Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

Hume’s argument against miracles seems to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning.

I have been trying to clear the way for an “unapologetic” argument for God. I am four articles in, and still making me way to the beginning. Standing in the way as I move forward is Hume’s standard of proof for miracles.

David Hume has had a profound influence on Western thought in the promotion of the Enlightenment view, which values human reason as the supreme measuring stick. Hume’s argument against miracles has been viewed as a gold standard among proofs that Christianity is not credible, especially to the extent that Christianity stands on the foundation of a miraculous event – the resurrection of Jesus.

Hume does not hide his antipathy for Christianity.[1] He calls the “Christian religion” a doctrine “so little worthy of a serious refutation … founded merely in the testimony of the apostles”. He labels belief in Christianity “arrogant bigotry and superstition”.

Hume speaks of the “greediness” with which “miraculous accounts” are received. He characterizes the “religionist” as “an enthusiast who sees no reality”, whose vanity is excited by strong temptations and self-interest to promote narratives he knows to be false for what he deems to be a “holy cause”. Hume accuses religionists of renouncing judgment by principle and losing grip on judgment by “passion and a heated imagination”.

Hume blames the popularity of religion on a “strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous”. Hume’s disdain carries over from his view of “the generality of mankind” emerging from “ignorant and barbarous nations” who he says are fools … industrious in propagating the imposture” of the “supernatural and marvellous”, the “grossest delusions”, and “delusive prophecies”.

Hume rails on the religions “of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” equally. He lumps together the testimony of “a few barbarous Arabians” about Mahomet with “Titus Livius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and… all the authors and witnesses, Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle in their particular religion”.

Me thinks he doth protest too much.

The standard Hume created to determine the veracity and credibility of a miraculous account contains the poison of his passionate convictions – a passion that smacks of the same kind of bias he accuses the “religionist” of committing. Yet, that standard has adherents today, perhaps because he reduces it to mathematical proportions that have the appearance of sacred science. Hume says,

“A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.”

He acknowledges the importance of eyewitness testimony, but he imposes a standard on it that diminishes the value of any eyewitness testimony that contradicts widely established human experience. This seems reasonable on its face. “Marvelous” assertions are suspect; miraculous ones are even more suspect.

I think most of us can “go there” with him. On miracles, Hume says.

“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

In one sense, Hume is merely acknowledging the nature of a miracle: it is a miracle that goes against (or seems to go against) the laws of nature that are commonly recognized and the weight of common experience. Nothing would be considered a miracle that was common to the experience of people, even if that experience is relatively uncommon among human experience. He reasonably says,

“There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”

Hume, though, is not content to relegate miracles to the rarity they are by definition. He proceeds to define them out of the realm of possibility:  

“And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”

Perhaps, wanting to appear open-minded, Hume allows for some proof that might establish a miracle. The proof of a miracle, Hume says, must so weighty “that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours [sic] to establish”.

Even then, Hume says, such counter-balancing evidence only levels the scales; it doesn’t make the factual assertion of the miracle more likely than not (and rejection of the assertion of a miracle would be justified either way).

Hume says, the mere testimony that a miracle occurred should be dismissed out of hand unless the falsehood of the assertion would require believing the miraculous, itself.

Hume seems to assume the possibility of such corroborative evidence, but a simple application of math belies the lack of substance he saw in anything miraculous. Nil plus nil equals nil.

As Hume’s approach is a mathematical one, we can see by the application of math and the value Hume has given to the miraculous the impossibility of establishing proof of a miracle on Hume’s position. The likelihood of proof is nil.

Indeed, he sets his bar so high and makes the requisite proof so onerous that a miracle would be required to prove a miracle. Lest there be any doubt about the meaninglessness of Hume’s standard, he admits:

“I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved….”

Hume is saying that miracles cannot be proven by any amount or kind of evidence.

For this reason, Hume’s argument against miracles seems (to me) to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning. I am surprised, therefore, that we take him at all seriously. To give further illustration and to remove all doubt about his pretense, Hume seems to beg the question in the following example:

“But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized [sic] at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event.”

The fact that people still take him seriously, though the blunt force of his conviction seems stronger than his argument, is one reason I address him here.

Continue reading “Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God”

Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World

Reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments exist on both sides of the God equation

NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.

There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.

I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance on scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.

Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency. Deism kept God in the picture, but relegated Him to bystander status.

Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.

The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).

Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time, matter and energy (whatever that is). They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality. They assume, therefore, that nothing exists that cannot be explained by science.

In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.

Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things is an unknown merely awaiting a natural explanation.

Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen.

This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We stopped looking for God because we saw order in nature and that God is of no consequence to the study of natural laws. from a determination that God is aloof it’s a short walk to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws, which we now view as random colocations of molecules.

Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, and that is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.

The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.

Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World”

Of Miracles & Snake Oil

As I was listening to an interview of panelists and presenters from the last Unbelievable conference in the United States[1], I was struck by something AJ Roberts[2] said in a discussion about miracles. She opined that people do not believe in miracles in the West because of the western emphasis on rationality over experience.

When she said that, I questioned in my mind whether she was right. Not that I haven’t heard that before. I have even thought that before myself. But a thought occurred to me this time as she made this assertion in the context of a broader discussion about miracles by the thoughtful panelists.

We do live in a society in which education is valued and science and rationality is emphasized at the academic level. The United States of America was built on a foundation of free public education. This is why schoolhouses were built all across the frontier, and colleges followed as the frontier expanded.

As an aside, I note that most of colleges in the US that were established before the 20th century were religiously inspired and motivated. From the Ivy League schools and across the country, most colleges and universities in the US have religious roots, but that is a subject for another day.

As I think about that fact, I am reminded of another strain to the legacy of this country, a more popular influence. That is the strain of Americanism that gave rise to the snake oil salesman[3], the huckster, people searching for the legendary fountain of youth, circus sideshows and the market for elixirs that promise happiness, long life and improvement to the digestive system.

Interestingly, our American proclivity toward quackery may have grown out of a combination of pluralism and capitalism. Pluralism brought people from all parts of the world to the shores of the New World with Old World remedies that cowboy capitalist exploited with claims of false cures. Americans have been so taken by such false claims that regulatory industries have been spawned by our gullibility, yet the “snake oil claims” live on.

I think about all the people I have known and the silly, hairbrained things they have put their faith in. There is no end to the pyramid schemes that promise health and riches. We, in the west, have even developed variations of New Age, religious elixirs that promise to deliver all of the benefits of the old snake oils in shiny, metaphysical packages that boasts none of the sticky side effects of traditional Christianity, like the need to deal with personal sin and accountability to a creator God.

It occurs to me that, maybe, the apparent dearth of miracles in the US isn’t that we have an exalted idea of rationality. Maybe God doesn’t grant us many miracles as we will believe almost anything. What’s another miracle claim among many? We might be just a little bit too inclined to believe them and to focus too much on them.

When Jesus sent out 72 of his followers ahead of him to go town to town proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God and healing the sick, they came back excited that “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus admonished them: “[D]o not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”[4] Jesus also warned that many people would do miracles in His name that are not His people.[5]

I have often wondered why missionaries report so many miracles that God does in other countries, why the average American seems to have never experienced or seen a miracle. Perhaps, it’s because we are too predisposed to believe anything, not that we are disposed not to believe. We have learned well the willing suspension of disbelief that we employ in our favorite forms of entertainment, and we have turned that practice into driving desire for our lives. (Thank about the Disney themes of love at first sight and living happily ever after.)

At the pedestrian level, outside the halls of academia, we have a history of being taken by extraordinary claims as long as they are smartly and provocatively packaged. Perhaps it isn’t that we are so grounded by rationality, but that we are willing to believe almost anything that comes down the road, as long as it promises something that we want and can access on our own without the bother of accountability to a God who can’t be manipulated.

We even have our own brand of Christianity in the US that caters to our preferences – the word of faith movement. Name it and claim it! Believe it and seize it! Deposit your prayers with holy confidence into the divine slot machine and out will come your healing, cash, whatever you want. All you have to do is believe.

I used to think often that Christians in the west don’t observe or experience miracles because we are more rationally minded, but I am not so sure of that as I write this. Maybe we are too easily fooled.

Continue reading “Of Miracles & Snake Oil”

Looking for a Sign; Seeking God

Jesus did miracles everywhere he went, but some people still asked for a sign.

Jesus came healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and doing other miracles, but when the religious leaders asked for a sign, he refused.

The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8:11-12)

What Jesus said to the Pharisees when they asked him for a sign seems curious in light of the fact that Jesus performed signs and wonders everywhere he went! The incongruity of these things struck me recently as I was reading through portions of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

Continue reading “Looking for a Sign; Seeking God”

Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High

An exceedingly high bar for the proof of miracles allows Ehrman and Harris to avoid a serious discussion about the evidence of the resurrection.

I have written three articles summarizing some observations I have from an interview of Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar, by Sam Harris, the atheist, about Christianity. In those articles, I cover Bart Ehrman’s story about losing his faith, the fundamentalism that continues to color the way Ehrman reads the Bible and the dangers of social influence as a substitute for a deep, personal relationship with God.

I covered in the first article the rather ironic claim that Harris makes about approaching a familiar subject from a new angle. When an atheist interviews an agnostic on the subject of Christianity, I don’t know what new angle he is talking about! They both come from the same angle of unbelief.

When Sam Harris asks Ehrman to describe what Ehrman, as “an informed believer” would have said was the strongest argument for Christianity, I had to chuckle. When Ehrman replied that the proof of the resurrection would be the strongest argument, I had to agree, though. As Paul said, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, his preaching and faith were useless, and he would have to be pitied.[1]

For the proof, Ehrman states only two facts: the empty tomb, and the followers of Jesus who claimed to see Jesus alive after the resurrection. (They are other “minimal facts” that even skeptics will concede.) Ehrman doesn’t expound on the two facts, other than to note that Paul alludes to a list of people in 1 Corinthians who claimed to see Jesus risen from (including 500 people at one time (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8)).

These two facts are certainly on the short list of key factors scholars evaluate in considering the historicity of the resurrection, but they are not the only facts to be considered. Even skeptical scholars, like Ehrman, admit a few more. (See Previewing the Minimal Facts Critique of the Resurrection.) But, Ehrman and Harris never really get to a discussion of the facts.

Before any real discussion of the evidence, Sam Harris jumps in to refute the resurrection by reference to David Hume. Hume of course is the 18th century philosopher who urged a standard of proof for miracles that, in Sam Harris’s own words, is “a bar that is exceedingly difficult to get over”. By reference to Hume, Harris says that the proof of a miracle has to be so strong that believing in anything other than a miracle would, itself, would require belief in the miraculous.

This is a type of a priori position that discounts and dismisses miraculous claims without really taking a hard look at the evidence. In essence, the position is that miracles can’t happen. They don’t happen. Therefore it didn’t happen. This “exceedingly” high bar that Sam Harris speaks about is arbitrary. Ehrman acknowledges, but glosses over, that point by saying that “believers have a different standard of proof”. This is entirely true, but it doesn’t really address the issue.

What is a proper or reasonable standard of proof?

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High”