Argument Against Religious Testimony and Miracles

This post is inspired by an exchange with David Marshall, an apologist and heckler over at John Loftus’ Debunking Christianity. You can see the exchange here. I honestly thought a discussion with a Ph.D. would turn out differently. Alas, that wasn’t to be. I got the same attempted insults, obstinacy, and outright refusal to provide evidence for what he’s affirming. In any case, to my argument.

Allow me to give you what amounts to an argument by analogy.

Legal testimony is, without a doubt, far more grounded than any religious testimony. By any, I do not wish to single out Christian testimony. I’m also talking about Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu testimony–the latter of these featuring a huge body of religious testimony. I also wish to include Christian testimony that Protestants aren’t fond of: Eucharist Miracles, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, and basically any non-Protestant miracle claims. Erika Hayasaki, writing for Newsweek, states:

There have been 318 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence since 1989. In most of those cases, the eyewitnesses who testified felt confident in their memories when under oath on the stand. Yet eyewitness testimony contributed to 72 percent of those wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal and public policy group.

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Eyewitness testimony contributed to 72% of wrongful convictions. The point here is that all of us, religious or not, can agree that legal testimony is far more grounded than religious testimony. Legal testimony does not ask us to have faith in the supernatural, to believe that an exceptionless regularity has been violated, and so on. All it asks us to do is trust the integrity of the eyewitnesses in question. These eyewitnesses are reporting things that are well documented in movies, on surveillance videos, in newspapers, and so on: thefts, robberies, arsons, murders, assaults, etc. Religious or not, we can admit that crimes are committed day in and day out. Whether or not religious miracles are as frequent as some claim or infrequent as cessationists claim or impossible as atheists claim is irrelevant. Again, we can all consent to the fact that crimes are ubiquitous; they’re committed in all parts of the world, at any time of the day, and in virtually any neighborhood regardless of whether a given neighborhood is considered safe. Yet, a large percentage of wrongful convictions since 1989 have been due to eyewitness testimony.

So it’s not that Craig Keener is a liar or dishonest. It’s that regardless of what eyewitnesses claim to see, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Testimony itself is on shaky epistemic grounds because there are problems with it: distress, reconstructive memory, leading questioning, etc. Memories can be altered and even deleted. There’s also the issue of memory confabulation. If 72% of wrongful convictions in legal cases are due to eyewitness testimony stemming from people who have no vested interest in proving something, then it is much more likelier that the testimony of religious people, who do, in fact, have a vested interest in proving their religions true, is equally, if not, more unreliable. To reiterate, the former group has no vested interest in proving something; leave that vested interest to the prosecution. The latter group definitely does want to prove something. Bhakti Hindus definitely want to prove their faiths. Muslims do as well. So do Christians, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. So setting Keener aside, my distrust is in the people he interviewed.

In any case, a miracle, as Hume defined it, is an exception to a previously exceptionless rule. Furthermore, Hume’s prescription is that we should only trust testimony when it is likelier that the testifier is correct. Is it likelier that a Catholic is correct about a Eucharist miracle? Of course not! And it is likely that Protestants agree. Now back to charismatic Protestant views: is it likelier that one of Keener’s testifiers is correct about a faith healing? No!

Aside from testifying of an exception to a previously exceptionless rule, there’s a phenomenon in religious testimony that happens much more frequently than in legal testimony: there are known cases of fraud, e.g. Benny HinnyPeter Popoff. Benny Hinn, for instance, was considered a faith healer and a miracle worker. He turned out to be a vicious fraud, swindling money out of people. Given what such cases require us to believe and given *documented* cases of fraud, how are we to believe any religious testimony about a miracle?

Briefly, that is my argument. Whether or not one agrees with Hume’s definition matters not; to my mind, Hume’s definition captures, more generally, what religious people mean when they speak of miracles. If one prefers a definition that has one’s god violating the laws of physics, then one is just providing a definition that is far less likelier to be true. At any rate, Hume’s prescription provides us with the right level of skepticism. If someone is testifying of seeing a pterodactyl fly over them while they’re climbing a mountain, then we are to distrust her because she is less likely to be telling the truth. As it turns out, when having a laugh with one of these cryptozoology shows, someone actually claimed to see exactly that! Should I believe him? Of course not. It is much likelier that it was a drone or even a large bird that was misidentified. When given that religious testifiers are less likely to be honest or more likely to have a vested interest in proving their religion true or converting people, and given that there’s documented fraud when concerning purportedly miraculous acts, I have every reason to distrust and even dismiss religious testimony.

Given the above, religious people should move on from this pointless argument. These are old coals that have been raked over one too many times. You are not the first and probably won’t be the last religious buffoon to tout miracles as evidence of your religious beliefs. There is absolutely no way you can convince any of us that miracles happen and happen as frequently as you claim. Despite the first-hand testimony of eyewitnesses, I’ve provided religious people with compelling evidence against their testimonies.

In anticipation, they might argue that evidence against eyewitness testimonies isn’t evidence against what they’re testifying about, but now they’re back at square one, with no evidence for miracles. They’re left with religious obstinacy. Given Marshall’s emphasis on evidence, it would be inconsistent of him to take this route. The only honest conclusion is that there’s no evidence for miracles because there are no miracles. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it is only where evidence is to be expected. Now if they were to apply this reasoning to the First Century Palestinian they revere so much, their entire religious cookie crumbles.

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