Definitions

The standard definitions are:

1. Miracles are violations 

2. Miracles are events having religious significance

  • The term miracle comes from the Latin miraculum meaning wonder
  • For atheists, they are more than this; they reveal something about God’s nature and involvement in creation
  • Writer Stephen Evans – “obviously the miracles of a religion such as Christianity are not merely bizarre events or students. They have a function and purpose, and usually that function is a revelatory one”

David Hume 1711-76:

  • Sceptical about the occurrence of miracles
  • His definition “a transgression of a natural law by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent”
  • Key claim = a miracle is the breaking of a natural law
  • Example from the Bible found in Exodus when Moses parts the sea

Objections

  • Assumes we know what the laws of nature are
  • Scientific knowledge is in a state of flux – nothing is ever truly certain
  • Is everything in the universe constant?
  • What about incidents of natural phenomena? (northern lights)
  • We are unable to comment if something is a miracle as we do not know all the laws of nature yet
  • Alastair McKinnon argues: if the laws of nature simply describe the actual course of events then to define a miracle this way is to call it an event that disrupts the actual course of events. This, he says, is self-contradictory
  • He sees a miracle as an exception to a scientific law and would call for a revision of the laws which would then count a ‘miracle’ as a natural event
  • Hume’s definition leaves open the possibility that miracles could be performed by angels or indeed, demons – what does this reflect about God?

Miracles as events having religious significance:

  • R.F Holland’s train track example (driver has a heart attack and falls on break, thus saving a boy caught on the track from death)
  • Holland argues that miracles are not necessarily violations of natural laws but are any event that a person experiences as having religious significance – even if they do not break any natural law, they may be considered miraculous as long as they sense of divine purpose and significance is strong enough
  • RH Holland - “a coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle.”

Objections

  • It is highly subjective – no way of testing
  • Anything could be labelled as a miracle – how can we have a serious discussion about miracles if this is the case? 
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