David Hume tells us why miracle claims are not credible

Two hundred and fifty years ago, at least one person knew that miracles should not be taken at face value.  David Hume (1711 to 1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist and essayist.  He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western Philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment.  

In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume makes the argument that you have to give unreasonable amounts of credibility to the person who relates a miracle claim.  That is, we cannot believe miracle claims because it would give more plausibility to an event that required the suspension of physical laws, than it would that someone would, either willingly or mistakenly, distort the truth.

For instance, Christopher Hitchens often makes the case that in order to believe the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, you would have to give more credence,more credibility, to the claim that a God had sex with and impregnated a young woman (and that she, while still a virgin, gave birth to a different version of that same god), than that “a Jewish mix should tell a lie” about the source of her pregnancy.  One should also remember that at the time of the story Joseph and Mary were not married; and in that area, as it is today, not being a virgin on your wedding night was an offense that was punishable by stoning.

In the case of one of the most public miracles of the 20th century, i.e. the 1917 Miracle of Fatima, we have three young children who claim to have been visited three times by the Virgin Mary and were given secrets that they could not divulge.   Their claims were given so much credence by the believers of the area that, according to the accounts, up to 70 thousand of them crowded together on a remote hillside to see the next predicted appearance.

The reports say that before the “Miracle of the Sun” happened, it was raining incessantly; but when the clouds parted and the sun came out, Lucia, one of the children, called out to the crowd to look at the sun.  Witnesses later said that the sun changed colors, rotated like a wheel, and danced around; also images of the Holy Family, Jesus and others were seen in the sky.

The event was also reported in a local paper, O Século:  “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.”

If we were to believe this story, we would have to give more credence to the validity of 1) Children’s stories 2) images seen by people staring into the sun and 3) a news-paper article written in one paper and not reported anywhere else in the world, than we would to the fact that this could be a case of crowd hallucination.  A hallucination, one has to remember, which took place in a group of people whom where already such religious believers that they travelled for miles to gather on a hill-side in expectation of a miracle.  Even the newspaper account of the event says that not all witnesses reported seeing the same things, and some people only saw the radiant colors; and others, including some believers, saw nothing at all.  Also, it was only viewable by a few people on a particular hillside, in a remote country, and it was not witnessed anywhere else on Earth. When one takes into consideration what we now know of crowd-dynamics and collective hallucinations, it’s really not much of a miracle.

Where belief in miracles exists, evidence will always be forthcoming to confirm its existence. In the case of moving statues and paintings, the belief produces the hallucination and the hallucination confirms the belief. — D.H. Rawcliffe

Hume would say that it was much more likely that a religious crowd which was primed for a miracle, hallucinated one while looking at the sun, than that the sun actually danced around in the sky.

So let’s look at the miracles of the Bible in this light.  We know that the Old Testament stories were just that, stories; oral traditions handed down from mouth-to-mount for hundreds of years before finally being committed to paper.  Oral traditions are routinely expanded upon and embellished as they are told.  Take our own Western Folk Traditions of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Paul Bunion as examples.  Now consider how much more so they would be when the very existence of the stories was to glorify a God; The One who is most high. Nothing, I would think, would be beyond the scope of a story meant to glorify a being that is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient.  Are we to believe that the incredible events of the Old Testament are more likely than that some tribal story-tellers would embellish their tales to give extra power to their God?

Take the New Testament; we know for a fact that at the time the gospels were written, Christianity was a young and struggling religious movement which was trying desperately to make converts.  Should we believe that a human being could walk on water, raise people from the dead, and heal leprosy before we believe that a new religious movement would make up miracles to promote their religion to potential new members and bolster the faith of converts?  Hardly.

Yes, the Bible is an incredibly valuable resource for understanding the thoughts and customs of the people of the Middle East 2,000 – 2,500 years ago, but how are we to accept that those stories as real? Stories which, if literally true, would repeatedly and consistently contradict known law of physics?  No, that goes way beyond credibility.  For people to suspend their judgment so far as to accept these incredible stories as literal fact would require credulity on a scale that could only be supportable by indoctrination from infancy, and a totalitarian enforcement of belief in those claims from childhood on.  And that is exactly what we find in religion.

The problem with miracles, according to David Hume, is that a miracle claim is much less likely to be true than that someone is either lying or mistaken about it.   Any claim has to bear a burden of proof, and extraordinary claims bear an extraordinary burden of proof.  Without solid evidence that physical laws were actually suspended, or even could be, belief in miracle claims should be withheld.  I would think that we should demand no less proof for ancient religious claims.

And before the reader answers that The Bible is the proof.  No, IT’s the claim.

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