Archive for January, 2009
Truth, Danger, Lies & Evangelism

I ran across an interesting piece on evangelism by Liz Foreman in The Lariat of Baylor University:

Laws are created to instill order within society and ensure that individuals’ beliefs do not put the greater population in danger. One’s Christian values and morals, as noble as they may be, do not justify blatant disobedience of a country’s laws.

Undoubtedly, missionaries go with a pure purpose, and usually the belief that sharing Christianity overrides all else. From a logical angle, personal beliefs, i.e. a religion, should never be allowed to trump the law.

At first this was very confusing to me. Why would Liz suggest that we should not share the gospel in dangerous places? The second paragraph is enlightening. She seems to view Christianity, not as transcendent truth, not as commands given to us from the Creator, but merely as personal beliefs. If that is all that Christianity is, then I completely agree with her. Why risk your life and the lives of your converts for something that is only a personal belief? There is no reason for it. In fact, no rational person would subject themselves to such dangers for mere personal beliefs. The apostle Paul seems to agree: “Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:30-32).

Of course that is exactly the point. Paul readily acknowledges that if the things he were proclaiming were not truth, then he would not keep exposing himself to danger. But he does keep exposing himself to danger. Why? Because what he proclaims is not merely his personal belief. What he proclaims goes beyond himself. What he proclaims is real historical fact that is not contingent upon Paul at all. It is a historical fact of the in-breaking of the Divine into space and time. This is the event that infuses all history with meaning.

Ms. Foreman continues,

For safety purposes, secret missionaries often enter a country under the guise of a profession such as a teacher or medical aid worker and are forced to live by false pretenses. Jesus never lied, according to the Bible. Missionaries who preach Jesus Christ’s ultimate message of truth, while simultaneously sidestepping laws and cultural values, send the wrong message.

Before crossing cultural and legal boundaries to harvest unsaved souls, Christian missionaries should evaluate what message they are conveying, and rethink what Jesus truly meant when he said in Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Would He have been so reckless in today’s world?

Having previously tipped her hand showing that Christianity is just a personal belief, she now seems to retract that in favor of an “ultimate message of truth.” However, if it is now granted that Christianity proclaims ultimate truth, it does not follow that man should be allowed to silence that truth. The ruling religious body in the first century insisted that Peter and the other apostles stop proclaiming Jesus.

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)

This is a perfect example of what Ms. Foreman is concerned about. This was a very hostile time and place. Christians were being beaten, imprisoned, stoned, beheaded, etc. Not only was it hostile, but they were strictly charged not to proclaim Christ. Peter has the right (and logical) view. When man’s law conflicts with God’s law, we need to obey God since he is the higher authority. If local law stated that we must rape our neighbor, the Christian is bound to obey God rather than man in that case. If God and man conflict, side with God.

Ms. Foreman then raises the question of honesty in missions. She mentions Christians living as doctors or teachers in order to be safe in hostile countries. Now on one level I can agree with her that missionaries should uphold truthfulness. But this issue is not so simple. Truth should be maintained, but truth is a privilege, not a right. When Nazi’s came knocking on doors asking for Jews, the believer had no obligation to reveal the Jews they were hiding. When a country is at war and the enemy asks, “Where are you going to be attacking and how many troops will you bring?” there is no obligation to tell them. Truth is revealed on an as needed basis. God himself does not tell us everything. He does not even tell us everything about ourselves.

Jesus would regularly command people to silence or refusing to give information. “And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Mat 17:9). “And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things’” (Matt 21:27). “And Jesus charged them to tell no one” (Mk 7:36). “And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (Mk 8:30). “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32). “And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them’” (Lk 5:14). “And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened” (Lk 8:56). “And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one” (Lk 9:21). Even the purpose of the parables for which Christ is so well known has a hidden aspect to it.

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matt 13:10-13)

Truth is a privilege, not a right. For those who would use the truth for evil ends, they have no right to demand the truth. Again, this is not the same as lying. Jesus never said, “I am not the Christ”, he simply refused to reveal it to some people. Jesus didn’t give false teachings, but he would teach truth in obscure ways to hide it from those who would only abuse it. In answer to the question, “would Christ have been so reckless in today’s world?” the answer is yes. He called for, and still calls people to, a radical form of self-denial and servant-hood. He calls people to a life endangering journey, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). He calls people to a higher standard - to regard God and his law and the salvation he offers as more important than the laws of men.

XFiles Friday: Communal delusion

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

According to what Geisler and Turek would have us believe, there are only 4 possibilities if the Resurrection is not true:

  1. It’s a legend (like Zeus and Thor and so on).
  2. It’s a deliberate lie.
  3. It’s an embellishment (meaning an obviously and ludicrously extravagant embellishment).
  4. It’s a mistake.

In each case, the possibilities are tightly constrained so as to make it harder for the Gospel accounts to match them. When Geisler and Turek refer to legends, for instance, they’re only speaking of certain types of legend, with certain specific characteristics that aren’t going to fit. Other types of legends, such as urban legends, are not discussed at all. They’re a little too close to the Gospel history, and the apologetic goal here is to set up some easily-knocked-down straw men so that Geisler and Turek can claim to have eliminated all the alternatives, leaving the skeptic with no way out.

In this part of Chapter 12, Geisler and Turek begin considering the last of these possibilities, hoping that once they’ve dealt with this one, they’re done.

[W]e know beyond a reasonable doubt that the New Testament writers accurately recorded what they saw. Does this mean that all of the events of the New Testament are true? Not necessarily. The skeptic still has one last out.

The last possible out for the skeptic is that the New Testament writers were deceived. In other words, perhaps the New Testament writers simply were wrong about what they thought they saw.

I’m a skeptic, and I’m not looking for any particular “out.” I’m shaking my head over why Geisler and Turek would suppose that such contrived straw men would suffice to eliminate all the other possibilities besides the one they want. But then again, they’re not really writing for skeptics, they’re writing to assuage the doubts of believers (!) and to reassure them that they’re doing the right thing by trusting what men tell them about Jesus.

Geisler and Turek are partly right, however, in pointing out that the New Testament writers could have been deceived. After all, we’re not dealing with an actual resurrection here (i.e. there’s no living, physical, resurrected Jesus still living in Jerusalem to confound all those who doubt that he really rose from the dead). The phenomenon we’re actually confronting is the fact that we have a number of men claiming that Jesus “rose” in some sense that was true to them at the time. Does this match the actual, material, historical condition of Jesus’ body on Day 3 and following after the crucifixion? It is possible that it does not, and that the disciples were merely wrong in what they believed.

Geisler and Turek explore a number of ways in which it might be possible for the disciples to be mistaken about the resurrection. They claim to be “skeptical,” though what they really mean is that they’re unwilling to accept any of them. The coming sections of Chapter 12 are about the more commonly encountered possibilities, i.e. that

  • the resurrection was a hallucination
  • the witnesses went to the wrong tomb
  • Jesus passed out (”swooned”) but didn’t really die
  • the disciples stole the body
  • someone else died in Jesus’ place on the cross
  • the disciples belief sprang from their faith alone, and/or
  • the disciples copied pagan resurrection stories

We’ll review each of these in turn (in coming weeks), but before we do, I’d like to go over some of the things which I believe could have led to the disciples’ belief—things that are readily observable and verifiable even in believers today, and/or which are consistent with the facts as we have them, without requiring the extra complications of appealing to a God Who loves us enough to die for us but not enough to show up and spend time with us in person.

Let’s start by noticing the divide-and-conquer strategy Geisler and Turek use to try to knock down their straw men one at a time, each in isolation from the others. In G&T’s rendition of the alternatives, the possibilities are mutually exclusive: either it was a legend OR it was a lie OR it was an embellishment OR it was a mistake. (Or it was true, of course.) This framing of the question works well if your goal is to artificially eliminate factors that might prove relevant to the opposition. Those of us who are more interested in the real-world truth, however, would do well to remember than in real life we often find many disparate factors working together to produce a result that is not intuitively obvious if you only look at each factor in isolation.

In the case of the so-called resurrection, we have a lot of significant and powerful forces at work that individually would tend to push the believer in the direction of a resurrection belief (or some other non-factual rationalization). The religious context itself already lends the believer a powerful force for dissolving the barriers between faith and fact, via the expedient of “spiritual truth.” For example, Jesus does not literally show up “wherever two or more are gathered” in his name, yet believers hold that he is nonetheless present, in a spiritual sense. “Spiritual insight” is supposed to allow the believer to see “beyond” mere facts to a deeper and more significant “truth,” and thus paves the way for a concept of truth that is not strictly bound to literal, material facts. This is an important ingredient.

Next, we have the psychological forces of denial and rationalization. If you’ve convinced yourself that someone is God’s chosen Messiah, sent and empowered by the Almighty to bless you and deliver you from evil, and then your Messiah suddenly suffers a humiliating and fatal defeat, you’re going to have a short list of choices: you can admit that you fell for a false Messiah (and thus you are a fool), you can decide that the forces of evil managed to defeat God (and thus you have no hope), or you can find some way to reinterpret these catastrophic events in a way that invests them with new, positive (and spiritually-perceived) significance. You can deny, in other words, that the bad thing was really as bad as it seems, provided you can find some way to rationalize the actual events with the belief that this was all a good thing, somehow.

Needless to say, this task becomes easier if you are operating in a religious context: the flexibility of “spiritual truth” gives you a lot more leeway in coming up with your rationalizations, so there’s a synergy there that goes beyond what mere faith alone, or mere denial alone, could accomplish. But there are many more factors that can also contribute. As we saw earlier, recent studies have found a strong psychological tendency to continue to “see” recently deceased loved ones for weeks and even months after their deaths. In normal contexts, people realize that these are tricks of the mind, and ignore them, but in a religious context, with Messianic expectations and a familiarity with pagan resurrection stories, a gullible and superstitious believer might just think they were experiencing a genuine supernatural visitation.

Of course, if you have had a miraculous vision, you are suddenly a very important person. This means that there is a strong psychological and social reward waiting for you if you can convince yourself and others that a genuine miracle has really happened to you. It brings you an enhanced social standing in the community of your fellow believers, which you lose if someone debunks your claim. This, of course, is a powerful incentive, to the point that psychologists sometimes treat patients with self-inflicted stigmata. And if they deny that their wounds are self-inflicted, it might not be actual lying, because they sometimes convince themselves!

It needn’t go to that extreme, of course. You can earn improved social standing in the community of believers by contributing something less than a “miracle.” Perhaps you just polish up a rough spot in the community narrative, or think up an explanation for problems that are troubling other believers. Even if you merely lend your support to those who are leading the way in “right thinking, right believing and right living,” your contribution can pay off for you socially—and conversely, you can suffer a painful loss of status if you fail to go along with the crowd, if you bring up unpleasant facts, or tend to raise problematic questions.

These psychosocial forces exert pressure on the direction the community interpretation of events is going to take. The social environment, and the continuous negotiation of relative “spiritual” status, tends to reward those who “improve” their rendition of the story, and who deploy double standards that favor the things the community approves of. Hearsay can flourish, because the fact-checking is much more lenient when the story reinforces the preferred beliefs of the community, allowing for the development and enhancement of urban-legend style myths.

These are all factors that we see all the time, especially among believers. Rationalizations, denial, fuzzy and flexible standards of truth, are readily verifiable in a wide range of individuals. Given that such things are so common, and given that resurrected Saviors are so rare (as in ABSENT!), does it not make sense to suppose that the resurrection story is more likely to have come from the former than from the latter?

Suppose, for instance, that some group of lesser-known disciples (i.e. not the apostles) had objections to Jesus’ body resting in the tomb of a rich man, and moved it, during the sabbath, to a more suitable location. Suppose that Mary and the other women didn’t know this, and were surprised to find the tomb empty. Perhaps they might even have met one of the “body snatchers” and been told that Jesus had gone back to heaven (or simply “rose”), meaning that his spirit went to heaven and thus his material body was no longer important. Such a story could easily have been garbled, at the time or in later revisions, and reinterpreted as an “angel” informing them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even the apostles, on finding the empty tomb, might have experienced a powerful psychological moment that would get their reinterpretive subconscious working on resolving the problem of their crucified and buried Messiah.

I’m not claiming that this is necessarily what happened 2,000 years ago. I’m just demonstrating that, if you take ordinary, well-known human characteristics, working together in the known historical context of the crucifixion, it’s really not all that hard to propose a scenario that is much more consistent with the facts we have today than is any speculative and credulous story about a deity who literally died to ensure that he and we need never be parted again—and then immediately departed and hasn’t been seen since.

It’s everyday experience. We see people fudge the truth, stretch the truth, pass on hearsay uncritically, fool themselves, bend their minds into impossible shapes in order to cling to what they wish were true instead of what they actually find in the real world. What’s more, they enthusiastically encourage one another to not only practice such things, but to spread them to others also, especially when it concerns religion, superstition, and one’s “special” relationship with God. And they do it without consciously lying, in a lot of cases. All it takes for the resurrection to be a myth is for people 2,000 years ago to be just like the believers we see today. And it doesn’t even need to be all ancient people. Just a proportional fraction, like we have today.

Such an origin for the resurrection story would explain quite a lot, like why Jesus had to leave town in such a hurry, and why there are conflicting resurrection stories, and why Paul was the only one who “saw” Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s consistent with God’s peculiar lack of concern over the spread of heresy in the Church, and the increasing doubts and skepticism in the world. It’s even consistent with the history of the Church, which reflects the confused, political, and often downright evil efforts of men to force the truth to be whatever they thought it should be, at whatever cost to those whose opinions and lifestyles differed.

The traditional gospel account does not explain such things, and indeed does not so much work to explain anything as it leaves us with things that need explaining. It is consistent with a community delusion, a complex interaction of multiple psychosocial factors working together to shape people’s beliefs in ways that owe more to subjective perception and social status than to objective facts. Geisler and Turek do their best to try and sell us their version of the story, but their straw men only stand in the way of discovering the real, complex, and fascinating truth about Christianity’s origins.

The healing of Bernadette McKenzie

Boy, I leave town for a few days and the comments go nuts! Oh well, that’s a good thing, so bear with me while I try and dig myself out again. It’s a bit dated at this point, but I wanted to use the Bernadette McKenzie story as a practical illustration of the point I was making in my earlier post about miracles. For reference, here is the story, as quoted by Jayman:

A decade ago, at the age of 12, Bernadette McKenzie found that she could no longer stand upright, even after three operations. She suffered from a tethered spinal cord, a rare congenital condition causing constant pain. The nuns at her school in suburban Philadelphia began a series of prayers, seeking the intercession of their deceased founder, Mother Frances de Sales Aviat, whom they regard as a saint. On the fourth day, Bernadette herself knelt by her bed, telling God that if this was to be her life she would accept it. But she wanted to know–a sign. If she were to walk again, she pleaded, let her favorite song, “Forever Young,” play next on the radio. It did. She immediately jumped up and ran downstairs to tell her family. Bernadette didn’t even notice that her physical symptoms had disappeared, something her doctors say is medically inexplicable. Her recovery is currently being evaluated by the Vatican as a possible miracle [it's since been accepted].

Notice, this is what’s considered a real miracle, as defined by the Vatican, so it’s fair to assume that other alleged miracles will have similar traits. And yet, it’s easy to show that this does not constitute an instance of God showing up in real life, nor is there any particular reason to suppose that anything supernatural is involved. Bernadette’s experience is a textbook example of superstition: “explaining” something by ascribing it to a purported cause even though you not only cannot show any actual connection between the two, but cannot even describe what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. And if this is a fair sample, then we are justified in concluding that the others are not actual supernatural manifestations either. If the Vatican had real miracles to offer, would they tarnish the value of the term “miracle” by applying it to a mere superstitious attribution?

Notice first of all what the evidence actually consists of. In this case we have what we might call the “major miracle” (the healing itself) and the “minor miracle” (the coincidence of the requested song playing on the radio as she was praying for it). The “minor miracle” is actually pretty unremarkable. There’s nothing supernatural about a radio station playing a popular tune, even if the timing seems a bit coincidental. Isn’t it a funny request, though? If you’re going to ask God to intervene in your life and prove His existence via an undeniable and powerful miracle, is it too much to ask that He show up and say “Ok, you’re good”? What’s with the mysterious please-work-a-miracle-to-tell-me-you’re-going-to-work-a-miracle stuff?

Obviously, even as a believer attending a parochial school, under the instruction of devout and faithful nuns, Bernadette had no serious expectation that it was even possible that God might show up in real life and give her some clear guidance, so she resorted instead to the ancient and pagan practice of divination. Not, of course, that she is the first person to do so with God’s implied blessing. But it is no less an occult magical practice, like palmistry, tarot, and reading tea leaves, for all its Biblical precedent.

So the “minor miracle” is really just a subjective and superstitious interpretation of an ordinary event, heightened by the occult and superstitious nature of the request. There are any number of perfectly natural ways the event itself could happen: she could have been generous (and forgetful) in her estimation of which song the “next” one was, she could have been praying for a while and made the request more than once, or she could have subconsciously heard the DJ announce that the song was coming up soon while her conscious mind was focused on praying.

Or it could have been just plain coincidence. I once prayed to my left little finger, asking, “If you are truly the One True God, please let my wife find her car keys,” and I no sooner said “Amen” than she found them. Since I’ve never asked for anything else, my left little finger has a 100% success rate in granting me what I’ve asked it for. You think that is just a coincidence?

The “major miracle” fares no better. Notice, it’s not that we know that this was a miraculous healing, it’s that we don’t know what caused her symptoms to improve (or at least abate). If indeed she had endured three separate operations whose goal was to produce the relief she eventually ended up with, it could just be that the last one was indeed successful, and her continued symptoms merely the psychosomatic product of her own fears that she would never be healed. Or, more ominously, it could be that the symptoms have only been masked, and that the underlying problem is still there.

Which brings us to the moral problem of miracles. Suppose, first of all, that God does indeed have the power to heal. If that’s the case, then Bernadette’s healing proves that there is no particular obstacle (such as free will) that would prevent God from healing people, otherwise He couldn’t have healed Bernadette either. Since He clearly does not help most of those who need it, however, His ability to provide relief means He is morally responsible for the suffering of all those He does not heal, just as He is morally responsible for all the other crimes, tragedies, and evil which He could (allegedly) prevent and/or relieve, and manifestly does not.

Or take the other possibility: that God did not heal, and that Bernadette’s experience has a natural explanation. In that case, science would be very interested in discovering what that explanation is. It could be extremely important to someone else suffering similar symptoms, you see, if doctors could learn from Bernadette’s experience how to relieve seemingly intractable problems with tethered spinal cords. Or conversely, it could be extremely important to Bernadette, should the “cure” turn out to be a malfunction of painful symptoms that might otherwise alert her to a dangerously deteriorating condition.

Yet so long as Bernadette insists on treating her experience as a miracle (i.e. as magic that has no scientific explanation), scientists will be denied access to the detailed facts, or at least hindered in their attempts to discover the natural causes involved. Superstition opposes science, because superstition requires scientific ignorance in order to make its claims. Bernadette may not want doctors to figure out what really happened, since finding a natural explanation would rob her of her special status as a Christian uniquely blessed by God Himself.

In any case, though, ignorance is the absence of knowledge, not the source of it. The fact that doctors don’t know how Bernadette’s symptoms were relieved is ignorance: they don’t now what they don’t know. And there’s nothing shameful about not knowing, so long as you admit that it’s ignorance. It’s only when ignorance pretends to be knowledge (as in, “We don’t know what caused it, therefore we know Who caused it”), that it becomes superstition.

And that’s what Bernadette’s “miracle” does. It’s a superstitious attribution, nothing more. There is no actual, demonstrable connection between her purported cause (God) and the observed effect (the relief of her symptoms). If healing the sick were a crime, there would not be enough evidence to convict God as the perpetrator. It could, for example, have been Santa Claus, who also allegedly possesses magical powers. You will respond, of course, that Santa couldn’t have done it, since his is not real. But I will retort, “He must be real if he’s going around healing people.” After all, isn’t that the argument you are giving me? that God must be real if He’s healing people?

So Bernadette’s “miracle,” as astonishing and urban-legend-worthy as it is, is not a case of God showing up in real life, but is merely an example of people being unable to understand all the causes of what they see. And it certainly requires no supernatural miracle for people to fail to understand all the causes of what they see! That is a very ordinary event, and one that requires only the ordinary proofs that we see all the time.

This example also falls under the principle that the truth is consistent with itself, for if God were permitted, by His own abilities and the general circumstances, to intervene in people’s lives in such a public, manifest, doctor-stumping miraculous way, then He ought also be willing and able to take the lesser, more fundamental, and yet more significant steps of showing up in real life and preaching the Gospel Himself. This would produce a huge increase in the number of saved souls simply by eliminating the heresies, atheisms, and other distractions that prevent men from knowing Him. And yet, though this is what He wants badly enough to die for (literally), we do not see Him doing this. Should we believe that the greater miracles are being performed by a God unwilling and/or unable to do even the most trivial and obvious of the lesser supernatural signs?

I want to close by addressing a specific comment of Jayman’s in relation to miracles in general.

On the other hand, you are making an extraordinary claim when you say God never intervenes in history. In essence you are saying that 48% of Americans were mistaken, deceived, or deluded. And not just some of those people, but each and every one of them. That is an extraordinary claim and you have provided no evidence to support it, let alone extraordinary evidence. If you were to try and explain many of the miracles you would offer extraordinary explanations as well.

The laws of nature are, by definition, ordinary, which is why we call them laws of nature and not “things that nature might possibly do once in a great while if it feels like it.” When I claim that unknown causes are most likely to be consistent with natural laws (i.e. with the way we ordinarly observe things working), I am necessarily making the ordinary claim for which there exists the ordinary proof that we see nature work this way all the time. In fact, we would not have any of knowing what the laws of nature were, if it were not for the fact that they always make things happen in the same way.

What’s more, we know that the laws of nature continue to function consistently even when they are poorly understood by men, or not understood at all. The self-consistent nature of real world truth is what has made it possible for us to progress from our initial ignorance of natural law to a greater understanding of things we used to explain superstitiously. People can be fooled, and can even fool themselves. Even 48% of the people. But you can’t fool nature, it just keeps working the same old way no matter what people believe. So by definition, the natural explanation is necessarily the ordinary explanation, and comes pre-loaded with the ordinary proof that consists of the real world behaving normally. It is those who want to make the extraordinary claims (i.e. of supernatural intervention) who need to provide the corresponding proof.

Friends, Enemies, & Kings

A gospel proclamation in the Greek and Roman era was an announcement of a king. But the declaration that Jesus is King is not going to be good news for everyone. In fact that is not really good news for anyone for we are all born enemies of the King. It will only be good news if the enemies of the King surrender, repent, and trust in Him. We must not entertain the nonsense that we can believe  in him as King but continue to live our lives as his enemies. We cannot say that we believe that he is King and then mock him in the public square, deface his statues, spit upon him as he goes along, and plot against him. To do that and to call yourself a friend of the King is to do away with the meaning of words. Whatever word you attach to it, that is the behavior of an enemy of the King. And for those who remain enemies of the king, for them there is no good news.
We can intuitively recognize the absurdity of calling such a person a friend of the King in the above example, but for some reason we feel that we can believe in Jesus, be counted as his sons, and yet still behave as enemies. I tell you it is equally absurd. It is absolute nonsense to claim to be closer than a friend to him when your actions are completely indistinguishable from that of a reprobate.
Sola Gratia!
Sola Fide!
Solus Christus!

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! We can firmly hold that and still insist that this grace-wrought new creation actually has some form of newness to it. We can boldly proclaim grace alone while still insisting that the grace wrought heart of flesh has a certain life to it. To claim that the heart of stone has been removed and replaced with the heart of flesh all the while still retaining all the coldness, hardness, roughness, and lifelessness of a rock is to do away the meaning of words. This is the Protestant transubstantiation. It looks like a rock, it feels like a rock, it sounds like a rock, but really it is a heart of flesh.

TIA Tuesday: Wrapping up

We come at last to the section of TIA that I have been most looking forward to: the last chapter. Not because it’s deep, or significant, or even because it’s so short, but simply because it is the last. The book ends with one rather pointless sports story, and a tired rant. Speaking of the 2007 Italian victory over the English in the Champions League soccer match between AC Milan and Liverpool, Vox writes:

In addition to seeing the Italians take revenge for their previous defeat with a 2-0 victory, they witnessed Milan’s brilliant attacking midfielder, Kaká, declare his Christian faith with a t-shirt that read “I BELONG TO JESUS”…

The reason Kakà’s prayer resonated so profoundly with Christians and non-Christians alike was because it testified to a higher purpose in life. Very, very few of us will ever know such a moment of complete triumph, almost no one can hope to reach the pinnacle of his profession and know that the eyes of all the world are upon him at the very height of his youth and beauty. In a world full of paparazzi, celebrity magazines, and shallow people releasing sex tapes in a desperate bid for fifteen minutes of fame, it is astounding to see a man reject the mass public adulation he has merited in order to humbly give God the glory.

Yes, that’s right. Humility is the reason he’s flaunting his personal religion, drawing attention to himself apart from his team, and setting himself up for the mass public adulation of millions of Christians who aren’t necessarily even soccer fans, in addition to the acclaim he’s going to collect from sports fans in general.

Vox never quite gets around to explaining what this “higher purpose in life” is supposed to be. Based on the last chapter, I suppose our higher purpose is to serve as Non-Player Characters in the next round of God’s great celestial video game, assuming He can rack up a high enough score in the Material round. And assuming His mom doesn’t make him turn off the computer and go outside to play for a while.

Or perhaps this higher purpose is to demonstrate that the key ingredients for success are not determination, discipline, focus, strategy, and teamwork, because God cheats and gives unfair advantages to His favorite players. After all, if God were indeed responsible for the Italian victory in that 2007 soccer game, that means that one or more members of the Italian team owed their victory to the spiritual equivalent of banned performance-enhancing drugs. Technically, their victory should be disqualified on the grounds that they had too many people on the playing field (assuming that God is a person and was indeed on the field with them assisting in their play).

Or maybe the higher purpose is to prove that God rewards the superstitious and gullible, as long as they use rigged scorekeeping. How many here think that T-shirt would have come off at the end of the game if the English had won the match? There’s lots of Christian athletes who are not champions in their field. Do you think any of them stand up and say, “I belong to Jesus, and that’s why I’m in last place right now”?

Of course not, because the whole point of gullibility is making people want to believe whatever you say. Winners can do that better than losers, and that’s why Vox ends his book with the story of a superstitious winner, even though his victory would be fraudulent and undeserved if indeed it were true that he merely received it from God instead of earning it by teamwork and preparation. But who cares, eh? You’re not supposed to think about it, you’re just supposed to be too over-awed by the celebrity endorsement to realize that God is the one being made great by the sports star, instead of the other way around. Why would a real god even need celebrity endorsements? (And if He did, shouldn’t He just get Himself a sticker on a NASCAR racer?)

Vox follows up that example with another by the famous Christian minister and evangelist, Evander Holyfield.

Not long after I became a Christian, I watched Evander Holyfield walk fearlessly into the ring to meet Iron Mike Tyson, singing “Glory to Glory” and clearly unafraid of the terrible beating every boxing expert was sure he was about to receive. Like millions of fight fans, I watched Holyfield’s confident demeanor before the opening bell with fascination. It wasn’t his unexpected victory, but his entrance that made me want to understand the boldness exemplified by the faithful warrior that night.

Because God cares who punches whom harder, and therefore He fixed that fight just like He fixed the soccer match between England and Italy. If we all end up in heaven, and find the angels passing out boxing gloves instead of wings, that’s why. God likes watching us punch each other. It’s part of our Higher Purpose, keeping God entertained.

One senses that, having finished his book, Vox is vaguely dissatisfied with the result. In compensation, he closes his book by projecting his own feelings of fear and frustration onto the New Atheists.

The Unholy Trinity are deeply and profoundly afraid. They fear faith, they fear those who possess it, and they fear what science has created. They fear everything that cannot be forced to fit within their material reductionist model. They fear the future and they fear God even though they do not believe in Him. And most of all, they fear that which they cannot control and do not understand. The light shines in the face of their dark reason and the darkness comprehendeth it not.

Vox’s own fear, which has flowered since 9/11, is that man is irrational, and now has the power of science, threatening us all with disaster. (Not that his has made him noticeably hostile to global warming deniers, however.) But a fear projected onto others is a fear disposed of, or at least repressed.

Bertrand Russell once said that he had spent his entire life searching in vain for evidence that Man is a rational animal. What the Unholy Trinity have failed to take into account in constructing their collective case against religion is the fact that Man is not, and never will be, entirely rational. Even if it were to be conceded that Man is nothing but a talking beast evolved through Natural Selection from a common ancestor shared with fish, squirrels, and monkeys, observation tells us that human beings seldom, if ever, act on a completely rational basis. Reason is a useful tool, but it will never suffice to define Man in his entirety, nor, by will or by force, can Man convert himself into a being of pure rationality this side of the Singularity. Indeed, for conclusive proof of Man’s fundamental irrationality, one need look no further than The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and god is not Great.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are living evidence that Man’s dreams will always rule his intellect; he will always possess faith, hope, and love. Reason is no substitute for religion; it can never be.

And with that final, defiant rant, plus a cited but not quoted passage from the end of Revelation, TIA sputters to a close. I’ve read worse books, but not many, and very few that I would have bothered reading through to the end. Fortunately, it’s over now, and if my insignificant contribution spares even one person the time they might otherwise have wasted on it, then it will have been worth the effort.

Sunday Toons: The Emperor’s New Apologetics

In the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a couple of con men exploit people’s vanity by pretending to be tailors whose work is so exquisite that only the truly wise can see it. The emperor, not wanting people to doubt his wisdom, ends up parading around nude in public, and all the courtiers and nobles convince themselves that they, too, can see his fine new clothes, and are therefore not stupid. The charade comes to a humiliating end when a child too young to be vain about his intellect asks, “Mommy, why is that man naked?”

Of course, nobody would try to pull a scam like that today, would they? Well, not unless they were selling apologetics and scholarship instead of trousers and jackets. And speaking of which, here’s an excerpt from JP Holding’s attempt to deal with last week’s Toons.

Dumplin’ just shows how stupid he is when he says that my observation was “trivial and superficial.” Dumbass, it’s the key to Paul’s whole argument! You’re just too stupid to understand the relevance of appeal to the example of an ingroup leader within the context of a collectivist society.

Yes folks, JP has an argument so refined and so sublime that only the truly wise can see it. You can’t find any fault with it. You can’t even point out any shortcomings. If you criticize it at all, you’re just proving that you are not wise. Obviously so, since you cannot perceive the brilliance of JP’s argument, which as we mentioned before is so refined and so sublime that only the truly wise can see it. And I don’t care what dangly bits you happen to see hanging out.

Well, I’ve got to hand it to old JP, it’s a pretty good con, in certain circles at least. Every time he puts up a flawed, two-bit analysis or rebuttal, he’s golden, because pointing out its flaws just deals him the cards he needs to claim that you’re stupid. You must be stupid, because his arguments are so brilliant that only non-stupid people can truly perceive and appreciate it. And everybody who falls for JP’s ENC scam (including JP himself) is going to count it as a big win.

Still, I think at some level JP is a bit bothered by my tiny, piping voice asking, “Mommy, why is that man naked?” You’ll notice he has prudently omitted the link back to my post this time. I’m happy to link to JP anytime, because I love to have people see him as representing the voice of the Gospel today, but I’m afraid that’s an attitude that JP does not reciprocate. The last thing he wants is more people reading my blog, and he takes quite a bit of consolation in thinking that he has more readers than I do.

No, Dumbass. Whether the Corinthian doubters were framing their doubts in terms of questions or statements doesn’t change my argument one bit and doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t grasp my point, which rests on an inconsistency in the Corinthian argument when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection in the past vs THEIR resurrection in the future. No wonder Dumbass’ blog gets only as many visitors a month as my single article on Osiris.

Unfortunately, JP’s attitude not only encourages sloppy scholarship on his part, it makes it nearly mandatory. For example, here’s his defense of the claim that the resurrection deniers did believe that Jesus rose from the dead:

Duh, Dumplin’? It’s pretty clear that the Corinthians are NOT denying the resurrection of Jesus, precisely because Paul is able to bring it to them as something they believe in! Duh ah! If they DID doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, he’d have started from a different place in his argument, you moron!

Darn, there I go failing to perceive the sublime brilliance of his argument (that only the truly wise can perceive). He’s got a point, though. If the Corinthians did have doubts about the resurrection of Jesus as well, then Paul would have needed to take a few verses at the beginning of chapter 15 to re-assert and reinforce the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, instead of being able to take the resurrection of Jesus for granted and going straight to the bit about “If there is no resurrection, that would mean that Jesus didn’t rise.” That’s why 1 Cor 15 begins like this.

1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

9For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Hmm, I must be too dumb to perceive the brilliance of JP’s argument. Looks to me like Paul did begin by re-asserting and reinforcing the idea that Jesus really did rise, before he could proceed to the argument that would have been the most natural and obvious starting point (vv. 12-13), assuming it were true that the Corinthian doubters had not had any doubts about Jesus really rising. And did I mention that Gentiles weren’t the only ones who denied the resurrection?

“Certain amount of scholarship” — yeah, this shows why that’s foreign language to Dumplin’. I know about Jews who denied resurrection, you dip. Did you have some evidence that modern scholarship was unaware of that the Sadduccees existed anywhere except in Palestine (and in Corinth)? Oops.

Oops indeed. No Jew living outside of Palestine knows or cares about anything happening in Jerusalem, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume, as JP does, that Corinthian Jews were completely ignorant of what Sadducees believed, and thus Sadducean teachings on resurrection had no influence on them, even when they also were inclined to deny resurrection. Or at least, that’s what I might say if I were able to perceive the mystical and ineffable brilliance of JP’s argument. But since that’s invisible to all but the truly wise, I guess it’s understandable that I might have missed it. Seems to me that theological disputes between two major Holy Land factions might come up in Jewish conversation even as far away as Corinth.

When I pointed out how JP’s explanation of the inconsistency in the Corinthians beliefs falls short by failing to explain how they managed to acquire those inconsistent beliefs without noticing the conflict, his response was to appeal once again to the superior and even unattainable excellence of  his own brilliance (which only the truly wise bla bla bla).

Duh ah…I did say “how,” moron….they were influenced by pagan ideas about resurrection. “Why” is easy even for you: The ideas were there in that social milieu and they had been influenced by them for their entire lives…duh ah….the reason you focus on this aspect is because you have Dunning’s disorder.

(”Dunning’s disorder, in case you’re new to it, is a fake psychiatric diagnosis JP made up, in fulfillment of the Gypsy Curse, in which the victim is unable to accurately assess his own performance, and thinks he is doing better than he really is.)

You may have noticed that I’m actually not buying the idea that only truly wise people can perceive the brilliance of JP’s wit and insight, and that’s because of arguments like the above. He says the Corinthians acquired the idea that there is no resurrection because people around them believed that there is no resurrection. But that’s a shallow explanation, to the point of being a non-explanation, because it ignores the question of how they could fail to recognize that this common, worldly belief was at all in conflict with their faith. If there arose, in the modern Christian church, a movement that decided there was no God, because of secular, atheistic influence, and did not realize that this conflicted with their faith at a fundamental level, wouldn’t that be worth a bit more analysis than just brushing it off by saying, “oh, that’s just the secular influence”?

It might be. Then again, if you didn’t make a slipshod apologetic, people wouldn’t criticize it, and then you couldn’t point and laugh and say, “You must be stupid, because my wisdom is so exalted that only smart people can see it.”

“Dunning’s disorder” indeed.

Controversy Brewing over the Darwin 2009 Project at the University of Oklahoma

This year, the University of Oklahoma is celebrating Darwin with the Darwin 2009 Project. It appears from the speaker list (at least for the names I am familiar with) that where this project touches on the mechanisms for evolution or the wider debate about its potential implications for other areas of life, this is going to be entirely one-sided.

I know from some friends of mine that there is an undercurrent of opposition brewing from OU supporters, alumni, and other Oklahoma residents. Below is the letter I am writing to OU’s President Boren, and I hope that some of you will do the same. Please don’t copy my letter directly - write your own - but feel free to be inspired :)

David Boren, President
University of Oklahoma
Office of the President
Evans Hall Room 110
660 Parrington Oval
Norman, OK 73019-3073 
Re: Darwin 2009 Project 

Dear President Boren -

It has come to my attention that the University of Oklahoma is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species with a Darwin Symposium. I fully support the recognition of creative scientists such as Darwin who caused paradigm shifts within their fields. However, going through the list of public lectures and lecturers, it appears that the lecture list is entirely one-sided. Evolutionary biology is a diverse field, and I do not think that it does justice to Darwin or evolution to present to the public such a one-sided picture of science and present it as fact. Michael Ruse, Nick Matzke, and Richard Dawkins are outspoken public figures, all of whom present a very one-sided view of evolutionary theory and natural history, and of the relationship of science with other avenues of inquiry.

As an institution of learning in the state of Oklahoma, it is my hope that OU would present to the public the full range of opinion that is present within science over Darwin’s theories. In addition to the action of natural selection, many other theories as to the origin of the species have been considered and discussed, including, but not limited to, evolution by symbiogenesis (Lynn Margulis), biological self-organization (Stuart Kauffman), evolution through natural genetic engineering (James Shapiro), evolution by intelligent design (Michael Behe), and creationism (Leonard Brand). Aspects of all of these theories are within the bounds of current scientific discussions, and I listed the names of prominent proponents along with the theories.

Obviously, not all of these could be discussed within such a symposium due to time, space, and money constraints. However, with such a rich diversity of viewpoints within the scientific community, it is unfortunate that OU is focusing solely on one vocal viewpoint to the exclusion of others. In fact, the only mention of other viewpoints seems to be Matzke’s talk, for the purpose of deriding them rather than discussing them. If the purpose was to discuss them fairly, it seems that the best way to do this would to bring in a proponent of such a view to air a full hearing, rather than have a partisan opponent airing a straw-man version.

In addition, the inclusion of Richard Dawkins on the list of speakers gives the impression that this series will focus on Darwinian evolution not just as a scientific idea, but as a total worldview. Richard Dawkins hasn’t made any real contributions to science in many years. Most of his current work has been in evangelization for atheism and against Christianity. If the purpose of this symposium is to offer Darwinian evolution as a total worldview (and having Dawkins talking about “purpose” makes it appear this way), then I would hope that the University would provide some balance to the extremes of Richard Dawkins. I do not know of all of the lecturers on the list, but the ones that I do know all seem to have the same basic perspective, though Michael Ruse is at least much more cordial and thoughtful in his presentation.

As a native Oklahoman, it is my hope that the University of Oklahoma will be known for its freedom of inquiry, and not for one-sided dogmatics. It is my hope that you would take this into consideration, and be sure that lectures are scheduled which present a wider range of viewpoints.

Thank you for your consideration.

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Why do people so often only repent of Darwinism when they die?

I am really going to miss Richard John Neuhaus, who slipped away January 8 (1936-2008), quite unexpectedly, and is NOT an example of the problem I am commenting on here. 

I got my February First Things earlier this week, knowing it was the last installment I would ever read of his “The Public Square,” and especially of my favourite portion, “While We’re At It,” of which I am transcribing a bit for you below, a bit that is relevant to the intelligent design debate.

I first became aware of Neuhaus when he was a Lutheran pastor (he subsequently became a Catholic priest), because he was one of the first people ever to write against the “population bomb” hoax, in 1971 - when that very hoax was hot stuff in what we today call the legacy media.

Essentially, as Pamela Winnick has also pointed out, there was no population bomb. The rise of national government - which meant, among other things, the prohibition of local warfare, together with the worldwide spread of modern agriculture and medical techniques - simply meant that more people than ever before in history happen to be alive at the same time. This is an inevitable consequence of reducing child and young adult mortality. But inevitably then, birth rates begin to taper off. As Neuhaus recognized, there was unmistakable evidence that birth rates were already tapering off, even while editorialists were freaking out about the supposed “bomb.”

Anyway, without more ado, here are some of Neuhaus’s comments on Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s devoted German disciple:

Give a boy a hammer and he discovers the whole world needs hammering. Give an intellectual enthusiast a really big idea and he discovers it explains just about everything. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was such an enthusiast and, along with many others, his really big idea was Darwinism. He had no problem with being accused of worshiping Darwin and was an influential popularizer of his thought. A new biography of Haeckel, The Tragic Sense of Life, by Robert Richards, notes his prodigious productivity, including what he considered a central pillar of Darwin’s theory - the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This means that in the first two months of development a human embryo can scarcely be distinguished the tailed embryo of a dog or other mammals. In other words, the embryo of a contemporary species goes through the same morphological changes in its development as its ancestors went through in their evolutionary descent. I have met people who still hold to Haeckel’s theory and contend that an abortion only interrupts an evolutionary process, and we do not know what the embryo would have turned out to be at the end of its evolutionary development. Haeckel published a book with an illustration, juxtaposing three embryos (dog, chicken, and turtle) and pointing out, as evidence in support of Darwin’s theory, that the three images were indistinguishable. A sharp-eye reviewer noted that they were indeed indistinguishable. The same woodcut had been printed three times. Haeckel’s reputation never recovered. T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” wrote him a letter of consolation”: “May your shadow never be less, and may all your enemies, unbelieving dogs who resist the Prophet of Evolution, be defiled by the sitting of jackasses upon their grandmother’s graves!”

Okay, so anyone who doubts Huxley, and presumably, current Darwin perpetrators, should have their grandmother’s grave defaced? Okay. At least they are making it clear. If this is a fight they want, they will get it.

Sadly, at one point, what Fr. Neuhaus writes is not strictly true. Haeckel’s reputation totally recovered! He’s part of the Darwin religion now. His beliefs about human embryos pioneered abortion legislation worldwide. (After a while, people began to acknowledge, of course, that abortion kills a human being, but - they now say- society is better off without the humans who merely punish their relatives by existing. That was after the abortion mob had confused the public by claiming that the human embryos were not human - as if anything could be more impossible in real science.)

And while we are here, why do so many people recant Darwinism just before they die?

In this world, today, isn’t there some point at which guys with balls just push their way forward to say, “We know this is major crap and we will sign here to say so, and will fight for it?

Well, all power to those guys, and I will do anything I can to help them.

Hey, guys, do it.

Do it for your kids. Don’t your kids deserve a world in which we can know what is real and what isn’t? Should your kids be listening to this or to something worthwhile? Think for a kid who wants to make it in science?

For what it is worth, Richard Weikart had intended to call his magisterial book on the contribution of Darwinism to Nazism “From Haeckel to Hitler” but the publisher insisted on titling it, From Darwin to Hitler. The book is sobering, and much recommended, however titled.

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Texas Mandates Teaching “The Trade Secret of Paleontology”

Stephen J. Gould, perhaps the most famous paleontologist of the 20th century, wrote:

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches … in any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the gradual transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and fully formed.

Lest I be accused of quote mining you can find Gould discussing it in more detail in Gould’s book The Richness of Life, pages 263 and 264, found in its entirety on Google Books.

So what did Texas mandate? The following is to be included in the evolution section of biology textbooks beginning this year. Since Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation what it buys usually becomes what all the other states buy too because mass production makes the Texas selection the least expensive one.

7B: Describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common descent to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of the fossil record.

This is one small step for honest teaching of evolutionary theory and one giant leap for intelligent design.

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Comment Promotion: Extraordinary claims and the frequency of divine intervention

Jayman writes:

48% of adult Americans claim to have personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. Thus, the Biblical notion that God intervenes in history is consistent with what we observe in real life. Moreover, at least in the case of those who have personally experienced a miracle, extraordinary evidence has been provided for this intervention.

Let’s run a quick reality check on that statistic, shall we? 48% of the adult US population is on the order of 116 million people. Assuming that each of these people is 116 years of age or younger, and making the pessimistic assumption that none of these people have ever seen more than one miracle during their lifetime, that’s still an average of at least 1 million miracles per year, or more than 2,500 miracles per day. And that’s just the number of miracles occurring in America, not including the believers in Europe, South and Central America, Africa, Asia, or Australia. So if this statistic is a valid indicator of the frequency of miraculous activity, we ought to have a gushing fountain of material to study.

Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that, with such an enormous reservoir of miracles to draw from, believers have yet to produce even one single verifiable instance of actual supernatural intervention? Even allowing for the possibility that atheistic scientists might be suspected of ignoring the evidence, 2,500 miracles a year for the past 116 years ought to give ample opportunity for Christians to learn scientific techniques for documenting and verifying genuine phenomena, and then applying those techniques to the task of producing at least one solid and well-documented genuine supernatural miracle.

On the other hand, perhaps the low success rate tells us something else about the 116 million miracle statistic. After all, if we assume that the past century is not atypical, and that these miracles have been happening at comparable rates for the past 2,000 years, that’s a really astronomical number of miracles. Even in the Gospels, in the heyday of allegedly miraculous interventions, Jesus didn’t perform 2,500 miracles a day. There are quite a few days when he is not recorded as doing any miracles, and at least one Gospel writer records that, on at least one occasion, “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

In fact, the unrealistically high “hit rate” for reported miracles seems doubly suspicious, because if God were indeed willing and able to be that busy visibly manifesting His existence in human experience, then why would He not simply take the more fundamental and obvious step of showing up to spend time with us, in person, as the Gospels allege He wishes to do? That was, after all, the whole point of dying on the cross: removing barriers so that Man and God could be together forever. Well, forever started yesterday, but God didn’t show up. And if He can’t even show up to say, “Hi, I’m God,” then does it really make sense to suppose He’s doing all those things people are giving Him credit for?

What the 116 million miracle figure tells us is not that God is remarkably active in human affairs, but rather that people are remarkably generous in what they are willing to consider a miracle. If these “miracles” are indeed occurring at the rate of 2,500 per day, every day, then chances are pretty good that you’ve encountered some of them, as I have.

And what do we see when we look at these “miracles”? We find first of all that people are superstitious: they see something they don’t fully understand, and they ascribe it to some invisible, magical cause even though they cannot show any verifiable connection between the two. Most of the time they cannot even say what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. So people see something they don’t understand, and they ascribe it to God, and since they cannot tell us precisely how God would have done what they claim, then it must be magic (or in Christian terms, “miraculous”).

And yet, these miracles do not involve any actual non-natural phenomena. People get sick, and often they get better. That’s perfectly normal and natural. Even animals recover from illnesses, and they don’t pray at all. Or someone will be praying for things to turn out a certain way, and they do. But it’s never a supernatural event, merely unexpected and fortuitous timing of a natural event: they need money, and get an unexpected check in the mail. Money doesn’t just magically poof into existence in their hands, they just fail to anticipate that it’s on its way. Sometimes it’s even a question of life or death: people happen to switch flights or stay home from work, and thus narrowly escape some disaster or other. But nobody escapes from a burning skyscraper by jumping off the top floor and floating gently and safely down, or otherwise defying the laws of physics.

In short, a large number of “miracles” turn out to be people’s surprise at the difference between what they expected, and what actually happened. It’s not that any laws of nature were violated, suspended or otherwise superceded, it’s just that people are not omniscient and don’t always have the best grasp of all the many factors that contribute to the natural outcomes of ordinary happenstance.

Other “miracles” aren’t quite so honest. I recall visiting a monastery once, as a devout Christian, and was looking forward to seeing their “weeping icon”, which was said to miraculously shed “tears” of some oily substance from the face of the Virgin Mary depicted thereon. You could indeed see drops of some darkish liquid on the icon, as though they had just condensed there or oozed out of the wood. I was a bit disappointed by it, because it didn’t look quite as miraculous as I had hoped, but that impression was reinforced many times over when, later on in the tour, we happened to pass by the door to the icon room again and I saw a nun vigorously scrubbing the icon with cotton balls dipped in olive oil. She was “cleaning” it, our guide informed us, assuring us that the oil on the cotton balls was just to make sure they picked up every drop of the “holy” secretions (which they then sold for a “donation” of $10 in the monastery gift shop).

I suppose it would be pedestrian to point out that any plank of wood, frequently saturated in olive oil, will eventually begin to ooze some of the oil back out again? Yet for all that, I’m sure the good nuns believed with heartfelt sincerity that they were merely doing their duty by “cleaning” the “miraculous” icon. The best way to fool others is to fool yourself first.

So I must agree with Jayman on one point at least: I think the thousands of “miracles” that we see every day are indeed consistent with the kind of miracles that took place in New Testament times. It’s just that none of them requires any actual existence on God’s part. No extraordinary evidence is needed for such claims, because all they’re really claiming is that humans are fallible, superstitious, and prone to count only God’s “wins” and not His losses. And that’s not extraordinary at all.