I wrote the article “Are self-described skeptics reliable to evaluate miracle claims?” just as I was leaving for a conference. Consequently I wasn’t able to engage with the comments. And so I will be doing so in this aptly titled follow-up.
The first comment comes from Erroll Treslan who writes:
“I would like to object to the term “self-described skeptics”. There is a common misconception that atheists/agnostics are more skeptical than theists. Hence, we embrace the terms “skeptical community” and “freethinkers”. However, I object to this as a false dichotomy. In my experience, theists are just as skeptical as “skeptics” when it comes to all other facets of their lives aside from assenting to their religious beliefs. This is why I used the “Randal’s reaction to Erroll walking on water” example in a previous thread. For variety of reasons (including childhood indoctrination, desire to avoid nihilism, desire for life after death, vocational security and plain old wishful thinking), theists only set aside their natural skepticism to the extent necessary to support their theological beliefs.”
The funny thing is that I agree with Erroll. It is indeed a common misconception that atheists/agnostics are more skeptical than theists. Instead their skepticism is blushingly selective. For example, generally speaking they are very skeptical about a smattering of entities like God, ghosts and angels, even as they embrace without a blush all sorts of other claims about things like the nature of mind, morality and purpose (or lack thereof). However, it is those who insist on defining themselves as “skeptics” who perpetuate this confusion and so Erroll should take up his cause with them.
Next, let’s consider Jeff. He declares:
“Here’s the problem. Unless and until you can offer some sort of physical or probabilistic criteria by which we can distinguish a miracle from a non-miracle, we simply have no way of determining whether a miracle or a non-miracle occurred. So before you go damning “skeptics” such as Michael Shermer, you need to distinguish the discernible physical or probabilistic characteristics of a miracle from those of a non-miracle.”
Jeff should read my chapter on identifying miracles in God or Godless. The basic lowdown is that we identify miracles by looking for the same suggestive fine-tuning of event to context that justifies invoking a design inference in other circumstances.
Turning to Walter we read:
“And the point that Robert made was that OT miracles were grand, unmistakable affairs, like Moses’ parting of the Red Sea as depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic. Modern miracles are but pale shadows of the mighty displays of power found in the Bible.”
But as I pointed out, Colin Humphreys demonstrated how each of the Exodus miracles could have been given a natural interpretation. And no doubt had these miracles occurred there would be “skeptics” doing just that.
Andy Schueler writes:
“For virtually all alleged miracles, there is no evidence beside the report that the miracle happened.”
There are two problems with this statement. First, it is false. Consider, as one example, David Haitel’s testimony which I included in this blog just a few months ago. David was one of my students (he graduated from seminary this year) and he reports being healed from MS and having the medical documentation to support the fact. Indeed, if Andy Schueler is serious about wanting evidence for miracles I’d commend to him Craig Keener’s massive two volume study of miracles published just last year.
Second, Andy acts as if testimony is not a valid type of evidence. But this is erroneous. To be sure, we need to be critical realists about testimony — and that means not simply taking people’s word for it. But being a critical realist is quite different from being a general skeptic about testimony which seems to be what Andy is advocating for.
Next, Andy Schueler writes:
“Christians and Muslims evaluate the alleged miracles performed by Sathya Sai Baba in pretty much the same way that Atheists do – what I would be concerned with is the apparent double standard with which believers evaluate miracles allegedly performed by their own God(s), Saints etc. on the one hand, and all other alleged miracles on the other hand.”
Once again, this is false. For example, in “Reincarnation and Christianity” I pose the question of what Christians should do with putative reports in support of reincarnation: “what should a Christian do? Well the first thing they shouldn’t do is what many naturalists do: ignore all the evidence for reincarnation. On the contrary, they should first of all take it seriously as general evidence for supernaturalism of some kind.”
“It seems that “miracle” is used to denote an event with a very low (extraordinarily low?) probability on known naturalistic mechanisms alone, and so–it is assumed–we can conclude that God probably helped things along in some unique way.”
This is false. The most important part about judging an event a miracle is not that it is anomalous or extraordinarily unlikely but rather that it occurs within an explanatory context of expectation.
Finally, Ray Ingles observes:
“Spontaneous remissions do happen, for example, even in the absence of prayer.”
Yes, and sometimes lawns get wet because it rained. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also sometimes get wet because somebody watered them with a sprinkler. Likewise, even if some spontaneous remissions occur apart from prayer, that doesn’t mean prayer is never the catalyst for a spontaneous remission.