The twelve basic arguments for god #2: Argument from Miracles

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Often this amounts to “Jesus rose from the dead and God’s existence is the best explanation of that fact,” but sometimes they use other miracles (faith healing, for example).  People citing miracles as evidence can also fall back on fulfilled prophecy in the bible, at which point it becomes an argument from holy scripture.

Miracles that aren’t very miraculous

These are miracles that, while improbable on a small scale, are bound to happen on a large scale, or things for which natural explanations exist.  They include things like visions/hallucinations, mundane answered prayers, and Jesus’ face appearing on a piece of lint.  The first thing to say about them is that since they appear identical to things with natural explanations, we must ask how the person advancing them as miracles knows that it was the hand of god and not just nature doing its thing.

A recent example of a very mundane “miracle” would be some local bad weather recently.  The place where I live was just hit by a snowstorm for which the weather forecasters were predicting ice would start in around 10pm, accumulate dangerously, and then from midnight until 5pm the following day we would accumulate 8 to 10 inches of snow on top of it.  This was to occur on a Thursday night, so you can bet there were plenty of people praying for milder weather so driving conditions on the weekend would be safer.  And as fate would have it, there was a tiny hole in the middle of the front that drifted right over us.  There was no ice, and snow didn’t start until that morning.  We only got about two inches.  Since I’m a bitter atheist and wanted a snow day from school, I know I blamed god.

I’m sure many of those praying considered it proof that a god heard their prayers and answered them (while simultaneously ignoring similar prayers of people North and South of us which got hammered with dangerous weather, or from all the religious students who wanted a snow day and were no doubt praying for a regular blizzard).  It should be plainly obvious, however, that a more likely explanation for this occurrence would be that the weathermen simply goofed or that the hole in the snowstorm had to hit somewhere.

Many “miracles” are presented by believers as anything that beats the odds.  Because most of us live long lives with lots of things happening during that time, some things with lows odds of occurring are bound to happen.  This should seem mundane, but many people interpret it as god answering prayers.  But does the corollary hold true?  Had the snowstorm done what it was supposed to have done (as it did in other states, as well as most of the rest of Missouri), would that suggest to the prayerful that god didn’t exist at all?

Often when people use prayer for ordinary things as evidence that a miracle has occurred, they are falling victim to the lottery fallacy.  If only one person bought a lottery ticket at three million to one odds and won, it would seem fishy.  However, if three million people buy tickets, we should expect someone to win every time.  This is why pointing out that something rare happened doesn’t do us much good for establishing a miracle.  If you pray for something to beat the odds often enough, you will occasionally be pleasantly surprised.

These types of miracle claims often include a non-sequitor of some sort as well.  I was once in a debate with a person who claimed a friend of his had a 99.9% chance of surviving a car wreck, and cited prayer for his friend’s well being and as the reason the friend survived (one would think the doctors should get some of the credit).  I pointed out that in this country, just under 61,000 people die from car crashes every year.  Even if I were to grant the 1 in 1000 chance of living (which I didn’t, that number was just pulled out of thin air…you’ll encounter this a lot with miracle claims), that means 61 people every year would survive at those odds.  This does not equal divine providence.

The non-sequitor in this case is that prayer had anything to do with it.  Sure, he prayed, and if his story is true then his friend did, in fact, recover.  If correlation always equaled causation, that would be the end of it.  But as anybody who has paid attention during any intro science class knows, that is not the case.  What if I told you that aside from praying at the hospital, this person also wore an orange t-shirt, had pancakes for breakfast, and had $21 in his wallet?  Perhaps there was another atheistic friend sitting there just wishing and hoping the victim would recover.  Why was prayer more responsible than any of those other variables?  Just because a variable is present doesn’t mean it had an effect on anything.  One might say that they’ve seen people in orange shirts in hospital rooms before, but that the patient still died.  Surely you don’t believe that every victim of an accident (or even most of them) who is prayed for lives, do you?

Even if I conceded that I had no clue whatsoever how somebody could survive such an accident, that does not mean that someone else does.  “I don’t know” is a wonderfully honest phrase – much better than making up answers.

So, the steps I’d recommend when dealing with non-miraculous miracles are:

1.  Check for competing and conflicting attempts for miracle confirmation.  They can’t both be true.
2.  Check for the lottery fallacy.
3.  Look for non-sequitors.
4.  Argument from Ignorance?

Miraculous miracles

These would be things for which no natural explanation sufficed, such as Jesus rising from the dead or somebody being underwater for two hours and somehow not dying.

The problem with such claims is that they are never recorded (and when they are, they’re somewhat underwhelming…this is Sathya Sai Baba, who has millions of followers attesting to his, ahem, ‘miracles’).  These miracles are almost always closed off to all but a handful of people who already believed.  This creates a problem all by itself.  If god is giving some people irrefutable proof of his existence and not others, that’s not fair.  The common tactic here is to say that such miracles are probably happening around the non-believer all the time but the non-believer is just being close-minded.  That’s just an ad hominem.  As far as we know, our minds are open, we just want to employ check against gullibility.  So what gives with god giving some people undeniable proof but not others (like me)?

Take the miracle of Jesus rising from the dead.  If this really occurred (I don’t believe it did), then there is an evidence-based reason to believe in his doctrines for all those who witnessed it (barring any reasonable examinations to make sure they weren’t being duped).  Likewise, for those who supposedly witnessed Muhammad ascending to heaven aback a winged horse (in the Hadith), they have solid reasoning to believe in the doctrine of Islam.  Unfortunately, none of us nowadays have seen such things.  Does god just love us less?  There is no extra biblical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, and we’d be fools to believe such an impossible event took place without some kind of substantial evidence.  We have none.

Furthermore, how much sense would it make for god to say to a handful of people, “Here’s irrefutable evidence of my existence, which I’m not going to give to anybody else.  Now I’m going to need you to go out and tell people you’ve seen a miracle and that they should listen to what you say” (if god really wanted a relationship with me, it seems he could do better)?  How do we know those people are not just embellishing?  Even the bible talks of how gullible and eager to accept ‘miracles’ some people were.  In Acts 28:6, Paul survives a snake bite and the people are practically tripping over themselves to label him a god.

When people claim such miracles happened but only a handful of people saw them, they are denying you the chance to investigate as anybody would do if they didn’t want to get scammed.  After all, countless miracle claims have been disproven upon investigation – is asking you to accept one at face value really fair?  How are you to know these people aren’t lying, as has been the case many, many times with such claims?

It was Carl Sagan who first said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  It’s easy to understand why this is the case.  Consider the following propositions:

1. I own a football.
2. I own a tank.
3. I own a teleportation pad.

Not only are these statements (or beliefs, if you really subscribed to them) progressively unlikely to be true, but in order for any sane person to accept them as true requires increasingly more evidence. If admonished with the first one, it is easy to accept it as true because lots of people own footballs. However, once you get to the last one, you would need an inordinate amount of evidence to confirm that I own a teleportation pad, as no such devices are known to exist.

Consider this same idea when applied to men being born of virgins and rising from the dead to fly into the clouds.  That is where a healthy bit of skepticism comes into play, and this is a check against being taken advantage of that we employ everywhere else in our lives.

There are many types of evidence you could have for a claim.  Video evidence, corroborating scholars, post-event evidence (like a meteorological impact), etc.  Eye-witness testimony is literally the worst evidence you can have as it is highly unreliable.  In the United States alone, there have been over 250 exonerations of people convicted on eye-witness testimony by DNA evidence, with many more being overturned on other evidences.

For extraordinary claims, we should demand more.  So when people claim to have witnessed a miracle, we should rightly wonder why their evidence for that miracle is so shoddy.

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  • Listentobothsides

    You raise some interesting points. I am not in disagreement with the general idea of attributing your prayers to likely events. Unfortunately, yourlast claims I tend to stray from. While it is understandable why you would want extraordinary evidence, this does not mean it is possibly available. While I agree that some people in private scenarios can embellish or makeup info, this doesnt msan a person could not find themselves in these scenarios. Furthermor, I think you miss the idea that can be argued which goes as follows: These “miraculous” events could have happened during a time where we today do not have as much evidence as we would like. Because we do not have the opportunity to see such events, it does not mean that it is illogical to think God revealed auch miracles then. We could ask then, “why would God reveal it to them and make them tell everyone else?” First, the answer could be as simply as it is more of a test of faith when you dont see such events that “make it easy” to believe. But regardless of that mere feeble suggestion, let us not miss the bigger point. If there were a God who could do these miraclea, would it make sense to question the plan of such a being in its distribution? Such questioning purports that rhis being is or could be wrong. Excuse the typos im on a tablet and its a pain to type on it, let alone fix typos.

    Would love to continue the discussion through further responses.

  • Larrybanelli

    I completely agree Listentobothsides. I’m surprised nobody has responded to your comment. Looks like you have them stumped ;) .