Do Christmas Miracles Really Exist? By Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

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On Christmas Eve the Daily Mirror and Sun Newspapers in the UK, along with the BBC News Website, reported  the case of a terminally ill 18-month-old girl whose life support machine was switched off, only for her to begin ‘kicking and screaming’, apparently overflowing with life, 30 minutes later.

Alongside photographs of her parents giving their daughter “a last kiss”, The Sun’s newspaper doctor apparently explains that: “Bella’s return to life is little short of a miracle…. All that matters now is that Bella has pulled through.”

Meanwhile in the UK’s Daily Mail Newspaper, on the same day, the case of a nurse, who against medical advice refused chemotherapy for a rare form of bone cancer, in order to avoid a termination of her pregnancy, was now reported to have given birth to a healthy son.

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Just a few days earlier Pope Francis officially recognised a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor. The Vatican is reported to have explained that the ‘miracle’ involved the healing of a Brazilian man with several brain tumours in 2008.

Recent research appears to provide scientific support for a kind of religious miracle, suggesting that whether you attended church or not this Christmas season, might predict your longevity.

The study, entitled, ‘Religious Affiliation, Religious Service Attendance, and Mortality’, produced results consistent with previous findings that religious attendance, generally speaking, leads to a reduction in mortality and increased longevity.

The investigation from Sungkyunkwan University and Yonsei University, Korea, and the University of Chicago in the USA, used a nationally representative sample of adults aged 18 and over in the USA collected annually or biennially from 1972, funded by the National Science Foundation. One respondent per household is randomly selected and personally interviewed.

While attending religious services was associated with greater longevity, the study also found different mortality rates across religions.

For example, compared to Protestants, being a Catholic or a Jew is associated with lower mortality. The risk of death for Jews is about 0.80 times the risk for Protestants. Except for religious service attendance, the study found no evidence that strength of religious affiliation, praying, belief in life after death, or belief in God, has any influence on longevity.

The study, published in the ‘ Journal of Religion and Health’, also found that more church attendance wasn’t always helpful in terms of living longer; it depended on which particular religious group you belonged to, for example, the lowest mortality of Jews and other religious groups is more apparent for those with lower religious attendance.

The authors of this new study, Jibum Kim, Tom Smith and Jeong-han Kang discuss various ways that religion might generally promote longevity, without having to resort to supernatural mechanisms. Religion influences smoking, diet, alcohol and drug use as well as risky sexual behaviour. Religious people are more likely to volunteer and religion may provide purpose and meaning in life, self-control, and conscientiousness, all of which are associated with longevity.

But the authors of this study report previous research which found that for older people who lost their spouse, those who believe in the afterlife have fewer anger symptoms, but more intrusive thoughts about their departed spouse, than those who do not believe in an afterlife.

Psychologists Clay Routledge, Christina Roylance and Andrew Abeyta in a new study, claim scientists may be investigating religion in the wrong way, explaining the mixed bag of confusing results.

The authors, from North Dakota State University, point out that the supernatural dimension of religion promotes personal meaning because it suggests that the world and our lives cannot be reduced to the material, which is precisely the opposite of what science claims.

This new study, also published in the ‘Journal of Religion and Health’, contends supernatural religious beliefs offer a sense that there is something grander and more enduring than mere mortal or physical life.

Religion argues that humans do not exist by chance, but instead by design, and are being watched over by entities such as angels and God, promoting a personal sense of purpose and meaning. Religious beliefs allow negative life events (e.g., death of a loved one) or uncontrollable negative outcomes (e.g., disease diagnosis) to be part of a larger meaningful plan engineered by a supernatural deity.

This new study entitled, ‘Miraculous Meaning: Threatened Meaning Increases Belief in Miracles’, hypothesized that challenging perceptions of meaning should increase the extent to which people are willing to believe miracles – stories of intervening supernatural agents.

Participants read a philosophical treatise arguing that human life is ultimately meaningless and cosmically insignificant. Participants in the control condition read an essay about the limitations of computers.

The article designed to threaten the sense that life has any meaning contained passages such as: There are approximately 7 billion people living on this planet. So take a moment to ponder the following question: In the grand scheme of things, how significant are you? The Earth is 5 billion years old and the average human lifespan across the globe is 68 years. These statistics serve to emphasize how our contribution to the world is paltry, pathetic and pointless. What is 68 years of one person’s rat-race compared to 5 billion years of history? We are no more significant than any other form of life in the universe.

Participants then read testimonials in which people described miraculous experiences involving supernatural agents, rating the extent to which they believed these testimonials to be credible.

Participants who had read the passage designed to threaten an individual’s sense of life having any meaning, relative to a control essay on the limitations of computers, exhibited significantly increased belief in miraculous stories.

The testimonials or miracles created for this study specifically involved supernatural agents watching over and protecting us, so the authors of the study suggest that belief in angels and

Gods intervening in our lives, promotes meaning in life for millions of people.

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This suggests that when our sense of life’s meaning comes under threat, we are more inclined than ever to believe in supernatural religious experiences.

So miracle stories might be particularly attractive at Christmas precisely because we may be searching at this moment, more than at any other time of the year, for the meaning of life?

But should we spend only one week, or one day, of the year seeking life’s purpose? For example, formulating goals only during New Year’s Eve resolutions?

Much human activity, including the crass commercialism and therefore busyness of Christmas, might, in fact, be precisely designed to help us avoid thinking too hard about the true meaning of life.

Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitterwww.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

Download it free from these links:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rajpersaud.android.raj(link is external)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dr-raj-persaud-in-conversation/id9274662(link is external)

Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel – a psychological thriller which poses the question – ‘is lovethe most dangerous emotion?’ – is based on a unique police unit that really does protect Buckingham Palace from fixated obsessives – ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ – and is now available to order on line.

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