Monday, August 13, 2012

An Atheist View of Miracles

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle," David Hume once wrote, "unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." The only way we can assuredly know that something is a genuine "miracle," in other words, is if we believe it would be an even greater miracle to discover that the person making the claim could either be wrong, or is in fact a liar.

Applying Hume's criticism, then, we see how the Christian simply assumes that it would have to be an even greater miracle to discover that the Bible was either wrong or lying, for example, than that Jesus actually rose from the dead or walked on water. In fact, the Christian even "believes" that it would be a far greater miracle still that such stories should be interpreted in a strictly metaphorical sense, than that such stories actually happened in a literal sense. Such assumptions, upon which the entire edifice of Christian "belief" in miracles rests, is, at its core, the real "miracle of faith.'  

An atheist can admit that "miracles" happen,  but what the atheist means by "miracles" and what the theist means by that same term can be two very different things indeed. For the theist, a miracle is as easy to explain as it is impossible to comprehend, because it is simply an act of God. As such, no further investigation is necessary because all further investigation is futile. After all,  it's a miracle!

Calling something a bona fide "miracle," therefore,  is to claim that anything that happens which we do not understand must necessarily be the result of divine "magic," which we will never be able to explain in any other way.  This is like assuming that anything we have ever seen in the sky that we cannot explain today must therefore be a flying saucer forever after, filled with intelligent "beings" from another world. It is to assume, in other words, an understanding of the near infinite nature of how everything in the universe works, with enough certainty to rule out every other possible explanation imaginable - forever.

For the atheist, on the other hand, miracles are simply things we do not yet understand, and nothing more. What a Christian calls "a miracle" may just be the result of powers of the mind over our own body that we have yet to fully understand. After all, it has been demonstrated that people can use their mind to alter their own body chemistry, which has been demonstrated in not only placebo experiments, but also in everyone from Tibetan monks to people with split personality disorder.

Assuming that a "miracle" is anything more than a giant question mark, however, is a dubious interpretation at best, or a deliberate act of manipulation at worst. In debate class, they would call this a logical fallacy, one that necessarily assumes not only that the "miracle" in question can not be explained in any other way today, no matter what investigative method we use to try and understand it, but one that humans will never develop the understanding or the technological sophistication to understand - ever! 

If we are being intellectually honest, however, then the only thing we all know for certain is that UFOs or "miracles" are either things we will understand in the future, or they are something we will never understand - ever. But either way, it is far more honest, and certainly far more humble, to admit the human limits of what we know and understand, than to leap to the god-like conclusion that God must of done it in the conservatory with the candle stick.

Otherwise, we are simply assuming that anything that happens in the world, simply by virtue of our not being able to explain how it happened, must therefore be a miracle. Hence, if we are unable to explain the nature of gravity, or how animals know about impending earthquakes or tidal waves long before technologically sophisticated humans ever do, then both anomalies should properly be called "miracles." In fact, even rain could be called a "miracle," prior to our discovery of how and why it rains.  In contrast, any attempt to then discover the underlying causes of such "miracles" would be seen as not only blasphemous, but as daring to question the existence of the "being" responsible for those miracles.

The truth, however, is that scientific investigation into what causes gravity, rain, or how animals sense earthquakes, is not a challenge to the existence of a God per se, but is really only challenging the authority of all those who seek to call such things "miracles" in the first place.   

In this respect, it's quite possible that all of the "miracles" mentioned in the Bible actually happened, but that they were only "miracles" because people didn't know what else to call them, and there were no scientists or medical experts around who were trying to figure out the actual cause of such "miracles." Curing someone of a fatal disease or restarting a person's heart in 5000 B.C.E., for example, would likely be called "miracles" by all who observed such events. What else could they have called them, after all?  Indeed, we would still call such things "miracles" even today, even if we use such a term as simply a euphemism for medical advancement.

Today, such "miracles" are not seen so much as an act of God but of a good doctor. And thank god scientists have figured out how to multiply such "miracles" by seeking to understand their underlying causes, for God has historically been incredibly stingy in his willingness to use such "magic" to help cure more of humanity overall.

 And the fact that God could cure everyone with his miracles, but instead chooses to selectively cure only some, is like a doctor with an infinite supply of a panacea that cures absolutely everyone of everything, but who chooses to provide it to only a few patients arbitrarily, in the hope that the rest will love him for having the benevolence and mercy to do so. Such a doctor would be scorned by Christians, however, for doing the very same thing those Christians praise their God for doing.

Indeed, that the patients who this doctor chooses not to heal with his panacea, chose to love him nevertheless, is by far a greater miracle than that such a doctor possess such a panacea in the first place. Yet this is never noticed by those patients, and for perhaps no other reason than that they are wholly dependent upon that doctor to keep them alive, even with all of their maladies in tact.  

In addition to Christians feeling threatened by anyone who seeks to understand the underlying causes of those things they call a "miracle," and to overlooking the fact that they praise as a selfless act of God the very same things they would condemn as morbidly selfish were it done by a doctor, Christians also assume that everything that happens in their Bible that can be described as a "miracle"  must necessarily be understood to be beyond the realm of science to explain, lest it challenge the authority of the Bible and the existence of God, just as much as it undermines the credibility of all other Christian claims to moral authority.

 Such a perspective hides the fact that the people who wrote the stories in the Bible were not all knowing scientists or even PhD's in literature or history, as far as we know. They were simple fishermen and shepherds and carpenters and, of course, story tellers. And in the telling of their oral traditions, those story tellers were always expected to adapt their stories to suit the needs of their particular time and circumstances, much in the same way Shakespeare's Hamlet or Richard III are always reflections of the director of the play. 

Story tellers, as such, are not just historical stenographers, but artists, who often paint the picture of the ideas they wish to convey with the power of prose and the color of poetry. Picasso, for example, painted ideas he gleamed from the writers and poets he surrounded himself with in Paris. In contrast, a writer paints the image of their idea on the canvas of our own imagination using the medium of language.  And the finished product, as is often the case with literature, is usually a portrait of ourselves spied through the retina of an author's pen.

Perhaps the biblical authors, in this same way, simply choose to describe the act of walking on a sand bar as "walking on water," not in an attempt to deceive but to describe the image more powerfully to their audience. Or maybe the author genuinely believed that Jesus was "walking on water" instead of a sand bar. After all, an author is only as human as their audience and as such, he (or she) is as fallible in discerning what they see as we are creative in interpreting what we read.

Whatever the case, it is certainly not a belief in "miracles" that is the problem between theists and atheists, but the different meanings that each derives from them. The theist thinks a miracle informs us about the existence of a higher intelligence, while the atheist knows a miracle is simply evidence of our own ignorance. And while one sees them as a license to act like God, the other sees them as a reminder that we are only human.  


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Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.