SCEPTIC.INFO Free your mind - question!
SCEPTIC.INFO Free your mind - question!
Are miracles just religiously significant coincidences, eg a prediction of the future coming true despite the odds being nearly 100% against this?
Many miracle sceptics are guilty of saying marvellous events happen yes but if it is extremely marvellous then it must be a miracle. For them the difference between marvellous and miracle is one of degree.
Yet there will be extremely marvellous things that are definitely not religiously important. And what stuns one into amazement leaves another unimpressed.
Coincidences are often not noticed or soon forgotten and some stand out. If miracles are just coincidences that make an impression then miracles are natural. But if miracles are natural then it follows that we should always assume that there is a natural explanation for them even if we don’t have one yet which means they are not miracles!
A person who is dead for a week and comes back to life is naturally impossible. If it happens, it is thought to be a miracle.
Today, many Christians think that miracles are somehow really natural.
They see coincidences, the more stunning the better, as miracles. They see those coincidences as giving them an inspiring message.
They say that the coincidences are signs when you consider the way they coincide with religious teaching. For example, if people are praying to the Virgin Mary in front of her statue and some unknown natural law makes the statue bleed, this coincidence shows that it is a sign from God. Another example is how Israel was able to cross the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians. Some thinkers feel that rather than a miracle, freak natural events allowed this to happen and it was a remarkable coincidence how this worked so well for the Israelites.
Richard Swinburne would say "Whether one thinks a miracle is really just a pile of coincidences that naturally take place through God's agency or involves supernatural intervention, the main thing if not the only consideration is its spiritual and deep significance" (page 238, Philosophy of Religion for A Level, OCR Edition, Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Thornes Ltd, 1999). If that is true, does it really matter if some human agency is rigging at least some of the coincidences or if the coincidence is only in your head? What if the coincidence is really happening but your understanding of why it is happening is really just in your head?
Is it really right for God to create coincidences and signs like that when he refuses to give a child with an incurable disease a cure? Why are not all the coincidences helpful or happening where they are most needed? The coincidences are not really a convincing way for God to get a message across. It is sick to say that it is okay for him to arrange that a dove will hover over the pope as a sign but not to send a boat when children are drowning when the message is that hard to fathom and make out.
The coincidences thing to atheists is evidence that believers are mistaking remarkable coincidences for miracles or treating them as communications from God. They need not lead to faith but can draw you away from faith. Many atheists do argue that magic and miracles are really the result of chance and coincidence.
The view that miracles are coincidences that endorse a religious faith leads to chaos. It gives people too much scope in seeing miracles and signs where nothing of the sort is intended. If you want to believe any rubbish and hope for miraculous coincidences to come along they will. Coincidences are a part of life and we never even notice the half of them or remember them.
The view also encourages people who pray for the sick who make an unexpected recovery afterwards to think their prayers effected a miracle recovery.
The recovery happening after the prayer does not prove or indicate that the praying did the healing. If you start thinking stupidly and magically like that and arrogantly assume your prayers cured the person you are only corrupting yourself and those who are influenced by you.
Also, the person's recovery is not down to one coincidence but many. And each one of those considered individually will show no sign of being anything other than natural (page 172, Philosophy of Religion for A Level, OCR Edition Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer and Edwin Tate, Nelson Thornes Ltd, 1999).
It does not really make sense to describe a coincidence no matter how incredible as inexplicable. Coincidences have to happen. And what is incredible to person y is not that stunning or remarkable to person z. If you want to define miracles as inexplicable coincidences, you will have to look at the individual causes and coincidences that led to and formed this remarkable coincidence. You will have to find enough of them inexplicable before you can proclaim the big one to be inexplicable. I am not saying you need to check out everything that led to this for you will go back for decades - checking the last while would be enough.
If you take coincidences as signs, it is up to you to decide or guess what they are signs of. What if you take them as signs that you should become a suicide bomber? What if somebody else who, inspired by you, thinks that coincidences are divine signs starts feeling inspired to be a suicide bomber?
A person considering atheism could go to a library. A top book promoting atheism could fall out. He picks it up and becomes a convert to atheism. He would say that it some kind of supernatural approval for his atheism. He could say it’s a sign. Satanists and Witches and Buddhists and every ism out there has faith because they think they have experienced meaningful coincidences that they have taken as signs. In psychology, the term for it is confirmation bias!
People are biased towards accepting evidence for positions they already hold. Instead of making up their minds after they see the evidence, they make them up beforehand. They then lie that they care about the evidence and what it says.
St Augustine, siding with the view that miracles are natural, said that miracles are not contrary to nature’s laws but only to what we know of these laws. Some of the Christians say that we must not see a miracle as God intervening. If a man comes back to life, God planned it all along so it was not a case of him having to get involved because something in the universe went wrong. This implies then that we do not need to see miracles at all. It would be a sin to treat the miracle as an intervention or indeed as even strange because it is not an intervention.
But if it looks like an intervention then that is what we must take it to be. The believers are rationalising - they are trying to make miracle belief look sensible by putting an interpretation on it that is not justified by how it looks. If you see a young girl you do not say, "She is an older girl but has had plastic surgery to make her look youthful."
Some reports such as men being dead for days and coming alive again cannot be talking merely about some remarkable coincidence. If it looks like an intervention miracle then what other way can we see it?
If a miracle is a sign and it is a remarkable coincidence then religiously important coincidences must be very rare and very unlikely occurrences. But coincidences that are interpreted in a religious way are pretty common. And coincidences that happen and which can be interpreted in a religious way but are not are even more common. A genuine miracle as in remarkable coincidence will need to be so improbable that you will need a lot of evidence to show that it happened. But such evidence is virtually non-existent.
Holy books with too many miracles are thereby proven spurious.
People tend to imagine that coincidences are signs from above. But every religion experiences these coincidences. They do nothing to help us find the true religion if there is one. All they do is lead to separate and sometimes bitter religions. We can do without all that discord and disunity.
Miracles are supposed to be rare and very uncommon. Reports of them are relatively common. When there are so many reports going around, some of them have to appear to be very convincing indeed. If a fortune teller has enough clients she will make a few readings that seem to prove she has mysterious powers. Yet it is all the work of chance. If you identify coincidence and miracle you end up in danger of becoming super-superstitious or paving the way for others to become like that.
It is narcissistic to imagine that coincidences happen in order that you may enjoy signs from God. You rationalise that it's a sign and that is arrogance.
Worse, others will see your example and go astray.
Miracles are not evidence for God. Miracles are blasphemy. Miracles do not give us any reason to take any religion to be true.
A religion that makes hugely serious claims such as that those who curse the pope will suffer for it forever in Hell unless they turn to God before they die has no right to offer paltry miracles as evidence for such terrible doctrines. What about the Koran claiming to be the word of God? That is a huge thing too for it commands violence in the name of God and polygamy. Miracles are paltry evidence. If miracles are supernatural they are not enough. If they are stunning coincidences they are even worse as a basis for authenticating a religion.
We cannot do without evidence and have to accept what it points to. But it could still be wrong or misinterpreted which is why you need to remain open to new light and evidence. If remarkable coincidences happen, it might be pure coincidence that the evidence in favour of an intervention miracle is good and persuasive though accepting the miracle as genuine is actually wrong. Instead of using coincidences to help ourselves say that miracles happen, we should be assuming that coincidence proves we can never reasonably believe in miracles. This is not bias - it is fair because it is the same principle as: Do not consider x to be an interventionist miracle when it might be a remarkable coincidence. Assume it is a coincidence.
David Hume is criticised for saying that a miracle is like magic and thus lacks credibility. What about the idea that Hume’s view of miracles is too narrow and widening it and giving it more scope. So now instead of just something that looks blatantly magical we have remarkable coincidences that appear to be God trying to tell us something.
This does not work.
Remarkable coincidences are one thing but how you interpret them is another. Non-remarkable coincidences can be seen as remarkable and this is very subjective. If you experience enough of non-remarkable coincidences in a short space of time you will fall prey to being too impressed by this.
The remarkable thing about the Jesus resurrection is that incredible coincidences may have happened to make it appear that he rose from the dead when he did not. We cannot directly get at the evidence to rule that out. The gospels are giving hearsay. They cheat us by saying they expect us maybe to believe. They cannot just say this is what they think happened and leave it there. The request is inappropriate.
It can be a coincidence in your imagination or brain that makes you see a coincidence happening.
Coincidence can have two people see a similar apparition about the same time but it does not make the apparition plausible as a visitation from the next world.
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
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
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