What is superstition?

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.

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Cross-examining Bernadette’s healing

Still digging my way through the comment backlog. I’ve worked my way up to Jayman’s response to the post on the healing of Bernadette McKenzie, and I think it’s worth discussion. [EDIT: sorry, that’s the wrong citation. Jayman was responding to an earlier post, not the one on Bernadette’s healing.]

Your calculation for the number of miracles that happen each day in the U.S. makes two unwarranted assumptions. First, it assumes that each miracle is experienced or witnessed by only one person. Second, it assumes that Americans who have experienced or witnessed a miracle did so on U.S. soil. Both your assumptions are false and therefore your number is wrong. You cannot accurately calculate the number of miracles that happen each day in the U.S. solely from the statistic I offered.

Your calculations from the Gospels are just as bad. First, the Gospels do not claim to recount every miracle Jesus worked nor the exact length of his ministry, making it impossible to calculate the number of miracles Jesus worked per day. Second, you compare the (wrong) number of miracles per day in the entire U.S. with the number of miracles performed per day by Jesus (apples to oranges).

First let me commend Jayman on his rigorous skepticism. I’m glad to see he’s not just taking my word for things, and that he’s carefully considering what I have to say. That’s an attitude that would make a difference if more people applied it to more situations.

I’ll stand by my calculations, though, at least as a rough estimate. If 48% of 300,000,000 people have seen a miracle in the past century or so, that’s still roughly 2,500 instances, on average, of some American witnessing a miracle each day. If you want to propose that some of these miracles happen outside the US, that’s fine, but you still have 2,500 miracle-witnessing events per day, on average, even if some of those instances involve the same witnesses. So neither of Jayman’s objections materially reduce the rate at which we ought to be seeing miracles, if the original statistic is correct.

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More on the evidence regarding God

I’m going to skim through some of the discussion with Jayman about the evidence relating to God. There’s more there than will fit in a single post, naturally, so I’m just going to hit the points I want to hilite. The first comes in this comment:

I accept that everyone (not just 48%) can be mistaken from time to time. What I find extraordinary is the claim that each and every one of these millions of individuals just so happened to be mistaken at the time they thought they were experiencing or witnessing a miracle and, moreover, that other witnesses of the same event were mistaken in the exact same way…

My point is that many atheists make an extraordinary claim (that they can explain every alleged miracle without resorting to the supernatural) in order to deny another extraordinary claim (that God intervenes in history) and that they accept their claim without extraordinary evidence.

First of all, this is not quite true: neither atheists nor anyone else claims that we already possess explanations for every instance where we do not understand how something happened. Obviously, the reason we don’t understand them is precisely because we do not currently have the answers. It’s hardly extraordinary, though, for humans to encounter phenomena they don’t fully understand.

Jayman’s argument is an appeal to ignorance, a hope that, somewhere in the answers we don’t have, might lie some actual evidence that God exists and intervenes in the affairs of men. He overlooks the extraordinary fact that, of all the answers we actually do possess, every single one has proven to be consistent with the way things work in the real world, i.e. with what we call “the laws of nature” because they proven to be so infallibly true. 100% consistency, with literally zero exceptions, is pretty extraordinary, though you could also call it pretty ordinary, since that’s the way things always turn out.

I do not claim that I can explain every strange thing that happens in life, I merely claim that truth is consistent with itself, and therefore I am confident that any future answers we may find will turn out to be consistent with the truth we already possess. But this is rather irrelevant to the particular issue under discussion here, since the question is not whether men are omniscient, but whether God shows up in real life. Man’s failure to know a particular answer does not constitute God showing up in real life. Ignorance is not knowledge. It’s as simple as that.

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Catching up with Tony

Between my company trip and the winter weather and all the interesting things Jayman has been saying, I’ve managed to build up quite a backlog.  It’s all good, though: at least it’s going to be easy to pick topics for blog posts for a while. Please bear with me as I dig back through the comments and pick up again with our friend Tony, who must be feeling a bit neglected by now. But he had some good points and I’d like to discuss them now.

First of all, a quibble. Tony writes:

“Extraordinary claim” in following the accepted use of English states the claim to be extraordinary, not the contents. The sentiment is understandable, the language is still sloppy.

I can’t quite agree with Tony’s insistence that when you use the word “claim,” as in “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” the normal English meaning of the term “claim” refers to the action of making a claim rather than to the idea being claimed. Even if we grant that the word “claim” can be ambiguous, and can refer sometimes to the action of expressing a debatable proposition, and other times to the debatable proposition itself, the context of the sentence makes it quite clear that we are talking about a claim in the sense of a proposition which requires supporting evidence of some sort. It does not require evidence, extraordinary or otherwise, to merely express what the claim is; evidence is required to support what Tony calls the “contents” of the claim. Therefore the sentence, in normal English usage is quite unambiguous: we are talking about the evidence required to support what is claimed. If we were only talking about the frequency with which claims were made, we would say, “Infrequent claims require infrequent evidence.” But is there anybody who seriously supposes that this is anywhere near the original intent of the original dictum?

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