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?