Depending on ignorance

This is proving to be a fun week. On Sunday I observed that the Gospel is a story and that we do not see God showing up in real life, attending church, and raising the long-dead. Jayman777 objected to that observation and tried to refute me—by supplying more stories about people seeing alleged miracles. He continues the same attempt in a second post, but like the first one, he only reinforces my original observation.

He begins by exposing a key weakness of his approach. Speaking of my observations, he writes:

The argument appears to be: I personally have not observed a miracle, therefore no one has observed a miracle. If this is not obviously fallacious reasoning to you then consider another argument of the same form: I have not personally observed a volcano erupting, therefore volcanoes do not erupt. Recall from the last post that hundreds of millions of people claim to have directly witnessed or experienced a miracle. One person’s experiences do not dictate the experiences of others or what is possible.

Imagine that for a moment. You meet someone who claims that there are hundreds of millions of volcanic eruptions taking place all around the world. Hundreds of millions. And yet, suppose that somehow, you had never seen one. In fact, nobody you know has ever seen one. Even the person insisting that here are hundreds of millions of eruptions has never seen one. Then you say, “We keep hearing stories about volcanic eruptions, but somehow we never actually see any”—a perfectly reasonable and accurate observation—and your friend says, “You can’t possibly know that!”

Well, yes we can. We’re the ones making the observation, and we’re getting nothing but reinforcement of those observations, even from the people who are trying to disprove them. For example, Jayman complains that “he [meaning me] misunderstands my position, misrepresents the evidence, and avoids seriously interacting with the evidence at all.” But how have I misunderstood his position?

Let me be clear that my neutrality towards miracles in the last post was done to prevent the post from straying too far off course. The main point I was making was that the kinds of miracles narrated in the NT are narrated by credible, modern eyewitnesses and, therefore, the presence of miracle accounts in the NT is not sufficient reason to doubt that the NT documents are rooted in eyewitness testimony. DD is drifting into a discussion of whether miracles actually happen but not addressing the thrust of my post.

So determining whether or not any of these “miracles” actually happened is “straying too far off course.” We have “credible, modern witnesses,” but it doesn’t matter whether any of them is telling the truth or not. (Ever get the feeling that the word “credible” means different things to different people?)

Think about it. My claim is that we do not see things like the long-dead being raised, or the congenitally blind being restored to sight—without medical intervention—in adulthood, and that all we have are stories. If Jayman produced such a genuine miracle, it would overthrow my claim completely, once and for all, but he doesn’t want to “stray” into refuting me because… because…

Well, ok, he does want to refute me. The question is, can he succeed? If hundreds of millions of genuine miracles are actually happening, then his most promising strategy would be to demonstrate a few of them and show that they are genuine. If, however, all we really have are hundreds of millions of rumors, exaggerations, superstitions, and outright frauds, then his optimal strategy is to assert ignorance, and to deny that we have any ability to make reliable assessments about the truth of the matter. Ignorance is the best defense against having your preferred beliefs exposed as false, and that’s why looking too closely at the truth of these alleged miracles would be “straying too far off course.”

So let’s stray. Let’s look at some of those stories. Do any of them refute my claim that we hear unsubstantiated stories about miracles, instead of seeing the miracles themselves?

Jayman quotes from a book by Craig Keener, a 2-volume set actually, in which the latter attempts to document genuine miracles happening in the real world. We’ll get to Keener in a minute, but first let’s ask, why did Jayman have to go to a third party in his search for a miracle with which to refute my claims? Hundreds of millions of miracles are supposedly happening, and yet my observation remains true: Jayman himself does not have genuine miracles, he has only stories, which he had to go to a third party to obtain.

Now, what about this third party? Is he a “modern, trustworthy witness,” as Jayman claims? Does he know how to distinguish between rumor and fact? Can he properly document the stories he tells, so that other researchers can easily follow up on his research and fact-check his reports? Here’s a story from Keener’s book, quoted by Jayman as a fair example of  “modern eyewitness testimony that suggests, at the very least, that the healing of those blind from birth and the raising of the dead (among other miracles) may still happen today.”

Yet however one chooses to explain them, many stories from China cannot be simply gossip; they derive from persons directly affected by them. A young man recounted that as a boy, he was given up by the doctor for dead, but when his father desperately cried out to God and dedicated the boy to his service, the boy quickly recovered.

Let’s see, remote, unidentified/inaccessible location: check. Unidentified subjects: check. Unverifiable problem: check. Unexpected-but-not-unheard-of outcome: check. This representative sample, as chosen by Jayman to refute my point, turns out to be a mere rumor about a case where a doctor was unduly pessimistic about a patient’s recovery. Doctors, of course, are better off being pessimistic, because if they promise a full recovery and the patient subsequently dies, they can be sued for malpractice, whereas it only makes people happy when negative expectations fail to materialize.

Remember, Jayman is trying to refute my claim that we do not see miracles, we only hear stories. Yet here he is, reinforcing my observations! Let’s try another.

Josiah Mataika from Fiji noted that when his aunt gave birth, the baby was blind and expected to live only a few days; his grandmother, a pastor, led the family to pray and fast in hopes that God might intervene. The child’s eyes were healed, and she is now in third grade.

Check it out, this one has a name. Where’s the contact information, though? Oh wait, this is just another story about things turning out better than people thought they would—unexpected but not unheard of. We’re not raising anyone from the dead, we’re just finding out that doctors err on the side of pessimism. Any more?

One book documents a boy in Kinshasa, Congo, returning to life hours after being pronounced dead and left in the morgue, at the moment that Christian evangelist Mahesh Chavda prayed. In this case the source provides medical attestation, including photographs of the raised boy and his earlier death certificate. Others tell of a local minister in the same country who raised a woman dead four days, despite the unbearable stench beforehand.

Cool story, bro. So the evidence is mentioned in the story, but where is it in real life? Granted, someone coming “back to life” only a few hours after being pronounced dead falls into the “unexpected but not unheard-of” category, since people can and do misdiagnose death. But if you’ve got a woman who really came back to life after decaying for four days, then that blows away my whole argument.

Only we don’t have that woman, do we? All we have are stories about people rising from the dead. Jayman’s “credible modern eyewitnesses” turn out to be people uncritically accepting and passing on stories just because other people claim that they are true. (Look up the definition of “gullible” sometime.)

Jayman thus confirms my observation: that when we look at Christianity, we hear a huge number of stories, but we don’t see the miracles. Jayman would like to send us all to China on a wild goose chase, looking for genuine miracles, mind you.

There is nothing stopping the atheist from from reviewing Keener’s sources. For the interested, Keener documents numerous cases of the blind gaining sight and the dead rising (although I only recall the one cited case of someone dead for more than 72 hours but brain damage should set in a few minutes after death anyway).

There’s nothing stopping Jayman either—except maybe the fact that documentation like “a minister in Kenya raised a woman from the dead” doesn’t really give you much to go on. But that’s irrelevant. Jayman doesn’t want to “stray” into finding out whether any of these stories is really true. Far safer to throw up a huge wall of hearsay and rumor and superstition, and then send the skeptics on an endless snipe hunt.

It all boils down to ignorance as the foundation for faith. He does not know himself whether any of these tales is really true, he’s just counting on the hope that he will have given us more claims than we have time and resources to investigate. Therefore (he hopes) we cannot know that they are all false. Ignorance comes to God’s rescue, once again. Except that we can know—but I’ll save that for tomorrow.


  1. unbound says

    Reminds me of the Catholic church canonization of saints. To be canonized, the saint has to have performed a miracle. Digging around a bit, however, you find that those miracles are all either second-hand (no direct witnesses found) or nonsense such as the local doctor said something that wasn’t very well investigated or understood (doctors are human BTW and make mistakes) so the prayer seemed to work. In one case that I remember reading about, a canonized saint from Central or South America actually had people swearing that the miracle associated to the saint was not true…but the Catholic church canonized that saint anyways (one of more recent canonizations in the 1990s or early 2000s – can’t find the specific saint atm, and too many are canonized to find the right one quickly).

    Perhaps it will be easier to generalize the issue. How come the christian god performed world altering miracles (flooding the world, destroying cities, destroying nations, etc) in the old testament, but was only able to perform magician level tricks / miracles (raise a person or two from the dead, made some fish and bread, turned water to wine, walk on water, etc) in the new testament, and is only able to perform the most questionable miracles today (friend of a friend whose cousin witnessed rumors, pictures on toast, cures for complex / poorly understood conditions, etc)?

    Really, all I ask for is the simple miracle…something like an amputee getting his/her limb(s) back. I don’t understand how this is beyond the christian god since limbs involve more simplistic tissues (bone, muscle, nerves), and would certainly go a very long way towards erasing doubt in the non-believers. So, Jayman777, what is it that god has against amputees since there has never been an observed miracle in that arena (no, we are not going to accept the friend of the friend’s first cousin’s sister’s stepfather rumor)?

  2. wholething says

    Have you noticed that the J source and the E source in the Old Testament have Yahweh/Elohim interacting directly with humans in what was the distant past at the time they were written? The P source rewrites those stories making Elohim a cosmic being who does not directly interact with people. Even the priests who wrote the bulk of the first five books of the Bible didn’t believe in the kind of miracles modern day theists claim.

  3. DaveL says

    You have to wonder what his standard is for a witness to be considered ‘credible’. After all, every single miracle story I’ve ever looked into has turned out to be nothing but vapour or outright lies.

    There’s a reason cross-examination was invented. It’s not enough to say you have a witness who says X.

  4. mikespeir says

    Jayman isn’t stupid. He’ll find some way to twist his already tortured reasoning into even tighter knots in response. I’m almost breathless in anticipation of that show!

  5. Rizdek says

    “Doctors, of course, are better off being pessimistic, because if they promise a full recovery and the patient subsequently dies, they can be sued for malpractice, whereas it only makes people happy when negative expectations fail to materialize.”

    It’s my position that the “miracle” is the medical doctors best friend. It gives them the opportunity to be wrong but not wrong. If they give, as you say, a pessimistic prognosis and it happens, then he was right. But if it turns out better than she predicted, she’s still right, it’s just that a miracle occurred. That’s why you’ll hear miracles touted by the medical profession. They have nothing to lose if a miracle occurs. The upshot is that their professional opinion that miracles occur reinforces a person’s opinion that miracles do “occur.” I mean, how could a doctor be wrong?

    The oddest thing about most miracles I hear about in the US is that they tend to equivocal and often not very important. IE a person takes a trip and arrives safely. They prayed so obviously god looked out for them. They go on an interview and they pray that it will go well. It goes well, viola, god answered their prayer. They wake up with a headache and pray. By the time they get to the concert, ball game or work, the headache is gone, whatdoyaknow, god answered their prayer. Of course, if god did anything to influence the outcome of any situation, it would seem to me to be, by definition is a miracle. But these kinds of things are equivocal. The headache might’ve gone away by itself, the interview might’ve gone well anyways, and you might’ve arrived safely just because of your own driving skill.

    But let’s consider the famine and starvation in Africa. What exactly do they claim god is doing about that? Well, it is a chance for us to serve and help. Situation like this are the result of original sin. It is the result of human freewill. God loves us and favors us because we’re a Christian nation (US Christian speaking) but not THEM because they’re heathens. The excuses are endless for why god chooses to help folks in modern prosperous countries in the most trivial ways, but chooses to ignore vast suffering and the plight of the much less fortunate in general.

  6. Len says

    It’s such a shame that believers don’t do what should be very simple when explaining miracles. For example, there was a post on UF the other day of an interview with someone who healed a guy of cancer by punching him in his (already broken) sternum – you’ve propbably seen the interview before (the link is below). God told the “healer” to punch the guy, he did, and the guy was healed.

    In the interview, the interviewer and interviewee both forgot one thing that would have been simple, effective, and an end to speculation. They forgot to ask the guy who was healed to come along.

    They should have known who he was – after the punch the “healer” said the guy was not only healed of cancer, but his already broken sternum and ribs were also healed. They knew about that, but apparently they didn’t think it was necessary to actually have the guy come along and explain things himself. What a wasted opportunity.

  7. Kevin says

    You left out extremely rare coincidences. And confirmation bias.

    But yes, each and every story you’re going to get of “true” miracles are going to be of this sort. Someone tells of a “woman” or “a baby”. No specific names, dates, places, confirmed diagnoses, and on and on.

    They’re exactly like the miracles attributed to Jesus. If any of them were true and could be confirmed, they’d be a tremendous value to the understanding of the nature of the divine. The power inherent in even the “minor” miracles is truly mind-boggling (no kidding — do the physics sometime).

    Problem is, each and every “miracle” left exactly and precisely zero reliable evidence behind for us to verify. Each and every one of them is what I call a “the dog ate my homework” miracle.

    *Where’s the wine? We drank it.
    *Loaves and fishes? Eaten.
    *The healed sick? Dead.
    *Lazarus? Re-dead.
    *The risen Jesus? Invisible in heaven. Where he was raised bodily!! (Really? Does he eat in heaven? Breath? Crap?)

    We’re supposed to take these things on face value? Um. Sorry. No.

  8. Shawn says

    Its all such fluff, isnt it? Seems odd to even spend time on the matter. Yet the world is beset by so many that believe such nonsense as miracles. Related: just saw Pat Robertson the other day telling his audience what god has recently told him. Naturally, god is pro-republican; gloom and doom until the right party is elected. A remarkable joke of course given what Jesus is said to have said, yet so infuriating because one knows how many millions are so unbelievably credulous and just plain stupid, stupid, and stupid (in that order). Oh there are miracles in this world alright! sigh.

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