The Fallacy of Miracles

By Colin Flannery

After a tornado recently tore through Joplin, Missouri, the same thing happened that happens after every such natural disaster: people saw the hand of God all over the incident—the Christian God, of course.  

The badly injured proclaimed it a “miracle” that they had survived, the slightly injured saw a miracle in the fact that they were not more severely hurt, and those outside the path of the tornado saw God’s hands all over the event, as he lovingly directed the twister around their homes (and, therefore, by definition, into their neighbors’ homes). Each person basically looked one circle in closer to the tragedy and declared it a miracle that they were one circle out. So many miracles, overlapping and inconsistent.

Needless to say, this is nothing peculiar to Joplin. It happens every time there is a tragedy or near tragedy of any kind, anywhere in the world. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger pilots a distressed plane to land safely the Hudson River in New York City and nobody is killed, and it’s a miracle from God; a young girl is found in India, totally terrorized, but alive after being abducted and raped for a week, and it’s a miracle from Rama (or Vishnu or Shiva) that she is returned to her parents; an earthquake kills 5,000 people in Tibet, and it’s a fortune not of a god, but of Karma that more people weren’t killed; or a family in Northern Pakistan survives an errant American drone attack, and it’s a miracle from Allah.

What all these proclamations of miraculous intervention miss is the downside of the incidents. The fact that 150 or so people were killed in Joplin, that the girl was held for seven days, raped and sodomized, and will be traumatized for the rest of her life, or the 5,000 dead and 20,000 injured in the quake, and so on.

Of course, none of these incidents really are “miracles.” They are tragedies from end to end. When the totality of facts are taken into account, miracles turn out to be nothing more than people ignoring the downside of a set of facts, focusing solely on the good and calling the quarantined “good” a “miracle.” A CEO might as well ignore the liability side of his balance sheet and declare it a miracle that his company has just doubled in value.

Soon after the disaster, a story about how the tornado did not shake people’s belief in God appeared on the CNN Belief Blog. The article painted such obdurate adherence to faith in a positive light (a cynic might quip that you can fool some of the people all of the time). The comment section soon lit up with the usual debates between atheists and believers as to the role God played in the incident.  I posted the following as a sardonic response to a Christian who suggested everybody in Joplin should thank God for their fortune:

Bereaved Parent: God, you killed my little girl. The tornado ripped her out of my arms and dashed her against a tree. Why, oh Lord? I have been a good person all my life. I have kept your commandments and attended church every Sunday?

God: It’s all part of my “grand plan” for you. Your small mind cannot comprehend such matters.

Bereaved Parent: Try me. You killed my little girl. You expect me to turn up at church next week and praise your endless love. I think you owe me an explanation. She was only five years old!

God: I was moving in mysterious ways.

Bereaved Parent:  What the f*** does that mean?

God: Well, I kill thousands of small children all over the planet every day, and if I say I am “moving in mysterious ways,” for some reason people stop asking questions and go back to worshipping me. My favorite method is starvation. I also enjoy wars, preventable disease and miscellaneous acts of violence.

Bereaved Parent: I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

God: Yeah, it’s pretty rare that I speak so frankly. Look, if it makes you feel any better, tell yourself it’s Satan’s work. Satan sent the tornado, I just sat back and did a quick miracle to save that church cross you see in all those photos to demonstrate my omnipotence.

Bereaved Parent: But you’re God! You could have stopped Satan.

God: Ok, you’ve got me there. Look kid, the truth is, I don’t exist. I never have. Wasn’t it obvious to you that you made me when I seemed to love all the same things you love and hate all the same things you hate? Haven’t you noticed that every culture that has ever existed has had its own gods and they all seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams, and prejudices? Do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

Bereaved Parent: That’s a shame, because I intended to give you a free pass. To still believe in you despite everything telling me you are nonsense, simply because I have nowhere else to go. I have been taught to believe in you and never to question it, and I accepted it when they told me it was wrong to doubt.

God: Well, look at it from my perspective. How long would I last if I positively promoted free thought, healthy skepticism, and independent inquiry? You people would see right through me in a minute.

Bereaved Parent: Ok.  I have to go now. My wife needs me. We have a little girl to bury.

God: Good luck. I’ll say a prayer for you. Hey – even I need a god sometimes.  

Upon the slightest reflection, God’s “miracles” in Joplin quickly disappear. In any such tragedy, there will be victims and lucky survivors. Children will be gone, the elderly crushed, and the most deserving members of society struck down with the same barometric indifference as the least admirable. It could not be any other way, but the mind of the believer is a forgiving beast. 

Let me make a prediction. The next time there is a tragedy anywhere in the world, be it in India, China, the United States, Egypt, South America, or anywhere else, the local population will proclaim that the miraculous intervention of their god(s) saved the day. Over the course of the next year there will be miracles from God, Brahman, Vishnu, Allah, and scores of other contemporary deities. The next time a mine or church collapses anywhere in poor South America, it will be a miracle from the Christian god that nobody was killed. If only a few people die, it will be a miracle that more weren’t killed. If all die, it will be a miracle that a statue (or painting) survived. People will pray to it.  

Who knows, perhaps competing gods are all sitting up in the sky, watching the Earth and selectively intervening with miracles in the geographical areas of the planet where their believers enjoy a majority and ignoring all other parts of the world. Perhaps the many Hindu gods are drumming up miracles in India, Allah is intervening to kill Americans in Iraq, while God protects Americans over the Hudson.  

Or perhaps, just perhaps, all this is just silly. Isn’t it more likely that the millions of daily miracles and the gods who perform them exist solely in our minds? That we see miracles in tragedies because we so want to see them? We as a species are distraught by tragedy and cannot stand the thought that there is no divine justice, nobody there to punish the bad and reward the good, no ying to balance the yang. If we ourselves survive a disaster, we feel a need to thank our god, lest it consider us ungrateful and the next time we might not be so lucky. It’s Human Psychology 101.

If a god really wanted to reveal itself through a miracle, what would be easier than making a big public display of it so as to remove doubt—such as descending over an earthquake and stopping the tectonic rumbling with a wave of his mighty hand or having a guardian angel appear and stop the Joplin twister in its tracks? Of course, this never happens, and it is so far-fetched that it seems silly to even suggest it, but the supposed god doing exactly the same thing, hidden behind perfectly explicable natural events, is accepted.  

Maybe it’s time to grow up as a species. Maybe, as a child eventually sheds its Santa Claus, we adults should intellectually outgrow our invisible, wish-granting sky fairies. Imagine for a moment, as John Lennon implored us to do, a world without religion. Imagine if all the billions of dollars in time, effort and hard cash that we spend worldwide on religion each year were instead funneled into something real and worthwhile, like reducing poverty, improving education or protecting the environment. We could probably make huge strides toward curing the chosen ill.

Now that would be a miracle.  

Colin Flannery was born in Australia and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a lawyer by profession and an admitted science nerd by choice.