For a guy who claims to not care much for labels I've picked up quite a few. I refer to myself, among other things, as a freethinker, an atheist, a metaphysical naturalist . . .
Wait. A meta-who-whatsit?
Metaphysical Naturalist. Metaphysical naturalism, quickly, is the position that the universe began in natural ways and works only in natural ways, ways that we can possibly observe, predict and understand.
There is no reason to think that supernatural realms, entities or events exist.
Metaphysical naturalism: no heavens or hells, no gods or devils — and no miracles.
A miracle is an event that couldn't have happened naturally and is ascribed a supernatural cause or causes.
A miracle then is an event which shouldn't happen in our natural universe.
One of my favorite takes on the concept of miracles is from David Hume (apologies for the long quote):
“The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), '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 endeavours to establish….' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”
How often do people make mistakes? How often are people deceived? How often do people “stretch the truth”?
Countless times, every day.
How often do dead people (real, honest to…well whatever…dead people), return to life?
Reliably? Not counting George Romero movies? Never.
I think Hume dispensed with miracles pretty effectively. What makes a miracle is its impossibility, and or its incoherence. The fact that miracles are impossible events, and that human mistakes and deceptions are common, everyday events, is pretty damning evidence against miracle claims.
Hume weighs two possible miracles from the same source against each other to see which one is the least likely. I also think it’s worth noting that there are many sources of miracle claims, and this fact points to a problem for all of them.
Different traditions and faith leaders promote specific miracle stories and ignore others. Many who believe that crackers and wine are turned into the “actual” body of a god when a particular functionary performs a specific ritual would be skeptical of the claim that a statue of a god drinks milk. One who believes that a holy man can live for years without eating may balk at the idea that one man fed thousands with just a bit of bread and fish. One can believe that the moon was once split into pieces and not buy the tale of an enlightened one simultaneously emitting flames from one part of his body, water from another, and alternating the pattern.
If one is open to one set of miracle stories, why not be open to other traditions playing fast and loose with nature? Why draw seemingly arbitrary lines?
One claims something impossible happened, and claims it is evidence for a particular supernatural belief. Someone else claims something else impossible happened, and THAT event is evidence for a contrasting supernatural belief. These events may be truly beautiful, life changing things for these individuals, but there is no evidence other than assertion and attribution for either event. If one or the other must be true how do we decide?
I don't think there is a way to look at different miracle traditions objectively and choose one over the other.
I think this all points to a “higher truth:” that there is no reason to buy claims of supernatural happenings. Yes, there are things we don't understand, there will quite possibly always be things we don't understand. That doesn't mean we can fill the unknown with the fantastic.
In light of the sheer lack of natural evidence, and all too common human mistakes and deceptions…
In light of different traditions and different showmen and individuals claiming different achievements and events . . .
I don't think there is justification for belief in miracle stories.
Unless we really, really, WANT to? Unless we feel we really NEED to?
We just gotta have faith, right?
That's a different essay.