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More on the Case Against Miracles: Michael Shermer Guest Post

This is the second guest post by Michael Shermer, from his Foreword to the new book edited by John Loftus, The Case Against Miracles. ((For the first, see yesterday’s post)  Michael is on the blog and is happy to respond to comments you have.

 

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When we are thinking about miracles, as with anything else that happens in the world, what we are after is a causal explanation, and here John Loftus cuts to the chase when he cites my friend and colleague David Kyle Johnson’s definition of a miracle—winnowed-down from Hume—as “A miracle is simply an event caused by God.” As Johnson explains, “For any given event, if we knew that God took special care to cause it, we would (and should) call that event a miracle—regardless of whether it involved the violation of natural law.” However, it is important to distinguish this from something that appears divinely-caused but was, in fact, simply a highly improbable natural occurrence, along the lines of my million-to-one odds analysis above. We want to distinguish between a natural and a supernatural event when considering miracle claims. This is why I agree with Loftus’ definition:

A miracle is a supernaturally caused extraordinary event of the highest kind, one that’s unexplainable and even impossible by means of natural processes alone.

Pulling back to look at an even bigger picture of what we’re after here in thinking about miracles is the question What is truth? This is the question I have been trying

This post gets even more interesting — how do you know what is “true”???   Want to keep reading?  Join the blog.  It’s chock full of interesting information and views, and it is crazily affordable — just about two bucks a month.  And all the money goes to charity.  So why not?

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Christmas 2019
The Case Against Miracles

81

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 23, 2019

    There are about 7 billion bibles in the world today that say Jesus rose from the dead, and Christians have been saying and writing that very same thing for a few thousand years. That’s some weighty, objective evidence. If a Martian stepped off a flying saucer and commanded, “take me to your leader,” and you handed him a New Testament, you would be found credible by the Martian, even if you were not a Christian. Regardless of what faith you believe, or even if you don’t believe in anything at all, Jesus of Nazareth is the person who has had the most influence on the world we live in today.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 28, 2019

      A Martian is a nonbeliever, an outsider. An outsider is the perspective with which you should approach your culturally indoctrinated faith. I wrote a book on how best to approach your religion and it’s akin to being a Martian.

      The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True

      https://www.amazon.com/dp/1616147377/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_eD2bEbD4YWXJC

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      By this reckoning, the truth value of a claim is determined by popularity of the claim, a form of (particularly in this case) Vox Populi, Vox Dei (Latin, “the voice of the people is the voice of God”) but our Martian visitor would then likely inquire about the truth value of Islamic claims, inasmuch as there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, not far behind the 2.1 billion Christians. And since Islam is growing faster than Christianity, it is only a matter of time before the one religion surpasses the other in numbers and, by this reasoning, the validity of their claims.

      • Avatar
        zebrowski@charter.net  December 30, 2019

        Hello Michael! I am a big fan of your Science Salon podcast! I am a Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist. (David Koresh was not BTW. See: https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/1958/507.pdf?sequence=1 ) I too was a born-again Christian, but for 25 years before I quit! Anyway, I am a materialist, that is, one who believes that the only thing that exists is material substance. A spiritualist believes in the existence of the non-physical, like most religious people do. I believe the “Mighty One” of Ancient Israel is a particular being, not outside of space or time. (This is what the ancient Hebrew writings portray “El,” unfortunately translated as “God” in our English bibles, as…a being with form and substance, hair, hands, loins, sits on a throne, comes to earth at times, has messengers, has a wife and kids, etc.) Oh, and how cool, Genesis 1:27 says we humans, male and female, are made in “Their” image, (Elohim is a plural word, feminine base, “Eloah,” with a masculine plural ending, “im.”) If a human like creature, with simply human intelligence, lived for thousands of years, (an ET), their science would seem like a “miracle” to us! (I’ve heard you say this before…and this is exactly what we believe!) Scientists, as you know, are working on raising the dead. Why would they do this if there was no scientific hope this was possible? Never tell Elon Musk that something is impossible! I do not believe the entire bible is inspired….each claim must be investigated independently. The non-inspired accounts are still valuable however. There are many attestations to the risen Jesus. So many, in fact, that it would be considered historical if not believed to be impossible to us at this point in our evolutionary history. It is possible, in material reality, for an advanced humanoid ET to easily do this. And I have to say, it is difficult to explain the rise in the belief that Jesus was resurrected if it never happened. There were other “Messiahs,” other resurrection stories, but none made it off the launching pad. Maybe some claims in the Hebrew OT are correct. Maybe there is intelligent life on other planets. Maybe “Elohim” is a plurality of real beings. The Hebrew word for “create,” “bara” does not mean to create something from nothing, “ex nihilo.” It means to gather, form, name, purpose…much like an inventor would “create” a cell phone. I would love to talk to you!

    • Avatar
      AHBrown  December 29, 2019

      The number of people who believe a thing is hardly evidence of that thing. And hardly objective.

  2. Avatar
    CFSmith  December 23, 2019

    Take a miracle story from the New Testament, say walking on water or loaves and fishes. Hypothetically, what evidence would be required to satisfy Hume’s criterion? What evidence would you require to prove these events actually happened and were miracles? Honestly, I can’t think of anything that would convince me – no minimum number of eyewitness accounts, no physical evidence. Does Hume’s Maxim amount to an assumption that miracles are impossible?

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 28, 2019

      No. It does amount to rejecting mere testimonial evidence alone though, especially in the Bible, and it’s all testimonial evidence.

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      I have an additional problem that I’ve seen magicians like Penn & Teller walk on water and turn water into wine. They’re magic tricks. Miracles would be the equivalent of so-called “real magic”, and because good magicians can perform what appears to be real magic (but isn’t) it raises the bar for what we would be willing to accept as a genuine miracle claim.

      • Avatar
        CFSmith  December 30, 2019

        Exactly! Magicians can be fooled by another magician. So magicians cannot reliably distinguish a true miracle from a false one. Scientists have also been duped by fakers. So scientists cannot reliably distinguish a true miracle from a false one. Which is more likely – that a scientist is fooled or an instrument malfunctions, or that a purported miracle is real? Testimonial evidence and physical evidence can falsify a miracle, but I don’t see how they can verify a miracle.

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 23, 2019

    In your previous post, you suggested us nonbelievers purchase and gift a copy of your book to our favorite Catholic radio apologists and others. I’m going to skip doing that, but I will get an extra copy for my born again neighbor who has been trying to lead me to accept Jesus for over ten years! He also belongs to a weekly men of prayer group. Members “pray for people with cancers and liver problems and believe in god to heal.” Hope he enjoys it.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  December 23, 2019

    I ordered the book this weekend! Of course this time of year we are deluged with Christmas movies, and I love them (well, some of them), but often the message of these movies is that you just have to believe, have faith. The Polar Express, for example: the ultimate message is BELIEVE. But in the real world that is a terrible message! That is how people get conned out of their life savings. Or end up following a corrupt politician, or religious leader. A much better message would be THINK, or REASON! But then, what fun is that?

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 23, 2019

    Very interesting and very helpful. I would suggest adding that maybe the disciples dreamed of Jesus after His death and this seemed to them like a real appearance of Jesus. I have heard numerous people and patients claim that so and so visited them after so and so had died when what they were really describing was a dream.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 23, 2019

      In my chapter on the resurrection I offer a really good explanation for the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s based on rationalization due to cogntive dissonance reduction.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  December 24, 2019

      Hi, Ronald. An interesting fact is that people in the ancient world, especially in first century Palestine, already believed dreams were “real” in an ontological sense. It wouldn’t have to be a particularly salient, vivid, or “realistic” dream for them to consider it a real occurrence. Both testaments of the Bible indicate this fact. If something happened in a dream, then it happened in real life. As a result, it would not have made much of a difference to the disciples if we were to inform them that they only dreamt of Jesus’ resurrection. I can imagine their response would have been, “Yeah, so what?” : )

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  December 26, 2019

        Hi Darren –

        Thanks so much for making the time and effort to participate on the blog! I have purchased JWL’s Against Miracles anthology, and look forward to getting into it, and especially your chapter 4 on psychology.

        Your point here is an interesting one, and a very intuitive notion – that the ancients had a more epistemologically and ontologically “accepting” view of dreams than we moderns do.

        To make sure I’m not just succumbing to a relative of confirmation bias (or perhaps being prejudicial against the credulity of pre-scientific ancients), if possible, would you mind unpacking this a bit with some examples/evidence or pointing me in a direction of further scholarly reading?

        And if you address this in the book, I’m looking forward to it.

        Thanks much!

        • darrenmslade
          darrenmslade  December 28, 2019

          Hi, Hngerhman!
          There is actually so much written on the subject that I’m not sure where to begin. I can point you to a few of my favorite resources on the subject, but I bet a simple Google Scholar and Google Books search can supplement this list:
          1) The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (A. Leo Oppenheim)
          2) Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity (William V Harris)
          3) Mesopotamian Conceptions of Dreams and Dream Rituals (S. A. L. Butler)
          4) Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World (J.-M. Husser)
          5) “Standing at the Heads of Dreamers: A Study of Dreams in Antiquity” (Frances Lynn Flannery-Dailey; Ph.D. diss., The University of Iowa, May 2000).
          6) Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (F. Flannery-Dailey)
          7) The Dream and Human Societies (ed. G. E. Von Grunebaum and R. Caillois)
          8) “Dreams and Visions in the Graeco-Roman World and Early Christianity” (J. S. Hanson)
          9) Convinced That God Had Called Us: Dreams, Visions, and the Perception of God’s Will in Luke-Acts (J. B. F. Miller)
          10) Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (P. C. Miller)

          Does this help?

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  December 31, 2019

            This is phenomenal, thank you!

      • Avatar
        Miles  December 30, 2019

        Would you mind pointing to sources for this first century belief about dreams? Thanks.

        • Avatar
          Miles  December 30, 2019

          Please disregard my question. Your list of sources didn’t appear for me originally.

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 23, 2019

    With this line of reasoning we could discount all historic claims of miracles and arrive at the unwarranted conclusion that no miracles at all are possible.

    If however we assume at least one miracle can occur the historical evidence for it being in 1st century palestine would then be pretty good.

    Whether no miracles are possible or at least one can occur is for now unanswerable.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 23, 2019

      What if miracles are indeed impossible? You must allow for this hypothesis.

      Why must anyone assume anything about miracles?

      Let’s let the objective evidence (or lack thereof) dictate what we can reasonably accept.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  December 24, 2019

        Yes for now we should allow both possibilities – that no mirackes are possible or that at least one miracle is possible.

        If you have a method which enables you to discount all miracle claims you should be suspicious of the method. Because for now that question shouldnt be decidable.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  December 24, 2019

          No one in my anthology, or David Hume, has said miracles are impossible. They may be impossible, if one asks whether an incorporable spirit can act in the material world. Such a question is a metaphysical one. We’re asking epistemological questions.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  December 24, 2019

            But someone rising from the dead is an epistemological claim. If someone rose from the dead in the past all we would have as evidence is eyewitness testimony. According to Hume’s reasoning every instance of these claims should be discounted.

            This reasoning will guarantee we mis-characterize a resurrection event should it have ever occurred.

            If we’re open to the possibility of at least one miracle occurring we shouldnt be satisfied with this method of reasoning.

          • darrenmslade
            darrenmslade  December 24, 2019

            Hi there! While the claim that someone “rose from the dead” has overlaps with epistemology, the claim extends beyond just one field of study. A resurrection claim is (at the very least) also a medical, historical, biological, and potentially scientific claim. And depending on the date of the claim, we would not necessarily have to rely solely on eyewitness testimony. For instance, in Craig Keener’s two-volume book, Miracles, he documents numerous modern-day resurrection claims. Theoretically, a resurrection claim could appear in the New York Times tomorrow complete with video surveillance footage, medical documentation, pre- and post-laboratory results, medical examiner investigations, and (of course) eyewitness testimony. The point is that neither Hume nor anyone in The Case for Miracles suggests that these claims need to be discounted automatically. Rather, as Chapter 4 of the book explains in detail, we shouldn’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony. There are numerous psychological factors that could be at play here. In the event that all we have are eyewitness claims, however, the possibility that human testimony is mistaken (or fraudulent) will always be more likely than the notion that a natural law suddenly went awry due to an undetectable supernatural agent. By definition and by everyone’s experience (including yours), people make mistakes (or lie) far more often than physics or biology going amiss. This doesn’t mean that miracles are impossible, but it does mean we should require more than just stories (even if those stories are first-hand accounts). This was Hume’s argument. That’s his line of reasoning. It’s not a mischaracterization of miracles or resurrection claims. It’s a statement of caution that says simply, Don’t believe everything you hear or read. People are not always credible, suitable, or accurate eyewitnesses.
            Thank you for your post!

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  December 24, 2019

            brenmcg: “This reasoning will guarantee we mis-characterize a resurrection event should it have ever occurred.

            If we’re open to the possibility of at least one miracle occurring we shouldn’t be satisfied with this method of reasoning.”
            ————–

            No! We can be open to the possibility a miracle took place even though reasonable people must require sufficient objective evidence for it. And if no miracle rises to the reasonable requirement for objective evidence then so be it. What we would be left with is the possibility that a miracle took place but that we can’t show that it did.

            That’s all a believer has, by the way. This means believers should honestly admit that even though they can’t show a miracle took place, they believe it did anyway.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  December 26, 2019

            Yes but that’s the point. Using Hume’s method alone you may end up discounting an actual miracle.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  December 26, 2019

            Yes, but there is no other alternative except to believe any miracle tale simply because it’s accepted in one’s cultural religious history. Furthermore, being naively uncritical about miracle tales will allow any nefarious huckster to take advantage of you, such that he could take your wife, your children, your money, and your life. Surely a good god would not want to put you at risk like that.

            If a reasonable god created us as reasonable people then he should give reasonable people what they require. Otherwise, he would be condemning reasonable people to hell for not giving them what he created them to require.

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      Actually, the evidence for at least one miracle occurring in 1st century Palestine is pretty thin, not even as good as evidence for the lives of Roman citizens, much less Senators and Emperors. But the point is the principle of proportionality, or extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which the resurrection story fails utterly to achieve.

  7. Avatar
    Gary  December 23, 2019

    Excellent. I hope that Michael Licona (and every other Christian apologist) will return to this blog and read this post. Your concise, very clear statements regarding how one should evaluate any truth claim are absolutely devastating to the Christian supernatural belief system! Keep up the good work. (And sell A LOT of books!)

  8. Avatar
    doug  December 23, 2019

    Thanks, Bart, for the heads-up on the Loftus book. I will probably buy that one, and I’ll definitely buy your book “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife” when it comes out.

  9. Avatar
    RedMex_Reason  December 23, 2019

    Great Stuff! Really enjoyed the paragraph about “eyewitnesses” with regard to resurrections.
    Need to get the book — still reading his “Christianity is Not Great” book.

  10. Avatar
    veritas  December 23, 2019

    I have listened to Michael Shermer in debates, most recently with Dennis Prager on the Rubin report. I admire his patience and civility, considering Mr. Prager is one with a deep voice and hard to speak over. Mr. Shermer if you read this post, I must tell you that being a uneducated person myself, I would have no trouble engaging in dialogue with you. You are pleasant and easy to get along with. I am curious though. You never specified your reason for leaving faith in the above debate. Why did you? Back to the topic, Miracles. Okay, I am compelled by your analysis, some good points are made. I concur that we cannot attach, *God*, to every extraordinary event that occurs. We must also agree, that we cannot explain every extraordinary event that occurs. The Big Bang, is nothing more than a theory. Science, I am sure, is still working on plausible evidence that might strengthen their claim. Data, numbers, philosophies do not amount to conclusions, just opinions and probabilities. Look at Malaysian airlines flight that disappeared from radar after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur in 2014. Four years of search came up empty. With all the sophisticated technology and experts we have today, the 239 people on board are presumed dead, with no disclosure to the bereaved families. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, winning gold at Lake Placid, is unexplainable. No one, I mean no one in the right mind, could have predicted,with reasoning, the outcome. I love hockey and remember watching this event in disbelief. That is why it was dubbed ,” The Miracle on Ice’. The age of the Universe. Some will say its 14 billions old, others ( mostly believers) will say it is less than 10,000 yrs. like Grady Mcmurtry, ex-scientist. Again, compelling arguments are everywhere. We are left to choose who/what makes the most sense and that becomes difficult, especially when many great people (thinkers) are on both side of the fence. Try and change William Lane Craig’s conviction or Sam Harris. Who do you follow? What is truth, Pilate exclaimed to Jesus. Like Pilate, we all search and maybe never arriving. I think whoever wrote the Bible would of never believed 2000 yrs later we are still debating its essence. Now that is a miracle.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 24, 2019

      You make a lot of unevidenced and irrelevant assertions. If you want clarity you should get and read the book. Cheers.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  December 24, 2019

      Hi, Veritas. We mustn’t confuse unscientific claims (e.g. Creation science), or as yet unexplainable events (the exact cause of Malaysian Airlines crashing), or unexpected occurrences (the US hockey team beating Russia) with “compelling arguments” or with “miracles.” And we most certainly should not confuse a scientific theory (the Big Bang) with its nontechnical usage among the masses. A scientific theory is not the same thing as a hunch, an opinion, or mere speculation. The truth is, underdogs winning a game or airplanes crashing (sadly) are not uncommon and have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations. They’re not miracles (properly defined) and they’re most certainly not inexplicable events.

      As far as there being many great thinkers on both sides of the aisle, this may not actually be as true as you think (especially regarding miracle claims). This assertion is one of the unfortunate results of hearing things like “Fair and Balanced News” from cable television. Facts are not fair or balanced. For example, Fox News may do a segment on climate change and present one scientist who believes climate change is real and manmade. They may then present another scientist who claims the exact opposite and say, “You decide,” as if the truth of the matter were up to the viewers (and not the experts). Does this mean there are “compelling arguments” or great thinkers on both sides? No. In reality, 97-98% of all climate scientists and meteorologists concur with the first scientist. Those who disagree are usually not qualified to make a pronouncement on climate change. Likewise, the vast majority of qualified scientists, researchers, academics, and philosophers do not believe in miracles or the existence of God. According to them, the reason for their nonbelief is because they are familiar with the relevant evidence and arguments and have concluded that atheism is the most reasonable of all options (for the social-scientific evidence supporting my claims here, see the book chapter, “Moral Culpability and Choosing to Believe in God” by David Kyle Johnson in Atheism and the Christian Faith). The point is that just because some people argue for a position, doesn’t mean that their argumentation is compelling, convincing to most experts, dependent on reason, or evidentially-based. The facts are not fair and balanced. Read the book and see why! : )
      Thanks, Veritas!

      • Avatar
        veritas  December 25, 2019

        Merry Christmas. Thanks Darren for clarifying your position as much as I can understand. I agree with your analysis, for the most part. When I say compelling arguments, by those qualified, I mean not the one’s you speak of not qualified to make such announcements, but rather those who are. For instance, Mike Licona not agreeing with Bart Ehrman, both qualified yet holding different views/positions. William Lane Craig and John Loftus( sorry John, I put you in there because I read you studied under him), both qualified holding different views. There are many more examples, but you get my point. Yes, as you say, the listener is left to decide as if we know the answer, when in fact we are left in limbo as to what to believe. That is what I mean by compelling arguments. Mr. Ehrman, who I admire, spoke of being very few scholars, like himself, that are agnostic/atheist. Paula Frederiksen is an historian, but her views may be somewhat different then Bart’s, because she believes in Judaism. When I spoke of Malaysian flight, not that planes crash, but with all the sophistication of today, authorities and rescue missions could not locate its whereabouts, unsolved mystery. The U.S. team winning gold. You say they have perfectly reasonable natural explanations. What are they? I say it’s a miracle, because by one definition of miracle, it is a high improbable, extraordinary event that is inexplicable by natural laws. Science, I agree, should not be regarded as opinion. What I mean in citing the Big Bang, is that it’s a scientific hypothesis and one possibility that has been accepted over time. It is not certain. Richard Dawkins, who I also admire, frequently testifies, that science does not have all the answers to every extraordinary event that occurs. I am not disagreeing with you, but it must be said that some events are hard to explain no matter how well researched and written. We are merely reiterating with new words/philosopny a past theory. I encourage you to listen to a debate on miracles; Ian Hutchison and Donald Hubin. Two professors from credible schools and yet the atheist p.o.v. is somewhat surprising. Epistemology, as John refers to, is an investigation not a certainty. Can we ever know for sure?

        • darrenmslade
          darrenmslade  December 29, 2019

          The problem with calling the US winning an Olympic gold medal a “miracle” is that it strains any reasonable (and scholastically accepted) definition of a bona fide miracle. Even Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, and other theologians who have written on the subject would disagree with you. We know there are natural explanations for the US winning the gold because we can watch the video of it. It doesn’t take an act of god to win a game. The US hockey players scored more points in the match. The end. Nothing miraculous about it. Was it unexpected? Sure. Improbable? Maybe. Miraculous? Not even close.

          Calling something unexpected, mysterious, or highly improbable a “miracle” would mean all sorts of things qualify as a miracle. For example, if I were to shuffle a deck of cards and then deal them out randomly, the likelihood of getting a straight flush is unexpected and highly improbable, but it does happen from time-to-time. That doesn’t mean it’s a miracle. Changing the definition of what a “miracle” is does not prove your point; it merely illustrates a willingness to change the facts to suit an argument. That’s not a good thing.

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      I wrote about my own conversion to Christianity, and my deconversion, in my book The Believing Brain, Chapter 3. Here is the relevant section:

      There were a number of factors involved in my de-conversion—in my becoming unborn, again—going back to my conversion experience. Shortly after I accepted Christ into my heart, I eagerly announced to my high school friend Frank that I had become a Christian. Expecting an enthusiastic embrace of acceptance into the club he had long cajoled me to join, Frank instead was disappointed that I had gone to a Presbyterian church—and joined no less!—which he explained was a big mistake because that was the “wrong” religion. Frank was a Jehovah’s Witness. After high school I attended Glendale College where my faith was tested by a number of secular professors, most notably Richard Hardison, whose philosophy course forced me to check my premises, along with my facts, which were not always sound or correct. But the Christian mantra was that when your belief is tested it is an opportunity for your faith in the Lord to grow. And grow it did, since there were some fairly serious challenges to my faith.
      After Pepperdine, when I began my graduate studies in experimental psychology at the California State University, Fullerton, I was still a Christian, although the foundations of my faith were already cracking under the weight of other factors. Out of curiosity, I registered for an undergraduate course in evolutionary biology, which was taught by an irrepressible professor named Bayard Brattstrom, a herpetologist (the study of reptiles) and showman extraordinaire. The class met on Tuesday nights from 7:00 to 10:00 pm, during which I discovered that the evidence for evolution is undeniable and rich and the arguments for creationism that I had been reading were duplicitous and hallow. After Bayard exhausted himself with a three-hour display of erudition and entertainment, the class adjourned to the 301 Club in downtown Fullerton, a nightclub where students hung out to discuss The Big Questions, aided by adult beverages. Although I had already been exposed to all sides in the great debates in my various courses and readings at Pepperdine, what was strikingly different in this context was the heterogeneity of my fellow students’ beliefs. Since I was no longer exclusively surrounded by Christians there were no social penalties for being skeptical…about anything. Except for the 301 Club discussions that went on into the wee hours of the morning, however, religion almost never came up in the classroom or lab. We were there to do science, and that is almost all we did. Religion was simply not part of the environment. So it was not the fact that I learned about evolutionary theory that rent asunder my Christian faith; it was that it was okay to challenge any and all beliefs without fear of psychological loss or social reprisal. There were other factors as well.

      In the end, though, what finally tipped my belief into skepticism was the problem of evil—if God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, then why do bad things happen to good people? First, there was the intellectual consideration, where the more I thought about things like cancer, birth defects, and accidents, the more I came to believe that God is either impotent or evil; or simply nonexistent. Second, there was an emotional consideration that I was forced to confront on the most primal of levels. I’ve never told anyone this before, but the last time I ever prayed to God was in early 1980, shortly after I decided that I no longer believed in God. What happened to bring me back one last time?
      My college sweetheart, Maureen Hannon, a brilliant and beautiful Alaskan whom I met at Pepperdine and whom I was still dating, was in a horrific automobile accident in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Maureen worked for an inventory company that vanned their employees around the state during off hours, sleeping supine on bench seats between jobs. The van veered off the highway and rolled several times, snapping Maureen’s back and rendering her paralyzed from the waist down. When she called me in the wee hours of the morning from a Podunk hospital hours from Los Angeles, I figured it couldn’t be too bad since she sounded as lucid and sanguine as ever. It wasn’t until days later, after we had her transported to the Long Beach Medical Center to put her into their hyperbaric chamber to pressure-feed oxygen into her tissues to try to coax some life into her severely bruised spinal cord, did the full implications of what this meant for her begin to dawn on me. The cognizance of Maureen’s prospects generated a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, an indescribable sense of dread—what’s the point if it can all be taken away in the flash of a moment?
      There, in the ER, day after dreary day, night after sleepless night, alternating between pacing up and down cold sterile hallways and sitting on hard plastic chairs in the waiting room listening to the moans and prayers of other grieving souls, I took a knee and bowed my head and asked God to heal Maureen’s broken back. I prayed with deepest sincerity. I cried out to God to overlook my doubts in the name of Maureen. I willingly suspended all disbelief. At that time and in that place, I was once again a believer. I believed because I wanted to believe that if there was any justice in the universe—any at all—this sweet, loving, smart, responsible, devoted, caring spirit did not deserve to be in a shattered body. A just and loving God who had the power to heal, would surely heal Maureen. He didn’t. He didn’t, I now believe, not because “God works in mysterious ways” or “He has a special plan for Maureen”—the nauseatingly banal comforts believers sometimes offer in such trying and ultimately futile times—but because there is no God.

      • Avatar
        Agnostic1987  January 2, 2020

        This is heart-wrenching. I felt my stomach drop reading this. I don’t know what else to say I’m so sorry.

  11. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 24, 2019

    On the impossibility of miracles, would you agree that, as of today, materialistic reductionism (or “physicalism”) is the surviving paradigm for understanding reality? If not, where is there room for alternative or supplemental principles?

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 28, 2019

      No one says miracles are impossible in my book. It’s just that miracles don’t happen, or if they do, there isn’t enough objective evidence to show that they do.

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    darren  December 24, 2019

    Such logical arguments are not likely to sway the minds of people who spend their lives trying to reconcile errors in the gospel or prove the most likely historical reality is that Jesus was raised from the dead. In a modern context, I’d argue that people put similar miraculous faith in politicians who cultivate a cult of personality, and are raised to near messianic status by supporters. Would love to hear your thoughts about why people cling to discredited world views and put blind faith in leaders who give lip service to those views.

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    veritas  December 25, 2019

    I just wanted to clarify when I spoke of Paula Frederiksen believing in Judaism. My point is she believes and Bart does not anymore. Both highly credible professors in history, yet may not be in agreement with everything relating to historic events. Personal assumptions sway one way or the other. I would not discredit anyone just because I don’t see his/her p.o.v. Oftentimes though, debaters and scholars will say to make a point, ” most scholars agree “. It is one of the most used responses when addressing a crowd, to imply majority concurs. The majority of listeners are not scholars and yet we hear this as if we should believe their claim. Lastly, the majority of Scientists you cite as having weighed the relevant evidence, conclude that atheism is the most reasonable of all options. Yes, I agree,* of all options*. Because we cannot make sense of it , a non belief is easier to accept without declaring its true.. The majority agreeing does not make it true. It just tells us that from what we know thus far, it may be the most acceptable. Someone else will come out and muster another way of looking at it and garner a following whom many may find his/her research and hypothesis compelling. If there was absolute concrete evidence on this and other difficult subjects, there would be no need to continue studies and research. It just keeps our thoughts open to possibilities and being a non-believer myself, I keep reading and enjoying never discrediting another’s belief. I hope I made myself more clear, but have enjoyed writing this during the Christmas Day. What would be better? Thanks Darren, John, Michael and of course Bart for connecting us.

  14. Avatar
    shunter  December 25, 2019

    (Briefly) Miracles? No. Physics, plain & simple. A person’s frequency and volume can now be measured. Take the bleeding woman in the Bible story (a mystery teaching). Jesus was probably “broadcasting at 100 Hz (spiritually enlightened) and the woman at 20 Hz (near death). She touched Jesus’s hem, he was drained of “power” and she was “healed”. Low freq. automatically raises to the higher (but not v.v.). That’s perhaps why he is said to have said that we should “follow him” (raise our frequency), and these things and more shall we do. This is where science comes in to enhance our religious practices; raise your vibration through prayer, chanting, etc.

  15. Julian
    Julian  December 25, 2019

    When I first met my now wife, she held some really crazy ideas from conspiracy theorists who make money by entertaining, confusing and manipulating people. I didn’t mock or criticize her as I welcome her free and independent thought. Instead we read together some books by Michael Shermer and others which explain the approach to issues of a sceptic. Although resistant to some of Shermer’s positions initially, eventually she understood this approach and now says that she sees life with much more clarity and freedom as she looks for genuine truth. Thank you Michael for your contribution to help nullify some very silly ‘debates’ going around the net and even in publication.

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      Wow, what a splendid testimonial Julian! One never knows if one’s work really reaches people unless they reach back to say something. So, thank you!

  16. Avatar
    mikezamjara  December 26, 2019

    Hi Mr shermer

    It is amazing to talk to people of your academic size. My question is about the null hypothesis. Athough in scientific research, the aproach you give is the one that it is used, It doesn’t work to convince people that already believe in miracles. It works when you want to take a defensive position when a religious person tries to convince you but it doesn’t work if you want to convince other person to change their minds. If the second is the case, the null hypothesis should be the beliefs that those people already have and to demostrate that they are almost impossible. I mean the null hypothesis, I think, should be the belief you want to invalidate and the burden of proof should rest in the person that is trying to convince the other.

    • michaelshermer
      michaelshermer  December 29, 2019

      You may be right Mike, although I know of no data testing that hypothesis: that invoking the null hypothesis as a challenge to supernatural beliefs convinces anyone to change their mind. In any case, it is but one of many strategies one can employ, another being Socratic: ask lots of questions, such as “Why do you believe that?” “What evidence is there for that claim?” And most importantly: “What would it take to change your mind?”

  17. dwfoley2
    dwfoley2  December 26, 2019

    “When we are thinking about miracles … what we are after is a causal explanation …
    [and] the burden of proof is on the miracle claimant.”

    Is that it? Just an exercise in how we know what we know?

    Do you have something to say about the law or politics of resurrection? That would interest me. Can you walk me through the gospels and Acts and show me how their authors carefully, purposefully grounded and immunized each witness’ preposterous claim in the laws of Moses precisely because doing so would best advance Christ’s polemic against salvation by law alone rather than also and necessarily by righteousness and grace? Or, can you do the opposite; can you show me that the authors of the gospels and Acts (regardless their immortal success) were not nearly so clever?

    Is your point simply that “miracles” cannot meet their medical, historical, biological, or scientific burden of proof? Or, do you explore how they may nevertheless satisfy their legal burden of proof? Or, how doing so gives social, political, justification and purpose to their preposterous claim?

  18. Avatar
    dankoh  December 26, 2019

    I am curious if you deal with the case of Aristeas of Proconnesus, and if so, how. I bring him up to show that there was a folk belief in bodily resurrection prior to Jesus, which makes it harder for Christians to claim that Jesus’s resurrection was unique and tied to God. (Let me add that this was a folk belief, not one shared by the Greek philosophers.)

    Just as a general observation, many religions, each claiming to have possession, sometimes exclusive possession, of the truth, base their claims on one or more miracles (in the supernatural sense, as you described). Thus, each such religion demands that I accept their miracles and not the miracles of the others, though each provides equal evidence (or, better, equal lack of evidence). Carl Sagan made a similar point.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      I’m not quite sure what you mean. I though Aristeas was alleged to be able to leave his body in his soul and then return? That’s not what happened with Jesus: the belief in the resurrection is not that the soul left and returned. It’s that he died, body and soul, and then was raised from the dead. It’s a distinctively Jewish understanding that did not think souls lived/could exist apart from bodies or vice versa.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 28, 2019

        What I am suggesting is that there was a folk belief in Greece that the body could also be resurrected (or at least survive death) and become immortal. According to Herodotus (Hist. iv.14-15), Aristeas’s body disappeared from the fuller’s shop where he died (which was still locked up); he appeared seven years later and composed some verses, which suggests coroporality. He also appeared 240 years later, this time as a raven accompanying Apollo. Plutarch mentions the story of Aristeas and a few others, complaining that “In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine” and insists that “We must not, therefore, violate nature by sending the bodies of good men with their souls to heaven” (Lives, Romulus xxviii.6, 8)

        My point is that, contrary to N. T. Wright, who quotes the Greek philosophers to show there was no belief in bodily resurrection prior to Jesus, there was such a belief among the folk. This is not to say that they are exactly the same, just that the idea that the body itself could be immortal did not start with the Jesus Movement.

        • Avatar
          dankoh  December 28, 2019

          I forgot to add that Wright means there was no such belief in the “pagan world” which “assumed it was impossible.” That’s why the example of Aristeas and Plutarch’s complaint are important.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 28, 2019

        Permit me to raise a second point regarding your reply. My understanding – please correct me if I’m wrong – is that Paul didn’t really go into details about how Jesus was resurrected, whether it was soul, or body and soul. The idea of bodily resurrection comes a little later with the gospels, who (at least the later ones) were fighting the Docetists and therefore made a point that the body had disappeared from the tomb.

        As for your statement about Jewish understanding of body/soul, I think that perhaps better describes Second Temple thinking. How else can we can we understand the occasional Biblical references to Sheol unless the soul went there while the body stayed in the ground? Actually, I think Jews in First Temple times simply didn’t think about life after death very much, while in the Second Temple period they had all kinds of ideas, and a lot of ambiguous ones, but I don’t think it’s fair to say they had settled on one yet.

  19. Avatar
    sjhicks21  December 27, 2019

    In regard to this, I was struck by a debate I saw on Unbelievable between Roger Penrose, the greatest living cosmologist and William Lane Craig. Mr. Craig kept wanting Mr. Penrose to admit that he had no explanation for the Big Bang and therefore it had to be God. But Mr. Penrose would answer, after carefully weighing Mr. Craig’s idea, that postulating a God did not explain anything, which is the problem with asserting a miracle of any kind. It stops debate and assumes there is no further or natural explanation which is far more likely. That is why science took so long to begin making inroads into our understanding of the natural world. At every point when early intellectuals came to a stumbling block of explaining natural events, the theists would claim that it was God’s will. But those who didn’t accept that went on to discover actual certain cures for disease and all of the scientific innovations that have made our life so much more enjoyable and less scary than our ancestors, even 100 years ago.

    Now if you go back 2000 years, they had none of that experience to show them that the best explanations are not miracles but rather are natural, so that it seems pretty obvious that the more likely explanation is a natural one and that just like all of the miracles that have been debunked since, miracles occurring 2000 years ago were probably more unlikely. The only testimonial in the New Testament that ever appealed to me was Paul’s conversion on the “road to Damascus” but if we are to believe him then we need to start believing all of those eye witnesses that claimed to have been abducted by space aliens. But note, they have much more detailed accounts which were described and interviewed much closer to the events in question. An additional problem too, that Bart so often points out, is that the only ones who report these things are those who have something to gain by the reporting.

  20. Avatar
    JBarruso  December 28, 2019

    It seems to me Jesus’s “miracles” in the gospels are the literalization of spiritual concepts (e.g., curing the blind, replacing water with wine, making the lame walk and raising the dead). It is the difference between those who “see” and those who don’t. When we lack eyes for the truth (spiritual) we make the truth a physical thing, so we can “see” it. Jesus spoke of all these things (spiritual) and overtime they were literalized by those who can’t see thus becoming the basis for a religion which doesn’t require actual faith. Faith being the willingness to believe in what you can’t see…literally.

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