As part of my God Project, I’m reading through the Bible in a year. As I follow my reading plan, I am daily confronted with stories of God’s action in the world. So far, God has obliterated two cities with sulfur and fire from heaven, appeared in a blazing bush that never burned up, parted the Red Sea, and controlled the motion of a star. Jesus has healed tons of sick people, restored a dead girl to life, fed five thousand men and their families, and walked on water. And those are only a few memorable highlights.
In many Bible stories, God acts in the world, causing things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Often enough, this involves overriding what we would today call the “laws of nature”.
Is there any reason to think that God acts in the world or overrules natural laws? This is an important question that many skeptical thinkers address, especially the folks at the Reasonable Doubts podcast, Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, and David Hume as interpreted by Tripp Fuller in session 1 of Atheism for Lent. For this post, I have condensed their arguments into what I take to be the best case against divine action and miracles.
Occam’s Razor is the principle that the explanation requiring fewest assumptions is preferable. In practice, this basically means that the simplest feasible explanation for a given phenomenon is preferred over the many alternative, more complicated explanations, no matter how un-disproveable those alternative explanations might be.
I think most of us employ Occam’s Razor without realizing it. For example, how would you respond if someone told that most cars on the roadways are aliens perfectly disguised as vehicles with motorists inside? You couldn’t really disprove this theory – as long as the aliens are sufficiently well-disguised, you’d have no way of identifying them. But since we can account for cars with our typical assumptions about physics, sociology, and population data, it’s most reasonable to leave extraterrestrials out of the equation.
To bring it closer to home, maybe my application to Virginia Tech years ago was accepted because God was guiding the direction of my life. Alternatively, maybe I was simply accepted because I met Tech’s standards that year – a natural explanation that I have no reason to doubt. Why complicate the story by adding God into it?
For that matter, skeptics argue, why bother adding supernatural agents into our understanding of the world at all? Secular historians and scientists are perfectly capable of explaining our world without accounting for divine action, so why complicate things? After all, what could be less simple than a God who made our world, keeps it up and running, and interacts with billions of people at the same time?
Creation and Evolution
But maybe the world isn’t explainable without adding God into the equation. Maybe atheistic explanations, however simple, are not feasible. For example, for thousands of years of human history, it would’ve been perfectly reasonable to assume that sophisticated organs like the wings of birds and the eyes of humans could only exist if they were designed and created by something supernatural.
Today, thanks in large part to the work of Charles Darwin, supernatural agents are no longer necessary to account for the emergence of life on earth. Biologists have found evolutionary stepping stones for even the supposedly “irreducibly complex” organs, like the half-formed wings of gliding animals or the half-formed eyes of the flatworm and the nautilus.
If even the miracle of biodiversity on Earth can be explained without adding God into the equation, wouldn’t it be most reasonable to drop the God hypothesis altogether?
The God of the Gaps
Before modern science, humans did not understand a huge range of phenomenon, from illness to weather patterns to birth. In the absence of natural explanations, the ancients attributed many phenomenon to God or gods. The unexplained gaps in what we understood about the world were filled with divine action.
Since the explosion of scientific knowledge over the past few centuries, these unexplained gaps, though never quite disappearing, have drastically shrunk. If divine action is defined as phenomenon that defy natural explanation, then God has been steadily running out of options since the Enlightenment.
Maybe everything we typically observe can be accounted for without invoking divine action, but that doesn’t rule out supernatural intervention, does it? Maybe the world can tick-tock along like a clock without help from the outside, but surely God could still interrupt nature with miracles, right? Is there any evidence of God overriding the laws of nature?
Where would a Christian be more confident to find God’s intervention than in answers to intercessory prayers for healing? In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins discusses a massive study, published in 2006, that spent $2.4 million to test the effects of prayer. 1,802 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery were sorted into three categories: (A) those who were prayed for and knew about it, (B) those who were prayed for it and didn’t know it, and (C) those who weren’t prayed for and didn’t know it. In the end, the Christian organization running the study reported that groups (B) and (C) fared exactly the same, while group (A) remarkably performed even worse. Numerous similar studies have come to the same conclusions. Where is the evidence for miracles?
Skeptics seem to sort supposed instances of supernatural intervention into two categories: (1) unverifiable (and therefore unlikely) stories, like stories in the Bible or the common narrative of God’s healing in response to prayer; and (2) stories with perfectly natural, though perhaps not yet known, explanations.
The Problem of Evil
For a Christian like me, the most existentially moving case against miracles is the so-called “problem of evil”. If the Son of God loves each of us and has the power to exponentially multiply loaves, then why do so many people starve to death? If God has the power to part the Red Sea, why was the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 able to sweep away nearly 250,000 lives unimpeded?
If a babysitter deliberately decided to not use her power to protect the children in her care from fatal harm, we would call her negligent at best and evil at worst – certainly not full of perfect love! How could a God with miracle-working capabilities pass the babysitter test?
One solution to those thorny questions is to maintain belief in God but deny that God can intervene in the physical world. Maybe God can only communicate with humans, taking a hands-off approach to the rest of the world. Interpreting the Bible – not to mention fitting into most churches – would be difficult if I had ruled out miracles, but it would not be impossible, and it would not be without precedent in recent Christian theology. Some of my favorite Christian theologians, including Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolph Bultmann, did not believe in miracles at all. (Fun fact: The beloved Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t believe in miracles, either.)
A God without Miracles?
If God can’t do anything outside of our minds, would God still be worth believing in? Probably. For me, the love of God expressed through personal, spiritual relationship and within a community of faith is far more compelling than any quasi-magical intervention could be. Further, my friends and family are worth believing in even though they have never claimed to have miracle-working abilities. For me, love is more compelling than power anyway.
But a God without miracles might not be knowable at all. In order to interact with me, even in a purely “spiritual” way, God would presumably need to access my “inner self” – my thoughts and my prayers. If my “self” is a product of chemical reactions in my brain, as many modern scientists and philosophers believe, then God would have to intervene in my neurochemistry in order to be known by me at all. But if God needs to intervene in the physical world in order to be experienced in the mind, we are back at square one.
In the hands of the right skeptic, the advance of science, the problem of evil, and the lack of any airtight evidence of miracles together pose a powerful case against divine action and miracles. Taken to its logical conclusion, this critique casts belief in God as either outdated ignorance or desperate, wishful thinking. I cannot accept a view of God that ignores or dismisses these compelling arguments against the plausibility of God.