Miracle Claims Asserted Without Relevant Objective Evidence Can Be Dismissed!

I recorded a video talk for two virtual conferences this past Labor Day weekend, the International eConference on Atheism, for the Global Center for Religious Research, and for the Dragon Con Skeptic Track. I'm very grateful for these two opportunities. That video will be released sometime soon. In what follows is the text of my talk. Please share if you want others discuss it with you. Enjoy the discussion!

Today I’m arguing, along the same lines as Christopher Hitchens did, that “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York, Twelve. 2007), p.150.] Specifically I’m arguing that “Miracle Claims Asserted Without Relevant Objective Evidence Can Be Dismissed. Period!”

I think all reasonable people would agree. Without any relevant objective evidence miracle claims shouldn’t be entertained, considered, believed, or even debunked. I intend to go further to argue that as far as we can tell, all, or almost all miracle assertions, lack any relevant objective evidence, and as such, can be dismissed out of hand, per Hitchens.

Once there is relevant objective evidence for a miracle claim that changes matters, for then, it shouldn’t be dismissed outright. The problem is that all, or almost all miracle assertions, lack any relevant objective evidence, while none of them has sufficient objective evidence for them.  

Even if a major disagreement now surfaces, believers should still agree that all, or almost all of the other miracle claims of other religions should be dismissed. Like me, they dismiss them out of hand. Just think of Joseph Smith’s supposed miraculous Golden Plates; the supposed Marian apparitions at Lourdes, France, in 1858; the claim that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse; the assertion that Buddha emitted flames from his upper body while gushing forth water from his lower body; or that Lord Shiva drank poison to save the universe.

Depending on your own religious enculturation you too dismiss these other unevidenced miracle claims out of hand, because they lack any relevant objective evidence, and rightly so.

To be clear, when we dismiss a miracle claim it doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to share with believers the reasons why we dismiss it. I think we should explain why, especially if there are a great number of believers in a society who need to know. We should do what judges do before dismissing a court case. They explain why the case is being dismissed so people can understand. Many times it’s because there’s a lack of evidence. So just say so! Apart from this there isn’t a reason to respond in depth at all! I’ve also argued elsewhere that ridicule is sometimes an appropriate response.  

Again, I’m arguing that as far as we can tell, all, or almost all miracle assertions lack relevant objective evidence, and as such, they can be dismissed out of hand. In saying this I cannot deal with every miracle claim. I haven’t even heard of them all, much less studied them out. Others have done a good job of that though, especially The Amazing James Randi, Joe Nickell the only full-time paranormal investigator, and Skeptics Society’s Michael Shermer. So I refer to them, and to others.

Hidden/Unevidenced Miracle Claims

From the outset, I’m forced to admit we cannot, technically speaking, completely rule out the possibility of a god who performs hidden unevidenced miracles. God may do them, despite the fact that no reasonable person should believe that he did.

This technicality won’t grant believers any hope to pry open the floodgates to their sect-specific miracle assertions though, for three good reasons.

1) For one, if a god performs hidden unevidenced miracles, then no reasonable person should ever believe he does them. Reasonable people need sufficient objective evidence to accept them. Unevidenced miracle claims by definition have no evidence for them. So they might as well not occur at all. They would not be able to produce reasonable belief though, if belief was important to a god. That should be the end of it.

2) For two, if a god does these miracles believers must show why organ failures, viruses, and the things we eat are always the best explanations for why we get sick, rather than curses, or spells. They must also show why the best explanation for healings comes from a doctor prescribed medicine, rather than prayers, which don’t work any more than chance. The extremely strong trend is that science is working, whereas god is not. As science advances god retreats. Miracle explanations have become unnecessary because they never worked in the first place.

3) For three, if a good god does hidden unevidenced miracles, then why aren’t they being done to alleviate the most horrendous sufferings in the world? A god could have stopped the underwater earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami before it happened, thus saving a quarter of a million lives. If a god did that none of us would ever know he did. But since there are many clear instances of horrendous suffering where a god should have intervened with miracles but didn’t, we can reasonably conclude he doesn’t do hidden unevidenced miracles at all.

Sufficient Objective Evidence is Needed

In my anthology “The Case against Miracles” I wrote the chapter “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.” There I describe three types of claims about the objective world and the evidence needed to accept them.

1) Ordinary claims require only a small amount of fair evidence. These are claims about events that take place regularly every day, and as such, require only the testimonial evidence of someone who is trustworthy under normal circumstances. If a trustworthy woman tells us she saw a car accident on Main Street, we would believe her. If a trustworthy man tells us he just talked to his mother on the phone we would believe him. There’s no reason not to.

2) Extraordinary claims are about events that are extremely unusual, within the world of nature, and require a relatively large amount of solid objective evidence, depending on how extraordinary the claim is. If someone claimed he sank 18 hole-in-ones in a row on a standard golf course, we would simply scoff at him. Testimonial evidence alone is almost always insufficient for establishing an extraordinary claim like that. We need extraordinary levels of objective evidence to believe him.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which entails sufficient corroborating objective evidence commensurate with the nature of the extraordinary claim. That means sufficient objective evidence should be sufficient, regardless of whether it’s a large amount of good evidence or a small amount of very strong evidence.

3) Miraculous claims are the highest kind of extraordinary claims. A miracle is an event impossible to occur by natural processes alone. They’re events which involve the interfering, or suspension, or transgressing, or breaching, or contravening, or violating of natural law. So if we could not believe someone’s testimony who claimed to have made 18 hole-in-ones in a row on a standard golf course, we could not believe him a hundred times over if he said he flew of his own power from hole to hole. In the case of miracle claims, reasonable people need a boat load of solid objective evidence before accepting them.

David Hume said it this way:

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 endeavours to establish.

For Hume, no amount of human testimony is able overcome the overwhelming evidence of the known laws of nature that the world doesn’t act in miraculous ways. Human testimony to a miracle cannot begin to overcome the extremely strong evidence that no scientist has ever conducted an experiment under strict laboratory conditions, who received different results than other scientists who conducted the same exact experiment under the same exact conditions. Reasonable people need a lot of solid objective evidence to overcome our firm scientific conviction that the world operates according to regular patterns, described by laws, and human testimony is insufficient for the task.

The only testimonies that might have some glimmer of hope in establishing a miracle are hypothetically imagined scenarios by the philosophers. But even in these best imagined cases the testimonies can only equal the overwhelming evidence that the natural operation of the world is uniform and constant. So at its best, under the best of scenarios, human testimony cannot establish a miracle.

The significant point is that, despite imagined hypotheticals, we never find any concrete examples of testimonial evidence that come remotely close to establishing a miracle. Hume concludes:

Therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

That human testimony to miracles is fallible is known with a great deal of assurance. They are insufficient because people typically misperceive, misunderstand, and misrepresent what they thought they saw mostly due to a whole host of cognitive biases. Confirmation bias is probably the mother of all biases, for it permits people to see objective evidence where there isn’t any, and permits believers to find their faith is strengthened under attack, after listening to good arguments like I’m now making right now. Sometimes people lie about miracles to defraud others. A forensic television show I watch had a character say, “The evidence doesn’t lie. People do.”

Establishing miracles requires a sufficient amount of solid objective evidence, not mere testimony, and even far less, 2nd 3rd 4th handed hearsay testimony from people who are not eyewitnesses, like what we find in the Bible. Just as hearsay testimony isn’t allowed into a courtroom because we would want to cross-examine any supposed eyewitnesses for accuracy, consistency between other supposed eyewitnesses, and completeness of the story being told. We would especially be interested to know if, like the Mormon “witnesses” of the supposed Golden Plates, any of them recanted. Which they did. We know that of them, but do we know that of any of the original disciples whose 2nd 3rd hand testimonies claimed that they saw the risen Jesus? Most importantly, we would want to know if the supposed eyewitness testimony comports to the evidence. But if there is no objective evidence and only hearsay testimony then there isn’t even a case! Just imagine this scenario in the courtroom. The Judge says, "Present your first eyewitness." The Prosecutor says "There are no eyewitnesses, we have no witnesses." Then he says, "Do you have any objective evidence", and the prosecutor says, "No we don't have any objective evidence either." At which point the defense attorney says, “I motion to dismiss this case.”

Again, for emphasis, every testimony of a miracle might be reporting the truth. However, without sufficient objective evidence, reasonable people should not accept any of them, and without any objective evidence at all, they should dismiss them all.

In a like fashion, maybe aliens really did abduct a man. But without any objective evidence there isn’t any reason to believe his testimony. Objective evidence of his alien abduction would include things like him being beamed back down the very next day into a large crowd of family and friends as an older man, in full view of the alien spaceship, who now shows a superior technological knowledge beyond our comprehension, having in his hand a mysterious rock not from our planet, who was implanted with a futuristic tracking device, and is now able to predict the future with pinpoint accuracy. That's objective evidence. No reasonable person would reject his story. But we never have this kind of strong objective evidence! Period!

Believers Typically Switch Topics

When I argue for the non-controversial idea that miracles require relevant objective evidence, many believers will quickly switch topics. Here are four ways they do:

1) Believers will sidetrack us into explaining what science hasn’t yet explained, even though science has amassed enormous amounts information so far. They’ll ask where this universe came from, or life itself. They’ll ask for objective evidence of beauty. They’ll go on to ask us to account for the laws of logic, or explain how we know we’re not in a Matrix, or dreaming right now, or being deceived by a devil. These are all distractions, or red herrings, that take our attention away from the question at hand, that is, whether reasonable people can accept miracle claims such as a hand that instantaneously turned leprous, or a river that turned to blood, or a sun that “stood still”, or a man who was swallowed by a great fish who lived to tell about it. Some interpreters would disagree but these are some of the miracle claims many conservatives believe. These and many other miracle claims are about the objective world, and therefore require sufficient objective evidence, even if there is a god! A supposed revelation from a god who whispered privately into the ear of an alleged inspired writer, is emphatically not objective evidence for these claims. It's only subjective evidence of someone claiming to have heard god speak.

2) Believers will focus on irrelevant objective evidence like ancient manuscripts and archeological findings. Yes we have 4th century manuscripts, but that's only evidence of ancient non-eyewitness 2nd 3rd 4th handed down hearsay testimony, as written by authors who were not themselves eyewitnesses. So it’s irrelevant.

They point to objective evidence such as the archaeological findings of the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where Jesus supposedly told a blind man to go and be healed, and was healed. But findings like these are not considered relevant objective evidence. At best what Christians have are archaeological findings that are consistent with what they believe. They don’t confirm what they believe, in the same way as the the city of Bethlehem is consistent with the claim Jesus was born of a virgin, but doesn’t confirm it, or as the city of Roswell, New Mexico, is consistent with the claim aliens are real, but doesn’t confirm it. This kind of evidence is not unimportant, but is still irrelevant to whether a miracle took place. Artifacts like these merely provide the back drop for the tales being told, and nothing more. They’re akin to what Homer wrote in the Iliad and Odyssey about the miraculous deeds of the gods and goddesses using identified places as backdrops.

3) They substitute irrelevant stories of extremely rare coincidental events as evidence for miracles. If you recover after being told you have a one in a million chance of being healed, that’s not equivalent to a miracle, one that suspends natural law. It simply means you beat the odds, and it happens every day, every hour, and every minute around the globe. The reason believers see evidence of miracles in rare coincidences is simply because they’re ignorant about statistics and the probabilities built on them. There can be no reasonable doubt about this.

Statistician David Hand shows us this in his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. He convincingly shows us that “extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.” He is not a believer in supernatural miracles though. “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive." He and a growing list of statisticians are making this same point. Extremely rare events within the natural world are not miracles. Period. We should expect extremely rare events in our lives many times over. No gods make these events happen.

4) Believers will finally cry foul, complaining that the kind of objective evidence needed to believe cannot be found, as if we concocted this need precisely to deny miracles. No, this is simply what reasonable people need. If that’s the case then that’s the case. Bite the bullet. Since reasonable people need this evidence, god is to be blamed for not providing it. Now why would a god create us as reasonable people then not provide what reasonable people need? Once honest inquirers admit the objective evidence doesn’t exist they should stop complaining, and be honest about its lack. It’s that simple.

If nothing else, a god who desired our belief could have waited until our present technological age to perform miracles, because people in this modern scientific age of ours need to see the evidence. If a god can send the savior Jesus in the first century, whose supposed death atoned for our sins and atoned for all the sins of the people in the past, prior to his day, then that same god could’ve waited to send Jesus in the year 2020 which would also bring salvation to every person born before this day as well, which just adds twenty centuries of people to save.

In today’s world it would be easy to provide objective evidence of the gospel miracles. Magicians and mentalists would watch Jesus to see if he could fool them, like what Penn & Teller do on their show. There would be thousands of cell phones that could document his birth, life, death, and resurrection. The raising of Lazarus out of his tomb would go viral! We could set a watch party as Jesus was being put into his grave to document everything all weekend, especially his resurrection! We could ask the resurrected Jesus to tell us things that only the real Jesus could've known  or said before he died. Photos could be compared. DNA tests could be conducted on the resurrected body of Jesus which could prove it if they had snatched a piece of skin from the real Jesus before he died. Plus, everyone in the world could watch as he ascended back into the sky.

This is how to properly think of miracle claims. We simply have to ask for relevant objective evidence. Now if it doesn’t exist then say so, say why, and be done with it. Just dismiss those claims like reasonable people do to a myriad number of miracle claims from the beginning of time. Period!

There is a great advantage with this approach. By showing the need for objective evidence, then dismissing a miracle claim because of its lack, it might do more to convince believers than anything else we could do. For if we take some miracles more seriously than others, we unwittingly and unjustly make those particular miracles more credible than other miracle claims just by the fact that we're dealing with them. The more time we spend on them, the more credible those miracles appear to be. The bigger and more sophisticated the approach is, the more credible those miracles appear to be as well.

Pigs, a Virgin Birth and a Resurrection

Just consider whether pigs can fly of their own power. When it comes to flying pigs we have no objective evidence to verify that any of them has ever flown of their own power. For a pig cannot fly of its own power, given the nature of a pig. It’s too heavy, plus it doesn’t have wings, or jet propulsion capabilities. You can name a bird “Piggy” and that animal can fly, but this isn’t the animal I’m referring to.

Such a claim is actually taken seriously in the Bible, for in it we find a talking snake and donkey. We also have a world-wide flood, an axe head that floated on water, a raging fire that didn’t burn three men to death, three people who levitated, two of whom were supposedly dead, and more, claims which have no objective evidence for them, at all, and should be dismissed outright as mythical.

These are some of the many unevidenced miracle claims in the Bible that we can legitimately and rationally dismiss out of hand, even if there is a god. But what about others? What about a virgin birthed deity? Just ask for the objective evidence. You don’t need to do anything until that evidence is presented. Until then it should be dismissed out of hand.

The fact is, there is no objective evidence to corroborate Mary’s story. We hear nothing about her wearing a misogynistic chastity belt to prove her virginity. No one checked for an intact hymen before she gave birth either. After Jesus was born Maury Povich wasn’t there with a DNA test to verify Joseph was not the baby daddy. We don’t even have firsthand 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 reported in just two anonymous gospels by 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).

We never get to independently cross-examine them, along with the people who knew them, which we would want to do, since they may have a very good reason for lying (pregnancy out of wedlock anyone?).

Now one might simply trust the anonymous gospel writer(s) who wrote this miraculous tale down, but why? How is it possible they could find out that a virgin named Mary gave birth to a deity? Think about how they would go about researching that. No reasonable investigation could take Mary and/or Joseph’s word for it. With regard to Joseph’s dream, Thomas Hobbes tell us, “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.” [Leviathan, chap. 32.6] So the testimonial evidence is down to one person, Mary, which is still 2nd hand testimony at best. Why should we believe that testimony?

On this fact Christian believers are faced with a serious dilemma to their faith. For if this is the kind of research that went into writing the gospels, by taking Mary’s word and Joseph’s dream as evidence, we shouldn’t believe anything else they say without corroborating objective evidence.

What about the resurrection of Jesus? Why do people treat that miracle any differently than levitating saints or a virgin birthed god? The resurrection tale is reported in the same gospels that record the virgin birth of a deity, so if the one is to be dismissed because it’s unevidenced, so should the other. Are you catching on yet?

Keep in mind we’re talking about miracle claims from an era that Richard Carrier described in essay titled, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels.” He concludes,

The age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection and remarkable religious acumen. It was an era filled with con artists, gullible believers, martyrs without a cause, and reputed miracles of every variety. In light of this picture, the tales of the Gospels do not seem very remarkable. Even if they were false in every detail, there is no evidence that they would have been disbelieved or rejected as absurd by many people, who at the time had little in the way of education or critical thinking skills. They had no newspapers, telephones, photographs, or public documents to consult to check a story. If they were not a witness, all they had was a man’s word. And even if they were a witness, the tales tell us that even then their skills of critical reflection were lacking.

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 miracle claims were abundant without the means to discredit them. What we don’t find is any relevant objective evidence for any of them. Therefore if we want to be reasonable we should be honest. We should dismiss them all out of hand.

What’s Wrong With Using Bayes to Evaluate Miracles?

Now I want to end by talking briefly about Bayes Theorem. In his writings and talks Richard Carrier does a good job of explaining it.

It asks us to input a number which we consider the prior probability of a given hypothesis we wish to test, say of whether a crime took place. Then it asks us to input some numbers for important posterior questions like, what should we expect to find if a crime took place, compared to if it didn’t? For instance, we might expect to find a dead body, showing evidence of a struggle, as opposed to a dead body lying peacefully in bed. Then it asks us to input numbers for the relevant background factors that would increase or decrease that prior probability, like if the suspect had a motive for murdering the victim, or if the victim was suicidal, and so on. After inputting the numbers in the equation we do the calculations, and the resulting percentage is the probability that a crime took place.

Now I don’t object to using the Bayes’ Theorem when it's applied appropriately to questions for which we have prior data to determine their initial probability. But Bayes Theorem is treated by some people as the only tool in their tool chest. To people who only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s the problem. 

I have five objections to it:

1) With miracles there is no previous data to work from.

Bayes can only be useful when there is prior data to work from. We’re told every logically possible claim has a nonzero probability to it. But miracles don’t have any prior probability. A flying pig would be a miracle. So we need prior data to work from. How many pigs have ever flown of their own power? Without any previous data Bayes isn’t the proper tool to use here. All we know is that there is no objective evidence for such a thing. That’s more than enough.

There have been as many as 120 billion human beings who have lived at some time on this planet. Since there’s no reason to think any virgin birthed a god, or anyone resurrected from the grave, the odds of each of these two miracles are as low as the number of people who have ever lived on this planet. 1 out of 120 billion! Since we don’t know when the first occurrence of a virgin birthed deity or a resurrected person will be in the future, there could be an additional 120 billion people before such an event like that takes place, or more, like three times more, or never. So if you cannot input a number for the initial probability you have nothing to calculate.

It’s argued that we should be generous with our numbers when dealing with miracles, by inputting a better sounding number. But why? Why be generous if we’re seeking truth? I see no reason to do so.

2) Bayes won’t help clarify our differences.

We don’t need Bayes to know where our differences are to be found. We already know. The main difference between us is that believers value faith, blind faith, the only kind of faith there is, faith without objective evidence, while nonbelievers value sufficient objective evidence. That’s why we're nonbelievers, and that's why believers continue to believe based on ancient 2nd hand hearsay testimony about a miracle.

3) Bayes gives undue credibility to some miracle claims over others when none of them have any objective evidence for them.

I’ve written a book called Unapologetic on why responding to fundamentalist arguments in kind gives their beliefs a certain undeserved respectability.

To treat the resurrection story as if we have some objective evidence for it when we don’t, is to give it undeserved credibility over other miracles, especially the ones located in very gospel texts where we read of the resurrection. Why is no one doing a Bayesian analysis of the virgin birthed son of god? That's the point!

The only response to a claim that a pig can fly of its own power is to see one fly under test conditions. Lacking any objective data that shows pigs can fly of their own power, the proper way to deal with such a claim is to dismiss it. To go through the motions of calculating such a probability beginning with a completely made-up nonzero prior probability is foolishness, and would give people the credibility they so desperately crave for such a bizarre claim because we took it on.

4) Bayes won’t help convince anyone.

Bayes is probably worse off in terms of convincing others, for the only people who would sludge through it are far less likely to be convinced by it. Just ask to see the objective evidence, and if it’s lacking, like it is, then dismiss it.

The truth is people are using Bayes and coming to very different conclusions:

-- Vincent Torley calculated there’s about a 60-65% chance that Jesus rose up from the dead. Now after reading Michael Alter’s book, Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, he doesn’t think historical evidence can show a miracle happened. Now it's probably down to 20-30% for him. 

-- Richard Swinburne calculated the probability of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is 97%.

-- Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew calculated the odds of the resurrection of Jesus to be 1 followed by 45 zeros to 1. Can anyone do better?

In Richard Carrier’s estimation Bayes leads him to think the probability that Jesus did not exist is 67%. So much the worse for his resurrection!

If  Bayes helps us then why does it produce these wide diverse results? Tools are supposed to help.

5) Imagining what might convince us is largely an exercise in futility.

Bayes asks us to imagine what might convince us of a given hypothesis. This is a reasonable request in criminal trials, and other kinds of scenarios  where actual evidence is being considered. But in order to imagine what would convince us of miracles, it would require changing the past, and that can’t be done. If I could go back in time to watch Jesus coming out of a tomb, that might work. But I can’t travel back in time. If someone recently found some convincing objective evidence dating to the days of Jesus, that might work. But I can’t imagine what kind of evidence that could be. As I’ve argued, testimonial evidence wouldn’t work, so a purported handwritten letter from the mother of Jesus is insufficient. If a cell phone is discovered and dated to the time of Jesus, which contains videos of him doing miracles, that might work. But come on, this is as unlikely as his resurrection. If Jesus, God, or Mary themselves were to appear to me, that might work. But that has never happened, even in my believing days, and there’s nothing I can do to make it happen either.

In any case, imagining what could convince us of a miracle only arises when using the hammer of Bayes on the nail of miracles. Imagining evidence that could convince us Mary gave birth to a divine son sired by a male god is a futile exercise, since we already know there’s no objective evidence for it.

One might as well imagine what would have convinced us in 1997 that Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, was telling the truth that an extraterrestrial spacecraft following the comet Hale–Bopp was going to beam their souls up to it, if they would only commit suicide with him.

One might even try to imagine today what would convince us that he and his followers are now flying around the universe. Such an exercise is utter tomfoolery.

Thank you for your consideration.