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Don’t say “Miracles are impossible” May 3, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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Every so often, I hear a discussion or debate between a believer and a non-believer, and the non-believer will begin going on about how the miracles claimed by religion are physically impossible.  How people can’t walk on water because there isn’t enough surface tension, how people can’t really turn into pillars of salt, how water can’t become wine, how people can’t actually come back from the dead, etc.  Even JT, in what was otherwise a very good debate, recently used this argument.

I feel a need to point out that this is a very weak argument against theism, and that it’s an ineffective tactic for use in a debate.  This is because the believer comes back with “Well DUH!  That’s how god shows his power.  If it was physically possible, then it wouldn’t be much of a miracle, would it?”  Rather like the way a child believes in Santa, even when you point out that he really could not fit down the chimney.  “It’s magic, silly.”  If someone believes in magic, then no amount of pointing out how impossible it all is will change their minds.

Now I do think bringing up miracles can be a useful tactic in a debate or a discussion.  But not in the context of “they’re impossible”.  So here’s my version of a more useful discussion of “miracles”.

First, I think we should define exactly what we mean by a “miracle”.  Some people talk about the victory of a sports team as a miracle, or the spontaneous remission of cancer, or their finding just the parking space they need right when they need it.  These events might be very unlikely, but there is enough of a chance that these things would occur that we would expect them to happen every once in awhile.  When I’m discussing miracles with believers, I want to rule out these unlikely but possible things as miracles.  If we take a group of 100 people who have a cancer that has a 99% fatality rate and have all the members of a church pray for those people and one survives, that’s not a miracle.  That’s the statistically expected result.  That one person might feel like they were granted a personal miracle, but the 99 other dead people certainly weren’t.

When I’m discussing miracles, I want to discuss those claimed events that would be in complete violation of all observed natural law.  Religions certainly have enough of those in their ancient books.  A good example of this would be the story of the sun stopping in the sky during a battle.  In reality, if this happened, that would mean the earth had stopped rotating, and then started up again later.  I have not run the numbers, but I think that the amount of energy that would be required to overcome the earth’s angular momentum, and then to put it back again, would cause catastrophic damage to everything on the surface and maybe melt the earth’s crust.  This is the kind of miracle I would want to discuss, literally impossible things, the sort of event where the statistically expected number of times we should ever expect it to happen on its own is “none”.

Biblegod is described as an all-powerful being who is able to do things that violate the known laws of the universe.  He is protrayed as making specific local violations happen, in order to establish his existence or power, reward the faithful, or punish evildoers.  The OT in particular is full of this sort of miracle. Why don’t they happen any more?

There are several possible answers I commonly hear on this:

1.  They still happen, but we aren’t looking in the right way.

2. They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.

3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™

4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales.

So, my responses to these:

1. ” We aren’t looking in the right way.”  With our  modern advances, we have many more ways of observing the universe than ever before, and also more ways of communicating those results to each other.  If there were genuine supernatual events happening, someone would have measured them by now, written a paper and won a Nobel.  Or at least won the $1,000,000 from the JREF.  But so far, the closer and more accurately we look, the more the miracles are just not showing up.  We study intercessory prayer and discover that it does nothing.   Amputees are never healed.  People who say god talks to them are never given any accurate information that they could not hve gotten another way.   I’ve actually heard believers say things like “Well, if you don’t believe, then you won’t see the miracle.  You have to believe first.”  There’s a name for making up your mind first, then looking for the evidence to back it up afterward: Confirmation Bias.

2. “They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.”  The premise is that god doesn’t need any of that OT stuff anymore because there’s a “new covenant” and now all that’s needed is a personal relationship with Jesus.  No more animal sacrifices, no big showy miracles, bacon is OK now, tattoos are allowed, all of that stuff that was so vital to keep biblegod from smiting you is now not needed anymore (although somehow homosexuality is still bad, go figure).  I have a couple of problems with this.  First, the NT also has miracles.  People had Jesus right in front of them, and they still needed miracles, and even then most of those people did not drop everything to become followers.  Thomas asked for evidence before he could believe, and he got it.  Later the apostles were supposedly also working miracles to demonstrate the truth of their message.  So “not needing miracles” anymore does not fly.

My other problem with this is that biblegod is supposed to be a perfect being.  So, a perfect being who used to show off all the time but now doesn’t?  A perfect being who used to throw temper tantrums if people were wicked, flooding the earth or swallowing them up with an earthquake or a fish, but now he’s apparently had anger management lessons?  Why would a perfect being change?  Why would a perfect being ever need to change the rules?   He used to be all jealous and badass and smitey, and insisted on strange pointless rituals and demanded the smell of barbeque, and now he just wants to live in your heart and help you find your keys?  This makes no sense at all.

3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™.  “God has a plan and we can’t understand it. He’s just so far above us that we couldn’t begin to comprehend him.  We just have to trust.”  This one is a cop-out.  If biblegod is so frikkin mysterious, then how do you claim to understand anything about him at all?  Yet preachers get up and say:  “I know what god wants, he wants you to think a and b and c, never think d or e or f, and you must hate x and y and z because he does.  I assure you that if you believe exactly what I tell you this book says, you’ll be doing exactly what he wants.  He loves guns, he hates gays, he will rain down blessings if you say this particular prayer, and he wants you to give me at least 10% of your money.”  This version of god is not mysterious in the least! If he’s so mysterious you can’t understand him, then he’s mysterious enough that the preachers don’t understand him and the prophets didn’t understand him either.   If you use “Mysterious Ways™” to explain theological problems away, then you need to stop trying to convince people that you understand anything about your god.

4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales.   People tell impressive stories around the campfire, later other people write them down, and then years later other people think all that stuff was supposed to be real.  Yeah. This is the only one of the options that really makes any consistent sense.

Does anybody else have any other explanations they’ve heard from believers for the absense of modern miracles?

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Comments»

1. john zande - May 3, 2013

We see it all the time. Plane crashes, 232 people die, one infant survives, headline invariably reads: “Miracle Baby Survives Horrific Plane Crash!” That just has to be supernatural work. Buried in the article is the somewhat less-than-miraculous fate of the 232 other poor unidentifiable sods whose dental records have suddenly become highly valued documents.

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2. makagutu - May 3, 2013

I don’t have a new reason but I just want to add to the point no 2. To claim they happen no more because of Jesus is to speak against the NT too. It says clearly those who believe will perform such miracles as he performed and even greater and last I checked there was no statute of limitations!

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ubi dubium - May 3, 2013

Yes, my understanding is that believers are supposed to be able to move mountains. I suggest they start with Vesuvius – it’s posing a real danger where it is, and if they could move it about 50 miles out to sea that would be really useful. That’s a miracle that would get our attention!

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3. Gazoo - May 4, 2013

I just say they are stupid and you’d have to be a dumbass to believe them without evidence. Help you out?

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ubi dubium - May 4, 2013

Not really. Yes, that’s often what I’m actually thinking, but my goal is to help THEM think more clearly. Saying that to someone in a discussion will often make them just shut down, which is only rarely the best strategy.

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Alicia - May 17, 2013

I really enjoyed your article. Very insightful. I would like to understand better why these stories came to be and maybe understand the significance they have for us all. In response to the above two comments-I think assuming people who believe in miracles are stupid gets us nowhere. It’s a funny cycle that exits, people who believe trying to convince non-believers and non-believers trying to get believers to see reason. If both sides would listen and try to understand the other we might actually get somewhere and learn something that otherwise we wouldn’t have.

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4. jonnyscaramanga - May 10, 2013

I was always taught that miracles are happening all the time (particularly healing, even of amputees and the dead), but that the media never covers them because anti-god conspiracy/blinded by Satan.

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5. controverseuk - June 11, 2013

“Mysterious Ways™” – Brilliant. You’re absolutely right, atheists tie themselves up in knots by addressing the wrong issue. Similarly I see the argument of: “how can an all loving God exist in a world full of suffering?” as futile. If you accept the premise that an omniscient being exists with an intellect which is incomparable to humans, you must accept that what he’s doing is beyond human understanding or reason.

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