Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Hierarchy of "Miracles"

In a recent Facebook discussion, I was asked why I differentiate between biblical miracles and those claimed in post-biblical times (right up to and including the present).  I'm not entirely happy with my responses, so I've been mulling it over for a while. The following is the result:  my attempt at a hierarchy of miracles and my comments about them, roughly in an arguable descending order.

1.  The set of those events that are beyond a doubt, unambiguously attributable to the intervention of a very powerful (or ominipotent) deity without any other plausible explanation.  As I see things, this is an empty set.  The bible offers several candidates, but they all fail to meet reasonable criteria.  Sorry, folks, but a document written in the Bronze Age by people who were pretty unsophisticated in their understanding of natural processes provides absolutely zero credible evidence that these events could only be explained by divine intervention in human affairs.  And it seems pretty convenient that virtually all the candidate events (Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, jesus walking on water, people raised from the dead, feeding of the multitudes, etc.) have ceased in the post-biblical era.

2.  The set of those events that have a plausible explanation in terms of processes for which we have a substantial scientific understanding.  If one accepts that such events have a natural (as opposed to a supernatural) explanation, then these events don't qualify as miracles at all. What might be deemed "miraculous" is that a natural event occurs - an earthquake that topples the walls of Jericho for Joshua, the Red Sea is fortuitously parted by a tsunami or a seiche that allows the escape of the Jews led by the mythical Moses, and so on and on - at just the right time for our biblical "heroes".  However, if such stories have any factual basis in both historical evidence and naturally-occurring physical processes, they only speak to extraordinary good fortune for those involved.  You can attribute that to a deity if you choose, but none of these constitute a very compelling example of what I would consider a miracle.  Attributing such to divine intervention is pretty comparable for thanking god for helping someone score touchdowns, or providing rain after a prolonged drought, or being cured of cancer in a hospital, or finding lost car keys.

3.  The set of those events that have their origins in mythology plagiarized by biblical authors from the mythology of other, earlier religions.  Considerable similarity exists between many of the biblical stories and those of even more primitive religions.  Some see this as evidence that actually supports the reality of these narratives.  It is at least a logical possibility.  Unfortunately, it's at least equally plausible, based on the facts as we have them, that they're just recycled mythology, stolen by biblical authors to spice up their writings.

4.  The set of those events that are original myths made up by biblical authors.  Unfortunately, I'm not enough of a religious scholar to know all of the myths of other religions, so I'm uncertain what biblical stories are original.  I'm betting there are some, however.  The opportunity for magical thinking to reinforce the messages that biblical authors wanted to communicate would likely have been irresistible.

4.  The set of those events that are simple "magic" as practiced by magicians since time immemorial.  Magicians and shysters of all sorts use a wide array of tricks to deceive people into believing that the practitioners have supernatural powers.  I have little doubt that some fraction of the miracles described in the bible might well have been simple deceptions of a gullible audience by skilled magicians - parlor tricks and sleight of hand.  This includes faith healers and that ilk, as well.

5.  The set of natural events that are perceived by the gullible as "miraculous".  There seem to be many such "miracles" used by catholics for saintly candidates to be canonized as saints by the church:  there have to be two "miracles" documented (How? Eyewitness testimony?) to be the result of intercession by the candidate, so miracles are inferred from natural events.  Other miracles in this category include images of jesus on burned toast, "bleeding" statues, the Shroud of Turin, the development of life on Earth, and so on.  These are simply natural events or magical interpretations of faked relics, that provide believers with a "confirmation" of divine intervention.

In short, it seems to me that true "miracles" (i.e., divine interventions) are a myth, created to confirm the existence of a mythological deity.  No other rational explanation based on evidence can be offered, unless an actual deity chooses to break what believers take to be a self-imposed ban on miracles that would meet the criteria of #1