skeptic's doubts. What is going on here?
Meanwhile, the Asia News report also included these comments from church authorities:
... Fr. Augustine Palett, PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and pastor of Our Lady of Velankanni, said: "Something has happened here that is beyond our understanding and that has gathered together Hindus, Muslims and Christians, united in prayer. Sanal Edamaruku's statements are unwarranted, unfounded and false. The Church does not try to make money from people's devotion. Its institutions relentlessly serve poor and marginalized, without any discrimination of caste or creed, to build this nation. "
In a statement, the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai said: "The Church is always cautious in attributing supernatural causes to out of the ordinary phenomena. Whenever possible, it always tries to find 'scientific' explanations for similar events. It does not pay great attention to things like this, although it accepts the possibility that God can intervene in human life in 'extraordinary' ways: what we call 'miracles' ... The Irla crucifix does not belong to the Church, and it was a Hindu woman, not a Catholic, to notice the drops of water."
These quotes prove nothing, of course. It would, however, have been interesting for Guardian scribes to have asked church officials what kinds of tests have been performed on the statue, the water dripping from it, the church facility, etc.
It's good when journalists ask questions and quote voices on both sides of controversial issues. Right?