Miracles, evidence and scepticism

August 19th, 2012 in Life. Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


I don’t like to take things on faith, without evidence. I like to research things, gather facts, or alleged facts, sort and sift and mull over them – and then come to a conclusion. And over the past year or so I have been looking at the evidence for miraculous healings.

Gullibility and credibility

It would be foolish to think that all claims of miracles are real. People tell stories that aren’t true, or repeat stories that they don’t know are true. Stories sometimes grow as they are repeated. People can be mistaken – illnesses can be misdiagnosed.

But when it seems that none of these are the case, sceptics are left with a dilemma. They want to base their beliefs on evidence, but they have a pre-commitment to miracles being impossible, courtesy of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that a miracle was, by definition, an extraordinarily unlikely event, contrary to normal human experience, and therefore a natural explanation would always be more likely.

Are miracles contrary to experience?

The problem is that apparent miracles are not nearly as unlikely as Hume thought. A 2006 survey of 10 countries (in the Americas, Africa and Asia) showed that large numbers of people claim to have experienced or observed a miracle. Extrapolating from the sample to the overall population leads to an estimate of 200 million people who have experienced or observed a healing miracle in those ten countries alone.

This avalanche of evidence is beyond thorough study, and debunking a few claims makes no difference. So the sceptic is more or less forced to deny the evidence without having examined it, in favour of a predetermined belief that miracles are impossible and all claims are false. This has been the response of most sceptics I have discussed with.

The believer, on the other hand, is free to agree that most of the claims cannot be checked, and many may have natural explanations, but can still conclude that there are too many credible stories to dismiss them all.

Are there credible stories?

I have collected a few credible stories and summarised them in Healing miracles and God.

New Testament scholar Craig Keener has undertaken a more thorough investigation, partly motivated by his wanting to gain an insight into the New Testament miracle stories. But also, Craig’s wife is from the Congo, and some of his relatives have first hand experience of miraculous healings. Keener has published a rather large two volume book on his investigation (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts).

Keener has discussed his overall conclusions in the Huffington Post (Are miracles real?). In future posts I will look at some of his stories.

The challenge

Just as many christians accept miracle stories uncritically, many unbelievers will dismiss these stories without further investigation. But honest sceptics face a challenge – are they going to ignore some important evidence about God’s possible actions in the world?

Further reading on this site