What is superstition?February 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing with Jayman’s response from yesterday’s post:
(1) You call believers in miracles “superstitious”. Yet there have been atheists who aren’t superstitious who have come to believe they have witnessed a miracle.
(2) You say of believers in miracles:
[T]hey 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”).
Most believers can explain how God might do something. For example, one could posit that God hears a prayer to be cured from a disease, decides to answer the prayer, and heals the person of the disease.
I’m glad Jayman brought that up, because I realize that the term “superstition” is unflattering at best, and I’d like to explain why I’m using it. It’s not out of a desire to insult or disparage believers, but because the action itself happens to fit the definition for “superstition.” And please note, I’m trying to be careful not to call the people superstitious, I’m calling the action superstition—it could be that people are simply being careless, and don’t realize the implications of what they are doing.
Superstition is when you encounter something you don’t understand, and instead of working out the chain of verifiable causes and effects that lead to what you see, you simply ascribe it to some kind of invisible or magical cause with no verifiable connection to the thing it is supposed to explain. Most of the time, the superstitious “explanation” cannot even describe exactly what this connection would consist of if it did exist.
Contrast this with a scientific explanation: the scientific explanation does trace the chain of cause and effect in sufficient detail that you can determine that cause X would indeed produce effect Y which in turn would cause result Z. Gravity does indeed compress the earth’s rocky core, compression produces heat, heat turns rock into molten magma under pressure, which escapes through faults, allowing magma to build up beneath the volcano, thus producing the eruption. Attributing it to a volcano god, in the absence of any verifiable connection to such a deity, is superstition.
Likewise with healing. A scientific explanation for Bernadette’s healing would be a very useful thing, because understanding the actual causes would allow us to apply those causes to other patients, thus healing them as well. If we merely attribute the healing to God, and say, “Well, God just healed her,” without being able to say how He allegedly affected this cure and without any evidence that it was indeed God and not the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a random SMERF, or voodoo witchcraft—that’s superstition: a magical attribution to an unverifiable cause.
Like I said, I realize that’s unflattering, but we need to be honest about things if we’re going to arrive at the truth. If we don’t want to be superstitious, then we need to refrain from “explaining” things by merely attributing them to unverifiable and magical “causes” that have no demonstrable connection to the thing we’re trying to explain. Which leads to Jayman’s next objection:
You also fail to note that atheists do the very thing you accuse theists of doing. For example, they see an answered prayer for healing they don’t fully understand, and ascribe it to some invisible, natural 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.
The important difference is twofold: first and most important, when we don’t know what the cause was, we don’t claim to have explained what the cause was. Saying “I don’t know” is perfectly fine (though we don’t want to stay there, of course). Second, it is not superstitious to say, “I expect that the answer will turn out to be consistent with the laws of nature,” because in this case we are not merely ascribing things to magical and unverifiable causes, we are simply maintaining the principle that real-world truth is consistent with itself. I cannot see into the future; I cannot know that the sun will rise tomorrow. Nevertheless, it is not superstitious for me to say I expect the sun to rise tomorrow, because all I’m really saying is that I expect future developments to be consistent with what we’ve seen in the past.
The same is true with unexplained phenomena like healing. I do not know what the actual causes were (and I don’t claim to), but our experience in the past has consistently and universally been that whenever the answer has been found, it has turned out to be a natural cause. Like the sun rising every day without exception, the answers we’ve learned have all been natural answers, without exception, and therefore I can be just as confident that new answers will be natural as I can be that the sun will rise tomorrow, and for the same reason.
There’s another dimension to this, and that is the fact that the truth is consistent with itself. This means more than just that tomorrow is likely to have the same sort of things as yesterday had. It also means that truth is interconnected, that one truth implies others. If God were intervening in the lives of men and women to such an extent that 48% of them were able to perceive Him doing it, this would imply other truths that we ought to be able to detect as well. The incidental manifestations of divine interactions would have an impact on the evidence, and would provide us with corroborating evidence of His existence and activity—if it existed.
For example, if God deliberately healed Bernadette, this action would be connected to some motive for wanting to heal her. This motive, in turn, would lead to other manifestations, which we ought to be able to observe. If the motive were that He loved her and wanted her to know He was real, then it ought to lead to other, less ambiguous manifestations of His existence, like showing up in some tangible form to interact with her personally. Or if He wanted her healing to serve as evidence for the whole world, then again, this motive ought to lead to other manifestations that are less ambiguous.
Also, if God is truly interacting with the material universe, then He needs to draw His power from somewhere. If the source is something within the material universe, then we ought to be able to detect the energy flows, and if it comes from “outside” the material universe, then we ought to see discrepancies that would challenge the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy. Miracles ought to leave telltale footprints in the sands of reality, and we ought to be able to find them. But we don’t.
No real-world fact exists in isolation from other truths; everything is interconnected. We doubt the superstitious/miraculous “explanations” for things we don’t understand, because the corollary evidence which ought to accompany such things is conspicuously absent. Thus, the superstitious explanation fails on two counts: it fails to show a verifiable causal chain between the purported cause and the observed effect, and it exists in unrealistic isolation from the corollary evidence which ought to accompany it.
One last point:
(3) You assert that “miracles do not involve any actual non-natural phenomena” and that these miracles are “consistent with the kind of miracles that took place in New Testament times.” This attempted explanation fails since there are a number of miracles that go well beyond natural phenomena. For example, either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t, but there is no natural phenomena that explains how a person could be dead on Friday and alive on Sunday.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the actual phenomenon that confronts us is not that there is a risen Savior whose existence is puzzling. When we look at the real world, we don’t find any such risen Savior. What we find instead is a much more mundane phenomenon: people telling us unverifiable stories about someone rising from the dead. These stories exist, but they are not supernatural, they merely make claims about the supernatural. And since no such resurrected being can be found in the real world, the only way we have of evaluating the truth of such stories is to see whether or not they are consistent with real-world truth. And they’re not.
If we choose to believe these stories, despite their inconsistencies, just because men say so, this action is not faith, but merely gullibility: believing whatever we are told despite the lack of supporting evidence and the presence of contradictory evidence. If Jesus were indeed risen from the dead, all he would need to do is show up, and we could have a faith based on the truth. Since he does not show up in real life, the only options available are gullibility and skepticism.
I started with the former and ended with the latter, and got a better God out of the deal, so I’m content. I would encourage all believers to do the same, and the sooner the better.