Miracles Debunked

My lecture is gratefully dependent on the research and writing of Joe Edward Barnhart, David Corner and Joe Nickell, as well as other scholars. References to their work are listed below in the bibliography.

I would like to begin my discussion of miracles with a definition of the word, “miracle.” This is not as simple as it might first appear, as there is theological and philosophical controversy over what the proper conception of a miracle might be. The word derives from the Latin, “miraculum,” coming from the verb, “mirari,” to wonder. An event that provokes our human amazement might sometimes be termed a miracle. But most thinkers make the assumption that a miracle must also be extraordinary, unusual or contrary to human expectation in a very high degree. St. Augustine, the 4th century Church theologian, stated that a miracle need not be contrary to nature, but rather contrary to our knowledge of nature. St. Thomas of Aquinas, the 13th Century theologian, held a similar opinion. However, most people in the present day continue to believe that a miracle is an extraordinary event that is contrary to nature. The majority of dictionaries define the word, “miracle,” in this fashion.

There are difficulties involved with the theistic conception of “miracle.” I am going to discard the popular use of the word for the purposes of this lecture. We often hear it bandied about when praising “miracle” drugs, cars, babies and so on. But theistic concepts of the word attempt to be more exact, raising questions that need to be examined. Philosophers ask by what means can a violation of natural law be confirmed? They are correct in doing so. A miracle might not be a genuine violation, but a manifestation of a natural law that we have yet to discern.

An event which is agreed upon as extremely out of the ordinary provokes yet more queries. Is it actually a violation of nature by divine agency or simply a spontaneous lapse or hiccup in the natural order? Assuming we can ever determine what a miracle is, how can we truly ascertain if one has taken place? The problem of whether we can actually believe that one has taken place nearly always involves the problem of testimony. Testimony is most simply defined as evidence in support of a fact or statement.

In a court of law, a testimony is made under oath. But there are testimonies, written or spoken, that are given to provide proof of miracles in a theological sense. They are problematical for theists who claim the truth of miracles. I shall be recounting some of the difficulties with the validity of scriptural testimony a little later. There are many reasons why testimonies, such as those reported in biblical sources, are inadequate for us to believe that the miracles recounted by them are true.

In addition, there are subsidiary issues that occupy Christian scholars. Joe Edward Barnhart points out in his article on miracles that there are theologians who hold that the age of miracles has ceased. Others believe that it continues. Theism appears to have moved in two different directions with regard to the question of miracles. One group regards miracles as “divine intervention for someone’s benefit or punishment,” and looks on them as heaven’s wonders brought at least temporarily to earth. Barnhart states that there is another faction that views the regularities of nature as the divine creature’s revelation of the cosmos and its order over chaos. This position is easier to defend as it does not move beyond nature’s regularity. According to Barnhart, the theists who embrace such a belief often find reports of local miracles as threats to god’s stability and order.

Barnhart points out: “A miracle requires supportive miracles that require still more miracles, with no conspicuous end to the proliferation.” He explains that if there is a significant proliferation, the impact of miracles declines and the word itself collapses. The 18th century Anglican bishop, George Berkeley, understood the difficulty with the Catholic position on local miracles. He maintained that god gave mortals experience and sensation, and that those gifts arrived to us in an orderly manner. That order, with regular and observable operations, was Nature.

Barnhart explains that later thinkers embellished Berkeley’s concept, maintaining that if miracles departed from natural law, they would not be intelligible. They argued that if the ordinary laws through which nature operated were suspended by the regular occurrence of miracles, it would create chaos. Barnhart states that they believed such a situation would cause the moral and natural order to go on “permanent vacation.”

That faction of theists had no objection to the practices of scientists, evolutionists and naturalists. Here is a characteristic statement: “Even admitting a miraculous factor, we should not expect any such magical departure from all the psychological and historical uniformities and continuities.” Proponents of their point of view, which included a few deists, believed god operated perpetually in the world through the laws and regularities he had designed. Barnhart states that they maintained sound religion was not advanced by accepting such claims as talking serpents and a woman made from a man’s rib. Since their camp believed supernatural causes worked through the natural order, they had a definite reliance on natural means and methods. They asserted that critical testing of reported miracles was required. Such theists hold to essentially the same position in the present day.

But there are other theists who have embraced the belief in local miracles. They include the late C.S. Lewis and the present day theologian, Richard Swinburne. Such thinkers maintain that since the creator is an omnipotent power who could create the universe from nothing, the performance of local miracles is neither beyond his power or desire. He is a miracle worker, and if he exists, which they claim he does, then he continues to perform miracles. They argue that when a miracle is deemed necessary by the creator, he easily performs one.

Barnhart maintains that there is a significant difficulty with this camp’s point of view. Critics inquire that once god sets up his order, is he able to change it by means of a miracle? This question is a worrisome one for theists because of their insistence that their creator is a supremely moral and omnipotent being. If he is a supremely moral being, Barnhart asks, could this god create a savior who is also a rapist? He could not. Being omnipotent, could he even make a boulder too heavy for him to lift? No. So it appears there are limits to the putative omnipotence of the creator once he has put his order in place.

Theists have many varied difficulties with the question of miracles, such as being faced with recounting a proliferation of miracles. As I mentioned earlier, once one miracle has been related, it is often necessary to back up that original one with other miracles. According to Barnhart, in 1918 the theologian, B.B. Wakefield, maintained that the age of miracles had ceased after the first century of Christianity. He attempted to convince fellow Evangelicals that miracles reported after the apostolic age were false or counterfeit. But in 1933, John Ruthven offered a significant refutation of the concept of the cessation of miracles. He argued for the perpetuity of miraculous events. Barnhart states that Ruthven did not seriously address the question of how to decide which miracle is genuine and which is not. He also never seriously discussed or explained the proliferation problem I have just mentioned.

Barnhart states that “… some theists and polytheists have believed their prayers carried something akin to lobbying influence that increased the controlling power’s propensity to bestow miraculous interventions.” He maintains that “… in order to secure some order in the universe, or to secure some local necessity or desire, some cultures have institutionalized prayer, sacrifices and rituals on a regular basis.” Prayer for miracles was often made use of in the ancient world, including pagan Greece. The Greek philosopher, Plato, believed such practices demonstrated a lack of true piety. Barnhart reminds us of the continuing custom during warfare of offering prayers to give one country the advantage over its enemy. At the same time, the enemy is imploring the creator for granting it the advantage. It has been noted that such practices contribute to societal chaos, not order.

I have quoted David Hume, (1717-1776 CE), in other lectures. He wrote a very important work, Of Miracles, and finally published it in 1748. (In the 19th Century, Of Miracles was omitted from its position of Chapter 10 in An Enquiry into Human Understanding. It has often been published separately.) He was a cautious man when speaking about religion, but his skepticism was impossible to conceal. Of Miracles is a standard work often assigned in beginning courses in philosophy. Hume did not argue against miracles having occurred, which was a clever ploy. Instead he asked if we have good reason to think they have occurred. I have recounted some of his arguments in other Atheist Scholar lectures, but this particular lecture needs to scrutinize his thinking more closely, especially with regard to the question of testimony.

I will be quoting from Of Miracles, Part Two, his most devastating refutation of miraculous testimony. Hume states that he has found: “… Reasons why there has never been a miraculous event established on the evidence of testimony. First, in all history there have never been a sufficient number of people of unquestioned good sense, education, learning, reputation and undoubted integrity to persuade us they were not deluding themselves or deceiving others. Full assurance in testimony depends on this.

Secondly we readily reject any incredible fact which is contrary to our past experience and observations and we ought to reject the authority of those who have the desire to believe in miracles which reveals their passion for wonder and offers them delight in exciting the admiration of others. By joining himself to the love of wonder, a religionist rejects common sense and its human testimony for the sake of a holy cause. Their eloquence captivates the willing hearer, minimizing their reason and subduing their understanding. Such enthusiasm touches not the best passions but the most vulgar ones. The extraordinary and the marvelous ought to give birth to suspicion, but they do not always do so… With great vehemence are religious miracles reported.

Third, supernatural and miraculous stories chiefly are initiated by ignorant and uncivilized people. With such embellishments are the first histories of all nations written. Battles are divinely won and omens and oracles obscure natural events. But in a later enlightened age we find that nothing mysterious or supernatural happened. Fourth, many other witnesses can be found who oppose the story and testimony destroys itself. The religions of ancient Rome, Turkey, Siam and China cannot all be established on a solid foundation. Every supposed miracle is used to establish that particular tradition and is therefore, an indirect attempt to destroy the credit of other religions. No testimony for any miracles has ever amounted to probability, much less to proof. Even if it had, it would be opposed by another proof. Experience, which assures us of the laws of nature, alone gives authority to human testimony.

Let us examine those miracles related in scripture and confine our attention to the Pentateuch. We find them presented not as the word or testimony of God, but as the production of a mere human writer and historian. Here we are to consider a book, presented to us by an ignorant and barbarous people, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin. We find miracle after miracle, from creation to fall, to destruction by deluge, and the arbitrary choice of one people as the favorite of heaven- a people who are countrymen of the author… What has been said of miracles can also be said of prophesies. Today it takes a miracle for any reasonable person to believe in the Christian religion. For this requires more than reason. It requires Faith. But anyone who is moved by Faith into such a belief must be aware of a continuing miracle within him.”

Biblical fundamentalists make up a large percentage of the population of the United States, with some surveys indicating as much as 25%. These Christians reject Hume’s criticism. They also reject other important works written during the last two and a half centuries that question biblical veracity. I have provided some of Hume’s most telling paragraphs from Of Miracles. But I encourage those who have an interest in his thinking to read the entire work. It is readily available on the Web. When fundamentalists refuse to accept either rational argument or sound biblical criticism, they verify the truth of Hume’s statement that they are harboring a continual miracle within them.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748, Hume elaborates on some of his statements in Of Miracles. He is convinced that the evidence in favor of the occurrence of a miracle is always trumped by the evidence for a natural, if unusual, happening in nature. Theists have attempted to refute Hume many times, but his ideas and arguments remain sound. We have no way of knowing the truth of several factors when we turn to scriptural testimony for evidence of miraculous events that are clearly violations of nature. It is necessary to keep in mind that such occurrences, if they have happened, are not directed by god or any mysterious causes. They are most likely the spontaneous occurrence of nature alone.

When scripture presents us with testimony of miracles, it also presents us with numerous problems of verification. The author is repeating something about a so-called miracle that was either told him by someone or that he has read about. Has the writer been provided a falsehood or simply a mistake from his source? Has the author made a mistake in reporting or has he decided to lie to make his case for miraculous events stronger? Has the author been edited by a later writer who transcribed the passages on miracles incorrectly? There is yet another possibility. The later transcriber altered the original passage in order to make it more convincing with regard to the miraculous occurrences.

Hume has made the case against the probabilities of miracles being true. Nevertheless, belief in miracles continues, not only by religionists but by many in the low-salient New Age spiritual movements. In the present day, miracles are especially embraced by Catholic and Evangelical Christians. But most of the mainstream Christian churches give some credence to miracles. The same is true for Judaism and Islam, though not to the extent of the Catholic religion. Buddhist and Hindu scholars do not give credence to miracles taking place outside the realm of the natural. They are more concerned with the natural miracle of the world and its creatures. They maintain the most important miracle happens when a person leaves behind worldly illusion and becomes enlightened. But at the lower, more popular level of the Eastern religions, one may find angels, demons, gods and miracles in abundance.

Despite many searing observations from scholars such as Hume, the desire for miracles is difficult to eradicate. In the present day, we continue to hear talk of miracles from TV anchors, celebrities, theists, pastors and priests. Ordinary citizens add to the clamor when they claim they have experienced miracles. The truth of the matter is that they have experienced good luck or been saved from a life-threatening experience. Reports of miracles are given more credence than would seem possible in the 21st Century, but such claims endure and remain quite strong in the popular culture.

More troubling is the fact that many theists advance complex intellectual arguments in defense of miracles. There are theists who cling to the belief that there are powerful spiritual entities and forces which exist outside of nature. David Corner explains that when theists refer to nature in this context, they usually mean all the things capable of being known by humans by means of observation, measurement and experiment. They insist that the methodology used to measure and reveal the world is inadequate. Corner states that theistic advocates claim that god not only revealed and continues to reveal himself through the natural world, but also through miracles.

They are not content to end there with their specious claims, but insist that there is a second supplemental source for understanding god and his creation. They call this source, Revelation. David Corner states that: “ Revelatory sources for our knowledge of god might, for example, include some form of a priori knowledge, supersensory religious experience, or a direct communication by god of information that would not otherwise be available to us. Knowledge of god that is passed down in scripture, such as the Bible or the Quran, is generally conceived by theists to have a revelatory character.”

Most people who embrace a secular stance also embrace naturalism, which rejects the concepts of god, miracles and revelation. I have lectured about Naturalism, but it is important to review a few facts about it before going on with the lecture. Naturalism denies the attempt to explain any difficult to understand event with supernatural justifications. Naturalism rejects belief in the existence of supernatural entities. Naturalists contradict the notion that Revelation might be a source of genuine knowledge. Most naturalists maintain that scientific inquiries will eventually make clear what has caused some uncanny events. In general, naturalists deny the possibility of miracles in any form.

Theists have generally used the claims of miracles to further the notion that they prove the existence of god. Although this idea has been steadily eroded in the modern world, it still carries a great deal of weight with theists. They maintain they do not have to provide scientific evidence of miracles to make good their claim that god exists. This leads secular naturalists to understand that theistic arguments for the occurrence of miracles “… lie in apologetics rather than evidence.” In other words, a warranted belief in miracles seems to go hand in hand with a rejection of naturalism. This lecture contradicts such a claim and will offer refutations of it whenever it arises.

David Corner’s article on miracles in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy refutes both testimony and scripture as proof of miraculous events. Let us take, for the sake of argument, Paul’s report in Corinthians (15.6) that the resurrected Jesus appeared to 500 people. Corner explains that on the surface, such a statement might lead to the conclusion that reports of an event involving 500 witnesses must be true.

But Corner and others have quickly dispelled theist claims that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection has been confirmed by Paul’s account. We know that Paul was not present at that so-called miracle, nor, most importantly do we have the testimony of any of those 500 people. Paul does not even say how he received the information. Did he speak to any of those witnesses or was he merely repeating what he was told by someone? Do we assume the putative witnesses merely felt Jesus’ presence or do we believe that they saw him in the flesh? We have grounds to believe that the number of 500 people was greatly exaggerated. Corner suggests that a certain number of eyewitnesses might have seen someone they believed was the physically resurrected Jesus. It might have been someone else.

In fact, scholars have pointed out that one cannot know if Paul’s account was altered at some point, by copying and editing it differently than the original. Bart Erhman has stated that early scribes made copying errors. He adds that some Christian scribes sometimes altered material to enhance certain popular or doctrinal beliefs. They believed that altering was merely “lying for god”, and they would have very few qualms regarding revisions if they thought they were helping the Christian faith.

I would like to return to Hume’s position that a miracle will violate a natural law, will in fact be an exception to the course of nature. He demonstrates that esoteric philosophic reasoning is not necessary to refute such notions. He exposes miraculous claims by using simple common sense. Here is how he goes about it. Hume maintains that when an event is contrary to our usual experience, one must be cautious. Take the account of Jesus walking on the water. What is our experience of seeing heavy objects placed on the water? In every case of a dense heavy object placed on water, the object has sunk.

Despite any alleged reliability of one or many witnesses, the report of a man walking on water may be assumed to be false. Theists will object that just because there is a claim that no dense object has floated on the water does not mean there has not been an exception to this claim. But Hume’s position is very perceptive. He admits to the extremely small possibility that a dense object might, contrary to experience, actually float on water. However, he asks us to consider that is far more likely that a witness who reports such an event is either mistaken or trying to deceive us.

While a man walking on water is highly unlikely, falsehood of testimony has occurred time and time again. The story is much more likely to be a falsehood than a fact. In other words, Hume does not find, and even states that, “… no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

Corner points out that secular thinkers, going back to T.H. Huxley in the 19th Century, have commented that to insist that an alleged event has occurred and that it is definitely a violation of nature is to discard reliance on the scientific method. Here is Huxley, Darwin’s defender, on the matter: “… the scientist would simply set to work to investigate the conditions under which so highly unexpected an occurrence took place; and modify his, hitherto, unduly narrow conception of the laws of nature.” The respected scientist, Alastair McKinnon, has maintained that: “… in formulating the laws of nature, the scientist is merely trying to codify what actually happens; thus to claim that some event is a miracle, where this is taken to imply that it is a violation of natural law, is to claim at once that it actually occurred, but also paradoxically that it is contrary to the actual course of events.”

The statements that I have just quoted go a long way to disposing of the notion of miracles. Because even if such so-called miraculous events have occurred, they are not truly violations of natural law. If a Christian apologist should attempt to claim that the occurrence of such events proves the existence of a supernatural god or the truth of any particular religious doctrine or belief, that apologist creates an untenable concept. First we must have good reason to believe that such events have occurred, and second, that they are an overriding of natural law. Christian apologists cite a law of nature, then claim that an event is an alleged exception to it and finish with the allegation that therefore the exception must be supernatural. Such a sequence taking place and being true would be highly unlikely and apologists do not make a salient case when they argue for it.

Now I would like to return to Hume’s denigration of eyewitness testimony. Before discussing some views of it on the part of scholars, I am going to relate a personal incident from my freshman year in college. Others have reported similar experiences at their schools. I was in a sociology class and the professor was giving a lecture. Suddenly the classroom door opened and a man entered. He began a heated altercation with the professor, and then slammed out of the room.

Our professor told us that the entire scene had been pre-arranged as part of an experiment. We then broke up into small focus groups that were assigned the task of describing the hostile man. Our group members were unable to remember very much about him, and so we followed the lead of one self-assured member. This student was certain about the man’s height, clothing, hair color and so on. When we took our seats again, we turned in the results from our various groups. When they were tabulated it turned out that we were all wrong. The group that scored the lowest was the one I had participated in. We had followed the lead of someone who did not remember any more than we did about the man who had entered the classroom. I learned two important lessons that day. I not only learned that it was foolhardy to blindly follow a cocksure person but also to be very dubious about the veracity of eyewitness testimony.

A large study published in 2014 about eyewitness testimony in the United States courts has strongly indicated that eyewitness testimony is pretty unreliable. The study found many factors that limit vision and memory and can lead to “failure of identification.” “Visual perceptual experiences are subject to viewing conditions, duress, elevated emotions and biases and are quite vulnerable to many factors at all stages when the eyewitness is attempting to recall the event.” The study was undertaken by the United States National Research Council and is titled: “Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification,” and is available on the Web. The Council received a $333,000 grant to conduct the research. Its findings are quite troubling as the number of people convicted by eyewitness testimony is high. 75% of the wrongful convictions for rape and murder were based on eyewitness testimony and some of the convicted people were sentenced to execution.

The unreliability of eyewitness testimony has been known for a long time and now there is science to back up the suspicion. I believe that Hume’s 18th century dismissal of eyewitness testimony has been confirmed by 21st century methodology. Eyewitness accounts of so-called miracles are untrustworthy in the present and can be assumed to have been incorrect in the past as well.

There are other theories advanced by theists to support the notion of miracles. The “miracle” of the cosmos is a favorite theme, which they hope will prove the existence of god and of miraculous events at the same time. In an attempt to confound atheists, they ask why there is something rather than nothing. Victor Stenger, in the 2008, God: The Failed Hypothesis, points out that “nothing” or rather particle systems, are highly unstable. He states that we can reasonably expect what he calls “… a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter.”

The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent. As Nobel Laureate physicist, Frank Wilczek, has put it: “The answer to the ancient question, why is there something rather than nothing is that nothing is unstable.” Stenger points out that “… the probability for there being something rather than nothing actually can be calculated; it is over 60%. We do not need a creation miracle to account for the something we have.”

We have talked about the “miracle of creation.” Now I would like to glance at miracles in general and what some theists have purported to believe about them. Here are some of the remarks of R.P.Phillips who admits that it would be absurd to argue with atheists and agnostics about the possibility that miracles carried about by a supernatural entity have happened and continue to take place in the present day. Phillips states that “… unless miracles are acknowledged to be possible they cannot be adduced as evidential facts, so that the fundamental thesis of Natural Theology and of theism are presupposed by the discussion of miracle and cannot be proved by it.”

George H. Smith addresses New Testament gospel miracles in his 1989 Atheism: The Case Against God. Smith points out that in the controversy between naturalism and supernaturalism there is not truly a contest between two different modes of explanation. Rather it is actually “… an issue of explanation versus no explanation whatsoever.”

John Hospers has made some perspicacious remarks on the question of why people claim to have witnessed miracles. He maintains: “It is interesting to observe that people are quick to accept as miracle any unusual event, or an event that goes contrary to natural probabilities, as long as it works in their favor. A hundred people are killed in an airplane accident, but one survives. ‘It’s a miracle!’ say the survivor and his family. What the families of the non-survivors have to say about the matter is usually not recorded… In general, people who already have some kind of theistic belief are apt to call miraculous any event that is unusual, whose causes they do not fully know, and that works in their favor… what people call a miracle depends on what they want to believe, more than what the facts of the case are.”

Smith makes the excellent point that no mature mind can purport to truly believe that the falling off of reported miracles over the centuries is merely a coincidence. It is a fact that the frequency of reports of miracles has fallen off as people have advanced in knowledge. It would be very disingenuous to claim the falling off of reported miracles vis-à-vis increased knowledge is merely coincidental. There is an obvious connection between the facts of people becoming more logical and selective, and science advancing, with reports of miracles having tapered off.

A theist affiliated with a specific religion has a problem concerning selectivity. How can one accept all the miracles of one’s own religion and at the same time deny the veracity of other faiths’ reported miracles? How does one, after giving credence to the notion that miracles are a fact, separate historical events from mythological fantasies? The problem has become greater since the late 1800’s. Not only has science advanced but also biblical criticism has discovered that most of the events recorded in Holy Scriptures never took place historically. It would seem that there is little choice between invalid historical facts and miraculous fantasies.

Intellect alone does not seem to be the definitive factor in accepting or rejecting miracles. The theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, author of the 2007 The Physics of Christianity, claims to provide Christians with a so-called rational basis for believing in their doctrines. Victor Stenger discusses Tipler’s notions in the 2012 God and the Folly of Faith. Here are two of Tipler’s explanations for Jesus’ alleged miracles. He maintains that a simple process was in play when Jesus was reported to have walked on the water. This process was the destruction of protons and electrons into neutrinos. When Jesus walked on water, those protons and electrons right under his feet were annihilated. Tipler explains: “Then the resulting neutrinos go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.”

Tipler also has an explanation for the alleged miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. He argues that Jesus’ entire body was converted to invisible neutrinos and some heat was released to burn the burial cloth. Then, when he wanted to appear to his disciples, he simply reversed the whole process, which he had already done previously when he raised the dead.

John Loftus’ 2013 God or Godless features a debate between Loftus, an atheist, and a Christian professor, Randal Rauser, on issues of faith, including miracles. Rauser quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s observation: “When I pray coincidences happen, and when I do not pray, coincidences do not happen.” Rauser complains that atheists err when they insist that Christians only count the hits and ignore the misses when they pray.

Loftus counters that “… incredible coincidences are common and that we are correct to not trust personal, anecdotal evidence.” He points out that it has been established that people are agency detectors. Agency detection has served humanity well, as it increases people’s ability to escape from predators. But, as Loftus explains, people remain agency detectors in the present day. He maintains: “Since we know that about ourselves, it should cause us to be skeptical that there are agents behind unexplained events.” I encourage people to go to the above mentioned works and to the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture to achieve a thorough discussion of the issues discussed in this lecture.

I would like to transition from the general, philosophical discussion of miracles to the listing and investigation of different categories of reported miraculous phenomena. The best researcher and author in this area is the renowned Joe Nickell. Nickell is a senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has worked as a stage magician, private investigator and university professor. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Looking for a Miracle (1993) and Crime Science (1999). He has studied many “miraculous” events, effigies, articles and so on for many years and has found no merit in any of them. His approach is not to dismiss the miraculous claim out of hand, but to approach it with the scientific method. He studies, researches, and tests it when allowed, before coming to a firm conclusion.

Nickell details his investigative technique in his 2012 volume, CSI Paranormal: Investigating Strange Mysteries. Here is a list of some of his procedures when investigating so-called mysteries. These methods have proved remarkably effective over the years:

  1. Research precedents
  2. Carefully examine physical evidence
  3. Analyze development of a phenomenon
  4. Assess a claim with a controlled test or experiment
  5. Consider an innovative analysis
  6. Attempt to recreate the “impossible”
  7. Go undercover to investigate

Nickell has classified the miracles attributed to various items into categories. Here are some of those classifications. There are relics, which are objects associated with a saint or martyr, or sometimes the preserved bodies of the saints themselves. Another important category is the one Nickell calls “images that are said either to be supernatural in origin or to exude some magical power.” Among this group are simulacra- “… images seen,” states Nickell” “…Rorschach-like, in random patterns.” Then there are the “weeping,” bleeding or otherwise animated effigies and icons. Nickell explains that this category is troubling to some believers as well as skeptics. The statue or effigy is supposed to merely represent the holy person or saint. When people begin to venerate it and believe that it is actually animated, such practices cross the line into idolatry for many believers. Other categories include miraculous photographs, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and handling poisonous snakes. Holding lit kerosene lamps to the hands and feet is practiced by certain sects as well.

Then there are other categories, such as visionary experiences and stigmata wounds on people’s bodies similar to those of the alleged wounds of the crucified Jesus. Stigmata are especially embraced by the Catholic Church. There are the popular Marian apparitions believed in by Catholics, visitations by the Virgin Mary. There are more categories listed by Nickell- rosaries which turn into gold and statues of saints with heartbeats. Faith healing is a perennially popular and lucrative area of miracle-making. I have only covered a few of the classifications listed by Nickell, but they are among the best known types of miracles.

I would like to discuss the incidents connected with some of the categories. Time constraints preclude a thorough discussion of miracles with examples, so I have selected a few cases which Joe Nickell has investigated and written about. Most of them are from his 2013 Science of Miracles.

One of the most interesting apparitions of a holy image in the present day has been the 2004 picture of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. One of the owners, Diana Duyser, says that she made a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch one day. She had just taken a bite out of it when she noticed a picture of a woman’s face in the toast pattern. She claims she recognized the picture as a depiction of the Virgin and preserved the toast in a plastic box with cotton balls. Subsequently she and her husband auctioned it off, receiving $28,000 for its sale on E-Bay, the internet auction business. The owner of an online casino bought the sandwich, with the stated purpose of attempting to use it to raise funds for charity.

Nickell states that the cheese sandwich Virgin received as much, or more notoriety, than previous sacred food items. Some of the better known of reported simulacra are the 1977 tortilla bearing Jesus’ face, a billboard forkful of pasta on which some viewers saw Jesus’ features, and the appearance of Mother Theresa’s face on a cinnamon bun. Pareidolia is the human ability to detect random patterns, like faces in the clouds and the Man in the Moon, and convert them into so-called recognizable images. I have already discussed this tendency and its survival value for humans, as well as its role in the origins of religion in the lecture Anthropology.

Penn and Teller had the Madonna sandwich in Los Vegas and their producer lent it to Nickell. He took photographs of it with a 35 mm camera and close-up lenses. He also used a macroscopic technique to view it with a 10X Bausch and Lomb Illuminated Coddington Magnifier. He found the surface had a heat-blistered, spotty appearance. The spots that supposedly made up the features of the Virgin appeared elsewhere on the bread. There did not appear to be any drawing that would have been executed with a wood-burning tool or any other apparatus.

Interestingly, the face seen in close-up is much less filled in than it seemed at first glance. Nickell states that the “face” is really some squiggles, easily detected if the picture is turned about 90 degrees. The nostrils are not in the nose, but many people have the tendency to fill them in. There is a squiggle that resembles a curl on the Madonna’s cheek, but it is really just a curved mark. Nickell has concluded that the sandwich is a typical simulacrum. The former owner insists that she experienced a miracle and had the appearance tattooed on one of her breasts.

Stigmata are the supposed appearance of the bloody wounds of the crucified Jesus on the bodies of certain believers in the same or similar spots that Jesus suffered- the hands and less often, the feet, sometimes the wound in the side or the needle marks of the crown of thorns on the forehead. Probably first experienced by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century, the phenomenon became more and more popular, especially in the Catholic countries.

The wounds have often been of a different shape than the nails reportedly used at the time of the crucifixion. (Since Jesus’ crucifixion is most likely a myth, imitating the fictitious wounds on one’s body perpetuates the folly of the entire tale). But the wounds that imitate the alleged wounds of Jesus are not only a different shape than they would have been in that era, but are often in the wrong place than they would have been.

One would think that such phenomena would have a psychosomatic origin, but psychiatrists and other experts have found they do not. Apparently such miracles appear to be self-inflicted hoaxes, most often practiced by women, especially cloistered nuns and members of the Catholic Church. When examined most of the wounds appear to be nothing more than a pious fraud, without the excuse of a hysterical illness to excuse the afflicted person.

Nickell discusses a modern case in 1999 that appeared on Fox News, called “Signs from God.” Nickell describes the appearance of Katya Rivas, an alleged stigmatic, who was displayed lying on a bed. He says that she first exhibited “prick-marks and bleeding on the forehead, an imitation of Jesus’ alleged crown of thorns, but apparently not on the sides or back of the head.” Then he says “…there was a pink mark on the left palm, followed by a tiny cross on the back of the hand that was initially without blood.”

Later, “bloody wounds” appeared on both sides of the hands and feet. The camera shots never showed the marks emerging spontaneously, but only after they had appeared. Rivas later went into paroxysms in imitation of Christ’s death-like agony. The wounds that were examined appeared to be cuts. According to Nickell, the wounds were in the wrong place, the entrance and exit wounds did not match and some seemed to have been made with the sharp ring Katya was wearing. The next day, the cuts appeared completely healed.

But Nickell believes that the cuts were never there in the first place, that they were scars from previous “woundings,” or faked stigmata. The television host had made much of the speculation that some of the blood from the wounds would be from Jesus, but that never happened. The blood that was tested from the wounds was Katya’s alone. Later Nickell cut himself to try to duplicate Rivas’ cuts. As a test, he cut a cross on the back of his left hand. His wound, too, looked like Rivas’s and pretty much had vanished within twenty four hours. Nickell has concluded that Rivas’ alleged stigmata cannot be distinguished from a pious hoax. He adds that many other tales of stigmatas through the centuries cannot be distinguished from pious hoaxes either.

I chose one story from the mid-nineteenth century to find evidence, s0-called, of the Devil’s footprints. There was an outbreak of near hysteria in South Devon, England in February 1885. There have been at least six contemporary accounts of that oddity; the best one is in Mark Dash’s Fortean Studies from 1994.

After a snow in South Devon on February 9, 1855, odd tracks appeared in several towns. People claimed some strange creature had raced through the towns, leaving behind tracks, uncanny tracks that nobody could identify. According to one account: “Each track was about 4 inches in length and 2¾ in width and exactly 8 inches apart. They were roughly shaped like a hoof print and were promptly christened “The Devil’s Footprints” by all who saw them.” It was claimed that the prints never stopped, being found on top of fourteen foot walls and even crossing over the roofs of barns and houses.

The accounts maintained that the uncanny creature showed no slowing down of pace and that in some spots the snow had been melted away where the feet had touched. People insisted that when the tracks stopped at the edge of an unfrozen pond, they would resume in an exact line on the opposite side, pick up a fast pace and continue through the countryside. The citizens of South Devon were convinced, the account goes on, that the strange footprints had been made by the Devil himself.

At Woodbury, England, jokers had been known to make odd tracks with a hot shoe, but South Devon’s tracks were different. Sensible people concluded that cats, rats, hares and squirrels could “… leave hopping tracks that not only appear in a straight line, but with their four feet held together, could form a pattern similar to a hoof print.” Many of the descriptions of the tracks making a non deviated straight line were untrue, as were the accounts of their size and type.

Some villagers claimed the tracks were from a pony shoe, others that the tracks were a cloven shape (surely a devil’s foot), and others maintained the tracks had claws and toes. The allegations that the tracks ran more or less in a straight line were likely fabricated. Apparently no one had followed them the complete distance of about one hundred miles. The account of a woman in 1923 who had been a young girl in Dawlish, Devon in 1855 suggests, says Nickell, that each town might have had tracks from different animals in the area. Her father was Dawlish’s Vicar and he and his curates sensibly examined the alleged devil’s prints. They came to the conclusion they had been made by cats.

The weather had likely been responsible for the hysteria. The Vicar and his curates discovered that the cat prints had been partly washed away by a slight thaw, and then “expanded into the shape resembling hoof marks by the early morning frost.” The woman said that the townspeople vehemently rejected the common sense explanation and insisted they had been visited by the devil. Not only was her father ignored, she said, but also the Vicar from the town of Lympstone. That vicar had come to the same conclusion about the tracks in his town as the examiners from Dawlish about their prints. Obviously the devil’s footprints were more exciting for the townspeople to contemplate than the manifestations of the winter weather.

Another favorite tale is that of the “weeping icons.” There have been many reported throughout the world. Joe Nickell traveled to Toronto, Ontario to examine one in 1996 at the request of the Toronto Sun. He went to the Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto’s East York District, which contained the weeping icon of the Virgin Mary. Nickell relates that he packed a “weeping icon kit, which consisted of a camera and close-up lenses, a stereomicroscope removed from its base, and various vials, pipettes, bibulous paper and other collection materials.”

The traffic in the area was congested and there were throngs of people in front of the church who had waited in the night for it to open. The area was obviously not a quiet inspection spot. An attendant was collecting each person’s $2.50 ticket fee, or donation. The permission to examine the icon had been withdrawn in the meantime and Nickell’s request to collect a sample of the icon’s tears was ignored twice.

He was finally allowed to look at the icon and he discerned that it was a fake- a colored photo print and not a wood panel painting. “The “tears” did not come from the eyes of the icon, but from somewhere near the top of the Virgin’s head.” They looked “suspiciously oily”, which is a common trick in such cases, says Nickell. True watery tears would dry quickly, but a good olive oil would remain fresh for hours or days.

The priest there, Reverend Katseas, had earlier been at a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Queens, New York, when a nun’s portrait icon, St. Irene, began to cry. Thousands of pilgrims visited the site, some from as far away as India and Japan. Nickell had found the New York icon phenomenon was bogus. Nearly a year later, it was stolen from Katseas, he claimed, at gunpoint. The icon was later returned, but without the nearly $800,000 in jewels and gold which had decorated it.

A newspaper report confirmed a rumor about the Toronto phenomenon. Apparently the icon began “weeping” after the East York church discovered that it had accumulated a debt of nearly $271,000.The priest was later defrocked when it was discovered he had previously worked in a brothel in Athens, Greece. In 1997, Nickell was invited back to the Toronto church by lawyers for the Greek Orthodox Church Authority. He took samples of the icon’s oil stains and gave them to the police lab. The samples of oil were the non-drying variety. But the case sputtered out because no one by then was able to prove who had put the oil on the icon.

Another amusing case discussed by Nickell is the much publicized blood of San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, in Naples. It was alleged that the saint had been martyred during the Emperor Diocletian’s 303 CE persecution of Christians. (Please see Myths of Christian Persecution.) That lecture discusses the most recent findings that the extent of pagan persecution against Christians was much exaggerated. The Catholic Church has furthermore never been able to verify Gennaro’s historical existence.

During the Easter season of 2015, the Catholic Pope, Francis, held the vial which contained the congealed blood of the saint, which partially liquefied. The media around the world touted this so-called miracle. But the blood of Gennaro has periodically completely liquefied through the centuries, sometimes without prayers and rituals. It did so when the saint’s coffin was repaired, perhaps in gratitude. This is surely a contradiction of nature’s laws- a miracle!

The blood of San Gennaro is, of course, never allowed to be touched lest it be defiled. Nickell states that in the absence of a sample from the saint, Italian scientists have experimented with various other materials that liquefy just as the saint’s blood does. Nickell and a forensic analyst have found an oil-wax-pigment mixture that liquefies when slightly warmed, and then when allowed to stand, solidifies again. He notes that “…since the 14th century, there have been several additional saints’ bloods that liquefy- all in the Naples area, and thus suggestive of some regional secret.” That people would marvel at this “miracle” in 2015 is an amusing but disquieting commentary on how much science education is needed around the world.

It is easy to be amused by the tales I have just recounted. But much harm has been done and is being done by those who take advantage of the credulousness or desperation of people in need. Many people are tricked into parting with their money, but there are worse outcomes than monetary loss. There are people who risk their lives by putting trust in faith healing, either by practitioners or by contact with bogus miraculous objects. Some have died.

It is a known fact that the body often heals naturally. About 60% to 70% of illnesses that are not grave heal on their own. Even cancers and other diseases sometimes go into remission. What seems to be a faith cure is usually a perfectly natural healing. Some people are said to be healed, probably by the placebo effect, and after a time, their affliction returns. But other people with serious illnesses are sometimes encouraged by the alleged success of faith healing. They submit to it and do not get scientific medical attention. It cannot be repeated enough that very sick people risk getting sicker or dying by consulting faith healers. Many cases of death have been reported, often of children whose parents relied on faith healing. “Miracles” that encourage people to think their illnesses will be healed by faith are egregious in the extreme.

It is my hope that as science advances, and people become better educated, the notion of miracles, apparitions and faith healings will cease. None of us can prove miracles do not happen, but as has been pointed out time and again, the secular community does not bear the burden of proof. The burden lies with the theists, faith healers and proponents of integrative medicine who make such claims.

Joe Nickell points out the number of miracles that have been shown to be hoaxes and plainly untrue, makes the probability of any miracle being true very slim. Most of the people in the secular community would agree that there are no miracles. But as long as there are dishonest people and religions which encourage people in such childish fantasies, the talk of miracles will not cease. That is why we must work doubly hard to make sure our young people know and respect the scientific method. We must try to help them develop healthy skepticism. Because people are not merely deceived by frauds, but by their own desires and wish-fulfilling tendencies. When we cease wishing for the impossible, real possibilities will open for the human race, possibilities that are rich and flourishing. We must all do our part to make that day arrive!


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Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

_. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2013.

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