Miracles, Magic, and Superstition: An Exercise in Very Special Pleading
Christians believe in miracles, but not magic, and absolutely scorn superstition. For this to be remotely coherent mental behavior, these terms must surely have very clear and distinct meanings. I don’t think the dictionary will actually help in this case. But let’s give it a try anyway:
Miracle: an extraordinary and welcome event that is explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency: the miracle of rising from the grave.
Magic: the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces: suddenly, as if by magic, the doors start to open.
Superstition: excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural: he dismissed the ghost stories as mere superstition.
Let’s see… Devine agency, supernatural forces, and belief in the supernatural. There is simply not enough delineation for an outside observer to tell them apart. Beyond the dictionary, we simply have to look at how people use the words.
A miracle is a supernatural event attributed to one’s preferred supernatural agent, usually a god. Magic is a demonstration of supernatural power by means or agents other than one’s preferred deity. And superstition is the supernatural power other people believe in that you don’t. At the end of the day, it is all the same supernatural stuff. The only difference is the source and validity.
To the outsider, a Christian professing a belief in the miraculous is indistinguishable from the person the Christian deems superstitious. And when Harry Potter uses magic to fix his cracked glasses, it is indistinguishable from Jesus using mud magic to restore sight to the blind. One who does not believe in the supernatural has no basis for distinguishing between a miracle, magic, and the superstitious without some variety of very special pleading.
Witches, Necromancers, and Diviners
The bible is full of magic and superstition. This is a challenge for those Christians who believe in miracles, but not magic or superstition. The bible says so is not reason enough to believe in miracles. For if that is the only criteria, than the same person is forced to believe in witches, necromancers, and diviners.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Ex. 22:18
A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them. Lev. 20:27
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. Acts 16:16-19
The people who wrote the bible believed in every kind of magic, witchcraft, necromancy, and divination. When Moses turned his stick into a snake, the opposing magicians did the same. The magic scripture inveighed against was not theoretical, but real. Sorcerers did real sorcery. mediums really spoke to the dead. Fortune tellers really told fortunes. Magicians really did magic. There are examples of all these things in scripture.
It requires a very special pleading to affirm god magic, but deny other, equally biblical magics. If miracles still occur, why would not magic, witchcraft, necromancy, and divination not still be going concerns?
Blessings and Curses
Rather than quote the bible which is jam packed with blessings and curses, I will present an article on the subject that presents the biblical view of such things far better than I can:
To summarize, the writer affirms that curses such as those done by Voodoo practitioners are effective, not because of the dolls and pins, but because of the demonic powers being used.
He also believes that Christians can be cursed when they find themselves out of spiritual alignment with god. This can happen even though Christians have power over demons. That power is apparently transactional in nature, not absolute.
I grew up in a very conservative church. But we regarded those who believed in blessings and curses as superstitious. We harmonized that belief with scripture by claiming that the time of miracles and magic had long ago ceased. Cessationism is not actually a good response to the problem.
What we could never say was that things we regard as superstition today were not real throughout bible times. If a person holds to a belief that miracles happened on the basis of what the bible says about such things, they have to also acknowledge that at one point, the world was full of magic.
By now, Christian readers of this article are apoplectic with insistence that the only supernatural events that matter are the ones performed by Jesus/god and his lieutenants as told in the bible. They feel like I am changing the subject or missing the point.
But to feel this way is to have never understood the subject in the first place. Jesus/god was not the only one performing miracles back then. And the bible is not the only place where those miracles were recorded. Yet Christians are only interested in the ones recorded in the bible, and only a subset of those.
Christians swoon with awe over Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet they blush with embarrassment a few verses back when reading the account of the mass resurrection in Jerusalem.
When Lazarus died, his relatives didn’t believe Jesus could do anything for him. They berated him for coming too late. Yet that did not deter Jesus from raising a man four days dead. Yet when His mud magic failed to work properly on a blind man, we are quick to blame the man’s lack of faith.
No, Christians don’t like to talk about all the miracles in the bible. Just some. And they especially don’t like to talk about miracles outside of the bible. They claim that those stories are just fictional accounts written decades too late to be legitimate.
This argument simply makes no sense. If god is inspiring the writing, it doesn’t matter if it is hundreds or even thousands of years after the fact. What is important is whether the stories are true, not when god had them written down. We would only care about when the stories were written down if they were purely human attempts to remember history. The bible has always been said to be more than that.
The Broad vs. Narrow View of Miracles
Try to reason backward from today when Christians regard almost all contemporary miracle claims with skepticism, back to the first century where almost all miracle claims were viewed with acceptance. What changed?
it is fair to say that most believers today have a narrow view of miracles. Where as ages ago, there was a broad view of miracles. A broad view is the general acceptance of any miracle, any time, by any one, for any reason. When it comes to miracles and magic, everything is on the table.
A narrow view is accepting miracles, but with limits. They are limited to a certain period, performed only by certain people, done only in certain ways, only under certain circumstances. Not everything is on the table: good luck charms. Others can be accepted with enough supporting evidence: the resurrection.
The narrow view is the more challenging position as one must justify the limitations they place on the miracles in question. As yet, I have heard no internally coherent presentation of the narrow view.
The Positivist View
At this point, if feels like I am just making up words. But the pleading is so specialized for miracles, one needs to show the multiplicity of categories being parsed. In this case I am referring to the positive nature of miracles.
Gary Habermas asked Michael Ruse if he would consider it a miracle if an inoperable tumor vanished shortly after a prayer session. Michael countered by asking if Gary would consider a sudden, medically unexplainable death to be the work of Satan.
This particular stalemate pointed out the fact that mainstream Christians typically only consider positive, unexplained, serendipitous events to be miracles. The negative events don’t even bear consideration.
Why are the negative events so unimportant as to be given no consideration whatsoever? There are just as many unexplained negative events. Yet only the positive ones are called miracles. This positivist view requires explanation. So far, I have yet to hear it.
Worthy of Investigation
In this world of modern forensics, it is staggering to see the level of indifference demonstrated by Christians to the vast majority of modern miracle claims. One would think that because they already believe that miracles are possible, they would be interested in investigating miracle claims.
This is especially peculiar since those same believers expect atheists to take their miracle claims seriously, and investigate them as if those claims are more worthy. In this case, the pleading is that their miracle claims are worthy of investigation. While other miracle claims are less so.
If Christians really believed that all miracle claims should be investigated equally, they would all be professional miracle hunters.
Conclusion: Just Do One Already!
At the end of the day, if you want to prove that miracles exist, just do one already! Perform it for me. Better yet, perform it on me. I’ll be your guinea pig. Turn me into a guinea pig if that will make a more convincing demonstration. You can heal my vision, or any number of measurable health complaints. I’ll give you a list. Pick the one you want to go for.
We don’t need to debate this issue. We can put it to bed right now. I know two good people, each with only one eye, and the other is bad. Have at it. Surely proximity is not a problem. If resurrection can happen, surely growing back an eye should be child’s play.
No? How about popping over to the nearest cemetery with a camera crew and raising a dead person. You are not going to have any problem finding dead bodies. New ones are being made every second. Crash a funeral and turn their grief into celebration.
Enough with the excuses, the special pleading, and all that goes with it. You want me to believe in 2,000 year old miracle claims? Give me one verifiable miracle right now. Then we can talk.