Anti-Supernatural Bias

The other day I had someone throw the charge of “anti-supernatural bias” at me. It’s a common accusation that tries to explain why the consensus of historians do not accept the historicity of Jesus’ miracles or his resurrection. The argument goes that secular historians have an “anti-supernatural bias” that causes them to throw out all supernatural claims from the past without considering the evidence, and therefore they cannot be relied on to accurately judge the historicity of the gospels.

I would argue with the bias part. I feel that it isn’t a prejudice, it’s a stance based on sound historical principles. However, I must admit that that in effect it is accurate.

First, I am highly skeptical of supernatural claims, and it would take a massive amount of evidence for me to accept their validity.

Second, it is probably impossible for such evidence to survive from ancient times in both sufficient quantity and quality.

So the upshot is that I almost automatically dismiss miracle claims from ancient times. It’s my default stance.

I could go into why I think this stance is justified, but I don’t think it’s worth it right now. I’d just like to point out that everybody accepts this stance when dealing with claims from other religious traditions.

I’ve yet to meet a Christian who accepts both the virgin birth that we read in Matthew and the conception of Cesare Augustus by the God Apollo that we read in Suetonius. They also reject the miracle stories of Muhammad, Buddha, and other religious figures. If they’re Protestant, they generally reject miracles in the stories of Catholic saints.

Shouldn’t we all try to apply the same standards to our own stories that we apply to everybody else’s stories? As James McGrath once pointed out, that’s not just a historical principle, that’s the golden rule:

And so what does it mean to do history from a Christian perspective? It doesn’t mean to allow for miracles in the Biblical stories while assuming that, when the cookies are missing and your child says he or she doesn’t know what happened to them, that you’re dealing with a lie and theft rather than a miracle. It doesn’t mean defending Christian claims to miracles and debunking those of others, nor accepting Biblical claims uncritically in a way you never would if similar claims were made in our time.

It means doing to the claims of others what you would want done to your claims. And perhaps also the reverse: doing to your own claims, views and presuppositions that which you have been willing to do to the claims, views and presuppositions of others

  • Sven

    “Throughout history, EVERY mystery EVER solved turned out to be not magic.”
    –Tim Minchin

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Off-topic: Possible Jedi slam at the Beebs

    How much gold is there in the world?
    His conclusions are accepted by some investors but such is the feeling between rival analysts that one competitor described Turk’s figures as an alternative to the GFMS’s “in the same way that Jedi is an alternative to Christianity“.

    I suppose he must mean ‘they’re both completely fictional, but one garners undue respect merely by dint of its longevity and popularity.’ That’s what he meant, right?

    • Michael

      That would be an astute analysis if that were what he meant.

      By the way, you confused the hell out of me when you called the BBC “the Beebs“.

      • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

        In the UK, the BBC is generally referred to as the Beeb, or sometimes as Auntie Beeb.

        I was disappointed when the Jedi Knights made their religion a bit too literal and dogmatic. I was hoping for something a bit more metaphorical.

        As to claims of anti-supernatural bias. There’s nothing wrong with being in favour of scientific method for determining the truth of a claim.

        If I claim (for instance) that the goddess Athena appeared to me and communicated with me, I don’t expect you to believe me, because you didn’t experience it. I would also assume, first and foremost, that the experience was internal and subjective to me – in fact, Athena may be an archetype or a projection from my psyche (in other words, my subconscious’s way of communicating with me conscious mind) rather than an objective external phenomenon. Even if it was an external phenomenon, it may not be relevant to anyone else. So, if confronted with an inexplicable event, I would first eliminate all material causes before assuming a “supernatural” cause. (Except I wouldn’t use the word “supernatural” because I don’t believe that deities are outside the universe.)

  • mikespeir

    I have yet to hear a good reason why I shouldn’t have an anti-supernatural bias.

    • Sunny Day

      Because Quantum.

  • trj

    While it is true that a scientific, historical, and natural approach by definition doesn’t concern itself with the supernatural, this argument is also an all too convenient excuse for not having to justify one’s supernatural claims.

    If we can’t use natural methods, which alternative method of verification and exploration are left? Revelation? Scriptural interpretation? Divine inspiration? We all know how reliable those are, as evidenced by the thousands of differing revelations and interpretations.

    You might as well just say it straight out: “This is what I believe, I don’t care for evidence, and I won’t be persuaded otherwise”.

  • The Vicar

    Historians have anti-supernatural bias? Wow. Gee, and light bulbs have an anti-dark bias, too!

    Geez, trying to come up with a narrative of the past which is supported by evidence and is plausible according to physical laws is what historians DO. Once you start allowing magic, you might as well publish a one-paragraph world history “textbook” which says: “the entire world was created just now, exactly as you see it, by God. All memories you have are strictly the invention of evil demons to make you question the divine creation.”

  • johnm

    Outlaws
    Robert Graves
    Owls: they whinney down the night,
    Bats go zigzag by.
    Ambushed in shadow out of sight
    The outlaws lie.

    Old gods, shrunk to shadows, there
    In the wet woods they lurk,
    Greedy of human stuff to snare
    In webs of murk.

    Look up, else your eye must drown
    In a moving sea of black
    Between the tree-tops, upside down
    Goes the sky-track.

    Look up, else your feet will stray
    Towards that dim ambuscade,
    Where spider-like they catch their prey
    In nets of shade.

    For though creeds whirl away in dust,
    Faith fails and men forget,
    These aged gods of fright and lust
    Cling to life yet.

    Old gods almost dead, malign,
    Starved of their ancient dues,
    Incense and fruit, fire, blood and wine
    And an unclean muse.

    Banished to woods and a sickly moon,
    Shrunk to mere bogey things,
    Who spoke with thunder once at noon
    To prostrate kings.

    With thunder from an open sky
    To peasant, tyrant, priest,
    Bowing in fear with a dazzled eye
    Towards the East.

    Proud gods, humbled, sunk so low,
    Living with ghosts and ghouls,
    And ghosts of ghosts and last year’s snow
    And dead toadstools.

  • Keulan

    Of course I have an anti-supernatural bias. I’ll continue to have that bias until people can provide evidence to support their supernatural claims. Really, it’s not so much an anti-supernatural bias as it is a pro-reality bias.

    • Prometheist

      Keulan,

      The reality you live in began from a singularity. Is there natural evidence for its cause? Also about 550 million years ago, almost all animal phyla on our planet suddenly appeared fully formed with no evidence of a step-wise evolutionary process from a single celled organism. If physics breaks down at the singularity and evolution is unable to explain the origin of life on earth, then what can explain it?

      Intelligent design proponents say that there is positive evidence for a designer in nature. This is mainly in the form of the information content in DNA and the existence of specified complexity in nature and biochemical systems in particular. Of course intelligent design does not necessarily entail a supernatural cause. But if not then we need to start looking for evidence of panspermia or some other natural cause for design.

      It seems that an anti-supernatural bias is unfounded these days with the continual findings of intelligent design researchers and the inability of traditional scientific disciplines to explain our origins and the fossil record.

      http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/strange/html/singular.html

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/03/4/l_034_02.html

  • Michael

    The reality you live in began from a singularity. Is there natural evidence for its cause?

    There is no evidence regarding its cause one at all, whether it be natural or not. It is not even clear that it has or must have a cause.

    Also about 550 million years ago, almost all animal phyla on our planet suddenly appeared fully formed with no evidence of a step-wise evolutionary process from a single celled organism. If physics breaks down at the singularity and evolution is unable to explain the origin of life on earth, then what can explain it?

    That’s not true. Most animal phyla are first found in the Cambrian, but they were not “fully formed” in any sense. They were all quite different from anything seen today. And they did not “appear suddenly,” at least to the extent the term “explosion” suggests. Your own source says “it was not as rapid as an explosion: the changes seems to have happened in a range of about 30 million years, and some stages took 5 to 10 million years. ” There are actually several plausible explanations for the Cambrian explosion, but it is so far in the past we cannot yet determine which one is correct. Looking half a billion years back in time is about as hard as it sounds. As for the origin of life itself, that’s about 3.8 billion years ago, and is not related to the Theory of Evolution.

    It seems that an anti-supernatural bias is unfounded these days with the continual findings of intelligent design researchers and the inability of traditional scientific disciplines to explain our origins and the fossil record.

    God I hope you are trolling. ID “researchers” haven’t found anything on their own. Their “findings” are poorly understood rehashings of old arguments or misquotes of legitimate scientists. Their position makes no sense, stating that evolution can occur “up to a point,” but then there’s some barrier, preventing animals of one “kind” from diversifying too much. There is no scientific basis for this, and indeed the evolution of new “kinds” (genera I guess?) of animals is well-documented in the fossil and molecular record.

    • kessy_athena

      Actually, what happened in the Cambrian was the sudden appearance (well, sudden in geological terms) of species with hard body parts like shells and exoskeletons that fossilize well. We know that complex multicellular life had been around for quite a while, however since those organisms were mostly soft bodied, they have left a very poor fossil record. The Ediacara biota are an ecosystem of enigmatic and poorly understood organisms that immediately preceded the Cambrian, flourishing roughly 600 – 540 million years ago. These organisms do not appear to be directly related to modern multicellular life, and have radically different body plans from anything we are familiar with – some of them actually resemble living quilts. There has been some discussion about whether they should even be classified as belonging to the animal kingdom, or any other modern kingdom. They were completely displaced at the beginning of the Cambrian by organisms that recognizably belong to modern animal phyla, such as mollusks and arthropods.

  • http://somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/ Robert Oerter

    Interesting article here about whether scientists need to assume the non-existence of the supernatural.


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