I’ve been blogging for six and a half years. My possibly-overly-nostalgic memories of my early years blogging are that atheist and Christian bloggers interacted a lot more back then. The blogosphere seems to have moved away from that, and unfortunately it’s a self-reinforcing trend: it’s hard to write blog posts responding to Christian bloggers, if I read their posts and get the feeling the posts weren’t directed at me in the first place. I say unfortunate, because I love a good argument and that’s become harder to find for an atheist in the blogosphere.
So I was actually kind of happy to see that Steve Hayes of Triablogue had responded to my review of Craig Keener’s book Miracles. But then I read it, and… it’s totally full o’ fail. Yet I feel like commenting on a few parts anyways:
(1) Hayes quotes me as calling Keener’s thesis “weasly,” and then calls this a “conspiratorial interpretation” while ignoring my more detailed explanation of what’s wrong with Keener’s thesis. To recap: the “primary thesis” is poorly-chosen because it’s too trivial to be worth devoting a two-volume set to, and his “secondary thesis” is problematic because it’s vague, and seems to provide Keener with an excuse for spending a lot of time accusing people of being closed-minded, instead of doing what he should be doing, which is arguing that miracles actually occur.
I suppose I could have spent a little more time on this last problem, for the sake of making things clear. In particular, I neglected to quote some of the more blatant ad hominems, such as, “skeptics ‘have laid out the rules of the game in such a way that they cannot possibly lose’” (p. 703). This quote, along with much of Keener’s discussion of such important issues medical documentation, misdiagnosis, and scientific study of prayer (quoted in my original review), is located in a chapter titled “Biased Standards?” which implies that the key issue with respect to these things is not the quality (or weakness) of the evidence, but whether skeptics are closed-minded.
(2) Hayes quotes me as saying
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… 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.
Then he complains a lot about it, but never answers two key questions: why do believers rarely pray for limbs to regenerate, and why are the prayers for limb regeneration that people do make so rarely answered? And while I’m on the subject: Hayes complains that I’m “leaving myself an out” by pointing out that a leg regrowth story might be a lie. But does he seriously think it’s unreasonable to be skeptical of the story from Pat Robertson’s book?
(3) Hayes writes, “In the nature of the case, most odds-beating recoveries will also happen after medical treatment. Is it just coincidental that the cure follows the treatment?” My answer: In some cases, yes. In other cases, no. But the reason we know that some medical treatments really work is not because of Keener-style collections of stories of people who received medical treatment and then recovered. We know this because we’ve done scientific studies of the effectiveness of many medical treatments, and in many cases the results came back positive.
(4) Another thing Hayes says is, “If Hallquist rejects methodological naturalism, then he has no right to tilt the board against miracles. In that event there’s no antecedent presumption to the contrary which the evidence must overcome.” This is just bizarre. If I reject one rationale for being skeptical of miracles, then I can’t be skeptical of miracles?
Here’s a simple explanation of why I’m skeptical of miracles: If someone tells me they took a ride on an airplane, under normal circumstances I’ll believe them, because I have lots of reason to think airplanes are real. (Among other things, I have memories of riding in them.) However, if someone tells me they took a ride on an extraterrestrial spacecraft, I’m going to be skeptical unless they can give me some very good evidence, because I’ve never seen any good evidence that any human has ever ridden in an extraterrestrial spacecraft. This has nothing to do with “naturalism,” since extraterrestrial spacecraft aren’t supernatural.
Similarly, if a friend tells me they got sick, took some penicillin, and got better, I’ll figure the penicillin probably contributed to their getting better, because I know there’s good evidence that penicillin helps fight infections. However, if a friend tells me they got sick, prayed, and got better, I’ll think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that the prayer helped except maybe in a psychosomatic way, because there’s no good evidence for the efficacy of prayer. In other words, it’s totally normal to use what you know about the world in general to evaluate reports about specific occasions. This should not be hard to understand.
(5) There’s all kinds of other things I can talk about, but I don’t care, because everything else in the post is even sillier than what I’ve talked about so far.