There Aren’t Any Winners in the Miracle Contest

The on-going erosion of Christianity

“When was the last time you offered your condolences to a neighbor whose son is demon-possessed? Demons are just not encountered in everyday life, contrary to what one would expect if the New Testament worldview still held good.” So says Robert M. Price in his new book, Jesus Christ Superstition (p. 123).

Hold that thought: “…if the New Testament worldview still held good.” We know that many Christians have moved on, and not reading the Bible has probably helped with that. In the fifth chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus transferred demons from a man into a herd of pigs. How many Christians would admit that this story doesn’t reflect how they view the world, much less enhance their faith? But demons transporting into pigs reflects the New Testament worldview. Again, Robert Price:

“In the synoptic gospels it seems like Jesus is thronged by ailing demoniacs on every street corner. But when a middleclass suburban Baptist gets arthritis or pneumonia, will it ever occur to him or her to call in an exorcist?” (p. 123) Yes, many Christians have moved on—not including, however, the Vatican, which has a staff of exorcists. Pope Francis doesn’t seem to mind at all.

In other ways as well, many Christians have moved on. Yes, the earth moves around the sun—Copernicus was right. Yes, evolution by natural selection accounts magnificently, elegantly, for the evolution of species—Darwin was right. And yes, the universe is expanding after the Big Bang some 13 billions years ago—Einstein, Lamaître, and Hubble were right. The New Testament worldview has been falsified.

But then there’s also David Hume (1711-176), whose name probably doesn’t even register with most Christians. Hume delivered a crippling blow to the faith, showing that miracles also belong to the failed Christian worldview. Hume argued this maxim; it is well worth serious consideration by miracle enthusiasts:

“That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.”

This is devastating, stating the matter so simply that the response of most folks ought to be, “Oops—why hasn’t this blown miracle claims right out of the water?” And indeed, Christian apologist have winced and rallied to outmaneuver Hume, as John Loftus has described so well in his 34-page essay, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,” in his just-published anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

Loftus restates Hume’s maxim: “…in order to believe a miracle took place it must have a miraculous level of evidence to overcome the overwhelming evidence from the laws of nature that it didn’t occur.” (p. 79) That is, the evidence for the miracle must be ironclad; the testimony for it must be beyond reproach in every way: a slam-dunk that would convince even hardened skeptics.

By these criteria, miracles reported in the Bible can be dismissed entirely. They are epic fails. Loftus is blunt:

“…what we find exclusively on behalf of miracles in the Bible is human testimony, ancient pre-scientific superstitious human testimony, second-third-fourth-handed human testimony, conflicting human testimony filtered by editors, redactors, and shaped by early Christian debates for decades and/or centuries in the ancient pre-scientific world, where miracles claims were abundant without means to discredit them.” (p. 86)

It is the fond hope of devout apologists and lay readers that the gospels are based on eye-witness accounts—that makes them believable, right?—but there is no hard evidence at all for that. On this issue, I direct your attention especially to Darren M. Slade’s essay in this new anthology, “Properly Investigating Miracle Claims.” The common naiveté regarding the reliability of Bible stories is destroyed by Slade’s analysis.

At the front end of the Jesus story is a miracle cherished by so many Christians, but it doesn’t stand up to even mild examination. “Let’s take at face value,” Loftus suggests, “the extraordinary miraculous tale that a virgin named Mary gave birth to the god/baby Jesus. There’s no objective evidence to corroborate her story. None.” (p. 86) Today we would ask for DNA to rule out Joseph’s paternity, but Loftus notes that even techniques available at the time don’t come into play:

“We don’t even have first hand testimonial evidence for it, since the story is related to us by others, not Mary or Joseph. At best, all we have is second-hand testimony of one person, Mary, or two if we include Joseph who was incredulously convinced Mary was a virgin because of a dream, yes, a dream (see Matthew 1:19-24)…” (p. 87) Loftus includes Thomas Hobbes’ observation: “For a man to say God hath spoken to him in a Dream, is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him; which is not of force to win belief from any man.” (p. 87)

Bottom line: the gospels were written by theologians, who are seldom slowed down by the request for evidence. At a later stage, for example, the Vatican would invent the story that when Mary herself was conceived, she escaped the taint of original sin because the Holy Spirit had blocked that horrible stain from entering Mary’s soul. Hers was an Immaculate Conception. So, just how did those esteemed spinmeisters of theology know what was going on in the womb of Mary’s mother?

It’s no surprise that apologists try hard to outmaneuver Hume—since his maxim skewers theology. “Believers have been hostile to Hume,” Loftus notes. “They continue to believe in their sect-specific miracles despite his standards. But they duplicitously use his standards when assessing the miracles of the religions they reject. This double standard assessment must end. Either they should stop being skeptical of miracles claims in general, or be equally skeptical of their own miracle claims, the ones they were most likely indoctrinated to believe.” (p. 84)

John Loftus is a patient man; he somehow has the stomach to engage with the professional apologists. Ordinary Christian laypeople can be given some benefit of the doubt; they have been indoctrinated from childhood and are never encouraged to probe and ask blunt questions. Yes, that’s their brain-on-faith. But the professional apologists are another breed altogether. They have moved in the world of critical thinkers, but still—given how deeply indoctrination can grab the mind—are committed to defending the ancient Jesus mystery cult. They admit, confess openly, proudly, aggressively, that they are devotees of the ancient cult. Why not defend the Flat Earth as well?

In a five-page section of the essay, Loftus includes discussion of Hume’s four supplemental arguments, and counters the objections of apologists. These four arguments are as devastating as the original maxim:

Number 1: “…Hume argues there isn’t to be found ‘in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, who are of unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others…’” (p. 94)

Number 2: “Hume argues we should give preference to that which is ‘founded on the greatest number of past observations,’ and as a historian Hume knew many instances of forged miracles, which prove the strong propensity of mankind to believe in a wondrous and extraordinary story and then exaggerate it when they retell it.” (p. 96)

Number 3: “Hume argues that miracle claims originate among tribes who are uncivilized, ignorant and barbarous. Hume rhetorically asked, why is it that ‘such prodigious events never happen in our days?’” (p. 97)

Number 4: “Finally, Hume argues that competing religions support their beliefs by claims of miracles; thus these claims and their religious systems cancel each other out.” (p. 97)

Whether railing against Hume or Loftus, apologists trade in speculation, guesswork, “well, it’s possible that…” and “my heart tells me what God is like.” And they hope they can anchor faith to stories in scripture. But this is a futile exercise. They want to prove God by isolated miracles—virgin birth, walking on water, changing some of that water into wine, several resurrections—and they want to prove miracles by their confidence that God can perform wonders that shatter natural law. Muslims, Jews, Mormons, and Hindus are lost in the same circular reasoning, but serious thinkers who stand above this tiresome fray can see that it doesn’t work.

There’s an embarrassing shortage of hard evidence! “…an unevidenced god will not help an unevidenced miracle,” Loftus points out, “just as an unevidenced miracle will not help an unevidenced god. The only thing apologists can do is special plead to their god and his religion by assuming what needs to be proved.” (p. 106)

“Apologists might start by first arguing for their god’s existence, but very few of them say, ‘Here is the objective evidence that our god exists.’ They always seem to talk in terms of ‘presenting an argument’ rather than ‘presenting the evidence,’ which is very telling.” (p. 106)

My oft-repeated advice to those who read the Bibles in hopes of strengthening their faith: Proceed with caution and with as much skepticism as you can muster. Of any story, of any chapter in the Bible, ask where it came from. What were the author’s sources? What was his motivation? These are the questions that any trained historian would ask. Fair warning: disappointment awaits.

But in tandem with curiosity about sources, this other rule must be kept in mind: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no harm in applying the same rules to the Bible that we apply in our lives today. If our neighbor says that she went to a church service featuring a special preacher, that’s easy to verify. But if she says that the whole congregation witnessed the preacher perform a healing miracle—he restored a man’s amputated leg—most of us won’t be convinced. Her word is not extraordinary evidence. At the very least we’d want to see what everybody captured on their cell-phones!

At the back end of the Jesus story is his resurrection—along with that of dozens (hundreds?) of dead people who emerged from their tombs to wander around Jerusalem to mark the occasion (Matthew 27:52-53). Resurrection has been a stock motif in religion forever—why aren’t more people suspicious?—and Loftus notes that circular reasoning prevails here as well:

“If the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be reasonably accepted unless the Christian god exists and raised him from the dead, then where is the evidence for the god who raises Jesus from the dead? The best explanation is that they just presuppose such a god due to cultural and familial influences, for if they didn’t already believe in the Christian god there would be no reason to think Jesus came back from the dead, because dead people stay dead.” (p. 106)

The previous four Loftus anthologies have left little of Christianity intact. Of course, apologists continue to flail, but the case against miracles—so massively documented in this new 562-page book—wipes out all vestiges of this primitive, magical thinking. Preachers and priest do their best to keep the faith pumped up, failing to notice that miracle took a big hit more than two centuries ago. “Who got so many people thinking and debating this issue? David Hume did. He’s had a towering influence on philosophy and theology ever since.” (p. 104)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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