Review of Craig Keener’s Miracles

This is my promised review of Craig Keener’s book Miracles. It’s actually a two-volume set, but I’m going to call it a book, for simplicity’s sake. Now my verdict is that I don’t know how to express how mixed my feelings are about this book. I’ll start with the good.

Modern miracle stories

For a while now I’ve been quite aware that there are a lot of Christians who like to tell miracle stories about things that allegedly happened very recently. These are not all friend-of-a-friend type stories. Sometimes it’s things people claim to have seen themselves, or that someone they know very well has seen. So for example, a year or two ago I was listing to an interview with Evangelical biblical scholar Mike Licona, and about a third of the way through the interview Licona trots out this story that supposedly happened to an unnamed Yale-educated friend of his that involves an encounter with a demon while he was in China.

Now Mike Licona is one of those evangelicals who claims that the resurrection of Jesus can be shown to have happened with historical evidence (in fact, the resurrection of Jesus was the main topic of the interview). But my reaction to hearing that in the interview was to think that these modern reports of the supernatural are way, way more interesting than the alleged evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, because with these modern stories there is, at least in principle, the possibility that you could go track down the witnesses, do a real investigation, and potentially—if the thing really happened—get together quite a bit of documentation (and if it didn’t happen, uncover reasons not to take the story at face value).

Now based on what I know about the history of paranormal investigation and some of the adventures of the Society for Psychical Research, I’d quite confidently predict that if Christians ever did that kind of investigation, they’d eventually realize that they’re not going to find good evidence for supernatural phenomenon with those kinds of stories. Still, you could do an interesting investigation.

Enter Craig Keener. The main thing he does in Miracles is collect lots and lots of stories of seemingly miraculous happenings, most of them healings. He doesn’t really try to do any in-depth investigation of the stories he reports, but he’s up-front about that. He talks about his limitations, like a lack of funding for investigation, lack of time off from his teaching duties, and his own lack of medical knowledge, and suggests that maybe in the future other people will be able to build on his work and do an investigation that doesn’t suffer from those limitations. I think that if Keener’s book inspires other evangelical Christians to spend some real time and effort scrutinizing these kinds of stories, then the book will have done some good.

But now the bad. The problems with Keener’s book begin on the very first page when he states the book’s thesis:

The book’s primary thesis is simply that eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims, a thesis simple enough but one sometimes neglected when some scholars approach accounts in the Gospels. The secondary thesis is that supernatural explanations, while not suitable in every case, should be welcome on the scholarly table along with other explanations often discussed (p. 1)

This is what I call a weaselly thesis statement because it clearly says much less than what Keener wants to say. It lets him that hint at some very controversial claims, but because he’s officially only defending these seemingly banal claims, it gets him off the hook from really having to defend his views. So the primary thesis is something that I agree with and I agreed with before I even began reading the book, and it’s really the kind of thing you would defend the an article, not a two-volume set.

And the role of the secondary thesis, in practice, ends up being to allow Keener to spend a lot of time making ad hominem attacks against those big nasty skeptics who want supernatural explanations off the table and then Keener can fight the good fight to have the explanations on the table. (Whatever that means—part of the problem here is that “on the table” is vague, so it’s not even clear with thesis is.)

Regrown limbs

Now when I accused Keener of making ad hominem attacks, what do I mean that? Ad hominem is a phrase that I think is that horridly overused for any time someone is mean to someone else. But I mean it in the strict sense of substituting attacks on a person’s character for arguments in a situation where the person’s character is irrelevant.

So for example, let’s look at the issue of claims of regrown limbs. There’s a website called WhyWon’tGodHealAmputees.com, (formerly known as WhyDoesGodHateAmputees.com) that makes an argument:

For this experiment, we need to find a deserving person who has had both of his legs amputated. For example, find a sincere, devout veteran of the Iraqi war, or a person who was involved in a tragic automobile accident…

If possible, get millions of people all over the planet to join the prayer circle and pray their most fervent prayers. Get millions of people praying in unison for a single miracle for this one deserving amputee. Then stand back and watch.

What is going to happen? Jesus clearly says that if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. He does not say it once — he says it many times in many ways in the Bible.

And yet, even with millions of people praying, nothing will happen…

What are we seeing here? It is not that God sometimes answers the prayers of amputees, and sometimes does not. Instead, in this situation there is a very clear line. God never answers the prayers of amputees. It would appear, to an unbiased observer, that God is singling out amputees and purposefully ignoring them.(LINK)

What’s the point of this thought experiment?

How do we know, for sure, that God does not answer prayers?… we simply pray and watch what happens. What we find is that nothing happens. No matter how many people pray, no matter how often they pray, no matter how sincerely they pray, no matter how worthy the prayer, nothing ever happens. If we pray for anything that is impossible — for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ — it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability. In every situation where we statistically analyze the effects of prayers, looking at both the success AND the failure of prayer, we find that prayer has zero effect. Prayers for amputees never work. Medical prayers never work. Prayers for “good people” never work. Battlefield prayers never work. That happens, always, because God is imaginary. Every time a Christian says, “The Lord answered my prayer,” what we are seeing instead is a simple coincidence or the natural effects of self-talk.(LINK)

Now I have to admit that my gut reaction to this argument is that this is a horribly unsophisticated argument. But I think the truth is that this is an argument that any idiot can see is correct, and the part of me that instinctively dislikes this argument is the part of me that’s terrified of being mistaken for any idiot. The fact that the only prayers God “answers” are prayers for things that have a chance of happening anyway is powerful evidence that God never actually answers prayers

If you wanted to be a little more charitable towards the “this argument is so unsophisticated” line, you might say that religious people must have good responses to obvious arguments like this one, or else there wouldn’t be any religious people, but I don’t think that’s true. I think most religious people are just good at not thinking too hard about problems for their religious beliefs like this one. Deep down, most of them have to know that prayer doesn’t really ever work, which is why they only pray for things that have a chance of happening anyway. This is a good example of how religious people compartmentalize.

Now, here’s what Keener says about regrown limbs, and this is where the ad hominems come in:

Some skeptics about healing argue (beyond the evidence) that almost anything can be psychosomatic, whereas clearly organic restorations of limbs are never reported. Certainly there are not many such reports (including the Bible), but they do appear occasionally; in one extraordinary report, for example, a leg severed beneath the knee grew back. [A footnote cites a book by televangelist Pat Robertson--Hallquist] Elsewhere, useless or shriveled limbs have become functional and filled out miraculously quickly. Those committed to disbelief that such miracles can happen will, of course, dismiss such claims; but while the rareness of such claims (hence limited possible analogies) does invite caution, one might also get the impression that some skeptics’ demands for particular kinds of evidence become stricter whenever evidence of the demanded sort appears. (p. 747)

Now Keener is completely missing the point here. The significance of the regrown limb issue is that if regrown limbs happened, they’d avoid a lot of problems you get with other kinds of healing claims. You eliminate the possibility that it could be a coincidence you, elliminate the possibility that maybe the doctors made a mistake. If someone’s leg really regrew it’d be pretty easy to document conclusively, if it happened under the right circumstances. If the limb regrows almost instantaneously, it’s going be hard to be mistaken about witnessing that.

So we shouldn’t expect false reports of regrowing limbs to happen very often. It’s going be hard to get away with making up a story like that, and we should expect that to deter people from making up stories about regrowing limbs. However, people do sometimes tell outrageous lies. So the fact that there is a story of a regrowing limb in a book by Pat Robertson doesn’t prove anything. It doesn’t change the fact that the lack of evidence of regrowing limbs is suspicious, and the fact that skeptics aren’t impressed by such stories isn’t evidence of closed-mindedness.

Science!

Now that I’ve talked about an example of a claim that people rarely make, let’s look at a claim that’s more typical of claims people do make:

Even solid medical documentation is not adequate by itself to surmount strongly held presuppositions, because one may insist in every case (even if there are thousands of them) that another explanation is possible. My colleague in Hebrew Bible, Emmanuel Itapson, was told that his third child had “the death chromosome” and would likely die before birth if not aborted. The family prayed, and the boy is now nine years old. Because 1 percent of those with this chromosome are known to live beyond infancy, one cannot prove beyond any doubt that prayer is the factor that helped him to live so long; yet I am prepared to grant that likelihood in view of the significant number of extraordinary answers to prayer in Emmanuel’s circle, including one mentioned in chapter 9 and another in chapter 12 (p. 666–I did not notice this page number until after choosing the quote).

The first thing to notice about this is that this story is evidently being filtered through people who don’t have a lot of medical knowledge. The “death chromosome” presumably refers to a lethal chromosomal abnormality, but since there are many lethal chromosomal abnormalities, there’s no such thing as “the” death chromosome. Either someone misunderstood the doctor, or the doctor was dumbing down the diagnosis for the benefit of the parents. But whatever the case, it makes this story a little harder to evaluate.

More importantly, the way Keener introduces this case suggests he thinks it illustrates how unreasonable skeptics are. That’s frankly ridiculous. In fact, setting aside for a moment the other “extraordinary answers to prayer,” this case doesn’t provide any evidence at all for the efficacy of prayer. By definition, for every 100 times someone is faced with 100 to 1 odds, one person will beat the odds. In more religious parts of the world, including the United States, I’m sure that most people, maybe an overwhelming majority of people, pray when they or their children are faced with a serious illness. In that case, most odds-beating recoveries will happen after prayer. Because stories like this aren’t surprising even if you don’t think miracles happen, these stories aren’t evidence of anything miraculous.

This is why science is neat. At the most basic level, when we’re talking about the scientific study of prayer, we’re talking about checking to see if prayer leads to beating the odds more often than not praying. We’re also checking for things like bias among people recording the data and the placebo effect. (The placebo effect is when something that wouldn’t normally do anything, like a sugar pill, leads to people doing better merely because they think they’re getting treated.)

What about the fact that this guy’s circle of friends supposedly has had a whole bunch of remarkable recoveries? Is that evidence of something supernatural? Again, no. The problem with saying “Oh it looks like we’ve got this really improbable cluster of cases,” without doing rigorous statistical analysis, is that humans are really bad at eyeballing probability. We have a tendency to see patterns in randomness, and we even sometimes judge rigged events as more random than really random ones. To give just one of many examples, psychologist Steven Pinker describes one experiment which found that “people think that genuine sequences of coin flips (like TTHHTHTTTT) are fixed, because they have more long runs of heads or tails than their intuitions allow, and they think that sequences that were jiggered to avoid long runs (like HTHTTHTHHT) are fair” (Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 204).

This is something that’s actually not all that surprising, once you think about what randomness means. Random doesn’t mean being distributed evenly. There’s nothing about randomness that prevents events of a certain kind from clumping together just by chance, so it’s going to happen some of the time. Yes in some cases it’s going to be tempting to say “this clump is just too improbable to have happened by chance,” but except in the very most extreme of cases it’s just not something you can say without careful statistical analysis.

Furthermore, even in cases that seem extreme, what might be happening is that inaccurate reporting is taking events that were only somewhat improbable and blowing them up into something extremely improbable. There are a number of reasons that could happen. One of them is lack of medical knowledge, which I’ve already pointed out in the death chromosome story. And the point of taking a rigorous scientific approach is to avoid those kinds of problems.

Keener does discuss scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer briefly. He mentions studies with positive results, but does so only very briefly, vaguely saying in one case that “many have questioned the study” without discussing the criticisms or trying to determine whether the criticisms are valid. This reflects a general problem with the book: Keener’s approach to important questions is often to say, “some people say X, some people say otherwise, moving on…”

He does devote a paragraph to discussing the results of a 2006 prayer study funded by the John Templeton Foundation, a foundation that funds academic research related to religion. The study was the largest such study to date, and according to the authors it tried to make up for shortcomings in previous studies. It found no evidence of any benefit from prayer. Keener says a number of things to try to minimize this result, including asking, “Would God favor someone or not because they belonged to a control group?” (pp. 708-709).

Well maybe not. But you could also ask similar questions about prayer in general—why an omnipotent, omniscient God would need our input on how to run the universe. And whatever you think of those theological questions, they don’t negate the value of science, nor do they negate the problems with using collections of stories as proof of the supernatural.

Keener does at one point given very brief argument for why we can’t study the supernatural scientifically:

Since science depends on observation and experimentation, and since a “miracle is by definition an irreproducible” experience, even documented miracle cures by definition cannot fit precisely the expectations of science as it has been most narrowly defined. While affirming miracles, one scholar warns that “miracles cannot be investigated by the usual scientific methods since we cannot control the variables and perform experiments” (p. 608).

This is pretty clearly wrong. If God gave one man the power to work a certain limited kind of miracles at will, that would be reproducible, and subject to scientific experimentation. In particular, he could submit to a test under conditions designed to rule out fraud and delusion, and then we could see if he could still produce the apparent effects under those conditions. There are many people who would be happy to arrange such a test, including the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled test conditions.

You might want to argue that God would never grant miracle-working power in that manner, but consider this famous passage from the book of Exodus (Exodus 4:1-9):

1 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”

2 Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

3 The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4 Then the LORD said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. 5 “This,” said the LORD, “is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

6 Then the LORD said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.

7 “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.

8 Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. 9 But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

If you’re an orthodox Christian who thinks this story from Exodus really happened, as far as I can tell the only thing you can say here is that the reason God doesn’t empower prophets in this manner today is that he doesn’t want to make the evidence for miracles too clear.

I’ve actually heard Christians say something like this. What they’ll say is that God has given us clear enough evidence, but he’s avoided giving us too much so that closed-minded skeptics can continue being closed-minded (because we all know that skeptics are wicked and need to be set up to be punished for their wickedness). There are two problems with this. First of all I don’t think the premise that skeptics are typically closed-minded and wicked is really true. But perhaps more importantly, I just don’t think explanations that suppose that the universe is in some way conspiring to avoid giving us very good evidence are generally the best explanations.

For example, you can say that the reason people who claim to be psychic are never able to demonstrate under controlled test conditions that are designed to rule out cheating is that the presence of skeptics somehow disrupts psychic powers, but I think the more plausible explanation is that nobody really has psychic powers and precautions against cheating are doing exactly what they’re supposed. Or, a UFO organization once claimed that 2% of Americans have been abducted by aliens. In response, Carl Sagan quipped, “It’s surprising that more of the neighbors haven’t noticed” You could suppose that the aliens have various kinds of super-technology that allows them to hide almost all of the evidence, but a better explanation is that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are suffering from hallucinations, false memories and so on (see The Demon Haunted World, pp. 64, 181). Likewise, I think the best explanation for the lack of evidence for miracles is that there aren’t any.

So it can’t be disputed that the evidence for miracles is less than perfect. That’s enough to disprove Keener’s insinuation that skeptics of miracles wouldn’t be persuaded by any evidence. The vast majority of skeptics would have no trouble believing in the power of prayer if there were as much evidence for it as there is for the power of penicillin. But there isn’t.

Misdiagnosis

Another problem with stories of miraculous healings is the problem with doctors making mistakes. Consider this story:

In 2006, I interviewed Dr. Douglass Norwood; during the time of most of the testimonies he recounted, he was a Moravian pastor. He mentioned several dramatic healings but explained two in the greatest detail. The first case, which took place in Suriname, I have recounted earlier. The other case, more relevant for this chapter, involved his wife, Sarah. Her neck was broken and her spinal cord severed in a car crash on December 14, 1982; she remained paralyzed at the Rusk Institute for six months. Despite the medical impossibility of her walking with a severed spinal cord, she began walking within twenty-four hours of being “anointed with oil,” leading to a number of conversions among the hospital staff. Doug notes that the healing is only 90 percent complete, though it is a medical miracle; she walks with considerable effort and requires medicines, but that she walks at all still astonishes those who examine her (p. 438-439).

I picked up this story because it’s listed on a table at the end of the book as one where Keener had personally talked to the guy who supposedly witnessed this, and it was also listed as a case that Keener was especially confident was really miraculous. Personally, I just don’t see it. Given that the woman in this story could only walk “with considerable effort,” I don’t understand the mindset of someone who would look at this and say “this is an amazing miracle.” My guess is that what happened is that this woman really was badly injured and she just wasn’t quite as badly injured as the doctors initially thought. There’s nothing difficult to explain here.

Now Keener, once again has something to say about the issue of doctors making mistakes and once again it involves an ad hominem:

Those who question supernatural healings often attribute the more convincing cases to an initial misdiagnosis. Although genuine misdiagnosis does occur at times, this approach sometimes has been used as a means to explain away extranormal healings retroactively, and sometimes the initial evidence is too firm to aver a misdiagnosis… To simply dismiss every cure as a case of prior misdiagnosis is to allow one’s presuppositions to determine the outcome, especially when it involves many cases and the prior diagnoses involve multiple physicians. One healing evangelist reasonably complains that if critics really believe that so many hundreds of healing cases result from initial misdiagnosis, they should be raising an outcry against such widespread misdiagnosis instead of divine healing.

And once again this is all beside the point. The issue is not whether skeptics are closed-minded, the issue is that if the case is going to be touted as powerful evidence of miraculous healing, it needs to be possible to show with some degree of certainty that the doctors didn’t make a mistake. Keener claims that misdiagnosis can sometimes be ruled out, but he supports this claim with just a footnote. As happens all too often in the book, there’s no discussion of an absolutely central claim.

On top of that, there’s other silly rhetoric here. The thing about dismissing every cure as a case of misdiagnosis misses the point because a possible explanation doesn’t need to explain every case to be a serious concern. This is just like how there’s no single cause of UFO sightings that turn out not to be extraterrestrial spacecraft. Also, the complaint about hundreds of misdiagnoses is silly because in a world where millions upon millions of people seek medical care every year, a few hundred mistakes isn’t all that much. Doctors aren’t perfect.

A final point

I don’t know if you’re getting sick of this post by now, but I am, so one last point: Keener tries to explain the lack of medical documentation for alleged miraculous healings by proposing that God has seen fit to mainly work healing miracles in the context of missionary efforts in the Third World, and that makes them difficult to document (see i.e. p. 662-704-705). Again, while this is a possible explanation, I don’t think it’s the best explanation. Alleged miracles not happening under circumstances where they can be well documented is just what we would expect if no miracles were happening all.

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41 Comments.

  1. So did Keener explain why sceptics should reject out of hand Christian testimony in the Congo of child-witches and accept Christian testimony in the Congo of people rising from the dead?

    Did Keener ever find one single bit of Christian testimony that turned out to be false?

  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-16427840 has more documented evidence to back up Keener’s claim that people do in fact state that the supernatural exists.

  3. I was expecting a lot more miraculous testimony than that. Did he mention any visionary encounters?

    BTW- I am less impressed when it comes to licona’s story about the demon strangling the missionary. If the missionary had to use the bathroom at the time, why didn’t he soil himself? Biologically speaking, I don’t think it is possible to go thru that kind of trauma not soil yourself if you “have to go”. I don’t know what hapened to him- but I am certain he wasn’t strangled by an external source. Maybe just a sort of visionary experience brought about by the heat, lack of water, etc, later exagerated by this guy who was obviously creeped out.

  4. Chris Hallquist

    There may be a “visionary encounter” somewhere in there, but it’s mostly healings.

    Maybe I should have emphasized more that this book contains a ridiculous number of stories–I just chose a couple that I thought were useful for illustrating the weaknesses in Keener’s book. It would have been pointless to discuss very many cases, given Keener’s quantity-over-quality approach.

  5. Douglass Norwood’s neck was also injured recently in a car crash.

    Is God trying to kill them or something?

    Douglass Norwood also claims to hear voices from God.

    Are people who hear voices reliable witnesses?

    Or are people who hear voices mentally ill?

  6. I have read the above with much interest. The arguments are, mercifully and for a change from the general tenor of allegedly ‘Religion’ versus ‘Science’ arguments on IT sites, presented without automatic recourse to profanity and personalised denigration. This is welcome. No useful purpose that I can conceive is served by resorting to a furious antagonism in this arena of debate.
    And I view such debate as important because those who are debating are, whether they consciously appreciate it or no, part of Western civilisation. This is based rather firmly upon its inheritance of Christian-Calssical culture. As a result, it is the individual who has respect and value, as opposed to the ‘masses’, or ‘the race’, or any other convenient grouping conceived in other cultures by academics(generally), in order to formulate ideas to which individuals might voice legitimate democratic objection. Some Master Idea – or ‘-ism’ – which its proponents wish to present as the only one ‘permissible’ one upon which to base society, is never adequate for the purpose.
    Belief, be it religious or philosophical (and scientists are Natural Philosophers in origin) is peculiar to the individual expressing it, and always have been. It is true to say that no culture has ever been able to ‘clone’ belief, although many have tried, and this same futile exercise continues at this very minute. Think in terms of ‘IN-groups’ and ‘the OTHERS’ who are excluded from them, and supposedly worthless as a result. It is all around us.
    “Ah! But what about Creeds, Party Lines, Fundamental Principles (often so self-evident that they need neither examination or justification!)and ‘Rights’. Are these not imposed upon people by society, religion, philosophy, ..or brute force? Was there never an Office of the Holy Inquisition for Christians?” Yes. These attempts to standardise belief have been made; often a superfical conformity has been achieved, if only at the level of lip-service. This endures. Consider, what ambitious scientist today could advance in his career, in some universities, if he were openly and evangelically Christian? Oddly, if he were Jewish, this little personal whimsy of his would be overlooked, for no-one is Anti-Semitic these days; not publicly, at least. We are ruled by Political Correctness instead; and this new tyranny can be made up as one goes along, too! Obviously it is so much better than some constricting cultural creed, or so its advocates tell me.
    What I am parodying here is relevant to the social organisation of a species – homo sapiens – us. We have inherited the culture of Christianity combined with the Classical Greek model which valued the male individaul… but not women or slaves!
    Christianity has never made such a distinction, however; Christians, whatever their sexual or social status, have always been viewd as equal in the eyes of God.
    Yet no two Christians have conceived God in exactly the same way. Individuality in conception and belief is strong. Think of the various ‘shades’ of Christian religious expression.. from Pontifical High Mass at St Peter’s (Rome) to a Salvation Army group on a street corner. Add other options to your taste. They are still believers of one Faith worshipping their conception of God. I had better add, I hope unnecessarily, that other religions also view the Ultimate, Absolute, and Total of all that they conceive as having personal spiritual worth as God .. in whatever form God is, by them, conceived, expressed, and related to. I have written more fully along these lines in my book “God, Ghosts, and Independent Minds” by Newton Green. (Penpress; at all good booksellers; also via Amazon and Kindle).
    I set out, here, to comment on a review of a book dealing with miracles. Perhaps the greatest ‘miracle’ of all is the fact that the Universe is understandable, subject to investigation by our intellects. The second great wonder is that its processes are consistent and reliable. The only awkward consideration is that about 95% of the Universe is ‘missing’ – ie, so far unperceived and unaccounted for, if the Natural Laws upon which this conclusion is based are as sound as our Science has every right to believe. We are far from all-knowing, in other words.
    We are ourselves creatures of stardust; we breathe it, we drink it, we eat it. For us to exist in our material form, at least two fair-sized stars have had to run their thermo-nuclear courses, die, and spew out the elements cooked up in the process, which in turn became us. Our science tells us so, and offers proofs, good proofs. We can rely upon them. We are material beings, in a material universe, and we are governed by the same Natural Laws – or built-in blueprints – which govern the stardust of which we are composed. Our material selves are built up by wonderful processes involving our genes; this is true of all life. Our genes make us what we are, as an evolved species. Homo-sapiens does not re-generate limbs, however.
    Thus, to revert to a portion of the criticism and the book, why expect God automatically to work miracles contrary to established Natural Laws, just to suit our convenience? As a Christian, I view God as being ‘in charge’, not some sort of servant to my whim and convenience. Do miracles occur? Certainly they are perceived, now and then, but I stress ‘perceived’. How, in any honest sense, can we judge whether a miracle has occurred or not? What criteria should we employ? To pursue the personally-miraculous, I suggest that those interested in the subject examine the records of the ‘miraculous cures’ commission for Lourdes. What they conclude from these records is up to them,of course. Choice and free-will are other essentials of life, and tend to be overlooked in such contexts as perception, conception, and personal responsibility – to whom, now?! – from day-to-day.
    This is philosophical territory; science is but a portion of the whole. (See my book if you wish to follow this line.)
    Please pursue truth, not fashion, or expedient fads such as political correctness. Be honest, courteous, and constructive. We shall, by-and-by understnd more about the universe and about ourselves in relation to it … and I will add “in relation to God”, for so I choose to view the matter. Newton Green.

  7. This is what I call a weaselly thesis statement because it clearly says much less than what Keener wants to say.

    This is typical of the apologist who wants to be taken seriously in the academic community. He’s not going to claim to have actually demonstrated anything because that might lower his standing among serious scholars. However he is happy to have other apologists cite his work as providing rock solid proof.

  8. Grammar & spelling: This is a good article overall, but you really should go back and examine the grammar and spelling. It isn’t near the level that I’ve found in your other articles. It is ok to have a few, but this article has so many it detracts. Here are a few that I could go back and find, but not all:

    “defend the an article” (the -> in)
    “a coincidence you, elliminate” (misplaced comma, spelling)
    “documentation,” (extra comma)
    “phenomenon with this kind of stories” (this->these)
    “is collected” (elide ‘-ed’)

  9. @Newton Green

    No useful purpose that I can conceive is served by resorting to a furious antagonism in this arena of debate.

    This is faithhead code speak saying that you have nothing of substance to add to the conversation so you will pretend that your ideas are privileged and immune to the criticism that applies to any idea presented in the marketplace of ideas and use your hurt feelings as a mechanism for censoring any further discussion of your ridiculous beliefs.

  10. Newton, you spent a lot of time telling us you believe that everything science cannot yet explain you put down to “god musta done it.” Why not make an exact same leap of fear-based faith and declare purple and yellow polka-dotted flying gremlins did it (that would scare me, too)? Makes the exact same amount of sense in light of the scientific evidence we have to date of god’s existence. Why won’t you do that just as a test of the truth of the matter? Because you’d be considered insane and an outcast, that’s why you won’t. Now you see how an atheist perceives believers (insane) and how believers perceive atheists (outcasts). Sad, you pegged that one right. But you won’t do this simple experiment because you’re afraid to as you’ve professed your servitude (in fear) to this unprovable god in your post.

    And why not expect god to work miracles? Every prayer answered is a miracle. Why does every preacher, reverend, father, etc. tell his flock to pray? Come on. You can’t have it both ways. Wait, christianity is so full of contradictions, maybe you guys want it all ways and don’t care if it makes sense or not. Life’s much easier that way, isn’t it?

  11. Chris, its clear that no matter what miracle were to occur, an atheist that believe that existence, life and mind are explained by mindless processes could find a way to reject that miralce as proof.

    Go ahead, suggest a miracle that you would accept as proof and I will show how you could reject it.

    Absolutely no exceptions.

    Go ahead, suggest a miracle.

  12. ‘Pretty crappy miracles for a god that is supposed to be omnipotent.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    James, here’s a miracle I would accept– if a god had listened to the passengers on the 9-11 hijacked planes and set them down safely and miraculously that would do it. Unless of course, god was going by the name “Allah” and then everybody having lucid dreams of the hijackers in paradise might be convincing. I think we can all name thousands of miracles a real omnipotent being should be able to do that would impress even the most hardened skeptics. And even if we didn’t know– an omniscient god WOULD know and and omnipotent god could do so easily. How about a documented case of a real regrown limb on a human– without medical intervention?

    The bottom line is, a real god (or invisible superman)(or immaterial advanced alien) ought to be able to do things that distinguishes themselves from a non-existent being or a mythological being. A real god should perform better than a carton of milk when tested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk6ILZAaAMI You would certainly expect such evidence before believing that fairies exist, right? Why shouldn’t the skeptic demand a similar level of evidence before believing in your invisible friend?

    Would the “evidence” you count as evidence for god really suffice if you didn’t imagine that faith was necessary for salvation and/or that your “loving” god might punish you eternally if you didn’t believe in him? Somehow I think these notions are biasing believers interpretations of events, don’t you?

    James, why don’t you tell us if there is anything that would shake your faith in god. I maintain that your belief in your god is more resistant to all evidence (or lack thereof) than the skeptics position. It looks to me like those who are afraid of hell are forced to interpret paltry healing as “evidence” that their god is real. Promises of heaven and threats of hell clearly step up the human tendency to engage in confirmation bias.

  13. Chris Hallquist

    @James,

    If the Mighty Thor showed up leading a group of Asgardian warriors to defend the Earth against Loki.

    But the point isn’t what you “could” do. The point is what’s the most reasonable conclusion given the evidence. It’s very easy to imagine evidence good enough to support the conclusion that the supernatural is real, and it’s very clear that Keener’s book doesn’t provide it.

  14. You wouldn’t accept that Chris…in such an event you would end up attributing to mass delusion induced by chemical weapons or even space aliens.

    Same for you Articulett. Aliens using advanced technology to manipulate mankind would explain it all given your undemonstrable belief that existence is explained by mindless processess.

    Even if, for example, Christopher Hitchens were to awaken in Hell, he would not accept it. He would undoubtedly attribute it to some kind of drug induced nightmare from a failed anesthetic during a hospital procedure. He would be telling himself for eternity, the doctors will bring me out of this soon. This can’t be real!

    What challenge would I accept? Demonstrate to me that all existence,life, mind and reason itself is accounted for by a mindless process.

    And do it in an experimentally repeatable manner.

  15. “Demonstrate to me that all existence,life, mind and reason itself is accounted for by a mindless process.”

    @James:
    You sure you wouldn’t do exactly what you’re accusing atheists of doing? Wouldn’t you just take another step back and say “Well, how did THAT get started?”

    It seems that you don’t take atheist’s objections to miracle claims seriously, even after they spell out exactly what would convince them. Then you tell us what would convince you, and expect us to take you seriously? :roll:

    And I know the question wasn’t asked of me, but I will respond anyway. The following is a bit of the transcript from the debate between Parsons and Craig in 1998. Parsons was just asked what would convince him:

    Parsons: If tomorrow morning, immediately after breakfast, suddenly there was an earthquake and a silvery light in the sky, and the leaves dropped from the trees…and there towering over us like a hundred Everests was this giant figure..and he pointed down and said “Be assured Keith M Parsons, that I do in fact exist and I am sick of your logic chopping!”…I would join you in the pew of the church.

    Craig: You sure you wouldn’t say “Boy I was having an hallucination?”

    Parsons: Not if you saw it too. I’m assuming that it’s on the evening news, that everybody on earth goes out to see it…recorded in all nations in all languages, that sort of thing.

    I think Parsons answer is pretty good. If that sort of thing were to happen, I, as an atheist, would have no choice but to become a Christian, or to abandon my intellect.
    You may say “You would rather abandon your intellect,” but you have no way of knowing that.

  16. @James

    Demonstrate to me that all existence,life, mind and reason itself is accounted for by a mindless process.

    But then what would I do after lunch ?

    I have a better idea, since you’re the one making the claims for an invisible sky daddy or whatever imaginary being you happen to grovel to, you provide evidence for a big guy in the sky. Convince me that it’s just not a special relationship with the voices in your head.

    I make no such claim that all existence,life, mind and reason itself is accounted for by a mindless process, I only claim that a supernatural explanation is not needed to explain any phenomena we have encountered so far.

    Life is too short to have to demonstrate that the scientific method is the best tool that we have for understanding reality to every wack job that sees jebus in a dogs asshole and the virgin mary in random oil stains on the road.

  17. Chris Hallquist

    You wouldn’t accept that Chris… in such an event you would end up attributing to mass delusion induced by chemical weapons or even space aliens.

    How do you know that? And do you realize what you’re doing here? Just like Keener, you’ve substituted a personal attack on me for an actual discussion of the evidence.

  18. James– so you imagine you have psychic powers too– and that you know how we (and Christopher Hitchens!) would react under given circumstances?!

    Certainly you admit that if your god is real– he would know exactly what to do to convince each person that he was real and could easily do so, right? So either he’s chosen not too (just like he’s chosen not to prevent cancer, birth defects tsunamis, suffering etc.) or he doesn’t exist. I think the more obvious answer is the latter.

    Consciousness requires a brain and a brain is material product of evolution. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/12/is-god-an-accident/4425/ but of course that doesn’t convince you, does it? What you are really saying is that if science can’t give you an explanation that you can understand regarding the origins of the universe, then you are going to keep believing in the magical explanation proffered by your indoctrinators.

    What is the difference between your god and powerful alien anyhow? And how would Chrisopher Hitchens or anyone else experience anything in an afterlife if they have no brain? What could consciousness without any brain or body parts be? You can’t even make a new memory without a hippocampus! How would you distinguish a miracle of god from just a non-god healing? How might it be different from a healing of advanced aliens or demons or fairies? How is different from a natural healing?

    I think it’s pretty obvious that believers in woo have a very low standard of evidence when it comes to reinforcing the supernatural beliefs they feel special, moral, and saved for believing in– but they have much more rational and skeptical standards when it comes to all other woo. Believers look for reasons to confirm their biases. For example, I suspect that you aren’t swayed by this guy’s “evidence” for his woo: http://reluctant-messenger.com/reincarnation-proof.htm But this will surely seem like great evidence to reincarnationists… and I’m sure they’d make similar excuses to you as to why skeptics would reject their evidence.

    Skeptics look for whether there is evidence to believe that anything supernatural is real… they expect real things to distinguish themselves from illusions when scientifically tested. If there was any evidence that consciousness could exist without a material brain, scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that information for their own benefit. If scientists can’t know something, we don’t imagine that preachers or gurus do. When an honest person doesn’t know an answer, they say “I don’t know”; whereas, the believer says, “science can’t explain it; therefore my woo is true!” Skeptics understand that a natural answer is always more likely than any supernatural answer and that believing in a supernatural explanation makes it very unlikely that you’ll discover the actual explanation. We don’t want to be fooling ourselves. You have a vested interest in continuing to fool yourself and so you can be expected to do so– just like the reincarnations in the link above.

    I think that the invisible beings you believe in (Jesus-god, spirits, angels, demons, Satan) are as unreal as the ones you don’t believe in (immaterial aliens, fairies, gremlins, Zeus, muses, etc.) As far as the evidence (or lack of evidence) is concerned, I am correct. Is there anything that would convince YOU they are equally real/unreal?

  19. Reginald Selkirk

    He talks about his limitations, like a lack of funding for investigation

    How sad that theists have an opportunity to prove to the world certain aspects of their religious doctrine, but they can’t scrape up the dough.

  20. It is believers who deny the evidence of their own eyes.

    See http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm for documented evidence that the New Testament miracles are full of the same frauds, plagiarism and deceit that characterise the Book of Mormon and the Koran.

    Believers simply deny the evidence available to them.

  21. Hume and Spinoza are ever right about miracles! :razz: Never would one produce evidence for any! Evidence, not philosophical play on words,counts! :oops:

  22. Google skeptic griggsy and morgan-lynngriggs blogs to see how this gnu atheist handles that superstition! Articulett can attest to how I flay it.
    Okease do post @ any of my blogs. I’m trying to get naturalism front page headlines with articles from elsewhere- here- and my own articles and comments on the others.
    Retirement is for the adroit of mind!
    Please don’t worry over the syntax.

  23. Based on knowledge and experience, my best judgment is that miracles do not occur. However, I have absolutely no presuppositions regarding crazy shit that I can’t explain. If faced with a well documented miracle claim, I might still be inclined to think that there was some unknown natural cause. Nevertheless, I would have no trouble saying to a theist “That’s some crazy shit. That’s a pretty good one for your side.”

    The logic of the apologist seems to be. “It makes sense for me to believe in miracles based on really crappy evidence because even if the evidence were better, someone else could still doubt it.”

  24. The best documented cases of healings following intense intercessory prayer I’m aware of are, first, the case of Jeanna Giese, having suffered from rabies (http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/god5.htm), and, second, that of Don Vanderhoof, with whom two neurologists had diagnosed Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (http://www.baptist-books.com/MISS/1204.html).

  25. I see Triablogue are as silly as ever.

    ‘The very fact that he was injured in the first place has a purpose in the plan of God.’

    No comment.

    And they go on to claim that reports of miracles in the New Testament are ‘hyperbole’.

    Why don’t they just admit the evidence of their own eyes?

    They can see the same sorts of fraud, lies and plagiarism in the New Testament that would get a student thrown out of college at http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm

  26. I see Carr is as dense as ever. Steve Hays did not claim that *reports* of miracles are hyperbolic; he said that the promise to receive whatever you pray for is hyperbolic.

  27. How can you tell that walking on water is not hyperbole?

    As for Jesus promising that his all-powerful God can do anything, who takes that seriously? Who does God think he is, God or something?

    How can you tell that claims that an all-powerful God can do anything are hyperbole?

    Apart from the fact that you can no longer sell such claims to the general public, who won’t buy them anymore.

    Which means you had to change the product as your market changed.

    And, of course, the NT is a pack of frauds and lies , like all other religions http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm

  28. Whether walking on water is hyperbole or not is not the issue. The issue was your uncharitable and irresponsible reading of what Hays said.

    The issue is not whether God *can* do anything, it whether he will *give* a believe anything the believers asks for. If a believer asked for a trillion dollars, God *could* do this. But just because God could do something doesn’t mean he will or would (unless you want to add modal blunders to your ever-growing list of blunders). Some people try to read Jesus’ claim as woodenly literal, but if it’s hyperbole, that removes the teeth of at least one popular misotheist objection to Jesus’ claim here.

    No one think God can do *anything*, period. But if you properly qualified your claim, again, no one has claimed that God’s *abilities* are hyperbolically ascribed to him. Again, it’s his claim to give the believer *anything* the *believer* asks for. Not because God *can’t*, but because he won’t, and it’s ridiculous to suppose he would. He’s not a cosmic vending machine.

    Which means nothing has been changed but you’ve been corrected, yet again.

    I’d worry about my own lies and reading comprehension abilities before worrying about whether there’s lies on the Bible.

  29. @Carr Check

    “No one think God can do *anything*, period. But if you properly qualified your claim, again, no one has claimed that God’s *abilities* are hyperbolically ascribed to him. Again, it’s his claim to give the believer *anything* the *believer* asks for. Not because God *can’t*, but because he won’t, and it’s ridiculous to suppose he would. He’s not a cosmic vending machine.”

    More theological nonsense.

  30. What’s nonsense?

    First, hardly anyone claims God can do anything *whatever* (e.g., kill himself, make square circles, etc). If he can, this rules out various conundrums. For if God can do the illogical, he can make a mountain so big he can’t lift it, and he can lift it (a la Mavrodes’ point). So, this isn’t nonsense.

    Second, once qualified in the above sense, i.e., roughly, God can do the logically possible, then there’s no one who claims his abilities are hyperbolically ascribed to him. They mean this literally. So, this isn’t nonsense.

    Third, what is hyperbolic is the claim that God will give the believer whatever he asks for. For example, if a believer asked that Jesus never be sent down to earth, God wouldn’t grant this. This isn’t nonsense either. It’s perfectly meaningful.

    Fourth, the reason God won’t give the believer whatever is asked for is not because God isn’t powerful enough to, it’s because he may have a better reason not to give what was asked for than to give it. For example, I might tell my daughter: “Ill get you whatever you want for Christmas.” This is obviously hyperbolic, for I would not get her a vile of crack. Not because I can’t (I know where the ghetto is and who to ask for crack), but because I won’t. So, this makes sense to.

    Nothing said was nonsense, then. You should spend your time studying, among other things, the philosophy of language instead of making stupid comments on blogs.

  31. It is astonishing that believers hold up a book where their god floods the entire world and stops the sun in the sky and they have the audacity to claim that the reason their god won’t cash the cheques his son promised his followers is that he doesn’t choose to.

    So God could give legs back, but chooses not to.

    The claim is that this imaginary god is all-powerful, and his supporters demonstrate just how imaginary this is by claiming their puny god won’t do anything that takes real power.

    Why it is just hyperbole for their Son of God to say that if believers in the Big Daddy God pray for something, whatever they pray for will be granted.

    What he meant was that if they pray for something that was likely to happen anyway, the Big Daddy God will answer their prayers.

    And if they pray for something that takes a real god to do, the Big Daddy God will refuse to do it.

    No wonder Jesus lied when he said believers could pray for legs to be regrown – whatever they wanted. The Big Daddy God in the sky won’t do that….

    Now if they prayed for a parking place to become free…

    How can you tell hyperbole from reality?

    Easy. Believers still have some semblance of reality left to them. They are not totally deluded.

    They know perfectly well not to pray for something that isn’t going to happen naturally, and expect it to actually happen.

    They claim their god can part seas, send angels from Heaven and stop the sun in the sky.

    But if you ask for a demonstration of the power of this alleged god who allegedly stopped the sun in the sky, you get a mouthful of abuse.

    I remind believers of the lies that poured from the lips of their alleged Saviour ‘Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

    More lies from the religion based on lies.

    Why should anybody take seriously a religion where even the alleged Saviour tells lies which are so bare-faced his supporters have to claim he didn’t even mean what he said?

  32. TRIABLOGUE
    ‘The very fact that he was injured in the first place has a purpose in the plan of God.’’

    CARR
    More wisdom from Triablogue who now claim their god plans for people to be injured.

    Meanwhile, in the real world, Christians are killing children as witches in the very country , the Congo, where Keener laps up Christian testimony of people rising from the dead.

    While the Triablogue people make excuses why their god won’t do miracles, Christians in the Congo are killing children as witches.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/575178.stm

    And Keener then reports Christians in the Congo as credible people when they claim that people rise from the dead.

  33. @ Annatar Check

    I know that theologians usually refer to God’s powers as being limited by logic. That’s not my point.

    “‘The very fact that he was injured in the first place has a purpose in the plan of God.’”

    How do you know it was part of the plan of God? Because it happened?

    “Third, what is hyperbolic is the claim that God will give the believer whatever he asks for.”

    Why is it hyperbolic? Just because it doesn’t happen?

    Your simply giving the all-purpose-theist-cop-out argument: God moves in mysterious ways.

    In the Old Testament, God was happy to show his power upon request. Why is it absurd to ask God for an open demonstration of his power today, but Elijah asking for a bolt of lightning to light the pyre isn’t absurd? Or splitting the Red Sea? Or turning staves into snakes? or a burning bush? Or turning the water to blood? or…

  34. Annatar, then what was your point?

    Because decrees *whatsoever* happens. From there is a simple deduction from a universal. Not brain surgery.

    It’s hyperbolic because it uses an extreme example to make a point. Not “just because it doesn’t happen.”

    I didn’t give a cop out, but God’s ways are often mysterious. He’s a sui generis being who’s, sorry to say, way smarter than you, so why expect everything said being does would be fully scrutable by you?

    I didn’t say it was absurd to ask for a demonstration of God’s power, did I? However, let’s not make fallacious assumptions like we’re in the same place in the history of redemption as those people you cite. Similarly, requests I am happy to perform for my 3 yr. old aren’t request I’m happy to perform for her when she’s 30, not to mention aren’t request I’m necessarily happy to perform for all three year olds at all times in all places. Please try to think before you type.

  35. @ Annatar Check

    All apologetics is a cop-out. I have pointed out how your entire positions is question begging. Have a good day.

  36. ACHECK
    It’s hyperbolic …

    CARR
    You seem to be confusing ‘hyperbole’ with something else.

    In the real world, you can’t tell lies and then get around it by calling it ‘hyperbole’.

    If I claimed that Christians were the biggest threat to the planet since smallpox, a claim that this was ‘hyperbole’ would be as pathetic an excuse as a claim that I was drunk when I said it.

    If your Saviour promises his believers that his god would grant them anything, calling it ‘hyperbole’ is as superficial an answer as claiming that sceptics should not take it seriously, because Jesus was drunk when he said it.

    Calling it ‘hyperbole’ is a response, not an answer.

  37. man #1 was healed- it’s a miracle!

    man #2 wasn’t healed- obviously it’s part of Gods mysterious plan

    Why didn’t God prevent man #1 from needing healing in the first place? It’s part of Gods mysterious plan

    How can you possibly expect us to take this reasoning seriously.

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