10 “Unanswerable” questions #8

TodayChristian’s Question #8, on the list of “unanswerable” questions, is a three-fer.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

The answer for all three questions is the same, and unfortunately it’s a bit harsh. The explanation for all of the above questions is that people are gullible.

Notice the examples given by TodayChristian have two things in common: they happen in stories, and they’re not consistent with the things we see happening in the real world. Miracles, angels, saints, and personal connections with Jesus are among some of the most telling evidence we have that religion and the supernatural are all about experiences people have and share in their imaginations. And that makes sense, because these are faith experiences, and believing is something that happens in the mind.

The thing about imaginary experiences, as with imaginary gods, is that they are limited in some fairly distinctive ways. Being imaginary, they can encompass the most astonishing, powerful, magical sorts of experiences you can imagine. At the same time, however, their ability to impact the real world is equally limited by the limits of one’s imagination.

For example, before 9/11, nobody imagined that terrorists could use airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center. There were plenty of people who were having religious experiences of “talking with God,” and getting messages from Him, but since they could not imagine what was about to happen, God was similarly limited from being able to mention it. After 9/11, of course, there were stories about God warning people, because it’s easy to go back and re-imagine the past. But there were no such stories before 9/11. Religious experience, supernatural experience, can encompass anything you can imagine, but is equally limited from encompassing anything you cannot accomplish by imagination alone.

That’s why amazing miracles can happen in stories, but in real life, if you drop a penny on the ground, Jesus can’t even pick it up and hand it to you. Believers know this, and that’s why they have a taboo against “testing God” as a default excuse for why He can’t actually do physical actions in the real world. It’s trivial to imagine God taking offense and folding His arms every time you ask Him to do you a favor that requires more than what imagination alone can accomplish. Sure, He was willing to become mortal and die a horrible death because He loves you so much. But asking Him to help you get a pencil that rolled out of reach behind the couch? That’s asking way too much of Him!

So even believers know that these stories of miracles and angels and Jesus and such are not really consistent with what we see in the real world. And we have two words to describe people who believe things people tell them, just because they say so, knowing that they’re not consistent with reality. Those two words are “faithful” and “gullible.” And I know that sounds harsh, but if you think about it, they really do have the exact same definition. They both mean accepting stories as true, just because people say them, despite their known inconsistencies with the real world.

By contrast, we also have a word for someone who examines stories, and compares them to the real world, and only accepts the things that are consistent with reality. That word is “skeptic,” and not coincidentally, it is the opposite of both “faithful” and “gullible.” So my answer to Question #8, in all three of its incarnations, is that I am skeptical.

And notice that “skeptical” does not mean “denialist.” Religious people often confuse skepticism with denial because skepticism, as the opposite of faith/gullibility, is frequently in conflict with faith-based claims that are inconsistent with the world we actually live in. That’s only one side of skepticism, however. Since skepticism requires testing all beliefs against the infallible standard of objective reality, and believing the things that are most consistent with what’s real, the true skeptic is also required to believe the things that are true of the real world (which is why global warming denialists are not actually skeptics).

Now at this point, many believers will object and insist (despite the evidence) that miracles are really real, and are not limited to appearing only in stories and imagination. And their evidence for this will be some story they’ve heard in which a really amazing miracle occurs. That’s the only “evidence” they can offer, since miracles only occur in stories, and the believer is often completely oblivious to the fact that they have just tried to disprove “miracles only happen in stories” by giving us a miracle happening in a story.

The reason they do that is because they believe the story. They have accepted it as true, knowing that it describes things that would be completely out of place in the real world—which, after all, is kind of the definition of “miracle”—and therefore they treat the story as fact, despite its inconsistencies. And the explanation for the fact that they do this is that people are gullible, especially when it comes to things they deeply want to believe, that they receive from people they love and admire.

Question #8, in fact, is really the worst question TodayChristian could ask, as far as evangelism is concerned. It highlights the fact that Christians preach a God who really ought to be doing this kind of evangelism Himself, and isn’t.

Imagine, for a minute, that any one of these miraculous stories were true. That would mean that we lived in a world where it really was possible for God to work miracles that could be used as evidence to persuade atheists that He is real. Obviously, if God is willing and able to do such things, then we would have no need for TodayChristian to tell us about them, because we’d see them in real life.

Quite clearly, we do not, and in fact this experience is so universal that even Christians know that’s the way things are, and they develop quite elaborate excuses for why, after all, it’s simply not possible for God to work miracles that would give atheists evidence that He existed. And if those arguments are valid, then the stories TodayChristian is telling about miracles cannot be true, because TodayChristian is trying to use them as evidence to persuade atheists.

Thus, we know that stories of the miraculous and the supernatural are exactly what they appear to be: stories. They can encompass whatever you can imagine, and have no more impact on the real world than any other act of imagination. To choose to believe otherwise is to merely indulge oneself in unnecessary gullibility.

We’ve got two questions to go, but I think we can deal with them both in one post, so stay tuned.


  1. says

    With all the sensors available to science, a “miracle” would look like some kind of massive conservation law violation – e.g: the sudden appearance of 100 foot-high letters made of solid diamond, reading “Mene mene tekel yadda yadda” on a reentry course for the lunar surface.

    Things like “saint whumpus cured my cancer (well, helped my chemo along…)” or “supply side economics appears to be working!” – those miracles are easily explained by probability and wishful thinking. Like the miracle of the broken clock, which – in spite of being inoperable – is accurate every so often.

  2. sqlrob says

    They also don’t seem to think through the implications of this question.

    What about people that claim connection to Vishnu? Mohammed? You’re not allowed to write those off if you claim visions supporting your religion are true.

    It highlights the fact that Christians preach a God who really ought to be doing this kind of evangelism Himself, and isn’t.

    The common rejoinder to this is “free will”, another thing I don’t get. So Adam, Moses, Abraham, Noah and more, they didn’t have free will because they saw the miracles? Really?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I also sometimes like to point out that if God places such a high value on “free will,” that makes Him pro-choice.

  3. Devocate says

    For example, before 9/11, nobody imagined that terrorists could use airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center.

    Nonsense. Not only did security people recognize this threat, but if it was truly unimaginable, it wouldn’t have happened, because the terrorists couldn’t have imagined it. It makes some people feel better to think that no one could have imagined it happening, but that is equivalent to saying everyone involved is more stupid than some terrorist willing to kill himself for an imaginary god.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I’ll grant you that security people may have thought of the potential for an attack like that, and the terrorists obviously did. My point was that apart from a few such exceptions, people’s imaginary God was not able to transmit that information to them. They did not know this attack was coming, and therefore their imagination was incapable of revealing this information to them.

  4. Menyambal says

    What about miracles? Do they mean to say that in this world with rigid laws of physics that somehow prove there is a lawgiver, there are also violations of those same laws, which somehows proves the same god? And what exactly is a miracle? Who gets them? Why? Can we study miracles, or even know one has ever happened? Or does God just deal in odd coincidences that may be happenstance?

    As the OP says, it’s gullibility.

  5. Matthew Herron says

    After 9/11, of course, there were stories about God warning people, because it’s easy to go back and re-imagine the past.

    Postdiction is 20/20.

  6. DonDueed says

    Besides “faithful” and “gullible”, there are quite a few other synonyms. “Pious”, “devout”, “deluded”, and “fantasy-prone” come to mind.

    A famous case of a predictable disaster — that is, one that fell well within the range of the average person’s imagination — was the sinking of Titanic. Years before the actual event, a novel was published about a gigantic luxury liner that struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. The fictional ship’s name: Titan. An amazing coincidence, but no miracle.

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