Why believe in miracles

A miracle is a supposed event that is contrary to the laws of nature. The idea is that an event like that can only be explained as the work of a supernatural being like God. Who else would be capable of breaking the laws of the universe? Here are a few of the problems with the concept of miracles.

When you hear a report of a miracle, consider how often people say things that aren’t actually true. What seems more likely, that a real miracle happened (something that goes against the way we’ve always known the world to work), or that the person claiming a miracle happened1 lied or was mistaken (something that happens all the time)?2

Particularly in the case of miracles reported in ancient times, it would be easy for people as ignorant as they were back then to be fooled. People who think faith is a virtue would probably be pretty easily fooled as well.

What’s God got to do with it?

What if it turns out that an apparently miraculous event can actually be explained in terms of ordinary natural phenomena? It may still be amazing, and it may be useful… But there’s no reason to think it’s a true miracle in that case, and it’s not very strong evidence of anything supernatural.

Even if we assume the stories in the Bible aren’t entirely made up, a lot of the miracles reported there have possible natural explanations. And that’s just based on what we know about the natural world. There’s no way to know for sure that an apparent miracle doesn’t have a non-supernatural cause that we don’t know about yet.

Even if you’re convinced that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred, that’s no reason to think it has anything to do with anything supernatural. Maybe nature just doesn’t happen to be perfectly consistent or lawful. And in a lot of cases, even if you accept that it’s proof of something supernatural, there’s no reason to assume that an apparent miracle is evidence of the existence of any particular god, or that someone performing miracles was sent by God.

Why couldn’t there be some other god behind it, or some other explanation you haven’t thought of? There’s no reason to think that the cause of a miracle has to be all-powerful, or have any of the other attributes God is said to have. If all you know is that you can’t think of any usual explanation for what happened, all you can reasonably conclude is that you don’t know how it happened.

If you were to take one religion’s miracles as proof that that religion was true, how would you explain all the other religions’ miracles? People of many different religions believe they have experienced miracles that can only be explained by their religion being true. They can’t all be right. People of many different religions also believe that miracle claims associated with other religions are all false. They can all be right about that.

The Bible even says evil people and evil spirits can perform miraculous signs of their own. So why assume miracles have anything to do with God? It would make just as much sense to conclude that your religion’s miracles are the devil’s way of tricking you into believing in a false religion.

Miracles are things that don’t happen

Is it even possible in principle for the laws of nature to be broken? What exactly are the laws of nature? The word “law” here means a universal principle stating that things always happen in a certain way given certain conditions, which we take to be a fact as a result of extensive observation or experimentation. The laws of nature are our descriptions of how reality works. And anything that contradicts an accurate description of reality can’t be real.

There is always a possibility that our current ideas about the laws of nature aren’t perfectly accurate, and will need to be revised. What if we knew for a fact that an event had occurred that violated what we believed to be the laws of nature? That would just mean that we were mistaken about those laws, and we would need to update our concept of the laws of nature to accommodate that new knowledge of reality. And that would mean that the surprising event should no longer be considered a violation of the laws of nature, or a miracle.

Weak wonders

Some things people call “miracles” don’t even fit the actual definition of a miracle. They don’t seem to violate the laws of nature at all. Instead, they’re events that are merely improbable (if that). And things that would be improbable given one opportunity can actually become quite probable when given enough opportunities.

Some branches of Christianity consider the Eucharist ritual to be a miracle. They believe the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus… which just happen to be completely indistinguishable from ordinary bread and wine for some reason. Least impressive miracle ever! To take this seriously, you would have to abandon the idea that what you perceive has anything to do with reality.

Why does God seem to no longer ever do the really impressive kinds of miracles recorded in the Bible? Why do we have to settle for funny coincidences, or imperceptible alleged changes of substance, or healings where ordinary mortals seem to be doing all the work, or not-quite-everyone dying in a disaster (that God didn’t prevent altogether for some reason), or whatever other lame things people label as “miracles” these days?

Is God getting worse at doing miracles? Most likely what’s really going on is that people are becoming more capable of telling when miracles are fake, and more aware that extraordinary claims often are fake, so they don’t tend to be so easily fooled by the big miracles anymore.

If the Bible was actually true, though, there would be no decline in quality or quantity or miracles. The Bible clearly states that anyone who believes in Jesus will be able to do all the miraculous things Jesus did and more. Or they can just ask Jesus to do anything they want, and he will do it.

God wouldn’t do miracles in the first place

If there was a God, would he perform miracles? He might want to do miracles to make his presence known to people, or to punish or warn people, or just to do good in the world. But if an all-powerful perfect being really wanted to accomplish those goals, he would accomplish those goals thoroughly and successfully. He wouldn’t just intervene occasionally, and leave most people unaffected. He would do it all the time. Which would mean those events wouldn’t be considered miraculous anymore.

So no, God probably wouldn’t do miracles.3 Helping or punishing only a few people occasionally and ignoring everyone else would be evil. If God actually did do occasional miracles, that would only be a sign that God was imperfect in some way. And a universe that was actually well-designed by a perfect creator wouldn’t require intervention, anyway.

Unless they came with some required secondary miracles that nobody ever mentions, some of the miracles mentioned in the Bible (like moving a mountain, or worse, “stopping the sun in the sky“) would have disastrous unintended consequences.

Even smaller things like giving sight to the blind can go horribly wrong. In real life, a lot of people who were blind from birth and were cured have found that it didn’t do them much good, because their brains hadn’t developed the ability to process visual input. Some people have been driven to suicide by the disappointment.

Religious people sometimes claim that God intentionally remains hidden, never doing anything that would make his existence too obvious, because he prefers us to have faith, or something.4 They also sometimes say that the fact that the universe always perfectly follows certain “laws” is evidence for the existence of a “lawgiver”. And they sometimes say it’s so important for the universe to consistently follow those laws that the greater good of having a predictably lawful universe may be the reason God allows evil to exist.

They don’t seem to realize that these arguments are all incompatible with saying that violations of those laws occur, and are evidence for the existence of God.

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