Archives for posts with tag: miracles

Last Thursday, MSNBC “news” posted a really terrible piece. There is no byline.

“What was the star of Bethlehem?” says the interactive graphic (credited to Clay Frost). “Scholars argue whether the Star of Bethlehem was a legend created after the fact or a miracle created by God especially for the occasion of Christ’s birth.”

The article leans heavily on a book from 1987 in which a certain John Mosley of Griffith Observatory finds that on 17 June in 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in almost exactly the same place in the sky. That would have been a remarkable thing to see. However, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether the “star” mentioned in the Bible was a miracle created by God.

You can only care about this question if you assume first, that Matthew’s account of the “wise men from the East” is factual; and second, that God does create miracles on certain occasions. But there is literally no reason to take either of these propositions seriously.

I need not bother addressing the question of the New Testament’s historical accuracy here. As for the idea of miracles, I explained in an earlier post that the idea of miracles is incoherent. If you say “It was a miracle,” the only thing that you can possibly mean that makes any sense is, “I don’t know how it happened.” And this of course is not a positive claim about how it happened. It is not even a positive claim about your opinion about how it happened. All it says is that you don’t have an opinion about how it happened. So it’s almost perfectly meaningless.

To claim, in a mainstream news source, that scholars wonder whether Matthew’s star was “a miracle created by God” is grotesque, misleading, and offensive.

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I love this video by Phil Hellenes, Why don’t scientists fear hell? It’s embedded below.

Here is a transcript of the crucial point. (This is heavily edited, but no words were changed or added. I hope I’ve retained the gist that Phil intended.)

Fire is a chemical reaction. When wood, for example, is heated to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the cellulose material starts to break down and give off volatile gases. When these gases reach about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat energy overcomes some of the electromagnetic energy binding the atoms to the complex molecules found in wood. These briefly free atoms are then suddenly and violently drawn, by electromagnetism again, to combine with oxygen atoms. In the process, the atoms release energy – in the form of light. Fire is an electric phenomenon.

The heat you feel is the excited motions of the atoms in the air around you, and in your skin and flesh. Heat is simply the motion of atoms. In living tissue, when atoms jiggle too fast, they hit other atoms too hard, creating pressure that can damage cells, resulting in pain signals sent along nerves to your brain. If something hot burns you, some of your atoms simply jiggled too fast.

The actual understanding goes far, far deeper. But what does it all mean? It means that without atoms, and those subatomic particles and laws, there can be no flame. Rigid physical laws make fire possible. Anywhere there is fire, there will also be electricity, solid matter, and oxygen.

You’re not going to burn after you die. If we go anywhere after death, we go there without our atoms.

If someone tells you that you’re going to burn in Hell, and you demonstrate that you understand exactly what fire is, I guarantee that they will then tell you that fire in Hell is not like real fire. The flames need no fuel or oxygen or electrons or photons, but it burns just the same: jiggling atoms that aren’t there. In short, they’re telling you that the fire in Hell is magic fire.

But that doesn’t fly, does it? They can’t have it both ways. If it’s not real fire, why would it really burn you?

I’m not saying that a substitute can never have the same effect as the original. Fake sugar can be as sweet as real sugar, or even sweeter. But that’s because it tweaks the same tongue-molecules as sugar does. The experiential effect is the same because the physical cause is the same. In the Hell story we have no reason to believe that the cause is the same – in fact, we are specifically told that it is not the same. So there is no reason to believe that it would have the same effect.

Hellenes’ description here is compatible with my own view that most religious tenets are not just wrong but incoherent. This applies especially to the idea of miracles (and isn’t the pain of Hell-fire sort of a miracle in reverse?). A miracle is something that by definition, cannot happen, but we’re supposed to believe it anyway. I don’t think that such belief is even possible.

The “Virgin Birth” — how did that work, exactly? Did God use one of Mary’s ova, and add a sperm of his own? (By the way, how can he make a sperm — or any thing at all — if he’s immaterial? And when did he make it, if he’s eternal?) Or, did he implant a ready-made zygote — or an embryo — or a fetus? Which was it? And in all of these cases, did he adjust Mary’s hormone levels to prevent rejection? If so, how was the adjustment carried out? — if not, how did he prevent rejection?

Those are ridiculous questions. It was a miracle. Maybe you’re unclear on the concept.

I think you are the one who is unclear. The details of the miracle matter very much, for the following reason: if you can’t tell me how it happened, then you can’t tell me what you believe.

I believe that Jesus was born without Mary having had sex with a man. That’s called the Virgin Birth.

But how was it done? So far we have, “In December of one year she was a virgin; in December of the following year she had a baby.” Unless we know more, this is not actually a very unusual story.

In between, there was a miracle!

But what does that mean? The word is supplying no information. Is that what you believe? — god did something magical, but we don’t know what?

He made a baby!

But human couples do that every day.

But he did it in a different way.

Different, how?

There was no man! There was no sex!

Don’t tell me how it wasn’t, I want to know how it was. Let me put it this way: how was what God did more miraculous than two humans having sex? I mean, that way is pretty amazing. What did God do that was more amazing than that?

How could I know that?

I have no idea how you could know! — but if you don’t know, then how are we to understand what it is that you are saying that you believe in? You are amazed and inspired by God’s having done… what?

As far as I can tell, to say it was a miracle is the same as saying you don’t know what happened. Does it make sense to call that a belief? “I believe in something, but I don’t know what exactly” — is that what you’re telling us?

I believe I hate you. Actually, I am quite certain of it.

As far as I can tell, the idea of divine intervention does not mean anything. It is incoherent. Your “belief” in miracles does not just lack empirical support; the very idea is without meaning. Rational rebuttal is unnecessary, because you have made no specific claim. The truth is, I am rapidly losing interest in this topic.