Christians do love miracles. After all, miracles represent PROOF YES PROOF that their god actually exists when nothing else would give anyone such an impression! Plus, Christians consider miracles part of the benefits package that they get for belonging to Christianity at all. Without active membership in the club, they can’t obtain club benefits!
But theirs is a very weak little godling. His most devoted followers know it well. So they set the bar for miracles as low as they possibly can—so low, in fact, that it’s impossible for us heathens to distinguish between normal operations and divine miracles. Only a Christian aching for miracles to be real could perceive miracles in the following stories. And as we’ll see, when one sets the bar for miracles this low, one risks implicitly conveying something about one’s god that one might not anticipate—or desire.
(This post went live on Patreon on 1/23/24. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, if you want to listen to this post!)
Defining miracles (is trickier than it sounds)
First off, let’s do something Christians almost never do. Let’s define miracles themselves before we get started.
For heathens, a miracle occurs when a supernatural being makes something happen that is otherwise completely impossible in the normal operation of the universe. In effect, miracles represent a violation of the natural laws of the universe.
That seems straightforward, I’m sure. But it’s mostly a Low Christianity definition for believers who are more orgiastic, ritual- and theology-averse, and emotion-driven. In the lofty halls of High Christianity, that end of the religion tilted more toward ritual and theology, scholars have a lot of trouble with that definition. (The chart below offers examples of where the flavors of Christianity fall along that axis.)
David Hume offered this definition in the mid-18th century (archive), and it’s worked for many Christians over the centuries since. However, in offering it he also destroyed it:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
When he uses the phrase “argument from experience,” he refers to a kind of logical fallacy. An “argument from X” (also called “an appeal to X”) is an invalid argument on its own face. Here’s how this one goes, according to Hume’s writeup and footnote 22 of the same:
- This amazing thing happened to me. Despite all the evidence we have collected confirming and supporting the natural laws of the universe, this thing happened in complete violation of them. [Description]
- It could not have happened without divine intervention. [Claim/Assertion]
- Therefore, Jesus is totes for realsies. [Conclusion]
It’s invalid because the person might be wrong about how unlikely the event was or that it was even a violation of natural laws in the first place. Or they might have perceived the event incorrectly. Further, even if the assertion were correct, nothing links it to any particular gods. Hindus think miracles come from their gods. Pagans think the same. So do Christians. And Muslims. Weirdly, miracles don’t ever come with divine signatures.
So for us heathens, a miracle is an event/happening/situation that could not possibly have come to exist without divine intervention of some kind. That is the definition I will be using here.
Softening miracles’ definition (is a very Christian thing)
Christians tend to use that definition as well. In practical terms, though, their working definition slides into more permissible ground. For them, a miracle can involve any amount of human intervention and fall completely into line with natural laws. It’s just not as likely to happen without divine intervention. Or it couldn’t happen without Jesus’ permission or assent. In effect, a miracle is simply anything that happens to them that makes them happy, but is somewhat unlikely to occur.
So something can totally still be a miracle even if:
- It required huge, intensive, even multinational effort to achieve, like the Thai cave rescue
- It’s insanely expensive and/or ventures into hitherto-unknown depths of modern medicine
- It leaves the miracle recipient incapacitated, mortally injured, or in horrendous pain for what is hopefully an extremely short lifespan
- Or it is so picayune and mundane that no heathen would even remember it happened a few days later
As a result of that very lax definition, Christians can immerse themselves in a gauzy fairy-tale world of constant miracles. They have completely lost touch with how a heathen outsider normie views their claims. I’ve even tried to tell them how disturbing their claims can sound to us. Alas, their reactions have never been anything but hostile—like how dare I try to steal their joy or something.
By the way: “Steal their joy” is Christianese. “Harshing their buzz,” “yucking their yum,” “shaming their kink,” and other similar phrases can be considered kissin’ cousins to it. Typically, Christians think demons—even Satan himself—steal their joy, but the hypocrisy of other Christians can also do the trick. It means to lose one’s enthusiasm for a reason that the judging Christian doesn’t consider valid. If one’s joy remains stolen, one eventually deconverts and/or goes to Hell. And the judging Christian will blame them the whole way there.
The shape of Christian miracles (is Christian ignorance)
Generally speaking, wherever Christian ignorance is greatest, that is where we will find the most miracle claims.
You’ll never hear a very wealthy, well-to-do Christian claim that a $20 bank error ran in their favor for once, or that somehow their balance grew $150 without their knowing it, so they can now cover their mortgage this month. Financially secure Christians tend to know how banking works. The workings of accounting and ledgers are no mysteries to them. To people who don’t learn the rules of their own checking account, or who live hand-to-mouth without knowing how to live any other way, banks and checking accounts might as well be those Word Walls in Skyrim that teach your character Dragon Shouts (spells).
We can categorize medical miracles in a very similar way. Much of the workings of the human body are still mysterious to us. We’re still learning how to treat a great many diseases and injuries we can get. So there’s a lot of ignorance-room there for miracles to stretch out and run amok.
It’s like stories about spooky internet or computer stuff. If you have a good working knowledge of how the internet operates or how computers work, you already know why it’s impossible for a “ghost” to “haunt” you through either of ’em. I got that call many times when I worked tech support! A lot of people seem to think a computer monitor’s built-in microphone can take photographs of them without their knowledge. Or, in one memorable call, that it can beam secret messages and signals into their brains from space aliens (who seem inordinately fond of bottom-of-the-line consumer-aimed computer hardware).
Similarly, someone in Hollywood thought it was plausible to link a Macintosh laptop to an alien vessel and upload a virus to its mother ship, then knock out its shielding so humans could blow it to smithereens.
That scene had the same effect on me—a longtime Mac expert—as seeing a motorcyclist without a helmet had on my dad—a former EMT first responder. But it didn’t hinder the movie’s success at all. Back then, in the mid/late 1990s, not a lot of people understood how personal computers, computer code, networking, or computer viruses worked.
In the shape of a culture’s ignorance, the impossible can become a reality—at least in the stories they tell and love the most. That’s where miracles grow. They take the shapes of people’s ignorance.
Now, let’s meet a very, very sick baby
I had miracles on my mind today when I encountered this story from Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) (archive). It concerns a very sick newborn baby. Doctors discovered that Gus had a serious heart problem before he was even born. In fact, he had a couple of serious heart problems.
One problem, PA/IVS (pulmonary atresia with intact ventricular septum; archive), can be serious all by itself. “Pulmonary atresia” means that Gus is entirely missing the heart valve that controls blood flow to the lungs. That means he has a lot of trouble getting blood to his lungs so it can pick up oxygen. In terms of congenital heart issues, this is not a common one.
Gus got lucky starting right here. PA/IVS is the somewhat-less-lethal form of pulmonary atresia. The more-lethal form has a defect in the ventricular septum, which is the wall that separates the lower chambers of the heart. Gus’ septum thingie was intact. He still needed a transplant, but his chances for surviving the wait and the transplant itself improved because of this little bit of luck.
But that wasn’t the only battle Gus faced. The right side of his heart was underdeveloped, meaning he had hypoplastic right heart syndrome (HRHS; archive). Gus got lucky here, too. If someone’s got to have one side of their heart underdeveloped at birth, the right side’s got a far better survival rate than the left. Either way, HRHS might not require a transplant, but when it occurs by itself the baby’s in for a lot of operations.
These sound bad, and they are. But they’re not as bad as they could have been. Neither condition is an automatic death sentence, thanks to major advances in neonatal medicine. HRHS has about an 80% newborn/60% five-year survival rate (archive). PA/IVS has a post-transplant survival rate of 93%/81% (archive).
Even with extensive medical help in NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit), though, it was touch and go for a while. Poor little guy needed a new heart. After only eleven days, though, an eligible heart became available. It was his third bit of luck.
Naturally, the CBN story contained almost none of this information. All it said was that Gus needed a heart transplant. For the full skinny, I had to find the family’s GoFundMe (potato-quality archive; image archive).
This is a very lucky little baby, but he’s still fighting for his life
On January 16, Gus got his new heart.
To anyone, that’s a relief. But Gus’ parents aren’t just any relieved, happy parents. They’re Calvinist evangelicals. Dad’s a Liberty University graduate studying for his M. Div. They’re forced-birther, anti-abortion crusaders who have embraced their tribe’s disinformation campaign in full. So the dad has reposted quite a few anti-abortion posts since his baby has been fighting for life. Maybe it helps distract him.
To his parents and thousands of likeminded evangelicals, Gus’ survival rises to the level of a divine miracle.
His parents and their fellow evangelicals still thought that way, too, even when the baby’s new heart at first refused to beat on its own.
Over the next week, Gus moved in and out of surgery. He required constant care and all kinds of procedures: a heart-bypass machine hookup, drainage of fluids, you name it. After a week of failing some important tests of functionality, Gus seemed to be on the upswing. And that, too, was totes for realsies a miracle.
Then, Gus experienced some more complications. He’s got a long fight to get through these woods. Nothing’s for sure yet, according to his dad’s Xitter posts. Gus is mostly off the heart bypass machine, at least, though his blood pressure’s still wonky.
My own heart aches for this poor baby. That’s a lot of fighting for just a little fella. Frankly, CBN’s article, published today, sounds a bit premature and optimistic. But I doubt their readers care. After a week of political infighting, they probably needed to hear something uplifting.
If you don’t write out the prayer on social media, the miracles can’t happen
The point isn’t Gus surviving two serious heart conditions and a transplant. Not to CBN’s readership. It’s that his parents are fundagelical Christians who couch every single word they write on social media in Christianese and surround it all in the Christ-o-sphere’s Low Christianity folk beliefs about prayer.
And one of those folk beliefs involves writing one’s prayers out on social media so other fundagelicals can see that it was done. It’s the absolute weirdest thing, I imagine, for normies to encounter. Imagine it: All these Christians writing out prayers like they were saying them aloud in their own homes or in church. (12-ish years ago, a fundagelical gal became famous in that sphere for writing in tongues on her Facebook posts.)
Here’s one sample reply from Gus’ dad’s latest Xitter post:
Dear Father in Heaven, hear our prayers.
We pray in Jesus’s name for you to please wrap baby Gus and his parents in your arms. Keep them safe and continue to bless this sweet little boy with your healing love and light. Please strengthen his heart, especially the right ventricle. He is a fighter Father. His faithful parents, and his caring medical staff are your servants ready to do whatever you need of them to save this beautiful child. We ask this in Jesus’s name, Amen.🙏 [image archive]
Another fundagelical, a military veteran of some kind, wrote an overwrought, super-formal, five-paragraph essay prayer. Here’s part of it:
We come before You with hearts overflowing with gratitude for the mercies You have shown Gus today. Your hand has been evident in stabilizing his blood pressure and heart, a testament to Your unfailing love and power. We are in awe of how You have used the skillful hands of nurses and doctors to bring about this healing, reflecting Your compassion and grace.
Lord, we acknowledge that we are still in a place of need, and we humbly ask for Your continued guidance and healing. We pray for Gus’s heart. May You nurture it back to full health, using time as a vessel for Your restorative power. Shield him, O Lord, from inflammation and infection, and let his new heart thrive under Your watchful eye. [image archive]
Most normies won’t know that it just means that Vet Guy knows damned well that his god hasn’t done a single thing that anybody could point to as definitely an example of divine action. But he still feels compelled to do something prayer-like.
Before I realized prayers don’t do anything magical at all, I probably sounded a lot like him. My prayers shifted from cure cancer tonight, everywhere, all over Earth to please inspire cancer researchers to make a little progress with detecting cervical cancer. I didn’t even notice when that shift occurred, and I doubt Vet Guy has realized it’s happened for him too. The longer and more blathering the prayer, the less likely the noticing—and the more bothered deep-down the Christian likely is.
A “proud deplorable” Boomer lady offered a typed-out prayer of her own:
Dear Father God, We want to lift our voices in bountiful thanks for your tender healing mercies being bestowed on Gus and his family. We want to thank you for the healing as our creator you have worked thru the capable hands of the hospital staff. We humbly request your continued healing if it be your will, In sweet Jesus name we pray… [image archive]
It looks like about a quarter of the replies are simply prayers. All of the prayers I’ve seen so far sound like fundagelical Christianese, too, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. It’s hard to imagine a mainline or progressive Christian doing something so undignified and obviously performative.
But gosh, how will Gus’ parents know anyone’s praying for Gus at all if Christians don’t explicitly tell them they’re doing it? It’s not like they’d be able to tell otherwise.
Prayer has always been the way for Christians to feel like they’re doing something tangible when they’re doing nothing useful at all. For what it’s worth, I sympathize. I know how much it hurts to know one can’t do anything really to help. I know Christians are just doing what they’ve been taught to do. And I wish a truly loving, powerful god could hear people’s prayers and help.
That’s just not the world we live in. In the world we live in, babies can be grievously sick—and nothing supernatural cares. In this world, we’re it. We’re all we have. That reality can be scary for a lot of people to deal with.
A weak god makes for weaksauce miracles, which is worse than useless
But that, too, is a best-case scenario. We may be imperfect, but we’re real. Our failures and inconsistencies are understandable.
The failures and inconsistencies of the Christian god cannot be reconciled with Christians’ beliefs about him. He’s weirdly limited in exactly the ways humans are, and miracle-working only to the extent humans have developed. He has never grown back a missing limb or eye, for example, which even modern medicine cannot do (yet).
The day we figure out how to do it, though, I know that fundagelicals will be right on hand to claim their god alone has made it possible. Somehow.
A capricious, weak, impossible-to-understand god whose actions are indistinguishable from natural occurrences is much, much worse than no god at all. That kind of god adds a great deal of insult to injury, especially when his followers mistakenly think he’s actually wise, loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful.
Think for a moment about all the other fundagelical parents who have been in this couple’s situation but lost their baby.
Unfortunately, fundagelicals learn a form of religious narcissism that easily becomes a solipsistic black hole. They literally don’t consider all the other people who aren’t getting the miracle they claim is happening just for them. Those other people never enter their minds. They don’t exist.
So for every fundagelical parent who ascribes their child’s survival to a genuine divine miracle and gets a writeup in fundagelical media, there are plenty more who must endure that squirrel chatter with gritted teeth because their omnimax loving god did not grant them any baby-saving miracles. They leave the hospital to go home empty-handed, and they grieve a loss so deep it sears them to the bone for life.
Then, because they are fundagelical and believe their god loves them and orchestrates everything that happens to them for their ultimate good, they wonder why their prayers were not answered. They wonder if maybe Jesus just didn’t like their baby enough to save him. Or used the loss to punish them, the baby’s parents, for some offense they can’t even recall. Or just wanted to teach the hospital staff a lesson that day, and they were just the lucky ducks on hand for it.
Miracles are where the religious rubber meets the reality road
This, right here, is where the religious rubber really meets the reality road: at the intersection of a pale baby boy with bright eyes laying in a far-too-large hospital bed while his worried parents do everything they can to help him survive.
It doesn’t matter how lengthy and contrived the prayers are on social media, or how heartfelt they sound, or how “deplorable” their typists proudly claim to be. Gus’ fate will still not differ from that of any other baby with his particular physical and genetic challenges and advantages.
I just wish that fundagelicals realized that this is the best of all best-case situations they could ever face.
If I were a visiting space princess and knew nothing whatsoever about the Christian god, and I learned of Gus’ situation and how Christians are responding to it, I’d be so saddened. And I’d know to avoid this god as either nonexistent or too weak to care about—or too malevolent to care about a baby’s health. It’s not like the Bible makes the Christian god sound particularly concerned about human life—especially not that of babies.
For all my criticisms, I hope very much that little Gus recovers and goes home with his parents. I hope he grows up big and strong, that he somehow learns how to respect and protect human rights with all his might, that he escapes the false worldview of hardline evangelicalism, that he becomes a powerful force of love and justice. I hope his parents love him, protect him, and do only right by him.
Sure, no gods will have anything to do with any of it, and I sure have no tangible way to help to make it happen. But I hope it all the same—because hope might just be one of the most human elements of the entire human situation, for good or ill.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!