Conflicting Miracles

“Saint Jnanadeva is revered for his Bhagavad Gita translation and commentary in the Maharastrian language. Among several miracles that established this 13th-century saint’s reputation, the most famous involved a water buffalo. Challenged by the arrogant brahmins of Paithan that he was not qualified to recite the Vedas, Jnanadeva replied, ‘Anyone can recite the Vedas.’ He placed his hand upon a nearby water buffalo, which proceeded to correctly chant Vedic verses for more than an hour.”

“Thousands flocked to temples in Sri Lanka in early August 2006 after media reports that ‘miracle rays’ could be seen emanating from statues of the Buddha. As news of the extraordinary phenomenon spread, traffic was held up throughout the capital city of Colombo and its suburbs as large numbers of people visited temples and roadside Buddha statues.

…’Thousands vouched for having seen rays emanating from the chest of the Buddha statues and considered it a miracle,’ according to an article in a Sri Lankan newspaper.”

“I was heartbroken that my boyfriend decided to leave the relationship, so I had the Retrieve A Lover spell cast. Within a week of the spell casting, he called ‘just to talk.’ After some pleasant talks and catching up, he asked to see me again.

I felt he had started to turn around. I decided to date someone else just to see. He is absolutely crazy about me now and DOES see the good in me that I had hoped he would.

I am a college grad with a highly professional job. I was looking for answers. I got them.

I was so thrilled that I had the Money Spell cast a few months later. Within days I got a letter from the child support office that my child support was increasing by $172 a month!”

“In Kirtland, Joseph Smith made friends with a local resident, John Johnson. The Johnsons and several others visited Joseph at his home in 1831. Mrs. Johnson had been ill for years with a lame arm. It made her unable, for example, to lift her hand above her head. One of the group asked Joseph if God had given any man power to heal Mrs. Johnson. A non-member of the Church records what followed:

A few moments later, when the conversation had turned in another direction, Smith rose, and walking across the room, taking Mrs. Johnson by the hand, said in the most solemn and impressive manner, ‘Woman, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I command thee to be whole,’ and immediately left the room. The company was awe-stricken at the infinite presumption of the man, and the calm assurance with which he spoke. The sudden mental and moral shock – I know not how better to explain the well-attested fact – electrified the rheumatic arm – Mrs. Johnson at once lifted it up with ease, and on her return home the next day she was able to do her washing without difficulty or pain.”

“Narrated Anas:
A man came to the Prophet on a Friday while he (the Prophet) was delivering a sermon at Medina, and said, ‘There is lack of rain, so please invoke your Lord to bless us with the rain.’ The Prophet looked at the sky when no cloud could be detected. Then he invoked Allah for rain. Clouds started gathering together and it rained till the Medina valleys started flowing with water. It continued raining till the next Friday. Then that man (or some other man) stood up while the Prophet was delivering the Friday sermon, and said, ‘We are drowned; Please invoke your Lord to withhold it (rain) from us.’ The Prophet smiled and said twice or thrice, ‘O Allah! Please let it rain round about us and not upon us.’ The clouds started dispersing over Madinah to the right and to the left, and it rained round about Madinah and not upon Madinah. Allah showed them (the people) the miracle of His Prophet and His response to his invocation.”

“On May 13, 1917, a vision appeared to three shepherd children near the village of Fatima in Portugal. On a cloud that hovered above an oak tree they saw the shining figure of a woman, ‘a beautiful Lady from Heaven’. The lady told the children – Lucia, 10, Francisco, 9, and Jacinta, 7 – to meet her in the same place on the 13th of each month until October.
On the first two visits only the children claimed to have actually seen the lady, but on the third and last visit, a crowd of 50,000 gathered, on a wet and dismal day, to see the last apparition. This time the shining lady, again invisible to all but the children, announced her identity: she was Our Lady of the Rosary, and she told them three ‘secrets’ about the future.
Then something shocking happened.
The rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out. At first it seemed to start spinning and then it began to plunge crazily toward the earth. The crowd was terrified. After a moment the sun returned to its normal position and then, twice more, repeated the same maneuver.”

“These miracles were common enough in Rome, and among others this was believed, that when the Roman soldiers were sacking the city of Veii, certain of them entered the temple of Juno and spoke to the statue of the goddess, saying, ‘Wilt thou come with us to Rome?’ when to some it seemed that she inclined her head in assent, and to others that they heard her answer, ‘Yea.’”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1517)

Although our age is somewhat less credulous than past eras, human society is still awash in miracle claims. As the above examples show, they come from every faith and belief system, and they run the gamut: faith healings; weather miracles; snake-handling and poison-drinking; speaking in tongues; statues that move, weep, bleed, speak, eat or drink; miraculous prophecies and foretellings; psychics who claim they can view distant locations or communicate with the dead; “deliverances” from demons and evil spirits; spells and prayers to bring love, health and prosperity; “incorruptible” bodies; levitation and bilocation; divine manifestations in burned food and water damage; stigmata; multiplication of food and oil; speaking animals; and many more.

One of the greatest English-speaking philosophers of all time, David Hume, saw the fundamental problem with all these miraculous stories in his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

To make this the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.

…This argument may appear over subtile and refined; but is not in reality different from the reasoning of a judge, who supposes, that the credit of two witnesses, maintaining a crime against any one, is destroyed by the testimony of two others, who affirm him to have been two hundred leagues distant, at the same instant when the crime is said to have been committed.

In other words, Hume says, the conflicting miracle claims of various religions cancel each other out. These religions cannot all be true, since they make incompatible theological claims. (I note for completeness’ sake that they can all be false.) We can safely assume that, if a religion is false, any miracle claims advanced in its name are exaggerations or frauds. It follows that when considering whether any particular miracle claim is true, we must consider all the miracle claims of all other religions to count as evidence to the contrary. And since there are so many of these, no matter which religion’s miracle claims you’re considering, the vast number of miracle claims from other religions which stand in opposition to it make the claim under consideration very probably false. It’s as if there was a vast crowd of people, and whenever any one person stands to assert a claim, the entire rest of the crowd shouts out to contradict him.

Although it’s useful to debunk particular miracle anecdotes – and I have nothing but admiration for the dedicated skeptics who go out to investigate every new wild-goose chase – this argument shows why we don’t need to. Seven hundred years later, no one can really know for sure whether a water buffalo spoke on one occasion in the 13th century. But the burden of proof is not on the doubter to disprove. The burden of proof lies on the person making the claim, and no apologist for any religion can offer any evidence for their miracles that is superior to the evidence offered by any other. Thus, these stories offer no grounds for making a decision among all the faiths that promote them. If any miracle could be repeated, tested, under reliable and controlled conditions by independent observers, that would be something. But, so far, no religion has come anywhere close to meeting this high burden of proof.

The sole argument a theist could offer to dispute any of this, which I have no doubt will be offered by some, is for them to say that their miracles are from God, while the “miracles” of other religions are false signs performed by demons to mislead the unwary. But since any member of any religion can use that argument in exactly the same way, it is no help in deciding among them. It may soothe the troubled minds of the faithful, but it cannot have any persuasive force to anyone who is not already committed to one belief.

The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
The World in the Dark
Weekend Coffee: July 5
Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness
About Adam Lee

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