Sunday, December 17, 2006

You Don't Really Believe In Miracles

Should We Take the Miracle Stories in the Bible Seriously?

Many people have made a "Historical Case for Jesus" argument for the historical authenticity of the stories we now have about Jesus. They will typically make these points. Note: Making the case on their behalf takes a few paragraphs.

There were multiple eyewitness accounts of the miracles of Jesus, not just a few isolated people. Thousands of people are purported in the Gospels to have witnessed his healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry. Furthermore, when Jesus was crucified, he wasn't buried in secret. The tomb was widely known and accessed. If it contained his corpse, then a story about his resurrection would have been very difficult to fake. A number of people found the tomb empty. On several different occasions, different groups of people are purported to have experienced Jesus resurrected from the dead.

The witnesses are not a homogeneous group of religious zealots. They are from diverse backgrounds, with different educations, and social standings. They were not a strange, fringe group.

It is highly unlikely that the witnesses had any ulterior motives. The witnesses stood to gain nothing from retelling what they had seen. In fact, they stood to lose a great deal. Early Christians were socially ostracized for their beliefs, persecuted, and even killed. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to. Such an even would have been outlandish to them, yet they still believed. They were so convinced that they gave up their jobs, their wealth, and their families to become Christians.

The people surrounding the eyewitnesses believed them and were impressed enough to convert. The passion and conviction of the original believers was so profound that it conquered the doubts of all those around them. A whole religious movement that has lasted for thousands of years and spread to millions of people has sprung from the eyewitness accounts.

Many of the events of the New Testament have been historically corroborated. Archaeologists, historians, and other scholars have been able to find a great deal of independent evidence that confirms many of the historical claims such as the reign of Herod, the destruction of the temple, the growth of the early church.

The Gospels focus on a real, historical person. They are not comparable in their age to a book of mythology about Paul Bunyan, or fairy tales. They present their account as a factual record of the events in history, not as allegory, or fiction.

Furthermore, the Jewish tradition of transmitting history accurately and reliably was highly developed and successful.

Once we consider all of these factors, the believers argue, it would seem that no other hypothesis can explain all the elements of the story of Jesus as well.

But this is all nonsense--we have bodies of evidence for alleged miracles all around us today that far exceed all of these factors and it is perfectly obvious that no miracles occurred to all of us, even ardent religious believers.

You're Already and Atheist and a Skeptic about Miracles

Right now, we can now find thousands or even millions of people making fraudulent, mistaken, or deceptive miracle claims on a daily basis. People claim to see a pattern resembling the Virgin Mary in the water stains on a bridge in Chicago. Someone cuts open a watermelon and sees the word for "Allah" represented in the patterns of pulp inside. A man in Ontario burns his TV dinner and finds an image of Jesus in the burn marks of his fish stick. Another family finds a twisted pretzel in their bag that they say looks like Mary and Jesus. Televangelists "perform miracles" at will at every meeting. Closer inspection reveals that they are always lying, cheating, or mistaken.

Televangelist Pat Robertson, who has hundreds of thousands of regular viewers, claims that his prayers to God steered hurricanes away from the Virginia Beach, Virginia headquarters of his company. He also claims to have steered Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Felix in 1995, and Hurricane Isabel in 2003. In 2005, he began a prayer project for vacancies on the Supreme Court--he was frustrated with the "radical" views of the current judges. He claims that these prayers resulted in the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor. Conveniently, Robertson doesn't publicize the numerous cases where he prayed for some outcome and nothing happened.

Frequently in India, millions of the faithful rush to Hindu temples to see statues of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha and others drink milk. Huge crowds form as people hold spoonfuls of milk up to the trunk of the statues and watch milk disappear. The phenomena is widely accepted as a miracle. Scientists examined the case and concluded that the milk was being siphoned down the surface of the statue in a thin film that wasn't easily visible. As more people made offerings, pools of milk formed at the base of the statues. The Press Trust of India wrote, "the phenomenon of idols "drinking" milk could be explained scientifically by the theory of capillary action or the movement of liquids within spaces of porous surfaces due to surface tension, adhesion and cohesion." Typically, believers deny that there could any explanation besides the miraculous one. Similar stories appear from time to time in the west surrounding statues of the Virgin Mary. Different types of porous stones that are used to make the statues have the capacity to absorb and wick a great deal of fluid.

People feel miracles in their hearts while they are watching TV, as they pray, when the go to church, or when they think about a loved one. But it only takes a little distance and objectivity to see that they are often enthusiastic, gullible, or mistaken. Millions of people fall under the influence of cults and dedicate their entire lives to outlandish, demonstrably false creeds and obviously false miracle claims. And notice that these people come from diverse backgrounds, they have varying levels of education, and come from different social groups. No one is immune the allure of miracle stories. In the case of cults, it's obvious that when people have such a passionate, and powerful conviction that makes their claims even more unreasonable to accept. Passion, and unreflective commitment makes it more difficult for someone to analyze claims that need clear, objective consideration. In general, people's passion and commitment to beliefs should not itself be seen as evidence that they are true.

The important fact to note is that on the whole, we, even the most pious among us, do not take any of these claims seriously. Even most Christians who believe, do not accept most of these claims. Even if you find some of the claims above to be plausible, there are still many more claims about miraculous events every day that you would discount than you would accept. You know that people are prone to exaggerate, they like to tell exciting stories, they are easily influenced, and they are eager to have their cherished beliefs corroborated. You already take the vast majority of such claims with a grain of salt. You aren't rushing off to Bangladesh or Mecca to convert at the feet of some statue that absorbs fluid. You'll even laugh to discover that someone found a burn mark on a sour cream and onion potato chip that looks like Jesus and they thought it meant something. You are already a skeptic about the majority of miracles because you know that the other natural explanations are much more likely almost every case you have ever encountered. And to make the case stronger, whenever a disinterested, objective third party has checked, none of these miraculous claims has ever turned out to be true.

So we are surrounded by thousands of miracle testimony cases on a daily basis that we do not think are real. These purported miracles make several things clear. First, people have a powerful disposition to assert and believe in miracles. Once you start looking, they are everywhere. Second, it not just like this now; history is full of similar cases. And in the past, say in the Middle East, 2,000 years ago, before so many important advancements in science and before so many mysteries had been explained, people's propensity to believe in miracles would have been even stronger. For them, the possibility that some supernatural forces were at work in the world causing things to happen that couldn't be explained otherwise would be common sense. Even more of the people around them would have believed in such events. There were no scientists with alternative natural explanations. People they knew and trusted believed in supernatural interventions and influences in the world. Their culture, their books, their stories, their conversations, their lives would have contained thousands of references that would have made the reality of God's hand acting in the world as obvious to them as the existence of radio waves are to you. For them, gossip, hearsay, and anecdotal evidence, as well as superstitions, mysteries, and supernatural forces would have been the norm. Their threshold for accepting a miraculous story would have been much lower than ours. For them, that would have been perfectly reasonable.

But now, you know a lot more about the way the world works than they do. And what would have been common sense to them is not for you. In the Middle Ages, they thought it was common sense that demon possession caused the flu, and that children born on Wednesdays will have a life of misery, after all. So now, given that you are surrounded by patently false miracle stories that you do not take seriously at all, and given that people would have been much more prone to believe and promote such stories in the past, how likely is it that miracle stories from 2,000 years ago from a culture that was immersed in superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance are true? Or put another way, you don't think it is reasonable to believe all the obviously over the top miracle claims right in front of you now, so why would you believe some from centuries ago when people didn't have the benefit of the knowledge of the world that you have?


Sandie Myers said...

Thank you. I've been preaching this exact meesage for years. Usually people are offended or actually feel sorry for ME!

Sandie Myers said...

Excuse me , MESSAGE.

Anon97 said...

"Well educated" countries record the occurrence of miracles too. 66 miracles have been verified at Lourdes since the Medical Bureau was established in 1882, by a panel of doctors, atheists and theists. There will never be as many witnesses to miracles as there are to the laws of nature - because miracles are meant to be rare. If your going in as a sceptic, you just want some huge spectacular event, what about the everyday miracles of doctor's saving patients lives and the sun setting and rising each day - ignorance

Anonymous said...

You first give reasons why Christians believe in the miracles of the gospels as valid.

You then talk about thousands of cases of claimed miracles where those reasons do not exist. Well maybe we don't believe them because the reasons to believe are not there.

But there is a more important point. Often when something supernatural is alleged to occur. Say in the Salem witch trials we really have no interest in finding out whether its true or not. At least not for those who haven't already closed their mind to the possibility.

If something supernatural happened in Salem how would it change anything I do? It wouldn't change a thing. So why should I really care whether something supernatural happened there.

On the other hand if we have someone who claims they are from God and that there is a right and a wrong way to live our life and he tells us how to live a good life and then proves his authority through miracles, well that is a different case.

The alleged miracles of Islam, Christianity and other such religions have much more significance. If it is not significant to how we act in life then rational people don't need to investigate whether every claim is true or not. Did I hear a cricket chirp before 10:54 am or after 10:54 am last Tuesday? Is that something we should spend time sorting out?