Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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Can Atheists Believe in Miracles? Can Theists Reject Them?

Can Atheists Believe in Miracles? Can Theists Reject Them?

Elliott Sober is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Can atheists believe in miracles without contradicting themselves? Can theists disbelieve in them, again without contradicting themselves? In both cases, the answer depends on what you mean by a miracle.

Atheists believe that God does not exist. If a miracle is defined as an event that is brought about by divine intervention, then atheists are obliged to think that miracles don’t exist. However, if you adopt a different definition of a miracle, the situation is different.

People often speak of “the miracle of childbirth,” meaning that the event is awe-inspiring and welcome. Atheists can and do believe that miracles in this sense are not only possible; like their fellow theists and agnostics, atheists think it is obvious that such miracles actually occur. 

Now let’s consider a third definition. Suppose you define a miracle as an event that is both awe-inspiring and inherently mysterious. Let’s call this the “mysterian” definition of miracle. If a mystery is something that can’t be explained, then science has repeatedly succeeded in demystifying the world. The more science learns about how and why childbirth occurs, the less of a miracle the science-minded will find it, or so the mysterian definition suggests. The poet John Keats playfully faulted Isaac Newton for demystifying the rainbow by explaining the physics of color. For Keats, science was the enemy of poetry and wonder. This led the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins to take Keats to task. In Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins argues that Keats had things backwards. For Dawkins, a grasp of science enhances wonder. 

Dawkins is right that science can explain without destroying our sense of wonder. But can a science-minded atheist grant that there are miracles in the mysterian sense of the term? If science is in principle capable of explaining everything, the answer must be no. But there are scientific reasons to doubt that science can explain everything. Physicists seek to discover what they call “the fundamental laws of physics.” A law is fundamental if it can’t be explained by any other law. There can be plenty of evidence that a fundamental law is true, but there is no explaining what makes it true. It would be no surprise if fundamental laws were awe-inspiring; if they were simple, general, and few in number, they would be beautiful on a cosmic scale. Fundamental laws would therefore be miraculous in the mysterian sense. Atheists should not balk at this conclusion.

The mysterian definition of miracle is closely related to another definition—that miracles are good things that happen that are very improbable. When Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery in 1985 and again in 1986, she may have thought that this double event was a miracle. She was right, according to the low-probability definition of the term. Atheists should have no problem with this idea, nor should theists. However, those who believe that everything happens for a reason will deny that low probability events ever happen. They think that every event must have had a cause that made it very probable, if not certain. The faith that this is so cuts across the atheism/theism divide. It finds no support in current science.

Now let’s turn to the other side of the coin. Does belief in the existence of God oblige theists to experience wonderment and awe? Some theologies build this obligation into their conceptions of God, but others do not.    

What about the definition of miracle with which I started? Must a theist hold that God not only exists, but sometimes intervenes in nature? In the 18th century, those who answered this question in the negative were called Deists. When Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in the next century, he counted himself in their number. He begins the Origin by quoting his Cambridge teacher, the philosopher William Whewell: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” Whewell’s point is that God does not decide what happens one event at a time. Rather, he arranges for the universe to be governed by a small number of simple, general laws. He then sits back and allows the universe to unfold in a law-governed fashion. It is the task of science to discover these laws; these are the “secondary causes” of what we observe, which is not to deny that God is the first cause. Whewell and Darwin thought that the perfection and power of the deity are more consistent with the Deist picture than they are with the interventionist picture.

Newton discovered the physical laws that govern the motions of material objects. Newton was Darwin’s model. Darwin sought to discover the biological laws that govern the evolution of organisms. Newton was not content to say, “It is God’s will,” and leave it at that; neither was Darwin.   

These comments have not addressed the question of how we would ever know that an event is a miracle. It isn’t hard to know that an event is awe-inspiring and that it presently cannot be explained by science. But how can we know that science will never be able to explain it? And how are we to know that an event is the result of God’s intervening in nature? Many religions endorse the idea that the dead coming back to life is a miracle in this last sense. Atheists often claim that it is impossible for the dead to come back to life, but maybe the science of the future will show that they are mistaken. Perhaps mere human beings, armed with a  technology that is more powerful than the one we possess, can do the trick. If future scientists discover how to bring the dead back to life, they will be following in the footsteps of Newton and Darwin.

Elliott Sober is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

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