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Stochastic Grace

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July 1, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith
Stochastic Grace

Today's entry was written by Sy Garte. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This essay was originally posted December 12, 2010.

I was raised in a household of atheists. My parents were card-carrying members of the American Communist Party, and therefore the atheism in my household was quite close to the militant anti-theism of the so-called “new atheists”. I learned that not only was religious faith incorrect, but actually evil. Like my father, a physical chemist, I rejected all forms of spirituality, and became a biochemist (I was able to stray that far from the paternal model).

Today I am a Christian with a deep sense of the grace of God and an ongoing feeling of wonder at the redeeming power of the Lord in all of creation and in my own life. I remain a scientist, as I have been for the past 30 years. I find tremendous satisfaction in my absolute conviction that science and faith are complementary and mutually supportive. My faith is strengthened by what I know of the natural world, and my scientific thinking has been given a great boost by my faith in the creative power of the Lord.

What sort of journey led me from my youth of fervent atheism to where I am today? The answer is simple: God called me, insistently and clearly, though it took me decades to finally listen and hear.

I remember the first clarion call quite clearly. As a young man I saw the film “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” by Passolini. In the film, the musical score alternates between a number of sharply contrasting styles. After the crucifixion, a slow, somber, Russian hymn reflects the mood of despair and loss felt by Mary and the disciples. This music continues as the women and John visit the tomb on the third day. The stone of the door is rolled back and the tomb is revealed as empty. At that instant the music immediately changes to a joyous African melody from a piece called the Missa Luba.

The effect this moment of the film had on me was intense and dramatic. I felt a shiver of emotion, and a sense of miraculous joy. The art of the filmmaker had conveyed—through music and visual splendor—the truth of the Gospels to me. As John started running to spread the word to his friends, I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could believe in the lovely myth of the resurrection. And then I thought no, this is just a trick of my mind to elicit emotions originally evolved to allow for human beings to experience empathy, and so on. (See Dennett for a full explanation of how we are “fooled” by such feelings).

So while the seed had been planted, it grew slowly, and required a great deal of care and tending to finally bear fruit. I read the Gospels. I became interested in mysticism and transcendence. I started attending a Catholic Church. All of this was interesting in an intellectual sense, but it had nothing to do with faith. I was an observer, a sympathetic and friendly one, but I was still on the outside looking in.

Meanwhile I worked at doing scientific research, and read Dawkins and Gould, Lewis Thomas and Carl Sagan. I have always been fervent in my admiration for the explanatory power of evolutionary theory, and even communicated with Dawkins concerning one of Darwin’s letters that I discovered in the British Museum, which got a mention in The Devil’s Chaplain.

I was finally given the gift of God’s grace directly from Christ in a dramatic and undeniable way. But in order to fully accept this gift, and to know that I belong to Christ, body and soul, I needed to reconcile this new faith with my scientific sense of reason. As it turned out, I found this (as many others have) to be surprisingly straightforward, especially after reading The Language of God. My journey to faith began with art and emotion, but it reached fruition with my growing understanding of how the characteristics of the natural universe point to God.

My scientific world-view encouraged me to ask questions, some of them unusual for a scientist: Why does beauty exist? Consider the magical Ode to Joy, or every note ever penned by Bach, or Kandinsky’s paintings, or the elegance of Einstein’s fundamental equations. Look at the wonderful mathematical artifact of the Mandelbrot set, a pure fractal, conceived by the genius of man’s mind, and only made visible by modern computer graphics. Yes, these are all works of man, and man is a wondrous creation. But why is the universe beautiful? What is the source of this beauty?

When we look at nature and see that the apparently-artificial, mathematically-strange concept of a non-scalar, self-similar fractal can be found in almost all biological structures (including DNA), as well as in clouds, coastlines, mountains, and galaxies, we must wonder at the source of all of this complexity, all of this beauty.

We know from physics that our world is stochastic, not strictly deterministic. In other words, it changes according to seemingly “random” influences, allowing for—even insisting on—creativity and surprise at every turn. It is beautiful, not dull; highly complex, not simple. Biological organisms appear to have been formed with the innate ability to evolve. And human beings, organisms with a soul, represent the grandest mystery of all.

Why is it so remarkable that we live in a stochastic universe? We can predict the result if we toss 1000 coins, treat a million cells with a mutagen, examine the behavior of a billion molecules, or trace the fate of trillions of subatomic particles. In that sense our science can describe the world very well. But, we know nothing about what happens when you toss a single coin, explore the mutational fate of a single cell, try to predict the path of a single photon, or look at the life of a single human being. It indeed appears magical (especially when we examine the science of quantum theory) that our universe is fundamentally stochastic at the level of the individual. I believe that this property of the natural laws we describe through science was built in by the Creator to allow for chance, beauty, evolution, humanity and even faith. What we perceive as random chance is not the enemy of faith, but the opposite. It is God’s tool.

We are able through science to find magnificent and overwhelming evidence for God’s intervention and on-going engagement in our world, from its creation to our everyday lives, in every aspect of reality, including in our ongoing discoveries of the secrets of the natural world. We now know that the universe was not always here. It had a beginning. It was created. That is Gospel, but it is also science.

But although we find many pointers to divinity, God so designed the world that His hand in its creation can never be proven beyond doubt. If that were not true, then free will and the beauty of faith would disappear. Faith is a gift to be accepted by an open heart, and an open mind. The knowledge of God’s grace cannot be forced on anyone by the discovery of any irrefutable fact that proves His existence. But the converse is also true. No scientific endeavor will ever prove the absence of God, and so we are free to believe.

The best thing about my journey from atheism to faith is that it isn’t over. I have learned a lot, but there is much more to explore, and I would like to thank BioLogos for being the vehicle for so much exploration of the natural works of the Lord in the context of His amazing grace.

Dr. Sy Garte earned his Ph.D.in biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley). He has been a Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at New York University, UMDNJ, and the University of Pittsburgh. He currently works as a science administrator.

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Lou Jost - #81521

July 1st 2013

“...God so designed the world that His hand in its creation can never be proven beyond doubt. If that were not true, then free will and the beauty of faith would disappear.” Right, then why did he perform miracles, ascend into heaven in front of a crowd, blast Israel’s OT enemies, part seas, send plagues, etc etc, but only in the distant unverifiable past? It was ok then, but not now???? It was ok for those people’s faith and free will to disappear, but not ours?? What a thoughtless justification for the lack of evidence for god in today’s world. He misses the obvious reason why the hand of god is hidden today…...

Lou Jost - #81526

July 1st 2013

Pardon my exasperation here, it’s just that theologians constantly trot out this transparently false excuse,(or something similar) for why god is invisible. Is there no peer review of religious articles or books?

Peter Hickman - #81534

July 2nd 2013

Lou makes a fair point.

Furthermore, it says in Romans 1 that the evidence for God is so obvious that man is without excuse.

jhurshman - #81538

July 2nd 2013

The miracles in the Bible rarely if ever seem for the purpose of “proving” God’s presence. It is almost routine for accounts of miracles in the Bible to be accompanied by accounts of disbelief or rejection.

For instance, Matthew 28.17 (an account of a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus) says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Similarly, the accounts of miracles associated with the Exodus are quickly followed by accounts of the people rejecting God’s leadership.

My point is that even in the Bible miraculous events are rarely if ever for the purpose of proof; Jesus even explicitly refuses to perform miracles for proof’s sake.

Lou Jost - #81540

July 2nd 2013

But he still allegedly does them. Even if they are not intended as proof, they would tip his hand. And the spectacular OT signs and wonders? This was not a shy god…..

That people rejected their god after walking through a Red Sea that had been ordered to part for them…..this is in fact evidence that the miracle never really happened. But if taken at face value, your god has a history of dramatic interventions, falsifying Garte’s claim.

Rich - #81543

July 2nd 2013

Your arguments don’t falsify Garte’s claim at all.  Because SOME people rejected their God means that the miracles they allegedly experienced didn’t happen?  How many people had to reject God to prove that the miracle didn’t happen?  One?  More than one?  A majority?  That any amount of people rejected God after experiencing a miracle in no way, “proves” that the miracle didn’t happen.

Also, the fact that the, “alleged” miracles only happened long ago in no way proves that God doesn’t exist today.  That’s just your interpretation as an unbeliever.

Most of the miracles in the OT were intended for give the Isrealites help against their opposition.  In the NT, some were necessary for salvation (Jesus’ resurrection), and some were for people to gain faith.  Most miracles were necessary for God’s people to exist and remain faithful, since world was and still is opposed to God and his teachings.  But for someone who doesn’t believe in the bible or even God, they sound like a bunch of nonsense and made-up stories.  They look at the miracles out of the spiritual context in which they exist.

In the end, it still goes back to ones basic beleif about God.  For a believer it makes perfect sense that people would reject God even if they experienced a miracle/s, since they believe in the spiritual world and how the world can affect our faith over time, and why we don’t have any, “big” miracles today.  But for someone who experiences all the beauty, wonder, complexity and purpose of this world yet still rejects that it’s from God, then a few stories about some miracles in the past won’t do anything for them.  

Lou Jost - #81544

July 2nd 2013

You missed my whole point. Though I think the evidence is against those miracles happening, the existence of miracles was not what was falsified. What is falsified is Garte’s poor excuse for why there are no miracles today:  “...God so designed the world that His hand in its creation can never be proven beyond doubt. If that were not true, then free will and the beauty of faith would disappear.” This is falsified by the many very dramatic miracles performed in times past, according to the bible. Apparently god didn’t worry about tipping his hand in the past. God was not concerned with destroying free will or the “beauty of faith”....Garte just made that up.

Rich - #81556

July 2nd 2013

It’s true that Garte made that statement up, it’s just his opinion.  But I don’t think that it’s falsified by the claims of dramatic miracles.  If they did happen, that doesn’t, “destroy free will” or the, “beauty of faith”, in my opinion.  Like I said, over time someone can lose faith, even if they experienced a miracle, because this world is mostly opposed to God and faith can be chipped away at.  But, as I said before, those don’t believe in the spiritual world won’t understand how one could lose faith after experiening even a dramatic miracle.  

That said, we don’t know for sure why God doesn’t intervene dramatically these days, the bible doesn’t explicitely state why, and I don’t believe in Garte’s reasoning myself.  There are some good theories out there.  I think it  has to do with the whole purpose of ancient Isreal:  to provide a house and home (Isreal and the Hebrews) for the Messiah to come into.  Given the times and the peoples around them, at times God needed to intervene dramatically for there very existance of Isreal.  Once Jesus was here, of course he needed to do miracles so people would believe that he was in fact the Messiah and God in the flesh.  Once he was off of the earth, the apostles and a few others did some miracles, some to strengthen the faith of the flegdeling church.  But those died off, as did God speaking directly to people, (in my opinion).  We don’t need miracles and revelations now because we have the bible, from Genesis to Revelation.  A lot of believers would agree with the gist of this reasoning I’m sure.  But for someone who doesn’t even believe in a God, it’s all merely rationalizations, so as I said before, it really does all come down to how one intreprets the existance of the universe and world.

Merv - #81559

July 2nd 2013

You were right before, Rich.  Don’t let anyone bamboozle you into thinking that there must have been this huge difference between how often or dramatically God acted then and how often or dramatically he acts now.  The Bible writers majored (but not exclusively!) on the dramatic bits  (and with interpretive/explanatory overlay that may not always have been accessible to the people experiencing it at the time.)    So unless we’re careful in our reading to see that all these dramas were spread over many generations of peoples (many centuries), we get the false impression that nearly everyone back then was treated to an ongoing miracle show.  The closest any group may come if you insist on the most literal narrative interpretation of…well…everything, might be while the cloud (cloud by day, fire by night) hovered near the camp as Moses was leading them.  Being a contemporary of Moses would seem to be anyone’s ticket into most of these spectacular shows, but as you’ve already noted, it doesn’t seem to have been enough to keep these “primed-to-believe-in-any-god” peoples from wondering where God was much of the time.  So even there in the alleged historical “heartland” of miracles there must have been a lot of cases of the “ho-hums”.  (What!?  Skepticism before the ‘new’ atheists were around???)

Regarding today, I also wouldn’t be too quick to concede that God isn’t doing big dramatic things (for all we know maybe at a greater rate than he did back then!)  We scientifically-minded moderns are not privy to all that’s going on even among our own.  Even though we all seem pretty sure that the entire world history revolves around us and our present methodologies; (it still stings a bit that God didn’t give the ancient Hebrews our much needed treatise on quantum mechanics instead of all these vague declarations about how good everything was.  One would almost think Genesis wasn’t written just for us today); yet even so there is much happening even under our noses today that either escapes our notice or is interpreted away by us.  

BTW—here might be one of those analogies like they used to give on tests.  Try this for size:  Scientistic dogma today might be to the broader historical human intellect what geocentrism was to cosmology.  But you’ve humored me (maybe!) through enough of my sarcastic digression here.

I’m pretty sure people can be living in the midst of great times (according to later history writers) and not know it.  And those later history writers won’t necessarily be wrong about that.  They will just have a broader perspective and context available to them (maybe even some revelation?) than we do right now living in the middle of it.

Lou Jost - #81570

July 3rd 2013

Merv, I could hardly recognize you in this comment. Anyway, as you can see from the recent Miracles post on BioLogos, miracles are big here. And the old ones are really big—parting the Red Sea is not in the same ballpark as your wife finding your lost keys in your  pocket. You pretty much admit that the “miracles” of today are not clearly recognizable as such. Miracles of the distant past were huge. So Garte is just spouting the usual theological BS which makes a virtue of the absence of evidence for god.

I do think that when the bible reports 1) massive unmistakable miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, alongside 2) skepticism on the part of some Israelites who experienced the Exodus miracles, this shows that the author of Exodus was mistaken about one or the other (or both) of these things. If this were any other sacred book, from any other culture but your own, every one of you would have the sense to know that, and would correctly decide that, at the very least, the sea did not part.

Merv - #81576

July 3rd 2013

I apologize for all the sarcasm.  Thanks for holding me accountable and recognizing that better responses can and should be expected.


Peter Hickman - #81569

July 3rd 2013

Jesus said (paraphrase): “If you can’t believe on account of what I say, believe on account of the miracles I do”. He sent the disciples out with the power to do miracles. And one of his parting words were, “These miracles will follow those that believe’.

It is disingenous to suggest that miracles are not an intergral part of God’s armamentarium of persuasion.

Merv - #81577

July 3rd 2013

John 10:38 is the passage you are probably referring to, Peter.  Some translations use the word “works” instead of “miracles”.   But for Jesus, these were often one and the same.  And your point is even further reinforced when Jesus says elsewhere (John 14:12) that those believers coming after him will do even greater works than Jesus is doing.

I still don’t find it convincing (or even biblical) that such works must be equivalent to a sort of magic show where Jesus anticipates the desires of enlightenment skepticism and by show of force silences it.  That kind of response seems to me more similar to some of his desert temptations, and we know where he went with that. 

Chip - #81574

July 3rd 2013

That people rejected their god after walking through a Red Sea that had been ordered to part for them…..this is in fact evidence that the miracle never really happened. But if taken at face value, your god has a history of dramatic interventions, falsifying Garte’s claim.

On the contrary, your observation validates Garte’s claim:  Even with the occasional dramatic intervention, it is still possible to reject one’s God.  Thus, his statement, “God so designed the world that His hand in its creation can never be proven beyond doubt” is confirmed.   Doubt is always possible. 

Rather than providing evidence that the miracle never really happened, another way to interpret your observation is in terms of an object lesson:  All people possess the potential to misinterpret evidence—even when that evidence is dramatic or overwhelming.  And IMO, human nature doesn’t seem to have changed that much in the last several thousand years.

Lou Jost - #81578

July 3rd 2013

Well, that’s an interesting take on it. But let me ask you, do you really think it is possible for someone to witness the plagues of Egypt called down by Moses, and then to follow him across the bottom of the Red Sea whose waters have parted on both sides at god’s behest, and STILL not think that this god was real?????

And if your answer is “Yes”, then  your answer invalidates Garte’s claim. If such big miracles would not prove god’s existence beyond a doubt, then they could still happen nowadays without ruining people’s free will and the “beauty of faith”. So Garte’s excuse doesn’t work no matter what!

hanan-d - #81631

July 4th 2013

Where exactly in any (and I do mean any) of the events that the Israelites sinned against God did they stop believing or reject God? No where do you see them making a claim that Moses made up this God. 

Eddie - #81584

July 3rd 2013

I’m going to have to side with Lou on this one—at least, on the main point at issue.

There is no doubt that both in the Old and New Testaments the marvelous deeds played a role in convincing witnesses that the power of God was indeed at work.  And there is no doubt that the vast majority of Christians throughout history have read those stories as evidence of the existence of a God with supreme power over nature and who has from time to time exercised that supreme power in dramatic ways.

The de-emphasis on miracles, and on empirical arguments for faith generally (e.g., design arguments), is a modern phenomenon, a direct response to the Enlightenment and to modern science, an attempt to shield Christianity from falsification by driving it “inward.”  The world—every aspect of it, including its origins, becomes left to “science,” which is conceived of as a “value-free” investigation into purely efficient causes, and faith becomes private, an attitude, a way of looking at life, which can draw no support from the empirical study of the world, and makes no predictions about what empirical study of the world would reveal. 

I find this dualistic division of thought and of the world—reason/faith, science/ theology, fact/value, nature/purpose, etc. to be entirely unsatisfactory, philosophically, theologically, and personally, and I will have none of it.  I look for unity, for synthesis, with all the risks that such a search entails; I cannot rest secure in the safety of compartmentalization.  And that, as much as any of my objections to “Darwinism,” is the source of my opposition to TE. 

So back to the point:  Christianity has in the past rested a great deal of emphasis on external confirmations, whether in the reliability of Biblical miracle stories, or in ongoing confirmations of miracles today (as by the Catholic Church’s procedures for sainthood or for exorcizing demons).  It has never rested its case entirely on inward or “spiritual” knowledge of God.  Attempts to make Christianity entirely depend on inward perception will always fail.

However, regarding Egypt, I disagree somewhat with Lou.  Human beings are notoriously ungrateful, with short memories for even the greatest favors done to them.  I don’t find it implausible that the Israelites would see God rescue them at the Red Sea, but then (after a suitable period of great gratitude and praise and promises of “God, we will always be grateful and loyal to you”), start complaining when the going got rough, with a shortage of food and water in the desert, and be ready to jump to the worship of some other God who could deliver their current needs or desires.  Human beings are like that.  At least, a lot of human beings are.  The few who are intrinsically loyal and grateful, even in tough times, are remarkable for the very reason that so few people are like that.  So the Israelites could easily have “believed in God” but ceased to respect or fear God, when he, in their view, was not doing enough for them.

Still, on the main point, I think Lou is right.

Lou Jost - #81587

July 3rd 2013

Thanks Eddie. And I grant your point that humans, being what they are, might “turn their back on god” even if they still beleived he was real, if they also believed another god was real, or just didn’t like having to give up shellfish or other things. I don’t think any Israelite  with Red Sea bottom-mud on his boots  could ever turn his back on god in the sense of not believing that this god was a real god (perhaps one of many), though.

Merv - #81588

July 3rd 2013

 I look for unity, for synthesis, with all the risks that such a search entails; I cannot rest secure in the safety of compartmentalization.  And that, as much as any of my objections to “Darwinism,” is the source of my opposition to TE. 

I look for unit and sythesis too, Eddie.  The compartmentalization I see as least likely is the “that was then (God did great things) / this is now (God no longer does)” formulation.  Yes, I do recognize that history can have apparent “dry spells”.  The four centuries preceding New Testament events might rank as such.  But to divide all of theological history into these two broad categories doesn’t hold water biblically so far as I can see.  Please understand I’m not trying to mount a defense of Sy’s assertion that heavy handed miracles rob us of our free will.  I understand your objection to that, Lou.  What I can’t buy is your notion that all these ancients were reeling under a steady barrage of heavy-handed miracles (at least as we now imagine them in movles and such.) 

Lou Jost - #81596

July 3rd 2013

Merv, as you know, I’m not advocating the idea that the distant past really was wallowing in miracles. I am arguing that there were many major reported miracles from around the time of Exodus to the time of Jesus, and none so noticeable since then. I am only commenting on the reported pattern, and Garte’s explanation of it.

I also look for unity and synthesis, consistency, elegance, and explanatory and predictive power in a hypothesis or interpretation. My hypothesis for this miracle-reporting pattern (which seems to be common in most religions) is just the mythification of the past. No real miracles happened, under this hypothesis. We see this process all the time, and most of you accept that this is the origin of most or all of the miracle stories of cultures other than your own. I apply it to all religions, rather than giving one of them special treatment.

Eddie - #81602

July 4th 2013


I sometimes generalize with “TE”—you should always take it that I mean “most of the prominent TEs”—to allow for the odd TE leader who is out of step with the others, e.g., Polkinghorne or Russell, and also to take into account that many of the average, churchgoing TEs don’t necessarily agree with the theological stands taken by many of the more vocal leaders.

So I would be far from denying that you or other TEs are also seeking unity and synthesis.  But I have found the “compartmentalizing approach”—science over here, faith over there, and they get along best when they stay out of each other’s way—to be common among the prominent TEs, and it is the very opposite of the unifying approach that I’m trying to develop.

I of course admit that to some extent, science and faith have different concerns.   I don’t expect Genesis to contain accurate information about the stratigraphic column, and I don’t expect a geneticist to find the gene for original sin.  But I don’t accept the division that says that science deals with the facts—all the facts, including facts about origins of galaxies and life and species and man—and faith deals only with meaning, purpose, etc.  This renders faith impotent to ever challenge science when science speaks about issues with great ramifications for faith—such as issues of human origins.

But not just about human origins.  If neurological and behavioral science some day appear able to demonstrate that there is no human free will, will TEs use the “compartmentalization” tactic to argue, “Well, that’s OK, because science deals with the objective world, and objectively there may be no evidence for free will, and it may even look as if there isn’t any, but through the eye of faith we know there is free will?”  To me that would be simply a cowardly dodging of the question.

I don’t say that science and faith necessarily must clash.  I say only that there is enough overlap in their objects (origins, ethics, etc.) that they could clash—and I’m looking for an explanation of the whole picture—God, nature, and man in their physical as well as spiritual relations—which deals with that possibility rather than tries to fence it out by a NOMA-like epistemological gimmick.

Merv - #81608

July 4th 2013

Thanks, Eddie.  I’m essentially with you in rejecting the NOMA approach to all this.

Lou, I took Sy’s suggestion about free-will less as an in-depth explanation and more as a passing comment.  While I can understand where he was coming from in saying it, I do agree with you that it is wrong if just taken as it is—and does not constitute anything close to a full explanation.

Regarding your rejection of all miracles to begin with ... of course you feel and think that way.  This being a Christian site, the Christians like me who participate here (or perhaps I should just speak for myself) have other rational explanations for this modern interpretation, like the one I’ve already put forward.

Lou Jost - #81609

July 4th 2013

Merv, sure, I understand there can be other explanations for why there are no obvious miracles now. I was just disturbed by Sy’s particular explanation.

Eddie - #81585

July 3rd 2013

Rich, I’m glad to hear your voice added to the proceedings.  And with Rich and Eddie finally contributing on the same thread, perhaps a side-note to our resident Lois (beaglelady) Lane is in order:  now that Clark Kent and Superman are in the same room at the same time, perhaps abandoning your secret identity speculations would be in order.

(Don’t worry, Rich, it’s an in-joke; it all happened while you weren’t here.)

GJDS - #81594

July 3rd 2013

One point regarding miracles (during the time of Moses, of Christ, or nowadays); to one group of people, miracles are seen as God providing an easy way to deal with life’s difficulties, so they would like miracles on demand. Another group wants miracles for both an easy life and also to ‘allow’ God to justify himself for all of life’s difficulties, so that God has a chance to prove himself to them. A third group put faith first and formost, and IF miracles appear to them, see that as an additional opportunity to be grateful to God for His Mercy. The third group get this matter right - the former groups are like Isreal of old, and like modern day chaps who have sunk themselves in their subjective ‘theodicy’.

 I still cannot get an atheist getting excited about miracles - surely if he does not believe in God, he cannot believe in a God who does or does not do miracles.

Nick Gotts - #81626

July 4th 2013

On the contrary. As an atheist, really good evidence of even one miracle - say, a three-day-old corpse coming back to life - would certainly lead me to reconsider my atheism, which is an empirical conclusion, and hence subject to revision in the light of new evidence. If I were convinced such an event had occurred, it would certainly show me that my worldview was fundamentally wrong <I>somewhere</I>.

Lou Jost - #81630

July 4th 2013

Yep. I’d have to reconsider as well.

A while ago I asked believers on this site what it would take for them to change their minds about the existence of a personal, theistic god. Didn’t get many answers.

Eddie - #81693

July 5th 2013

I would guess that what you and Nick Gotts would both do, Lou, would be to try to find a scientific explanation for the resurrection.  You would investigate hypotheses such as:  he wasn’t really dead, but in a coma; he is a Hindu fakir who can slow down his heart and lungs to simulate death; a freak virus invaded the dead body and reactivated the cells by a previously unknown but totally natural process; etc.  I think you would do everything imaginable to explain the phenomenon (which you could not deny) in natural terms.

And if there was no plausible natural explanation, and someone jumped to “It’s a miracle, then!”, I expect you would say, “Not so fast!  That’s God-of-the-gaps thinking!  Just because we can’t provide a natural explanation of this phenomenon now, who can say that science won’t discover such an explanation in the future?  The proper, scientific attitude here is to say that this phenomenon was produced by an unknown cause, and draw no conclusions at all.”

In other words, while you and Nick would remain, in the abstract, “open” to the miraculous explanation, you would in practice, in cases where a miraculous explanation seemed to be indicated, always opt for putting off the decision between natural and supernatural causes, in hopes that eventually a natural cause would show up.  And that amounts to a de facto denial of the legitimacy of proposing supernatural causes.  

Or am I wrong?  Are there cases where you would say:  “Yes, I agree that a supernatural cause here is “the best explanation” within our current understanding, and therefore, until further information surfaces, I will affirm and personally believe that the cause in this case was supernatural”?  

Somehow I think not; but if I am wrong, I’d be glad to hear from either of you why I’m wrong.

Lou Jost - #81697

July 5th 2013

Eddie, we’ve been over this before, and I gave an extensive answer listing things that would convince me of the existence of a creator or personal god. I don’t remember where, though…it was in the thread where I asked people what would convince them that there was no personal, interactive god (and I got only one answer, suggesting that the beliefs of many of the commenters here are unfalsifiable).

My answer involved strong exhibitions of Mind, such as signatures in DNA or the decimal expansions of fundamental constants, or the frequent answering of prayer requests when made to one deity but not when made to another, and other stuff like that.

Eddie - #81703

July 5th 2013

Yes, Lou, I remember that discussion, but look at what you said just above. Nick Gotts said that the resurrection of a three-day old corpse would show him that his worldview was fundamentally wrong.

You chimed in with “Yep. I’d have to reconsider as well.”

So I’m focusing just on the resurrection now.  Did I fairly characterize how you would investigate and classify the resurrection, if you were confronted with it as a fact?  How likely is it that you would end up concluding—even if only as a provisional conclusion—that the cause was supernatural?  Am I right to say that, if you could not find a natural explanation, you would be more inclined to render the verdict “Cause unknown” than to accept a supernatural cause?  

For myself, I don’t expect I will ever see a “strong exhibition of Mind” of the type that you are asking for, i.e., unusual or freakish appearances of Mind, secret messages in DNA or the like.  I would rest my empirical argument for God—not the God of revealed religion, just the God behind the universe—on the “strong exhibitions of Mind” which I think are found in everyday natural objects such as cells and organisms.  But of course you do not agree that those things show even the slightest evidence of Mind, so we are unable to get far in that discussion.  That’s why I’m sticking for the moment to the subject of the resurrection, an unusual manifestion of Mind which most people concede would be enough to prove the existence of supernatural causes.  If I saw the resurrection as it occurred, or even if I saw Jesus walking about after the resurrection, I would be strongly inclined to infer supernatural activity.  I suspect that you, in exactly the same situation, would strongly resist that inference and try to find another explanation.  Am I right?


Lou Jost - #81727

July 6th 2013

“If I saw the resurrection as it occurred, or even if I saw Jesus walking about after the resurrection, I would be strongly inclined to infer supernatural activity.  I suspect that you, in exactly the same situation, would strongly resist that inference and try to find another explanation.  Am I right?” Yes, you are right, if that is all I saw. Don’t forget there have been people who woke up after being buried.

The devil is in the details. I would need to see a physical law broken in such a way that the breaking suggested meaning, or Mind. For example, if I saw the rotting corpse of Jesus, and it really was thoroughly rotted, and then the next day I saw him walking and talking, I would accept a supernatural explanation as the best one. Likewise if the new Jesus had different skull features than the old one (but still remembered every detail of his old life).

Past experience shows that people jump much too fast to supernatural explanations. This is something to be guarded against.

Eddie - #81732

July 6th 2013


I’m very skeptical about alleged miracles of all kinds—faith healings, etc.  I’ve never seen a miracle and I doubt I ever will.  My instinct is to try to explain every event in natural terms.  So I agree with your last paragraph.

However, in the case of the resurrection, I think requiring a thoroughly rotted corpse would be overdoing it.  The story tells us that his hands and feet were pierced, his side was pierced.  The Romans were experienced executioners and wouldn’t have given up his body to his friends if they weren’t convinced he was dead; nor would his friends, if they discovered that the Romans had made a mistake and that he was still alive, have buried him in a tomb blocked up by a huge stone and left him for two days; they would have given him medical attention.  So he was dead, no doubt.  And with horrible wounds.  Yet according to the story, he was walking about and talking not long afterward.  And while his body still showed the marks of his ordeal, they appear to have no more lasting effect on him than a few bruises, which is medically impossible.  You don’t get a spear gash in the side with bodily fluids trailing out, and have nails driven into your extremities, and go without water or food for nearly three days, and then get up and walk around energetically as if you had just experienced scrapes, sprains, and bruises.  So that would be enough to indicate supernatural causation for me, if I had witnessed it.

Ditto for the walking on water, parting of the Red Sea, most of the Ten Plagues, calming of the storm, etc.  And also many (not all) of the healings.  If I had witnessed those things, I’d infer supernatural causes.

How far these inferences are allowable when the events are known only through a document, rather than through personal observation, is a matter over which people can reasonably disagree.  But if I had seen the events, I’d think the inference was sound.

Lou Jost - #81734

July 6th 2013

Eddie, I didn’t consider the extra details from the stories, only the bare facts you had originally stated. I don’t think it is correct to give second-hand stories, written long after the fact by committed apologists, much evidential value. That’s even more true of the other miracles you mentioned, especially the healings. But let’s not re-open that debate here.

I agree with you, if I had seen the parting of the Red Sea at the moment Moses and the Egyptian army arrived, and others around me also saw it (so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating), I would attribute that to a supernatural Mind at work. But the story (as opposed to the experience of seeing it) is without value as evidence.  It is embedded in an extended origin myth, with many signs of non-historicity.

Nick Gotts - #81780

July 9th 2013

I’ve come across this before: a blank refusal to credit that I would actually respond to evidence of the supernatural by reconsidering my belief that there is no such thing. It’s really rather insulting. Of course, I can’t be <I>absolutely certain</I> how I would react to something I don’t ever expect to happen - but how do you think you have a better idea than I do? Or are you accusing me of lying about what I believe my reaction would be?

I’d agree with all the items in Lou Jost’s list, as well as the revival of a very clearly dead corpse.

GJDS - #81787

July 9th 2013

I do not think that anyone would refuse to respond to evidence, and especially something that seems extraodinary or ‘supernatural’. The point that some of us (or at least I am trying to make) is that miracles do not fall in a catagory which dependds on evidence per se - perhaps one way of stating the matter is, the evidence comes after the miracle, and has a lot to do with faith (and other matters). Unfortunately, this aspect is rarely discussed, but the ‘out of the ordinary’ matters are forever discussed.

This notion appears to be a favourite for atheists who wish to appear open minded - i.e. if God were to provide sufficient, testable evidence, than they may reconsider their position. While on the durface this appears reasonable, it is not the teaching of the Christian faith - of course, an atheist is entitled to respond with, “I do not have the evidence, so I will not believe”.

What I find unreasonable is the presumption that I as a Christian should somehow be bound to what the atheist wishes. If I may ‘redo’ your statement, it could be equally insulting to assume that because I believe, you should become an inquisitor and claim that I should ‘prove’ my belief to you.

The Christian faith is not like that. Nor does the faith insist that an atheist should be made to believe by extraordinary ‘evidence’.

Eddie - #81788

July 9th 2013

I accept your word regarding your probable reaction.

GJDS - #81635

July 4th 2013

I think you miss your own contradiction (or missunderstand your own point) - as an atheist you are willing yourself to believe in God if(????) He does something for you. Just how do you reconcile this odd outlook within yourself. And what makes you think that God would wish to find a way to convice you? You would ‘reconsider’ your atheism in the light of evidence that you wish God to provide you, so that you may be convinced - and yet you tell us that you are an atheist because of empiricial evidence that someone or other has altready provided for you and this evidence has convinced you there is no god!

Perhaps (if I take you seriously) I would need to add a fourth catagory in my original post - the friendly atheist who is willing to ‘give God a chance”, if only God would listen to him. However I do not think it works like that.

Lou Jost - #81638

July 4th 2013

I don’t wish for god to provide evidence. If a god suddenly provided strong evidence for his existence, I’d have to reconsider my position that there is no god. That’s all.

GJDS - #81729

July 6th 2013

So God has decided not to give you that strong evidence and you do not have to reconsider your position. What is the drama? Do you have a need to argue with someone (besides a god who you feel may suddenly .... oh what the heck…)

Arne Johannessen - #81752

July 7th 2013

Hi Lou,

Have you looked up and discussed miracles with people who claim to have experienced such? There are so many cases of divine healing fo instance that if you really want to see if miracles happen today it does demand further inquiry.

I don´t know how familiar you are with modern church history, but at the end of 19th century many Christian ministers concluded that modern man would not be able to believe in miracles anymore since the advances in science discredited miracles. Consequently it would be necessary to read the miracle stories in the Bible as sort of allegories in order for Christianity to survive. But the exact opposite happened in the 20th century: the faith in the supernatural exploded withint the Christian church. Pentecostalism, with it´s focus on gifts of the spirit, healings and miracles became the fastest growing form of Christianity and has swept the entire globe. Granted, there are a lot of phony charlatans riding the crest of this wave, but at the core of the whole thing there are so many testimonies of the miraculous that it can´t be ignored. Even church denominations who used to believe that the days of spiriutal gifts had seazed, now have charismatic cells in their midst.

In my native region of Scandinavia, which in many ways is a very secular society with low church attendance, there has been numerous reports of supernatural healings the last few decades. Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, the leader of the Norwegian Health department (2008) caused a great stirr when he claimed that his own son had been cured thru contact with a Christian faith healer. Several public person has since come out with similar experiences. In Denmark a television crew followed Roger Pedersen who was not a believer but nevertheless was healed from a visual impairment through the ministry of Charles Ndifon of Nigeria. The healing was excamined by doctors afterwards.

Lou Jost - #81756

July 7th 2013

Anne, thanks for your comment. I have not had much direct experience with faith-based medical miracle claims. In the US, where I grew up, it has a very shady history with many sophisticated charlatans. It is very hard to evaluate medical miracles. We know that people’s attitude affects their health, and we know the placebo effect can be quite surprisingly strong. I do note that we never see amputees regain a limb, or anything like that.

That is why above I mentioned that for me personally, I’d need to see a clear violation of the laws of physics in order to be really convinced of a miracle. In the case of a medical miracle, this would mean the sudden appearance of a new limb or something equally dramatic. For an omnipotent god, that would be no harder than a marginally detectable miracle, so the absence of such miracles does raise suspicions. 

Nick Gotts - #81627

July 4th 2013

Sy Garte is an interesting example of someone who quite clearly and knowingly <I>willed</I> himself to believe over a long period, and eventually succeeded: an unusual sort of conversion story in my experience.

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