Is the Current Issue of National Geographic Biased in Favor of Miracles?

Is the Current Issue of National Geographic Biased in Favor of Miracles? December 9, 2015
nat geo
Cover of the most recent Nataional Geographic issue

Yesterday I made a post questioning conspiracies and inaccuracies about the recent acquisition of National Geographic by 21st Century Fox—that crucial members of the NatGeo team were fired and that a new pro-supernatural/religion bias was rather immediately introduced into the magazine, etc.

At least part of the post mentioned the most recent issue of the magazine, focusing on Christian veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, around the world.

Judging by the vote count and comments on /r/atheism, my post was received rather tepidly. And while this wasn’t totally unexpected—we always have to be on the lookout for the backfire effect or its precursors, where being corrected on erroneous beliefs is strongly resisted or actually reinforces the original mistaken belief—in the meantime I’ve been thinking a bit more about the issue of Mary, and the criticism of this.

So far, the main thing in the NatGeo issue that’s been criticized— as Jerry Coyne does in his post, for example (though Coyne also repeats some of the inaccuracies I exposed in my earlier post)—is a certain focus on miracles in the lead article on Mary; and this is what I’m focusing on in the current post.

Coyne begins his criticism was something that’s, to my mind, fairly superficial and shortsighted. He writes that it’s “disturbing” that the author of the lead article, Maureen Orth, appears to be a believer herself—as she suggests, for example, in the “About Me” section of her own website.

Of course, even as a committed atheist, I’m not exactly comfortable with the implication that a professional writer—and an “accomplished” one, as Coyne admits—is particularly at risk of succumbing to their religious bias in a piece; at least not to where I’d automatically say that their having been tasked to a write on religion, for an ostensibly secular publication, is “disturbing.” But, unfair as it might be, Coyne doesn’t make much more of it beyond this, so I won’t either. Moving on, Coyne suggests that

the article, which appears to have been heavily influenced by “researcher” Michael O’Neill, by and large presents many of the Mary Miracles as real

I’m not exactly sure if it’s very fair to characterize the article as (by and large) presenting Marian miracles as real. And complicating things even further here—and, really, this may be the crux of the matter—is that since coverage in National Geographic is generally anthropological in nature, then perhaps the language used in the article—at first blush conveying the perspective of the author herself—can be understood along the lines of a sort of anthropological-journalistic convention: of a author writing almost as if they were the person they’re writing about. (Thus the author “takes on” their reality, and the language that they would use to describe it).

Or perhaps we don’t even have to suggest anthropological convention here—rather, that this sort of language was used, above all, for simplicity’s sake.

While I’ll get back to that in a second, I want to reiterate that I really have no desire to defend the author of the piece here, either. If there’s a good indication that there’s pro-miracle bias, I’m certainly ready to acknowledge that.

In any case—returning to the article, and this Michael O’Neill who Coyne mentioned—the relevant section of Orth’s article here begins

MICHAEL O’NEILL, 39, a Stanford University graduate in mechanical engineering and product design, is the Virgin Mary’s big data numbers cruncher. On his website,, he has codified every known apparition of Mary back to A.D. 40.

Taken in itself, the language of “codified every known apparition” might at first seem to a suggest an empirical, external phenomenon. (As does the subsequent line, “[s]ystematic investigation and documentation of supernatural occurrences began with the Council of Trent”; emphasis mine.) Yet just a few lines later, Orth writes that “O’Neill, in his newly published book, Exploring the Miraculous, details the Vatican’s painstaking process when deciding whether to endorse an apparition as miraculous.” From this, then, we see that Orth’s use of “apparition” doesn’t itself suggest anything supernatural or miraculous—she writes that it must be determined as such.

She goes on to write

In 2001 the peer-reviewed Journal of Scientific Exploration reported on the visionaries’ “partial and variable disconnection from the outside world at the time of the apparitional experience.” The extreme sound and light sensations traveled normally to their brains, but “the cerebral cortex does not perceive the transmission of the auditory and visual neuronal stimuli.” So far, science has no explanation.

Here, again, the language of “the apparitional experience” seems to bring the focus back to the subjective dimension of this, not the external. Yet I can also see the final line, “science has no explanation,” as a bit hokey. (It seems pandering to an audience that might be taken in by the whole mystery aspect of this—one that could certainly point in the direction of the supernatural for many.)

Also worth nothing is that earlier on in the article, Orth had described the encounter that a man named Arthur Boyle had with a Medjugorje Marian “visionary,” Vicka Ivankovic-Mijatovic:

Gripping his head with one hand, she appealed to the Virgin Mary to ask God to cure him. Boyle said he experienced an unusual sensation right there in the store. “She starts to pray over me. Rob and Kevin put their hands on me, and the heat that went through my body from her praying was causing them to sweat.”

Later, Orth asks

Did the intense heat Boyle experienced when Vicka Ivankovic-Mijatovic held his head in her hand play a part in his healing? According to the 2006 book Hyperthermia in Cancer Treatment: A Primer, “Spontaneous regression of some cancers has been demonstrated to be associated [with] the induction of fever and activation of immunity.”

I think it’s important to point out here that, in itself, there’s nothing here that demands the miraculous, to where skeptics might be inclined to dismiss this whole report out of hand. If induction of fever is (speculatively) associated with spontaneous cancer remission, then surely we might assume that there’s non-miraculous fever-induced (fever-concurrent?) spontaneous remission, too.

So there’s room for both the skeptic and the believer here.

The skeptic, if he or she were to indeed propose a non-miraculous spontaneous remission here, can appeal to the possibility of coincidence that this remission happened (seemingly) concurrent with the visionary’s touch; or, better, he or she can suggest a psychosomatic effect in triggering this chain of events. And the believer can in fact join the skeptic in accepting that the more proximate mechanism of spontaneous remission here was a “natural” phenomenon, only differing in thinking that the ultimate mechanism here—the visionary’s touch, or rather the divine power that enabled this to be effective—was “supernatural.”

Elsewhere Orth writes that, following Marian apparition, there have been “physical cures said to be miraculous, as at Medjugorje” (emphasis mine). This seems in line with what I’ve written, where the cure here doesn’t have to be miraculous itself—that this is a notion ascribed to it by faith.

In the end, I have no real problem with Orth’s piece, or the fact that it appears in National Geographic.

Perhaps accompanying material in the issue, like a map of Marian apparitions entitled “500 Years of Virgin Mary Sightings in One Map,” could be more fairly construed as something approaching pandering. But beyond this, as I suggested in my previous post, I think looking at the varying shapes of Marian veneration around the world can be a valuable window into global religious life, and indeed culture in general—something that falls well within the anthropological purview of National Geographic.

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