If nobody believed in superstition it would be unable to hurt anyone
MIRACLE – A MEANINGLESS WORD
The main cause of religious fervour in the world and the harm that results is peoples’ fascination with miracles. The sense of wonder they get from them is addictive. This book hopes to do something about that disorder. Miracles can only appeal emotionally to a person who is afraid of a natural universe and who wants to believe in a supernatural power over nature that can protect her or him.
What are miracles? The word means different things.
Often, a miracle is defined as an event which does not fit the way nature usually works and which is attributable only to a supernatural being. Religion would add the clause “intended to stand as evidence for the correct religion”, to the definition. These events are called miracles because they are deemed to be supernatural. Supernatural is something that reason and science cannot and never will understand. Supernatural means that which operates by different laws from nature and is outside nature. It describes what comes from a spiritual, that is, a being without parts or composition, source. What works by physical laws can hardly be called supernatural or a miracle or a sign from God to show that God exists.
The Virgin Mary appearing at Lourdes in 1858 to St Bernadette is an example of a miracle. If this happened then nature as we know it cannot explain it so it is a miracle. A miracle is really an assertion that something magical has happened. Such is the dishonesty of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that they deny that! They condemn magic as evil and demonic and dangerous. But they just call the magic they approve of a miracle! But changing the words is not going to help. If magic is bad and superstitious then the change is merely cosmetic.
IS EVERYTHING A MIRACLE?
The claim that everything is a miracle spreads the definition too thin. It is like saying anything human is religious or spiritual. It is guilty of: "Everything is a sign from God therefore God exists". Why not say, "Everything is a sign that there is no God therefore there is no God"?
WHY MIRACLES ARE A MEANINGLESS CONCEPT
Rationally, it is impossible to say what a miracle is and it makes no sense to talk about them.
There are four given definitions.
1. That miracles are supernatural events and against the law of nature for something goes wrong with nature and God has to intervene miraculously to fix it.
A God that cannot control his creation is not much of a God. Why can't he get the universe and its laws right in the first place?
2. The next definition is that miracles are exceptions to the laws of nature and so are not against them. This definition is the same as that of St Augustine who said that a miracle is God acting contrary to what we think nature is but not really going against nature for he only uses unknown laws or laws many of us are ignorant of (page 20, Miracles in Dispute). So anybody who does not believe in this definition does not believe in miracles and that is that.
3. That miracles are not against nature but just suspend natural law.
This is really just the same as number 2.
It does not help to say that a miracle is a suspension of the laws of nature but not a contravention of them. A suspension of the laws of nature is going against them. Laws are to be kept and maintained not suspended.
Religious arrogance shines all through this laws of nature stuff in the three definitions we have covered. There could be planets and universes in which different laws to ours operate. Perhaps there is a universe in which all the water turns into blood for a few minutes every night. Believers are presuming to know more than they can know. Miracles are not signs when they nurture such self-deception and arrogance for only a dishonest being or force would want that to happen.
4. That miracles are just highly improbable inexplicable events not violations of nature. If something happened that was really really strange and unlikely and cannot be explained then it is a miracle. PJ McGrath says that a miracle is an unusual event that is brought about by someone claiming to be using divine power (page 143, Believing in God). The event must be very strange like somebody coming back from the dead after being dead three days.
And why divine power? Why not just supernatural power?
It is impossible to deny that this definition is just another version of 2 and 3 and is open to all the objections to them. It is also impossible to deny that it refuses to admit that the resurrection claim is a claim about the violation of nature. It does not help to pretend that nature has not been violated. Nor is it honest. Only the unintelligible view that miracles are violations of nature is acceptable to those who wish to believe in miracles. It shows the absurdity of their position.
This definition implies that a prophet should be listened to if he does inexplicable magic tricks as miracles to back up his message as long as he does not admit he is conjuring.
Some theological dictionaries admit that the against nature definition is worthless and settle for miracles being simply very unusual and inexplicable happenings. Anyway inexplicable does not mean the same as supernatural. Most natural events are inexplicable. Lightning used to be inexplicable and it was no a miracle. We cannot explain what the life force is. Many things that were inexplicable in the past have been explained by science and have been shown to be natural. Inexplicable is no good as a definition of a miracle. And to challenge this view is to assert that miracles can be taken as signs of the power of God for inexplicable does not necessarily indicate that the supernatural is at work. The Church knows there are inexplicable events that might be miracles but might also be bizarre natural events and that is why the Church says it has to be extremely cautious and often rejects many reports of miracles on the grounds that the evidence for a supernatural element is insufficient.
Some say that since we don’t know what science will discover in the future and what it will then be able to explain, we cannot describe any miracle using this definition as a true miracle. For example, maybe one day science will explain how communion wafers will bleed and tell us it was no miracle after all. The barmy philosopher, Richard Swinburne a defender of Christian belief, would reply that we don’t have to know what way science will go in the future to know if an event like that is a miracle for we can tell from it that science will never be able to explain it. PJ McGrath agrees with him (page 142, Believing in God). But first, if science will never explain it, that doesn’t mean that there is no scientific explanation. Maybe a ray coming from a distant star will be discovered that gives some people strange abilities albeit for a few seconds. Maybe it gave them the power to warp space so that blood was put in the host.
DOCTRINE THAT A MIRACLE YOU OBSERVE IS NOT A MIRACLE
Some say that if you could detect and observe the supernatural it would cease to be supernatural. It would be natural then. Is that view correct? In other words, the argument is saying if you could be sure that an event was a miracle then it would not be a miracle any more. That would be wrong. It would be like arguing that a cat is not an animal any more when you get to know it as a friend. If the argument were right, it would show that a miracle is by definition that which is supposed and not observed. It would stand then as an argument against those who say that any particular occurrence is a miracle. It would mean that the apostles, if they seen the risen Jesus, were not experiencing a miracle! It would prove that testimony is no basis for a miracle.
It is true however that nobody ever observes a miracle.
If we cannot detect the supernatural then we don’t know what it is or at what point in a miracle event it got involved. If the Virgin Mary appears to you in the fridge, you don’t know if there is something in the fridge or something is planting a perception in your mind or on your corneas that there is. You cannot be sure when something miraculous happens what the miracle was. And if you don't know that, the chance that it is a strange natural event or a lie or error of some kind is increased.
It is only evidence that has the right to define things not speculation thus a miracle cannot be defined.
WHAT THE DEFINITION IMPOSSIBILITY IMPLIES
If God does miracles he implies they can be defined for something that cannot make sense when defined in relation to nature is not worth doing and cannot be a sign.
If God had really intended us to believe in him and his religion and in his Bible he would have defined a miracle but there is no definition in the Bible.
The fact that the Catholic Church has never used its infallibility to solve the dispute about the proper definition of a miracle and the Bible has never done it either is a error fatal to the claims of both to embody the truth from God and to claim a monopoly on discerning his will. To know that God has spoken you need miracles so that you will trust in him and not in what man says he said. But if we can believe that miracles are simply inexplicable, and we can when neither the Church or Bible forbid us and when they leave us open to do that, and therefore possibly natural events you never know. So how can you believe on the strength of God’s revelation that the Church is infallible for there are no miracles from Heaven to seal the revelation as genuine? How can you be sure that the Bible is not just a book of what man thought about God and not the word of God? You just end up guessing and it is blasphemy to guess that. That is putting your wish to believe that person before what God might be really like or what God really is.
The Bible never gives a definition for miracle which it would have needed to do before it could expect us to believe in its miracle tales. Reports of miracles from people who can’t define them don’t mean a thing. The definition is the most important thing. What would be the point of telling people there is a God for example if you don’t give them some idea of what God is? Same principle.
The fallacy that miracles can be used as evidence for religion is interesting for when the definition of miracles is unreasonable they are unreasonable and don’t convey anything acceptable to the rational mind. It is not dogmatism to say miracles should not be believed in for they are unreasonable because all agree that we have to accept reason to live in this world. It would be dogmatism if we were saying miracles should all be disbelieved in and gave no evidence. Dogmatism is wrong and we oppose it. The emotional appeal of miracles coupled with their irrationality urges people to put religious feeling before truth and reason. Hostility to miracle claims is a good thing.
Further Reading ~
Answers to Tough Questions, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Scripture Press, Bucks, 1980
A Summary of Christian Doctrine, Louis Berkhof, The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1971
Believing in God, PJ McGrath, Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 1995
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Veritas, Dublin, 1995
Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988
Enchiridion Symbolorum Et Definitionum, Heinrich Joseph Denzinger, Edited by A Schonmetzer, Barcelona, 1963
Looking for a Miracle, Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, New York, 1993
Miracles, Rev Ronald A Knox, Catholic Truth Society, London, 1937
Miracles in Dispute, Ernst and Marie-Luise Keller, SCM Press Ltd, London, 1969
Lourdes, Antonio Bernardo, A. Doucet Publications, Lourdes, 1987
Medjugorje, David Baldwin, Catholic Truth Society, London, 2002
Miraculous Divine Healing, Connie W Adams, Guardian of Truth Publications, KY, undated
New Catholic Encyclopaedia, The Catholic University of America and the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc, Washington, District of Columbia, 1967
Raised From the Dead, Father Albert J Hebert SM, TAN, Illinois 1986
Science and the Paranormal, Edited by George O Abell and Barry Singer, Junction Books, London, 1981
The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan, Headline, London, 1997
The Book of Miracles, Stuart Gordon, Headline, London, 1996
The Encyclopaedia of Unbelief Volume 1, Gordon Stein, Editor, Prometheus Books, New York, 1985
The Hidden Power, Brian Inglis, Jonathan Cape, London, 1986
The Sceptical Occultist, Terry White, Century, London, 1994
The Stigmata and Modern Science, Rev Charles Carty, TAN, Illinois, 1974
Twenty Questions About Medjugorje, Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D. Pangaeus Press, Dallas, 1999
Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer, Freeman, New York, 1997
The Problem of Competing Claims by Richard Carrier