Steve Hays asks whether atheists contradict themselves, saying, first, that no evidence would convince them of a miracle, and, second, that God is to blame for doubters’ lack of belief because he could have performed spectacular public miracles that would have convinced anybody and everybody. If I declare that nothing will convince me that a miracle has occurred, then surely it is inconsistent and unfair then to chide God for failing to deliver one. So, which is it? Will atheists concede that, in principle, there can be sufficient evidence to bear the rational conviction that miracles have occurred, or will they surrender one of their ostensibly most potent arguments–the argument from nonbelief–because, absent that concession, they cannot consistently and fairly charge God with failure to perform dramatic miraculous demonstrations of his existence?
Several things may be said in reply:
First, it is always enjoyable, when confronted by an accusation, to have a tu quoque ready to hand. William Lane Craig and other apologists quite blatantly employ a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy in arguing with atheists. Craig challenges atheists to show that the balance of evidence favors atheism, but states quite frankly that, whatever the objective evidence, the Christian’s conviction is secure since it is guaranteed by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. If it is unfair for the atheist to say to God “Show me that you exist, but(nyah! nyah!) nothing you do will convince me,” then it is equally unfair for Craig et al. to demand that atheists present evidence against theism, but then declare, in effect, “Evidence be damned; our assurance comes from on high.”
Second, the miracle that God could perform would not have to be something wildly histrionic, like flying mountains or elephants giving birth to Republican congressmen. God’s miracle could simply be to remove the delusions of unbelievers. God could say the word and the scales would fall from our eyes. We would suddenly see that our objections to theism are just empty quibbles. The theistic arguments, instead of looking like thin, watery, and nutritionless metaphysical gruel, would suddenly be seen in their true light–as solid as geometry,as irrefragable as arithmetic. The arguments of Christian apologists, instead of looking like self-serving spin, obfuscation, and special pleading would be seen as abundant common sense and sound scholarship.The problem of evil, instead of an enormous impediment to belief, would simply become transparently feeble. “Why, of course,” we would say “the death by starvation of 20,000 children in the world each day is no reason at all to doubt that we are under the tender providential care of an all-powerful and perfectly good being!” The Atheist blogs and discussion groups would be jammed with messages like “How could we have been so blind?” and “Surely, Satan must have deluded us!” No one could say that God would be acting unreasonably in performing such a miracle. On the contrary, he would be removing a major source of delusion and irrationality from the world.
Finally, speaking for myself and addressing Mr. Hays’ quote from my master’s thesis written twenty five years and three graduate degrees ago: I would still say, as I did then, that we know pretty well when some event lacks a scientific explanation, but we have no clear idea at all about what sorts of occurrences would be permanently inexplicable.The history of science is full of instances of events that, at the time, were seen as explicable only as divine punishment or providence, but which later got perfectly mundane explanations. The great mortality, the black death, of the 14th Century was seen, by educated and ignorant alike, as a manifestation of divine anger, the Scourge of God. Now, of course, we have a perfectly good scientific explanation of the plague interms of rats, fleas, and Yersinia pestis. Comets, of course, were once portents of doom, God’s fearsome messengers foretelling of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Now we know that comets are dirty snowballs. It seems, then, quite reasonable that if something were to occur today that appeared too marvelous for science to accommodate, the wise course would be to wait for science to catch up.
But I don’t take quite so hard a line as I did as a fiery young atheist convert in his twenties. If the marvelous pictures of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope had been underscored by light-years high luminous cursive writing in the wisps of nebulosity that read “I did this–Jehovah” –and if we could be quite sure that the scientists were not playing a gag–that would probably do it for me. Or maybe if all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they read “Prepare to meet Thy God!”or “Turn or Burn!” that would do it. Or, maybe, if all the lurid, revolting fantasies of the “Left Behind” books started happening–a”rapture” occurred, or banks started requiring that you have “666” on your forehead to approach the teller–that would convince me.
The upshot is that I still cannot spell out any criteria for what it would take to convince me that something is scientifically inexplicable, but I do say now that certain conceivable events would be so dramatic and so contrary to my expectations and so consistent with some version of theism, that I would throw in the towel. But, of course, Christian apologists have nothing to offer even vaguely approaching such public and stupendous events. The Resurrection? That allegedly occurred 2000years ago in very obscure circumstances. The narratives reporting this event were written by persons unknown many years after the supposed fact. These narratives are not eyewitness accounts, but hand-me-down stories, elaborated and redacted propaganda, riddled within consistencies, and with no external support or corroboration. I could go on; in fact I do in Why I am not a Christian, available on the Secular Web, so I’ll just leave it there. I think the way to see Hume’s argument is that it spells out just how heavy the burden of proof is on theists who want to invoke alleged miracles for apologetic purposes, not that it provides an in-principle, once-and-for-all, knock-down way of ruling out miracles. My reading of Hume’s argument is that he says that it is, in principle, possible to confirm, on the basis of human testimony, that an event has occurred contrary to the predictions of a recognized natural law, but (a) the testimony would have to be of impeccable quality, and (b) you should be so lucky as to ever get testimony of that quality. When we consider the paltry offerings of the actual apologetic literature, we see how right Hume was.