The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Miracles

We shall take advantage of the holiday lull in creationism stories to indulge in a bit of theological speculation. This is risky, not only because your Curmudgeon knows virtually nothing about theology, but also because there is probably a vast library on this subject of which we are ignorant. We admit that this is virgin territory for us, so we’ll offer our thoughts for whatever they’re worth — probably little.

Our subject today is miracles. For background, we’ll repeat something we’ve said before:

[T]his isn’t an atheist blog. We’re never bothered when someone is religious, not even if he has faith in a few miracles. What does bother us, however — aside from acts of raw aggression which some commit in the name of religion — is bad reasoning. It pollutes the environment.

Religion is based on faith — belief in something for which there is an absence of evidence or logical proof. That goes for miracles too. It’s irrational to maintain faith in some alleged miracle when verifiable evidence clearly contradicts it — as with young-Earth Creationism. But as for the existence of deities — despite the lack of evidence — that’s what faith is all about. Your Curmudgeon is easy to get along with. If you don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of miracle: “A miracle is an event not ascribable to human power or the laws of nature and consequently attributed to a supernatural, especially divine, agency.” That will do for our purposes. They also mention phenomena that are sometimes called miracles, but which don’t fall into the foregoing description:

The word “miracle” is often used to characterise any beneficial event that is statistically unlikely but not contrary to the laws of nature, such as surviving a natural disaster, or simply a “wonderful” occurrence, regardless of likelihood, such as a birth. Other miracles might be: survival of an illness diagnosed as terminal, escaping a life-threatening situation or ‘beating the odds’. Some coincidences may be seen as miracles.

Those events aren’t actual miracles, because despite their perceived improbability, they’re not impossible. A miracle must be something which is literally impossible. Improbable events occur all the time. And here we’ll quote something else we’ve said before. It’s our favorite example of improbability — your own existence:

Human conception is preceded by the release of roughly 20 million sperm per milliliter, and the number of milliliters varies with age and other factors. The average for a healthy young male is estimated to be 300-500 million spermatozoa, per, ah … event. To be on the conservative side, let’s say that a specific human zygote has less than a one-in-100 million chance of being conceived. And that’s for one particular fertile moment for the female. A month earlier or later, the zygote will be different. In other words, dear reader, considering the odds against your turning out to be precisely you, it’s obvious that your existence is quite improbable. Nevertheless, there you are.

Okay, improbable things aren’t miracles — they’re the stuff of which reality is made. Now that we know what miracles are — and what they aren’t — what does your Curmudgeon have to say about this peculiar subject?

We sort miracles into two groups — and we unimaginatively call them Category One and Category Two. Both types are impossible, but Category One miracles are those that, having been said to occur, don’t leave any contradictory evidence to discredit the tale — other than the event’s inherent impossibility, of course. It requires faith to attribute any credit to such tales, but that’s the nature of faith — it’s belief in the absence of evidence or logical proof.

Examples of Category One miracles abound in the bible, such as the conversation Moses had with a burning bush, or the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Things like that obviously aren’t possible, but — assuming one has faith that they occurred — there’s no evidence lying around after such events to contradict the tale.

Category Two miracles occupy the next level. They’re also miracles, but — like the claims of innocence from a criminal whose crime was recorded on videotape — they’re easily refuted because they’re contradicted by verifiable evidence. The best example of this category would be the whole package of young-earth creationism.

Everything in the universe provides consistent evidence that young-earth creationism is nonsense. Astronomy reveals an old universe. Geology and nuclear physics (radiometric dating of rocks using known decay rates of isotopes) reveal an old Earth; and biology reveals the fact of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. Although creationists desperately insist that each of those sciences relies on its own set of false assumptions, all of those allegedly false, wildly ad hoc assumptions seem to be remarkably “fine tuned.” Creationists can’t explain how so many different lines of evidence somehow converge on the same conclusions about the age of the universe, the Earth, and evolution. That couldn’t happen unless each branch of science is accurately describing the same reality.

Skepticism is inevitable whenever miracles are alleged. In the case of Category One miracles, skeptics can be ignored by the faithful. But in the case of Category Two miracles, flat-out refutation shouldn’t be confused with mere skepticism. It’s a fatal weakness. Belief in a Category Two miracle requires far more than mere faith — which is difficult enough. It also requires a truly massive amount of reality denial. This is where faith crosses the boundary into the realm of fanaticism, from which few ever return. That degree of faith is inexcusable.

So where does this leave us? Here’s our conclusion — an admittedly temporary conclusion: Belief in Category One miracles, although utterly unscientific and unjustifiable by any rational means, is said to be pleasant for believers and is also tolerable by others — at least in our humble opinion. What we mean is that one can live peacefully alongside people with such beliefs — provided those beliefs are voluntary and not used as a pretext for violating anyone’s rights.

But that’s where we draw the line. Any adult who believes in Category Two miracles is stark raving mad and should be treated accordingly. Well, there are other possibilities — see Ignorant, Stupid, Insane, or Wicked. Whichever may be applicable, it isn’t good.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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27 responses to “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Miracles

  1. I’ve disagreed with you on this several times. What the creationists (including, in the broad sense, advocates of “Intelligent Design”) are telling us is not a miracle. They are not telling us anything positive (and this is especially true of ID). (With the possible exception of Omphalism.)
    Let’s take as an example the creation of the cattle kind. What would it be like to be there when the cattle kind was created? One cow poofed out of empty space in the middle of a field? An adult cow, all by herself? With empty stomachs (because, of course, she has not eaten anything)? With none of the knowledge that an adult cow has to have to survive (because she hasn’t been around to have learned it)? Etc. etc. etc. Whatever, you’re not going to get an evolution-denier (other than an Omphalist) to give a description of what happened, even if we allow “then a miracle happened”.

  2. In case you haven’t already seen this: “Creationists: Evolution Is For ‘Gullible’ People Who ‘Rely On Silly Stories’”

  3. Book him, Dano–Miracle Category One!

  4. Nice distinction! Categories of miracles … will wonders never cease!

    An alternate definition of faith is “pretending to know things one doesn’t know.”

  5. Charles Deetz ;)

    But but but, the Discoveroids are sure that improbability can only mean a miracle. And miracles can only be done by a higher being. Therefor God!

    Wonder if Discoveroids buy lottery tickets?

  6. Your categories make perfect sense. Cat One Miracles are both irrefutable and unprovable — f’rinstance, did a god create the entire universe?

    Since religion is so commonly used to control the actions of others, it’s hard to see how the teaching of even Cat One Miracles isn’t violating the rights of others. Of course, if it keeps my neighbors from robbing me blind, I really don’t mind that they think such actions will take them straight to Hell.

  7. David Hume wisely observed that the only time we are justified in accepting that a miracle has occurred is when its non-occurrence would be even more miraculous. In this vein, re the claimed virgin birth of Jesus (curiously, in principle a Category Two miracle that became a Category One in a short period), Hume allegedly asked, “Which is more likely: That the whole natural order of things should be turned on its head, or that a Jewish minx should lie?

    Happy Newtonmas and Reason’s Greetings to all.

  8. SC, don’t be too hard on people who apply the term “miracle” to happy coincidences and other welcome non-supernatural events such as childbirth. I once spent some time railing about what I considered the absurdity of the legend on a promotional T-shirt: “Cotton is a Miracle of Nature.” I said, “If it’s of nature, then it’s not supernatural–therefore not a miracle.”

    Then somebody pointed out that one standard meaning of “miracle” is “a remarkable event; something to marvel at.” In fact, that’s the meaning suggested by etymology. Etymology is not a dependable guide to meaning, but usage is; in the history of usage, this meaning appeared first.

    Nevertheless, in theology the early meaning has been supplanted by the one that limits the scope to supernatural events. That’s the one that counts here, as you point out. My favorite wording is the one supplied by Ambrose Bierce:

    “MIRACLE, n. An act or event out of the order of nature and unaccountable, as beating a normal hand of four kings and an ace with four aces and a king.”

  9. I meant to say too that your two categories of miracles are very useful. Thanks for the insight.

  10. Hume was not a philologist, and there is no need to slander Mary in order to dispose of this so-called miracle. The “Virgin Birth” is merely a misreading of the text. The Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7 means “young woman,” not necessarily “virgin” (behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel). In the Septuagint, the Greek translation used by the early Christians, the word was translated as parthenos, which usually (but not always) means “virgin.” The gospel writers were obsessed with showing that everything about Jesus was a “fulfillment” of something in the Hebrew scriptures, and MT and LK both report this tradition, which fit into their theology. But Paul, the earliest Christian author, is completely silent on the virgin birth. In fact, he says in Romans that Jesus “came from the seed of David, according to the flesh.” This is most likely a reference to the widespread belief that the Messiah would be physically descended from David. Ancient Jews (like Greeks) figured descent through the male line. Thus both LK and MT have a problem reconciling the developing virgin birth/son of God story with their equally strong need to identify Jesus as a (patri)lineal descendant of David. Both include genealogies of Joseph going back to David. Not surprisingly, the the two genealogies are completely different.

  11. @linnetmoss And it should be mentioned that the sign mentioned in Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with the Messiah or anything in several centuries in the future. Matthew’s use of this text was an example of a very imaginative (definitely not literal) reference. Wikipedia has a discussion:

  12. I’ve been tweaking this regarding Category Two miracles, in the hope of clarifying why they’re so different from Category One.

  13. SC: The best example of [a category 2 miracle] would be the whole package of young-earth creationism.”

    You mention YEC as an example several times, even though you frequently acknowledge that it is only one of several common “creationist” positions. And I’m sure you’re aware that YEC itself comes in several mutually contradictory (e.g. heliocentric, geocentric) versions, and that various OECs are preferred by a slight majority of evolution-deniers on the street. But (heliocentric) YEC has somehow become the media’s favorite (whether for or against) so I understand you’re singling it out for brevity, which makes this a minor nitpick.

    More importantly, whichever of the mutually contradictory scriptural origins accounts is peddled, or none in the case of ID, I agree with TomS that anti-evolution activists are not necessarily trying to prove a miracle, category 1 or 2. Nor do I think they necessarily personally believe that such “miracles” occurred. Rather their intent is always first and foremost to promote unreasonable doubt of evolution. Most of them even seem to know that they’re attacking not evolution as science defines it, but a caricature, as evidenced by their insistence on calling it “Darwinism,” and sometimes “evolutionism.”

    As you notice I always differentiate between “anti-evolution activists” and “evolution-deniers on the street” (though many of the latter “graduate” to the former daily). That’s because the latter has simply not thought though “miracles,” much less testable “what happened when, where, how, etc.” The former instead obsess on what others believe. ID activists in fact don’t care what others believe as long as it’s not their “Darwinism” caricature. Because the one thing that they appear to honestly believe (though I can’t rule out that some are faking that too), is that acceptance of evolution by the “masses” leads to all sorts of evil.

    To truly appreciate the comical hopelessness of evolution-denial, one has to look past the “greatest hits” (e.g. heliocentric YEC) and to the full range of mutually contradictory positions. Similarly, to truly appreciate the slick deviousness of the ID scam one also has to look past its “greatest hits” (similarities to Biblical creationism) and find many “lost hits” where it conceded virtually everything to evolution. ID activists are thumbing their noses at us saying, “Yeah, we know you’re right but we can fool people faster than you can straighten them out.”

  14. linnetmoss, quoting the Bible: “…[Jesus] came from the seed of David…”

    If Christians (~half of whom are “Darwinists” anyway) are right, I’m going straight to hell, especially for saying this on Christmas Day. But I can’t resist: Does that mean that if we take the Bible truly literally, that Jesus was a plant?

  15. Frank J says:

    And I’m sure you’re aware that YEC itself comes in several mutually contradictory (e.g. heliocentric, geocentric) versions …

    Yes, I think you’ve mentioned that once or twice.

    I agree with TomS that anti-evolution activists are not necessarily trying to prove a miracle, category 1 or 2. Nor do I think they necessarily personally believe that such “miracles” occurred. Rather their intent is always first and foremost to promote unreasonable doubt of evolution.

    The Discoveroids’ designer is a miracle-worker, although they dare not speak his name. Like all creationists, they insist that evolution (as we understand it) is impossible. Their “theory” claims that some kind of unexplained intervention in the natural order is the “best” explanation. Despite their denials, that’s flat-out Oogity Boogity.

  16. Excellent post. The short version was enunciated by John Updike: “Miracles are humbug.”

  17. The advocates of ID have deniability on anything. They would object that ID includes any miracles. In the sense that ID does not make any positive assertions, that is true. Their slogan claims that there is some kind of intervention that is the “best” explanation, but they tell us nothing about what that intervention might be like (other than it not being the obvious one of natural common descent with modification). Maybe it’s a community of time-travelers with an advanced technology for generating new forms of life. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Arthur C. Clark) But we can’t even say that YEC involves “miracles of the second kind”, because the advocates of YEC don’t tell us what happened, where and how. (What was it like when the “cattle kind” was created?)

  18. TomS says: “The advocates of ID have deniability on anything.”

    That’s quite deliberate, but it’s not very convincing. There’s no question about their religious motivation — see What is the “Wedge Document”? And they’ve posted often enough about the evils of science — not just evolution, but all of it. For example, see Klinghoffer: The Soul-Crushing Burden of Science.

  19. I have (mostly) given up on thinking about other people’s motivation. Or on understanding what religion is. (Is it a religion to think that it is yucky to be related to monkeys?) As far as what they tell us about ID, it is: Something, somehow, somewhere, is wrong with evolutionary biology. Not: This is what happened; or: This is how the world of life came to have its complex predictable pattern of diversity. It would be an improvement to say: Here is where this miracle happened.

  20. TomS:”I have (mostly) given up on thinking about other people’s motivation.”

    I wish I could, but I constantly see baseless implications (at least to casual readers, and not always intended) that anti-evolution activists “absolutely must personally believe” what they peddle. And in the case of ID peddlers, that they “absolutely must personally believe” some version of literal Genesis, even though they take pains to avoid it.

    You might recall Dembski a few years ago encouraging people to believe that there was a global flood – clearly a bone thrown to his bosses to keep his seminary job – even though he clearly admitted that there was no evidence. Instead of jumping on his blatant double-standard, most critics reacted with a giddy “Aha! he is a Biblical creationist!”. At least one even called him a YEC, then had to backpedal when it was shown that he consistently admitted billions of years of earth and life. In fact, contrary to common misconception, Dembski never even rejected (or accepted) common descent as science denies it, only the “universal” common descent caricature that he once noted that Woese (“evolutionist”) rejects but Behe (IDer) doesn’t.

    Because of all that I feel obligated to constantly mention at least the possibility that these scam artists – at least the ID peddlers if not the Biblicals too – might be pulling our collective chains. They certainly have a motivation to do that. One that Klinghoffer et al keep reinforcing when they make it clear that their real objection to “Darwinism” is that acceptance is the root of all evil.

  21. I suspect that the primary motivation for any belief is what one thinks that other people think, or what they expect of one. I suspect that that accounts for the high number of people tell pollsters that they are Bible-literalists – they think that are supposed to say that.
    As far as evolution-denial, I suspect that it is largely revulsion at the idea of being related to other animals (especially “monkeys”, because the relationship is most obvious). I just don’t know whether to count that as “religion”. As far as the motivation of the “professionals”, I can’t guess.

  22. SC:”There’s no question about their religious motivation — see What is the ‘Wedge Document’?”

    I have probably cited Ronald Bailey’s 1997 article more than everyone else combined, precisely because Bailey essentially predicted the “Wedge” 2 years before it was leaked. Yet nowhere in the Wedge does it say that they have evidence that “kinds” originated independently, much less that life and/or earth are only 1000s of years old. Thus the only thing ID has in common with Biblical YEC & OEC is the radical paranoid authoritarian need to “save the world.” To most people, unfortunately that common worldview all that counts. And they’d be absolutely right, were it not for the simple fact that ID and Biblical YEC & OEC all insist that they have a “different and better” science than “Darwinism.”

    So on that dimension, one can easily see a radical difference and and an astonishing retreat. When the Supreme Court in 1987 prohibited teaching about a “creator” in science class, peddlers of creation “science” – either the then-popular “scientific” YEC of Henry Morris or the OEC of Hugh Ross that was making a comeback – had a golden opportunity: Omit the “creator” language and the long-refuted “weaknesses” of evolution, and state and support your alternate “theory” on its own merits – what Pope John Paul II would later call “convergence, neither sought nor fabricated.”

    Instead they did the exact opposite. They even further retreated from stating, much less recommending that students critically analyze, their own basic, testable “what happened when, where and how,” and insisted on keeping it about untestable “ultimate causes” (design instead of creation, as if that would fool anyone) and “supporting” their “theory” on long-refuted “weaknesses” of evolution. Even some students recognized that strategy as even more absurd than making chemistry class all about weaknesses of Phlogiston theory. Even when the weaknesses are real, as in the case of Phlogiston theory, that’s simply not how science is taught. Maybe in the Bizarro World, but not in this greatest nation on God’s green Earth (pardon the Medved quote).

  23. If I believe the first book of the bible tells everyone to go surfing or join the Coast Guard, is that a littoral interpretation of Genesis?

  24. <TomS:"I suspect that that accounts for the high number of people tell pollsters that they are Bible-literalists – they think that are supposed to say that."

    Your suspicion (& mine) is supported by the very different results when the poll questions are slightly reworded. Josh Rosenau noted a poll that suggests that as little as 10% of public believe a strict YEC interpretation. And I would bet that most of that 10% would agree that there’s no evidence (at least “not yet”) for YEC, if asked to give it more than 5 minute’s thought,

    I also agree that most public aversion is to being related to “monkeys” (usually confused with chimps). But that too contrasts radically with the anti-evolution activists, who are far more obsessed with the “naturalism” (aka “Godlessness”) than common descent, and occasionally even concede the latter. In fact I often thought that if we would use dogs and cats instead of always “monkeys and apes” as examples, fewer people would find is as offensive.

    There will always be Biblical literalists (mostly OEC if anyone ever bothers to ask instead of assume) that are so compartmentalized that nothing will get through. But they plus the career and amateur activists barely make up 1/4 of adult Americans, and can be safely “written off.” I’m often misunderstood on this, but I agree 100% that trying to change their minds makes no more sense that what they do. But as you know, most of the other ~3/4 has reversible doubts of evolution, accepts it for the wrong reason, or just understands it poorly. That’s where our efforts need to be focused.

  25. SC: “Yes, I think you’ve mentioned that ["creationism" comes in several variants] once or twice.”

    I say that (& everything else) for the benefit of readers. I trust you knew that long before I discovered this site.

    SC: Like all creationists, [Discoveroids] insist that evolution (as we understand it) is impossible.”

    I disagree with the “as we understand it” part. Discoveroids seem to be well aware that they are attacking a caricature of evolution. Had you said “as the public (mis)understands it,” then I’d fully agree. They’re also aware that they are peddling “Oogity Boogity” as the alternative, but they are also counting on the fact the public – and unfortunately most critics who know better – to not bother asking what that designer did, where and how. Or better yet, to ask why they have been avoiding for ~20 years now the very claims that could give their rant any hope of being scientific

  26. Miracles, schmiracles!

    If faith cures diseases, then who needs doctors and medicine?

    If parents would rather pray for their children not to get polio, measles, smallpox or a host of other easily preventable diseases, they don’t deserve kids. Simple vaccines are 100% superior to faith.

    The body count of faith-healing speaks for itself and is nothing to brag about.

    For example, consider the Lourdes shrine in France:

    An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860 and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 69 healings considered to be miraculous.

    Consider the ”miraculous” Lourdes shrine in France:
    An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860 and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 69 healings considered to be miraculous.

    Just for the sake of argument, assume the above figures are correct.

    If the Mayo clinic advertised that they successfully cured 69 people out of some 200,000,000 people they treated over a period of 154 years, would swarms of people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to their door due to such an outstanding record of success? I doubt it. Why not?

    The claim is that Lourdes ‘cured’ 69 people out of 200,000,000 in 154 years.

    In other words, 69/200000000 = 0.000000345 = 0.0000345 percent = about 1 person out every 2,898,550 visitors on the average.

    Now apply the same logic to Lourdes. But faith has no logic and would quite happily trust a shrine with such a shameful historic record anyway.

    With a success record as glorious as Lourdes, the church has no bragging rights whatsoever.

    69 ‘proven’ miracles in 154 years among some 200 million people. Wow! What marvelous proof of the power of faith healing. What more proof do we need?

  27. Jay says: “69 ‘proven’ miracles in 154 years among some 200 million people. Wow!”

    Sounds good to me!