A prescription for gullibility

We’re approaching the point of beating a dead horse with this miracles discussion, but I do have one last point to cover before we move on. Jayman’s primary complaint is this:

Based on multiple surveys and polls, Keener notes that hundreds of millions of people alive today claim that they have witnessed or experienced miraculous healings… If miracles do not occur today, as atheists contend, then they must believe that each and every one of these hundreds of millions of people are either lying or mistaken. A substantial argument needs to be provided to justify such a belief.

Jayman does not believe that we can really know whether or not all these people are really failing to tell the truth, so for today’s post I want to look at why he thinks that and why he’s wrong.

Consider the following argument: the more trees you have, the less forest you have. One tree by itself is not a forest, and each tree you see is just one tree. Therefore the more trees, the more not-forest.

That’s analogous to the reasoning that says having a huge number of miracle stories means we can never know whether or not miracles really happen. Taken individually, and in isolation from any other facts, each story does indeed fail to give us enough information to allow us to tell whether or not miracles really happen. Fortunately, we’re not restricted to taking individual stories in a vacuum. We’re allowed to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, and to see what kind of patterns emerge from this large body of data as an aggregate.

Of course, just because we’re allowed to look at the big picture doesn’t mean we’re forced to do so. We can stick to the more restricted approach if we desire, for some reason, to keep ourselves in a state of ignorance. That’s a prescription for gullibility, though. We’re deliberately depriving ourselves of the knowledge that would allow us to distinguish true stories from false ones, and putting ourselves in position where we have to believe whatever people tell us just because they say so.

Some people may prefer that approach for religious reasons, but if we’re really interested in real-world truth, we need to get the big picture. What do we find when we look at the data as a whole?

As we saw yesterday, there are some definite patterns that emerge. For example, we find that the closer a story gets to being verifiable, the more likely it is to be merely a superstitious interpretation of a natural outcome. Someone was sick or injured, but they got better, thus proving the doctor’s prediction wrong. Sure, there are verifiable cases like that, but it certainly doesn’t take supernatural intervention for doctors to make mistakes. And this is a consistent (not to say universal) pattern. The more verifiable the story is, the less reason there is to believe it was miraculous.

Another pattern we see is the stereotypical structure of the common urban legend, complete with a list of standard stereotypes: the Distraught Family, the Pessimistic Doctor, the Anguished Prayer, the Astonished Skeptic, and the Happily Every After. Story after story follows the same basic formula with minor variations and embellishments designed to lend additional plausibility and appeal. Usually the names and places omitted or glossed over, because they’re not really important to the formula. The point is to elicit the wide-eyed response you get when you tell this kind of story.

We see a related pattern in the way these stories are transmitted. Jayman needs some miracle stories, so he goes to Keener. Keener needs some stories, so he goes to China and Africa and all over the world. Yet when he brings back the results of his “research,” it’s quite clear that he’s making no critical distinction at all between actual events and mere rumors, nor is he exercising any kind of critical analysis of the actual events he does report. He just collects all the stories he can find, calls them all miracles, and then passes them on to Jayman, who unquestioningly passes them on to us. Small wonder there are hundreds of millions of stories able to meet such essentially non-existent selection standards!

A big part of the pattern, too, is that only believers have these stories—and even then, only those who believe God is working miracles today. In other words, belief in such miracles is a prerequisite for perceiving them. The stories are about mundane things, like doctors being too pessimistic about a patient’s chances, but the believers who want to see miracles, see miracles. Of the hundreds of millions of miracle stories collected by people like Keener, most fall into this category (and the rest are unverifiable).

Then there’s the pattern I alluded to before: with so many bad and inconclusive stories, why is it that apologists can’t filter out the bad stuff and locate any real, genuine, documented, and verifiable miracles? Keener has two volumes of stuff, and it’s a mish-mosh of rumor and superstition. Jayman could pick any cases he wanted out of Keener’s books, and he picks a mish-mosh of rumor and superstition, to try and refute my claim that we merely hear stories instead of seeing actual miracles. In a sincere attempt to give skeptics the evidence they need to convince them, the cream would float to the top—if there were any. But the consistent (not to say universal) pattern is that the stories all live up to the same low standards. The cream simply isn’t there to be found.

But there’s an even bigger picture here. Christians who tell stories about miracles are directly or indirectly claiming that we live in a world where God is willing and able to give us reliable evidence of His existence. That in turn means that they have no excuse for why their God doesn’t show up in real life, so that we can all see Him and believe in Him and be saved. If such a God were to actually exist, His presence and intervention would be felt in more ways than just surprising a few believers.

Jayman uses the example of not seeing a volcano erupt and then saying “there are no eruptions.” If we take only individual stories in isolation, then he’s right, we can’t learn too much from so little information. But volcanoes are part of a bigger picture, with magma flowing underneath the bedrock, and faults, and fissures, and earthquakes.

If the Christian God were real, He’d be like the magma underground: invisible, but earth-shaking, whether people were volcano-worshippers or not. If the magma were not there, if the earth were solid all the way through, without quakes or faults or fissures, then I would be justified in denying the existence of eruptions. And the absence of the Christian God is just as pervasive and inescapable as the absence of magma would be. That’s the universal pattern we see in these miracle stories. Not a deeper, underlying power changing the world, but merely the power of self-delusion and superstition.

That’s how we can know.


  1. says

    I seem to recall that at one point in history, many people also believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth…
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and one fundamental reality (that the criminal justice system never wants to talk about) is that “eye-witness” accounts of any event are highly unreliable.
    If the religiously motivated or believers in the supernatural want to believe in miracles, then so be it, but I’m not believing a word of it until they produce some solid, consistent, verifiable evidence. Thousands of fragmented and anecdotal eye-witness accounts don’t cut it.

  2. says

    There’s another problem as well. The word “miracle” is too vague to be meaningful. People call a lot of obviously non-miraculous things, “miracles.” If every recovery from illness, any fortunate turn of events, every coincidence and every underdog success story counts as “a miracle” then the threshold is too low to be meaningful.

    And then there’s the fact that “god did it” is a dead end for discovery. It’s like UFO sightings. If you don’t know anything about aviation, astronomy, or critical thinking, then anything unfamiliar in the sky can be assumed to be an alien ship of some sort. If you are already primed to think that alien spaceships are regularly making their way to our night skies, then you need not consider alternative explanations. I see something I cannot identify, it is obviously an alien. The same is true for claims of miracles. If you are already primed to believe that miracles happen then when something unexplained happens, you don’t think you need to look any further. It’s clearly a miracle.

    In both cases the problem is that the conclusion is presupposed. It’s like looking to a homeopathic “journal” for advice on the best way to treat cancer. You aren’t REALLY intellectually curious about how something happened, you just need your pre-established conclusion confirmed.

  3. jamessweet says

    Actually, I see these millions of claims of miracles as evidence against miracles actually occurring: Hundreds of millions of people claim miracles, but not a single one has actually been documented well enough to be an undeniable miracle by scientific standards? Case closed.

  4. a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    The “no volcano” thing has bugged me so much, and I placed my finger on why…
    Because even a grade-school level understanding of plate tectonics helps one understand that erupting volcanoes are entirely consistent with the physical laws and theories we observe. So much so that we wouldn’t really need to videotape an eruption, just circumstantial evidence would do.

    But jayman’s trying to sell us the story that we should believe something that is entirely inconsistent with observed/understood natural laws, has zero circumstantial hard evidence, and is open to confirmation bias.

    We don’t think volcanoes erupt because people say they saw one happen one time in this one place, or even because we have it on a video (in today’s tech age, what does video prove anyway?) we think they erupt because it fits with our current (testable) understanding of nature. You know, like the opposite of miracles.

  5. Makoto says

    There’s an important difference between a tree and a miracle, though – we can show a tree. A bunch of trees is a forest, and a bunch of miracles would be.. I don’t know, a proof? But if nothing can be proven to be a tree, you can’t have a group of trees, no matter how much the overall group looks kind of like a forest if you use enough pipe cleaners and craft foam. And similarly, if you can’t verify a single claim of a miracle, an overall impression of “good things” doesn’t imply that individual miracles are any more true than a special effects studio’s recreation of a forest is.

  6. Kevin says

    Really? That’s his best shot?

    So, by that reasoning, the more reports we have of anal-probing aliens abducting redneck goobers, the more likely it is taht there are anal-probing aliens?

    Someone PLEASE buy this person Critical Thinking book.

  7. Taz says

    Millions of people around the world will swear to the truth of their own or their relatives’ reincarnation.

    Therefore, reincarnation!

    Doesn’t that mean Christianity is wrong?

  8. RobNYNY1957 says

    Well, there are some documented mircles. Jesus Chirst on a slice of toast, remission of cancer in a patient who is also undergoing chemotherapy, etc. They are just incredibly lame miracles that are better explained by natural causes.

  9. I'm_not says

    As Jean-Paul Satre said when shown the huge pile of walking sticks, spectacles and hearing aids abandoned by the “cured” at Lourdes, “show me just one artificial limb…”.

  10. jakc says

    Maybe the world used to be flat until people stopped believing that. Maybe we can stop this rain if we think hard enough.

  11. clsi says

    A big part of the pattern, too, is that only believers have these stories…

    This is why the X-Files has Dana Scully. This is why Mel Gibson plays a Reverend who has (temporarily) lost his faith in Signs (a film that, in my opinion, passes well into so-bad-it’s-entertaining territory, but YMMV). And of course, this is why one of the most compelling characters in the New Testament is Paul (ne Saul), who made a living persecuting Christians before God saw fit to show him a miracle. Of course, the story of Saul/Paul always left me wondering why an omnipotent God would show him a miracle and not me. If I take up persecuting Christians as a hobby, will I get to see a miracle of my own? I’m not really into cruelty (my lack of belief in Hell notwithstanding), so I guess I’ll never know.

  12. had3 says

    Millions believed there were witches, 10’s of thousands admitted they were witches and died because of their admissions (is there greater proof than a confession which knowingly leads to death?) ergo witches exist. Try and refute that!

  13. Tony Hoffman says

    “If miracles do not occur today, as atheists contend, then they must believe that each and every one of these hundreds of millions of people are either lying or mistaken. A substantial argument needs to be provided to justify such a belief.”

    Not an argument; just an example: Hundreds of millions of people perceive a line with outward pointing arrows to be shorter than the same length line with inward pointing arrows. (Muller-Lyer Illusion) You see, people mis-perceive and misinterpret reality all the time. (Not even including the liars, who number more than several.)

    And there goes the thesis for Keener’s book as well, I suppose.

  14. Anri says

    If miracles do not occur today, as atheists contend, then they must believe that each and every one of these hundreds of millions of people are either lying or mistaken.

    …the majority of whom are non-Christian, and are, therefore, according to Christians, “either lying or mistaken.”

    This sort of argument really only works if your default position is that there’s one religion, it’s true, and everyone all around the world believes in it, except for a few idiots who reject it out of some form of emotional maladjustment. In other words, like almost all apolgetic arguments, you can only accept it if you’ve already accepted it.

    As far as I can tell, if you have to be reminded that most people on earth actually aren’t Christian, you’re not thinking about religion with any level of seriousness.

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