Atheism and Miracles

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    Jun 27, 2007 4:34 PM GMT
    The topic of religion has popped up on a number of threads here, so I wanted to throw the following out to you guys to see what you think.

    My dad, a Christian fundamentalist, emailed me today about a story where a pastor met a non-religious couple in Jerusalem. The husband had a spine disorder. The pastor related words from God to them, which according to the email, successfully predicted that the husband’s disease was fatal, the Greek Mafia was out to kill him, he had almost died when being born, that the wife wanted to divorce him, and that the wife couldn’t have kids. This success persuaded the couple to attend a Christian meeting with the pastor. The pastor who ran the meeting then asked for a man with a spine disorder, and an infertile woman, to come forward; although the email did not explicitly state whether the pastors had spoken beforehand, it implied that they had not. Subsequently, the husband’s spine disorder spontaneously healed, and he could run and jump again. Since the email was labeled “Part 1,” I suspect another email will soon follow about healing the wife.

    My dad sends me these things all the time, and I've begun to wonder whether a systematic explanation exists for these many miracle stories. It's clear that the story’s narrative is implausible for several reasons: the storyteller-pastor’s account is not only likely biased, but even to the extent it is sincere, she likely has a distorted memory of the predictive accuracy of what she told the couple. I also noted that the pastor who ran the meeting did not successfully predict the specific disease that the husband had (which the husband had said would be miraculous if predicted since only 200 people in the world were known to have the disease, the name of which was left unstated). Stating general symptoms that are likely to occur in a group of some size does not indicate supernatural information transmission.

    The timely spontaneous disease remission, however, is a bit more troubling. If we assume the likelihood that a disease spontaneously remits is greater than zero, it follows that some remission occasions will just happen to occur concurrently with a religious conversion. But it seems that there are too many miracle stories for this to be the only explanation.

    Something else I’ll share: when I was a kid (I forget the exact age, definitely before puberty), one time when we were watching the 700 Club as a family (awwww *rolls eyes*), Pat Robertson was praying and said specifically how someone was watching who had asthma, and that Jesus was intervening to cure the asthma. Now, in retrospect, it was obvious that there had to be someone with asthma watching, considering his huge audience. At the time, though, I really thought he was talking about me, and I thought my asthma was cured. I didn’t even have an asthma attack for several days, but of course it later returned. (I had asthma bad as a kid).

    Since there are so many intelligent fellow atheists at RealJock, I thought I’d ask you guys whether you could think of any more systematic explanation for these miracle stories. I mean, I suppose these stories could be complete fabrications – religionists never seem to have scruples about lying in political contexts (e.g., http://pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=2051; scroll down to see the ridiculous “Don’t Muzzle Our Pulpits” ad) – but I’ve met many of these fundamentalists and they always seem genuinely sincere.
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    Jun 27, 2007 5:20 PM GMT
    Your relaying the story offered a prime example of how tales get changed with each passage. People who believe in literal interpretations of the bible, for instance, must have faith that god used his magic ink and wrote the verse in English, as opposed to the more logical reasoning: that the stories were passed down orally for quite some time (clearly with mutations along the way), until some original written documentation would be established.

    I do not believe in miracles, but I believe in chance. I believe that there are very long odds that something unusual will happen to me, either good or bad: I could win the lottery or I could be killed by terrorists (the lottery offers better odds, by the way).

    I feel bad when people who live through a tornado say to the newsperson "We lived because we prayed hard god rescued us". They must mean the people that died didn't pray hard enough. And that just isn't cool, is it?

    good topic
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    Jun 27, 2007 5:27 PM GMT
    The main problem I have with religious fundamentalism, as a geneticist (in training), is that so called apologists try and cram God into any gap in scientific understanding in order to try and prove God exists. (if you really want to hate life, go watch "The way of the master") When the Hebrew people ate mannah, it was a miracle. Now we realize that it is a natural occurrence in the area the habiru may have wandered. But the point is not that miracles don't exist because science can explain it (which allows for the belief that miracles don't exist because there is some rational explanation we may not have yet discovered), but rather that the world itself is rather miraculous. Whether you believe in God or not, existence itself is a pretty amazing thing. We don't have to believe God controls every little thing, or knit us together in our mother's wombs to appreciate that we have capabilities of doing everything we take for granted.

    Sorry if that's incoherent. I need a nap.
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    Jun 27, 2007 6:10 PM GMT
    "(if you really want to hate life, go watch "The way of the master")"

    Aaaaaargh!!! That guy is such a friggin' tool! I've seen his commentary on the banana, and I cringe with embarrassment for the guy.
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    Jun 27, 2007 6:18 PM GMT
    And his name is Ron Comfort! That screams douchebag.
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    Jun 27, 2007 6:24 PM GMT
    k i just watched that and vomited EVERYWHERE. How depressing.
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    Jun 27, 2007 8:38 PM GMT
    The reality is, people's religious beliefs, are anchored in just that -- BELIEFS (or FAITH). For them there doesn't HAVE to be a rational, scientific explanation. It simply has to reinforce what they BELIEVE to be true.

    None of these stories "prove" God's intervention, let alone that he exists. You could substitute pixies, aliens or ANOTHER religion's god (or goddess) in there for the Christian God, and it would be just as valid. No one belief is more valid than another -- it all comes down to why the believer chooses to believe in this belief (a topic I find very interesting in and of itself...if only to reinforce my own atheism).

    As for alternate explanations to these stories, I don't think they need any. If they ACTUALLY happened then they would have made (inter)national news. Assume that if reputable members of the scientific community have no record of these "miracles" happening, then chances are they didn't happen.

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    Jun 27, 2007 8:42 PM GMT
    David Hume talks a lot about miracles. I suggest reading him. He is the one that awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumber, so he MUST be pretty good. Kant and Hume are both interesting reads, so check it...or else.
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    Jun 27, 2007 9:04 PM GMT
    Ooooooooooh... here is The Way of The Master: How to Witness to Someone Who is Gay
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    Jun 27, 2007 9:26 PM GMT
    Watched it.
    Boy, oh, boy, TV and it's ship of fools. Kirk Cameron can't sell me shit first off, and anyone who pays so much attention to a little black book that has been revised so many times to suit the purpose of propegation
    and profit is missing out on - uh, LIFE ...

    "There is no good or bad. Thinking makes it so."
    W. Shakespeare
  • DenveRyk

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    Jun 27, 2007 9:50 PM GMT
    Okay---I watched "The Atheist's Nighytmare" and rolled on the floor clutching my sides. The way that dude described the banana--how it was designed to fit so perfectly into the hand, how the little pointed end was designed to fit into the mouth (even accompanied by making an "o" with the lips) Was it ony my evil mind or did it sound like an instruction on how to suck something other than a banana??? Do people take this guy seriously???
  • DenveRyk

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    Jun 27, 2007 9:52 PM GMT
    Agree with Xanadude--if these countless amazing stories of spontaneous cures were true and verified, they would be making international news. But there are never any names, never any objective confirmation of facts, etc.--just fantastic stories you are supposed to believe because somebody called a pastor said they happened. If it ain't backed up by objective observation, why bother even questioning it?
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    Jun 27, 2007 10:55 PM GMT
    I think Xanadude is right on the mark. Those stories are not about objective truth, they're about faith. If miracles could be proved (if the existence of God could be proved), faith would not have much value.

    Anyone ever wonder why God sent the Hebrews manna for 40 years? You would think an all-powerful being whose love for his chosen people was supposedly limitless could be a little more imaginative. What about a chicken now and then? Or some some fresh vegetables. Maybe he was too busy designing the bananas...

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    Jun 27, 2007 11:04 PM GMT
    Jesus did not want people to come to him because of his miracles. He didn't see them as acts of intervention in nature, but as signs of the Kingdom--moments when the reality of God's love connects with earth. My own reason for following Jesus is not miracles, but compassion. I want to learn from Jesus how to act with compassion toward the poor and marginalized. The true miracle is Jesus' unconditional love. What the miracles were is irrelevant--what they showed was how God wants to heal brokeness and bring people into a new kingdom of love and wholeness.

    A good book on Christianity without miracles is Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Spong. This book is certainly closer to my beliefs about Jesus than fundamentalism. (John Spong was also the first bishop to ordain an openly gay man.)
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    Jun 27, 2007 11:14 PM GMT
    Forget the miracles. It's hte curses I am worried about.

    I recently read this message posted to a Youtube webpage. It was one of those chain mail things; that is it's meant ot be some sort of curse which you can only break by posting it to other people who then have to pass it on to someone else. One of the things it said was ''if you're lucky, someone you fancy will kiss you pasisonately in 5 days time. You have got to post this message to 5 other Youtube videos. But if you don't post it to anyone, you will die within the next 2 days''. QUite frankly I found it really creepy, because halfway through the Queen music video (I was watching 'We will Rock you' by Queen on Youtube which is what i was oding on there in the first place), my computer crashed.

    Now, my computer is really shitty anyway. I have problems connecting to the Internet and the computer keeps defying me all the time. Yet, this freaks me out for some bizarre reason. I always find chain mail to be unusual and a nuisance at the best of time. But this is really starting to scare me. I don't believe in superstitution or the supernatural, but this message still disturbs me quite a bit. I know I shouldn't be so chickenshit but still. It's an unusual message. I just hope none of these curses come true, otherwise I am buggered.

    If it is true, I'll find out who's sent it and I'll instruct a close relative/friend of mine to kill the bastard who sent the curse (to save his/her own worthless arse) in the most painful way possible should the curse turn out to be true and I die. I'll be sure to write a little will tomorrow. I think I'd text loved ones tomorrow to tell them that I love them and stuff. Just in case!
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    Jun 27, 2007 11:18 PM GMT
    Forget the miracles. It's hte curses I am worried about.

    I recently read this message posted to a Youtube webpage. It was one of those chain mail things; that is it's meant ot be some sort of curse which you can only break by posting it to other people who then have to pass it on to someone else. One of the things it said was ''if you're lucky, someone you fancy will kiss you pasisonately in 5 days time. You have got to post this message to 5 other Youtube videos. But if you don't post it to anyone, you will die within the next 2 days''. QUite frankly I found it really creepy, because halfway through the Queen music video (I was watching 'We will Rock you' by Queen on Youtube which is what i was oding on there in the first place), my computer crashed.

    Now, my computer is really shitty anyway. I have problems connecting to the Internet and the computer keeps defying me all the time. Yet, this freaks me out for some bizarre reason. I always find chain mail to be unusual and a nuisance at the best of time. But this is really starting to scare me. I don't believe in superstitution or the supernatural, but this message still disturbs me quite a bit. I know I shouldn't be so chickenshit but still. It's an unusual message. I just hope none of these curses come true, otherwise I am buggered.

    If it is true, I'll find out who's sent it and I'll instruct a close relative/friend of mine to kill the bastard who sent the curse (to save his/her own worthless arse) in the most painful way possible should the curse turn out to be true and I die. I'll be sure to write a little will tomorrow. I think I'd text loved ones tomorrow to tell them that I love them and stuff. Just in case!
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    Jun 27, 2007 11:18 PM GMT
    Jesus would also have had compassion and unconditional love for the pride parade glitter queen wearing that fabulous cubic zirconia tiara.
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    Jun 27, 2007 11:28 PM GMT
    You're saying Jesus would love Satan, Paradox?
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    Jun 27, 2007 11:47 PM GMT
    skjpx: someone read The Brothers Karamazov :).

    Also it's shelby spong, and he is a good man in my opinion. Episcopals unite!

    Let's be honest, it is hard to say what Jesus would or wouldn't have done. Especially since a lot of it was made up by people a while after he died.

    Miracles aren't important for Christianity because it takes away the freedom to believe or not believe.
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    Jun 28, 2007 12:19 AM GMT
    The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I relate to Alyosha--and I think this board is full of Ivans! :) In Colossians, Jesus is shown as bringing the whole universe together, which must, paradoxically, include Satan. But I don't know how that works. I just want to know what Jesus plans to do about Voldemort.
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    Jun 28, 2007 12:48 AM GMT
    I would consider myself an ivan. References to the devil are significantly different in Jewish traditions than in Christian ones. So I would say colossians is more poetic than eschatological.
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    Jun 28, 2007 12:49 AM GMT
    but that is a different topic all together.
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    Jun 28, 2007 2:33 AM GMT
    xanadude: "...if reputable members of the scientific community have no record of these 'miracles' happening, then chances are they didn't happen."

    DenveRyk: "If it ain't backed up by objective observation, why bother even questioning it?"

    The systematic explanation that you're suggesting then is that the events never happened. So if people were to tell you miracles happened to them personally, you would infer they were delusional or lying?

    Although I'm inclined to agree with you, a part of me is reluctant to do so, at least summarily for all cases, because I have met many people through my dad's church who have claimed to have personally experienced or witnessed miracles. After encountering these testimonials time after time it becomes rather perturbing.

    I've long ago abandoned Christianity for ethical as well obvious epistemological reasons; even if I believed in miracles, which I don't, I would not believe the Christian diety brought them about. But whether or not miracles actually occur, there is no doubt that claims to have experienced miracles occur frequently. I guess my question is, are coincidence, delusion and deceit the only explanations?


    musician: "I recently read this message posted to a Youtube webpage..."

    Oh, honey. According to those things I've died several times.
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    Jun 28, 2007 5:24 AM GMT
    Satyricon, I'll tell you a story and you tell me if it is a miracle.
    When my grandparents first married, in 1941 or '42, they went as missionaries to Angola, and lived in a hut in the bush a two day hike from the railroad. By the time Christmas came my grandmother was pregnant with her first child and malnourished because she couldn't keep food down. For Christmas my grandfather gave her a leopard skin, and she gave him a shirt she had made. Later that same Christmas day an African showed up with two suitcases one from each other their parents, who each lived in different countries, full of gifts for them and for the coming baby. My grandparents considered it miraculous that those two suitcases arrived together on Christmas day in the middle of the bush -- and my grandmother has told that story in countless churches. So is that a miracle?
    I'm sure if you could follow the mailing and journeys of those suitcases you would know how they met up, and it would seem far less miraculous. What if I tell you the baby was born a month late and didn't even live a day. Does that make it less miraculous? Is the story less amazing if it is just that two suitcases arrived somewhere in the bush on Christmas day?
    I think a miracle is a story told with a certain bias -- and we usually tell stories with a bias. People don't tell them to mislead or deceive, they tell them as stories and rewrite and sanitize them with their biases, but we all do that, and honestly how many of the stories of our lives can we really objectify or apply in a scientific manner? They are often great stories, but usually the less you draw from them or ananlyze them the better.
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    Jun 28, 2007 8:01 AM GMT
    lol, well that was probably bound to happen. One of the suitcases was probably languishing in an Angolan post office for a week or something, the other one showed up, and they languished together a few days/weeks/whatever until finally someone got around to sending them along to their destination.

    I do like the point you make, though: even if entirely true, the miracle stories are probably greatly sanitized to serve the speakers' biases. The storyteller in the email I mentioned probably omitted a large number of unflattering details.