No Miracles

The previous essays in this series have explored various ways in which human beings appeal to the supernatural to solve our problems. We seek out oracles to tell us the truth without doing the hard work of seeking it out through study and experiment; we dream up heavens to provide us with a perfect world to live in without the sweat and toil of creating it ourselves; we invent commandments to show us morality without the intellectual labor and uncertainty of reasoning it out; we look to the skies for messiahs to lead us without the falterings of democracy and the tedious effort of consensus-building and compromise.

But all of these are symptoms of a more general condition: humanity is suffused with magical thinking. More than anything, we desire easy answers, and all these different types of supernatural belief stem, ultimately, from that desire. When life is difficult and troubled, we want miracles that will fulfill our needs and supply our wants in a supernatural flash, without the work otherwise needed to get what we want; and when life is truly disastrous and our sorrow and suffering seem too great to bear, we want miracles to reverse the irreversible and make possible the impossible.

The longing for miracles extends throughout every religion ancient and modern, as people throughout history have sought to fulfill their wants and control the world through magic. The list is extensive: Native American rain dances and shamanic healing rituals; modern Wiccans who think they can use spells to attract love, luck, or good fortune; ancient Jews and Greeks who thought that sacrificing animals would placate the gods and bring peace and prosperity; faith healers who think all disease can be prayed away and all mental illness is caused by demons; witch doctors who brew potions that they claim will make the imbiber invisible or immune to bullets; Pentecostals who handle snakes and babble in tongues, Catholics with a predilection for saints that in practice is little more than polytheism under another name, and Christians of all stripes who appeal to guardian angels and think to make God obey their will by repeating their prayers constantly, much like the various magicians and sorcerers through history who attempt to invoke and control the supernatural through the use of the right magic words. For example, here is a quote from a group of fundamentalist Catholics who evidently believe they can control the world with magic:

With all of the Rosaries, Masses, and sacrifices offered to God, why is the number of abortions not decreasing?

Magical thinking leaks into our lives in a wide variety of ways not directly associated with religion as well. There are the great numbers of people who carry supposedly lucky charms – horseshoes, rabbits’ feet, or whatever else. There are numerous household superstitions about breaking a mirror, spilling salt, stepping on sidewalk cracks, or letting a black cat cross one’s path. There are gamblers who erroneously believe that the cards or the dice can be “due” to turn up a certain way, actors who fear to wish each other good luck before the performance, and sports players with an endless array of superstitions about, for example, not shaving or washing one’s clothes before the big game, lest one wash one’s luck away. There are even hospitals whose 13th floor is instead labeled with some other number. How ironic it is that such superstition turns up in the very places that should be the strongest testaments to the value of evidence-based thinking!

Like other examples of magical thinking, these are all based on spurious perceptions of correlation between unrelated events. The human brain is very good indeed at perceiving causality – so good that it often perceives it even where it does not exist. But to a mind not trained in critical thinking, it is all but impossible to separate the legitimate perceptions from the faulty ones. When a prayer is ineffective, the “natural” thing to do is to say it again, just in case God was perhaps not listening the first time; and if it still does not come true, why, it surely cannot hurt to say it yet again. By this means, people are unconsciously led to repeat their prayers over and over until, by chance, the thing they desired may happen – at which point they frequently decide that the exact number of repetitions they used must be the most effective, and transmit this knowledge to their fellow believers.

Similarly, a person who happens to be holding some item touted as a lucky charm, or who has recently practiced some supposedly magic ritual, who then experiences a streak of good fortune, will almost certainly conclude that magic was responsible for their success. People who obtain the charm or repeat the ritual and do not experience similar success are apt to overlook the failure, or blame it on themselves in some way – until their luck changes in even some small way, as it inevitably does, which they conclude to be true and undeniable evidence in favor of their particular brand of magic.

In reality, when such fallacies are disregarded, there is no evidence that such superstitious practices are or ever have been effective in any way. In our world, magic does not work. Our problems cannot be solved by the wave of a magic wand; misfortune cannot be repelled by crossing one’s fingers, drawing mystic circles or chanting in the moonlight; and no amount of prayer, be it ever so heartfelt, will move an inconveniently placed mountain by so much as an inch. Appealing to the supernatural is effective only insofar as it increases the confidence of the practitioner and improves their chance to achieve their goals by their own, non-supernatural effort and ability.

The appeal of magic is that it promises easy answers, easy victories, easy achievement of our goals with little effort and toil. But this is, and always was, a childish dream. Through cooperating with each other and studying the world around us, we can learn to better control our circumstances and improve our lives, but such improvement will always take labor and work. The lure of easy answers is an illusion; there are answers, but they are difficult to obtain and always were. Yet that does not make them worth any less. On the contrary, it makes them even more precious, and should increase our appreciation for what progress we have brought about and our resolve to make further progress in the future. The childish things we cling to have held us back and distracted us from this difficult, but worthy goal for too long. As our species comes of age, it is time to put them away once and for all and have the courage to view the world in the light of reality. Though this worldview promises us less, it ultimately offers us far much more.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    For the longest time the world of thought for humans was a mythical one. Things were explained by myths, gods, spirits and so on.

    About 2600 years or so ago philosophy as a new way to think and see the worl came about. Then religion and then finally the science as a way to put the world into prespective.

    So in my wiev the reason we still have this craving for miracles and easy answers it that we haven’t had enought time to get use to the idea that things can be explained with philosophy or science. It will take time…a lot of time before we can shed theese naive thoughts of miracles

  • http://starseyer.blogspot.com Mikel

    Well put. Thanks for the read :)

  • lpetrich

    I like philosopher David Hume’s argument about miracles: where did they all go? Why don’t we see any big ones anymore? Like the parting of the Red Sea.

    David Hume made that argument 250 years ago, and if anything, it’s much stronger nowadays.

    Why doesn’t some miracle-working deity come down and work BIG miracles in front of us skeptics?

  • Philip Thomas

    Did not Hume also say “What is more likely, that a man lied, or that a miracle occurred?”. If you saw a miracle with your own eyes you would think it either a delusion or explainable by science. Still less would you worship the miracle-worker.

    The problem of divine hiddenness rests on the assumption that a divine manifestation would improve matters. I think not.

  • Philip Thomas

    Hmm, that sounds harsh and cynical. Let me observe that it is exactly what I would do in your position. When one makes an observation that appears to contradict one’s entire belief system, it is only rational to try to explain it away.

  • lpetrich

    Philip Thomas, let us let whoever has committed no sin throw the first stone, shall we?

    It seems to me that a compassionate deity who wishes to show what miracles It can perform would be very understanding and respectful about people’s skepticism about those miracles, like apologizing for neglecting to make Itself directly known earlier.

    And as to that Hume quote, there are additional possibilities, like believing something because one wants to. And let us not forget the long history of pious fraudulence, like bogus relics.

    -

    I think that Hume’s argument is a very powerful one; what miracles has Mother Teresa worked, other than passing herself off as being very humanitarian?

    Did MT ever calm any storms?
    Did MT ever miraculously fill an empty oil can with oil or recharge a dead battery?
    Did MT ever miraculously desalinate seawater?
    Did MT ever point out any monster-containing trees?
    Did a crab ever return a lost crucifix to MT?
    Did MT ever cure blindness?
    Did MT ever strike blind anyone who stole from her?
    Did MT ever cause an earthquake in a town whose citizens said nasty things about her?
    Did MT ever miraculously create any big piles of bread and fish?
    Did MT ever raise anyone from the dead?
    Did MT ever cure anyone with magical spit therapy?
    Did MT ever walk on water?
    Did MT ever turn water into wine?
    Did MT ever zap some Missionaries of Charity employee who kept too much for herself?
    Did MT ever turn some sticks into snakes?
    Did MT ever sic a pack of stray dogs on some kids who teased her about being a wrinkled old hag?
    Did MT ever have a competition with some Hindu priests about whose god was better at making a rain of fire from on high?

    All these are updated versions of miracles from the Bible and miracles allegedly worked by some medieval saints (St. Genevieve and St. Francis Xavier).

    -

    Also, believers in one religion’s miracles are often skeptical about other religions’ miracles. Believers in the Shroud of Turin tend to be skeptical about the Cloak of Kandahar and the Tooth of Kandy, and that’s just for starters.

    The Shroud of Turin in Italy is allegedly Jesus Christ’s burial shroud.

    The Cloak of Kandahar in Afghanistan had allegedly belonged to the prophet Mohammed.

    The Tooth of Kandy in Sri Lanka had allegedly been one of the Buddha’s teeth.

    Also, believers in Jesus Christ’s claimed successes in salivary therapy

    And those who believe that Jesus Christ had raised someone from the dead are often skeptical that Apollonius of Tyana had also done so. Likewise, those who believe that Jesus Christ had cured some people with magical spit therapy (Mark 7:32-35, Mark 8:22-25, John 9:1-7) are often skeptical that Roman Emperor Vespasian had also done so (Suetonius and Tacitus, often used as sources). And those who believe that Jesus Christ had driven out lots of demons are often skeptical of others’ claims to have done so; here are Jesus Christ’s exorcisms:

    Matthew 4:24, 7:21-23, 8:16, 8:28-34, 9:32-34, 10:1, 10:8, 11:18, 12:22-28, 15:21-28, 17:14-21
    Mark 1:32-24, 1:39, 3:14-15, 3:22, 5:2-20, 6:12, 7:24-30, 9:38-40, 16:9, 16:17-18
    Luke 4:33-35, 4:40-41, 7:33, 8:1-3, 8:26-39, 9:1-2, 9:42, 9:49-50, 10:17, 11:14-20, 13:32
    John 7:16-20, 8:48-54, 10:14-21 (here, JC is accused of being possessed by demons)

  • Philip Thomas

    The stones are already flying, methinks.

    I don’t know what Mother Teresa did, but I’m happy to take your word for it. I have no problem with the Cloak of Kanadahar or the Tooth of Kandy: Buddha and Mohammed existed, so they had teeth and (one assumes) cloaks.

    I do not make a judgement abvout “salivary therapy”. I do not believe that Jesus Christ raised anyone from the dead apart from himeself, but I am open to other evidence: I take the same position for Apollonius (except that I don’t believe he himself was resurrected). I don’t have a view on the various exorcisms, by Jesus or otherwise. And really, there is no need to quote the Gospels at me to establish a basic assertion about Jesus.

  • lpetrich

    I have not been able to find much on the Cloak of Kandahar, but the Tooth of Kandy’s residence, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, has its own home page.

    And I do think it’s reasonable to mention Jesus Christ’s exorcisms and salivary therapy in this thread. If Jesus Christ was so successful with those therapies, then why hasn’t the mainstream medical profession taken them up and expanded on them?

    And as to selective skepticism, why believe that Jesus Christ was conceived by divine impregnation and not Pythagoras, Plato, or Alexander the Great?

    Sources:
    Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras
    Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 3.2
    Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alexander, 2.1-3.2

  • Philip Thomas

    If Jesus Christ was so sucessful with those therapies- and I don’t think the evidence tells us one way or the other- it was through his divine power.

    Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, something which didn’t happen to Pythagoras, Plato, or Alexander the Great.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If you saw a miracle with your own eyes you would think it either a delusion or explainable by science. Still less would you worship the miracle-worker.

    This is simply not true. If a miracle occurred in such a setting such that I could be sure it was not a hallucination or a trick, such as during a well-controlled scientific test or in the presence of multiple reliable witnesses none of whom were in an altered state of consciousness, I would have no difficulty accepting the conclusion that the supernatural exists. You incorrectly generalize from the fact that we are not swayed by false miracles to the assumption that we would not be persuaded by real ones either.

    Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, something which didn’t happen to Pythagoras, Plato, or Alexander the Great.

    All the evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection descends from one anonymous source, written decades after the event at the very least, that contains numerous other incredible tales unsupported by evidence and that shows clear signs of having been written as a teaching allegory using a midrashic process of cutting and pasting from earlier scripture. There are many religious savior-figures who are claimed to have risen from the dead, and the evidence for their having done so is just as good as the evidence for Jesus having done so.

  • Philip Thomas

    Re: Miracles- Adam, surely all such a “miracle” would show is that there is a hitherto unobserved scientific fact at work, which if studied will be brought into harmony with existing scientific laws? The supernatural is surely impossible by definition: if we can percieve it, it follows the laws of nature.

    The evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is obviously present in the letters of Paul, the Synoptic Gospels, and the Gospel of John. Moreover, the whole phenomeon of Christianity is inconceivable without the Resurrection.

    Jesus is a historical figure in a historical setting and his resurrection appearances are clearly witnessed. I am unaware of any other “religous-saviour” figure who has the same credentials.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    Just as a sidenote there is a quite reasonable explanation to Jesus feeding 5000 men with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. I’m not claiming to have the absolute truth but just hear me out.

    In the Gospel of John it is said that this food came from a single boy in the crowd. When Jesus took that food blessed it and then started to share it, it is quite likely that other people who before were stingy about their food started to share as well. The miracle Jesus preformed was just giving people an example of how one should behave.

    If we were to say that Jesus was an historical figure and this event really took place it’s not very hard for this story to become a miracle over the years.

    I hope you do get my point despite my poor english :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The supernatural is surely impossible by definition: if we can percieve it, it follows the laws of nature.

    By your own argument, then, the resurrection of Jesus is “impossible by definition”, and if the witnesses you refer to in your very next sentence perceived it, then it was not a supernatural event at all. Would that be a correct summary of your position?

    The evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is obviously present in the letters of Paul, the Synoptic Gospels, and the Gospel of John.

    The other three gospels are all dependent on Mark, which has the problems I listed previously. Paul never claims to have witnessed any resurrection.

    Moreover, the whole phenomeon of Christianity is inconceivable without the Resurrection.

    Christianity is inconceivable without belief in the resurrection. However, there is no good reason whatsoever to consider that belief to be based on a real event.

    Jesus is a historical figure in a historical setting and his resurrection appearances are clearly witnessed.

    The assertion that Jesus is a “historical figure” is extremely debatable at best. Every competent historian alive at the time apparently missed him and the first sketchy reports of his existence do not begin to trickle in until decades later, when Christian hearsay had already begun to mingle with the popular consciousness. Again, the “clear witness” you speak of consists of anonymous allegorical documents written decades after the fact that contradict each other in multiple particulars, that contain numerous other incredible stories, that have thematic elements with clear precedents in other religious myths and legends, and that assert the occurrence of historical events that are both undocumented and implausible.

  • Philip Thomas

    Yes, the Resurrection was not supernatural but part of the normal workings of the Universe.

    The question about whether John is dependent on Mark is a matter of disagreement among scholars, but the current consensus favours independence. Certainly John’s Gospel differs considerably from Mark’s. What common material there is can be explained because they were tallking about the same facts. See The Priority of John by John A.T.Robinson (SCM Press, London, 1985) for a discussion of this topic.

    The central Pauline message is that Christ has risen from the dead. This claim is made throughout his letters. They constitute valid historical evidence for the Resurrection.

    Christianity derives from the cult of Jesus of Nazereth, who claimed to be the Messiah, and was crucified. Now, the Messiah in Judaic thought was not envisaged as being put to death like a common criminal. The natural reaction of the disciples would have been to give up and go home, as happened when other Messiah-figures were killed during the Roman Empire. Judaic thought had recently come to believe in the Resurrection (although this was still contested by the Sadducees) in the sense that at the final Judgement the Jews would rise from the dead and be restored in glory. The notion that before this Resurrection there would be another one, in which a single individual would rise from the dead, was totally absent from Judaic thought- and indeed from pagan thought, which didn’t recognise Resurrection at all- Yet this idea suddenly ocurred to the followers of Jesus of Nazereth. Moreover it took a particular form and was told in stories about the risen Christ which are not the sort of stories one would readily make up.

    That is a shortened version of the argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T.Wright (SPCK, London, 2003).

    Your argument against Jesus’ existence is similar to your argument against his Resurrection. The overwhelmingly obvious conclusion from the evidence at hand is that Jesus existed. No documents deny his existence: Jews arguing against Christianity said not that he had never existed, but that he was illegitmate and killed as common criminal. Ancient History is an area where there are few sources and they are often incomplete, and (where we have multiple sources) contradict each other: the evidence for Socrates, for example is like this. Prophet like figures did exist in 1st century Palestine, and Jesus was a relatively common name. It is surely likely that stories about a prophet like figure called Jesus are going back to an actual person. How else would they arise?

  • lpetrich

    Philip Thomas, you seem to be arguing that Jesus Christ’s resurrection is better supported than his exorcisms and salivary therapy, which seems odd.

    Yes, the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ had been an exorcist.

    There have been endless arguments on what a “historical Jesus” had been like, but I find Earl Doherty’s arguments for Jesus mythicism the most convincing I’ve ever seen. Paul seems the closest in time to JC, yet he seems ignorant of most of the content of the Gospels — including content that would be theologically convenient for him. He makes no mention of Pontius Pilate or JC raising Lazarus from the dead, for instance. And when he visited Jerusalem, he and his Jerusalem-church hosts showed zero interest in the places where his Lord and Savior had visited, not even where he was (allegedly) crucified and resurrected.

    So we ought to analyze this question from another direction: how closely does Jesus Christ’s biography resemble that of various legendary heroes? Lord Raglan had constructed a composite mythic-hero profile that many such heroes often fit very well; well-documented people are much poorer fits. Alan Dundes had taken on JC and concluded that he had a score of 19 out of 22; I’d quibble with some of his assessments, but I find that he has a score of at least 18, among such company as Moses, Oedipus, Hercules, Romulus, and Krishna.

    By comparison, such well-documented heroes as Charles Darwin and John Fitzgerald Kennedy score only about 4 to 5, and maybe 6 if one stretches their assessments a little.

    Notice that in the infancy of well-documented heroes, there is no awareness of their future destinies, and no big villains try to kill them at that stage of their lives. But for mythic heroes, we have:

    Pharaoh vs. Moses
    King Laertes vs. Oedipus
    Hera vs. Hercules
    King Amulius vs. Romulus
    King Kamsa vs. Krishna
    King Herod vs. Jesus Christ

    Also, being rejected by the gods or by his followers is something common among mythic heroes but rare among well-documented ones. God did not let Moses enter the Promised Land, and the people of Jerusalem turn from celebrating Jesus Christ’s arrival to wanting him dead.

    They often die mysterious deaths. After 120 years of good health, Moses became mysteriously sick and he soon died. Hercules was given a shirt with a poison that caused him such agony that he committed suicide to end it. Jesus Christ died very fast by crucifixion-victim standards, and there was an earthquake, a mysterious 3-hour darkness, the Temple curtain ripping, and corpses taking walks from their tombs.

    The closest I can think of among well-documented people is JFK’s death, though I prefer the simplest theory, that a lone lunatic named Lee Harvey Oswald had shot him. Several other lone lunatics have killed or attempted to kill various Presidents, so LHO was not exactly unusual there.

    Finally, mythic heroes often die on top of hills; Moses died on top of Mt. Nebo, Hercules died on top of Mt. Oeta, and Jesus Christ was executed on a hill named Golgotha.

  • Philip Thomas

    Yes. I am saying that there is better evidence for Jesus Christ’s Resurrection than for his exorcisms and salivary therapy. The Resurrection is referenced in Paul, described in both the Synoptic and the Johannine tradition, and permeates Early Christian thought. Salivary therapy and exorcism by Jesus are not in Paul.

    I am perfectly willing to admit that ‘the Bible’ claims Jesus had been an exorcist (which of course, implies he existed). Ancient sources describe many exorcists. My doubt is whether he perfomed the exorcisms by divine power, or whether there were psychosomatic reasons for his success (for example).

    I have read Adam’s summary of Earl Doherty’s arguments, but I haven’t read the book itself. Probably I ought to do so, as I suspect otherwise we are just going to tallk past each other. What is it called again?

    Not all Paul’s writings survive. Those that do clearly preach Jesus Christ crucified, despite the difficulties this gives rise to, and Resurrected. The Epistles address particular situations. If a community had been in turmoil over the events of Jesus’ life, Paul would have written about them, but it appears this didn’t happen (or the letter was not preserved). Most likely, the life of Jesus was something passed on at the founding of a community, when Paul was physically present and so didn’t need to write. Lazarus’ resurrection is only found in John and is probably spurious, so Paul’s not referring to it is unsuprising. One also has to remember that the early churches expected Jesus to return very soon, so there was less need to dwell on his life than later when the parousia had been seen to be delayed.

    The stories about the infancy of Jesus are clearly legendary in character: if you remove them you can get a lower score. It is quite common for legends to attach to real people, such as Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Pythagoras, etc, etc.

    The corpses rising from the tombs is only in Matthew and is spurious. The darkness and the ripping of the Temple veil are probably allegorical. As for the earthquake, they are common enough in Palestine. Possibly an earthquake in the year of Jesus’ death has been turned into one on the day of his death by the vagaries of tradition.

    People often die on top of hills. Hills make good execution places because lots of people can see the criminal die.

  • Nes

    Interesting. I’ve mostly lurked, but I feel the need to butt in on this one. Some of those ideas reminded me of something else…

    Consider:

    The central Pauline message is that Christ has risen from the dead. This claim is made throughout his letters. They constitute valid historical evidence for the Resurrection.

    Do a little substition…

    The central Hubbard message is that Xenu blew up aliens on Earth 75 million years ago, releasing angry alien souls. This claim is made throughout his writing and speeches. They constitute valid historical evidence for the alien souls that infest us.

    And further:

    The evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is obviously present in the letters of Paul, the Synoptic Gospels, and the Gospel of John. Moreover, the whole phenomeon of Christianity is inconceivable without the Resurrection.

    Do a little substition…

    The evidence for Xenu is obviously present in the letters of Hubbard, OT III, and Revolt in the Stars. Moreover, the whole phenomeon of Scientology is inconceivable without the alien souls infesting us because of Xenu.

    There are some obvious flaws when comparing an ancient document with a well documented loon, but I thought it was mildly amusing that similar claims could be made for an (IMO) obviously bogus religion. I don’t mean this to mock you, Philip, I don’t know enough about historical scholarship and such to make any arguments one way or the other.

    For the record, I’m rather agnostic towards JC’s existence. Was there a guy named Jesus walking about preaching? Most likely. Maybe even several. Are any of them the one specific one mentioned in the Bible? Maybe. Did they perform miracles of any kind? Extremely unlikely, especially when considering that people, even today, are easily fooled by “psychics” and “faith healers” (John Edward, Sylvia Brown, Uri Geller, Peter Popoff to name a few), despite the debunking that’s done on them, and some are even willing to die for those lies (think cancer and herbal “remedies”, “faith healing”, homeopathic “remedies”, etc.)

  • Padishah

    The stories about the infancy of Jesus are clearly legendary in character

    You mentioned this elsewhere, but I still don’t really understand the basis for claiming a qualitative difference between the canonical books and say the Infancy Gospel.

    Nes, there are substantial differences. For one thing, Hubbard was making claims about events he could not possibly have any evidence for, either documentary or eyewitnesses. There was no way for the information to be transmitted. Furthermore, Scientology makes many more disproven claims – the efficacy of their ‘stres test’ devices, the use of ancient nuclear weapons / intergalactic travel, effects of thetans etc etc, as compared to the resurrection, which could (theoretically) be disproven by finding Jesus’ body.

    Perhaps a better comparison would be between Scientology and Mormonism.

  • Philip Thomas

    Padishah:The stories about Jesus’ ministry are known through his disciples who were with him at the time. The stories about his infancy cannot have this source. They are also considerably more mythical in character than the ministry sources: as Ipetrich pointed out they correlate closely with other mythical infancy stories. Matthew and Luke contradict each other, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is so clearly spurious that the Early Church rejected it.

  • Padishah

    Yet elements from the other Gospels have mythical character. Is it not possible that those who knew Jesus as a child would have recounted their experiences at some point, once Christianity became known as a movement? It is true there would have been no accounts written at the time, but the same is true of the canonical Gospels.

    I’m not sure that the fact that the Church rejected the Infancy Gospel is in itself an argument for a qualitative difference – after all, there are many other revelations the Early church rejected, and there have been many subsequent ones.

  • Nes

    Yes, definitely Padishah, as I said I know there are some obvious flaws with the comparison. I just wanted to point out that other religions could claim similar (with extra heavy emphasis on “similar”) things, and unfortunately Scientology is pretty much the only other religion that I’m familiar enough with to give examples (though not through personal experience, thankfully!).

  • Philip Thomas

    Of course it is possible. But if Jesus was a child miracle-worker along the lines of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, one would expect some reflection in the (earlier) Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke- especially as the latter two show interest in his birth. The lacuna between Jesus’ birth (and purification etc) and the next incident in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is odd if they were based on a witness of Jesus’ childhood. One might explain it by saying that nothing special happened betweeen his birth and his baptism (or the incident in the Temple at 12 years old in Luke).

    In any case the time gap is significantly greater. Jesus’ ministry is normally (all dates are current scholarship as far as I understand it) dated to about AD 30, and Mark was written around AD 70, 40 years later. Matthew and Luke are 10 years later than Mark and in the infancy narrative they are writing about events before 4 BC (Matthew- the date is the death of Herod the Great), or 6 AD (Luke, the census mentioned). So Matthew is over 80 years away, and Luke more than 70. The 12 year old Jesus could be as late as 18 AD, so that would be 60 years ago.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A reply to Philip’s earlier post:

    Yes, the Resurrection was not supernatural but part of the normal workings of the Universe.

    I’d like to hear more explanation of this. So you don’t think the resurrection was a supernatural event? Then why do you consider it significant? If it was a natural event, doesn’t that imply that it could happen again under the right conditions?

    The question about whether John is dependent on Mark is a matter of disagreement among scholars, but the current consensus favours independence… What common material there is can be explained because they were tallking about the same facts.

    Robinson was the one who thought that all the gospels were written before the Jewish War, I believe, so his stance should be taken with a rather large grain of salt. And, as Earl Doherty points out, the parallels between Mark and John are more than just agreements regarding their source material. They show clear parallels of structure and composition, including material that would be unlikely to have been transmitted through oral tradition: for example, the way John follows Mark in splitting up Jesus’ interrogation and sandwiching it in between scenes of Peter denying him. Such stylistic commonalities speak to a literary dependence.

    The central Pauline message is that Christ has risen from the dead. This claim is made throughout his letters. They constitute valid historical evidence for the Resurrection.

    Again, Paul makes it plain that the information in his epistles is not derived from any sort of eyewitness account or historical record; he got it purely from supernatural revelation. Galatians 1, NIV translation: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

    Going by Nes’ post, we should assume that Paul knew exactly as much about Jesus as L. Ron Hubbard knew about Xenu.

    The notion that before this Resurrection there would be another one, in which a single individual would rise from the dead, was totally absent from Judaic thought- and indeed from pagan thought, which didn’t recognise Resurrection at all…

    I have absolutely no idea where you got that from. Resurrection was extremely common in pagan religious beliefs up to this point, and particularly in the mystery cults with which Christianity has so much in common: Osiris, Attis, Inanna, Dionysus, Mithras, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dioscuri, and others. The idea of a single individual arising from the dead was not foreign to Jewish thought, either, and here I name the most obvious example: Elijah. Christianity was a fusion of these two disparate types of belief systems, the Jewish and the pagan, and incorporated elements of both.

    No documents deny his existence: Jews arguing against Christianity said not that he had never existed, but that he was illegitmate and killed as common criminal.

    Most of the Jewish polemics against Christianity were not written until centuries after Jesus’ life, and they were not in possession of the exegetical tools modern historians enjoy.

    It is surely likely that stories about a prophet like figure called Jesus are going back to an actual person. How else would they arise?

    That is beyond the scope of this post, but I suggest Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle for more information.

  • Philip Thomas

    The whole supernatural/natural distinction is misleading and confusing. Everything that happens is part of nature, including unique events like the Resurrection. Natural events are capable of significance. The Resurrection does happen again, in the Mass offered daily around the world.

    “supernatural” again. Paul also refers to various witnesses to the risen Christ: and putting him in the broad context of Acts allows one to see what he means.

    Xenu is not a historical figure with historical witnesses. Nor is he claimed to be by his followers.

    I already told you, N.T.Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God Chapter 2 for paganism and chapters 3 and 4 for Judaism. The dying and rising gods of ancient thought were Gods, not human beings. Elijah ascended into heaven, he was not resurrected (and his appearance at the end times is him coming down from heaven, not being resurrected, as he never died in the first place).

    Thankyou for the book. I will see if I can obtain a copy and read it. Until I have done that, I suggest we pause this discussion, as otherwise we will be tallking past each other.

  • Philip Thomas

    P.S. Re dependence between Mark and John in the Passion narrative. It has long been recognised by scholars that there is considerable agreement on the basic elements of the Passion narrative among the Gospel writers. The usual explanation for this is that the Passion narrative was the first of the scenes in Jesus’ life to be put into a firm form, which became common to all the Christian Churches. Scenes like Peter’s denial and the flight of the disciples are unlikely to have been made up, because they reflect badly on central church figures (and indeed in Luke and John the flight of the disciples is covered up). This firm form was the basis for Mark and John’s work, while Matthew and Luke used Mark as well. It is also normally thought that some independent material (not necessarily factually accurate) reached all four evangelists, and of course they applied their own particular style to the narrative. Straightforward literary dependence of John on Mark is most improbable, requiring John to have added considerable extra material for no good reason.

    No doubt all of this is discussed in The Jesus Puzzle. The view above is taken from Raymond.E.Brown [i] The Death of the Messiah [/i] a two-volume work of detailed commentary on the four Gospel Passion narratives.

  • lpetrich

    Here is Lord Raglan’s Mythic Hero profile, and my modification of it.

    The cowardice of Jesus Christ’s disciples is not the typical behavior of a dedicated follower, but instead fits in with Lord Raglan’s profile, which states that at one point, the hero will lose favor with the gods or his followers. And it is not just his disciples that he loses favor with; it is also the people of Jerusalem. In the Gospel of Matthew, at least, when he arrives there, he has a hero’s welcome, but they soon turn against him, wanting his death.

    Also, I wonder what gives Philip Thomas the idea that a hill is a typical place to die. Especially before modern times, when one would either have to walk up that hill or else be carried up that hill by some people.

  • Philip Thomas

    I explained why hills are used as execution places. Why do you think mythic heroes die on hills in the first place?

  • lpetrich

    A hill would be a bad place to execute someone if the executors wanted that execution well-advertised. A public square or a road side would be a *much* better place for such advertised executions, and such places are where many well-known executions have happened. Like the Romans’ crucifixions of Spartacus’s followers along the road between Rome and Capua, and the French revolutionaries’ guillotinings in a public square in the middle of Paris.

  • Philip Thomas

    However, if execution was not to be carried out within the city, a nearby hill might be used.

  • lpetrich

    But the question remains. Why on top of a hill? Why not near a road or a city gate?

    And the top of a hill seems a bit too exalted to be a worthy spot for an execution.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The Resurrection does happen again, in the Mass offered daily around the world.

    Come now, let’s not be silly here: you know full well what I meant. Is it possible, in your view, that a human body that has had no organ function for three days could resume that function in the normal course of affairs without human intervention? If not, why not, since you have stated your view that the resurrection of Jesus was a natural event?

    Paul also refers to various witnesses to the risen Christ: and putting him in the broad context of Acts allows one to see what he means.

    Yes, I have no doubt that you’d like very much to put Paul “in the context of Acts”. That is very probably the exact purpose it was written for, to give the early church the legend of a coherent, harmonious, orthodox beginning when in fact it was anything but. But Acts is flatly contradicted on several important points by Paul’s own letters, there is no evidence to show that it was anything other than a late document, and multiple qualified NT scholars regard it as almost pure fabrication. As far as these other witnesses that Paul refers to, he never claims that their “seeing” of Jesus was any different in kind than his own, i.e., a vision only.

    The dying and rising gods of ancient thought were Gods, not human beings.

    Yes. And Jesus Christ is believed by Christians to be God, is he not?

    Elijah ascended into heaven, he was not resurrected (and his appearance at the end times is him coming down from heaven, not being resurrected, as he never died in the first place).

    This is semantic hair-splitting, but rather than get tangled in it, allow me to point to another clear example of the very thing Wright claims is “totally absent” from Judaic thought, the resurrection of a single individual before the end-times: 1 Kings 17, where Elijah raises a child from the dead. Do you suppose Wright happened to overlook that incident?

    Scenes like Peter’s denial and the flight of the disciples are unlikely to have been made up, because they reflect badly on central church figures…

    This assumes that the gospels were originally intended as historical documents, which is not necessarily the case. Again, I suggest Doherty, but won’t belabor the point as you’ve already said you’d check him out.

    Straightforward literary dependence of John on Mark is most improbable, requiring John to have added considerable extra material for no good reason.

    Ah, but John had a very good reason: because Mark’s Christology was incompatible with the one he wanted to depict. Mark’s Jesus was clearly human, shows signs of divinity that are muted at best, and in fact repeatedly orders his disciples not to tell anyone about him. John’s Jesus, on the other hand, was much more forceful, more openly divine, shows far less human weakness, and totally discards Mark’s messianic secret motif to proclaim his mission at virtually every opportunity.

  • Philip Thomas

    Some natural events happen only once, e.g. The Big Bang (on some theories).
    Our positions are actually very similar: neither of us think there is anything supernatural…

    If Acts was written so as to fit Paul’s letters, why would it contain any contradiction? And why would it be necessary to invent a historical setting?

    The point is that Jesus was a human being who really existed: when Paul made the claim about him that he had risen from the dead people didn’t say “Ah, yes, just like Osiris”: they even thought he was tallking about a new goddess called
    Anastasis.

    No, Wright didn’t overlook that incident. Here I quote him on it: “Equally, the one or two miraculous resucitations of the dead attributed to Elija and Elisha are not particularly relevant to the study of Israelite beleifs about death and life beyond. The people concerned would die again.”

    If the Gospels were fiction, they were still unlikely to reflect badly on central church figures (and Peter is vouched for in Paul).

    John’s Christology is high: but that doesn’t explain the incident with Jesus’ mother and the Beloved disciple, the role of Nicodemus, or the omission of the darkness covering the earth and the rending of the temple veil (incidents which would suit a high Christology).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Some natural events happen only once, e.g. The Big Bang (on some theories).

    There’s no such thing as a natural event that can only happen once. Any natural event can repeat given the right conditions, because it is precisely the definition of a natural event that it occurs due to unchanging laws. Under what conditions could a human resurrection be repeated?

    If Acts was written so as to fit Paul’s letters, why would it contain any contradiction? And why would it be necessary to invent a historical setting?

    The very reason Acts contradicts Paul is that it was written to smooth over parts of his letters that were incompatible with the picture of the early church that Acts’ author wanted to paint. For example, it shows him as subservient to the Jerusalem group, when his own letters say something quite different.

    The point is that Jesus was a human being who really existed: when Paul made the claim about him that he had risen from the dead people didn’t say “Ah, yes, just like Osiris”…

    I don’t agree that Paul thought of Jesus this way. Again, the details are in Doherty, although my essay “Choking on the Camel” touches on some of them.

    No, Wright didn’t overlook that incident. Here I quote him on it: “Equally, the one or two miraculous resucitations of the dead attributed to Elija and Elisha are not particularly relevant to the study of Israelite beleifs about death and life beyond. The people concerned would die again.”

    Not particularly relevant? You just said that the idea of a single individual’s resurrection was, and I quote, “totally absent” from Judaic thought, and now you admit it wasn’t absent at all. On the contrary, it was present in a major strand of Jewish theology. (I note, to my amusement, that Wright calls it a “resuscitation” rather than a “resurrection” – anything rather than admit the obvious parallel with Jesus. I have seen Christian apologists who even call Osiris a case of “resuscitation”, and he was literally torn to pieces and then reassembled.)

    If the Gospels were fiction, they were still unlikely to reflect badly on central church figures (and Peter is vouched for in Paul).

    Again, this makes certain assumptions about what the purpose of the gospels was and why they were originally written. It seems probable that, even if Peter was a real person, by the time the gospels began to seep into the wider Christian consciousness he was no longer around to object to the way they treated him.

  • Philip Thomas

    Resurrection will happen again at the Last Judgement.

    But who said the definition of a natural event was that it occurs due to unchanging laws? 1) It is an abitrary assumption that laws are unchanging 2)Natural event just means anything that happens in reality. For example, see the events of human history: these are natural events, but they won’t happen again. 3) Even if we allow for unchanging laws, one of them could say “there is this event which only happens once.

    It was totally absent. The one or two instances where Elijah awakens a little girl from the sleep of death have nothing to do with the Resurrection, the apocalyptic belief that all Israel would rise from the dead at the last day. The incidents do not qualify as a ‘major strand of Jewish Theology’ and they didn’t feature in Rabbinic discussions about Resurrection.

    The assumptions I am making are the natural reading of the texts on the basis the authors are basically telling the truth (with certain mythical additions a la Herodotus). This is standard historical practise, otherwise we would be unable to discover much about the past at all. You are also making assumptions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Resurrection will happen again at the Last Judgement.

    Since it does seem relevant to the topic of this post, Philip, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind expounding on what you see as the difference between natural and supernatural. You claim to disbelieve in the supernatural, but as far as I can tell your beliefs are otherwise identical to those of many Christians who profess belief in miracles, and I don’t understand the difference.

    It is an abitrary assumption that laws are unchanging…

    No, it’s not. The hypothesis that natural laws change over time has been extensively tested, and as far as scientists can determine, they have not changed during the life span of the universe. (There is some evidence that the fine structure constant may have changed very slightly over the last few billion years.) As creationists and others are fond of pointing out, even a minor change in these laws would have quite dramatic and easily observable effects.

    It was totally absent. The one or two instances where Elijah awakens a little girl from the sleep of death have nothing to do with the Resurrection, the apocalyptic belief that all Israel would rise from the dead at the last day.

    The Elijah cycle is one of the major aspects of Jewish theology – in fact, Jewish people today still leave a seat out for him at the Passover seder – so I maintain that my description is accurate. And even if rabbis don’t consider Elijah’s resurrection miracle relevant, you must admit that it was recorded in these books and could therefore have influenced the first generation of Christians. They certainly were familiar with the Old Testament and were influenced by many other aspects of it.

    The assumptions I am making are the natural reading of the texts on the basis the authors are basically telling the truth (with certain mythical additions a la Herodotus). This is standard historical practise, otherwise we would be unable to discover much about the past at all.

    It is not standard historical practice to assume that the authors of any given text are reliable and trustworthy. On the contrary, as far as I’m informed, standard historical practice is to assume that a set of independent authors are reliable when they corroborate each other and, as far as it is possible, are corroborated by external evidence. As Richard Carrier puts it in his review of The Jesus Puzzle:

    Evangelical apologist Craig Blomberg argues that one should approach all texts with complete trust unless you have a specific reason to doubt what they say… No real historian is so naive. I am not aware of any ancient work that is regarded as completely reliable. A reason always exists to doubt any historical claim. Historians begin with suspicion no matter what text they are consulting, and adjust that initial degree of doubt according to several factors, including genre, the established laurels of the author, evidence of honest and reliable methodology, bias, the nature of the claim (whether it is a usual or unusual event or detail, etc.), and so on.

    …Historians have so much experience in finding texts false, and in knowing all the ways they can be false, they know it would be folly to trust anything handed to them without being able to make a positive case for that trust. This is why few major historical arguments stand on a single source or piece of evidence: the implicit distrust of texts entails that belief in any nontrivial historical claim must be based on a whole array of evidence and argument. So it is no coincidence that this is what you get in serious historical scholarship.

  • Philip Thomas

    Hi, I haven’t read your last post: I got The Jesus Puzzle from Amazon this morning and have begun reading it. At the moment it looks like you’re right, so there’s not much point in my arguing further.

  • John

    So true. Unfortunately, this website preaches to the converted. On the off-chance that a believer DID come to this site, they’d ignore these rational arguments and leave. I truly wish more belivers would read stuff like this with an open mind.

  • Philip Thomas

    John, I am a believer (as all but my last post should make clear). I am a Roman Catholic, and in a few minutes I will drive to Mass, where I will recite the Creed as my profession of faith and participate in what I beleive to be the Body and Blood of Christ. And I have been reading with an open mind for at least two months now.

    And I am very nearly convinced by The Jesus Puzzle . Perhaps this will be my last Mass…

  • Philip Thomas

    Ok, I have now read your quote above. I think the problem lies in the definition of “natural” we are using. By natural I meant “real”. Since this isn’t standard interpretation, I should have said so. Anyway, what do you mean by natural?

    Scientists confirm that laws of nature are unchanging by doing science which assumes the laws of nature are unchanging . However, I don’t disagree, so I’m not sure what I was tallking about…

    Rephrasing my earlier statement: First century Judaic expectations for the Messiah in no way included him being put to death and then being resurrected. Elijah, if he was around, was not expected to resurrect the Messiah.. If a Messiah-figure died, that was the end of the Messianic movement, in most cases. Of course, Earl Doherty’s theory deals with this problem.

    Re history: sorry you are right I was tallking nonsense.

    Now maybe we can stop arguing and go home?

  • http://www.lostgospelofjudas.com natural

    I’m confused!!!!
    Is it truth? It seems so… It looks like Judas wasn’t betrayer… Then… what’s the truth? Is Bible still the Word of the Only One God?

    Here I found it:
    http://www.lostgospelofjudas.com

    please some body help me not to lose my belief!

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m confused!!!!
    Is it truth? It seems so… It looks like Judas wasn’t betrayer… Then… what’s the truth? Is Bible still the Word of the Only One God?

    It never was. The situation you describe is completely illogical if the Bible is the Word of Only One God, but makes perfect sense if it was written in its entirety by fallible humans who either thought they knew what their god wanted or realized they stood to profit by pretending to know.

    please some body help me not to lose my belief!

    Is this a serious request? If so, why would anyone here want to help you continue to believe something after it’s been contradicted by evidence, any more than they’d offer a homeless person a packet of heroin instead of food?

  • adam

    Is this a serious request? If so, why would anyone here want to help you continue to believe something after it’s been contradicted by evidence, any more than they’d offer a homeless person a packet of heroin instead of food?)
    ————

    How has miracles been contradicted? It has not, I agree, there are some events that have occured that can be disproved as not a miracle… But you cannot disprove the ones that are absolutely obvious. There are events that cannot be a trick or illusions. Science cannot even disprove it. Nor does miracles violate natural laws. “a miracle is an event which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the time and place that the event occurs.” Don’t take the word miracles loosely. It is not for example (if i were a drug addict) to say that it is a miracle that I found the heroin. It isn’t, that is purely luck, and depending on the conditions of how I found it.
    Miracles work outside the realm of science. How do you disprove something that you can’t recreate no matter how you try. For example, oxygen and potassium cumbust when they’re combined. But we have the same chemicals in our body, yet they we do not combust. It depends on the idealized conditions right? Now when we do have the idealized conditions, but nothing happens, then a supernatural agent is working and the idealized conditions described but the law are no longer in effect. The law isn’t violated because the law has this implicit provision that nothing is messing around with the conditions.” Put another example to this: If a child were to drop an egg, the egg, by natual law of graivity would fall and break right? But what were to happen if the child drops the egg but a parent quickly reaches out and grabs the egg. The parent doesn’t defy or violate the natural law, he or she steps in the idealized conditioned event and stops it from taking effect. There are events that we see in this natural world that we cannot describe. If it is something good that happened, and cannot be describe, think of it as a supernatural agent stepping in and and stopping the right conditions from taking effect.

  • Alex Weaver

    How has miracles been contradicted?

    This, of course, depends on what is meant by “miracle.” The term “miracle” is commonly applied to any of the following:

    *Events which are statistically improbable and (usually) desirable but entirely explicable by natural causes.
    *Events which are attention-getting and whose natural cause is not precisely known, but which do not appear to in principle defy natural explanation.
    *Events or experiences which are pure seem, in a purely subjective sense, to be welcome surprises, whatever the actual probability of their occurrence may be.
    *Events or experiences which are emotionally powerful, moving, and not fully comprehensible at an intuitive level, but which are perfectly explicable by natural causes, including extremely common events such as the birth of a child.
    *Events or experiences which are emotionally powerful, moving, and completely comprehensible, to which the describers wish to sell tickets.
    *Salad dressing.

    Certainly all of these occur. However, when the term “miracle” is used, as Ebon intends, and you probably intend assuming you’ve actually stopped to think about it, to mean “A spectacular event definitely inexplicable by natural causes, especially one which is visibly incongruous with the laws (note: a “law” in the scientific sense is close to an “if-then” statement than a “thou shalt”) of nature as we understand them, caused by the deliberate actions of a supernatural entity for some ulterior purpose,” the following hold:

    *No such event has ever been observed or detected and reliably documented and there is no good reason to believe it ever will be.
    *When people, objects, or sites who are claimed to be able to perform “miracles” or have “miraculous” effects, in this sense, are allowed to be evaluated by science at all (for some reason, they or their custodians almost never agree to this), the claimed effects utterly failed to be detected and in many cases the effects that were supposedly “miracles” were conclusively shown to be fraudulent, casting further doubt on such claims.

    It has not, I agree, there are some events that have occured that can be disproved as not a miracle…

    See my comment about failed demonstrations and fraud. Also note that it is not necessary to “disprove” something for which no compelling evidence has ever been provided.

    But you cannot disprove the ones that are absolutely obvious. There are events that cannot be a trick or illusions. Science cannot even disprove it.

    Such as? Again, note that it is not necessary to “disprove” something for which no compelling evidence has ever been provided – though, since your phrasing implies that such evidence exists, somewhere, it should be a simple matter to document it for us.

    Nor does miracles violate natural laws. “a miracle is an event which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the time and place that the event occurs.”

    1) Make up your mind.
    2) Such as?

    Don’t take the word miracles loosely. It is not for example (if i were a drug addict) to say that it is a miracle that I found the heroin. It isn’t, that is purely luck, and depending on the conditions of how I found it.

    [Aside] Come on, think it through… …damn.

    Miracles work outside the realm of science. How do you disprove something that you can’t recreate no matter how you try.

    How do you tell the difference between “something that you can’t recreate no matter how you try that the person describing it to you witnessed” and “something that you can’t recreate no matter how you try that the person describing it to you made up in order to get attention and/or money.” Propose a test that would reliably distinguish between them and I’ll consider taking you seriously.

    For example, oxygen and potassium cumbust when they’re combined. But we have the same chemicals in our body, yet they we do not combust. It depends on the idealized conditions right?

    Elemental potassium combines with oxygen in a process called combustion that has been fairly well understood by science for well over a century. This occurs because the chemical properties of oxygen include a favorable electron affinity, and the chemical properties of potassium include a relatively low ionization energy, so that potassium and oxygen readily form an ionically bonded oxide. This does not occur in the body at a scale that produces the visibly destructive effects you seem to be confusing with “combustion” because the potassium and, generally, the oxygen, in the body are either ions dissolved in solution or chemically bonded to other atoms already. This is information that even a C- student would be hard-pressed not to absorb from a high-school level chemistry class. If you’re going to try and make a point about the limits of scientific knowledge, I’d suggest you pick something that was within spitting distance of cutting-edge science at some point within living memory.

    Now when we do have the idealized conditions, but nothing happens, then a supernatural agent is working and the idealized conditions described but the law are no longer in effect.

    When conditions are such that we would expect an effect and it does not occur, we first see if the anomaly can be replicated and is not explicable by instrument error or the like. Next, we re-examine the conditions under which it was expected to occur and the actual conditions, including factors previously considered irrelevant, for discrepancies that may explain it. We develop hypotheses, test them, and eventually reformulate the law to account for the phenomenon we’re studying, or, if that simply isn’t feasible, discard the law and formulate a better one. This is how, and why, science works.

    The law isn’t violated because the law has this implicit provision that nothing is messing around with the conditions.”

    It is not an “implicit provision,” “laws” in the scientific sense describe relationships between conditions and events, and resulting phenomena, that consistently hold true, especially those that can be proven mathematically. Cause and effect. “If-then” in computer logic.

    …you really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, do you?

    Put another example to this: If a child were to drop an egg, the egg, by natual law of graivity would fall and break right? But what were to happen if the child drops the egg but a parent quickly reaches out and grabs the egg. The parent doesn’t defy or violate the natural law, he or she steps in the idealized conditioned event and stops it from taking effect.

    No. No, you don’t.

    The event you describe is entirely explicable by natural causes. The effects on the egg are precisely what we would expect given the conditions and behavior of the system in which it was operating. The existence of parents can be verified, the motivations of a parent for catching the egg are logical and obvious, the level of physical dexterity required to catch a falling egg as you describe is certainly above human average but well within human limits, the muscular and neural processes behind that action are not fully understood yet but are clearly natural, and the event of the egg falling and being caught can be replicated with reasonable success (and with clearly understood reasons for failure). None of this is true of “supernatural” entities.

    There are events that we see in this natural world that we cannot describe.

    Such as?

    If it is something good that happened, and cannot be describe, think of it as a supernatural agent stepping in and and stopping the right conditions from taking effect.

    What conceivable excuse is there for invoking a supernatural (do you even know what the term means?) agent, rather than checking to verify that the event is replicable (or that it can be shown to have actually occurred in the first place), and doing research to find the previously unknown natural phenomenon that caused it?

    (No. No, you really, really don’t.)

  • Adam

    This person who wrote the article does not know anything. He or She has no knowledge of science or theology. It is shameful to read this article. Miracles and Magic is completely different. The argument is between science and miracles not magic and miracles. Please, if you want to argue against miracles, please atleast have a better argument. And since when is native american dancing miracles?!?!?

    Lame arguement

  • Alex Weaver

    This person who wrote the article does not know anything. He or She has no knowledge of science or theology. It is shameful to read this article. Miracles and Magic is completely different. The argument is between science and miracles not magic and miracles. Please, if you want to argue against miracles, please atleast have a better argument. And since when is native american dancing miracles?!?!?

    Lame arguement

    I think this is one of those “picture says a thousand words” moments.

  • lpetrich

    Bad analogy. adam, you have failed to address the question of how to distinguish a miracle from a non-miracle. I think that David Hume got it right, 250 years ago — an alleged miracle’s non-occurrence has to be an even bigger miracle.

    David Hume also noticed that the amount of miracles claimed declines as time goes on — miracles have a shyness effect, much as psi phenomena do. And over the 250 years since his work, the decline has continued even further.

  • lpetrich

    adam: Miracles work outside the realm of science. How do you disprove something that you can’t recreate no matter how you try.

    This is a common stereotype of scientific method that does not fit observational and historical sciences very well, sciences like astronomy and geology.

    For example, oxygen and potassium cumbust when they’re combined. But we have the same chemicals in our body, yet they we do not combust.

    That is because the potassium in our bodies is already burned, as it were — it is present as potassium ions.

    (analogy about a parent grabbing an egg…)

    Should I have expected anything more than argument by analogy?

  • Alex Weaver

    Not to mention parents aren’t supernatural (my mom seems to THINK she’s telepathic, but this is not borne out by experimental results). ;/

  • lpetrich

    Philosopher David Hume had made his arguments in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 10, “Of Miracles” (online here). And 250 years later, his arguments are still good.

    Miracles having a shyness effect is very apparent in the Bible, where the miracles become smaller and smaller as one continues along the timelines of each Testament.

    In the OT, God creates the Universe, then causes a giant flood, makes people speak different languages, torments the Egyptians and rescues the Israelites, makes the Sun and the Moon stop for Joshua, sics some bears on some little children, and makes an ax head float. Notice how they get smaller and smaller.

    The pace picks up a bit in the NT, however. Jesus Christ works lots of miracles; he conjures up food and drink, walks on water, drives out demons, and raises the dead, including himself. But the Holy Spook descends on the Apostles in fiery form, Ananias and Sapphira mysteriously drop dead, JC speaks to Paul from the sky, Paul raises someone from the dead, etc.

    We can also see this pattern in Greco-Roman history. The earliest history, usually nowadays dismissed as “mythology”, is full of miracles, with gods intervening in human affairs on a regular basis and even talking to people. But the better-documented later history has much smaller miracles, like Roman Emperor Vespasian’s miraculous cures and Roman Emperor Augustus telling some frogs to shut up when he was a boy.

    Medieval saints were described as working numerous miracles, but when we have good documentation of them, like for St. Francis Xavier, they get more and more miracles attributed to them as time goes on.

    But the miracles recognized by the Vatican for some recent saints are a few cures here and there — incredibly paltry by the standards of previous centuries.

  • Stephanie

    Interesting read. In my experience, however, I disagree with the statement here that magic promises easy answers. Magic is only a way to focus on a goal, just like prayer, just like meditating on an intention – or – dare I say it – a scientist writing down his or her goals and reading them daily. These actions are all the same, simply focused in a different way. Most magical practitioners DO NOT sit around waiting for a miracle to occur – they know and understand they must take steps in order to make their goal manifest, just like everyone else. This war seems to be between fundamental Christians and Atheists most of the time, but, it really galls me when Atheists start talking about magic, because if you haven’t practiced it and you haven’t seen it in action, then, you cannot talk about it intelligently. You can talk about your science all day, but, until you can talk to me intelligently about magic because you’ve experienced it, it would be wise to stop this nonsense.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @Stephanie:

    Magical thinking and ritualistic magic differ in the details, but they’re both equally useless. What you’re talking about seems to be the same nonsense I remember Scott Adams writing about years ago in one of his books. As I recall, he called it “affirmations”, although there are doubtless many other names for it.

    Believing something will happen, or having continuous thoughts about its occurrence, has no impact whatsoever on the likelihood of the event. This can and has been scientifically tested. You can prove it yourself very easily, though. Just set a goal that is well beyond your own individual power to achieve: say, becoming governor of your state.

    Choosing a goal which is under your own power is subject to a nearly unlimited confirmation bias. For example, if you set the goal as learning Chinese — anyone can do that, given enough time and patience. Affirming the goal has no meaning and certainly no magical powers. You should spend the time used to restate the goal toward actually achieving it.

    On the other hand — and this is where the confirmation bias comes full circle — if you don’t achieve a goal entirely within your own power to accomplish, then it’s trivial to blame that on not actually wanting it to begin with. Such failures are all very easy to dismiss, and the sympathetic magic never gets the blame.

    TLDR; wishing doesn’t make it so.

    Oh, and the root post was nearly five years old, by the way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    This war seems to be between fundamental Christians and Atheists most of the time, but, it really galls me when Atheists start talking about magic, because if you haven’t practiced it and you haven’t seen it in action, then, you cannot talk about it intelligently.

    I guess this means, “I don’t mind when atheists attack beliefs I also disagree with, but when they point out that the same criticisms are applicable to my beliefs, well, that’s just outrageous and rude.”

    Sorry, Stephanie, but all superstitions get the same treatment around here!

  • Brando

    Was Philip a Poe? I’m reading the comments thinking, “how can someone who can clearly engage critical thought – and seems knowledgable on the subject at hand – still be suffering this blatant cognitive dissonance?”

    Suddenly, almost miraculously (heh), he picks up a single book and a day layer decides to put away his childish things?

    My ever burning skepticism makes me suspicious and whispers to me that someone might be playing both sides of the board. =D

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    @Stephanie
    As someone who has spent a lot of his life around magic (My ex wife, also called Stephanie btw, was/is wiccan and I have very long standing friends in Cornwall, England,who are in a wiccan coven) I have a qualified respect for the mindset, while not buying into it personally. Most wiccans I know do not actually believe in the reality of gods and goddesses or spirits per se but see their religion as an expression of spirituality and environmentalism. You can accept the rituals and affirmations as a kind of positive thinking that motivates one to change the things that can be changed, to take action to achieve that which is physically possible to achieve and build a coherent world view that actively improves ones life. It is not rational however to assume that positive thinking of itself makes actual changes in the physical world. When pressed, my friends, with a couple of exceptions, acknowledge this. I’ve given up pointing out that that they may as well sidestep the woo aspect and just believe in themselves, as for the most part they do not harm either themselves or others by indulging in magical thinking. Aside from a propensity to waste their money on talismans, ash wands and assorted athames, they are mostly harmless.