Many of the faithful see miracles as a mainstay of their reasons for belief. Indeed so did I long ago. I remember as a priest telling a sceptical friend, “Medical miracles either prove that God exists or show that the mind has immense power over the body”. Unfortunately at the time I was backing the wrong horse.
Just a few years later evidence was published demonstrating the amazing Placebo Effect which amply demonstrated the power of the mind to produce a good (as well as a bad – think of ulcers) result in the body. Numerous studies have shown that placebos – sham treatments – are often about as effective as many over-the-counter, non-prescribed, drugs at relieving illness. Some spectacular instances have been documented in medical literature, including remission of massive and multiple cancers, and even in relieving Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by disruption of the supply of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
I am at present ingesting two magnesium pills, prescribed by my doctor, every day for six weeks, to prevent noctural cramps in my legs. The blurb on the box states : “In the absence of an improvement of symptoms after a month of treatment, it is useless to continue”. Surely this is a blatant admission that the pills are a placebo. My problem is not a deficiency of magnesium but of credulity. Sounds like homeopathy to me. Better to stick to walking barefoot, free of charge, on a tiled floor.
Voodoo and similar magic have been using the mind over matter effect for millennia, both positively in promoting cures and negatively in casting spells which can cause death. The Australian aborigines had a “pointing the bone” ceremonial, which could seemingly transmit the piece of bone miraculously into the victim’s body. Provided the victim was told of the ceremony, he would give up all hope and die, unless stronger magic could be employed to lift the spell. In ancient cultures all sickness was blamed on evil spirits or malevolent spells cast by enemies.
Lourdes in France has been the center for miracles in the modern world ever since a local girl saw visions of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago. Six million pilgrims visit the shrine each year. Many believers claim a miraculous intervention, but the Catholic Church recognizes very few. In 1947 a medical bureau was established by the Church to examine each claim and determine whether the cure was indeed outside and beyond the explanation of medicine. The number of cures claimed has been decreasing exponentially. Before 1914 one pilgrm in a 100 claimed a cure; from 1947 to 1990 only 100 cures were claimed and just 56 recognized by the medical bureau. The rate of recognition has now dropped to a trickle. Has the shrine lost its effectiveness or are modern medicine and psychology providing the explanations for more and more of the cures ? Perhaps even the faithful no longer have the degree of belief required for the Placebo Effect to kick in. The “God of the Gaps” is once again finding His territory shrinking if not disappearing. The tourists and the hopeful (or desperate) nevertheless keep flocking to Lourdes.
The miracles of the Bible are a somewhat different case. There is now no chance of scientific examination or verification. We are expected to accept them as authentic for the sole reason that they are “in the Book”.
All the religions of antiquity had their gods intervening directly in the everyday affairs of the people. The gods of the ancient Greeks, from Zeus down, seemed to do little else but meddle in the wars, love affairs and daily life of the hapless Greeks. The Hebrews were not to be left behind; Yahweh worked His magic to impress the Egyptians. Aaron and Moses could hold their own against the magicians of the Pharaoh, and ended up destroying their Egyptian pursuers when the Dead Sea, which Moses had parted, folded itself in on them (great visual material for Hollywood and Charlton Heston).
Shamans in hunter-gatherer societies employed a good range of conjuring tricks to sustain their power and mystique. Australians are familiar with the Cargo Cult promoted by the New Guinea witch-doctors and the “miracles” they perform.
We humans love the mysterious. Just look at the number of television programs dealing with aliens, time-travel, superhuman heroes, and a variety of preternatural happenings. We are unfortunately all too ready to accept the miraculous on the slimmest “evidence”. We also know how readily events are embellished and distorted with retelling, in the age of the Internet, especially through its exploitation of fake news for the credulous. Little wonder that the many events in the New Testament accounts of Jesus refer to miracles; the inconsistencies of their description in the Gospel accounts, the approved, “canonical” versions of Jesus’ life, do not seem to trouble the credulity of the true believer.
So we go round and round the loop : we believe in God because there were miracles, we believe in miracles because they are in the Bible, we believe in the Bible because some folks claim it is God’s word.
I blush when I realize that I was once a promoter of this grand delusion.