Miracles and skepticism

I'd just like to post some excerpts from Craig Keener's excellent two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, on the subject of miracles in the Gospels and their relationship to miracles which (apparently) still happen today:

"It is impossible to examine the historical question of miracles without being explicit concerning presuppositions informing much traditional historiography in the Gospels. If one assumes a priori that neutrality in the historical quest demands that one must not find data that could favor the truth claims of any particular religious movement or movements, one potentially subordinates the objectivity of one's method to desired conclusions...In its rightful reaction to medieval dogma, later Enlightenment rationalism itself eventually transgressed the bounds of both reason and empirical data, excluding even the hypothesis of divine intervention from consideration in explaining the data of even the best attested miracle claims. Is there not something culturally elitist about dismissing from the briefest consideration the credibility of traditions stemming from most cultures and eras in history, based on a presupposition for which those who hold it rarely seek to offer evidence? Granted, many individual claims (especially those far removed from the eyewitnesses) are inauthentic, but does critical thinking always favor an all-or-nothing mentality on other matters?"

But lest Keener's own challenge to the prevailing anti-supernatural skepticism in the West should be equally a priori as the skepticism itself, he goes on:

"As a former atheist who has personally witnessed, occasionally experienced, and is regularly exposed to reliable testimonies of instantaneous supernatural phenomena within circles where such phenomena typically occur (including instantaneous, visible healings in response to prayer), often through my work in Africa or among Pentecostals, I confess my own skepticism toward the prevailing anti-miraculous skepticism of Western culture. My wife, an African with a Ph.D in history from the University of Paris, also offers a substantial collection of testimonies...My affirmation that arguable supernatural phenomena are possible need not affirm that all supernatural phenomena derive from the same source, nor does it deny fraudulent or psychosomatic claims to miracles, nor that some might provide different interpretations of the same claims (though I might regard them as less plausible)."

(Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A commentary, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrikson Publishers, 2003, vol.1, pp.264, 267)

Especially important, I think, is his comment about the possibility that an objective examination of the evidence might actually favor the religious truth claims of one movement or religion over another. Far too often it is simply assumed that such a verdict is the misleading product of apologetics, or conversely from atheist circles we hear without any justification whatsoever that the evidence for the truth claims of all the various religions is exactly equivalent and, therefore, favors none of them. In this context some comments by William J. Abraham, which I posted on an earlier post, are appropriate:

"What we have, and what we must eventually get to in our deliberations, are very specific claims and counter-claims about particular claims to divine revelation that deploy appropriate sorts of epistemic considerations at the relevant points in the exchange. It is misleading to try to win the day by constructing make-believe scenarios that work off the general epistemic practices deployed in real-life cases. Thus, in response to a particular claim to divine revelation, we can easily invent a parallel but empty case that mirrors it at every step. We simply take the claim and invent an imaginary competing claim that mimics the grounds or arguments cited...Over against such abstract possiblities we need particular claims, worked up with specific phenomenological experiences, outlining a determinate message from God in either word or deed, coupled with accompanying phenomena, and pressed home with the relevant historical narrative. We need more than armchair possibilities and thought experiments; we need actual claims advanced in some detail and with some care...Proponents of divine revelation need to advance in some detail the particular claims they think are secured, the relevant epistemic considerations they deem appropriate, the precise arguments they think straighten their case, and the way they propose to handle standard defeaters and objections...Thus it is up to Moslems to advance the claims of Mohammed; it is up to Mormons to argue the case for Joseph Smith...Indeed, it is the mark of a serious theological tradition derived from divine revelation to own up to this responsibility and explain itself in public...Let each tradition speak for itself and say its piece. In turn, let critics be free to develop whatever objections they deem relevant". (William J. Abraham, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, pp.151-153)

Atheists often glibly argue that "everyone's a skeptic with respect to other religions...atheistic skeptics just take it one step further". As it goes, this is fine, but the reasons for skepticism are not at all similar. For example, I do not reject the truth claims of Mormonism because they have supernatural elements, because I accept the existence of the supernatural. I do not reject Muslim truth claims because of Islamic fundamentalism. I do not even think that sincere adherents of other traditions are deluded, as Sam Harris would insist that I must. Wrong, yes, but that does not imply delusion or general irrationality. The atheist skeptic, on the other hand, is obliged to believe these things. For such a skeptic there is no transcendent reality to be wrong about (the Chrisian might say that the Muslim does respond to God, but in a 'refracted' or inadequate way). In fact, I find religious skepticism (i.e. skepticism based on adherence to another religious tradition) to be much more noble and generous than atheist skepticism, because atheist skepticism cannot help but debunk and tear down religion in all its truth claims, whereas believers can affirm that adherents of other traditions are indeed responding to real Divine reality.


Jason Pratt said…
Excellent post and quotes, JD.

My only caveat, is that "atheist skeptics" are not always necessarily obligated to believe that any theistic belief whether generally or particularly, is either delusion or irrationality (at least in some senses of that word). Granted, it is very popular for atheists to play the delusion card--it makes for an effective (though merely) rhetorical appeal sometimes. But I don't find that they are _technically_ obligated to do so.

At the very least, atheists who would appeal to the possibility "Jesus just made a mistake (i.e. about being God)", as a defense against the famous Lewisian trilemma (actually invented about 100 years previous to Lewis by the sceptical scholar Keim!) ought to agree (in a reverse a fortiori) that we might just be mistaken about our own much less drastic theistic beliefs. {s}

JD Walters said…
Well, the point I was getting at was that from an atheist point of view, religious believers can't even be 'partly right' about responding to a supernatural reality, because there is none period. How they choose to articulate this fundamental tenet of their worldview certainly runs a gamut from outright accusation of deception to a gentle frustration that we continue to cling to comforting (if unprovable) beliefs. But I don't see how the atheistic skeptic can be generous in the sense that a religious skeptic can.
jkb said…
Thought you might like this

Do Atheists Exist?

Jason Pratt said…
{shrug} "They managed to get _those_ things right at least, even if they did so on mistaken grounds."

Doesn't take much to make that observation. Anyone can do it, us or them. If we can do it, they can do it. Especially when it comes to acknowledging moral choices. The sheep in the parable evidently haven't heard about the parable of the sheep and the goats, and are surprised they are being accepted by the Lord. There is no reason, so far as it goes, that an atheist couldn't do the same thing for us in reverse.

Now, whether it makes logical sense for an atheist to say in effect, 'well, maybe they haven't heard or understood yet that reality is foundationally amoral and non-rational, including our own moral and rational behaviors, but at least they have managed to act morally and/or rationally in these regards over here, and we had better be fair and acknowledge this...' --that's a different debate. {g}

But they _could_ do that. Maybe without reference to the middle element there, if that helps make it easier. {g}


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