Miracles and the actions of the divine are another source of debate between believers and non-believers. Most religions depend on them since without magical action, their gods are merely figureheads. Thus, we have divine interference e.g. miracles, in just about any religion you would care to name. And this causes some problems since evidence for these miracles is quite hard to come by for any religion. Rabbi Gellman from the God Squad attempts to address this in the latest God Squad column. You can see the original question he’s answering there.
“I believe in miracles and I believe in science, and I don’t think there’s a contradiction. The key spiritual move here is to divide miracles into several types. Some things are impossible even for God because they’re a contradiction in terms. God cannot make a married bachelor or a square circle because this is an impossible contradiction. A bachelor must be unmarried and a circle cannot be square.”
Gellman’s opening gambit is the usual depowering of the supposedly omnipotent and omniscient Judeo-Christian God and the attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too when Gellman says he believes in science. When a religious leader has to say that one must make a “spiritual move” aka an excuse, one should wonder what they are trying to hide. In this case, Rabbi Gellman is saying that there are “types” of miracles, all done to excuse his god’s incompetence and evidence non-existence.
Gellman appeals to logic, that a square cannot be round, that a bachelor can’t be married. It is akin to the “Can God make a stone so big he cannot lift it?”, the omnipotence paradox. Omnipotence is a problem for many theists. They want to claim it because it makes their religion seem the most important and its god the most powerful. However, when the paradoxes start mounting up, they often run from it, coming up with reasons why a being that is supposedly all-powerful (omni-all, potence- power) can’t do something that it should be able to. It becomes only “sort of omnipotent”, an attempt to redefine “omnipotence” into a “limited omnipotence” or “limited omniscience (omni-all, science – knowing), quite an oxymoron. In his statement, Gellman makes his god obedient to the laws of logic. Some theists don’t, insisting that their god is above logic, and that it can indeed do anything. How do we know which are the “right” believers? This appeal to logic is also similar to another theist excuse where their god cannot do anything other than according to its “nature”, which demands that the believer knows this nature to know what this god can and can’t do, or it becomes just another baseless claim, rather like the claim of “mysterious ways”. It usually degenerates into “god is good since good is god” or “god is not a liar because a liar is not god”.
“The second type of miracles are also impossible because they contradict the laws of nature, and a law of nature must be true for it to be a law. There cannot be talking snakes because a snake doesn’t have a larynx. The stories of these miracles are meant as fables intended to teach higher and completely true teachings, like the need to follow God’s commandments, which is, I believe, the real purpose and meaning of the Garden of Eden snake story. The meaning is true, but not the talking snake.”
Gellman then goes to declare that his version of God is also beholden to the “laws of nature”, which I am assuming to mean physical and chemical laws, although to a theist it may not, because they have a tendency to pick and choose those too. He is sure of that his god is limited by natural laws since, golly, snakes can’t talk so *of course* that whole thing in Eden was just a story. But, oh, that story is “completely true” and is really just a metaphor for following this god’s commands or being punished which assumes that God does indeed exist and punish. This is not an uncommon tactic for theists, to declare that the sillier, or more disgusting, parts of their holy books are just “metaphors”, that their god couldn’t possibly have meant that part for realsies. 😀
This makes for more problems for the theist down the line. Why not consider that all of the Torah or Bible or Qu’ran is simply metaphor for humanity’s moral advancement, no gods needed at all. Then we can get rid of all of the untenable magical claims and toss the religions on the heap with the other ones that have died out, like the worship of Zeus, or Ashur, etc. However, some miracles have to have happened or religion ceases to exist. This god may not be able to make a snake speak since it doesn’t have a larnyx, but this god can cause a magical flood which has no evidence that it occurred and no possible mechanism to occur, has to have given tablets from a mountain, has to kill a man who touched his magic box. Or perhaps these are again just more “metaphors”, one never knows with a theist.
“Finally, there are miracles that look impossible but are not really impossible because they don’t violate the laws of nature. The crossing of the Red Sea (or the “ReedSea”) and most all the plagues in Egypt seem to me to be miracles of this type and I believe in them.”
Gellman then gets to the miracles that happen because they don’t “really” ignore the “laws of nature”, so he can believe in “most” of the plagues and the events around them. The parting of the sea becomes a slog through tidal flats, not Cecil B. DeMille In order for him to do this he must ignore or find a supposedly real reason for this this god: making magical snakes from staves (which the Egyptians can also do), ginning up plagues from nowhere, controling people’s minds, slaughtering the firstborn of everything (I wonder if this is one of the plagues that Gellman finds just a “metaphor”) and then have a “sea” split because of this magical god’s influence. Gellman, in desperate need for some of his religion’s myths to be true, has to claim that those important events in Judaism and the nationalist myth are above reproach. Of course, none of the plagues nor the splitting of the sea and the annihilation of the whole Egyptian army, hundreds of thousands of Israelites traveling for 40 years in a small area, etc is supported by actual evidence and the Jewish myth of how their people entered the “holy land” fails miserably. Just like with the life of Jesus, many attempts have been made to correlate the essential events to “natural” events like the volcanic eruption at Thera, but again, theists cannot pinpoint their events to actual reality. The events and times claimed never match up.
I personally think the most important bit of evidence against the whole batch of nonsense is that none of the countries around the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt noticed that one of their enemies was suddenly without a large proportion of their population, their livestock *and* without their army. It cannot be shown to have occurred in any particular time, nor with a particular pharaoh. Just like every other mythic claim of magical occurrence. Just ask a follower of the Judeo-Christian religion when the Noah Flood was. Oh the answers you’ll get.)
“I recently heard a story originally reported on the wonderful NPR show/blog, Radiolab, which recounted the amazing, improbable, miraculous, and true story of Laura Buxton, a red-haired 10-year-old girl with a black lab and a guinea pig with a furry brown rear end in the north of England who released a balloon from her backyard with a note asking the finder to call her. The balloon traveled 140 miles and landed in the backyard of another red-haired 10-year-old girl with a black lab and a guinea pig with a furry brown rear end. The girl who found the balloon was also named Laura Buxton! The odds against this happening are enormous and yet, miraculously, it happened.”
Then we have miracles claimed to be when it seems like to anyone else that coincidence is the answer. Gellman is sure that it was a miracle that two girls with guinea pigs named Laura Buxton in England met. Wow, how the mighty have fallen. Two girls in England, with very English names, having guinea pigs that have brown fur on their butts! It’s a MIRACLE FROM GOD! Miracle: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs since we know that Gellman et al are not speaking of just an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment (thank you Merriam-Webster).
How many times has balloons failed to reach anyone, or reached someone named oh, Ramesh and it was a boy? The odds against someone winning a lottery are enormous but someone always wins. No prayers or gods needed.
“I think questions about miracles are ultimately not about God, but about us. Are we open to the miracles happening all around us all the time? One of my favorite rabbinic stories about the Exodus is that there were people who walked through the Red Sea and never saw the miracle because … they never looked up and so all they saw was mud! In this new year, my prayer is simple: May we always be looking up.”
Unsuprisingly, Gellman wants to call anything convenient a miracle from his god. This is akin to the “Look around at the universe, *my* god/gods created it”. More claims without any evidence. Gellman then tries to blame anyone who doesn’t believe in his claims, that they simply weren’t looking in the “right” place for evidence aka “looking up”. He fails since people have been looking for thousands of years for evidence for these gods and have failed to find it, like him, reduced to claiming coincidence as their “proof”.
Gellman does avoid the worst of the problems involved with miracles, since he is a Jew and not a Christian. Christianity depends on the events in Eden being real or the sacrifice and magical resurrection of Jesus Christ is worthless. It depends on the Noah Flood being real, since Jesus said it was and if he’s wrong or lied, it doesn’t speak well for the Son of God. Even this Jesus said that even if one cannot believe what he says, believe in the miracles that you see since that tells you that JC is the real McCoy. So, things that are against physical laws like the raising of the dead, feeding thousands from little, walking on water, water into wine, killing a fig tree with a magical curse, are necessary and according to Gellman, are potential problems. Per Gellman, they can’t be true in more ways than one. Per Christianity, they must be or their religion is no more than a very human “do unto others”, and no one is saved, or needs saved, from some damnation at all.
The rest of us are asking again “Now how do we figure out who’s telling the “truth”?”
8 thoughts on “Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – Miracles”
Truth does not require a miracle so that any time a miracle is used to substantiate a claim, then that claim is necessarily false.
Plane crashes, 271 people killed, one 6 month old baby survives…. Headlines will inevitably read, MIRACLE BABY SURVIVES CRASH. People want to believe these things. Freud called it palliative measures: powerful deflections which we employ to delude ourselves and ignore reality.
Like everything else in our present “civilisation”, the “Truth” is for sale. So, I guess it goes to the highest bidder.
Then again, there was once this optimistic writer named Orwell. Said something about ignorance being truth.
If you’ve got the resources to expend, you can build quite a successful propaganda machine.
People are now so susceptible to indoctrination that willful ignorance has become the new intellectualism.
That is true, money buys propaganda and it works even better if you have a story to sell that makes the “buyer” feel like a special snowflake. I guess non-theists have tomake up for that money by effort. I agree that people are probably now looking to be duped more than in the past where unwillful ignorance was their problem and not one entirely of their own making.
I know that your main focus here was miracles, but when you spoke of Eden, I was reminded of Christianity’s contemporary beliefs that extend beyond just the snake; that is, the belief that Adam and Eve were metaphorical as well. I can’t believe this doesn’t strike the Christian as wholly incompatible with the point of Jesus’ “sacrifice”? I mean, if it was simply metaphorical, then God, in the form of himself as his son, sacrificed himself to makeup for the sins of a metaphorical character. Crazy!
Yes, the attempts by modern Christians to claim that more and more of their bible is “metaphor” does cause problems exactly like you have noted. If A&E are just figments of the imagination, then JC’s sacrifice is pointless. One could also make the argument from the back of the book. Many Christians are very uncomfortable with Revelation and want to claim that it must be metaphor too; they don’t like the wholesale slaughter and their god coming back for seconds when he allows his archenemy to corrupt more people. If this is metaphor, then their entire myth falls apart since it depends on this final act of supposed “salvation”.
If we have a person sacrifiecd for a metaphor, it’s more than ridiculous. However, it seems that there is some argument that the Christ figure is also metaphor, and thus no “salvation” and no judgement.
I haven’t run across Christians that are uncomfortable with Revelations. In all candor, the Christians I’m in contact with avoid having religious conversations with me. I take that as a compliment, and a relief. I’m curious now as to what exactly they believe, if they believe everything is a metaphor. Interesting…
Great post. Look forward to more!
Have you read Revelation? whoo, what a ergot-induced ride.
thank you for your very kind words!