When I was a year and a half old, I had a very serious accident. My aunt had boiled some water to make coffee and as she was walking towards the dining room, the glass pitcher started to crack in her hands. Not knowing what else to do, she threw the pitcher to the far side of the living room, which she thought to be empty. Alas, I was playing there behind the couch.
The water burned both my arms and my chest. Even though the burns were only of first and second degree, I was immediately admitted to the hospital given the percentage of the affected area. The months that followed were torturous for me and for my parents. Every day, after having been soaked for hours, nurses then proceeded to thoroughly disinfect and wash the wounds to remove any secretions. Unfortunately, given my age and the seriousness of my condition, it was not possible to use any kind of anesthetics. During the first weeks, I would implore the nurse to stop with the very few words I knew. I eventually stopped crying but I would grit my teeth as I looked at my parents with despair and anguish. On many occasions since then, with tears in their eyes, my parents have described to me their feeling of helplessness and grief at having to see me suffer like that.
During that time, my parents never left my side. They both asked for time off work so they could take turns and be with me 24 hours a day. They took it upon themselves to ensure the doctor’s orders were carried out to the letter. The type and amount of every food, liquid, and, of course, medicine that I was given was thoroughly verified. They corrected numerous potentially dangerous mistakes made by careless nurses. Even though my parents’ watchfulness caused some discomfort to the hospital staff, they increased their vigilance after a very unfortunate incident.
Misael was a three year old boy who had also suffered serious burns but was well on his way to recovery. One day, as a nurse was getting ready to disinfect my wounds, Misael’s mother said her son should go first, as he had been soaking longer. My mother agreed amicably, thereby inadvertently saving my life. Shortly after the nurse had started disinfecting Misael’s wounds, he began to choke and his skin turned purple. To the horror of his mother, he started convulsing and died. The nurse had forgotten to dilute the powerful iodine-based disinfectant.
Under my parents’ intensified vigilance, I began to recover. Sadly, in spite of the precautions taken to maintain a sterile environment, I contracted chickenpox and my condition worsened rapidly.
My entire body was covered with sores and the still raw wounds became infected. To avoid the risk of septicemia, pustules had to be removed from the burned areas with pinking shears every day. I stopped eating and had to be fed intravenously. The lack of solid food caused my stomach to become distended. I started having cardiac arrhythmias, pulmonary problems, and frequent nocturnal seizures caused by the lack of electrolytes. After a few weeks, the chief of Pediatrics told my father that there was nothing else they could do, that my death was imminent.
What happened next is something my mother unreservedly describes as a miracle.
She had finished her vigil for the day and left the hospital not knowing what to do. She wandered aimlessly for hours, deeply immersed in her grief. She eventually found a church and went inside. She prayed more fervently than ever; this time, however, she was no longer asking for my recovery. She told God she did not want me to suffer any longer, that she was even prepared to accept my death. At that moment, she realized someone had left an empty baby food jar on the floor. On a whim, she picked it up and filled it with holy water. She snuck the jar into the hospital and, in an act of sheer desperation, she made me drink the water. My father only knew of this much later and the doctors never found out.
Given my health condition in general, and the state of my digestive system in particular, one might think that drinking water that was very likely unsanitary should have been disastrous. However, on the very next day, after not having spoken for weeks, I asked my mother for soup. Even though eating solid food in my condition was dangerous, my doctor allowed me to have a regular meal, perhaps considering it to be my last. I ate the whole thing and from that day onwards, to the amazement of the staff, I started recovering. In the course of only two weeks, after having been in the hospital for approximately four months, I made a full recovery and was permitted to go home. By the time I left, everyone at the hospital knew me as ‘the little miracle’.
How can I be an Atheist?
Several people who know this story do not understand how I can be an atheist: “How can you explain what happened? You wanted soup the very next day!”, “And what about Misael? It was your turn!”, “Either the holy water or the food they gave you could have killed you!”, “Not even the doctors had an explanation for your recovery!” I honestly cannot explain my recovery, but neither can I accept that it was a miracle; that is, an intentional transgression of the laws of physics undertaken by the creator of the universe.
There is an enormous difference between something extremely unlikely and something impossible. If I buy a lottery ticket, it is highly unlikely indeed that I will win, but it is not impossible. According to the medical experts, my recovery was so unlikely that they thought I would not survive, but was it actually impossible? Did God necessarily have to intervene and break the laws of physics so I could recover? Is it really inconceivable to imagine an unlikely scenario in which my recovery was physically possible?
However strange it may seem, highly unlikely events occur relatively frequently. There are countless books and websites describing some of the most extraordinary examples (simply google for ‘amazing coincidences’). Although many of these events remain unexplained, it is important to understand that this does not imply that there must be a supernatural explanation. Throughout the centuries, we have attributed a large number of now-understood phenomena to the supernatural.
The hypothesis that my recovery was miraculous cannot be falsified; that is, it is impossible to prove that it was not. There are, nevertheless, only two possibilities: either it was a miracle or it was not. The latter does not require the existence of a supreme being capable of breaking the laws of physics who, for some mysterious reason, decided to save me; therefore, I consider it to be more likely that it was not a miracle (cf. Occam’s razor).
Setting aside for a moment what I consider the more likely explanation, there exist moral reasons for my preference to believe that God had nothing to do with my recovery. If I accept that it was miraculous, what about Misael? We were both innocent children, did he deserve to die and I did not? Why? How could it be fair to save one and not the other? Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that God had a valid reason to save me over Misael. If God, in his infinite wisdom, had decided I should survive, could he not simply have prevented the accident in the first place? Why was there need for so much suffering, anguish, and sorrow? The God my mother believes saved my life is one of love and justice, I refuse to believe that the whole experience was some kind of test of faith. I definitely prefer an indifferent God, even a nonexistent one, to a sadistic one.
Finally, even if we ignore all these important questions, what kind of egotistical megalomaniac would I have to be to believe that the very creator of the universe personally intervened to save my life? I do not think that God saved me so I could fulfill an ‘important mission’ in this world, as some people would have me believe. I do not consider myself a special person, only an extremely lucky one.
The True Heroes
I will probably never know for sure whether God intervened, but what I do know beyond any doubt, is that it would have been much less likely for me to recover had it not been for all the people involved in my treatment. My gratitude goes out to the countless people who have contributed to the development of medicine through the ages; to the medical staff who treated me, for their experience and their efforts; and finally and above all, to my parents, for their unconditional love and their uninterrupted vigil, for so many hours of helpless anxiety and suffering. It is all of them, real flesh-and-blood people, whom I consider the true heroes of this story. Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s; it is they who deserve the honors and to whom I undeniably and undoubtedly owe my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I wear my scars with pride. They are silent witnesses of a truly wonderful fact: even though we are unavoidably subject to the seemingly cruel whims of the universe, by use of our reason and motivated by the love we feel for others, our efforts have the power to transform nearly impossible dreams into happy realities.