"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finishing with Miracles

The exam board requires us to know the theories of the Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). This always strikes me as odd because he was a man of his age and his theories, which may well have had some resonance in his own time, are not good arguments today. My youngsters must know both arguments and counter arguments.

* There is never enough evidence: Hume followed the line of argument that said that as the laws of nature had been observed for hundreds of years there is not sufficient evidence that they had been suspended. Therefore it would always be more likely that miracles do not happen.

The problem with this argument is that Hume concentrates on the definition which requires that a law of nature be suspended. The text book refutation is a bit weak to my way of thinking and takes the idea of man flying as an example. "Based on Hume's argument, the existence of human flight can not be accepted because until 1903 no one had ever seen anyone fly in an aeroplane. Does this mean that because more people through history have believed flight could not happen, it actually had not happened?" I suspect Hume did not have in mind flying with mechanical aid, but there you go.

* The witnesses are unreliable: witnesses to miracles can not be trusted because they are predisposed to believe in miracles and are therefore biased. They may lie or exaggerate to back up their claims.

The counter argument is fairly strong here: the founders of the religions warned their followers not to put too much trust in miracles. The Roman Catholic Church goes to great lengths to check out alleged miracles and will not simply accept any claim. That some right wing evangelicals tend to soak up "miracles" like sponges is neither here nor there, although it is odd to think that there are Christians today who may be trying to redefine the basis of the faith to include an acceptance of miracles as a given and as a test of faith. They seem to be missing the point.

* The witnesses are uneducated: Hume classed all witnesses to miracles as primitive and they accept what they can not understand because they have no understanding of science.

My pupils are very clear that this is not a tenable argument: it is possible that this was more true in Hume's day but as miracles are reported in all countries, including the technologically advanced, it is not an argument that holds water.

* Religions depend on miracles: the religions of the world depend on miracles to prove their claims to be truth. In addition, as all religions can not be "right", their miracles cancel each other out.

The basis of a religion is not its miracles. Many religious people are not convinced by the miraculous but manage to maintain a robust spirituality regardless. Their faith does not stand or fall on tales of the unexpected. My religious faith is not undermined in the slightest by stories of the Buddha or Muhammad performing signs and wonders. Why should something they did cancel out something Jesus did? It makes no sense. It's not a competition.

My pupils hate David Hume. They hate learning the arguments and counter arguments even more.


  1. Then why do semi-literate immigrants in the US see the virgin Mary on tortillas and not wealthy college professors?
    Even Terry Eagleton says that miracles are more common in relatively backwards places south of the Alps than in your country.

  2. What does "relatively backwards" mean? Are you suggesting the Catholic south of Europe? There is still a strong sense that some people are predisposed to accept the miraculous by virtue of their religious upbringing. Is that more common in Catholicism or amongst the Southern Baptists? Possibly. But, to use Hume's terms, that doesn't make them primitive, nor lacking in scientific knowledge.

    If by semi-literate you mean lacking in English language aquisition, that doesn't make them primitive. Beware racial stereotypes.

  3. No, I mean they can't read Spanish well, their original language. It has nothing to do with color.
    Or they could be pre-disposed to look for things that aren't there. Or hear creaking floorboards as ghosts. Or a weird water stain as the shadow of the virgin Mary.
    I'm guessing "relatively backwards" means the US equivalent of "Daily Mail" vs "Guardian" reader.

  4. An interesting comparison at this juncture might be the videos I've posted under "Rick Perry's Army of God" on the Blue Truck. I don't think seeing demons crawling up Jezebel's "skinny legs" - ! - quite counts as miraculous; but it is amazing what literate but nevertheless deeply credulous people will believe.

    Which is par for the course in Texas, I am very sorry to say.

  5. Sorry Annon,
    But I'm still not making the link between literacy and a pre-disposition to believe in the miraculous. Surely it's about religious upbringing. I tend to think American Southern Baptists are as much likely to be predisposed to believe in miracles as immigrant Catholics.

    As far as the Daily Mail is concerned, it is a paper for those who want their political and social opinions formed for them without recourse to objectivity and fact, but I'm not convinced there is a huge following amongst them for the miraculous.