Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 1

“Over the years, I came to reject the possibility of the supernatural and even God himself, living as an atheist for a long period of time. But sixteen years after that dream, the angel’s prophecy came true.” – Lee Strobel


To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

I was around seventeen years of age, sitting in a barber’s chair, getting my haircut when I first heard the name “Lee Strobel.” My barber, a wiry old Italian, was one of the kindest men I’d ever known. My father had taken my brother and I there once a month to get our hair cut since we were very young and so Sam knew us by name. He would chat with my dad about cars while Nate and I would wait our turn in the chair. Once Sam had finished with us, he’d open up his candy drawer and we’d pick out a couple of pieces. I usually went for the Bazooka Joe bubblegum since I liked the comic strip inside of it so much. (The gum wasn’t bad either!)

As I got older, my desire to get into the candy drawer diminished and eventually my haircuts were less about the cut and more about the conversation with Sam. Sam was a devout Christian, belonging to the local Christian Missionary Alliance church in town. He knew my dad was a committed Christian and that I too had a deep love for God and the Bible. One Saturday Sam asked me if I had ever read the book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. I hadn’t. He said it had strengthened his faith in Jesus as it gave a variety of evidences to support the biblical claims about him. I was an avid reader even then and decided to find the book and read it.

So I read The Case for Christ and then around 2001 I read The Case for Faith and then a few years later I read The Case for a Creator. I wasn’t particularly fond of Strobel’s writing style since it felt too informal but I did appreciate the content. I have read The Case for Christ at least three times in the last eighteen years and it still holds a special place in my heart.

INTERVIEW #1 – MICHAEL SHERMER

Though in the years since The Case for a Creator was first published Strobel has written voluminously in the Case For series, it was his latest book on miracles that caught my eye. It follows the basic format of all his books which include interviews with “experts” on a given subject as well as personal anecdotes to illustrate the issues at hand. The first interview in The Case for Miracles is with notorious skeptic Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and a prolific author. Strobel’s interview of Shermer runs three chapters.

I am not a big fan of Shermer though I do enjoy his short column in Scientific American. He is a very intelligent man but he is not exactly a polished orator or writer. Nevertheless, I can see why Strobel would want to interview Shermer on the topic of miracles. Shermer once wrote,

In my opinion, most believers in miracles, monster, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way. [1] 

That last sentence is a shot across the bow of supernaturalism and as such represents an affront to Christian beliefs regarding miraculous claims, both in the distant past as well as the present.

Jesus Freak

Strobel’s conversation with Shermer began with a discussion of the skeptic’s former life as a devout Christian. “I became a Jesus freak,” he told Strobel (40). Following his graduation from high school, Shermer attended Pepperdine University in the hopes to become a professor of religious studies. “To be a professor, I needed a PhD. And to get that, I’d have to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. Well, I could barely get through Spanish class” (41). So he switched his major to psychology but continued on his Christian journey, not losing his faith until after finishing his undergraduate degree. The clincher for Shermer was the experience of seeing his college sweetheart lose her ability to walk following a tragic accident. “It was very upsetting,” he said. “Why would this happen to such a wonderful woman?” (44) Deep down he knew that sometimes bad stuff just happens. For Shermer, it was just the second law of thermodynamics at work (45).

But lest anyone claim Shermer rejects theism and the miraculous on purely emotional reasons, he makes it clear that his reasons for being a skeptic and an agnostic has to do with the failure of theism to provide sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God.

The burden of proof should be on the claimant. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve a drug just because you say it works. The burden of proof isn’t on them; you have to prove your drug works. And it should be like that with all claims. (48)

Anyone who has spent any time in discussions with theists knows they often don’t understand burden of proof. I have seen on more than one occasion someone say, “Well, prove there isn’t a God!” to which the reply tends to be, “That isn’t how burden of proof works.” But it should be noted that atheists sometimes don’t get burden of proof either. If a theist provides an atheist with an evidence-based argument for their position, no amount of sweeping under the rug will make it go away. And just because you don’t find the argument convincing doesn’t mean that the argument isn’t true. We have to do the hard work of dismantling such arguments.

Intercessory Prayer

What follows in the interview is a discussion of specific miraculous claims revolving around prayer. Shermer rightly points out that often claims or the miraculous “are just highly improbable events” and that even if the odds are a million to one that an event should occur “it would occur pretty often” (50). Two excellent books (which I need to reread) come to mind here: David J. Hand’s The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day and John Allen Paulos’ classic Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. Hand wrote that “progress in science leads to natural explanations for many things that were previously taken to be miracles.” [2] In other words, miracles are highly improbable events by their very nature but to say they belong to the realm of the supernatural

is in fact a useless explanation; it’s just too powerful, since it can explain everything. No event, no matter how bizarre, would fail to fall under its spell. Whatever happened, we would just say: “The gods made it so.” [3] 

An obvious objection comes to mind: isn’t naturalism an equally useless explanation since it too would explain everything? This is a tension that needs to be worked out.

As Shermer points out to Strobel, sometimes cancers do spontaneously go into remission but the harder miracles – like curing someone of AIDS or restoring the limb of an amputee – simply doesn’t happen no matter how hard someone prays. “Why can’t God do that?” he asks Strobel (51). Anecdotes – the kind you hear from the religious about little Johnny getting over a cold or some other such “miracle” – are less than useless for establishing the truth of something like a miracle. “So, you’d want something unambiguous, out in the open – clear and obvious,” Strobel told Shermer (51). If prayer could affect things like growing back limbs then Shermer said that such events would grab his attention.

Shermer brings up a study on prayer that took place over a decade ago called The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer[4] In it researchers took patients from six hospitals and randomly assigned them to three different groups. 604 were informed that they may or may not be prayed over but were while 597 were told they may or may not be prayed over but weren’t. Another 601 were told they would receive prayer and did. The prayers began the night before cardiac surgery was performed on each patient and continued for two weeks. The results were interesting.

In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups. [5]

This led the researchers to conclude that intercessory prayer “had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.” [6] 

After discussing STEP, Shermer notes that “this is the best prayer study we have. So when you get beyond anecdotes and use the scientific method, there’s no evidence for the miraculous” (51). Strobel pushed back, “Nevertheless, these kinds of prayer studies have intrinsic problems. For example, you can’t control people praying for themselves or having a family and friends who were praying for them” (52). Strobel is right but misses the point. Are we to think that someone was praying against successful surgery and recovery? Or that God would grant the request of such prayers? Wouldn’t a “control” be the fact that most people don’t pray that they’ll die? Later in his interview with Candy Gunther Brown we are told that the prayer study was showing poor results because the group prayer for the patients was a New Age “cult!”

Hume and the Power of Suggestion

Shermer reveals himself to be a fan of Hume and his take down of miracles, something Strobel takes note of and deals with in his interview with Douglas Groothuis. But Shermer wrote on Hume,

Hume distinguished between “antecedent skepticism,” such as Rene Descartes’ method of doubting everything that has no “antecedent” infallible criterion for belief; and “consequent skepticism,” the method Hume employed, which recognizes the “consequences” of our fallible senses but corrects them through reason: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Better words could not be found for a skeptical motto. [7] 

In his interview with Strobel, Shermer frames it this way.

Which is more likely, that the laws of nature be suspended or that the person telling you the story is mistaken or has been deceived? Misperceptions are common. People make things up. We have a lot of experience with this. It could be an illusion, a hallucination, a mistake – whatever. All of that is more likely than a miracle. (54)

I find this compelling, especially given how fallible the human mind can be. I have memories of events from when I was younger that simply didn’t happen. I have had that creepy feeling someone is standing right behind me when there was no one there.

Take a group of people through an old theatre in London and say, “This place is haunted.” Take another group and say, “We’re renovating the theatre; tell us how you feel about the look of the place.” Even if the two groups hear the same noises or see the same shadows, they’ll interpret it differently based on what they expect. (54)

As someone who has been on a dozen or so “ghost walks” in various towns and cities, I can attest to the fact that the power of suggestion is mighty indeed! I’ve seen my share of shadowy apparitions lurking in windows in creepy old buildings in places like Jefferson, Texas or even Ottawa, Canada. Was anything really there? I doubt it.

“In the beginning…”

The next part of Strobel’s interview with Shermer covers Jesus and the creation story of Genesis. Strobel asks Shermer, “How do you evaluate the credibility of the New Testament accounts of his miracles?” For Shermer it’s simple: “I think this, in part, is a reporting problem.” (57)

People say five hundred witnesses saw the resurrected Jesus, but do we have five hundred sources? No, we have one source that says five hundred people saw him. That’s different than five hundred independent sources. How reliable is that one source that gets passed down and passed down – you know, like the telephone game. Decades after the fact, it’s written down by proselytizers who have a motive. (57-58)

Shermer isn’t wrong but it may help to add some nuance. The “five hundred witnesses” comes from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians where he writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NRSV)

Generally speaking, scholars recognize 15:3-5 as a tradition in the early Christian movement that predates Paul. [8] 15:6-8 appear to be Paul’s own additions to the tradition based on his own experiences and perhaps conversations with people acquainted with Jesus. Among them are “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” to whom Jesus appeared all at once. This interesting details has no corroboration in anything else Paul wrote or even in the Gospels themselves. This raises the question as to why neither Mark, our earliest Gospel, nor John, our latest Gospel, ever mention it. All of them come after Paul and surely would have known about this Pauline tradition, right?

It is easy to speculate when there is so little evidence and that is the point. Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people is just that: a claim. And to Shermer’s point, we don’t have five hundred sources but one source. This makes it all quite problematic.

Shermer isn’t convinced by creationist accountings for the origin of the universe either. Strobel appeals to Genesis 1:1 and the cosmological argument, claiming that whatever is behind the origin of the universe “must be powerful, smart, immaterial, timeless or eternal, and so on.” Shermer’s retort is to the point: “You can’t determine anything about who that God would be.” (62) That doesn’t stop apologists from trying though! Shermer’s agnostic attitude shines through as he admits that we simply don’t know what there was before the Big Bang. It is guesswork.

Strobel also brings up the fine-tuning argument, a “good argument” in Shermer’s opinion though he does offer some objections. “What if there are multiple universes?” he asks (63). The multiverse would help solve the fine-tuning argument but there isn’t any direct evidence that it even exists. Strobel points out that the multiverse kind of sounds like a “Science-of-the-gaps” argument. I tend to agree. And the more I think about the fine-tuning argument, the more I think that it is a problem for atheism. Physicist Sean Carroll refers to it as “the best argument we have for God’s existence.” [9] Yet fine-tuning is not the sort of thing that keeps me up at night wondering if I should go back to theism. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if there are scientific possibilities that explain fine-tuning, it would be better to wait before going all in on theism, especially when there are plenty of other problems with belief in God. Fine-tuning simply isn’t enough.

Music from Beyond

The final part of Strobel’s interview covers something that Shermer wrote about in his column for Scientific American. You can read the piece here. In short, Shermer’s wife had received a transistor radio through which she and her late grandfather would listen to music while spending time together. On their wedding day, Shermer’s wife was experiencing some lament that her grandfather was not there to share in their joy. He had tried to fix the radio but to no avail. Then, following the wedding, Shermer and his wife began hearing music coming from a back bedroom in their home. They walked in, pulled open a drawer where the radio had been stashed, and discovered that it was somehow playing music. Shermer’s wife felt as if her grandfather was there with them on their very special day. “Did this incident crack open a door for you?” Strobel asked Shermer.

“A little, yeah. Maybe a bit,” he replied (68). There are certainly natural explanations for such an event but Shermer didn’t bother to find out what it could be. “I savored the experience more than the explanation. What’s important is the emotional meaning it had for Jennifer” (68-69).

Sometimes that is the point. We may not have explanations for everything but that is okay. Sometimes it is what it means to us that is most important. But this isn’t an invitation necessarily to accept the miraculous. Rather, it is warrant to internalize and take stock of how events affect us and what we can do to make them count. “In our scientific world,” Shermer says, “we think we need an excellent answer for everything. Of course, that’s fine, but some things you can never explain – and that’s okay” (69).

I agree.

ENDNOTES

[1] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 45.

[2] David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York, NY: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), 27.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] H. Benson, et. al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trail of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer,” American Heart Journal (April 2006), 151(4): 934-42.

[5] “Results,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567. Accessed 24 April 2018.

[6] “Conclusions,” Ibid. Accessed 24 April 2018.

[7] Shermer, 45.

[8] For more, see Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 137-143. See also Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 33-109.

[9] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York, NY: Dutton, 2016), 303. Following that statement, Carroll writes,

It’s still not a very good argument. It relies heavily on what statisticians call “old evidence” – we didn’t first formulate predictions of theism and naturalism and then go out and test them; we knew from the start that life exists. There is a selection effect: we can be having this conversation only in possible worlds where we exist, so our existence doesn’t really tell us anything new.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 1

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  1. Here is my review of that steaming pile of apologetics about which you tweeted. Yup, RYAN LEASURE does have a very different viewpoint from yourself and I do not mean that in a kind way about Pastor Leasure.

    Note for readers this response does not refer to Amateur Exegete’s review of Strobel’s book but to that of of Pastor Ryan Leasure of Grace Baptist Church Moore SC – http://jesusisnotfakenews.com/the-case-for-miracles-book-review/#comment-21

    This entire review stinks because you have not actually applied any critical thinking to this subject. From the charge of circular logic against Hume to your final recommendation there is nothing in your post that would have me read Strobel’s confection

    Let me begin with the “miraculous” healings none of which are.

    Deaf healed –
    You need to know the CAUSE of the “untreatable bilateral sensorineural deafness” those words are merely descriptive, untreatable meaning only “Has not responded to the treatments we were able to provide,” and “inexplicable” means only that no explanation can currently be provided. There are natural explanations, for example for most children neurological development continues well until about age 20 so the brain working round a simple neurological problem is entirely possible. Even in adults repurposing of other circuits to overcome deficiencies is well known

    Lame walk –
    Sorry but extreme cases of remission and reversal of course of MS have been documented for years in people of many faiths and none, it always returns after a few years. Then there is the use of “x-rays” to diagnose the remission. sorry that doesn’t happen. Frankly a very dubious story

    Dead resurrected –
    A nonsense, firstly you do not turn “black” from lack of oxygen.

    Secondly flat lining, what of? During extreme resuscitation procedures you do not have the patient linked up to an eeg, the shocks from the defibrillator would blow it up. Therefore the flat line had to be of an ECG and extended heart stoppage with recovery is well known and documented, the patient is kept alive by ventilation and compressions forcing blood to the brain.

    This whole story stinks

    The broken ankle and repaired intestines stories. I had a broken ankle confirmed by 2 separate x-rays (normal, procedure because of the complexity of the ankle joint) But later examination by a consultant radiologist showed that the original diagnosis was faulty and an artefact of the original injury being captured on the radiograph by chance. Regrown intestines? Pull the other one as the druid said, you do not measure intestines before and after an injury.

    Moving on to the Cosmological argument. This has long been refuted because it is just a restatement of the Aristotelean fallacy of the Primum Mobile. Sorry but stuff is constantly coming from nothing, both matter and energy, check the Casimir experiment

    The Teleological argument is nothing more than what Douglas Adams memorably described as the Puddle Fallacy. We find ourselves in a universe that is marginally well suited for life, that does not mean that there could not be other universes as well or better suited to life

    The Passion narrative element opens with a lie Many people disagree about the Passion beginning with St Paul and the writers of the Gospels. Today the fast majority of those who study the Bible admit that the Jesus of the Gospels did not exist although the majority of those will claim there was a minor figure who, in Albert Schweitzers memorable description, was “a failed apocalyptic prophet” Every element of the Passion shows it to be invention. The burial may be in accordance with JEWISH law but the Trial was not, the punishment was not and Romans had those who were crucified thrown into the charnel pit.

    Your conclusion begins with making the false claim that miracles have occurred citing those of Moses. Sorry but again the consensus – even among Jewish scholars – is that Moses did not exist. Your continuation regarding miracles still happen is, by citing Keener, false

    Therefore your conclusion is false

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post. As an atheist, the miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues….etc trip me up a little. It’s hard for me to ever tell if I should be taking people’s experiences very seriously, or if they’re BSing me. I’ve never had any experiences, but plenty of people in my family and my husband’s family claim premonitions, God speaking to them, miraculous healings, tongues and so on. I even know of a youth pastor friend that recently claimed to witness a woman’s leg growing by 3 inches as they prayed (one was shorter than the other).
    I don’t want to believe my friends and family are liars, but I also don’t believe in a God who is that random and aloof. Why would he grow a woman’s leg, but not satiate a starving child or miraculously intervene in abuse? Healthy children would make a much better future overall. Why would he talk to my family and friends, but not me even though I’ve begged him? It’s a hard topic.

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    1. As someone who, while a Christian, had spiritual experiences, I can attest to the fact that it is very likely that your believing friends are sincere when they tell you about miracles, etc. But, as you know, the sincerity with which one holds a belief is not an indication of whether that belief is true. For me, my spiritual experiences came at times of emotional turmoil and were accompanied by stressful events. No doubt I had physiological responses that I interpreted to be spiritual given my worldview at that time.

      So, believe your friends – they probably aren’t lying since lying implies they *know* the experiences to be false. But do doubt their experiences.

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      1. Oh, I have had spiritual experiences. I’ve thought I felt the presence of God, or saw signs, or felt comforted….etc. I’ve just never heard a voice, or seen the future, or began speaking another language, or seen the laws of nature suspended.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, yes. And sometimes it depends on what tradition of Christianity you are in. I spent years as a Independent Baptist and so speaking in tongues, visions, etc. were a no-no. So you don’t experience them because your worldview is that they cannot happen.

        Years ago I went to a charismatic church service and they had a man doing healing there. And he would knock people on the floor and cover them with a blanket. And I almost started cracking up because I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Looking back, those people probably really did believe they were being healed. And I think it is possible that the minister who was “healing” thought so too. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t bend to our beliefs.

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      3. Yes! Maybe it’s because I grew up Fundie Baptist. My husband grew up Pentecostal. He believes in all of that. I did for a while too, and tried to experience it but I could never really connect to it. I shared your experience of having to resist laughter.

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  3. I really enjoy your podcast and blog. I especially enjoyed your series about how you grew up. It was fascinating I hope you continue it. I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago in a Catholic home. Although we were not very strict Catholics.

    I love philosophical topics as well. So I have quite a bit to say and ask.

    Shermer and some other anti-christians wrote as a guest on Bart Ehrman’s blog.

    https://ehrmanblog.org/more-on-the-case-against-miracles-michael-shermer-guest-post/comment-page-2/?highlight=shermer#comments

    “The burden of proof should be on the claimant.”

    I think you are quoting Shermer there. It is far from clear how any philosophical burden of proof should work. I am a lawyer and do understand how burdens of proof work in that field. But I do not think notions of the burden of proof have any place in philosophical discourse.

    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/26/the-burden-of-proof-versus-the-flying-spaghetti-monster-part-22/

    “And just because you don’t find the argument convincing doesn’t mean that the argument isn’t true. We have to do the hard work of dismantling such arguments.”

    I agree with that. The problem with the various posts on Ehrman’s board that were supposedly against the historicity of miracles was that they did not form a coherent argument. That is they never offered any premises let alone explained how they would lead to a conclusion.

    Shermer:
    “Which is more likely, that the laws of nature be suspended or that the person telling you the story is mistaken or has been deceived? Misperceptions are common. People make things up. We have a lot of experience with this. It could be an illusion, a hallucination, a mistake – whatever. All of that is more likely than a miracle. (54)”

    You:
    “I find this compelling, especially given how fallible the human mind can be. ”

    Ok so first of all how much more likely that is depends on how likely you think it is that the laws of nature might be broken by God. So sure if you think God or anything supernatural does not exist you will automatically put the likelihood of a supernatural event as being low. I don’t think you played cards with Ebeneezer Scrooge last night because I think Ebeneezer Scrooge is a fictional character. Until I am can believe in Ebeneezer Scrooge is real I am not going to believe you played cards with him. It is the same with miracles and God. When we weigh whether a miracle happened or if someone was mistaken etc the underlying belief in God is going to be extremely important.

    If you say well I will grant that God exists then why wouldn’t you think he might act in the world?

    The second issue is it could be “more likely” in each individual case. But just because no miracle is “more likely” true than miracle that does not mean miracle has zero probability in each case. So when you add up all the different times a miracle could have happened you may come to see that it is very very probable that a miracle had happened at least once.

    Consider this. I have all sorts of beliefs about all sorts of things. Some of them are almost certainly false. But if you ask me to identify a belief that I hold yet I also believe is false – well I may not be able to do that. 🙂 So unless he is really puting the prior probability of a miracle really low then all the huge numbers of testimonies of a miracle happening might be greater than .5.

    “Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if there are scientific possibilities that explain fine-tuning, it would be better to wait before going all in on theism, especially when there are plenty of other problems with belief in God. Fine-tuning simply isn’t enough.”

    I am sort of the same on fine tuning. Yes it seems some evidence but I am not really sure how much weight it should have. On a somewhat more basic level. I tend to think that my coming into being with all the thoughts and ideas I have not to mention all the other peoples existence is not the sort of thing I expect to just come about from matter and energy randomly bouncing around. I’m not just talking about evolution but the whole deal. If someone were to say “sure it is the sort of thing we should expect happens from matter and energy randomly bouncing around” – I would ask how many times do they think it happened?

    But that is not what I wondered about I wondered what the problems with belief in God are. I think the heaviest evidence against the Christian God is mainly aspects of evil and hideness. Perhaps Mark 13:30?

    I also wonder what you think we should do while we are waiting for more evidence? We can’t pause life. You say we shouldn’t “go all in on theism”. But should we go a little bit in or should we go all in on naturalism? So if Science doesn’t explain fine tuning by this Sunday, do I go to church or not? 🙂 Should I go but not take my kids? Should we treat human life as sacred? Should we teach children there are real morals (like it really is wrong to lie) and God gave us certain rights? Or should we teach something else while we wait?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! Let me just briefly respond to some of your thoughts here.

      First, regarding burden of proof, while I don’t think that it shouldn’t have any place in philosophical discussions, I would argue that it is a thorny and complicated issue. Assertions made are assertions that need defense. This applies equally to theists and atheists. And I think that all philosophical discourse on some level presupposes burden of proof on claimants.

      Second, regarding my assent to Shermer’s view that the miraculous is more likely attributable to some error of human cognition, I still think this is true. And it’s related to another issue you bring up: the miracle claims of those with mutually exclusive viewpoints. I’m sure you don’t believe that Mohammed split the moon in two. Yet this belief is held by many Muslims and purportedly based on eyewitness testimony. I reject it because eyewitness testimony is not only routinely unreliable but also because we have no objective evidence that such an occurrence has ever happened. This also reveals the problem with believing in miracle claims of the past. We don’t just read about miracles in biblical texts but other ancient literature whether it’s Greco-Roman, Assyrian, Babylonian, etc. But what historical methodology can we assess these accounts?

      Third, regarding the probability of a miracle, I’m not sure I follow your argument. It may have to do with how you define “miracle.”

      Fourth, regarding what we should do while waiting for more evidence, I should have worded my position better. While you may have found sufficient ground to believe in God and therefore worship him in your tradition, I haven’t and so I can’t go all in on theism. I think that’s a better way to put it and far more defensible. As for the “sacredness” of human life, etc., those seem to be to me little more than red herrings. For example, I don’t need God as a basis to teach my children lying is not good. I can appeal to the value of trust and how lying undermines trust, etc. The moral argument for God’s existence has no appeal to me and honestly really never has.

      Again, thanks for commenting! Philosophy of religion is *not* my area at all and is why I don’t write about it very often. I need to do it more; it’s good exercise!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let me start with the last thing you said:

        “Again, thanks for commenting! Philosophy of religion is *not* my area at all and is why I don’t write about it very often. I need to do it more; it’s good exercise!”

        I may be somewhere in between as far as education in philosophy. I did major as an undergrad in philosophy (and political science double major) but I am not a professional philosopher. I do think professional philosophers will have been exposed to many concepts I am not familiar with. And I have great respect for professional philosophers.

        But in the areas that appeal to me I have continued to study long after my formal education and I think I may be more familiar with those areas than some professional philosophers who do not focus on those particular areas. That said in my experience philosophical concepts often play a role in many areas.

        I think we are all somewhat philosophers of religion – to the extent we live our life with or without certain religion and do so based on reasons. Also I can tell you are philosophically inclined based on your analysis of the bible and the fact that you changed your views based on reasoning in the past.

        That is you see logical connections between the concepts discussed and can analyze whether they are coherent etc. Philosophy can be upsetting, but for me the enjoyment has always outweighed the cons. There are very few things I enjoy more than discussing philosophy.

        Now lets look at where I view things differently.

        “First, regarding burden of proof, while I don’t think that it shouldn’t have any place in philosophical discussions, I would argue that it is a thorny and complicated issue. Assertions made are assertions that need defense. This applies equally to theists and atheists. And I think that all philosophical discourse on some level presupposes burden of proof on claimants.”

        That is a common response. But the problem I have is that it is impossible to know what that actually means without at least explaining two things:
        1) Who do I need to prove the the case to?
        2) What happens if I don’t?
        (3) (It would also be nice to know what standard of proof needs to be met? Such as do I need to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, or by a preponderance of evidence or just probable cause etc. But even if I set that third aside the first two would seem the bare minimum.)

        Imagine you enter into a contract to buy a car. You pay the money and they don’t give you the car. So you write to the mayor, and he says “you have the burden of proof that you are entitled to your money back or the car.” But there is no legal system telling you where you go to prove your case or who you need to prove it to! There is also no legal system that says if you prove your case you will get a judgment for money damages and you can enforce that judgment against the person in certain ways. Instead you are just told you have “the burden of proof.” What would you make of that?

        That is the state of the philosophical “burden of proof.” No one says *who* you need to prove it to or *what happens* if you succeed or fail. They just make vacuous assertions about who has “the burden of proof.” Amazingly, many people just nod along and say “yep ok.”

        On Miracles of mutually exclusive faiths like Christianity versus Mohamed splitting the moon you say:

        “I reject it because eyewitness testimony is not only routinely unreliable but also because we have no objective evidence that such an occurrence has ever happened. This also reveals the problem with believing in miracle claims of the past. We don’t just read about miracles in biblical texts but other ancient literature whether it’s Greco-Roman, Assyrian, Babylonian, etc. But what historical methodology can we assess these accounts?”

        Ok so I have a few things. But first let me give the general outline of how I look at this. We should use the same exact historical criteria and analysis as to whether Mohamed split the moon as we do for other historical claims. By historical analysis I mean consider the historical critera historians use. Eg., is the claim multiply attested, is it against interest, are the accounts early etc. Now lets say *for the sake of argument* we feel this evidence is pretty strong and if we had the same evidence that Mohamed did some non-miraculous thing we would believe it happened.

        Does that mean we must believe Mohamed split the moon just because the historical analysis suggests he did? NO. You may have very strong philosophical views against anything supernatural happening (or that God doesn’t exist which would also seem to exclude the possibility of a miracle) which will mean that despite the historical evidence you still do not believe he did that. those philosophical beliefs might be very well grounded and reasonable.

        My religious philosophical views allow that super natural events can happen and even have happened. But having them happen as a sign that God favors Mohamed would contradict my understanding of God and how and why God performs miracles.

        In other words neither of us should say there is no historical evidence that Mohamed split the moon. That would be false because we do have historical evidence. Rather we say yes there is historical evidence but we have other concerns that have nothing to do with historical criteria or analysis that lead us to think he did not split the moon.

        That way we can be clear what is really causing our conclusion and understand that the dispute may have nothing to do with historical analysis/criteria at all. That would then allow us to examine the real reason we don’t think he split the moon.

        Eyewitness testimony/hearsay is what we base almost everything we believe in – especially history.
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/05/21/we-know-much-more-from-hearsay-then-from-modern-science/

        Yes eyewitness testimony can be inaccurate in surprising ways. You may be surprised to find some of what you wrote about your earlier life that you thought you saw for yourself was reconstructed memory. But by and large you probably got most of the gist correct.

        But in any case, the problem with saying eyewitness testimony can be mistaken is a knock against all historical claims not just miracle claims. I tend to think people might mis-remember why some other person went on a trip to Bethlehem 30 years ago but it would be unlikely that they mis-remembered someone rising from the dead or seeing a lame person suddenly walk.

        You say we have no “objective evidence” such an occurrence has ever happened. I would say “objective evidence” is evidence others can see for themselves. So your own pain that you directly feel in your arm would not be “objective evidence” that your arm has pain. But if you tell it to the doctor and he writes it in a record then the record is objective. That is other doctors will look at that record and try determine what condition you may have. It is certainly true that the evidence is not “better” because it appears in a record. Because the best evidence that you have pain is your subjective experience of pain in your arm and at best the record will try to reflect that subjective evidence.

        But to the extent historians are basing their conclusions on writings that everyone has access to they are basing their conclusions on objective evidence. So to the extent that there are lots of records that are publicly available showing that miracles have appeared there is objective evidence. Just like there is objective evidence that Jesus had some sort of some sort of water ceremony performed on him and had some connection to Nazareth.

        I have yet to see a better understanding of objective evidence. Most of the other definitions just tend boil down to “objective evidence” is “better evidence.” But if that is all it means the distinction between objective and subjective evidence is useless.

        If you say miracles have to happen in a predictable way then you are no longer talking about the free action of a person (God in the case of a miracle) but a natural law. But history does not require that if someone did something everyone must take that same action predictably.

        So I think I answered your last question in that quote. We should use the exact same historical criteria and methodology we use for miracle claims that we use for other historical claims. Do that in an honest way and then if we have religious or philosophical reasons for rejecting them despite the criteria then lets be honest and say that. But let’s not say we can’t see if it is multiply attested, early in time to the occurrence, against interest etc. Clearly we can. And if Mohamed splitting the moon meets historical muster we should say so even if we think it is reasonable to ultimately not believe that happened for philosophical or religious reasons.

        As far as definitions of miracles I think you may be right. I think there are many concepts that can get confused and I intend on posting a blog where I try to sort that out a bit.

        “As for the “sacredness” of human life, etc., those seem to be to me little more than red herrings. For example, I don’t need God as a basis to teach my children lying is not good. I can appeal to the value of trust and how lying undermines trust, etc. The moral argument for God’s existence has no appeal to me and honestly really never has.”

        I find the moral argument the most compelling reason to believe in God. But understanding the meta-ethics involved with making the argument is very thorny and I know reasonable people can disagree. I would just make a few points. There is a general division in meta-ethics between moral realism and various forms of moral anti-realism. Moral realism is the view that when I say “it was morally wrong for Stalin to starve millions of Ukrainians.” I am saying something that is true regardless of your beliefs about it, my beliefs about it or anyone’s beliefs about it. The wrongness is not based on my view or anyone’s view of how we value Ukrainians. Even if for whatever reason we didn’t value ukrainians enough to care they were killed it would still be wrong to kill them. That is they have value that we should recognize regardless of whether we recognize that value. Their value is an objective fact like the fact that the earth orbits the sun.

        The other view is moral anti-realism. And there are various ways to understand moral anti-realism (non-cognitivism, relativism, error theory/nihillism)
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/20/what-do-you-mean-im-wrong/

        But I think an atheist philosopher who also is the founder and editor of the Oxford Studies in Metaethics pointed out the common theme in all anti-realist views:

        “Nihilists believe that there are no moral truths. Subjectivists believe that moral truth is created by each individual. Relativists believe that moral truth is a social construct. These three theories share the view that, in ethics, we make it all up. ” Page 11 Whatever Happened to Good and Evil.

        Now he is a moral realist and atheist. But as you start to learn more about meta-ethics you will find that by an large the Christians tend to be much more likely to be realist. And almost all the anti-realists are atheists – in the west at least (I can’t speak tot he views of eastern philosophers). There is good reason for that. There are many reasons atheists find it difficult to hold on to moral realism. They they tend to adopt an anti-realist view that is they tend to take a view where they are making it all up.

        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/03/24/a-life-of-make-believe/

        Sorry for such a long comment but I hope you enjoy at least some of them even if you disagree with all of them. And I am interested in any thoughts you may have on these topics.

        Liked by 1 person

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