This will be my final post dealing with the recent book, The Case Against Miracles, edited by John Loftus. As you know, here on the blog we have guest posts from scholars with a wide range of views on the blog, so long as they relate to the issues we are concerned about here, the history and literature of early Christianity, starting with the New Testament. Our guest contributor now is Darren Slade, author of chapter 4 of the book. He supports the same basic view we have seen by the other two contributors, that there is not and cannot be sufficient proof of miracles, in either the ancient or the modern worlds. What do you think?
One of the values of the blog is that we can see different views from ours, on topics we are all interested in. In your comments with Dr. Slade, please be respectful, even if you disagree. Dr. Slade here summarizes his views in the third person, and he will be willing to respond to comments and questions you have.
In Chapter 4 of The Case Against Miracles, Dr. Darren M. Slade explores how critical thinkers should approach miraculous claims by exposing would-be paranormal investigators to the psychological variables that often discredit or distort a claimant’s eyewitness testimony. The chapter identifies some of the investigative practices needed to substantiate or falsify a miracle claim, as well as what to look for in terms of a claimant’s credibility, suitability, and accuracy. Dr. Slade argues that stories of a fantastic nature, such as witnessing or experiencing a bona fide miracle (properly defined), ought to be thoroughly investigated according to the rigors implemented in judicial interviewing and interrogation tactics with an awareness of and attention to the possibility of deception, as well as the cognitive distortions known to affect eyewitness accounts. The big takeaway from Dr. Slade’s chapter is that …
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The big takeaway from Dr. Slade’s chapter is that apologetic claims of divine miracles, whether from the ancient world or modern-day assertions, often lack the thorough fact-finding investigation needed to make an informed judgment about their validity. Indeed, as the chapter evidences, merely claiming to have experienced a miracle, even by sincere eyewitnesses, is insufficient to believe that a miracle has actually occurred. Though claims of the miraculous are extraordinarily common, Dr. Slade reveals that they are also notoriously and perpetually problematic. What’s worse, miracle stories often lack the kind of corroborating evidence necessary to believe that supernatural, invisible entities have abrogated or manipulated the physical universe’s natural regularities.
Dr. Slade research was inspired by the most recent (and arguably best) apologetic attempt to establish the “credibility” of New Testament miracle claims: Craig Keener’s two-volume book, Miracles. Dr. Slade’s chapter systematically approaches the subject by first giving a helpful definition of what constitutes a bona fide miracle before exposing the failure of Keener’s catalogue of miracles where (as Keener himself admits in the book) he simply took modern-day miracle stories at “face value” with no fact-finding investigation whatsoever. The problem, of course, is that Keener then proceeds to pronounce New Testament miracle stories as “credible” simply because the same kind of fantastical tales are reported today. Expectedly, Keener focuses only on contemporary Christian miracle claims while conveniently refusing to catalogue the myriad of outlandish claims from other folk healers, charlatan faith healers, gurus, shamans, and witch doctors who offer the same types of miracle stories as the New Testament. Keener does not believe in the credibility of these other miracle stories, yet he somehow concludes that Christianity’s stories are historically true based on the same insufficient data as found in other religions. Dr. Slade’s criminal and psychological research into miracle claims demonstrates precisely why critical thinkers should not accept the New Testament at “face value” any more than they should accept the miracle claims of yogis and mystics.
Chapter 4 proceeds to discuss how to investigate a miracle claimant’s credibility, as well as their propensity for overactive imaginations and fantasies. Dr. Slade then exposes the habitual problems with eyewitness testimony in terms of memory falsifications and “suitability” (i.e. whether the eyewitness was even in an unobstructed position or sober state of mind to view the event accurately). He traces may of the psychological variables that distort a person’s recollection of an event (e.g. source-confusion, postevent misinformation, retrospective biases), including memory alterations caused by apologetic interviewers like Keener (e.g. suggestion, interviewer bias, confirming feedback effect, or other system variables that implant false memories). The final section about “undue hyperskepticism” reiterates that being a critical thinker does not require dismissing miracle claims a priori. Rather, because of the known criminal elements and psychological distortions in supposed miracle eyewitness claims today, critical thinkers ought to reserve judgment (at the very least) until a proper and thorough fact-finding investigation has been completed. In the absence of sufficient data necessary to rule out fraud, cognitive bias, or mistaken observations, it would be irrational to presume that something fantastically implausible has actually occurred. Until qualified investigators (preferably those with criminal and psychological training) have publicly and independently authenticated these miracle stories, it is simply credulous to believe they are true.
Contra Keener’s premature assessment, Dr. Slade’s chapter implicitly reveals just how little information is available for critical thinkers to believe in Christianity’s foundational claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended into heaven. Indeed, from Dr. Slade’s incredible assemblage of the latest research, readers are able to apply proper investigative practices to any and all miracle claims, especially those from the New Testament and modern-day faith healers. His chapter makes clear that like Keener, apologists often catalogue miracle stories because they desperately want to believe in them. Hence, like Keener, they avoid conducting a proper and thorough investigation that could possibly identify natural causes for these supposed “miracles.” Foundational miracle claims within Christianity or any other religion, when considered from a criminological and psychological perspective, do not warrant belief precisely because they parallel the fraudulent, discredited, and distorted claims of modern-day miracle workers. Moreover, Dr. Slade’s research suggests that ancient, pre-scientific miracle stories from the first century by religious zealots are completely devoid of the corroborating evidence necessary for properly-trained investigators to accept as historically true. As the chapter’s conclusion states, there are simply “far too many miracle claims [that] have been falsified, far too many claimants discredited, and far too many naturalistic explanations [that] prove just as satisfying (if not more so) than appeals to invisible, spiritual entities….Accepting people’s claims simply because they are otherwise good, honest, and sincere people ultimately borders on pure naiveté.” In fact, Dr. Slade’s chapter reveals that people’s penchant for distorting reality and misinterpreting personal experiences, however unintentional, suggests critical thinkers need to be cautious about accepting miracle stories at face value, particularly when they come from the pre-scientific, uneducated, and superstitious world of the New Testament.