Problems with Hume’s argument against miracles: part 2

Continued from part 1:

To be credible, Hume believed, eyewitnesses must be educated, socially respectable Western white persons such as Hume and his circle; he avers that only such people have something to lose by lying. Today, of course, I can cite numerous witnesses who meet all his criteria, including medical doctors, philosophers, and plenty of fellow PhD’s. Not all of the witnesses began as Christians before the events they claim to witness, contrary to suspicion of religious bias (as if bias is endemic only to persons with religious convictions; as a former atheist, I can attest firsthand that bias is not limited to a single ideology).

A particular case allows us to understand more concretely how Hume might apply his criteria. Hume takes an example from then-recent history: Marguerite Perrier, niece of the famous mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal, had a long-term, organic fistula in her eye that emitted a foul odor, seemed to accompany bone deterioration, and separated her from her peers because of the smell. She was instantly and publicly healed when touched by a relic (and few of us today would defend the relic’s authenticity), and the Queen Mother of France sent her own physician to examine this event. Hume points to this experience, noting that it was public, widely attested, even medically verified. It is far better verified than biblical miracles. Yet, he says, we do not believe this account; so why should we believe any other?

And then Hume moves on. He offers no argument; he simply takes for granted that no one will defend this account. Why? The setting in which Marguerite Perrier was healed was the early Jansenist movement, and nobody liked Jansenists; they were too Augustinian for French Jesuits, and, more to the point of Hume’s primary audience, they were too Catholic for Anglicans and Presbyterians. His Christian contemporaries who were accustomed to dismissing each others’ miracle claims without contrary evidence would not argue Hume’s point. But what if their sectarian dismissals were premature?

Challenging Hume’s Argument Today

David Hume was a smart man, and I do not believe that if he were around today, even he would argue his case the way he did in his day. (Admittedly, that is a postHUMous argument—sorry for injecting a bit of HUMor here.) It was one thing to deny credible eyewitness claims when the available sample size was so limited, and when most of his largely Protestant context relegated miracles to the distant past.

It would be a quite different to dismiss miracle claimants’ credibility a priori, or to make claims about uniform human experience, if there were millions of people who claimed to be witnesses. This is especially the case if one does not exclude witnesses based on sectarian or ethnic considerations.

Today, in fact, we have a fuller knowledge of global human experience, or at least the claims about such experience, and we can readily say that hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. No one would argue that all of these claims represent genuine miracles, much less that they can be explained only in this way. But with hundreds of millions of claimants, it is simply not possible logically to start with an a priori claim about human experience on the matter being uniform.

In 2006, a Pew Forum survey of ten countries (representing most continents, including North America) interviewed Pentecostals, charismatics, and Christians who claimed to fit neither category. Given the percentages in the 231-page report’s executive summary, it appears that hundreds of millions of people in these ten countries alone (i.e., not even including other countries) claimed to have witnessed divine healing. Nor are such claims limited to one religion, although other surveys show millions of people with centuries of non-Christian background converting to Christianity, often despite great social pressures to the contrary, because of extraordinary miracles in Christian contexts. A 2004 survey of U.S. physicians reports that over half believed that they had witnessed miracles during their practice. (We can keep in mind here that those with scientific training tend to define miracles more narrowly and rigorously than do many others.)

My own sample size of hundreds of sources is more limited, but from written sources and my own interviews, I conclude that many of these cases are significant. They include most of the range of miracles reported in the New Testament, including instant disappearances of blindness, resuscitations from apparent (and sometimes clinically documented) death, the instant vanishing of goiters, and the like. Again, some of these are medically documented. Although I initially collected such accounts much more deliberately for my book on miracle accounts (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts [2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011]), I have since come across many more, and often with fuller documentation than available at the time.

I will not digress from my main point here to elaborate examples, but I conclude by reinforcing the point of my brief response to David Hume here. Hume’s a priori dismissal of credible eyewitness support for miracles, and thus his argument from the uniformity of human experience and nature, does not work in a twenty-first century context. That is not to say that Hume might not have tried to argue against miracles from a different standpoint, or to seek other ways to counter his contemporaries’ apologetic use of biblical miracle claims. It is to say that the case that Hume argued, on which most modern assumptions that dismiss miracles are based, is no longer logically tenable.

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