Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 4: Miracles

You can find part 1 here.

As I said in the first post, my friend UnkleE gave me a series of questions recently that he believes present difficult problems for an atheist’s worldview. I had forgotten, but we’ve actually had similar discussions before, and you can find them here, here, and here (thanks for the reminder, Howie).

Now that the introduction’s out of the way, UnkleE’s fourth question was this:

How can you say miracles don’t happen when there are so many millions of reports?

First, I’d like to make a clarification: I’m not necessarily saying “miracles don’t happen.” I’m just not convinced that they do. It may be a minor point, and perhaps it seems silly to split hairs like that, but I’m not sure how I could demonstrate that miracles DO NOT happen. On the other hand, I’m happy to explain why I’m not convinced by the claims. And by “miracle,” I mean an event that violates the laws of nature.

One of the interesting things about this is that I didn’t believe in modern-day miracles even when I was a Christian. When you read the Bible, it’s filled with amazing, supernatural events: God’s voice speaking from a burning bush, a talking donkey, water coming out of rocks, the parting of the Red Sea, city walls falling at a trumpet’s blast, fire shooting down from heaven and consuming a sacrifice, the earth swallowing people whole on command, killer trees, the lame walking, the blind seeing, replacing a severed ear, the dead coming back to life, walking on water, storms ceasing at a word. There’s no ambivalence in these events. How many miracle claims today come close to that?

Even as a Christian, it seemed clear to me that “the age of miracles” had passed. I believed that the New Testament hinted that these kinds of powers ended once the apostles died out. I think trying to explain the thinking behind that would take us off track, but if you’re interested, here are two articles that go into it — and remember, these are written by Christians:
Modern Miracles — True or False?
Have Miracles Ceased?

There’s another part of UnkleE’s question that I want to quibble with. While he’s right that there have been millions of reports, I think he’d acknowledge that many of those, probably most, don’t include the kinds of evidence necessary to be convincing. In fact, he’s acknowledged on his own site that it would be unwise to uncritically accept all miracle claims. And he has several posts that list certain miracles that he finds promising, like this one.

But to me, these just aren’t very compelling. Again, none of them reach the level of the miracle claims in the Bible. And we can still ask the question “why won’t God heal amputees?

Even if we consider some of the claims of those being miraculously healed where there’s medical documentation, is it more likely that a miracle occurred or that people colluded on the story? Or perhaps they’re misremembering the details?

Also, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have innate skepticism concerning events that would break the laws of nature as we currently understand them. The evidence to convince us that a miracle actually occurred should be incredibly strong. And is it something we should accept merely on testimony? Thomas Paine famously pointed out that divine revelation stops being such as soon as it’s reported to someone else. At that point, it’s really just hearsay. In other words, while it might be rational to accept divine revelation if you’re the one receiving it straight from the deity, it’s not rational to accept it just on someone else’s testimony. I feel much the same about miracles. I just don’t see enough evidence to accept them from others’ testimonies, and I’ve never experienced anything like them myself. So how could I possibly justify belief in them?

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18 thoughts on “Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 4: Miracles”

  1. Then there is the impossible position of the claimants. Their god is a perfect being who is all-knowing. He would know ahead of time who would pray and who would not and who would ask for what. So, he would then go through the charade of letting something happen and then go back and change it back? Why would he do such a thing. Wouldn’t his plan be perfect at the start and any change to it would make it less than perfect.

    And as to the many claims of miracles, people claim someone getting well from a disease is a miracle but that happens every day. If he thinks there are so many miracles, let me see a list of them, what happened, why each is a miracle and who investigate it so that fraud was eliminated. (Christian relics have been proven fraudulent so many times that fraud is a given and not a low probability one.

    The whole thing is ludicrous. I have no qualms in saying that such miracles do not happen and if something happens that looks like a miracle, that there would be honest natural reasons for what happened. To invoke a chain of reasoning involving so many unknown powers is beyond belief.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Nate,

    I think the question places too much emphasis on giving divine claimants the benefit of the doubt when it comes to divine agency in miracles. If one was being completely fair, one could just as easily emphasize that alleged miracles only have natural consequences, even when ignorant of the specifics. It would be like asking religious folks, “How can you believe in miracles when there’s no single proven miracle ever?”

    Like Steve above, I have no problem saying miracles do not happen. This isn’t because I just want to gainsay religious people. Rather, it’s because the increase in human knowledge for the past several centuries has refuted many phenomena which used to be in the realm of the divine. Based on those facts, I think it’s safer to conclude that a natural explanation is more likely than a divine one.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey Sirius, thanks for the comment! I think you make a really good point. One of the things I ran across while writing this post was the “law of truly large numbers,” and Wikipedia has this to say about it:

    Statistically “impossible” events are often called miracles. For instance, when three classmates accidentally meet in a different country decades after having left school, they may consider this as “miraculous”. However, a colossal number of events happen every moment on earth; thus extremely unlikely coincidences also happen every moment. Events that are considered “impossible” are therefore not impossible at all — they are just increasingly rare and dependent on the number of individual events.
    Wiki

    We don’t always know why someone with a disease or malady suddenly gets better, but it would be impossible for us to completely rule out natural causes since we don’t have exhaustive knowledge of the natural world. But since all the explanations for events that we’ve uncovered to this point have all been natural, it would be irrational to suppose a supernatural explanation for anything without extreme amounts of evidence.

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  4. If we give a nod to unklee and his Christian miracle claims, does unklee give any credibility to the miracle claims of Sathya Sai Baba? Many of which were apparently witnessed!

    The regeneration of limbs is the litmus test, and for this reason I am disinclined to give any credence to miracle claims much as I am to the nonsense of claims about the wonders of intercessory prayer.

    Spontaneous recovery happens more than we are probably aware.

    If Liverpool win the Premier League this year then I’ll know there’s a god .. who, like me, probably hates Manchester United.
    Nor THAT would be a bona fide contender for a miracle.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that even if we could ever demonstrate that an actual miracle took place, would we be able to determine how or why? Would we know that a deity performed it, much less which one?

    This is the issue I have with first-cause kinds of claims, too. The evidence is very general in nature, but it’s almost always offered by someone who has a very specific god in mind. I understand why some people are deists (or pantheists, etc), but getting from those kinds of general beliefs down to specific god claims is where people tend not to “show their work.”

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  6. That’s a good question. I’m not sure of the answer… obviously there are miracle claims from virtually every religion out there. But among the non-religious? Interesting…

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  7. Nate, after listing the various and sundry bible “miracles,” you asked, How many miracle claims today come close to that?

    To me, that’s a very good question. The so-called “miracles” attested to in modern times are generally “personal” miracles … and the only “proof” is someone’s say-so (which validates Paine’s observation). Why do we no longer witness the truly amazing events reported in the bible?

    Jesus supposedly replaced an ear. If he is the same yesterday, today and forever … why doesn’t he replace a leg or an arm today? And why doesn’t he make deformed babies whole? In fact, why are they born this way to start with? But that’s a whole different topic …

    Liked by 1 person

  8. To answer the question of how we could tell if a miracle occurs, the ideal scenario would be that a deity would tell everyone in an unmistakable manner. If a deity could heal sickness or perform other amazing feats, it stands to reason that this deity could also sign its work. At the very least, it ought to answer when asked in an unmistakable way.

    Absent this, there would always be speculation as to the source of a supernatural cause (if we could find one).

    Liked by 2 people

  9. When I was a Christian I saw ‘miracles’ occur. At least I thought they were miracles at the time. A friend of mine was cured of various ailments after a ‘powerful’ prayer session and for the next week it really seemed he had been cured…but over a period of time the symptoms returned until eventually he was worse than ever.

    In retrospect it was literally all in his mind, for some ailments psychological factors can provide temporary relief, as distinct from an actual cure. So there was no miracle despite us believing to have seen one before our eyes. But the real kicker is that I let numerous people know about the ‘powerful move of God’ that we had all witnessed in my initial enthusiasm. To my shame I neglected to correct the record when it transpired over the next few weeks that no miracle had actually transpired.

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  10. Nothing to be ashamed of, Peter. No “good Christian” wants to admit that maybe, just maybe, God didn’t really heal. That would be going against all the indoctrination!

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  11. Some people say that where there is smoke, there must be a fire. But I have often found that it is just somebody blowing smoke.

    I have had people encourage me to look at specific miracle claims. In every case, the miracle claims either fell apart upon examination or were un-examinable. Craig Keener’s book on miracles comes to mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. While I tend to agree with the general objections that have been raised, it’s clear from Eric’s post that he is primarily concerned with how skeptics respond to the most well attested cases. I think it would be more interesting if there was a review of a case of Eric’s choosing which he believes to be particularly difficult for the skeptic.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. @ Travis

    I think it would be more interesting if there was a review of a case of Eric’s choosing which he believes to be particularly difficult for the skeptic.

    And it also might snow down here in Jo’burg over xmas. I mean, come on Travis, you never know?

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  14. I stopped experiencing “miracles” and “divine revelation” the day i stopped attributing supernatural causes for rather physical events. The thing was when i was a christian, my mind was tuned to trying to see God in everything around me. I was always quick to say it was Jesus who did this or did that, I never bothered about checking for the authenticity of the miracle claim, i just always took the person’s claim for it. This is because if you believe in miracles you would always see miracles

    Most of these miracle claims only prove the existence of the God(s) who ever experienced them already believed in or at least was aware off. Many of the “healing miracles” that have occurred in my locality are just forms of the placebo effect. In 2016, my mom’s friend husband has been sick with diabetes and had some kidney problems( which required him to undergo dialysis twice every week ) for some years now. He woke up one morning (i’m using this rhetorically ) and said that he heard that if a certain “man of God” in another part of my country prayed for him he would be well, He traveled and meet the man of God who prayed for him, when he came back he was healed( at least he thought he was healed ) he stopped his medications, treatment and he was in fact better when he came back ( His case was taken as a miracle in the “man of God” church ). But guess what he died not up to 2 weeks after he came back, but his so called healing is still considered a miracle still this day, his miraculous healing was made public knowledge but his not so miraculous death was made top secret.

    What made me start to question miracles was the day one of my asthmatic classmate had an attacked and i experienced how everything transpired. Just for me to go to church on sunday and her survival was considered a work of the almighty ( they disregarded what the work the paramedics did ) and most importantly was the fabricated, cooked up story of the events that transpired.

    Now we have seen Dynamo, Criss Angel walk on water, David Blaine resurrecting a fly, levitating. We don’t consider this miracles but we consider similar accounts in the bible. Now you may say that how many of this magicians tricks we performed has been exposed. You would be right, but how were this exposed we had the benefit of video footage were we could watch this over and over again, in slow motion to see how the were performed. But now many of the biblical and religious miracle claims are what written in paper by people who believe in them

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