bookmark_borderThe Meaning of ‘miracle’ – Part 2

Let’s start with Swinburne’s description of Aquinas’ concept of a ‘miracle’:

Aquinas wrote that a ‘miracle’ in a wide sense is any event brought about by a rational agent in virtue of powers greater than normal human powers; and so many events brought about by demons or angels would count as miracles. But in a strict sense, he claims, a miracle is that which occurs outside the whole system of created nature; it is that which no other agent except God has the power to bring about. See Summa Theologiae, Ia.114.
(Existence of God, 2nd ed., from footnote on p.282)

1. ‘in a wide sense’
This is a good point: the word ‘miracle’ has more than one meaning; it is ambiguous.

In a ‘wide sense’ it does NOT imply the existence or involvement of God in the alleged event. But in a narrower sense, it does imply the existence and involvement of God. One obvious implication is that the following argument is ambiguous:

(1) Miracles have happened.
(2) God exists.

If ‘miracles’ is used in the narrower sense, then (1) does logically imply (2), but in that case (1) begs the question. To establish that a miracle (in this narrow sense) has happened, one must first establish that God exists.

On the other hand, if ‘miracles’ is used in the wider sense, then (1) does not logically imply (2), although it might be used as evidence in support of (2), but the reasoning would need significant expansion and explanation (as for example, the reasoning given by Swinburne in Chapter 12 of The Existence of God: “Arguments from History and Miracles”).

2. ‘in virtue of powers greater than normal human powers’
This seems to be a bit too broad; this makes too many kinds of events count as miracles.

Superman leaping a building in a single bound would count as a ‘miracle’ on this criterion. Space aliens who have spacecraft with the power of invisibility or that can levitate large trucks and airplanes would be performing ‘miracles’ when they use such advanced technology. Even world-class athletes and scholars and scientists (who may be said to possess ‘powers greater than normal human powers’) may sometimes perform miracles, when they exercise their rare abilities. But none of these seem to be examples of miracles, so this condition appears to be too broad.

bookmark_borderMilitant atheism, militant Christianity

In South Carolina, where I live, the Confederate flag is prominently displayed on the grounds of the State Capitol. Many of us want it moved to a museum that contains artifacts of the Civil War (also referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression”). That’s why I’m somewhat conflicted about whether the cross-shaped steel beam found in the rubble of 9/11 should be placed in a museum that memorializes the event.

The courts might have to decide whether this cross would be in a museum simply to commemorate a historical event or as a sectarian religious artifact inviting worship.

Government displays of sectarian symbols can give the false impression that our government is allowed to favor one religion (usually Christianity) over another or religion in general over non-religion. The 9/11 cross has been displayed outside a nearby Catholic church for the past five years, certainly a non-controversial place for religious symbols. Nobody questions Ten Commandments plaques in churches or private homes, but they don’t belong on courthouses or other public buildings.

I didn’t like the argument by American Atheists that the cross should be taken down because it gave some of its members “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack.” I can’t help but think that American Atheists, a serious organization, was just having a little fun. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of remark the media likes to focus on.

Atheists are often falsely accused of being “militant” for speaking out against religion or making fun of antiquated religious beliefs. Here’s what I view as militant: death threats and threat of violence posted against atheists after the Communications Director for American Atheists appeared on Fox News. ( Here’s a sampling:

“I say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is God.”

“Shot them. Shoot to kill.”

“They’re atheists so it won’t matter if you kill them.”

“Nail them to the cross then display it.”

On a personal note, I also had a cross incident. The College of Charleston, where I was teaching, purchased a building from a church that had a cross on top. I sent an email to Alex Sanders, president of the College, requesting that he remove the “plus sign” from what had become a public building. Sanders did, but with his usual sense of humor about most things, described our exchange in a local newspaper. He wrote, “I will just assign the building to Herb Silverman as his office. With the cross at the top and Herb Silverman at the bottom, that would be an equalizing force. I told him that if he kept quiet about the cross, no one would be nailed to it.”

Neither of us had been offended by Sanders’ public humor. However, there was much community outrage about my referring to the cross as a “plus sign.” Indignant writers fumed about how I offended Christians. Nobody took offense to Sanders’ allusion that I might get nailed to the cross for my behavior.

What do atheists want? We want the same rights and privileges as everyone else in our secular country.

bookmark_borderThe Meaning of ‘miracle’ – Part 1

I just finished reading Richard Swinburne’s chapter “Arguments from History and Miracles”, Chapter 12 in The Existence of God (2nd ed., 2004), about the same time Taner Edis did his post Natural miracles?” (
So, this seems like a good time to revisit the topic of ‘miracles’.

Back in 2008, I did a series of posts on the definition of ‘miracle’ proposed by Richard Purtill:

Swinburne gives his own definition of ‘miracle’, and he also refers to definitions given by Aquinas and David Hume. I will start with Aquinas’ definition, move on to Hume’s, and then take a look at Swinburne’s.

One thing that troubles me lately about some of these definitions, is that they make the involvement of God a necessary condition for the application of the word ‘miracle’.

To be continuted…