Comment Promotion: Extraordinary claims and the frequency of divine interventionJanuary 24, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
48% of adult Americans claim to have personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. Thus, the Biblical notion that God intervenes in history is consistent with what we observe in real life. Moreover, at least in the case of those who have personally experienced a miracle, extraordinary evidence has been provided for this intervention.
Let’s run a quick reality check on that statistic, shall we? 48% of the adult US population is on the order of 116 million people. Assuming that each of these people is 116 years of age or younger, and making the pessimistic assumption that none of these people have ever seen more than one miracle during their lifetime, that’s still an average of at least 1 million miracles per year, or more than 2,500 miracles per day. And that’s just the number of miracles occurring in America, not including the believers in Europe, South and Central America, Africa, Asia, or Australia. So if this statistic is a valid indicator of the frequency of miraculous activity, we ought to have a gushing fountain of material to study.
Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that, with such an enormous reservoir of miracles to draw from, believers have yet to produce even one single verifiable instance of actual supernatural intervention? Even allowing for the possibility that atheistic scientists might be suspected of ignoring the evidence, 2,500 miracles a year for the past 116 years ought to give ample opportunity for Christians to learn scientific techniques for documenting and verifying genuine phenomena, and then applying those techniques to the task of producing at least one solid and well-documented genuine supernatural miracle.
On the other hand, perhaps the low success rate tells us something else about the 116 million miracle statistic. After all, if we assume that the past century is not atypical, and that these miracles have been happening at comparable rates for the past 2,000 years, that’s a really astronomical number of miracles. Even in the Gospels, in the heyday of allegedly miraculous interventions, Jesus didn’t perform 2,500 miracles a day. There are quite a few days when he is not recorded as doing any miracles, and at least one Gospel writer records that, on at least one occasion, “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”
In fact, the unrealistically high “hit rate” for reported miracles seems doubly suspicious, because if God were indeed willing and able to be that busy visibly manifesting His existence in human experience, then why would He not simply take the more fundamental and obvious step of showing up to spend time with us, in person, as the Gospels allege He wishes to do? That was, after all, the whole point of dying on the cross: removing barriers so that Man and God could be together forever. Well, forever started yesterday, but God didn’t show up. And if He can’t even show up to say, “Hi, I’m God,” then does it really make sense to suppose He’s doing all those things people are giving Him credit for?
What the 116 million miracle figure tells us is not that God is remarkably active in human affairs, but rather that people are remarkably generous in what they are willing to consider a miracle. If these “miracles” are indeed occurring at the rate of 2,500 per day, every day, then chances are pretty good that you’ve encountered some of them, as I have.
And what do we see when we look at these “miracles”? We find first of all that people are superstitious: they see something they don’t fully understand, and they ascribe it to some invisible, magical cause even though they cannot show any verifiable connection between the two. Most of the time they cannot even say what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. So people see something they don’t understand, and they ascribe it to God, and since they cannot tell us precisely how God would have done what they claim, then it must be magic (or in Christian terms, “miraculous”).
And yet, these miracles do not involve any actual non-natural phenomena. People get sick, and often they get better. That’s perfectly normal and natural. Even animals recover from illnesses, and they don’t pray at all. Or someone will be praying for things to turn out a certain way, and they do. But it’s never a supernatural event, merely unexpected and fortuitous timing of a natural event: they need money, and get an unexpected check in the mail. Money doesn’t just magically poof into existence in their hands, they just fail to anticipate that it’s on its way. Sometimes it’s even a question of life or death: people happen to switch flights or stay home from work, and thus narrowly escape some disaster or other. But nobody escapes from a burning skyscraper by jumping off the top floor and floating gently and safely down, or otherwise defying the laws of physics.
In short, a large number of “miracles” turn out to be people’s surprise at the difference between what they expected, and what actually happened. It’s not that any laws of nature were violated, suspended or otherwise superceded, it’s just that people are not omniscient and don’t always have the best grasp of all the many factors that contribute to the natural outcomes of ordinary happenstance.
Other “miracles” aren’t quite so honest. I recall visiting a monastery once, as a devout Christian, and was looking forward to seeing their “weeping icon”, which was said to miraculously shed “tears” of some oily substance from the face of the Virgin Mary depicted thereon. You could indeed see drops of some darkish liquid on the icon, as though they had just condensed there or oozed out of the wood. I was a bit disappointed by it, because it didn’t look quite as miraculous as I had hoped, but that impression was reinforced many times over when, later on in the tour, we happened to pass by the door to the icon room again and I saw a nun vigorously scrubbing the icon with cotton balls dipped in olive oil. She was “cleaning” it, our guide informed us, assuring us that the oil on the cotton balls was just to make sure they picked up every drop of the “holy” secretions (which they then sold for a “donation” of $10 in the monastery gift shop).
I suppose it would be pedestrian to point out that any plank of wood, frequently saturated in olive oil, will eventually begin to ooze some of the oil back out again? Yet for all that, I’m sure the good nuns believed with heartfelt sincerity that they were merely doing their duty by “cleaning” the “miraculous” icon. The best way to fool others is to fool yourself first.
So I must agree with Jayman on one point at least: I think the thousands of “miracles” that we see every day are indeed consistent with the kind of miracles that took place in New Testament times. It’s just that none of them requires any actual existence on God’s part. No extraordinary evidence is needed for such claims, because all they’re really claiming is that humans are fallible, superstitious, and prone to count only God’s “wins” and not His losses. And that’s not extraordinary at all.