Unit 1D- Religion, Philosophy and Science
The word „miracle‟ comes from the Latin word for „wonder‟. A miracle is a surprising
event. It is felt that miracles can be:
1. „A violation of natural law, or an exception‟
This means that a miracle is an event which breaks the laws of nature.
2. „An event of Religious Significance‟
“A Miracle [is] a transgression of a law of nature
by a particular volition of the Deity or by the
imposition of some invisible agent.”
David Hume: “An Enquiry Concerning Human
“Those things which must properly be called
miraculous which are done by divine power apart
from the order generally followed in things.”
St Thomas Aquinas : “Summa contra Geniles”
“[A miracle is] a violation of a law of nature by God, that
is, a very powerful rational being who is not a material
object (viz., is invisible and intangible) “
Richard Swinburne: “Miracles”
What does this mean?
There have been times when people have claimed that they have witnessed an event in
which the laws of science have been broken. Examples of such „violations‟ are raising
from the dead, healing miracles and nature miracles.
Raising from the Dead: The raising of Lazarus (John 11: 17-44)
Mary and Martha were sisters and Lazarus was their brother.
Jesus was friends with them and loved them. He heard that
Lazarus was ill, but thought he would be okay. Then he
received news that he had died and went to visit Mary and
When he arrived, he found that Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. Mary and Martha
were upset and Jesus told them, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who
believe in me will live, even though they die; and all those who live and believe in
me will never die.” Jesus was moved by the emotion of the sisters and all the people
who loved him, and he cried.
They went to the tomb which contained Lazarus‟ body. He asked for the stone to be
moved. Martha was concerned that there would be a smell from the body, as Lazarus
had been dead for 4 days, but she did as Jesus said. Jesus shouted, “Lazarus! Come
out!” and to everyone‟s amazement, Lazarus walked out. Jesus had raised him from the
Healing Miracle: Jesus Heals the Paralysed Man
(Luke 5: 17 – 26)
One day, Jesus was teaching. People had come from
miles around to listen to him and the house he was in
was very crowded. Jesus had God‟s power within him
to heal the sick.
A group of men had heard about Jesus, and carried their paralysed friend on a bed in
the hope that Jesus would heal him. They could not get him through the crowds, so they
decided to lower him through the roof. They took some tiles off the roof to make a hole
and lowered the man down on his bed in front of Jesus. Jesus saw how much faith they
had and said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The teachers of the law got annoyed as they thought Jesus was being blasphemous, as
only God can forgive sin. Jesus said, “Why do you think such things? Is it easier to
say, „Your sins are forgiven,‟ or to say, „get up and walk‟? I will prove to you, then,
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … I tell you, get up,
pick up your bed and walk.” The man got up, picked up his bed and walked away,
praising God. Everyone was amazed.
Nature Miracle – Jesus walks on water (Mark 6:45-52)
Jesus had been preaching and a great crowd had gathered
around him. He asked his disciples to get into a boat and sail
to Bethsaida which was on the other said of a lake and away
from the crowd. Jesus said goodbye to the crowd and
climbed up a hill to pray to God.
In the evening, the boat was in the middle of the lake. Jesus saw that the disciples were
having trouble as they were rowing against the wind. He walked to them on the water.
They were scared when they saw him, because they thought that he was a ghost. He
said, “Courage! It is I. Don‟t be afraid.” He got onto the boat with them and the wind
immediately died down. The disciples were amazed.
How does the definition of a „miracle‟ as a „violation of the laws of nature‟ affect the
religious understanding of the way in which God interacts with the world?
If we argue that God is separate from the world and
chooses, sometimes, to intervene to perform
miracles, we are left with a form of deism. This is the
idea that God created the world, which was then a
creation which was totally separate from Him. The
deist God is not connected to the world, but is an
external spectator. Miracles could therefore be seen
as God choosing to act in a world where He has
previously not been present.
It is because of this that Brian Davies criticises the Humean definition of a miracle as a
„violation of the laws of nature‟. Davies states that the world is ontologically dependent
on God – God gives the world being as the sustainer and preserver. As the world is
totally dependent upon God for its existence, it makes no sense to speak of Him
intervening by performing miracles, because he is “as present in what is not miraculous
as he is in the miraculous.” The God of classical theism is omnipresent, existing in every
part of the universe at every time. Therefore, one can not speak of Him „intervening‟.
This means that the definition of miracles as „violations of the laws of nature‟ is NOT
accepted by classical theists. If God is an all-powerful creating God who is in charge
of everything that happens in the universe, He should not need to intervene.
However, some theists believe that although God created natural laws, they are now
independent from Him. This means that it is possible for God to occasionally interrupt
and change things in the world by violating the laws of nature. If this is so, the Humean
definition of „miracle‟ is acceptable.
Does this idea answer Davies‟ criticisms?
Both the Teleological Argument and the Cosmological Argument point to the order and
regularity of the universe as evidence for the existence of God.
The Cosmological Argument – sees God as the unmoved mover and the uncaused
cause who is responsible for all movement and change;
The Teleological Argument – examines the way in which the world is ordered and
states that this can not be down to chance.
If theists state that the laws of nature which account for order and purpose in the
world can be broken by God through His miracles, then the order of the world itself can
be questioned. If the universe is chaotic and haphazardly put together, can theists still
argue that God made the world?
“If nature were not predictable or purposeful, if
events appeared haphazard or unrelated to one
another, then the idea of a creator God would
Mel Thompson: Science and Religion
The God of classical theism is omniscient and omnipotent – He knows everything that will
happen in the world and has absolute power. Miracles as a „violation of the laws of
nature‟ seem to show this God of classical Theism to be inconsistent and to change His
mind. “If one person survives a crash that kills a hundred, why should that survival be
deemed a „miracle‟ performed by God, when (if God is omnipotent) the deaths of the
hundred are equally willed by Him?” (Mel Thompson).
Peter Vardy makes a similar point in his famous book, The Puzzle of Evil.
“A God who intervenes at Lourdes to cure an old
man of cancer but does not act to save starving
millions in Ethiopia; who helps an individual
believer by giving him/her guidance about a new
house/job, but does not prevent the mass murder
of the Jews at Auschwitz – such a God needs, at
the least, to face some hard questioning.”
If God is all-loving, why does He help some people and not others? Therefore, the
idea of an interventionist God, who helps people by performing miracles, challenges many
of the characteristics, (such as omnipotence and all-love), of the God of classical theism.
In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
David Hume presents that most famous critique of religious
miracles. Rather than arguing that miracles don‟t happen,
Hume states that it is unacceptable to use miracles as a
foundation on which to build religious belief.
1. Insufficient Evidence Hume felt that scientific „laws‟ could not be absolute truths. He
stated that the laws of nature are felt to be true because they had been observed many
times. The fact that these laws have been experienced through the senses on many
occasions means that there is a high probability that they are true - it is likely that
they are universal laws - although this can not be proven. For Hume, therefore, whether
or not one believes that something is true is dependant on the evidence for and against
it being true.
“A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.” (Hume - An Enquiry Concerning
Thus, Hume believed that miracles are extremely unlikely events. Our observations of
the world reveal that it works in a uniform way. For example, the sun rises every
morning and sets every evening. The vast majority of people in the world never claim to
have witnessed a miracle, which makes miracles very unlikely. Hume felt that it is more
likely that people who claim to have seen a miracle are wrong than that the miracle
“A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a
doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one
that is contrary, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance.” (Hume - An
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)
Hume also felt that there had never been a miracle which had been witnessed by a
sufficient amount of trustworthy men to make it believable.
2. Human Testimony – Hume believed that there are many occasions where one can not
trust human testimony, especially when there is no scientific evidence to back it up. He
felt that religious people desperately want miracles to be true and that this leads them
to accept that a miracle has happened, even if there is not sufficient evidence to prove
that it has. He also stated that they have a vested interest in stating that an event was
a miracle, as it affirms their faith. We can not, therefore, trust the testimony of
others on Miracles. Also, Hume argues, miracles are often reported from „ignorant and
barbarous nations‟ where they can not be scientifically checked. As our experience tells
us that the laws of nature are not broken and their miracles can not be checked, we
should distrust the testimony of religious people on miracles:
“We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others … We entertain a suspicion
concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are
few, or a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they
deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent
asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind which may diminish or
destroy the force of any argument derived from human testimony.” (Hume: An Enquiry
into Human Understanding)
“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind
that its falsehood would be more miraculous that the fact which it endeavours to
establish …” (Hume: An Enquiry into Human Understanding)
3. Miracles from different religious traditions conflict - Hume states that all religions
report miracles which support their particular beliefs. Therefore, if one religion is
correct, the others must be false. “The miracles of each religion, if accepted, disprove
the truth of the other religions, and therefore destroy the credibility of the miracles
of those other religions. In other words, miracles – taken as a basis for validating
religious beliefs – are mutually destructive across religions.” (Mel Thompson). Hume
states that, “In matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary.”
For example, Christians believe that Jesus‟ resurrection was a miracle and Muslims
believe that the Qur‟an being given to Muhammad from Allah is a miracle. However, the
Qur‟an states that Jesus was not crucified and resurrected. For Hume, this means that
the miracles of these religions, and every other religion, cancel each other out.
“Evidence for a miracle wrought in one religion is only evidence
against the occurrence of a miracle wrought in another religion …
the two miracles, if they happen, would be evidence for propositions
of the two religious systems incompatible with each other.”
Mel Thompson sums up Hume‟s ideas like this:
1. To be a miracle, an event must violate a law of nature;
2. To know if something has taken place, one must weigh
evidence for and against;
3. Laws of nature are based on the maximum evidence
4. There can never be sufficient evidence to show that a
miracle has taken place, since it will always be more
likely that a witness was mistaken, than that a law of
nature was broken.
“When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately
consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either
deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have
happened.” (Hume: An Enquiry into Human Understanding)
1. The Laws of Nature are „Descriptive‟ not „Prescriptive‟
The laws of nature simply tell us what has happened in certain
situations in the past and allow us to have predictions about what
will happen in similar situations in the future. For example, every
day one sees the sun rise in the morning; therefore, one can
predict that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.
This means that a „violation of a law of nature‟ is not possible – it is impossible to violate
what is simply a summary of your past actions. Scientists state that they are constantly
finding new evidence which causes them to rethink „laws of nature‟. If something
happens which breaks a law of nature, scientists believe that either the evidence for
that law is wrong or that there is another law working which has not yet been taken into
For example, quantum physics has shown that Newton‟s laws do not apply at sub-
atomic level. This does not mean that all of Newton‟s laws are wrong or that sub-
atomic particles are miraculous. It simply means that Newton‟s laws are not
applicable in all situations. New evidence has caused science to adapt its ideas.
John Hick – Hick argues that miracles can not happen because
of the definition of „natural law‟. Hick argues that natural laws
are, “Generalisations formulated retrospectively to cover
whatever had, in fact, happened.” As miracles are defined here
as a violation of the laws of nature, Hick argues that, “We can
declare a priori (prior to experience) that there are no
So, if an unusual, previously unseen, event happens, we should widen our understanding
of a natural law to incorporate the possibility of this new event. We should not assume
that the new event breaks the laws of nature. The law itself is based upon empirical
evidence (evidence gained through the senses). This new event should be taken as new
empirical evidence and should, therefore, be used to enhance the natural law to which it
However, Swinburne argues that natural laws are not adequate to
explain every event everywhere in the world. He felt that natural laws
are just there to give a picture of what should happen in a particular
situation. Therefore, events such as the resurrection of Jesus, which
are totally removed from our observations of natural laws, can
reasonably be considered to be miraculous. Hick‟s point is really a
technical one about the definition of miracles and natural laws, but it
does not rule out the possibility of events with a cause outside the
world. For this reason, Hick admits that there are, “unusual and
striking events evoking and mediating a vivid awareness of God.”
2. Science realises that events can be unique
Scientists argue that every event is unique in a way, as it
occurs at a different time and place and as a result of
circumstances which will never be exactly the same again.
Also, some events that happen in extreme conditions are
totally unique and can only occur once, but they are not
miraculous. For example, the Big Bang. Other events occur
which scientists do not fully understand, like Black Holes
which occur where there is extreme gravity. However,
scientists still wish to find out more about there rare
Important points to note about science:
“Science does not deny that events can be unique
Science does not rule out the possibility that an event may not be covered by
existing „laws of nature‟.
Science makes progress at exactly those points where existing theories fail to
account for an occurrence. The task of science is to show the inadequacies of
existing theories and to make better ones which take these anomalies into
account. “ (Mel Thompson)
3. Ockham‟s Razor
The philosophical principle of Ockham‟s Razor states that
when faced with competing explanations for an event, one
should choose the simplest explanations. Scientists argue
that believing an event which violates a law of nature is a
miracle is NOT the simplest explanation at all and so should
Scientists argue that the simplest explanation is that the apparent „violation of the
natural law‟ will eventually be explained by science. To push God in as the explanation and
to declare the event as a miracle is an example of God of the Gaps. Eventually,
scientists argue, they will uncover the scientific explanation for each „miraculous‟ event
and there will be no more gaps for God to hide in.
4. Alternative Explanations
- The Rationalist Approach
Rationalists believe that miracles can not happen, as the laws of nature can not be
violated. Therefore, they seek a natural explanation for the miracles mentioned in the
Eg. The disciples thought that they say Jesus walking on the water, but actually, he was
walking on a bed of rocks which were hidden by the water.
Criticising David Hume
Hume states that there can never be sufficient evidence to believe that a miracle has
taken place – was he right? How can religion answer the criticisms of Hume and science?
1. We have observed laws of nature over and over again. For Hume, this
means that we have good reason to believe that things will act
according to these rules all the time. For example, we have all observed
that when we drop something, it will fall to the floor. Science has
examined this evidence and developed the law of gravity. Therefore, it
is reasonable to believe that the next time one drops an object; it will
fall to the floor, rather than suspending in mid-air. For Hume, we can
not believe in miracles, as we haven‟t enough evidence – we can not
observe a miracle happening over and over again.
However, a miracle is a unique event and should not be judged like other events. We can
not make statements about the probability of a unique event like God breaking the laws
of nature. Miracles do not result in new natural laws being made as they are events which
are out of the ordinary. Therefore, they do not require repeated evidence and
experience in order to believe that they have happened.
2. Unusual things do happen! Under Hume‟s system, one would not
believe the claims that eventually humans would travel to and
walk on the moon. Hume never saw a person walk on the moon.
Every day of his life, he probably believed that no one would walk
on the moon as it was an idea which was totally outside his
If a person had suggested to Hume that, one day, a man would walk on the moon, Hume
would have dismissed their claim, stating that as no one had ever walked on the moon, it
was extremely unlikely that anyone ever would. However, he would have been wrong as we
know that men have been to the moon. Unusual events DO happen – why not miracles?
“We might say … that until someone walked on the moon, people were regularly observed
not to walk on the moon. And people, in time, have come to do what earlier generations
would rightly have taken to be impossible on the basis of their experience.” (Brian
Davies: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion)
3. Just because God does not perform miracles very often, does not mean that they
do not happen. If God performed miracles all the time, perhaps more people would have
observed them and we would have evidence that the laws of nature can be broken. Even
if God has not yet performed any miracles, if He is all-powerful, is it not possible that
He will perform miracles in the future?
4. Just because an event is rare and unusual does not mean that it does not happen. For
example, it is rare for a woman over the age of 50 to conceive a child, but, if the
conditions are right, it does happen and is to be expected. Religious believers may say
that miracles are exceptionally rare and yet that are to be expected because God exists
and wishes to help His creation. Also, perhaps Hume‟s atheism affects his assessment of
the probability of miracles just like a person‟s religious belief might affect their
assessment. Perhaps he is not being objective.
5. Perhaps one religion has more evidence for the occurrence of its miracles than all the
other religions. If there is more evidence for the miracles of Jesus that the figures of
other religions, Hume‟s criticism collapses.
6. Maybe God has performed miracles in all religions so that people of all cultures will
turn to Him and believe in Him. This idea would also negate Hume‟s criticisms.
7. Would it be best to examine evidence surrounding each apparent miracle rather than
concentrating on the probability of miracles based on past events? Believers might
argue that it is “preferential to base beliefs on facts rather than odds.”
8. Hume‟s ideas do lead one to think that miracles ARE unlikely. However, this does not
mean that they do no, or can not happen. A religious believer may argue that their
religion is not based on evidence or probability, but on faith. Hume‟s ideas are thus
9. Donald Mackay did not believe that miracles are violations of the laws of nature. He,
along with some theists, argues that as well as being the creator of the world, God is
also its sustainer. This means that the world would cease to exist without God‟s
continuous creative activity. Miracles, therefore, are not instances of a distant God
stepping into the world to violate natural laws, rather they are occasions when God does
not act in the world in His usual, sustaining way, but acts in the world in a slightly
different way. Brian Davies sums up this ideas as follows, “God is an present in what is
not miraculous as is in the miraculous.” Thus, miracles are unusual events, not
However, most theists accept that there are natural laws in place in the world which
God has given to allow the world to govern itself. They still believe that God can choose
to interrupt these natural laws if He so wishes.
Swinburne argued that Hume was wrong to say that natural laws, based on scientific
evidence, would always outweigh the evidence for miracles, based on human testimony.
He felt that there are three types of historical evidence that can be used to support
1. Our memories;
2. The testimony of others;
3. The physical traces left by the events in question.
Swinburne realised that supporters of Hume would argue back that scientific laws are
more objective. To counter their arguments, he states that scientific law is itself
based on these three forms of evidence. Therefore, if such evidence is not
sufficient to establish the occurrence of miracles, it is not sufficient to prove the
certainty of natural law.
Swinburne goes onto argue that we could be wrong about natural laws. He states that
the laws of nature could be much more complicated than we think. He also believes that
if there is evidence that a violation has taken place, we should believe that this is the
case, as it is the simplest explanation (Ockham‟s Razor).
Swinburne tries to bring science and religion together in his main argument that
miracles can be quasi-violations. He asks us to imagine a natural law which we have
evidence to believe is a sound law which is absolutely true. Next, he asks us to think of
an event which goes against this natural law. He states that it is far too complicated to
start thinking about all the possible exceptions to this natural law and all the possible
reasons it might be wrong and could be violated. There is so much evidence for this
natural law and so many other theories depend on it, that we will tie ourselves in knots.
Rather, we should believe that the natural law is true and that the event is a quasi-
violation of the natural law.
For Swinburne, there are two possible explanations for the event which goes against
this natural law:
1. The event is a strange one which won‟t happen again and hasn‟t been caused.
2. The explanation for the event which violated the laws of nature lies outside
nature laws – it is a quasi-violation. Swinburne states that the body which is
capable of causing such a quasi-violation must be unique and not behave in the
same way as things which are governed by the laws of nature. For Swinburne, the
cause is God.
Swinburne also attempts to respond to Hume via:
1. The Principle of Testimony - If there is no reason to doubt the account of a
person who has claimed to see a miracle, then we should believe them.
2. The Principle of Credulity – If there is no reason to disbelieve, we should accept
events which we see occurring. (Miracles)
“The reasonable investigator goes by the available evidence here … He supposes
that what is, on all the evidence, a violation of natural law really is one. There is
good reason to suppose that events such as the following if they occurred would
be violations of the laws of nature: resurrection from the dead … water turning
into wine …a person growing a new arm from a stump … levitation.”
Signs in John‟s Gospel
Signs are events which people feel are religiously significant and point them to belief in
God. In John‟s Gospel, the author states that he has described „signs‟ in order to lead
people to have faith in God and Jesus so that they may have eternal life:
“Jesus performed many other signs which are not written down in this book. But these
have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of
God, and that through your faith in Him you may have life.” (John 20: 30-31)
For example, in John 9: 1 – 12, Jesus puts mud onto the eyes of a blind man. He then
tells the man to wash the mud off. The man can then see and this leads him to have
faith in Jesus.
“The scars that I have on my body show that I am the slave of Jesus.” (St Paul‟s letter
to the Galatians 6:17)
The word „stigmata‟ comes from a Greek world which
means „mark or brand‟. Many people who are stigmatic
bear one or more of the five wound inflicted on Jesus
when he was crucified:
1. Wounds on hands and feet from nails
2. Wounds in side from spear
3. Tears of blood
4. Sweating blood from back (where Jesus was
5. Wounds on shoulder from cross.
Stigmatics are usually Roman Catholic Christians. They say that the stigmata is a sign
from God that Jesus was real and we should believe in him.
2. Amazing coincidences
R. F Holland
Holland suggests that a miracle does not have to violate the laws of nature. He states
that a miracle is an extraordinary coincidence that does not break any laws of nature. “A
coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle.”
“Imagine that a child is playing in his toy car, then that it gets stuck on a railway level
crossing. The mother sees the child and also sees an express train hurtling along the
track. Suddenly, the train‟s emergency brakes are applied and it comes to a halt only a
metre away from the child. The mother says a prayer of thanks to God for this miracle.
However, later investigation reveals that the driver fainted. This faint was explicable on
medical grounds, without appealing to divine intervention. In spite of this, however, the
mother continues to believe that God acted to stop the train so that her child would be
saved.” (“The Miraculous” American Philosophy Quarterly 1965).
In this example, no natural laws are broken, but it is believed to be a miracle by the
mother of the child because she feels that it has religious significance. So, for Holland,
an event which displays extraordinary timing and is consistent with the laws of nature,
can rightly be called a „miracle‟.
On Holland‟s definition, an event could be labelled as miraculous by a believer and a
coincidence or lucky chance by a non-believer.
3. Natural Events
Events occur in people‟s every day lives which might not be that extra ordinary and do
not break any laws of nature, but which they consider to be miraculous and the work of
For example, a couple have been trying to have a baby for 10 years. IVF has not worked
for them and they have given up hope. They have prayed countless times for a baby and
then one day, totally unexpectedly, they discover that they are going to have a baby.
The couple regard this event as a real miracle and praise God, even though a woman
getting pregnant is a natural event.
As with Holland‟s definition, a believer would see a miracle here; whilst a non-believer
would feel that this was just down to luck.
How does the idea of a miracle as an
event of religious significance affect a
religious understanding of the way in
which God interacts with the world?
Why does God choose to heal some people and not others? If God is capable of
stepping into the world and stopping suffering, why does He not do this more
often and help everyone? How can He justify healing one sick person and leaving
many others to die of disease, famine and natural disasters? What kind of God is
Many people who receive the „sign‟ of the stigmata experience physical pain and
mental anguish; how can a good God inflict this on people? If God wants people to
believe in Him, surely He should do nice things and help people rather than
inflicting suffering and misery on people.
2. Amazing Coincidences
Would a good God help some people and not others? Peter Vardy would argue that a God
who helps a few people, but leaves millions others to suffer and die needs to answer
some tough moral questions. If God has the power to help, should He not help everyone?
3. Natural Events
Again, how can God help some people in this way and leave others to suffer? If he helps
one couple who have prayed for a chance to be parents, how can He ignore the prayers
of other couples?
Other Point - Why do „pointless‟ miracles take place?
“In Naples 3 times a year, people gather in St Clare‟s Basilica for a ceremony during
which it is hoped that dried blood, believed to be that of St Gennaro who died in 305,
will spontaneously liquefy. This „miracle‟ is anticipated on a regular basis, and is seen as a
good omen.” (Thompson)
This miracle may break the laws of nature, but there is no real reason for it to take
place, nor is there any particular religious significance to this event.
Maurice Wiles – Important note for High Grade Seekers
Wiles rejects miracles on moral grounds. He argues that a God who chooses to help an
individual who has cancer, but ignore those trapped in the Twin Towers in New York on
11 September 2001 is a God who is not worthy of worship. Therefore, for Wiles, God
does not perform miracles for individuals. He does not undermine the laws of nature.
If we accept this definition of miracle we are left with a God who is not recognisable
as the God of Classical Theism.
Are events of religious significance
only ‘miracles’ because they are
interpreted that way?
Is a „miracle‟ only miraculous because the person who experiences it already believes
that miracles are possible? Are they just ordinary events interpreted in an
R. F. Holland –
As we have seen, Holland states that miracles are beneficial coincidences that are
interpreted religiously; they are not objectives facts.
Problems with Holland‟s approach
Holland makes miracles too dependant upon personal assessment. The same event could,
therefore, be labelled as „miraculous‟ by a religious believer and as „ordinary‟ by a non-
believer. For example, if a plane crashes and has one survivor, the family of the survivor
may think that a miracle has occurred. However, the many other families who lose loved-
ones in the crash will definitely not believe that a miracle has taken place. Is Holland‟s
approach to miracles weak and subjective? Should it, therefore, be disregarded?
Of the survivor of the plane crash, Mel Thompson argues, “But, how do you know what
that person will go onto do? Suppose the person who survives becomes a mass murderer.
Is his or her survival in the plane crash then to be considered a miracle or a further
disaster? If he or she had died then, the victims of the later crimes would be alive and
well. But what of those victims? Suppose … and so it goes on … we can never get a final
assessment of the results. The point we need to establish here is that to speak of
anything as a miracle implies an interpretation and a value judgement. And that, in turn,
requires a selective consideration of facts (we can never know the whole story.)”
Thompson states that an interpretation of an event as a miracle is always optional:
“Religion is a way of interpreting the world; a miracle is a way of interpreting an
event. However inspiring that interpretation may be, it is always optional.”
Also, look at “The Miracle of Stairway B” from Page 213 of “Teach Yourself Philosophy
of Religion.” If God can perform a miracle by letting some people survive, why has he let
so many others die? What does this say about God?
Every event in the world could be said to be down to a unique and complicated set of
coincidences. It is not possible to isolate any one of these coincidences and prove that it
was caused by God. Holland himself says, “It cannot without confusion be taken as a sign
of divine interference with the natural order.”
Hume felt that a definition like Holland‟s could not work, as a
miracle is only a miracle if it breaks a law of nature, “Nothing
is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course
Hume states that we should not trust accounts of miracles
because religious people, and people in general, are inclined to
look for the miraculous and wonderful.:
“A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagines he sees what has no reality; he
may know his narratives to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best
intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.”
So, for Hume, we should not trust accounts of miracles which can be influenced by pre-
existing religious belief. Hume would totally reject Holland‟s definition of a „miracle‟.
Hume also states that miracles are mainly found in „ignorant and barbarous nations‟,
whose accounts we can certainly not trust.
Hume also felt that there had never been a miracle which had been witnessed by a
sufficient amount of trustworthy men to make it believable
On the other hand …
Religious believers who believe in the validity of miracles state that miracles are signs
of God‟s extraordinary activity. As God is omnipotent, he can intervene in nature and
break its laws. This is all part of God‟s revelation because such events inform God‟s
creation of His existence and His love for humanity.
Recap: MacKay argues that God can interact in the world because He is the sustainer.:
Imagine an artist able to bring his world into being, not by laying down paint on canvas,
but by producing an extremely rapid succession of sparks of light on the screen of a
television tube. The world he invents is now not static but dynamic, able to change and
evolve at his will. Both its form and its law of change (if any) depend on the way in
which he orders the sparks of light in space and time. The scene is steady and
unchanging just for as long as he wills it so; but if he were to cease his activity, his
invented world would not become chaotic; it would simply cease to be.”
(MacKay: The Clockwork Image)
Theists believe that God loves the world and so interacts with it. He wants to
demonstrate His existence and His concern for the world and does this by performing
miracles. Miracles are part of God‟s revelation – they reveal things about God. God is
linked to the world because He created it and so is free to intervene in it if He so
The idea of miracles can be used to form an inductive argument for the existence
of God as follows:
1. There is evidence that miracles have happened.
2. Miracles can not happen without the action of God
3. Therefore, it is likely that God exists.
Swinburne presents a version of this argument in his article, The Concept of Miracle. He
“Suppose that E occurs in ways and circumstances otherwise strongly analogous to those
in which occur events brought about intentionally by human agents, and other variations
occur in such circumstances. We would then be justified in claiming that E and other
such violations are, like effects on human actions, brought about by agents, but agents
unlike men and not being material objects. This interface would be justified because, if
analogy between effects is strong enough, we are always justified in postulating slight
difference in causes to account for slight differences in effect.”
An example to illustrate Swinburne‟s argument
A person has cancer which goes away over night. If the person had had surgery, it is
possible that a human surgeon would have been able to get rid of the cancer. Through
use of ANALOGY, Swinburne argues that a non-human agent could have caused the
cancer to disappear over night, as it is sufficiently similar to the idea that a human
agent (surgeon) may have caused the cancer to disappear.
Cancer Disappears due to surgery Human surgeon
More impressive method More impressive
Cancer Inexplicably disappears overnight Non-human agent
Richard L Purtill
“If I claim to have authority in a certain organisation, strong
evidence of my authority would be an ability to suspend the rules
or make exceptions to usual procedures.” (Thinking about Religion)
Purtill argues that God shows His existence through performing
Problems with the argument for the existence of God from miracles
1. There may be a natural, but undiscovered, cause for Swinburne‟s „miraculous‟
2. What grounds are there for saying that God causes these miraculous
“The miracle could be attributed to some angel or a demon or some other, as yet
undiscovered, spiritual power.” (Cantwell)
Under Holland‟s definition of a miracle as an extraordinary event or coincidence,
whether or not one believes an event to be miraculous is largely dependent upon prior
religious beliefs. “Therefore the argument for the existence of God based upon
miracles seems to be quite weak.” (Cantwell)
Sometimes miracles are used to show the superiority and truth of one religion
over others. For example, the Christian Samuel Clarke writes:
“The Christian religion is positively and directly proved, to be actually and immediately
sent to us by God, by the many infallible signs and miracles, which the author of it
worked publicly as the evidence of his Divine Commission.”
Problems with this view
There is no way to know which deity (god/goddess) is responsible for which „miracle‟, so
any conclusions drawn from miracles are uncertain.
Also, there were many miracle workers at Jesus‟ time who claimed to have God‟s power
to interact with the world. They tricked people and so miracles can be confusing and can
lead people away from truth, rather than towards it. Jesus himself said, “False prophets
can work miracles in order to deceive.”
The main aim of Hume‟s work on miracles was to put forward the idea that miracles
should not be used as a basis for justifying religious belief.
Questions Hume wants us to consider:
Can miracles be used alone as grounds for religious belief?
Can miracles be used as independent evidence for the existence of God?
Can miracles give any insight into the truth of one religion over another?
Last question: If God does exist, would
He intervene in the world to perform
Religious view – supporting miracles
MacKay: God as omnipotent sustainer.
God is continuously involved in the world as its sustainer. Without God‟s continuing
creative action, the world would cease to be. Therefore, God can interact with the world
to perform miracles whenever He wishes. He wants to reveal Himself to people through
his power to control events in the world.
God is all-loving
God loves the world so much that He wants to answer the prayers of His people by
performing miracles. He wants to reach out to His people; to help them and to show
them that He exists and seeks a relationship with them.
In God, Chance and Necessity, Ward argues that Christianity
teaches that the world was made by God who has complete
power over it. God cares for the world and is free to change
what happens in it when it is the right thing to do. If this is all
true, Ward argues, then it is reasonable to believe that at
least some reported miracles have actually happened.
Non-religious views – not supporting miracles
A good and loving God would not help a few people by answering their prayers
whilst letting other people suffer and die. Did the God who saved the Jews in
Exodus let 6 million of them die in the Holocaust? Did the Jews of Nazi Germany
not pray as hard as the Jews in Egypt? How can God justify these actions?
We have already seen that Peter Vardy believes that a God who lets bad things happen
to lots of people, whilst helping only a small number has a lot of questions to answer.
Does an omnipotent God really need to demonstrate His power in ways which
sometimes seem insignificant and beneath Him? (Like giving people luck at certain
places and at certain times)