The debate between theists (those who believe in a God) and atheists (those who reject the existence of God/s) on the reality of miracles is an important one evidencing strong ideological disagreement. Here we will examine a few contentions and responses between theists and atheists on this question (1). We begin with the theistic position.
The Theist Perspective
For most theists, especially most Christian theists, miracles are possible because there exists beyond the universe an all-powerful God who can, should he so wish, intervene in the natural order of things to bring about certain outcomes that would not have occurred without his input. It is difficult to succinctly define a miracle in such a short entry given so much in philosophy has been said about them, but in general, we are referring to extraordinary events that evidence agency and intentionality and that lack suitable naturalistic explanations. For example, a prayer to God to heal a person’s blindness that fully disappears at the very moment of prayer would, to most, evidence intentionality and thus constitute a miracle. Someone or something behind the scenes caused that blindness to go away and no-one posits nature as the reason. Christian philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser argues in favour of miracles and claims the need for a “design filter” when accepting purported events as a genuine miracle,
“When we seek to identify agency as an explanation for an event, we first seek to establish that the event was contingent Thus, an event that is a known result of natural law is not explained via design… Next, we need to eliminate the possibility of chance. We do that by looking for events that are sufficiently complex and specific to a situation. If the event is contingent, complex, and specified, then a design explanation for the event is warranted” (2).
A design explanation would be warranted, argues the theist, for well-document and corroborated events and testimonies. Well-documented cases, such as the healing from blindness and deafness when receiving proximal prayer (in which hands are laid on the person being prayed for) for two dozen Mozambican participants as empirically documented and published in a respectable peer-reviewed science journal, exist. Other striking cases would be the healing of rugby player Jaco van der Westhuizen and Chris Gunderson. Perhaps the strongest case for the reality of miracles to come from work a scholar is Craig Keener’s tome Miracles (2011), which engages the topic on an empirical, historical, contemporary, and anecdotal level. A number of cases exist that theists maintain are authentic supernatural events that strongly point to the involvement of the hand of their God in the natural order of things.
The Atheist Perspective
The atheist perspective rejects the possibility of miracles because on a naturalistic-materialistic worldview there exists no supernatural God behind the scenes who can intervene in the natural order to bring about extraordinary events. Atheist writer and activist John Loftus articulates,
“Almost every scientific study done on prayer has shown that prayers are not statistically answered any better than luck. Research has shown that people are prone to misjudge the true probabilities for any given event—we’re often wrong… The fact is that incredible coincidences are common, even virtually certain, given enough opportunities for them to occur in the lives of millions of believers. The most we can say about them is that their causes are unknown. So once again Randal is arguing from the gaps—a known, informal fallacy. We should not trust personal anecdotal evidence when it comes to answered prayer, especially since believers count the hits and discount the misses due to a thousand qualifications. Besides, believers in each era will only pray for things they expect can happen, and what they expect depends on the state of contemporary science” (3).
Loftus wonders why Christians would need to ask God for a miracle when he is meant to care for them like a mother cares for her children. Further, even granting the Christian a miracle does not prove that her God exists “since a different god may have answered it out of compassion” (4).
Loftus further argues from the burden of proof: “What believers must show is that a miracle could not have happened within the natural world because it was nearly impossible (or else it’s not considered miraculous). Then they must turn right around and claim such an impossible event probably took place anyway… the improbability of a miracle claim defeats any attempt to show it probably happened.” (5).
To Loftus and atheists who argue similarly, this means that miracles require a greater amount of evidence for them. We would require more than just testimony on which the theists make their case. Referring to miracles in the Catholic Church, notably at Lourdes, Loftus maintains that the 67 confirmed “miracles” are minuscule in comparison to the total number of people who have visited the shrine for healing and were not healed. As such, reasons Loftus, “since I have never seen one, I am within my rights to doubt them all” (6). The religious only believe in miracles because they purportedly have a “need” to believe in them. This is not, in Loftus’ eyes, an acceptable standard for proof. He moreover charges that humans believe in miracles because of the agency detector device they inherited from evolution. According to this device, human beings are hardwired to detect a hand or agency behind the scenes. Loftus concludes,
“That there are some unexplained events I’ll admit, just as there are some good things said in the Bible concerning women and animals. But the bad things must be explained and not just explained away” (7).
Rauser offers several responses to Loftus’ objections. For one, he maintains that the “design filter” that one applies to extraordinary events rules out “incredible coincidences”, which means that it is unjustified to take Loftus’ position that so-called miracles, perhaps (to use our example) like the healing of the blindness and deafness of two dozen Mozambicans in response to proximal prayer, is merely coincidental. Rauser explains, “[T]he design filter screens out events if they are merely improbable. It only triggers when an event is highly improbable and specified to the situation…” (8).
Regarding Loftus’ claim that believers of a specific religion who prays to his God and receives a “miracle” can’t rule out that it is the answer of some other deity, Rauser charges this to be a “desperate point”: “John protests that events like this don’t establish that the deity of one’s personal faith caused them. This is surely a desperate point. If I pray to the Christian God and the prayer is answered, why should I think any other being answered it?” (9).
And what of Loftus’ point that the theist is never warranted to infer a miracle unless he has soundly proven that no naturalistic explanation could ever account for the event in question? Rauser says this is false and he argues that what we want is a plausible explanation, not merely a conceivable one. For example, it is conceivable, however unlikely it may be, that all 24 Mozambican subjects who were prayed for by Baker had their deafness and eyesight restored at that very moment through purely naturalistic processes or by some unknown natural law. But would this be more probable or plausible than positing God as the explanation, especially since it is God who was prayed to and after which the eyesight returned? This is what Rauser means when he says the design filter takes “specification” into account. The miracle occurs within specific contexts that are infused with religious significance like prayer, calls to God for healing, worship, gatherings, and so on.
There are further quibbles one might have with some of Loftus’ skepticism. One of these concerns the inconsistency among atheists when it comes to miracles and testimony. In Loftus case, we are told that we should never trust anecdotes about the miraculous, but if you were to ask most atheists what would best convince them that there is God, they will tell you a dramatic miracle like the healing of an amputee or the dividing of the sea like in the Moses legend would be sufficient. However, there are cases where atheists have witnessed alleged supernatural events and fell away from their atheism. Bruce Grindal was an anthropologist working in Ghana who recounted in a respected peer-reviewed journal how he witnessed a four-day-old rotting dead body awaken from death and dance at his funeral before falling back down again. This occurrence was seen by Grindal and many others at the funeral, but if one were to apply Loftus’ logic we would have to dismiss this anecdotal evidence without even considering it. But is that fair? Many would argue not. The consequences of Loftus’ proposition are further felt in light of the slippery slope it manifests given it would require we discard swathes of human knowledge that is based on anecdotal evidence. This would include a great deal knowledge that is produced by the sciences, especially in sociology and anthropology. The theist will charge, justifiably or unjustifiably in the reader’s opinion, that this inconsistent and is a self-inculcating standard that atheists have invented to shield their philosophical naturalism from any supernatural events. Rauser explains: “What John dismissively refers to as “personal anecdotal evidence” is vetted testimony—a type of evidence that is treated as of great value in a court of law, so why not here?”
Loftus maintains that we ought to never accept anecdotal evidence because “no scientist” would ever accept it (10). Instead, we ought to accept that improbable events happen all the time and we should not believe that miracles are ever any more than improbable events. In fact, charges Loftus, “they are even virtually certain to happen to someone sometime given enough opportunities for them to occur in the lives of millions of believers. The really surprising thing isn’t that these events happen but that they don’t happen more often.” Loftus refers to scientific studies of prayer that have not shown anything miraculous going on at all:
“The results were very clear. There was no difference between the patients who were prayed for (group 1 and 3) and those who were not prayed for (group 2). Moreover, the patients who knew they being prayed for suffered significantly more complications than those who did not know they were being prayed for” (11).
Loftus concludes that the detection device programmed into humans “from our animal ancestors to see agents behind improbable events given the proper circumstances” is what best explains the human need to see miracles where none occur.
1. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless. Baker. p. 141-147.
2. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 143.
3. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 143-144.
4. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 144.
5. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 144-145.
6. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 145.
7. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 145.
8. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 146.
9. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 146.
10. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 146.
11. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 147.