Why Miracle Stories are Irrational

And why many people believe in them anyway

Image by The Lazy Artist Gallery, from Pexels

There’s an alternative historical timeline in which the philosopher David Hume wrote his case for the irrationality of belief in miracles, the word got out about what he’d written, and belief in miracles declined and eventually ceased all around the world.

Oddly, that’s not the world we live in even though Hume’s argument is straightforward and compelling — once you get past the baroque length and complexity of his sentences, which were normal in intellectual circles before the inventions of radio, television, and the internet.

You can find Hume’s argument in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. In a nutshell, what Hume does is show that the belief that a miracle occurred can never be overwhelmingly well-supported by empirical evidence, and that we can realize this merely by analyzing the concept of a miracle.

Hume’s Case against Miracles

What is a miracle supposed to be? A violation of natural law. And what’s a natural law? A generalization that captures the meaning of trillions of human perceptions of some regularity in the world. The law of gravity, for example, is part of an explanation of ordinary human experience of how, roughly speaking, whatever goes up on our planet comes back down.

That experience of the effect of gravity wasn’t just dictated by the whim of some tyrant who forced everyone to believe that gravity exists. The weight of evidence in support of the idea that there’s something like a force of gravity preventing things from flying off in random directions is immense. We each experience that effect every second of every day, as did everyone who ever lived.

If you had a penny for each time the effect of gravity has been empirically confirmed by direct perception, you’d have trillions upon trillions upon trillions of pennies. Piled together, those pennies would form a mountain reaching up into outer space. Indeed, the pennies at the summit of that mountain would ironically escape Earth’s gravity and achieve orbit or perhaps even reach as far as the moon (if the pennies could be prevented from floating away into the spatial void).

Thus, Hume defines “miracle” in this way: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

Hume stresses the point: “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”

So let’s imagine an apparent violation of the law of gravity. Suppose someone dressed up as Superman and began leaping tall buildings at a single bound, and suppose you witnessed that strange event. Would it be rational likewise to leap straightaway to the conclusion that a miracle had occurred?

Hume’s point is that no, that would be irrational and you’d know it. Have you forgotten so quickly about that cosmic-sized mountain of evidence in support of the uniform, human experience of gravity’s pull? No? Good, then what you’d do, assuming you had an interest in basing your beliefs on the evidence, is search for rational explanations that are consistent with that mountain.

And remember, the claim that this Superman miraculously flew around town presupposes that contrary mountain of evidence, by the definition of “miracle.” Indeed, in so far as miracles are supposed to be very rare, whoever posits a miracle presupposes also that the body of empirical evidence in favour of the natural order vastly outweighs the empirical evidence that points to the miracle.

In all probability, then, you’d infer that this Superman had invented an anti-gravity device that allows him to cancel the effect of gravity by the introduction perhaps of some undiscovered natural force. But suppose no such device is found. Should you conclude at that point that this Superman had performed a miracle? Not by a long shot.

Why not? Because if you care about rationality and empirical evidence, you’ve still got a lot of work ahead of you. Roughly speaking, you’ve got trillions upon trillions of alternative, naturalistic hypotheses to eliminate before you arrive at justification for believing that the natural law has been violated, one such hypothesis for every penny that compromises that mountain.

That’s hyperbolic, of course, but the upshot is the same: your beliefs as a rational person must be dictated by the evidence that’s been established. It’s as if you’d gravitate to that mountain of human perceptions of the results of gravity, and the sublime scale of that mountain would compel you to exhaust every conceivable familiar explanation before you’d feel comfortable discounting that mountain’s existence.

Thus, long before positing anything supernatural, you’d expect an illusionist had performed a magic trick. No such illusionist? Perhaps, then, you’d taken a powerful drug and only hallucinated when you thought you saw Superman in flight. You don’t remember taking any drug? Perhaps someone slipped you the drug when you weren’t looking. And so on and so forth.

Chances are, as you proceed along that course, you’d eventually land on a familiar, satisfying explanation that makes sense of the world without being just a convenient mental projection, before you’d need to reach for anything supernatural. That’s because chances were already natural and familiar to have sustained those trillions of uniform perceptions of regularity.

These considerations lead Hume to suggest the maxim, “That 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; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”

That latter point about mutual destruction means that even when all conceivable naturalistic explanations fail to make sense of the anomalous event, your confidence that a miracle has occurred can’t be high, so you’d make for only a halfhearted member of the cult of Superman.

This is because the world would have proven to be an absurd, chaotic place, supporting one kind of experience for eons before shifting to support an opposite kind of experience out of apparent fickleness. You wouldn’t commit to any cult of Superman, because the memory of that uniform experience of gravity would make you paranoid: you’d have to wonder whether the world might one day demolish this new possibility of the miracle of superheroic flight, just as it undid gravity.

The Irrationality of the Christian Resurrection Story

Regarding the miracle at the heart of Christianity, then, Hume says, “When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.”

The situation is the same as with the purported Superman, since the experience that life ends in death is as uniform as the witnessing of how whatever’s flung into the air comes back down. (Of course, spaceships are exceptions since they can escape the Earth’s limited gravity). Before leaping to the conclusion that Jesus was supernaturally restored to life, there are, as it were, trillions upon trillions of naturalistic hypotheses to consider, one to honour each and every empirical confirmation of death’s finality on Earth.

Indeed, exhausting the details of the many deflationary scenarios of how Christianity might have gotten started without any miracle should occupy the potential Christian for that person’s entire life. Thus, assuming this person has a consistent interest in rationality — and I’ll come back to this assumption in the next section — he or she should die long before converting to that religion. This means that on strict empiricist grounds, there should be no such thing as Christianity. Instead of worshiping at church or devising casuistic defenses of the notion that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the rational potential Christian should be spending all her time investigating the more likely ways in which that religion originated.

Does it beg the question to say the natural possibilities are more probable than the supernatural one? Again, Hume’s analysis of the concept of miracles shows there’s no such devious circularity. The assessment of probability depends on the amount of available evidence. So if you say there’s some evidence that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead, you’re the one presupposing there must also be a mountain of contrary evidence establishing the finality of physical death, since you’re the one speaking of a miraculous escape from death.

If Jesus’s resurrection violated laws of chemistry, biology, entropy, and so on, the affirmation of that miracle must, by definition, be opposed by all the evidence that empirically established those natural laws in the first place. That’s the crucial part of Hume’s case against miracles.

What are some natural explanations, then, of what really happened when Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected? Here are some of the more obvious accounts.

Perhaps we should wonder whether instead of being accurate biographies or rigorous historical accounts, the Gospels are mythic hagiographies or works of religious propaganda.

Then we can surmise that oral traditions (gossip and dialogue) sprang up in which Jews living in the Roman Empire struggled to make sense of their oppression and of the eventual destruction of their Temple, by grappling with ideas from their scriptures but also from Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, and the Mystery religions. Maybe the fruits of their intellectual labour were eventually stitched together into written, largely-fictional works which were subsequently passed off more or less fraudulently as eyewitness accounts (known as the Gospels of the New Testament) to bolster the political power of the churches that emerged.

And maybe we should think the reason the churches emerged and Christianity became a religion that’s lasted to this day has nothing to do with any alleged miracle. Instead, we can infer, first, that Christianity rode the wave of the Axial Age revolutions that began several centuries earlier, which included spiritual or existential critiques of religions and philosophies from around the world, leading to Zoroastrianism, the Jewish prophets, Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Socratic philosophy, and the Mystery religions.

Second, the Christian message fulfilled a spiritual demand that the stale Roman religion in particular wasn’t satisfying. Third, lots of religions successfully grow from cults into organized institutions, because we’re social creatures and are subject to political dynamics that tend to build on each other to protect us within larger and larger groups and organizations.

Do you find any of that implausible? If so, I’m sorry to have disappointed you. But ask yourself Hume’s question: Is that scenario I just sketched more or less implausible than the traditional Christian’s account of events? Perhaps you’ve forgotten how bizarre the notion of rising miraculously from the dead is, because you’ve trained yourself to ignore that strangeness by becoming overly familiar with the Christian’s naïve interpretation of the New Testament.

Luckily, it’s easy to remind yourself of the enormity of that mountain of (effectively) anti-Christian evidence. Remember all the times you’ve experienced the finality of death in the case of your friends or relatives who passed away, for example, or the dead animals you’ve seen on the side of the road or the animals you’ve eaten? Remember all the indirect reports of death’s finality, on television and in movies, songs, and books? Remember how uniform is the human experience of how a creature’s physical death terminates all signs of that creature’s life?

Good, now hold the colossal scale of that evidence in mind while pondering which scenario is more likely, that all of those trillions of perceptions of death’s finality come to nothing after all, because a supernatural resurrection actually happened two millennia ago or that Christianity originated from a combination of ignorance, gullibility, misunderstanding, literary creativity, fraud, and shifting political tides. If you still think the former is more likely than the latter, given not any presumption of atheism but just the evidence of life’s ending in death, which enormous body of evidence is required by the Christian positing of a miraculous resurrection, you’ve got more studying to do.

Of course, we haven’t exhausted the natural possibilities. Perhaps a human Jesus existed and somehow faked his death to inspire Jews to rise up against the Romans or to usher in God’s kingdom, as Hugh Schonfield argued in The Passover Plot. After being resuscitated, Jesus could have hid from the authorities and disappeared from public view, and the ensuing gossip and rumors about his victory over Rome and death turned into the Christian creed.

Is it really harder to believe that some such subterfuge happened than that a man miraculously rose from the dead? Of course it isn’t, because as Hume points out, you’re familiar not only with death’s termination of life, but with human error, deviousness, and creativity. Indeed, Christianity posits the latter with its doctrine of original sin, which includes the ideas of human fallibility and mischief-making.

Or perhaps the figure of Jesus was only a symbol that stood for all the righteous, rebellious Jews who were killed because the Romans had limited patience with potential threats against their dominion. The early canonical and non-canonical Christian texts would have represented complementary Jewish ways in which certain communities (that would later be called “Christian”) reconciled themselves to those injustices and to their diaspora after the destruction of Jerusalem. We know Jews resented being occupied by Rome, of course, because of the Jewish-Roman wars which culminated in the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE and in the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132–135 CE.

So perhaps Christianity began with a story that dramatizes and finds meaning in that Jewish experience of oppression and even of what Nietzsche would call the apparent death of God, of how those who are righteous but weak can suffer at the hands of soulless but mighty imperialists. The mystery for the Jews would have been why God allows his chosen people to suffer in that way. Why would God have allowed amoral Rome to destroy the Jewish Temple and to scatter the surviving Jews far and wide? Perhaps God would have done so to signal that Jews should universalize their message; indeed, that’s just the interpretation Paul and the Catholic Christians followed up on.

The Gospels even call attention to their literary inspiration by quoting liberally from Jewish scriptures, such as from Isaiah and the psalms. Jesus would have been the fantastic hero who was a model of Jewish righteousness and who spoke for all the poor and afflicted by promising they’ll be vindicated when God rewards them and condemns those who temporarily gain the world at the cost of their soul. A religion based on Jesus’s moralistic critique of Jewish ritualism would have been one way of preserving Jewish ideals after the loss of Temple-based Judaism in the first century CE.

And perhaps over time, the original meaning of the Christian myth was lost, as circumstances changed, and the founding narrative was literalized and historicized. After all, the earliest Christian texts were Paul’s letters, which emphasize theology far more than historical detail.

In short, Jews would have turned to their scriptures and comforted themselves with an emerging legend, myth, allegory, or midrash featuring the character Jesus, a hero and mystical messiah who would have stood for the untold Jewish victims of Roman oppression and who was supplied with a fairytale ending, as he gave the lost and oppressed hope by conquering death, thus lending authority to his existential message. The fiction of the hero’s resurrection was later historicized for political reasons, to support the emerging Christian institutions, as Elaine Pagels explains in The Gnostic Gospels.

The Equal Nonrationality of Christian and Secular Values

If Hume’s argument is sound and some such natural accounts of the origin of Christianity are necessarily more plausible than the Christian’s supernatural one, why does Christianity still exist? Why are there many Christian apologists who proclaim that slick debaters such as William Lane Craig have “destroyed” Hume’s criticism of belief in miracles? (See here for a detailed critique of that apologist’s “intellectual Christianity.”) Why don’t we occupy that alternative world in which everyone’s beliefs are perfectly rational?

The question practically answers itself. As a philosopher, David Hume was unusually rational, compared to the millions of people who have never studied philosophy and perhaps are entirely uneducated or illiterate. Indeed, Hume personally was a preeminent, austere empiricist. He was like one of those superpredatory vampires that hunts not just humans but other vampires. Hume implicitly condemned the irrationality not just of the vulgar masses but of fellow philosophical empiricists, implying that the latter are insufficiently rigorous. In fact, Hume took the principles of empiricism so far, he may have inadvertently reduced empiricism to absurdity.

Of course, Hume acknowledged that not even philosophers are perfectly rational. His famous argument about causality shows that the idea of a necessary connection between events is grounded not in logic but in “habit” or “custom,” which is a vague way of saying we’re biologically and psychologically compelled to make sense of experience in causal terms because the alternative is unthinkable for creatures like us. If there were no such thing as causality, experience would be chaotic and we’d be functionally insane, which would be intolerable. Thus, we search incessantly for causes to explain whatever happens, presupposing a natural order even when there’s no strictly-rational basis for saying every event necessarily has a cause. In fact, quantum mechanics indicates otherwise, contrary to human intuition.

In practice, what this means is that we don’t have a consistent interest in basing all our beliefs on the evidence, after all. We’re not good little empiricist soldiers. Moreover, it’s naïve and scientistic to suggest not only that any sane person is perfectly rational in Hume’s sense, but that we ought to be so. Hume himself showed that morality isn’t objective, since there’s no such thing as the perception of anything’s goodness or badness. If values are subjective, they’re not empirically justified, which means neither are Hume’s empiricist ideals.

Hume can’t claim both that all values are, strictly speaking, equally irrational in the sense that they’re empirically arbitrary mental projections, and that critics of empiricism who deny we should base all our beliefs on empirical evidence are being especially irrational. That would be special pleading on behalf of the empiricist’s values of rationality and progress.

New atheists and secular humanists have their nonrational, normative beliefs too. The new atheist movement splintered on nonrational grounds when the progressive (liberal) atheists broke from the more masculine and conservative “intellectual dark web.” Logic and science had little to do with that split, the atheists’ self-congratulatory rhetoric notwithstanding, because what mattered was a subjective dispute about moral values.

Likewise, as his mentor Carl Sagan had done before him, Neil deGrasse Tyson showcases the values of secular humanism in the television show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Secular humanism derives from the European values of the Age of Enlightenment, which shaped modern capitalism and democracy and which drew inspiration in turn from the values of ancient Athens.

Evidently, the Christian has nonrational values too, and they are what compel her to take a leap of faith in the supernatural version of Christianity’s foundation, long before she’s exhausted the more familiar, plausible, natural explanations of that origin. For example, the Christian would be emotionally attached to her parents, assuming she was raised as a Christian. That factor alone accounts for the vast majority of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief, since most monotheists are taught to be religious from a young age, when their minds are still growing and haven’t yet developed skills in critical thinking.

As for the minority of adults who convert, say, from secular humanism to Christianity, perhaps they’re attracted to the prospect of joining a Christian community, because they live in a largely Christian neighborhood that’s hostile to nonbelievers. Perhaps these Christians are terrified of the thought that they’re mortal, and they’re not emotionally satisfied with secular society’s distractions from that dread of death’s inexorability. Perhaps these Christians have conservative instincts and use Christianity to bash the liberal culture that disgusts them. Or perhaps some of these Christians have sociopathic tendencies and are inclined to use the cultural authority of Christian dogmas to exploit people’s gullibility and defraud them.

So Hume’s case against miracles is as solid as any philosophical work can be, but his empiricist ideals are either naïve or they amount to a self-refuting caricature of what was then the incipient enthusiasm for scientific methods of inquiry. Thus, even if it’s irrational to believe that miracles occur, the Humean doesn’t necessarily have grounds for condemning that irrationality, since the empiricist, too, will have beliefs that aren’t based strictly on logic or data. For example, the empiricist, atheist, and secular humanist will idolize reason and trust in our natural (godless) potential to improve ourselves and our societies.

Why Monotheism and Supernaturalism are still Condemnable

The question, then, is whether these sets of values are equally flawed. We know that neither the Christian nor the secular humanistic set of values, say, is justified by appealing straightforwardly to evidence derived from the senses, because such an appeal would commit the naturalistic fallacy. But the monotheist perpetrates at least two further sins against reason, as it were.

First, while the secularist may believe that societies can progress without supernatural aid, and while this belief may be based on faith or emotion rather than on reason, this belief is more nonrational than irrational. Although we don’t know secular progress is likely or even meaningful, based just on what reason tells us, such progress wouldn’t violate the laws of nature. As long as we understand that moral values are subjective, so that we don’t posit something like a platonic heaven of eternal abstract objects to make sense of moral discourse, we needn’t assume morality or social progress is miraculous.

By contrast, the monotheist who believes explicitly that a miracle has occurred as a matter of fact (not just of value) obviously has a belief that’s inconsistent with a plausible worldview. The monotheist is obliged, therefore, to search for ploys to ease the cognitive dissonance between those two sides of her dualistic understanding of the world. To speak of miracles is to speak of a paradox, since there would have to be, then, both natural and supernatural orders. The monotheist is saved from madness in trying to hold both in her mind simultaneously, by recourse to the idea of God, of an absolute being that somehow encompasses nature and supernature.

But monotheism is like a rickety bridge that can collapse at any moment, since the concept of God is itself incoherent and empty. For example, if God transcends nature, including space and time, how can God be a person? Don’t mental states have to take time to change from one to the next? If God transcends our universe, let alone our meager planet, why is God burdened by parochial human concerns with morality, justice, sexuality, and so forth?

The nonrationality of secular ideals can be disastrous, too, since our vain expectations of social progress can blind us to the narrow-mindedness of our advances, to the harms we’re doing to other species and to our ecosystems. But monotheism, too, is consistent with that hubris, since once we believe we’re made in God’s image or that God will preserve us as long as we subscribe to some religious creed, it’s easy to believe we have a license to kill and to rule the planet. This world will pass away anyway when God returns to create a better one.

So those harms cancel each other out, leaving us with the psychological toll that falls disproportionately on the monotheist, due to the greater incoherence of her dualistic worldview.

Second, monotheistic values are anachronistic and thus antisocial, whereas the secular ones are more suitable to the prevailing state of civilization. The liberal humanistic values of social progress coincide with the material advances in scientific knowledge and technological empowerment, as well as with the advances of capitalism over feudalism and of democratic republics over tyrannies. In short, secular humanism is historically modern and up-to-date; in lauding rationality and progress, the secularist is only exaggerating present real-world conditions.

Again by contrast, the monotheist’s talk of miracles belongs to the benighted folk segments of the ancient world. The beliefs that Jesus was resurrected, that God created the universe in seven days, and that Muhammad ascended to Heaven on a horse-like creature aren’t just empirically unjustifiable; these beliefs are embarrassing in what we call late-modern society. It’s not just that there probably was no resurrection, since the problem is that believing that the resurrection happened, trusting in those flawed ancient sources is clichéd and otherwise undignified.

If we’re all bound to express our emotional or nonrational side by gravitating to certain stories, whether they’re considered religious myths or entertainments or corporate propaganda, we can at least ensure our favourite stories aren’t wildly outdated and irrelevant to contemporary circumstances.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store