(This post is part 4 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)
Prayer and miracles are two more key aspects of Christianity. While it seems that the Christian faith could survive without these things, it would seem to be a pretty bland religion if it did. The efficacy of prayer is often touted in church services as evidence for the truth of Christianity. And miracles are a key element of some Christians’ defense of the faith as well. But do these arguments hold up to scrutiny? I would argue that they do not, and that the reason these arguments are used is because the individuals using them don’t adequately ask themselves what they might expect if God did not exist. Like any good scientist, in order to evaluate a hypothesis, we must establish what we would expect if the statement were true, and what we would expect if it were false. I am going to attempt to do just this in regard to prayer first, and then miracles, to determine whether these phenomena can reasonably be used as evidence of God’s existence.
What would we expect if the Christian God existed? Such a God is said to be attentive to the prayers of his people (2 Chronicles 7:14-15; Proverbs 15:29), and the Bible states that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Just a few verses before that, it also states, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray…. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). Such a theme is not at all uncommon in the Bible; it seems unequivocal that the Bible promises that God will answer prayer.
However, some Christians retort that God has a sovereign plan, and thus not all prayers will be answered in the manner we wish them to be. I’ve heard it said that “God always answers prayer, but his answer can be ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘wait’.” While I find it difficult to find a strong scriptural basis for this (though I admit there are some verses which can suggest this), it seems reasonable that God might not always answer our prayers affirmatively. So essentially, Christians seem to say that God answers prayer, but in his own way, and in his own time. Fair enough.
So what might we expect from this state of affairs? Let’s imagine two groups of people that are similar in all ways except in one respect: one group prays consistently for their own needs to be met, and the other group does not pray at all. What expectations should we have from this scenario? While not all of the praying group would always have their needs met (since God doesn’t always answer “yes”), it seems to be the case that this group should still, on average, have their needs met more often than the non-praying group. After all, one would expect that a God who wants us to pray to him would reward us at least sometimes by answering these prayers, right? Thus, all else being equal, the praying group should end up somewhat better off than the non-praying group.
To test these assumptions, there have been several prayer studies conducted over the years. While some have shown positive results of prayer, others have shown no effect whatsoever. However, there have been criticisms of the methodology on some of the studies that showed positive results. To give one example, a study by Dr. Randolph Byrd in 19881 examined 393 patients entering a coronary care unit and randomly assigned them to either an intercessory prayer group or a control group. Those in the first group were prayed for by three to seven active “born again” Christians, who prayed for these participants daily until they were discharged from the hospital. Byrd measured 29 different health outcomes of these patients, and reported that those receiving prayer did better than the control group on six of these outcomes. Thus, he concluded that “based on these data there seemed to be an effect, and that effect was presumed to be beneficial.” The problem here, however, is that it is easy to find effects when one examines a large number of variables. Chance alone will produce significant results on a few here and there, from time to time. This is what is known as the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy“, from an analogy of firing shots into the side of a barn, then painting the target around the largest cluster of bullets. A study which does this clearly has flaws which need to be rectified before drawing any meaningful results.
In contrast to Byrd’s study, a 2005 study by Benson et al.2 examined 1802 patients from three hospitals receiving cardiac bypass surgery and assigned them to three groups: a group receiving intercessory prayer after being told they may or may not receive it, a group not receiving prayer after being told they may or may not receive it, and a group receiving prayer after being told they would receive it. (The counter-balanced group, not receiving prayer after being told they would receive it, would be unethical.) Congregations from three Christian churches were used to pray for these patients, and while they were allowed to pray for the person in whatever way they wished, they were instructed to pray specifically “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.” Results showed that at least one complication showed up in 52% of patients receiving prayer versus 51% of those who did not, and patients certain of receiving prayer actually had complications occurring in 59% of patients. In other words, this study, widely regarded as one of the most rigorous studies of its type, found that prayer has no effect, and that if anything, a person who knows they are being prayed for might do worse.
Of course, one of the first responses to these studies is to claim that “God can’t be tested.” However, to say this is to say that “God’s answers to prayer have no real effect.” After all, if God does answer prayer, that answer should be measurable. I’m reminded of a YouTube video that compares praying to God with praying to a jug of milk. One can certainly claim that the jug of milk answers with “yes”, “no”, or “wait”, but the appearance of actual answers to these prayers is clearly an illusion based on chance. To claim that God answers prayer, but that these answers cannot be measured scientifically is to claim that prayer really has only an illusory effect.
Similar to prayer, miracles are often claimed as proof of God. Obviously, if there is an event that is performed by a supernatural being, that supernatural being must actually exist. So in this next section, I’d like to examine whether it can be said that miracles actually occur.
It is first important to clarify here how I am using the term “miracle.” It gets used in a number of different ways, but I prefer to define it as “an event that is not explainable by or contradicts natural laws.” This does exclude some events from being miracles, such as the “miracle of childbirth” or a “miraculous sunset.” It also does not include fortunate coincidences, like “it was a miracle that those two cars didn’t hit each other.” Furthermore, it does not include events where God is said to have worked through the laws of nature, such as “healing” a person through prescribed medication or by “guiding the surgeon’s hands.” In such cases, it would be impossible to tell whether any different outcome would result if God had not done something, so it is not helpful when trying to use miracles as proof of God. Nevertheless, although my definition does not include these things, it still includes a number of events that most people would call miracles, such as a dead person coming back to life after three days, bread and fish appearing out of nowhere, etc.
Now that this issue of definitions is settled, it’s time to determine whether miracles actually occur. Of course, such an argument is an inductive one, so it is impossible to prove in this way that miracles don’t occur. All it would take would be one genuine miracle, just like the existence of one black swan would refute the argument, “All swans are white.” So the best I can do is to provide explanations that cover most, if not all, miracles, and then see if there are any left over. Thus, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of these explanations.
I would argue that the vast majority of miracle claims fall into this category. When I was growing up, I remember hearing many stories about missionaries in other countries who experienced amazing miracles. But such stories get passed around from church to church and from country to country, until any given person would be hard-pressed to know who the missionary was or what country it was. And just like fishing stories, such miracle claims also tend to grow with the telling. Such stories really can do nothing to provide proof of God’s existence, because we can only place a very low probability of them even being truthful. It seems best to discard any miracle stories that we cannot establish as reasonably accurate.
Another explanation for some miracles is outright fraud. While I won’t claim that most or even many miracles are fraudulent, there have been notable examples that must be discarded. One such example is with the career of Peter Popoff, a faith healer whose methods of receiving information from God turned out instead to be listening to his wife feeding him information via radio transmissions off-stage. Things aren’t so miraculous when they’re outright lies. I don’t think any more needs to be said about this category.
3. Honest Mistakes/Eagerness
Obviously, humans make mistakes. Quite often, actually. And as it turns out, our many cognitive biases tend to get amplified when we are expecting something to occur. If a religious believer is in a church service and watching a faith healer who is telling the congregation that something big is going to happen that night, when something unusual happens it is likely to be readily explained as a miracle, regardless of whether it actually is or not. Again, I think it is fairly uncontroversial that humans often do not take a skeptical eye towards things that they want to believe. This is one of the reasons why science is so important, because it helps to keep our human biases in check.
4. Placebo Effect
A common source of miracle claims come from faith healers. Well-known examples of these faith healers include Benny Hinn, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson. These individuals generally hold large revivals where thousands of people come expecting to be healed. The placebo effect works off these expectations. It is well-documented that a fake medical treatment (like a sugar pill or sham surgery) can produce perceived or even real effects on the body, simply by the power of the patient’s expectations. In a large crowd that is gathered expecting changes in their condition, it is virtually guaranteed that the placebo effect will affect at least some members of the crowd. Such a change is attributed to a miracle from God, when in reality it is merely an effect of going to the revival and expecting change. The stronger the expectation, the more likely there is to be an effect, and the stronger the effect is likely to be. Such an event does not require God as part of the explanation at all.
This is another common effect of faith healing. At the large revival meetings, typically people are placed in a hyper-emotional state: singing, dancing, swaying, cheering, shouting, clapping, etc. Such excitement leads the body to release endorphins, which are essentially natural painkillers, into the bloodstream. This is certainly not a problem by any means, and is a natural mechanism of the body. However, the most common way that people know that they are sick or injured in some way is through pain. In many chronic illnesses, the pain is also chronic. When these people go to the services and experience this rush of endorphins, suddenly the pain is gone—and thus they conclude that the illness must also be gone! When watching these services, there are always people indicating that they “can just feel that the cancer is gone” or that they suddenly have extended mobility that they could not do before because of the pain. Thus, the success of the healing is broadcasted to thousands of people. A day or two later, however, once the endorphins have worn off, suddenly the pain is back—but this failure doesn’t similarly get broadcasted. And thus, these miracle stories perpetuate without any real healing taking place.
6. Other Natural Explanations
In addition to the natural explanations given above, other miracle claims which seem to contradict the laws of nature actually fit within them quite well. For example, the Hindu milk miracle (while not a Christian miracle) was a phenomenon where statues of Ganesha seemed all of a sudden to be able to drink milk that was offered to them. This miracle is well-attested with living witnesses and video footage, but is easily explainable by capillary action. The milk simply ran up the trunk of the elephant statue before running down the front. This, however, did not stop thousands of people from believing it to be a miracle. A similar example from Christianity is the “weeping statue” phenomenon, where a statue of the Virgin Mary or some other notable figure seems to be crying tears, or sometimes oil or blood. In reality, it is easy to fake a statue like this, and can also be sometimes caused by simple condensation. The key point here is that it takes a critical examination of these miracle claims to determine whether they truly are “miraculous.”
7. As-Yet-Unidentified Explanations
It is also important to remember that humanity has not solved all the mysteries of the universe. In some cases, it is best to hold judgment before declaring something a miracle. This has been done in the past, and the people claiming it have turned out to be wrong. One example of a miracle claim which likely has a natural explanation is cancer remission. While we have made leaps and bounds toward understanding cancer, there are still things that we do not know about how it works. What is clear, however, is that people of all faiths experience spontaneous remission, and atheists do as well. Christians do not seem to have any higher rates of remission than any other group. Thus, similar to the studies on prayer up above, it doesn’t appear to be the case that remission can be used as proof of God—even though we don’t yet have a satisfactory explanation for it. What is most likely is that with time and effort, scientific study will make clear what causes spontaneous remission and thus find, yet again, a natural explanation for a medical mystery.
I think that the categories I’ve offered explain most, if not all miracle claims. However, before I finish, I’d like to say a little something about the miracle claims of history. This provides an extra challenge to verification of miracles that deserves some mention. David Hume, a well-known 18th century philosopher, put forth an argument about the inability to verify historical miracles of the distant past.3 Hume argued that miracles are by definition singular events that differ from the laws of nature, which is very similar to the definition I gave at the beginning. This means that a miracle is therefore a violation of all prior experience. Because we have prior experiences of being lied to, deceived, or mistaken, such experience will always outweigh the claim of a singular miraculous experience. Thus, Hume concludes that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” This, of course, does not rule out the actual existence of miracles, but rather states that we will almost never be rationally justified in accepting that a miracle occurred. To state it otherwise, Hume is saying that to believe in the testimony of a miracle is irrational.
Let me make the point a little more forceful. Historians rely on probabilities to establish whether an event actually occurred in history. One of the methods they rely on is to assume that the same forces that are present today were present throughout history. In other words, human nature is still fundamentally the same, the world still revolves around its axis, etc. If historians cannot assume these sorts of things, then they can say nothing about the past, for they have no basis to say, “This likely happened, but that likely did not.” History is always about evaluating probabilities. But a miracle is by definition an unlikely event, since it contradicts all natural laws. It is, by definition, improbable. And yet, historians must rely on what is probable to establish historical claims. So, in order to establish the truth of a miracle in ancient history, a person must first establish that the event is extremely improbable (to prove it is, in fact, a miracle), then turn around and establish that the event is probable (to prove that it actually happened). John Loftus describes this as the “double burden of proof.” The more likely it is that the event happened, the less likely it was a miracle; and the more likely it was a miracle, the less likely it happened. This, to me, seems to put the final nail in the coffin of miracles.
Although I have not completely refuted the claims that prayer works or that miracles occur, I have given good reason why it is unreasonable to accept either one as being true. Certainly new evidence could arise tomorrow that vindicates either one, but given the current state of affairs, this seems unlikely. As civilization has embraced science and critical examination further and further, the events attributed to the actions of God have grown fewer and fewer. Just as we know now that lightning is an electrical discharge rather than the wrath of Zeus, it seems likely that as science progresses further, more and more will be explained, leaving less leeway for supernatural beings.
For more interesting information on the efficacy of prayer and on miracles, here are some links to get you going:
- Why Won’t God Heal Amputees? – A critique of prayer and healing that questions why amputees never seem to be healed by God.
- Studies on Intercessory Prayer – A Wikipedia page outlining the major studies that have examined the effects of prayer.
- Of Miracles – A Wikipedia page summarizing David Hume’s argument from miracles.
- Miracles – An excellent summary of the philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against miracle claims.
- Byrd, R. C. (1988). Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal, 81(7), 826-829. The article is available here. [↩]
- Benson, H., et al. (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal, 151(4), 934-942. The article is available here. [↩]
- All of Jesus’ miracles would, of course, fall into this category. [↩]