Sceptics sometimes say they would need more tangible evidence to believe – there’s insufficient evidence in the Bible and in the philosophical arguments for God, they say, so they need something incontrovertible.
Yet at the same time, many say that no matter how much evidence there is for an action of God in the world, such as a healing miracle, it would never be enough to convince them, because a natural explanation is always more likely. Richard Dawkins, for example, said in a conversation with fellow atheist Peter Boghossian, that he can’t think of any evidence that would persuade him. Even a spectacular visitation by God could be a hallucination, a conjuring trick or aliens from outer space.
I have been pondering this.
This looks wrong in principle
Richard Dawkins said himself that he wasn’t entirely happy with the thought that there was nothing he could think of that could change his mind, and fellow atheist and scientist Jerry Coyne clearly feels uncomfortable with this conclusion too.
They are rightly uncomfortable, because if there is nothing that can change our minds, then if we are mistaken we will stay that way. It is especially a problem for a scientist, because it means a hypothesis can’t be tested.
But that isn’t the topic of this post. Instead I want to look at whether people who experience an apparent miracle from God have sufficient evidence to believe.
People who trusted their experience
Some people believe in God or Jesus because he has worked in their lives. Are these people wrong, as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian suggest?
Hong Hong gang members
In 1966, Jackie Pullinger, a young christian convert in her early twenties, went to Hong Kong to be a missionary. She had no real idea what she was doing, but ended up sharing the love of Jesus with triad gang members in the notorious Kowloon walled city, helping them come out of drug addiction, out of the triads, and into productive lives.
For them, and for Jackie, miraculous healing was the only evidence that would convince them of the reality of Jesus. Here’s some of their stories.
Winson was a fight leader in his triad gang. The head of the gang had come to respect Jackie’s work in helping people in trouble with the law and in education, so when some triad ‘boys’ trashed her walled city youth club one night, he sent Winson to protect her.
Jackie got to know him and asked him if he’d like to believe in Jesus. Winson spoke honestly of his long drug addiction, and his many unsuccessful attempts to break free. Jackie told him that Jesus would heal him so he could get off the drug. Winson’s response was interesting.
So I think really, really a miracle…. If Jesus can healing me … no medicine … they have power. So why not?
So Winson prayed for half an hour and in that short time was released from a life of opium addiction.
Luke had been an addict for 17 years, and had a criminal record that included many gaol sentences. He had tried many times (more than 30 times in 10 years), unsuccessfully, to come off drugs, including medically at a clinic. After he spoke to other ex triad members who he knew and who had been freed from addiction, he decided to give Jackie’s program a try.
On the second day of withdrawal, he was feeling very uncomfortable and was told the only way he would be freed from the pain would be to pray himself. He prayed to Jesus and asked simply for forgiveness, for Jesus to be active in his life, for healing and for the pain to go – and it did, instantly. He immediately felt peaceful, went to sleep (which he couldn’t normally do when in withdrawal) and was healed.
Luke went on to become a leader in Jackie’s social welfare organisation, distributing food to homeless people, finding accommodation and caring for them. He changed his name from his triad name to Luke to eliminate an association with his former life.
Luke’s wife, Ah Fong, watched all this with both love (she had stuck faithfully with him through many difficult years) and scepticism (she had seen her hopes dashed so many times before). But after she was prayed for regarding severe chest pain, saw in her mind a picture of Jesus on the cross, and was healed miraculously and instantly, she too believed in Jesus.
Thousands of others
In the 45+ years Jackie has been at work in Hong Kong, thousands of people have become Jesus followers and been healed of addiction through prayer. These included desperate addicts whose health had been destroyed by decades of drug use, and even Goko, the head of one of five triad gangs in the walled city and now a convert they call ‘New Paul’. One picture in Jackie’s book Crack in the Wall shows 4 former addicts who between them experienced 200 years of heroin addiction.
Jackie is very pragmatic about all this. “Why would anyone understand ‘Jesus loves you’ if they don’t know who Jesus is and no-one has ever loved you, so I had to be Jesus to them rather than say the words. … I was sure that if Jesus was here, he would heal them …. I thought it would be wonderful to go down the lane laying your hands on blind people and see them seeing – that would be a whole lot more fun and real than saying ‘come to our Sunday service’….”.
And so for her and for thousands of ex-addicts, experiencing Jesus through healing and new life was sufficient evidence for them to believe, and keep on believing.
A heart surgeon’s prayer
Jeff Markin was 53 back in 2006 when he felt unwell on the way to work, and drove to the local hospital in Florida, where he collapsed with a massive heart attack. The emergency team worked on him for 40 minutes, including a dozen or more shocks with the ‘paddles’, but there was no response. The heart specialist on duty that day finally pronounced him dead.
The nurse started preparing Jeff’s body while the specialist wrote up his notes and then left the emergency room. But outside, he distinctly heard a voice in his ear telling him to go back and pray for Jeff. He did so, to the consternation of the nurse, then asked the emergency room doctor to apply the paddles once more. He did, and Jeff immediately began breathing and his heartbeat returned in perfect order.
Jeff suffered no brain damage. He was not an active believer beforehand, but this incident led him to renew his faith in God.
Were Winson, Luke and Jeff wrong to believe because they were healed?
Jeff Markin was an involuntary participant in his healing. He didn’t ask to be prayed for. He could have walked away from the hospital thinking it was all a lucky accident – but he didn’t. Do you think he was wrong to change his mind about God?
But that choice wasn’t open to Winson and Luke and the rest. To receive their healing that had to pray and ask God for help. They had to believe at least that much. Do you think they were wrong to ask God for help? And having received that help, were they wrong to continue to believe in Jesus?
Would you believe if you were miraculously healed?
If it had happened to you, would you feel that your experience of being healed when you were otherwise helpless was strong evidence that God is real and interested in your life? Or would you think, like Richard and Peter, that some other explanation is more likely?
What other explanation is possible?
The stories are not urban myths – they are too well documented for that. There are thousands of healed addicts walking around Hong Kong, and Jackie has been awarded the MBE and her work was recognised by the government and police force of the former British colony. Jeff’s recovery has been documented by news and eye witness reports. Something unusual happened in all these cases.
Could the recoveries all have natural causes? People can achieve amazing things if they are motivated enough, so perhaps addicts who believe Jesus will help them are able to do what they could never do before. Some heart specialists believe that heart attack victims can recover long after their brains and hearts have stopped functioning. So perhaps these were all natural events?
Perhaps they were. And yet the “coincidence” of so many people receiving unlikely healing immediately after prayer is quite amazing. One or two, sure. Hundreds, even thousands, surely very long odds.
This is surely a watershed
Some of you readers of this blog will feel quite strongly that their faith was justified; others will feel quite strongly that it wasn’t. The evidence is the same for each, so why the difference?
I can’t help feeling it comes down to our assumptions – what we are willing to believe, the criteria we judge by, and how important our present belief is to us.
I feel our response to these stories and these questions is like a watershed, like a litmus paper. I am reminded of an event in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, where sceptical dwarfs believe they are locked in a dark stable when in reality they are in glorious sunshine. But nothing can convince them otherwise.
Read more about healing miracles
- Ten healing miracles – ten people with serious illnesses and injuries recover after prayer.
- More healing miracles – reports from around the world.
- Dying doctor recovers after prayer the prayers of his wife astonish the experts.
- Miracles and probability: the adventures of a maths nerd – my attempt to apply Bayes Theorem probability to miracle reports.
- Healing miracles and God – a summary of evidence I have gathered.
Pictures: stills from the video The Law of Love.
Your assumption of long odds is ill founded. If you have a spontaneous recovery rate, due to natural causes, of 1 in 100,000 then across the world among many millions of suffering people and their friends who pray you are going to get quite a lot of recoveries. That’s not to say that prayer or meditation can’t put you in a suitable frame of mind for spontaneous recovery to have a better chance.
Your idea that events for which there is no known explanation point to the Christian God being responsible is also ill founded. This is so even if those who experience these events are Christians or are engaged in Christian practices. There are such unexplained events all over the world experienced by people involved in all sorts of non-Christian religions and no religion. You would need to be able to demonstrate that such events happen more frequently to Christians and that events did not occur due to life style changes or practices that are likely to be efficacious through natural processes.
Gordon, have you read the “Miracles and probability” link? You will see I have taken spontaneous recovery into account.
It is not the case that there is no known explanation for these healings. People pray and God sometimes heals. I have no reason to think God only answers christian prayers.
Well I’m no Bayes expert but it appears to me that you have assumed the thing you are trying to determine: ie that there is a positive probability that prayer affects recovery. Now in fact there is no need to make assumptions about this as you can look up the results of controlled studies in this very area.
@unkleE perhaps my lack of Bayes experience shows through here. I guess that you ought to be trying to show that the probability of prayer having a positive effect is >0 given God exists.
Nevertheless the probability results of studies so far must be relevant.
I have to say I don’t really see how anything to do with prayer is relevant. The question at hand here is does a God heal people. I don’t see how you can possibly differentiate between spontaneous healing and miraculous healing as all probabilities for spontaneous healing that are available make no assumptions about God or prayer.
I think you have chosen the wrong type of miracle to look for evidence. You need some events which never take place due to natural causes, are well attested by evidence and can be linked in some way to divine existence.
I did use figures for spontaneous recoveries (very rough, admittedly). I wasn’t assuming what I was trying to determine – in Bayes calculations we do calculations based on the hypothesis being tested (that God exists and heals) and the counter hypothesis (that he doesn’t). I made assumptions/estimates for the probability that God heals granted he exists, and the probability of spontaneous recovery granted he doesn’t exist, and then calculated the number of documented miracles required to show that God’s existence is more probable than not.
We cannot differentiate between spontaneous recovery and God’s healing, that is a choice each of us has to make. The Bayes calculation assists us in making that choice, not by proving the cause, but by showing the probabilities of each hypothesis. It’s a help for those willing to accept it.
So I wonder how you answer the question posed by my post – if you had been healed after prayer, would that constitute evidence for God to you?
Stimulating thoughts and I especially appreciated Jerry Coyne’s comments. It really helps to understand the atheist mindset when you realise that some cannot accept any evidence for God. I’m sure that is indicative of the way we all decide what we believe about the world and how we decide truth. It must be very unnerving for the naturalistic types to accept this.
Thanks for this post, and its something I’ve been occassionally thought about. There is a narrow definition of evidence that comes into play here, in that evidence is seen as that which a properly designed scientific study shows (ideally being double blind controlled with randomisation). And scientifically they are right. That is why Coyne and Dawkins struggle to come up with something.
However, life isn’t like that. And my question to atheists is whether personal experience is evidence for the person themself? I have friends who experienced a voice and then a confirmation of the voice by very, very low probability events happening. Is that evidence for the person? (Not for others, as they can’t verify it). I would argue “yes” but my atheist colleagues say “no.” I’m still not convinced by their argument.
Hi MGB, yes I appreciate Jerry Coyne as a thoughtful person (on this and other matters) even though I disagree with him.
Hi BF, welcome to this blog, and thanks for your thoughtful comments. The points you raise (scientific rigour vs everyday decision-making) were in my mind too. I am a person whose faith is more based on objective ‘facts’, and I have had few experiences I would say showed God to me in a clear way, but I recognise it is different for many other people. I have been thinking through how believers, sceptics and non-believers respond to these things, hence this post.
I can sympathise a little with those atheists’ scepticism and also with their plight. Given their ideological framework, I can understand their need to attribute miracles to natural causes; and the ready availability of sceptical alternative explanations. But assuming such a strong scepticism is also obviously problematic in absence of purely rational reasons to disbelieve all miracles. And it also seems to open the road for a much broader scepticism about our experience (and many of these people seem more empiricist than rationalist).
Now I am also careful in claiming miracles on prudential grounds, but I see no reason why somebody who experiences a miracle should not trust his or her senses then, but should trust them otherwise. Imagine a forensic scientist who constantly witnesses dead people being resurrected but ascribes the perceptions to delusions, while still proceeding with his or her job. That would be absurd!
Yes I agree with you here. Sceptics are often quick to accuse believers of having their mind made up before they look at the evidence, but we all tend to do that. They will say there is more evidence for their mindset, but that is a problematic claim if they rule all miracles out from the start.
My aim in posting this sort of thing is to give sceptical readers reason to at least question their assumptions.
Interesting post, unkleE. The religious mind will see God’s hand everywhere and the religious skeptic will see God’s hand nowhere – in both cases, reasons follow.
Hi Doug, thanks. I agree that what you say here is mostly what happens. But does that mean you think that we all choose our beliefs in non-rational ways, or in fact we don’t choose our beliefs at all, they just happen?
I’m not trying to develop a formal theory or anything, but I do believe most of us have strong feelings about God and religion already from our youth (however we acquired them) and tend to build the foundation later with reason and logic.
I think that view has some support from the neuroscientists and psychologists – e.g. Dr Jonathon Haidt, who I wrote about in Rational thinking is over-rated?.
But there are many people (studies suggest this may be as high as half of the population in western countries) who change their belief from the one they were brought up in. The percentages of atheists who move to a more religious belief is actually higher in the US than the percentage who lose their belief, but the numbers who lose their belief are greater – see Do atheists beget atheists?.
So these people are defying the neuroscientists a little, though no doubt they would find other factors.
No, I think I’ve said this before, I regard the existence of gods as such an outlandish idea that any other explanation would probably seem more reasonable. And even were there no explanation I would simply not admit of an opinion.
While I accept that I cannot know for certain that gods don’t exist I think you would be justified in regarding me as closed minded on this issue as I am unable to think of any evidence for which I would believe some other explanation was not more likely.
Ho Gordon, thanks for clarifying that. I guess that means your unbelief is not falsifiable.
It’s claims or hypotheses that need to be falsifiable not beliefs.
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