God

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All this talk about the unreliability of prayer – along with a lot of the other things we’ve talked about here – points to a broader question: If God really does exist, and he truly wants us to know him, why does he not provide at least some kind of clear indication of his existence? Why not reveal himself to everyone in a way that’s completely unmistakable (or at least more unmistakable than just vague feelings of his presence and personal convictions that he must be influencing things)?

One Christian argument for this “divine hiddenness” – similar to the argument for suffering – is that God has to remain hidden in order to preserve our free will. If we knew that he existed, the argument goes, we’d have no choice but to accept him and follow him – but God wants us to make that decision freely, so he gives us enough deniability to let us go either way.

As QualiaSoup and TheraminTrees point out, though, if this were actually true, it would essentially amount to a kind of gaslighting:

We’re directed to develop a relationship with a divine being who, we’re told, withholds evidence of itself for the bizarre reason that it wants us to have the option of not believing it exists. If human parents deliberately withheld all evidence of their existence from a child, while claiming to want a relationship with the child, we’d immediately see the madness of that scenario. Substitute “human parent” with “divine being” and we get exactly the same madness.

Another Christian argument is to say that God hasn’t hidden himself at all – he has revealed himself through the Bible. But if God really were trying to reveal himself to all of humanity, then speaking solely with a handful of men in a highly-illiterate part of the world thousands of years before the development of effective communication technology, and then allowing his words to be dispersed exclusively via a collection of writings riddled with contradictions, mistranslations, and other flaws – so that even thousands of years later, the majority of humanity still wouldn’t have gotten the message – would be a terrible way of doing it. TheraminTrees continues:

Divine characters like Allah and Yahweh are conceptualised as all-knowing. If they existed, they’d know that people indoctrinated into other religions are generally immune to all but their own religion’s revelation stories. They would therefore also know that to get through to those people in other religions, a much more powerful method of persuasion was needed than revelation stories – i.e. proof that has the power to transcend all religious biases and barriers. Proof that has the power to reach every individual.

For all the centuries of lip-flapping about all-powerful gods, not one single religion has produced the goods. By an astounding coincidence, every single one of them has instead required their followers to take their word for it.

So, in the absence of proof, what do we have? Here we come to the biggest problem so far. Taking just Islam and Christianity, in both cases we have a divine character who’s content to do nothing while millions of human beings, through no fault or desire of their own, are indoctrinated into other faiths. It knows that this indoctrination will create powerful biases in those humans, immunising them against its religion. It then watches as these humans descend to unspeakable torment in Hell as punishment for not believing.

What we’re talking about is a holocaust bystander. To describe this behaviour as “callous” limboes beneath understatement. But what I want to highlight is its sheer stupidity.

Imagine the following situation: You’re a night security guard for an apartment block. You’re stationed in a small hut attached to the block, with CCTV screens and speaker access to all areas. There’s a fire in the building that forces everyone down to a basement area, where they find a red door and a yellow door. They debate which one to take. They can hear traffic noises behind the yellow door. But then someone sees the faded word “EXIT” above the red door. The group becomes sharply divided into Reds and Yellows, each rejecting the arguments of the other. You watch all of this on your CCTV screen, knowing that the red door leads to freedom, while the yellow door leads to a dead-end and certain death. There’s a vent next to your desk connected to a vent in the basement. You can see that one of the Reds is standing near it. If you shout down the vent, “Take the red door,” she’ll just about hear you, and she’ll report receiving advice from a disembodied voice. You know the Reds are already predisposed to believe her. But you also know the Yellows will easily dismiss this ridiculous ghostly message. Alternatively, you could use the public address system at your disposal to give an announcement over the basement speakers that’ll be clearly heard by everyone, identifying yourself as the guard from the security hut and telling them to take the red door. So, do you choose the vent or the PA system? Allah and Yahweh chose the vent.

I’ve said it before: All-knowing gods should be geniuses. But the ill-conceived system of private revelation employed by prophet-based religions has the grubby fingerprints of limited human thinking all over it. If you want to overcome the doubts of serious thinkers, you seriously need to up your game.

TheoreticalBullshit adds a few more points to sum up the whole divine hiddenness issue:

As he points out, one of the most vexing parts of all this is that according to the Bible, God used to make himself known all the time. He appeared and spoke directly to Moses, Noah, Abraham, and all the other major characters of the Bible (including many who would later disobey his will, like Cain (Genesis 4) and the idolatrous Israelites (Exodus 32)). He had the risen Jesus appear directly to the disciple Thomas after Thomas expressed doubt that Jesus really had come back from the dead, and he allowed him to see and touch the wounds Jesus had suffered on the cross (John 20:24-29). Similarly, in Judges 6:11-24, he had an angel appear to Gideon, and when Gideon expressed skepticism that the angel was real and asked for a miracle as proof, he gladly obliged him by bringing fire forth from a rock. A few verses later in Judges 6:36-40, when Gideon was still skeptical, God provided even more miraculous evidence for his existence, as Dan Ariely describes:

In chapter 6 of the Book of Judges, we find a guy named Gideon having a little conversation with God. Gideon, being a skeptical fellow, is not sure if it’s really God he’s talking to or an imagined voice in his head. So he asks the Unseen to sprinkle a little water on a fleece. “If You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said,” he says to the Voice, “look, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there be dew on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the ground, then shall I know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.”

What Gideon is proposing here is a test: If this is indeed God he’s talking with, He (or She) should be able to make the fleece wet, while keeping the rest of the ground dry. What happens? Gideon gets up the next morning, discovers that the fleece is wet, and squeezes a whole bowlful of water out of it. But Gideon is a clever experimentalist. He is not certain if what happened was just by chance, whether this pattern of wetness occurs often, or whether it happens every time he leaves a fleece on the ground overnight. What Gideon needs is a control condition. So he asks God to indulge him again, only this time he runs his experiment a different way: “And Gideon said to God: ‘Do not be angry with me, and I will speak just this once: let me try just once more, I ask You, with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew.’” Gideon’s control condition turns out to be successful. Lo and behold, the rest of the ground is covered with dew and the fleece is dry. Gideon has all the proof he needs, and he has learned a very important research skill.

There are still more biblical examples of God providing proof of his existence on demand. In 2 Kings 20:8-11, when Hezekiah asks for proof that God has healed him, God moves the sun backward ten degrees (which would have killed everyone on Earth if it had actually happened, since it would’ve required reversing the rotation of the planet, but never mind). In 1 Kings 18:16-40, when Elijah is arguing with his fellow Israelites over whether to worship Yahweh or Baal, he challenges them to a miracle contest, and God rains down fire from the sky to prove that he’s real. (Baal fails to match this miracle, so Elijah has 450 of Baal’s followers killed.) In 2 Kings 1:9-12, the same thing happens again, with God raining down fire (and killing over 100 people) to prove his superiority to Baal. And the Bible continues to describe miracle after miracle, in which God is not just willing but positively eager to reveal his existence as visibly as possible. The problem of divine hiddenness isn’t a problem at all in the Bible; God is all too happy to intervene constantly in earthly affairs and to make his existence known to anyone who asks.

So the question remains: Why does God not give us the same definitive proof that he so willingly gave to Thomas and Gideon and everyone else in the Bible? Why did he spend thousands of years readily intervening and performing all kinds of massive, earth-shattering miracles in front of countless onlookers in order to prove his existence, only to abruptly change his mind and decide that he had to remain hidden as soon as humans learned how to reliably record and verify these miracles?

This question doesn’t just apply to his huge miraculous spectacles, either – it also includes his more personal acts of miraculous healing and other such blessings. Why did God allow people to live to the age of 900 for several generations, only to abruptly stop as soon as people started recording birthdates? Why did he stop curing people of conditions like blindness and malformed limbs? Believers might respond that God never did stop performing these miracles – he still cures people of their maladies every day. But it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the percentage of people who’ve been “miraculously healed” of their medical conditions has corresponded precisely with the progression of medical science over the years. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the number of people who’ve miraculously overcome cancer has risen sharply since the invention of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. And it also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the number of people whose medical conditions can’t yet be cured by science (or heal on their own) – e.g. people who’ve lost limbs or organs – have never once had their limbs or organs miraculously grow back. Miraculous healings always – 100% of the time – involve conditions that are either capable of healing on their own, or can be treated through modern medicine.

As commenter Colin writes (satirically speaking from “God’s” perspective):

[An] annoying habit my “miracles” seem to have is that they always seem to tag along, just behind medical science, like an annoying kid brother who won’t go away. Until the mid nineties, those with AIDS who prayed for a miracle were never granted one. Medical science finds a way to permanently suppress the disease, and all of a sudden I start to perform miracles with AIDS patients. No polio patient ever received a miracle until the Salk vaccine and I routinely ignored cancer patients until chemotherapy and radiation treatments were developed. Suddenly, prayers to me from cancer patients are regularly “answered.”

Why is it that I still seem deaf to the pleadings of amputees who would like their fingers, arms or legs back, to those who have physically lost eyes or ears, to the horribly burned and to all others who ail from patently visible and currently incurable maladies? Why is it that, at the very same time, I am very receptive to the prayers of those whose condition is uncertain, internal and vulnerable to miraculous claims?

Take five minutes to make two lists; one of those ailments I will miraculously cure and the other of those I will not. You will quickly find it coincides perfectly with those conditions medical science (or the human body itself) can defeat and those we cannot. Why do you think that is? It is almost as my miracles are created out of medical ambiguity isn’t it?

And this kind of medical ambiguity can even be seen in the miracles that are performed in the Gospels themselves, as Carrier points out:

In the time of Jesus, half of all children died before adulthood from diseases. I want you to imagine that. Imagine that now, more than half of all children born – all children you know, your own children – never survive to be adults. Most die miserably. And imagine that’s just the way things are – and yet it’s totally preventable.

[…]

Not only could someone who had the ability to eradicate all diseases just get rid of the problem altogether, immediately, but even just knowing the germ theory of disease – and how to decontaminate water, food, and milk, and sterilize instruments and utensils, and maintain community sanitation – even that can reduce the frequency of child death from half of all children to less than one in one thousand, like in America today. Now imagine that now, half of all children were dying, but we could make that one in one thousand.

Now did Jesus do that for us? Did he or his God tell us about germs or parasites, or how to create a less-diseased world? No. Humans had to figure it out on their own, after thousands of years of misery. And then they had to do it themselves. Jesus never mentioned anything about how to create this better world that we made. Nor did any Christian get the message for almost two thousand years of ruling half the world. And when they did get it, it didn’t come from Jesus or God. It came from guesswork and experiment. It came from science.

In the Gospels, the Jews come to Jesus and complain that his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, like everyone else is doing. In fact, everyone else was washing their cooking utensils as well. We now know that’s a pretty good idea, and we know why: It reduced infection. So did Jesus say, “Hey, you know you’re right. In fact, you should do that even more diligently, because it will kill the germs that kill you and all your children”? No. Jesus argued that we don’t have to wash our hands before we eat – that washing is a human tradition, with no endorsement from God – and that nothing we put into us can harm us [Mark 7:5-19] (and as he is claimed to have said in the Gospel of Mark, not even poison) [Mark 16:17-18]. Clearly, Jesus knew nothing about germs. Nor did he know that faith doesn’t make you immune to poison, either. Notably, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or God ever impart any correct knowledge or information about the world that wasn’t already known to men at the time. Thus, apparently Jesus and his God were as ignorant as every other first-century human.

So Jesus said nothing about the existence of germs and what to do about them. He thus failed to save the lives of millions upon millions of innocent children. He and his God just let them die miserably for thousands and thousands of years (because remember, humanity has been around a lot longer than Jesus has). Jesus also didn’t say anything about parasites, water-born or animal-born. Most curiously, the Gospels only have Jesus performing occasional faith healings on people with no actual verifiable diseases. Similar faith-healing acts are performed in all religions today. Yet they never cure any verifiable disease like malaria or influenza (anecdotes aside – we’ve never scientifically confirmed this). Much less do they restore lost organs or limbs. Jesus also never cured any verifiable disease, nor ever restored any lost organ or limb. Jesus thus had no more power than any other random faith healer from any other religion today. (Not just Christians can do faith-healing; Muslims and practitioners of other religions can. Pagans did as well.)

Now let’s compare that with what an actual God could do. A God (or any man granted his power) could cure all sick people on the whole earth. Now imagine Jesus had done that – with just a thought – not just a few people he happened to bump into in one tiny corner of the world. In fact, an actual God (or any man granted his power) could simply eliminate all germs and parasites altogether, or render them all harmless to humans, or at least to children.

But no. Jesus and his God didn’t do anything godlike. Just as their knowledge was ignorantly human, so was their ability. In the time of Jesus, the top killers of millions of children and adults were malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Pay close attention to the Gospels. Never once does Jesus meet with a single person clearly afflicted with those ailments. And yet those are the most common ailments most commonly killing people around him at the time. Once, according to the Gospels, he cured a fever, and that’s it – just an ordinary fever. Yet hundreds of thousands were dying of those more serious illnesses all around him. Carefully avoiding them, Jesus never had to try to heal them. We know he couldn’t, as no other human faith healer can, either. Because faith-healing isn’t real. It’s psychosomatic. If it worked, we’d have faith-healing wings in all our hospitals.

Malaria – killer of millions of children even still today, shockingly, even after 2000 years of Christianity – malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant pools of water and can be warded off with chemicals and nets, or just killed. At the very least, Jesus could have mentioned that. “Hey, you know, you should do something about these stagnant pools of water over here. And there’s this thing called a mosquito net I want to tell you about.” But no. Jesus didn’t even know to do that, much less just eliminate the malaria parasite, like any actual God would do.

Typhoid and other lethal fevers are transmitted by a lack of public and personal sanitation – basic germ theory of disease. Jesus didn’t mention that either, or do anything about it.

A leading cause of tuberculosis in children is contaminated milk. Ever wonder why we pasteurize our milk? Now you know. Did Jesus tell us that? No. You’d think a really nice thing to do would be to tell everyone that the milk they’re drinking and the cheese they’re eating is killing them and their kids, and that simply heating the milk up a bit would solve the problem, saving millions of lives and ending ages of misery.

An actual God, or anyone in regular chat mode with him, would at least know to tell us how to fight these diseases – washing hands, sanitizing cooking utensils and medical instruments, mosquito nets and getting rid of standing water, heating milk before drinking it or making cheese from it, basic stuff like that. But Jesus didn’t even know that eating with unwashed hands is bad for you.

Knowledge is not the only thing a real God would have, that he could give us if he cared about us and existed. God would know the actual cure for every disease right now – every disease, cancer, everything. He could even just cure every disease right now.

Now imagine if he were an ordinary person. We weren’t talking about God, we’re just talking about a Joe. Some guy who knew how to cure every disease on Earth and could do it immediately at no expense to himself – yet didn’t tell anyone or do anything. Would you think that person cared about us? I wouldn’t. I mean, let’s take it seriously. Would you think it is reasonable to worship a guy like that? Or think anything kind of him? That’s not the example of a nice guy, not the sort of example of a guy you’d want to follow or have faith in.

The Christian religion is simply not believable in the face of this evidence. Neither Jesus nor Christianity as a whole has exhibited any special source of information about the world. Nothing distinctive of actual divine communication. They didn’t know about germs, they didn’t know about parasites. Christians have no more evidence of having a pipeline to a kind and all-knowing God than any other religion in history has. And that’s the principle point here. The fact that it took Christians 1800 years – do the math on that, 1800 years – to figure out that germs and parasites even existed, and it might be a good idea to kill them before they kill our kids, [reveals] that Christianity is a man-made religion, and not anything received from any real God.

If you were a time traveler and went back to the first century, what would be one of the first things you told them? Why, about germs and parasites, of course, and how to combat them. It would be absolutely cruel not to, to withhold that information, and watch over half of all children die miserably from preventable diseases, for thousands of years. Thus, if Jesus were really God’s emissary, he would have told us those things, as surely as any compassionate time traveler would. As surely as you would, had you the chance.

If you are more informed about the world, and more compassionate, than Jesus and his God, then the Christian faith is simply not reasonable. It’s just another false religion.

Carrier raises some good points here: Considering how localized and small-scale Jesus’s supposed miracles were, you have to wonder why the supreme cosmic ruler of all space and time would limit himself solely to the kind of miracles that any two-bit magician of the time could have easily faked (recall the miracle claims of Apollonius, Simon Magus, etc.) – as opposed to, say, instantly curing global epidemics with a snap of his fingers. If we don’t buy into the miracle claims of these other false prophets, why exactly are Jesus’s miracle claims more credible? It’s also worth recalling that part in Mark 6:1-6, describing how Jesus was unable to perform miracles for the people of his hometown, supposedly because they didn’t believe in him strongly enough. Like I said before, this is an embarrassingly revealing thing for the Bible to say, considering that so many phony mystics and mind-readers use the same excuse when their own miracles fail. But that’s the whole point here; if you take a skeptical eye toward the miracle claims of all those false prophets of ancient times – as well as their modern-day equivalents, the celebrity “psychics” and “mystics” who make a living scamming gullible people out of their money – you should be just as skeptical of the miracle claims made by the self-proclaimed prophets of Christianity. Carrier continues:

Let’s be honest here. You don’t really trust these kinds of things [when they come from anywhere other than your own religion]. If I gave you a book that claimed that Gandhi flew through the sky with the devil, battled demons, cured the blind with magical mud, stopped hurricanes with a single command, cast spells that made dinner materialize out of thin air, levitated at will, transmuted substances with a gesture, and survived a month without eating a single morsel, would you believe that book? No, you would not. And you wouldn’t make excuses for why you should believe it. You know it’s bunk, you don’t need to research it. And this would be the case especially when you asked me who wrote the book and I told you I wasn’t sure, I don’t really know. Even more especially when you asked where the mysterious author of this book learned of these things, and I told you, he never really says. It is simply not reasonable to believe books like this, and there is simply no way to honestly gainsay that fact. You would not trust such a book from any other religion. And yet the book I just described is the New Testament. The Gospels claim that Jesus did all these things that I just mentioned there. It even narrates them.

You wouldn’t believe such a book about Gandhi. Why would you believe such a book about Jesus?

The fact is, phony miracle-workers can claim “divine power” just as easily as they can claim any other false source of power. (They might do so even more readily, in fact, if they think it might give them more credibility among potential followers.) In light of this, we shouldn’t just uncritically take their word for it that their supposed “miracles” must be true. Just because somebody invokes a particular god to explain an outlandish miracle claim doesn’t make it more likely to have actually happened. Just because somebody claims to be able to perform miracles for divine reasons doesn’t make them any more credible than someone who claims to be able to perform miracles for non-divine reasons. And for that matter, just because a bunch of other people also believe in those miracle claims doesn’t mean that they all must be right. True, it might at first seem implausible that so many people who claim to have personally witnessed a miracle could all be confused or misled about what they’ve seen – but if you reject the miracle claims of other religions (like the Quran’s claim of Muhammad splitting the moon in half), then you’re acknowledging that such erroneous miracle claims, an improbable as they are, happen all the time. As Barker puts it:

It is a fact of history and of current events that human beings exaggerate, misinterpret or wrongly remember events. Humans have also fabricated pious fraud. Most believers in a religion understand this when examining the claims of other religions.

[…]

Protestants and Catholics seem to have no trouble applying healthy skepticism to the miracles of Islam, or to the “historical” visit between Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. Why should Christians treat their own outrageous claims any differently? Why should someone who was not there be any more eager to believe than doubting Thomas, who lived during that time, or the other disciples who said that the women’s news from the tomb “seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not?” (Luke 24:11)

Certain miracle claims might seem harder to dismiss if they’re attested to by large groups of supposed eyewitnesses. But as much of a stretch as it might feel like to reject such claims, it’s even more of a stretch to accept them, as Dawkins writes:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are [hard] to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too – and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, including acceleration forces sufficient to hurl everybody into space. David Hume’s pithy test for a miracle comes irresistibly to mind: ‘No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.’

It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can’t have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated.

That is really all that needs to be said about personal ‘experiences’ of gods or other religious phenomena. If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.

When considering miracle claims like this, the fundamental question is simple: What’s more likely – that the laws of physics and nature were momentarily suspended, or that someone just misunderstood what they saw (or were confused or misled or tricked)? In fact, it’s worth asking this question even if you witness an apparent miracle yourself, as Hitchens points out:

If you see something apparently involving suspension of the laws of nature – shall we say, the sun standing still so Joshua can win his battle, or the raising of Jairus’s daughter, or even my favorite miracle, the turning of the water into wine at Cana (attributed to the Hellenistic influence that still persisted in Palestine at that time) – you still have to ask yourself a question: Which is more probable, that the laws of physics or nature have been suspended (by the way in my favor), or that I’m under a misapprehension? Everyone has to ask themselves that question. That’s if they saw it themselves. If they take it as a report, filtered through dozens of other non-eyewitnesses and corrupt text down the years, then I would think anyone who says they think of the resurrection as a historic fact is advertising a willingness to believe in absolutely anything.

The reason why it’s so important to be skeptical is because, as it turns out, it’s actually shockingly easy to convince people that they’ve seen something they haven’t really seen. As Douglas Starr summarizes:

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan wrote in 1981, “There is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, ‘That’s the one!’”

But according to hundreds of studies over the past 30 years, there is almost nothing less reliable than what an eyewitness thinks he saw. Memory is not videotape. We may believe that we remember things precisely, but most of our memories are a combination of what we think we observed and information we have been exposed to since then.

[…]

Of the 297 cases that have been overturned by DNA evidence in the United States, more than 70 percent were based on eyewitness testimony. Those witnesses were not liars or jailhouse snitches but ordinary people utterly convinced that their memories were accurate. And this may be the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands of people are indicted every year because a witness has picked them out of a lineup. The implication: Across the legal system, a frightening number of people are being mistakenly arrested.

[…]

[Psychologist Gary Wells] and some colleagues [conducted a study on the reliability of eyewitness testimony] by staging a simulated crime. They put out the word that they were recruiting students for a big study. When a student arrived to be interviewed, a member of Wells’s group was sitting in the waiting room. At one point, Wells’s confederate would put down a calculator and go to the men’s room – those were the days when calculators cost several hundred dollars – and another team member would come in and walk off with it. The idea was to see how many of the students could later pick the thief from a six-person photographic lineup. The result, after 65 trials: Despite good lighting and the proximity of the suspect, nearly 70 percent of the participants identified the wrong person.

Wells’s finding built on earlier studies that demonstrated how startlingly unreliable memory can be. In the early years of the 20th century, the renowned Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg randomly staged crimes in his lecture hall and then asked students to remember the details. The responses were so varied and inaccurate that he realized that direct witnesses can have drastically different versions of the same event. That insight was reaffirmed by several psychologists who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably Robert Buckhout, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York. At one point, Buckhout persuaded a local television station to broadcast a simulated mugging and then ask viewers to pick the suspect from a lineup. Of the 2,145 viewers who called in, only 14.1 percent picked the correct man. Buckhout highlighted the experiment in an article he playfully titled “Nearly 2,000 Witnesses Can Be Wrong.”

More recently Elizabeth Loftus at the University of California, Irvine, demonstrated that memory is not only fallible, it is changeable. She showed that changes in the way people are questioned – even when the change amounts to a single word – can alter what they think they’ve seen. In a now-classic series of experiments, Loftus showed volunteers a video of a car crash and asked them to estimate the impact speed. The answers depended on whether she said one car “hit” or “smashed” the other. As her experiments grew in complexity, she found she could induce people to “remember” entire episodes from childhood (such as being lost in a shopping mall and rescued by a kindly old man in a flannel shirt) simply by dropping subtle verbal cues. Eventually she became embroiled in the notorious recovered memory controversy of the 1990s, in which adults thought they had discovered repressed memories of sexual abuse during childhood. Loftus testified that therapists sometimes created those memories by unwittingly dropping cues.

In situations like these, people will often swear with utter certainty that they saw things a certain way, even though they’re completely wrong in that belief. In other cases, they might be less certain, but they’ll be so strongly motivated to make a particular claim about what they saw that they’ll exaggerate their certainty and convince themselves that they saw something even though they didn’t. Other times, of course, they’ll be motivated to embellish – or even outright lie – for personal or ideological reasons, despite knowing perfectly well that they never saw what they claim to have seen.

And this is important – because when it comes to religiously-based miracle claims, those motivations are arguably stronger than in any other context. People want to believe that miracles are real, and they want to convince others that they’re real too. So the real surprise wouldn’t be if people were constantly making false miracle claims; the real surprise would be if they weren’t. Again, we have to ask ourselves that central question, this time articulated by Paine:

Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.

Reports of miracles aren’t always (or even usually) outright lies, of course. My impression is that most of the time, they’re more the product of wishful thinking combined with subconscious self-deception. Either way though, the biggest factor driving them seems to simply be believers’ intense desire that they be true. Potholer54 provides a perfect illustration of how, because of this desire, even normal events can become more and more exaggerated with each retelling until they become bona fide miracle stories:

You might think it’s relatively rare for people to exaggerate what they see for ideological reasons. You might also think it’s rare for wishful thinking to cause people to misunderstand what they see. I personally don’t think that such things are very rare at all – but the point here is that however unlikely you might think these things to be, it’s even more unlikely that an actual miracle occurred. In fact, as Ehrman writes: “Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. [So] miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanations for what happened.”

Cdk007 elaborates on this point:

The general definition of a miracle is an event that requires supernatural intervention to have occurred. By this definition, miracles are proof of God. Let’s be clear, the Virgin Mary appearing on toast is not a miracle, cancer going into remission is not a miracle, and a sports team winning against all odds is not a miracle, as all of these have natural explanations and occur quite often. A miracle, by definition, is the explanation with the lowest possible probability, simply because it defies the laws of nature. Well, this sets up a huge problem. If a man on the street, or a book in your local house of worship, claims that a miracle happened in the past, should you believe it? Let’s disregard all the possibilities that the person or book is being intentionally dishonest for political, monetary, or personal reasons, and assume that they are entirely genuine, well-intentioned, and honestly believe what they are saying is true. The answer is still no. Because miracles are so unlikely to actually occur, the probability of a natural explanation, the person or book being in error – either being mistaken in what they saw, simply having been tricked, or having suffered a vivid hallucination – is always higher. When you apply logic and reason, one quickly realizes that all claims of miracles must be rejected. Even if you believe you experienced a miracle personally, it is more likely you didn’t and are mistaken. Now, I’m not claiming miracles don’t happen. And I’m not claiming God doesn’t exist. But what I am claiming is that logically, miracles should never be believed.

The truth is, sometimes exceptionally improbable events simply happen on their own. There’s nothing miraculous about them; it’s just a matter of probability that if you spin a roulette wheel a million times, every once in a while the ball will land on 00 – and likewise, if you diagnose a million people with cancer every year, every once in a while some of them will go into remission. Some people might claim to have experienced even more miraculous events than these – and in some cases, they may even be right that those events really did happen to them – but there’s nothing surprising about that; even the most wildly implausible events can happen if you’re considering the totality of human experiences. In fact, as a matter of statistical probability, such events must happen every now and then. But as Dawkins demonstrates, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything supernatural going on:

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