Friday, April 2, 2010

Thoughts on Miracles

One of the charges levelled at the ancients is that they can't be trusted to report miracles because they were credulous and superstitious.

Glenn Miller discusses such matters and reaches a completely different conclusion.

* "In antiquity miracles were not accepted without question. Graeco-Roman writers were often reluctant to ascribe miraculous events to the gods, and offered alternative explanations. Some writers were openly skeptical about miracles (e.g. Epicurus; Lucretius; Lucian). So it is a mistake to write off the miracles of Jesus as the result of the naivety and gullibility of people in the ancient world." [GAJ, rev 2, p.235, Stanton]

* "This period [Hellenistic] may well have been the least superstitious period of antiquity, even if we have to allow for the continued existence in concealment of an undercurrent of the usual superstitions and belief in miracles. However that may be a change sets in with the beginning of late antiquity. Popular belief in miracles and superstition revived." [MSECT:269, Theissen]

* "On the other hand it must be admitted that in the relatively peaceful and stable period of the first two centuries the irrationalism which first appeared at the beginning of the first century was unable to strike roots. There continued to be rationalist movements alongside it. In his dialogues Lucian mocked his contemporaries' belief in the miraculous. Oenomaus of Gadara mocked the oracles, and Sextus Empiricus once more brought together all the arguments of scepticism. Even where increased irrationalism was notable--for example in Plutarch's development--it remained within bounds, without eccentricity or fanaticism. There was no decisive change before the great social and political crisis of the 3rd century. AD. [MSECT:275, Theissen]

* "Primitive Christian belief in the miraculous thus has a crucial role in the religious development of late antiquity. It stands at the beginning of the 'new' irrationalism of that age. Our brief outline of this development may have done something to correct the widespread picture of an ancient belief in the miraculous which has no history. What we have found here is not a rampant jungle of ancient credulity with regard to miracles, but a process of historical transformation in which forms and patterns of belief in the miraculous succeed one another. If we accept this picture, we must firmly reject assertions that primitive Christian belief in the miraculous represented nothing unusual in the context of its period." [MSECT:276, Theissen]

* "particularly in the Augustan age, when intellectual life was inspired by the example of Alexandrian scholarship, there was a general desire for increasingly exact knowledge, and historians, like poets, were always on the alert to correct their predecessors." [X02:RCH4S:93, Woodman]

* "It is in this light that we must judge the accounts we possess of other miracle-workers in Jesus' period and culture. We have already observed that the list of such occurrences is very much shorter than is often supposed. If we take the period of four hundred years stretching from two hundred years before to two hundred years after the birth of Christ, the number of miracles recorded which are remotely comparable with those of Jesus is astonishingly small. On the pagan side, there is little to report apart from the records of cures at healing shrines, which were certainly quite frequent, but are a rather different phenomenon from cures performed by an individual healer. Indeed it is significant that later Christian fathers, when seeking miracle workers with whom to compare or contrast Jesus, had to have recourse to remote and by now almost legendary figures of the past such as Pythagoras or Empedocles." [X:JATCH:103]

* "In the second century C.E. there is a fair amount of evidence to support the thesis that philosophers were generally inclined to be less critical in assessing extraordinary phenomena than in the centuries immediately preceding and more cordial toward religion generally and mainstream piety and its wonders specifically." [X04:PCCM:104]

* "In the Second-Sophistic period [beginning 2nd century AD] the pagan gods were extraordinarily active. They not only appeared to humankind in person or in dreams. They were also diligent in giving out oracles. The paganism of the High Empire does indeed have a vibrant feel to it." [HI:AREPJC:167]

* "The rituals we studied [exorcism, love rites, alchemy, and deification] all point to the importance of the first three centuries [AD]. Ideas which only appeared in embryonic form before the turn of the millennium undergo tremendous development by the beginning of the fourth century [AD]". [HI:MRW:98]

The easy acceptance of miracles was foreign to that world. The complete opposite of what sceptics claim... no surprises there of course.

Thoughts on Christianity

As Vox Day detailed in his book The Irrational Atheist most of the “arguments” put forwards by the new atheists are simply logically fallacious.

We see some of the same above, such as the claim that Christianity cannot be true because Christians do bad things. When it is pointed out that atheists have not only done equally bad, but even worse things, the special pleading is made that Christians ought to be better because they have the holy spirit inside them.

Arguments such as Craig’s Kalam formulation are dismissed because Craig would remain faithful even if the evidence was against him. Of course the logical implication of that is that Craig hasn’t found the evidence inadequate yet. Moreover Kalam is a logical argument, P1, P2, and C1, so an attempt to refute it cannot revolve around discrediting the source. That’s ad hominem.

The first proposition is unassailable, simply because if we don’t assume causality then all discussion ceases, it is the second proposition that is the weak point in the argument, because while we currently assume that the universe has a beginning, we cannot prove it. Craig’s arguments against an infinity reached by successive addition doesn’t take into consideration set theory where a set can contain an infinite number of values (for example all real numbers) without achieving that point by cumulative addition. Incidentally the person who introduced me to that criticism was a biblical creationist. However if proposition 1 is true, and we must assume that it is, and proposition 2 is probably true, which at the moment we generally assume it is, then the conclusion, that the universe had a first cause, is also probably true.

We can construct similar arguments based around morality, or teleology, which make it reasonable to infer a moral intelligence behind life.

Whilst showing that it is reasonable to propose a moral intelligence that created the universe, that doesn't automatically lead to Christianity.

What we then have to ask is what religious tradition deals with a creator god and specific historical events?

A creator god is necessary because of the first step. Obviously a god who is the universe cannot logically be the creator of that universe. That leaves out all pantheistic religions like Hinduism, as well as godless religions like Buddhism and atheism. The classical religions like those of the Greeks and Romans must go too. In their mythology the gods were born from Khronus and he in turn came into being at the moment of creation, hence he could not be the first cause.

We're now down to a relatively short list of theistic religions with transcendent deities. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I will treat Judaism and Christianity as two parts of the same tradition, although I'm sure most Jews would disagree with me.

Specific historical interventions are lacking in what I see of Zoroastrianism, that is Ahura Mazda doesn't seem to do very much. Whilst Zoroaster seems to have had many valuable insights, he doesn't appear to have the same miracle working power as Moses and Jesus.

In Judaism, whilst God doesn't act capriciously, the Biblical writers testify to specific actions and predictions attributed to YHWH. Where we are able to test them (and that is a limitation in any historical work) they seem to hold up well.

Christianity is rooted in the historical evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the theological interpretations placed on that evidence by Jesus and his apostles. Again within the limitations of historical inquiry the evidence seems to hold up well.

Islam is rooted in the revelation of Allah to Mohammed. However he makes specific claims about Jesus that are contrary to those recorded in the Bible. Since the historical evidence about Jesus goes back to the late first century and early second century, whilst Mohammed was writing in the seventh, this leaves me somewhat sceptical of his claims.

Since Mohammed did not claim to be writing his own recollections, but rather what Allah was dictating, this would lead me to regard his claims of authority as somewhat dubious.

Based on this brief assessment I would have to say that Judeo-Christianity has the best claim to be objectively true. If it is not then another form of theism, possibly one not revealed to humanity, is the next most likely.