Against miracles, against religion

David Hume provided a compelling argument against believing in reports of miracles in chapter 10 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The basic idea is this: we have to weigh the likelihood of a miracle taking place against the possibility that the report is exaggerated or simply false. The end result is that it is always more likely that the report is somehow wrong than that a miracle took place. For we have lots of experience of witnesses getting things wrong, or stories getting garbled as they are passed along, and really no solid firsthand evidence of miracles taking place. To believe such a report, you have to say, “The falsity of this report would be an even greater miracle than the one described in the report,” and that just never happens.

I think this argument can be extended to religions themselves. Every religion is based upon or implies claims that are supernatural — they would be judged as miraculously true, from the perspective of natural science. God speaking to humans, life after death, resurrection, rebirth, magical healing — all of these things, at least if taken literally, simply can’t be accommodated by natural science. (Or, if they can be naturally explained, then they lose their religious significance.) So in these cases, one should weigh the likelihood of these claims being true against the possibility that humans are being superstitious, or are being led by acritical wishful thinking, or are simply being taught to believe false things. And these phenomena are all too common in ordinary human experience. So, with any supernatural claim, it is always more likely that humans have somehow deluded themselves than that the claim is true.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Against miracles, against religion

  1. Mike says:

    Is that really true of ‘every religion’? Does philosophy or the fact that you adhere to a particular philosophy imply a portion of lived practice in the way a religion generally does?


  2. Huenemann says:

    I guess there are many “lived practices” that could in some sense be called “religious.” My argument targets a narrower band of religions — the ones that essentially make supernatural claims. This is still a big group, of course — mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. I’m not sure whether it includes Buddhism; that probably depends on the Buddhist you ask, and how seriously he/she takes reincarnation and the genuine causality of karma.


  3. Mike says:

    I’m trying to ignore ideological commitments in religion generally and instead commend/condemn particular behavior patterns (i’m mostly just taking this approach to preserve my sanity). In the major religious traditions you mentioned there are strains of positive behavior patters and others which are much more negative. Also different strains care to engage with culture in quite different ways.

    What’s the incentive to correct false ideology (i.e. beliefs in miracles/the supernatural)? Is that part of a commitment to truth? Is it out of love? Is there a hope that correct ideology will have a positive impact of some sort?


  4. Huenemann says:

    I guess it is partly a commitment to truth, but also a sort of vaccination against superstition. I’d like to say that superstition is unreliable, leading us sometimes into good practices, but too often into horrific ones; and a more skeptical rationality at least avoids the horrific ones. But does that sound plausible?


  5. Mike says:

    The answer to this question becomes more difficult and complex the more I think about it (my excuse for a sloppy response). The problem is that I have some idea how I think superstition integrates with some forms of Christianity but I think some of those forms have a buffer (theology) for superstition and miracles that allows them to think that they’ve happened in the past but are not possible in the present. Also I tend to think of religious ideology (which would include superstition/miracles) as part of a culture more than just a set of beliefs.

    I want to say specific cultures lead to often horrific practices and that mostly ideology, superstition or otherwise has little to no power over it. But there is a point at which the question “what should we do” comes up and the ideology one adopts on that point definitely has a relationship with practice.

    Now skeptical rationality, at that point, I believe is quite valuable. But because of the buffers and structured thinking I don’t think the answer to the question is as simple as it should be (should in this case meaning if humans were rational agents). Because of that, I think attempting to correct benign/buffered superstition in order to impact behavior is an overly optimistic point of view.

    I’m not trying to diminish the benefits of skeptical rationality more generally. And sometimes superstitions aren’t benign or buffered (action wise) in which case the easiest way to correct the action problem is to implement the buffer. Actually that’s often the best/only thing you can do. It’s like the parable of the sower, somewhere along the line you hope the person grows up entirely but you’re always just part of a larger process.

    I guess I’m advocating contextualism or some sort of coherence theory of truth; not as an absolute I hold but as a method. So I guess the specific more obviously dangerous belief should be addressed clearly and directly but some beliefs/superstitions/whatever should be considered structural entities. The structure itself can be in question but then this brings up quite a few communication issues and I’m not sure if it’s a method that leads to or demonstrates understanding.

    So if we want to correct some things about the world maybe we should just focus on those things; maybe that’s our best hope. Is this view overly pessimistic?


  6. Huenemann says:

    No, I wouldn’t say it’s overly pessimistic. But I’m less sanguine than you are about separating theoretical beliefs from practice. It seems to me that, say, Xian stances against gay marriage and abortion, as well as the trust that God will save us from global warning, have a causal relationship to Xian practice: were it not for certain beliefs, Xians would do different things.

    Still, I’d say you’re right that these theoretical beliefs get mixed together with culture and a basic human need to identify with a group. I don’t see why there couldn’t be a massive Xian group whose core practices conflicted with beliefs that are central to Xian ideology. (What am I saying?! Of course that’s possible! Turn on the TV!) People join up with groups for all sorts of reasons, and “theoretical agreement” is probably low on the list. “Liking their t-shirts” may even be higher.

    But I do like the idea you’re suggesting — “Let’s work the problems, and let theory fall where it may.” And my overall bet is that that strategy will be at least as successful as any we’ve followed so far, and maybe more.


  7. Mike says:

    I think I keep hammering away at these same issues from different angles just hoping that eventually something will reveal itself. The recent long thread over at usuphilosophy gave me a few more concrete avenues to pursue.

    what do you think of this quote?

    To Nietzsche, nihilism is the consequence of any idealistic philosophical system, because all idealisms suffer from the same weakness as Christian morality—that there is no “foundation” to build on.

    from the “explanation” section of this wikipedia article.

    I just couldn’t gather where wikipedia got that from but I’d like to track it down. Any ideas?

    Something I noticed I was missing… when we talk about morality we are talking about more than just behavior. We’re probably also talking about a mental state of orientation … about ideology. We care in some way about the person’s intentions.

    Another thing that I think is noteworthy is that we might associate a moral person not as one who holds the correct beliefs so much as a person who holds their beliefs in the right way. That being the case I think philosophy is still the best avenue towards creating that sort of moral person. I don’t think any religion or theistic ideology by itself leads to that. And if you assume for some reason that the consequence of athiesm is moral bankruptcy does that consequence hold for an athiesm where the belief is held correctly?


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