If nobody believed in superstition it would be unable to hurt anyone
A Study of Miracles
Based on Philosophy of Religion for A Level, Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Throne Ltd, Cheltenham, 2004
Miracles are religiously significant events that involve striking coincidences according to Holland.
Miracles are religiously significant events that break natural law according to Hume.
The first definition does not mention a break in natural law and the second does. If Holland is right, chaos and confusion will result for every religion is able to report striking coincidences that it says show its particular kind of faith is true. Jains will report them in support of their religion that does not believe in God. Christians will report them in support of their religion that does.
A miracle you see yourself comes before any miracle that is reported by another. If you try a black mass to kill somebody and the person dies the following week, it will follow that you are justified in saying a miracle has happened to prove you have black magic powers. That will override any evidence you are given that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and has power over the universe not you. The definition is not helpful at all!
It can only lead to the assumption that any faith besides yours that claims these striking coincidences happen is lying. Also, for a Catholic the miracle of Jesus rising from the dead is not a striking coincidence. No word can be used for it except magic.
And the coincidence of a person rising from their deathbeds days after touching a mitten that had belonged to St Padre Pio might be just that - a natural coincidence!
If coincidences happen too often they are not coincidences any more. For example, if a prophet predicts a bolt of lightning will hit a certain tree and it happens that is a remarkable coincidence. A statistician will determine mathematically what a great marvel it is. But if it keeps happening every day it won't be a marvel anymore.
Miracles are not signs from God if they are striking coincidences and not exceptions to or breaches of natural law. That is because they are not something only God can do. Satan or some other kind of spirit could be able to do miracles quite easily if they are just striking coincidences.
Suppose fifty people go to an apparition site and they see an apparition of Mary. Perhaps it is a striking coincidence that they thought they saw her though they didn't. The striking coincidence idea implies that miracles are really religiously useless. We would be believing what people say they think God did and not in what God did. We would be making Gods of their opinions or hopes. To make a God of what somebody says about God is to retreat from God not to go to him. We are forging a relationship with a false God not the real thing. That is the whole point of religion condemning idolatry.
Suppose somebody was cured of cancer. How do you know that the striking coincidence was not just the doctors making a mistake about this person meaning he never had cancer in the first place? The events that people say are evidence of a supernatural being making exceptions to natures normal ways or flouting them would have to be thought to be tricks done by the power that makes striking coincidences. In other words, there would be no evidence for genuine miracles at all for a striking coincidence is not much of a miracle!
The striking coincidence theory of miracle just doesn't work. It does nothing to make any religion more believable.
If miracles break natural law, then God is setting up laws and changing his mind about them meaning he is not much of a God. This would imply that miracles prove that there is no God worth worshipping if they prove anything. No God could be that stupid so the idea that the miracles are really lies or based on mistakes is better.
Is the idea that a miracle is not an event that breaks natural law but an event that is just an exception to natural law better? The problem is that if dead men stay dead and Jesus rises we can only guess if its a violation of nature or an exception. Also, we see that dead men stay dead. We need to have expectations of what nature is going to do in order to be able to live in the world. Jesus rising would be a violation of what we normally would expect to happen. A violation of what we normally expect is as bad as a violation of natural law as far as we are concerned.
No matter what definition we have, we see that belief in miracles, whether they are real or not, is undesirable and at least potentially harmful.
Looking at all three definitions, a miracle would have to be very uncommon and rare to be a sign from God. Miracles are like marriages, get married too often and soon it means nothing and nobody takes it seriously. Any case where lots of apparitions from Heaven are reported and/or lots of miraculous healings would have to be suspect.
Religion has produced what seems to be strong evidence for miracles that are philosophically impossible. This would advise us to disbelieve in every miracle claim even if the evidence is very good. Believers might say that that we are tarring all miracles with the same brush and that is unfair for some of the miracles might be real. We are not if we mean to say that the miracles may have happened or may not have happened but we see no reason to believe and cannot be expected to believe. And we can't be expected. If miracle claims imply that we are then they are asking us to violate our logic and self-respect.
If good evidence exists for the reality of miracles that can't have happened we are entitled to pay no attention to the evidence for miracles in general or for other miracles. We are entitled to pay no attention to what a person says if we have caught them out in a few lies. Same principle.
Let us take an example. In a few cases, there is strong evidence that spiritualist mediums were able to issue ectoplasm from their bodies to make the spirits appear in bodily form temporarily. This contradicts the Bible where only God can raise the dead. Then you have strong evidence that God spoke through the Virgin Mary's apparitions at Garabandal to say the Bible and Catholic faith was true. Its contradiction all the time.
To say, for example, that a cancer vanished by magic is to make a very serious claim and so the scales should weigh in favour of it not having happened because it is one of the biggest claims that can ever be made because it is so outrageous. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. This is not being biased but it is being fair.
Are miracles immoral?
Maurice Wiles held that miracles are immoral for they present one person as being miraculously cured by God's intervention while God refuses to help others. He is right for three reasons.
We should look at religion and spirituality using the measuring stick of "Is this good for people in the best possible way?" Thus nobody should say, "God has his own reasons for helping one and not another and that is that." That is about concern for religious belief not people. So we have the first reason.
The second reason is that a miracle even when it does good is basically bad as we have seen meaning that if God does bad to cure a person he should do bad to cure all.
Miracles are supposed to be signs from God. But first and foremost they are marvels. Secondly they may point us toward a faith that is good for us and helps us live good lives. But the fact remains they are more about showing off than anything else. It is hardly flattering to God to say he is doing them! Why should the cured person be grateful to a God who helped him primarily because he wanted to show off? If we are impressed, then we don't think much of the cured person.
You might think a miracle is an act of love and God's intention is not for it to be a sign. This is nonsense for God will not need to do miracles to help people. He can just use nature to help them. A decent God will not care at all about the sign element. Miracles then in a way refute the love of God though they try to make him look loving. Miracles are incoherent. You can assume they neither show the love of God or refute it. If a miracle has no meaning, then surely a God who helps one person with a miracle and who refuses to help another who needs more help is immoral?
The third reason is that believers have to make excuses for why God lets terrible things happen and miraculously gives a bicycle to a child If miracles do not happen, there will still be claims that they do happen occasionally and examples will be presented. When people want to see cancer cured all over the world by a miracle or if they demand a miracle they can see for themselves they will be told, "It may not happen for God has his own reasons for helping some and not helping others with a miracle." That is just an excuse - a rationalisation for it is exactly what would be said if all miracle tales are based on errors or lies.
People may respond that God cannot act in a certain way just because it looks rational to us. But if he wants miracles to be signs he has to. He cannot expose us to the danger of being taken in by fake miracles and magic workers. The way the God of the miracle believers, behaves looks too arbitrary for it to be merely a case where God is being rational but we cannot understand how. It is true God will have his own reasons that we cannot fully learn, but that does not justify believing in miracles for they look too random.
When God does not help at natural disasters and is capable of doing miracles then he is not a great or rational God. Christians will reply that God did help - many escaped and many helped one another. It was God that strengthened and enabled them. Again, this is a rationalisation or an excuse. If the disasters disprove God, then we are doing wrong by making excuses. It is like excusing a father for raping his daughter. The excuse is bad just because it is wrong.
Is the evidence for a miracle ever sufficient?
Hume and many philosophers have insisted that because a miracle is so rare it is always more likely that a miracle testimony is wrong than that it is right.
They have also said that because we see natural law working time and time again such as men dying and staying dead it is unlikely that a report saying a man has risen is correct.
They have said that the evidence that dead men stay dead is so strong that the evidence for a dead man coming back to life would have to outweigh this evidence in quality and/or quantity.
These thoughts can apply whether you think a miracle is a violation of nature or an exception to natural law. Exceptions need to be very rare.
So Hume and the philosophers have shown that miracles are very implausible as they would have to be very very rare. Despite their obviously being correct, religionists ignore this and still go about saying they are wrong.
To answer the complaint that miracle testimony is not believable or is very hard to believe, religionists say that our belief in natural law is based on the same kind of testimonies as miracles is based on. That is exactly the point. It is because belief in natural law and belief in miracle is based on testimony of the senses and of people that we need to decide what testimony to accept and what to reject. It is because we believe that water can freeze that we should find it hard to believe a claim that there is pure water that can't freeze even if its put at the north pole.
Religionists are pretending that the evidence for saying such and such is what nature does is as good as the evidence for saying that a miracle - or exception to what nature normally does - has happened. We sometimes treat what we take as normal and what we take as unusual as equally verifiable as if the amount and quality of evidence for one should be the same as the amount and quality of evidence for the other. But we shouldn't. We need more evidence that X can score 10 goals in normal soccer match than we do that he can score a few or zero. The more unusual the claim the more evidence we need or the better the evidence we need. We need vastly more evidence for a miracle than for a murder which is a natural but uncommon event.
The believers in miracles are arguing that those who hold that "miracles don't happen because nature doesn't change" are depending on the same evidence and testimony as those who hold that they do. This argument fails. Its failure proves that we are right to reject belief in miracles. We have refuted the only answer they can give.
They say that miracles are only exceptions to natural law so the evidence for them does not have to outweigh the evidence for natural law. We have just refuted this. To say that we accept that natural law exists because of the evidence and to say we do the same for miracles is to imply that you don't need more evidence for miracles than for natural law. Its another way of stating what we have refuted.
But let us go on. Religion says that to say that as miracles are exceptions, belief in the general normal way nature works does not have to exclude the idea that an exception or miracle may happen. Religion says that to say you need more evidence for a miracle than for a natural event is assuming mistakenly that nature and the exception are mutually exclusive. Religion says that it was natural law that man couldn't walk on the moon. Man walking on the moon in recent times is an exception. They say that if we are going to reject exceptions to the general rule or to what has been the rule up to now we won't be able to believe in any new scientific developments. They say if we deny that miracles happen because we want to believe natural law never changes that is what we are agreeing to do. We are refusing to believe in any changes or exceptions to the common and normal ways of nature.
Are they right?
There is a world of difference between science putting a man on the moon and on Jesus raising a man from the dead! Putting a man on the moon involves using the way nature works to do it. A miracle does not use the way nature works. We can believe miracles don't happen and still believe that the way nature works now can be changed. But we change nature not by finding exceptions to its laws but by discovering new laws. Putting a man on the moon was not making an exception to natural law.
Unknown laws of nature doing things you wouldn't normally expect of nature is not an exception to nature. They know that fine well.
Their claim that a miracle is possible for it is an exception even if it is correct still does not allow us to believe in miracles.
There is no reason for us to believe that exceptions to nature happen. Is it not better to surmise that so-called exceptions are really not exceptions but simply different laws of nature at work? It is easier for it to be unknown laws of nature than for it to be an exception. Assume no more than what you need to assume. They assume too much.
They guess that a miracle is an exception not a violation. If its a violation the evidence however good will never be good enough. And if it is an exception that is rare enough the evidence will nearly be never good enough either. And it if it neither an exception or a violation it is simply not a miracle but the product of unknown natural laws.
We conclude then that the objections of Hume and Co to miracles being believable are valid and correct. Religion resorts to lying and stupidity to avoid them. Religionists know fine well that the criticisms they make of them do not work for they have been answered billions of times by philosophers in the past.
Cumulative Argument for Miracles
Sometimes a piece of evidence on its own is weak. But suppose other pieces of evidence appear that are similarly weak. Each item is not worth much but together they form sufficient reason to believe something. The evidence can accumulate in favour of a certain conclusion.
Some such as Swinburne say that miracles are like that. They make a cumulative case for miracles.
But is there such a thing?
Suppose there is cumulative evidence that Jesus came to life after being dead a week.
But what if you are starting with the conclusion and then looking for the evidence? That means your assessment of what is evidence and what it points to or may point to is unfair. We tend to assess evidence so that we see it as pointing to what we wish to believe. This is the problem of confirmation bias.
Cumulative evidence leads different people to different conclusions. And some people will work out that the evidence does not point to one conclusion but to a number.
You cannot put somebody in jail over cumulative evidence for it is too open to interpretation. The resurrection of Jesus is too big of a claim to be justified as believable on the basis of cumulative evidence.
And if the accumulative evidence might indicate that Jesus rose, the problem is that it might indicate other things too. If you think aliens raised Jesus you will accept the evidence. If you think the evidence is that something happened to make it look like Jesus rose you will accept the evidence. If you think it was a satanic hoax or down to some rare psychic phenomena and not down to God you will accept the evidence. If you think the evidence only points to a man who may or may not have been Jesus claiming to be the resurrected Jesus you will accept the evidence.
Cumulative evidence can point to a conclusion that is in fact wrong.
Cumulative evidence can contain snippets of evidence that should not be in the mix at all. People who agree there is cumulative evidence for x will not agree that everything presented as evidence really is evidence. There will be items that are considered to be possible evidence but which could equally possibly be non-related.
Cumulative evidence is always open to revision. As more evidence comes to light, the conclusion will have to be updated or changed or discarded.
Some or much of the cumulative evidence will consist of human testimony. The problem becomes then a question of what testimony you are going to accept as correct.
The Roman Catholic does not consider cumulative evidence for a miracle by itself. He slots it into the Catholic worldview and its philosophical assumptions. He tries to connect the things he says he knows from his faith to the evidence. He says there are other ways to know what is believable - its not just all about evidence. The evidence then is not examined by itself but shoved into a context. With that approach, any religion can claim miracles and argue that there is a cumulative case for these miracles and their having showed the religion to be true or believable.
The New Testament and religions like Catholicism make it a duty to believe in miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Suppose there is only cumulative evidence for the resurrection. Then it is simply bullying to insist that it is a duty to believe. Cumulative evidence is not good enough, its too hazy, thus it is not a basis for inventing and creating a duty.
The argument that cumulative evidence is good enough to justify believing that Jesus rose is nonsense. We would be gullible idiots if we believed in magic or miracle that easily.
If cumulative evidence points to the magical or the impossible then something is badly wrong.
Religion says we should not assume miracles are nonsense. It says we should assume they can happen. In fact, we should not assume they may happen unless sufficient evidence says they may. That is the only fair and unbiased approach. But in practice it is not possible. You have to assume miracles happen before you can take the evidence as pointing to them. So you end up in a vicious circle. Religion will say that you have to assume they do not happen before you can say the evidence for a miracle does not point to a miracle. They point out that the critic has a vicious circle too.
If there are two vicious circles then which one must we accept? The one that denies that evidence for miracles really is for miracles. Better to guess that miracles never happen than to guess they do for then you open the door for guessing all kinds of insane things such as that the pope is actually a resurrected Pol Pot in disguise.
Different religions report miracles
Hindus report miracles that seem to show that God is doing them as signs of approval of their doctrines. Catholics report miracles that seem to show that God is doing them as signs of approval of their doctrines. Protestants report miracles that seem to show that God is doing them as signs of approval of their doctrines. So the miracle accounts from different religions cancel each other out.
Some ecumenically minded religionists reply that the miracles may still be real and that the religions may be wrong in claiming them as signs of their own specific doctrines. They think God can do a miracle to comfort and encourage belief in God among Hindus and Catholics and Protestants while caring little for the other doctrines of these faiths.
Then how can the miracles really be from him when he knows people will use them to back up their religions? He doesn't need to do miracles to bring them to himself.
Others say that the miracles of other religions do not cancel out the miracles of their religion because their religion has the real miracles while the others are just hoaxes or mistakes have been made.
This is simply a bigoted lie pure and simple for there have been miracles such as those involving Daniel Dunglas Home the spiritual medium that are more convincing than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At least we know who the witnesses were and the written evidence is better.
Religion says that a cup of tea turning into cranberry juice would not be a miracle for it has no religious importance. There are testimonies that such events occur. Religion ignores these. Yet it says its miracles should be believed in because there is solid testimony. This is inconsistent and hypocritical. If silly and random miracles happen it could be that the miracles of religion are random too for it must be some random power that is doing the non-religious and the religious miracles. In that case, religion could not use miracles as evidence for its doctrines being true.
If you take miracles as signs that your religion is true, you do so because of your prior beliefs. If you take a miracle as confirmation of the existence of God, it is because you have already taken for granted that there is a God. If you assume a miracle is just a strange thing you see it merely as a strange thing and it has no religious significance for you. Clearly miracles encourage and feed upon the fallacy of confirmation bias. They are useless as objective evidences for religious truth. Those who endorse them are endorsing an unfair bias.
It is biased but less biased to see them merely as anomalies than to see them as signs from God. Do not give in and copy the bigotry of those who wish to put that bias in you. A bias is never simply against an idea but against those who adopt the idea. It is personal.
When something invites you to argue, "I cannot know what it is like for the world to suffer. Ever. Yet I will see this suffering as agreeable with the love and omnipotence of God", that something needs to provide outstanding evidence. Otherwise you are no better than an insensitive person who condones the evil done by a tyrant. Miracles are an insulting effort at evidence but they are not evidence. If higher powers are doing them then they are not laudable powers.
The philosophical proof that miracles should be discarded as superstition and harmful is unassailable.
Further Reading ~
A Christian Faith for Today, W Montgomery Watt, Routledge, London, 2002
Answers to Tough Questions, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Scripture Press, Bucks, 1980
Apparitions, Healings and Weeping Madonnas, Lisa J Schwebel, Paulist Press, New York, 2004
A Summary of Christian Doctrine, Louis Berkhof, The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1971
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
Philosophy of Religion for A Level, Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Throne Ltd, Cheltenham, 2004
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 Case for Faith, Lee Strobel, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000
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