For many people this time of year is a time to celebrate miracles. For Christians, Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection. For Jews, a one day supply of temple lamp oil that burns for eight days. Christians seem to have the edge in the miracle department—birth and death being more dramatic than a burning lamp—but I never fail to wonder, “Where have all the miracles gone?”
Never, ever, not even once, has there been a thoroughly documented miracle worthy of a National Academy of Sciences stamp of approval. Most miracles worthy of their name are reputed to have occurred hundreds of years ago, conveniently before the age of modern science and the methods that now could assess the miraculousness of an event that seems to defy the known laws of nature.
The James Randi Educational Foundation has a long-standing offer of a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. No one, the foundation web site says, has ever passed the preliminary tests for this prize.
Now, it can be argued that only God performs miracles, not humans. So this explains why no man or woman has ever been able to demonstrate a divine power. But many religions and spiritual paths do indeed claim that saints, gurus, mystics, yogis, and the like have the ability to perform miracles. The big question is: Why is there no evidence of this?
The simplest explanation for why documented miracles are non-existent is that they don’t exist. And this includes miracles of yore as well as miracles of today. Which, of course, pretty much demolishes the foundations of Christianity and Judaism. Islam too, for that matter, since Muhammad is held to have miraculously received the message of the Koran directly from God in a trance state.
Myself, I hold to the view that the greatest miracle is that there aren’t any miracles. The cosmos is wonderfully guided by the intelligence of universal laws that are so seamless, there is no capacity for untoward events to happen. This, at least, is a perspective that fits both with the findings of modern science and the teachings of the most enlightened mystic philosophers such as Plotinus.
In my book about Plotinus I say: Isn’t it interesting that miracles are, by nature, so rare and miraculous? Well-documented miracles are few and far between (skeptics would say non-existent). Even purported miracles are so much an exception to the general run of worldly predictability that they receive widespread and avid attention in both holy books and impious tabloids.
If great souls have lived on Earth, and I believe they have, then why hasn’t a miracle been performed that is so grand, so out-of-the-ordinary, so impossible to disregard, that believers and unbelievers alike are left awestruck at this display of other-worldly power?
For example, adding another full-sized moon to the night sky would be the sort of thing that would grab everyone’s attention. Emblazoning a message on the newly-created celestial body—“Believe!”—would be a nice additional touch.
Recently I got an email from my wife’s sister, Dee Pagac, who shares my skepticism about miracles. I liked what she said and will share it below. Yes, unlikely events like the one she describes do happen. But if a “miracle” is a one in a million event, and there are almost three hundred million people in the United States, each of whom experiences many events each day, then daily chance alone guarantees that there will be hundreds of seeming miracles in this country.
Anatole France said, “Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he did not want to sign.” Well, you could also say, “God is perhaps the pseudonym of chance when believers want to forge a miracle.”
Here are Dee’s thoughts on the subject:
“The thing I think is goofy is the belief that there is a god that we can pray to and he can make differences down here on earth. That ‘God’ gets all the credit for the good stuff and none of the blame for the bad stuff.
There was just a front page story last week in the Indianapolis News about a woman who while driving on a main street, felt compelled to turn her car into a trailer court and park behind a white van that turned out to be the one that had killed her son. Her 26 year old son had been killed in a hit and run while bike riding, I think a couple weeks before this.
People had reported seeing a white van or SUV. She said she just felt compelled to drive there and once there called her sister and told her about being there and not knowing why. Her sister came and they looked at the van and saw front damage, called police and it turned out to be the vehicle. The story ended with her saying this was proof there was a god cause it had to be god who led her there. Nice story.
What it made me wonder about, though, was why, if god could make her turn the wheel all the way on to another road and stop in a certain place just so she could get justice for her son, why couldn't he have made the killer turn the wheel just a little to miss the son on the bike or make the son turn the bike just a little to be missed by the van? That sure would have been a lot nicer of him.
If he has the power to save and cure people how does he decide when to do it? If he can talk to televangelists why doesn't he talk to atheists like me who need convincing or even regular religious people who are not becoming millionaires bilking old ladies like the televangelists.
If I were a queen and told people I had control over the life and death of my subjects and I was going to let some die by violent means - would my subjects still like me just because I said I would let them know who did the killing? If I could cure sick or injured people but only would if enough of the others prayed to me a lot - would they love me for that?
Anyway, that is my main question, why do people believe in a ‘God’ like that. To me it just doesn't make any sense.”
To me neither, Dee. Thanks for sharing your ideas.
You question why there has been no miracle so "grand, so out-of-the-ordinary, so impossible to disregard, that believers and unbelievers alike are left awestruck at this display of other-worldly power?"
I have been reading about a very fascinating phenomenon that took place outside of Cairo in Egypt that if true, seems to fit your description of a proper miracle.
Supposedly, a "Lady of Light" appeared on top of a Coptic Christian church during a period of three years 1968-1971. In the first days, the apparition occurred almost every night and on occasion lasted more than five hours. The mysterious light did not always have obvious features, but supposedly was obviously the form of a woman accompanied by "luminous doves" that flew in formation without flapping their wings.
The lady and the light show was clearly visible to everyone present Moslem, Catholic, Protestant, and non-believers. There were supposedly a number of miraculous cures too, but they're easy to dispute.
This "Lady" was seen by literally millions of people over that period of time.
What's up with that?
I'd love to say it's a hoax of some sort, but it's said to have been investigated and authenticated (as scientifically inexplicaple) by all the local, and national religious and even government authorities.
I'm actually hesitant to believe any of it mostly because you'd think one would have heard of such a thing if it were true.
Apparently, it made international headlines. The first apparition was April 2, 1968. There were a number of short books published about it.
Unfortunately, practically everthing I know about it is from the books reproduced on a web site.
It would be interesting to hear your comments, or the "other side" of the story if you know anything about it.
Posted by: Eric Heitzman | January 02, 2005 at 03:55 PM
Your comments are interesting. In 1976 at a Church in Highland City, Florida. I witnessed a young lady wearing a club shoe getting prayer. Her foot was a full 4 to 5 inches shorter than the other. She walked away from the the church leaving the club shoe behind. I have never seen anthing like it before or since. Many in the church who have seen things like this have the same complaints you have listed. I have known people who have spent year after year of there lives, trying to capture some of the things you are talking about on film. The Living God seems to enjoy a good game of hide and seek. [email protected]
Posted by: Ben york | January 05, 2005 at 09:05 PM
Eric, sorry for the delay in replying to your comment about the Cairo "lady of light." Poking around via Google, these visions of Mary do sound convincing. I've got an open mind as to their reality. If Mary, or any other saint, wants to pay me a visit, I hope she/he will do so.
That said, I found this extensive analysis of Marian apparitions quite interesting, though I admit I didn't read it word for word: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/marian_apparitions.aspx
My speed reading of the piece left me with the impression that the author finds some serious theological problems with such purported "miracles." For example, why does Mary appear by herself, without Jesus? And so on.
In a somewhat different sense, I too wonder why, if God is omnipotent, and omni-other stuff also, there is any doubt at all about His manifestations--either directly or via a substitute--on this Earth.
This article appeared in Psychology Today: http://cms.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19930101-000025.html It presents some possible explanations for phenomena such as those seen by people in Cairo. I don't know how viable the explanations are, but at least this shows that there are alternative ways of viewing "miracles" such as the one you cite.
Posted by: Brian | January 18, 2005 at 01:48 PM
Portugal's Lady of Fatima is a well-documented mass-witnessed miracle. It isn't so much that the children observed Mary and received divine command from her, it's that 50,000 pilgrims witnessed the moon turn into a bright silver disk that hovered about the now blood-red firmament. Trippy.
I've had something miraculous occur in my life. In college, I went through a find-myself phase. During the Summer, I was interning in the day and smoking pot in the woods at night. On top of being a math and computer science double major [yes, I'm a nerd], a former fulbright scholar and my former writing professor recommended that I read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I'd long had an interest in the illuminati, the rumored secret-society that is adamantly anti-religion. My interests were aroused by the book because the society of Brave New World is without the God meme, or idea of God, so it served as a model of what a Godless society might be like. Everyone is brain-washed to not believe in God. Moral education as a whole is gone. Science is everything, and what is valued as the desirable or the good is summed up well as incredible hedonism. Everybody's taking this designer-drug called soma and participating in lavish orgies. The society is utopian to some, dystopian to others, as a "savage" [or non-member of the society] finds out when he becomes a part of it and loses his sense of self... at any rate, in my thought, it was dystopian because i thought it to be an impossible end that justified bloody means [refer to Godless Marxism and its atrociously unsuccessful implementations... in fact, the book makes many references to communism and was written in the '30s]. Not only that, but I had an epiphany that without the idea of God or the God meme as it's called, morality really goes out the window [refer to the Divine Command Theory and Refutation of the Divine Command Theory]. I also considered how aforementioned Lady of Fatima's message was all about how atheist communism is bad for humankind. I thought about how in the Torah, the great flood followed humankind walking away from and sinning against God, wiping evil away and starting a new... Well, right as I thought about this a white dove landed next to me. Then I recalled how Noah used a dove to find out that the waters had receded. The skeptic that I am left to see if doves are endemic to New England [they are not] and considered the probability of the bird coming from a wedding or something. My cause and effect, empirical mind couldn't stand against my sense of wonder for the miraculous symbolism I'd observed.
If I didn't convey this experience clearly enough, I'll use Catholic Theology's definition of the spirit as an excuse: the sum of all inferential data on the world. Like a statistician might say, it's hard to summarize those data.
Us bible-thumpers tend to call those things revelations. I pray that one occurs for you, but I have a feeling that one will happen sooner if you really bust your ass in trying to figure out what it all means.
I liken a revelation to Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine chapel... Adam's arm is relaxed on his knee, its finger unexcitedly outstretched towards God's... God's finger straining to touch Adam's... a revelation a rare, brilliant, miraculous collision.
Since this [and revelation that followed shortly after], I've been reading the Torah and Kabbalah with some zeal. I pray that answers come to you, but more vigorously so that you come to answers.
PS, I was not smoking pot when I received my revelation. Burger King, not divine inspiration, usually follows ganja.
Posted by: Robert | March 24, 2005 at 12:18 PM
Asking James Randi to validate a purported ESP experience is like asking Oral Roberts to validate that evolution occurs. It violates the foundations of his world-view. Both are fundamentalists incapable of evaluating the evidence reasonably.
Here is scientific evidence for those who are able to reasonably look at evidence and don't already have their minds made up.
Posted by: Matthew Cromer | September 08, 2006 at 01:35 PM