Reasonable Doubt

The Science of Miracles

Is God all in our heads—a product of brain chemistry? Or is the human brain like a radio that can tune into the divine?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty
GEN
Published in
12 min readFeb 7, 2019

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Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

TThe line between faith and science has always figured prominently in my life. Long before my decade as a religion correspondent for NPR, I was raised in Christian Science, the religion that privileges prayer over medicine. I reached adulthood without ever going to the doctor, getting a shot, or taking a vitamin, much less antibiotics. In my early thirties, I left the religion after a happy encounter with Tylenol: A single pill eviscerated my three-day fever within the space of 10 minutes. But I never lost respect for the Christian Science belief that how you think and pray can have a physical effect on your body.

Still, I was often surprised when other people expressed the same openness to prayer. On an April day in 2011, I walked into the production area of “Morning Edition” to find my young, hip colleagues debating a story I had written about a boy who’d made a seemingly miraculous recovery from a horrible disease. I, who was neither young nor hip, was on the fence about whether luck, medical treatment, or divine intervention had saved the boy. I was surprised that these well-educated, coastal, twentysomething journalists would even entertain the possibility of miracles.

The boy at the center of this debate was Jake Finkbonner, who had cut his lip playing basketball when he was six years old. Overnight, he developed a raging fever, his entire face swelling up. He was taken to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Craig Rubens, a pediatric disease specialist, suspected the flesh-eating bacteria Strep A. He said the infection moved across Jake’s face like fire across parchment paper. “You just watch it spread from that corner very fast, and you’re stamping it on one side, and it’s flaming up on another.” It raced from Jake’s lip to his cheeks to his forehead to his scalp. “The infection had a life of its own,” added Richard Hopper, chief of plastic surgery. “The redness and the swelling — we would mark it and within the hour it would have spread another half-inch.”

The doctors told Jake’s parents it was time to call their priest. Father Tim Sauer gave the boy…

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty
GEN
Writer for

Barb Bradley Hagerty is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, writing on psychology, law and (in)justice. Before that, she covered law and religion for NPR.