“Miracle Maxin'” remains one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, and I think for good reason. I want to talk a little more about miracles today because in the last two days, I’ve tangled with half a dozen Christians on the topic of miracles, specifically the subject of healing. I don’t know what it is about this dreary end-of-winter season, but “miracles” are coming out of the woodwork like they’re cockroaches. They’re like a Christian’s first, best, most powerful line of defense against the predations of an evil secular world. They brandish these miracles like they’re extra-long buster swords–and you can all but see their ears lay back when non-believers somehow fail completely to appreciate these grand and glorious “miracles” on their carefully-defined (and often misused) terms. To a Christian, the world lives and moves and breathes the name of Jesus, and Christians seem completely flabbergasted that someone could ever possibly deny something they think is so painfully obvious as the existence of miracles.
I want to explain why it is that these miracle claims hold so little draw for non-believers and why these claims only backfire for Christians and hurt their “witness.”
Mainly, I think miracle claims are the opposite of compelling because the constant pushing of miracles shows how little Christians understand both people and the world around themselves.
First off, when Christians push “miracles” at non-believers they just demonstrate how well they can glorify ignorance.
There’s nothing magical about ignorance. Christians keep intoning “SCIENCE CAN’T EXPLAIN THIS!” like it’s some magic spell. It’s not. They think that such a statement obviously means that the only other alternative is their offering of a magical one. And that’s not true. Science can’t explain a lot of stuff–yet. Medical science itself can’t explain everything, and it doesn’t even try. It doesn’t even feel shame about not being able to explain everything. Christians love to say “this has no explanation!” like that’s the end-run of all miracle claims. I’ve heard that very statement from three different Christians in the last two days, each time uttered with dramatic finality, like it should have a thunderclap sound effect in its background.
Alas, just because you don’t have a formal explanation for something doesn’t mean that it simply must be a supernatural event. I suffer really bad early-onset arthritis. It’s possible that a bout of serious food poisoning back in college brought it on, but medical science cannot say that for sure, or explain why such a relatively young woman has such a bad case of it–just like medical science couldn’t explain why I got shingles in my early 30s or why I was laid out for a year and a half in my 20s with temporary asthma brought on by a lung infection that to this very day I do not actually have a diagnosis for beyond “wow, it sucks to be you–here, have some inhalers.” My mother died at 54 of cancer–and there’s no explanation for why it killed her so amazingly quickly or why it was so aggressive with her body; we’re pretty sure it was caused by HPV, but we don’t understand at all why it went the way it did.
Does science’s lack of explanatory power in these situations mean those diseases were caused by demons or that a deity sparked them out of the clear blue sky? That is a ridiculous idea. Medicine isn’t like “House” on TV. Trust me on this one, because I know for sure, speaking as someone who’s faced quite a few mysterious medical issues: there’s not some team of expert diagnosticians waiting on standby for every single wonky or weird medical case to come through the hospital doors. A doctor’s goal is to get you standing up and back to work if possible, not to explain everything that possibly could happen to you. They barely understand how most of the medications they prescribe even work–just that they do. A Christian who thinks a solemn or triumphantly crowed “science can’t explain (insert medical condition here)!” is some kind of justification for anything supernatural is simply glorifying ignorance and then demanding that non-believers glorify it alongside them. And non-believers don’t tend to be as gullible and as quick to leap to the supernatural as an explanation for every poorly-understood situation.
So a Christian’s ignorance does not constitute a compelling case for miracles. I can’t speak for every non-believer in the world, but every time a Christian glorifies ignorance like this, it makes me wonder why their miracles depend upon human ignorance to sound plausible. Thousands of years ago, we thought that mental illness was the result of demonic possession, we thought that angels and demons could influence babies in the womb, and even today there are Christians who think depression is supernatural in nature. But as human knowledge has progressed, “miracles” that depended upon ignorance back then are now just normal medicine today. And in the same way, the stuff Christians think is miraculous today, we’ll no doubt totally understand in the future. To paraphrase Agent K, think about what we “knew” way back then, and imagine what we’ll know tomorrow. Humanity is astonishing all by itself. We don’t need any divine aid.
Second, these miracle claims have no evidence backing them up whatsoever–except of the shoddy, colorless, mewling, pathetic pseudo-science variety that way too many Christians have convinced themselves is just as good as the real thing (just like many of them have convinced themselves that their second-rate “Christian music” and “Christian movies” are as good as the real things). It is not as good as the real thing. Reality itself is so amazing and so glorious that there shouldn’t be a need to manufacture second-rate fake “facts” to bolster a claim. The human body and mind are amazing to me–so amazing that I cannot and will not entertain junk science to explain their workings. The universe is so mind-bogglingly grand and beautiful to me, so perfect, so vast, so filled with wonder that I won’t even bother with the kind of humbug bullshit that many Christians invent to puff up their religious wankery.
One of the first tanglings I mentioned had to do with a Christian on Facebook retelling with breathless wide-eyed amazement an urban legend he’d just heard about some doctor in Israel who had apparently seen a cancer patient healed and “science couldn’t explain” this miracle. Nobody really paid attention to him, so later on he crowed that “nobody’s debunked my claim yet!”
I said, “What’s to debunk? You didn’t actually present any actual evidence for the claim.” Indeed, he didn’t, since the article only contained the claim itself with absolutely no corroborating evidence whatsoever for the claim. The article was literally just a doctor talking about something he’d seen and attributing it to the supernatural.
But then I thought to do something that this Christian obviously had not: I went to Google and looked up the name of this doctor, given as Yaakov Bickels. Weirdly, he only showed up in articles about this “miracle healing,” which had been printed and reprinted all across the right-wing crazy end of the Christosphere (but, oddly, not in any more-reputable sources that I saw). I then went to PubMed and plugged his name into the PubMed article database. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that this doctor’s name does not appear in a single journal article in the entire database. Now, do these two things mean that this doctor doesn’t exist? Not necessarily. As commonly happens with international names, it’s possible that these articles simply spelled the name incorrectly; I did find a variation on his name, Jacob, in the database, and indeed that’s the spelling most of these Christian blogs and biased faux-news sites seem to be using. But the fact that the story doesn’t appear in any reputable outlets, combined with how little I could find about the doctor himself, makes my ninja-whiskers twitch. What else do you suppose I’d find if I went further into checking this story if this obvious detail seems off? (The Christian’s follow-up “evidence” involved a guest of Dr. Oz’s who also thought miracles happened all the time; this guest was roundly denounced as a fraud by pretty much everybody except Christians, but I guess that info hadn’t gotten to my wide-eyed acquaintance yet. Newsflash to earnest Christians, BTW: Dr. Oz is the dead opposite of reputable and citing his show doesn’t help you at all.)
For that matter, why does a non-Christian have to police these urban legends and do these Christians’ work for them? Why didn’t the Christian citing the “cancer healing” do this research to begin with, before pushing out the story, before claiming it was true when it so obviously wasn’t? Why didn’t he make double-sure that the only explanation possible here was miracles and that he was citing real evidence from a trustworthy source? If Christians would actually do the smallest amount of double-checking before repeating wild claims, they’d do their cause an inestimable service. Instead, by passing on everything they hear without the first hint of skepticism, they just make their religion look less reputable to outsiders. It’s like a flowchart in their heads: Make outrageous claim –> get butt-pats from fellow Christians –> get slapped down by less gullible person –> issue butthurt denunciation of the less-gullible person about being “close-minded” –> make fresh claim the next day about something equally outrageous. And the Christian never examines any of these claims closely, and outsiders get more and more alienated by the constant stream of obviously-false claims.
Look, every single time someone goes looking seriously into these “miracles,” we discover that either there’s a perfectly valid explanation for them, that they are purely urban legends without any basis in fact at all, or else the person claiming authority (like this supposed oncologist) isn’t actually any sort of authority at all on the topic. It’s sorta like how creationists like to publish lists of scientists who don’t accept evolutionary theory, and when you look at the lists, they’re almost all of scientists who aren’t employed in any biological fields. I’ve even seen creationists claim that a particular scientist said something that the scientist didn’t say at all–and distort what scientists do say to try to back up their claims. To me, it is a huge black mark against Christianity that absolutely none of its miracle claims can be reliably backed up without resorting to pseudo-science and deliberate deception. It tells me something when so many doctors profess a belief in whatever it is this study here says is “God” yet none of them are willing to scientifically examine any of these “miracle claims” using rigorous testing techniques–it’s almost as if they know perfectly well that these miracles aren’t really objectively real. I mean, we’re talking about a god here, people–a divine being who punched through the veil between our reality and its own and did something tangible in this universe–and we can’t even demonstrate that this event was supernatural in nature?
I don’t see why a miracle, if it’s real, can’t be backed up by actual real evidence and supported by actual real scientists. Only the very weakest of gods would need to resort to this vile trickery and disgustingly deceptive tactics to make miracles look real. But Christians don’t seem to notice or care that there’s no real evidence for their claims. Then they get upset and angry when non-believers dare to doubt their stories. I can kind of see why; when we bring up these little points, clearly those are things the Christian didn’t think about but should have thought about before buying into the story. I know it must be a little embarrassing to be shown how inadequate one’s truly-believed “proof” really is. But that’s no excuse for not verifying a story before spreading it.
Third, these stories just demonstrate how incompetent the Christian god is. Let me explain: every single fake miracle story is a slap in the face to someone who really, truly suffers and is crying out for help and aid. Every fake “cancer healing” is a raised middle finger to every real case of cancer that ends in death or obviously gets better thanks to medical advances in real science. It’s rare when a middle-aged Christian doesn’t have some kind of “healing” in his or her largely-doctored-up “testimony” as a selling point for Christianity, and it always comes across as a Lotto winner explaining what ritual was performed to win the jackpot. Yes yes, that’s nice, you were totally awfully poor and you won the lottery. What good does that do anybody else? Is the Christian trying to say that anybody who believes gets this benefit? Because nobody sane thinks that. Not everybody who prays gets healed–in fact, let’s be honest, most people don’t get magically healed. Nobody with an amputated limb has ever gotten it grown back. Nobody with a genuinely destroyed optic nerve has ever seen it regenerated. Nobody who has well and truly died has come back from death. So why is this particular “healed” person special? What did this “healed” person do that all those other people didn’t do who didn’t get healed? What did this super-special person do that rated a little extra attention?
It’s downright capricious. I’ve heard Christians get blamed for not praying enough when they didn’t get their “claimed” healings. I was accused of it myself. Or of not believing enough that I’d be healed. Or of secretly harboring doubts. Or of committing some sin. Obviously I did something wrong. That’s why I was hurt or sick. If I’d been doing everything right, obviously I’d be healed already. Such Christians are very clearly playing a blame game–they demonize and marginalize those who don’t get healed by saying it’s all their fault, when really the problem is obviously that there isn’t any magic person healing anybody. We’ll totally ignore that in all the time I was a Christian, during all those years I thought that there existed a wonder-working god, I did not even once see anything I could verify as a miracle. I saw a lot of stuff people said was miracles that I knew perfectly well was not miraculous, though. I saw a lot of “healings” that weren’t permanent or anything more than psychosomatic (“in the mind”) temporary fixes. I saw a lot of claims with no evidence behind them. Oh, and I saw stuff I thought was miraculous at the time because I was simply ignorant of critical thinking skills; as I developed those skills, I realized those events weren’t miraculous at all. And this was mostly all happening in a very rowdy church that claimed miracles all the time. For a god who does a lot of miracles, he’s weirdly coy about doing anything that could be definitively linked to his grandeur.
Last, these fake healings demonstrate the most offensive, the most simply incredible narcissism on the part of the Christian pushing them at non-believers. Just why is this healing from cancer I mentioned so special, anyway? Let’s assume it really happened and you have total proof of it. You’re still talking about one person out of thousands, millions, who’ve had cancer. And millions more who die of starvation, or who live in crushing poverty, or who are being abused or hurt by others, or who face horrific natural disasters. One person got helped out of all of those? I find those numbers positively obscene. But I’m supposed to applaud when this infant of a godling heals one person out of all of that mess? Sorry, but he kind of let this happen in the first place.
Several Christians have told me all bright-eyed and chirpily that they’d “pray for my shoulder/back” when I mentioned the arthritis pain I suffer. And while I appreciate the thought, when they pressed the matter I told them what I said here, long ago. I would not take a healing on those monstrous terms. The healing I would get is nothing but a slap in the face of someone who needs far more help than I need even in my hardest moments. The attention I’d receive is attention that someone else needs way more than I do. I would not accept that attention or that magical healing as long as others needed it more and weren’t getting it.
The simple truth is this: healings illustrate what we call the “problem of evil.” The problem of evil is too much for Christianity to withstand, in my opinion. Either this god doesn’t want to help people for some reason, in which case he’s too evil to worship, or else he just can’t help them, in which case he’s too weak to worship, or else he doesn’t even know we’re suffering, in which case he’s an idiot. But who cares about all those people who need help even more than you do if you got yours? Ick, that’s just so immoral to me.
I do not happen to think it’s moral to withhold help from those who need it for any reason. If someone is in physical pain and I can help stop that pain, I’m going to step in and do what I can. I’m going to explain whatever I can. I’m going to try to make things better, because I’m not an unspeakable bastard. There is no “big plan” that requires someone to be in pain and not even know why or how to make it stop. I find that entire idea simply obscene. And a god who designs humans so shoddily that they suffer these many weaknesses and failures doesn’t get extra credit for fixing one or two along the way when they are broken because of his own inadequate design of them. (And yes, I know that many Christians get around this design-flaw argument by trying to say that the Fall messed up a lot of things in many species’ bodies, but that just moves the problem one step further down the line–if he’s omniscient, he knew the Fall would happen, and he still designed humans to suffer like this after a Fall occurred, which makes him twice as much of a bastard in my eyes, so Christians, if you want to go there, be advised in advance how that’ll go.)
Not that any of this matters; as I said, there’s never been a miracle that’s been adequately and satisfactorily proven to have been miraculous, so we’re getting way ahead of ourselves by examining what it’d mean if miracles were real. But please know I’m not gloating here. It’s a little bit of a letdown for me, too. If there’s no wonder-working Christian god, then there may not be any other sort of supernatural being either. If there are no verified Christian miracles, there might not be any in any other religion either. If there’s no proof for any of Christianity’s claims, there might not be proof for any other religion’s claims either. But step one really with a miracle claim is to at least prove that the miracle happened, and Christians don’t seem interested in applying any critical thought to any of their various claims. It does not speak well of them or their religion that non-believers have to do their work for them.
I guess, in the end, miracles speak to people’s terror of being on their own. People who feel alone and helpless can imagine a big strong powerful Daddy figure who can fix anything, do anything, and make anything better. I guess what bothers me the most here is that these miracles are presented as some kind of ATM or something, like “insert faith – get miracle!” To paraphrase something Jonathan Merritt, a Christian, wrote recently, any time Christians thinks their god is there to give away free stuff and get them out of life’s normal difficulties and save them from the human condition’s natural frailties, chances are they’re flat wrong about something important. Sickness and death are part of what it is to be human, and it’s quite immoral in my opinion for Christians to vaunt themselves above the fate everybody else has to face (which is also my objection to modern Christians’ delusion that the world will end during their lifetimes, come to think of it).
To me, a deity isn’t a “sugar daddy” (to borrow Mr. Merritt’s evocative phrase), a lollipop-bestowing Grampa, or a divine “angle” to work like an Amway scheme. I’ve used the word “obscene” too much already here, but what else could it be but obscene to treat a god in such a manner? To me, having a faith system is about personal growth and development, which includes coping with disease and injuries and learning how to live with aging and how to reconcile myself with the deaths of those I love (and my own death, really). It’s not about getting out of those things or getting extra stuff that other people don’t get just because I have the right friends. It’s not about flashy miracles. It’s not even about having external historical or scientific accuracy. It’s about having a framework of seeing the world and interacting with people. It’s not about giving everybody else the bird as long as I’m getting something for free; as I said, I’d refuse that kind of supernatural aid because I’d view it as deeply immoral for a god to offer that sort of thing to me while not giving it to others. We’re all in this together. All we really have is each other. We need to get past this “miracle maxin'” mindset and into the nuts and bolts of understanding and loving each other no matter what we think about the supernatural.
And folks, even if a belief is immoral and wrong, that’s not really anybody else’s business. It’s totally Christians’ business if they want to go through life like overgrown toddlers. If they’re over the age of 18 and not interfering with anybody else’s life and rights or lying in their out-loud voices, they can do whatever they want with their own lives and believe whatever they like and talk among themselves about whatever they want. But I really, really wish that they’d realize that these miracle accounts not only aren’t compelling, but only make their witness look worse. If I could say anything to them and have them listen to me, it’d be this: There’s never been a proven miracle. Do your homework before presenting one as gospel fact to a skeptical, critical-thinking audience. If this miracle is so important that you’re using it as a witnessing tool, then it’s worth making sure it really was a miracle.
I’d also suggest this, as gently as possible: If your audience doesn’t happen to agree that a real miracle happened, then by definition it wasn’t a miracle. In the Bible, miracles were always hugely obvious. Long-dead people got up and walked. The sun stopped. Blind people were cured with spit and magic spells. Donkeys and snakes talked. Women turned into pillars of salt. Manna rained down from the skies and the oceans rolled back for people to walk across them. If your event can only look like a miracle if you tilt your head and squint just right, then what you, my poor dear Christian, really have is a nice coincidence–not a miracle. You cheapen miracles by calling every little coincidence a miracle. I get that it seems totally obvious to you, just like the President’s Kenyan citizenship seems totally obvious to “birthers” and just like vaccines’ link to autism seems totally obvious to anti-vaxxers, but that’s how conspiracy theories roll–the people who believe them are capable of building tiny little things up into a huge pattern. I’d venture to suggest that about 90% of what Christians think about the world is simply factually incorrect; learning (or re-learning) what reality really is, that is something most ex-Christians have to go through and it’s a little painful to realize just how much of what we thought was true once just isn’t at all.
So Christians: Your god, the god who created quarks and quasars, who created everything that lives and moves and has its being, nudged someone into leaving the mall a few minutes early so you could have a nice parking spot? That’s what was considered important, when tens of thousands of kids die every day of starvation? Your god, who created every black hole and star cluster in the universe, who set in motion Planck’s Constant and every algorithm I ever learned in math class, gave someone a scientifically dubious sort-of healing from cancer? That’s supposed to prove his existence and love for humanity, when one out of every two men in the United States, and one out of every three women, is at risk of developing cancer, and most of them sure ain’t going to get magically healed? Let it go, is my advice. It’s okay to share something and say you’re happy that person is okay now, because of course we’re happy when someone gets better from any horrible disease, but miracles by their nature are super-compelling. I shouldn’t need to indulge in conspiracy theory-level of sleuthing to see them at work. Present your facts and let people draw their own conclusions themselves. We’re not idiots. If something is really miraculous, we’ll notice its miraculous nature–just like people noticed Jericho’s walls falling or the sun stopping on the day Jesus was supposedly crucified. If you have to tell someone that an event is a miracle because otherwise nobody’d ever realize it was miraculous, then you’re making yourself part of the problem.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that spreading fake miracles can seriously backfire even for Christians themselves. As I’ve written about here on this blog, it was realizing that there have never been any credible miracle healings that sparked my first inklings of doubt and eventually led to my leaving Christianity. The constant miracle-pushing just leads to a serious showdown between reality and faith, and that showdown doesn’t need to happen. I suffered a great deal of emotional pain as I struggled with the dichotomy between reality and the illusion offered by fake miracles. I really wish Christians would be more aware of how badly they’re damaging their case when their claims get dismantled like the claims I dismantled this week. When Christians present these miracles as facts and someone realizes that there’s no way they could be factual, that makes that person start wondering what else is just wishful thinking and hot air. (Hint: quite a bit of it is.) I bet quite a few ex-Christians could say the same thing I just said, too. Religious people should do everything they can to avoid that showdown, because unlike how things went in years past, folks are less willing to back down and be cowed to steer clear of that impasse.
So by encouraging deception and gullibility, vaunting believers over non-believers, and demonizing even believers who somehow don’t find themselves healed, fake miracles are the dead opposite of real grace. On that note, since this piece is long enough as it is, we’re going to talk next time about how Christians have redefined grace to somehow mean “condemnation and control.” I think grace is wonderful, and it’d be great if we had more of it in this world–really, it’s just too bad that so very little of it’s coming from the religion that makes “grace” one of its hallmark virtues. Please do join me, because I’ll be making my usual wild speculations about what grace really is, talking about how Christians are missing the mark, and discussing why it seems so curiously absent from Christian churches nowadays. We’ll be looking at the case of Billy Graham’s grandson, who seems like one of the Christians who is trying to turn that Titanic before it hits the dark, dark ice, and we’ll probably touch on the Unfundamentalists too because I really think those folks are getting Christianity more right than any other Christian group out there.
I hope you’ll be here. Y’all are seriously the best blog gang on the entire internet. I couldn’t even imagine doing this thang without you. Thank you for traveling with me. I can’t tell you enough how much it means to me that I’ve got companions for this journey. <3 and kittens –