Once again, the tiresome immorality of miracles raises its ugly head. Five years ago, Christians rejoiced in Jesus’ apparent decision to rescue a bunch of kids stranded inside a dangerous Thai cave. This time, the people Jesus refused to rescue sat inside the ill-fated Titanic sightseeing submarine. Today, we’ll explore the differences in these events—and see why a god who refuses to work miracles at all is a far better proposition for humanity than one who works only certain ones for certain people at certain times.
(From Introduction: The screenplay for Conan the Barbarian. Relevant bit on p. 107 of the PDF.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 6/27/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there as well and should be available by now!)
Miracles: A definition, sorta
Most Christians can’t actually define what a miracle even is. However, I’d reckon that they generally agree on David Hume’s definition of the critter as a violation of the normal laws of science. In other words, a miracle involves not only unlikely events, but impossible ones. As he wrote (in Section X of a larger work available here):
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.
[From the footnote attached to the above quote:] Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it is contrary to these laws. Thus if a person, claiming a divine authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to blow, in short, should order many natural events, which immediately follow upon his command; these might justly be esteemed miracles, because they are really, in this case, contrary to the laws of nature. For if any suspicion remain, that the event and command concurred by accident, there is no miracle and no transgression of the laws of nature.
As that footnote hints, Hume also rejects most miracle claims as being the result of intentional deception or a mistake on someone’s part. If I’m reading him correctly, he also didn’t think the Bible’s miracle claims were all that convincing and that modern miracle claims almost entirely lacked credible supporting evidence. For what are likely obvious reasons, evangelicals bristle hard at both of these positions, even though in my direct experience both are completely and unequivocally true.
The more our modern age embraces the adoption of 24/7 surveillance cameras everywhere and personal devices capable of recording anything at all, all alongside increasingly sophisticated forensic and analysis tools, the less plausible Christian miracles look. Once again, xkcd is right.
The miracles of modern medicine
Modern medicine alone puts the lie to magic healing claims. What once might have been barely survivable if someone was lucky is now routinely survived decently well in emergency rooms across America.
Specifically, I’m talking here about coronary angioplasty, which is done for heart attack victims. Starting at the wrist or thigh, the doctors thread a thin little flexible tube into the victim’s body to the blocked arteries. They use it to reopen that artery so blood can start flowing through it again. A few weeks later, the patient is good to return to their normal life. Their recovery from the procedure also tends to be much easier than with other treatments.
This procedure only just started being a thing in the past 20-25 years. We only learned the technique in the 1970s, and didn’t try it for heart attacks till the mid-1980s. It didn’t enter preliminary use until the 1990s. Now, it’s fairly common as a treatment.
Along with other technologies like that and better disease management, heart attacks now kill significantly fewer people than they did in the 1970s.
What Jesus couldn’t do for his followers, now emergency rooms do every day for their patients.
Of course, these aren’t miracles by Hume’s definition. Even if prayer had preceded someone’s lucky recovery in the 1970s, Hume would not have found it to be a violation of natural laws—because it isn’t. Some folks are just lucky. Heck, back in the late 1990s I had a string of incredible luck so powerful that I began thinking of myself as the Universe’s own beloved child. Back then, people would ask me to wish them good luck.
(It wasn’t like that at all when I was Christian! Obviously, the difference is demons.)
How miracles have faded in grandeur!
Say what you like about miracles in the Bible, but they universally tended to be very flashy and obviously, well, miraculous.
Exodus 13:21 describes the miraculous way that Yahweh guided the Israelites to guide them out of Egypt:
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.
In 1 Kings 18, we see the prophet Elijah call fire from the sky to consume an animal sacrificed to Yahweh—after, of course, he mocks the priests of Baal for failing to rouse their god’s interest in their own sacrifices:
“Answer me, O LORD! Answer me, so that this people will know that You, the LORD, are God, and that You have turned their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water in the trench. [1 Kings 18:37-38]
Hopping across to the New Testament, of course, we have Jesus raising a dead person back to life (John 11), resurrecting himself later on (Mark 16), and then appearing before his followers before floating up into the sky forever. In Matthew 27:52-53, we also get the Great Jewish Zombie Uprising amid Jesus’ death throes:
The [city’s] tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people.
It’s amazing to think about! And sure, some miracles were small-scale:
- A fleece gets wet or stays dry upon request (Judges 6)
- Flour and oil never run out (1 Kings 17:16), nor bread and fishes (Luke 9:17)
- Water turns into wine (John 2)
But overall, people could really tell when they encountered the real-deal of a miracle.
That’s not the case anymore.
The latter days of miracles
It’s not at all uncommon these days for miracle-believing Christians to recast any generally-unlikely event as a miracle. Their mating call is the phrase “it might not seem like a miracle to you, but…” And they’ve been saying it since at least the 16th century, when Southern French Huguenots (called Camisards) mistakenly thanked their god for their very earthly escapes from harm:
[Jacques] Bonbonnoux also recorded several “miraculous” happenings. He called an event a “miracle” in his Mémoires, then observed, “perhaps it might not seem like a miracle to everyone, but it sure seemed one to us [. . .] Another time, when dragoons searching for him and a fellow soldier passed right by them unawares, he commented, “God blind[ed] them.”
We even see the phrase deployed to describe the miracle of teenagers’ sleeping habits:
One gift of adolescence is that it brings kids who sleep in, when school allows it. This break in our summer program leaves my boy in bed at 9am still asleep. [. . .] It might not sound like a miracle, but in its way it is.
Even when we don’t see the phrase that pays, Christians famously pin the label of miracle on anything and everything. I’ve personally encountered or heard second-hand the miracles of turned ankles healing fairly quickly, escapes from car accidents, and a bride’s acne clearing up in time for her wedding.
As the old saying goes, when all events are miracles, then nothing is.
I can easily attribute coincidence or human effort to almost all of the rest, and what’s left over can easily be characterized as either exaggeration, deception, or mistaken perception on someone’s part—just as Hume predicted.
The Thai cave rescue: Obviously a divine miracle
In late June 2018, the coach of a dozen Thai children on a junior football (to Americans, soccer) team decided to take them on a field trip. They would explore a cave called Tham Luang. Technically, it was kinda off limits, but there seems to have been a team tradition of visiting the cave. But once they’d gotten a ways inside, sudden heavy rains blocked their exit. Those rains trapped them in the cave. It also made finding them really difficult.
To say that their problem was unthinkably precarious is an understatement. Just looking at the charts of the cave and of rescue procedures (archive) makes my claustrophobia flare into supernova status. Here’s one from that link:
Yep, I will never be a cave explorer.
The football team had gotten about 2.5 miles into the cave, through various chokepoints and curves and dips, and were huddled in a cave isolated by water levels. Apparently, they’d had to flee further and further into the cave as water levels pushed higher and higher. By now, they were impossibly far from daylight.
A shocked world rallied around the trapped team. Their predicament bloomed into a huge international rescue effort. Many countries came together and donated personnel and equipment aimed at rescuing them. Elon Musk even offered help through his companies SpaceX and Boring Company, though some folks thought the offer was a ridiculous and unworkable publicity stunt.
The kids went without food and clean water for weeks. Finally, though, rescuers finally got to them. And those rescuers got every one of those 12 kids and their coach out of the cave alive. Yes, they all survived. Every one of them. However, two of the rescuers died. One drowned during the rescue. Another died a year later of a blood infection acquired during it.
Almost immediately, I discovered Christians attributing the rescue to divine intervention. Ohh, yeah, it mightily pissed me off. They offered their praise to Jesus for answering all their prayers, even though almost none of the rescuees were Christian and Thailand contains hardly any Christians. (The country is 94% Buddhist!)
On so many levels, Christians appropriated that rescue for their own purposes. When I objected, though, they got mad at me. How dare I interrupt their Jesus jerk-off session!
Compare and contrast with the recent submarine implosion
On June 18, 2023, the world learned that a tourist submarine had gone missing. But this wasn’t just any tourist submarine. It was Titan, a privately owned sub that took very well-heeled tourists down to see the wreck of the RMS Titanic. Of course, this is the ship that sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage. During the disaster, 1500 people died. The ship sank off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Now, it sits quietly at 12,500 feet below sea level—a depth nearly impossible to reach.
Titan could reach depths of 13,000 feet. It’d been taking people down to see the Titanic since 2021. Though it didn’t make that many trips, it made up for that schedule with ticket cost: about $250k per person. The company behind Titan, OceanGate, refused to grant refunds for cancellations, but did try to reschedule if at all possible. That’s what had happened for this June trip. The weather was not cooperating with them. Originally scheduled for May, OceanGate had to keep pushing the date back.
When it finally made its ill-fated dive, Titan hosted five guests. They squeezed into the tiny sub at the last second, hoping to take advantage of a temporary lull in stormy weather. One was Stockton Rush, the CEO and co-founder of OceanGate itself. Of the rest, they were mostly the 1%. One was just a kid, the son of an incredibly wealthy industrialist also on the sub. He hadn’t even wanted to go. Another guest, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, was a super-famous expert on the Titanic wreck site. He was likely leading the dive overall. To control the sub, incidentally, whoever was driving had to use an old, third-party Xbox controller. No kidding.
Yes, this whole sightseeing idea is incredibly ghoulish. The shipwreck site is basically a graveyard. The tourists are not doing any research there, or recovering any artifacts of interest to study. Making matters worse, these richest-of-the-rich people are just gawking at a place where mostly poor people died.
For a few days after the Titan lost communications, the media speculated that they’d just, well, lost communication. Maybe they were floating somewhere on or under the sea, running out of oxygen.
But on the 22nd, we all found out that the sub had experienced a “catastrophic implosion.” If so, then at their depth those five people almost certainly didn’t feel any pain or fear. Hopefully, they died before a human’s super-fast amygdala even had time to recognize that anything was even amiss. Maybe fittingly, Titan‘s wreckage debris settled very close to the wreck they’d all come to see.
Then, we all found out that this wasn’t even close to the only time that Titan had had safety issues.
Here’s what’s interesting, though: If, between June 18 and June 22, any large numbers of Christians were calling upon Jesus to save the guests of the Titan or predicting miraculous rescues, I sure didn’t hear about it. I went looking for it, too, though I didn’t expect to find anything. Nor were any Christians claiming that it was Jesus’ will that Titan had imploded.
Maybe Jesus only saves miracles for the super-deserving
One can immediately see some major differences between the two crises. The Thai kids were, well, kids. Meanwhile, the Titan guests were, with one exception perhaps, not exactly virtuous or sympathy-rousing miracle recipients. They were almost all billionaires. Also, the kids were just having innocent fun, at least by Thai standards, while the others were taking enormous risks and paying life-altering amounts of money to go gawk at a gravesite.
Though it’s beyond obvious that Christians have to make a lot of moral room for immoral-seeming or priority-skewed miracle claims, those facts alone might have given them pause.
The Thai cave rescue also took a lot longer to complete. It took weeks. The rescuers had a lot of steps, personnel, and equipment to arrange. By contrast, the Titanic crisis only lasted four days before everyone had definitive news that it’d imploded.
And, of course, the former group’s rescue was leagues more possible than that of the latter. It might have been really difficult to rescue those kids, but it wasn’t impossible. Clearly it wasn’t, because we did it. But for most of its four-day run, authorities didn’t even know where the sub might be.
None of that has stopped some American evangelical wingnuts from coming up with creative QAnon-style conspiracy theories about the sub implosion having been an intentional assassination. If so, then wow, assassins got really stupid somewhere along the line. Miracles? Not so much. Joe Biden and/or the Rothschilds wanting the sub guests gone? Hmmm!
I reckon it’s always easier for wingnuts to believe in demons than angels, and in curses over blessings.
Christians really don’t appreciate heathens mentioning a lack of miracles at these times
I didn’t talk about Jesus’ lack of help for the sub crisis. Oh, I had for the cave rescue. It’d ended pretty well, though, so it seemed acceptable to discuss why it had not been a miracle—and why that was actually a best-case scenario for Christians.
This time around, I didn’t bring up the lack of miracles for the sub guests.
For one thing, Christians have trained people to view such observations as rude—especially in the direct wake of a disaster or crisis. How dare we interrupt their refusal to take any responsibility for their own religious claims! How dare we remind people that most people never get miracles at all! They’re busy trying to pretend they’ve never made those claims, and here we are reminding them! Ugh, how boorish!
And in a way, I get it. Death and disaster are human realities. They are part of the human condition. We’ll never escape them, not even if we embrace a hundred different claims of miracle-working gods. Holding fast to those claims helps a lot of people deal with the sheer implacable nature of the universe. It’s like that $500 bill that so many people stash under their side of the Monopoly board as insurance against a bad series of dice rolls, except it’s not even real.
When reality comes too close to such cherished beliefs, it can indeed look rude to others. It’s like telling a Christian widow at her husband’s funeral that Heaven isn’t real, so he’s just gonna return to the Earth like everyone else always has. Ideally, I want to be a bit more sensitive than that.
So yeah, I thought I’d let a little time lapse for this one.
Better an ineffectual, inactive god than an absent one
As I’ve said, a god who never intervenes in humans’ lives is far better in every way than one who sometimes intervenes the way Jesus apparently does:
- For completely arbitrary recipients. Jesus won’t say exactly who gets his attention, how, or why. Even people who fit the perfect descriptions in the Bible don’t get their requested miracles. Some miracle claimants aren’t even Christian at the time of their requests. The Gospels even contain a few stories like that. Even Christians know that Jesus specifically worked miracles to induce belief in his power and divine mission.
- On a completely arbitrary basis. This, too, is utterly inconsistent. Even the most virtuous requests from the most hardcore believers get unanswered. Someone finds a so-called “bank error” resulting in an extra $20 in their account, while a cancer patient’s prayer for magic healing goes ignored.
- In distressingly earthly ways. This one is never inconsistent, though. Miracles can always be understood as earthly events that are well within predictable parameters. Something can be unusual, but it’s never absolutely impossible. A blind person might claim to see a few details, or a wheelchair-bound person might take a few tottering steps, but an amputee has never regrown a missing limb. There’s an entire classic atheist site that tackles this one singular fact. (It’s good, too. Definite recommend.)
But Christians would rather sell their entire single earthly life to hucksters rather than miss out on the benefits promised by those hucksters. Freedom from Hell is the main benefit, of course, but miracles are certainly another.
Back in the mid-2010s, some Christian guy, Shane Hayes, wrote an entire book seeking to convince heathens to convert to Christianity in hopes of getting miraculous help one day. At the time, we did a longform review of its Amazon preview. His hints of miracle help were just about the most offensive part of the book. (Most offensive? That conversion would ensure we’d be able to reunite with our dead loved ones in Heaven. Ohh, that torqued me completely solid.)
But I’ve heard many Christians say over the years that they’d be afraid of deconversion because then they’d lose their sense of having a safety net. That this net isn’t real at all, that it contains multiple dealbreaking holes even by Christian reckoning, doesn’t matter. A net like that beats knowing there’s no net at all.
Even the super-nice progressive Christians writing the deconstruction book Before You Lose Your Mind seem to fall prey to this exact way of thinking. But we’ll talk about them later.
I’d rather have an honest crevasse over a fake safety net
Next time we meet up, we’ll be talking about the ways that Christians rationalize their utter lack of miracles. Even evangelicals get in on that action! For today, though, I just wanted to introduce the idea of miracles as a dealbreaker.
And you’d think any false claims would be something Christians want to avoid. As I said, the more we record our lives, the more we find out that miracle claims don’t hold any water at all.
Back when I believed in Christian-style divine miracles, it made me crazy in so many ways. It broke my brain. I twisted myself into pretzels trying to make this nonsense make sense. Eventually, miracles became one of the biggest forces in my deconversion.
Pagan miracles made a hell of a lot more sense. In the community in which I found myself for most of that era, we understood miracles as the result of bargains that humans made with their patron gods. If you wanted them to do something for you, you had to make it worth their while. Want a big miracle? Better offer a big favor. And it had to be something they’d actually want.
When my mother was actively dying of cancer, I prayed to Artemis for a quick end for her. In return, I’d plant a garden of red flowers. (I’d read somewhere in the myths that she liked them. My group of pagans preferred non-animal sacrifices and favors.) And yes, my mother died the next day. Even in my grief, I recognized a bargain that had been accepted. Not long after, while I was clearing out my mom’s house, her daily newspaper came with packets of red flower seeds for subscribers. I was absolutely stunned by the sight of them. And yes, I planted them as soon as I got home!
All in all, I prayed for only three miracles during the entire time I was pagan. I got what I asked for all three times. In terms of track records, that’s many times better results than I ever got while Christian. And they’re still not real miracles. They’re stuff that was already in the cards somehow. It’s not at all inconceivable, for instance, that my mom would pass the next day. She was in really bad shape. Still, it impressed me mightily at the time with how different that experience was from Christianity.
(The difference, obviously, is still demons.)
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