Ask a stupid question countdown... eight

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

8. What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

I'll ignore the blatant cheating since this is clearly three questions. I'll also avoid the easy way out that Jesus was probably a fictional character. I think we can treat this as one super question: What about events that are attributed to God?

I think these fall roughly into two categories. The first is that the people involved are simply mistaken. We've established many, many times through history that it's not at all difficult for enormous amounts of people to be completely wrong about things. To turn Samurai philosophy on its head for a moment, if it's possible or one person to believe a silly thing, it's possible or a hundred or a million people to believe a silly thing. Once we agree that it's possible for people to believe things which are wrong, the amount of evidence it takes to convince us one person wrong is the same amount of evidence it takes to convince us four billion people are wrong.

I work professionally as a magician. I regularly show people things that appear to them to be impossible. At the same moment, I'm aware of exactly what's going on and exactly how possible those things are. I've also listened to people offer guesses to explain what they just saw and can tell you they are very seldom correct. (A small point of interest is the more educated someone is, the less accurate their guesses tend to be. The closest guesses come from small children.)

I doubt it's a coincidence that the more we learn about the universe, the more non-miraculous explanations we find for the supposedly miraculous events.

I suppose it's important to take a moment to figure out what the word miracle even means. I doubt the questioner even had a clear definition in mind when he threw the question out there. I've never seen a definition of miracle that is remotely useful. (By useful, I mean that given an event, the definition would actually help determine whether or not it should be called a miracle.) If I had to guess what was going on in the minds of other people (a scary thing to try and do!) I would have to say most people define miracle intuitively as "an unexpected favourable coincidence." This stems from the fact that humans don't have a good intuitive understanding of the difference between "very unlikely" and "impossible". We want to limit our definition of miracle to things which are not just unlikely to happen, but things which cannot happen. The unfortunate consequence of this is that there is no distinction between what we would call a miracle and what we would call "magic". And since sensible people don't believe in magic, it makes us suspect that we ought not believe in miracles either. 

This leaves us at a rather important practical roadblock. For most of the events in question, we don't actually have a way to distinguish between something that violates the laws of physics and someone being very lucky. Say for example that a young man at a Pentecostal church begins speaking in tongues. But instead of "tongues", we get a long series of dates, times and angles. You hand the list to a local astronomer who at the right times points his telescope in the right direction and every single time he observe a supernova in the night's sky. (Supernovae are events that happen roughly once per century per galaxy - rare- but there are enough galaxies that you can observe one basically every night if you have a big enough telescope.) Now that light has been travelling for a long time. So when the man makes the predictions, he is essentially predicting events which have already happened, we just haven't found out about them yet. So do we consider evidence of information travelling faster than light (which, would according to our current understanding of physics constitute a miracle)? Do we attribute this miracle to the God of the bible (and not aliens, or a lesser known Greek god)? Or is it possible that this man was just extremely lucky and the words he spat out at random just happened to coincide with the locations of these exploding stars?

At the end of the day, we don't have the epistemological tools to distinguish real miracle from luck. But since we have evidence for coincidence, and zero evidence for miracles you won't find it all that unreasonable that if we're going to make a well-informed guess, we're going to go for not miracles.

As for a relationship with Jesus, most of us have had imaginary friends at some point in our early childhood. Having someone to talk to is useful even if there's not actually someone there to talk to. Things like near-death experiences have ready explanations in biology (basically you shock a brain to the point of nearly killing it, it does weird stuff.)

What about those that claim to have seen saints or angels? What about those that claim to have seen extra-terrestrials? What about those that claim to have seen bigfoot? I believe all three questions have the same answer.

The second category is simply those events which never happened. I'll go right for the most interesting one: the resurrection of Jesus. We won't take it as a starting point that someone actually died and then came back to life. For starters, we have trillions of examples of things dying and not coming back to life. So from the beginning, we know that this claim is extremely unlikely to be accurate (that's just straight up Bayesian Reasoning.)

Back up a moment and ask a slightly different question. Why might people say that "Jesus rose from the dead on the third day"? One could of course postulate it's because someone named Jesus actually did die and rise. Or, you could examine a variety of scenarios through which the people thought he was dead and they were simply wrong (we've already established that happens all the time). But more importantly, you have to examine the scenarios where he did not actually rise from the dead and people merely claimed he did. If you reflect for a moment, I think you'll be able to come up with one or two examples of someone coming up with a story that's not true, perhaps in a book or a play or a movie or around a campfire. You may also be able to think of examples from your own life where things happened and when you retold the events to others, you (intentionally or unintentionally) embellished some of the details and someone may even have retold your inaccurate version to others and so on. It may have even been an entirely innocent exaggeration. You don't have to be a mean or unscrupulous person to mislead someone.

We even have evidence of people inventing gods. Even the faithful believe this, since we have knowledge of at least a thousand gods from across human history, all monotheists believe that at least 9,999 of those are invented. So clearly it's not that difficult to make your own.

I'm not sure how the questioner feels, but personally I have no trouble believing (and it certainly doesn't take any faith) that these kinds of errors happen all the time. So can all of those people be wrong? Absolutely.

Stay tuned for question seven...