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In Defense of a Subjective Condition on Proving Religious Miracles


1. The Humean Critique of Miracles

2. Humean Religious Significance
3. A Critique of Humean Religious Significance
      3.1 D. Z. Phillips on Religious Miracles
      3.2 Ordinary Religious Miracles: The Moral Test
      3.3 The Philosophical Significance of Ordinary Religious Miracles

The argument for the existence of a religious deity, based on the occurrence of a miracle, runs as follows:

  1. A miracle occurred.
  2. Only a religious deity could have caused the miracle (alternatively: a religious deity is the best explanation of the miracle).
  3. Therefore, a religious deity (probably) exists.

A miracle, in this context, is defined as a violation of the laws of nature. Since this is David Hume’s definition of “miracle,” we can call it the Humean definition of miracle.

The first premise of this argument is grounded in experience of either of two forms. Direct sense experience involves firsthand, eyewitness experience of the event. More common is indirect experience, that is, reports from eyewitnesses that have been passed down. Normally, it is taken as obvious that the soundness of the argument from miracles obligates belief that God exists as well as belief in God. The latter is rarely distinguished from the former, and is thought to follow from the supposition that God exists. The logic, then, is that other things held equal, if God exists, we are obligated to adopt whatever religious precepts and practices that God happens to command (although deciphering what these are may be thought to be a separate matter).

My aim in this essay is to argue that belief in God does not follow from belief that God exists. That is, the soundness of an argument from miracles does not entail religious belief in God, other things held equal. My premise is that belief in God requires a subjective ascription of (strong) religious significance. Without a personal ascription of religious significance, it is impossible to justify the inference from the proposition that “God exists” to the proposition “God ought to be believed in.” In other words, a truly religious miracle is one that not only commands rational assent to certain religious propositions, but one that obligates religious conversion. Arguments in favor of religious conversion, however, are normative in nature. Since arguments from miracles are descriptive (rather than normative) in nature, they are insufficient to obligate religious conversion.

Section 1 discusses David Hume’s case against justified belief in religious miracles. Like Hume, I assume for the sake of argument that Humean miracles can occur and can be known (though see D. K. Johnson [2015] for a compelling argument against the claim that Humean miracles can be known or justifiably believed). Section 2 articulates the tacit conception of epistemic religious significance implicit in Hume’s discussion of certain hypothetical examples of miracles. My aim here is to identify the necessary conditions for establishing a religious miracle, as Hume understands them. Section 3 argues that Hume’s account of epistemic religious significance is inadequate by itself to establish true religious significance—what I call “strong” religious significance. Strong religious significance goes beyond the acknowledgment that a miracle occurred. Indeed, it goes beyond the acknowledgment of a religion-confirming miracle. Strong religious significance obligates religious conversion to a religion and thus goes beyond merely assenting to the truth of certain religious propositions. My argument in section 3 is that a volitional orientation toward a religion is necessary to move that individual from rational assent to religious conversion. This volitional or subjective condition on genuine religious miracles makes it is impossible to objectively establish a miracle so as to be a just foundation for a religion.

1. The Humean Critique of Miracles

I begin with a presentation of David Hume’s critique of miracles. My reasons for starting here are that my normative critique builds upon Hume’s epistemic critique and framework. I endorse Robert Fogelin’s (2003) interpretation of “Of Miracles” in A Defense of Hume on Miracles. Fogelin interprets Hume as laying down two tests for appraising miracle reports. The direct test appraises the quality of the reports and the qualifications of the reporters. Hume identifies several relevant criteria in this regard: consistency of reports, number of reporters, character of reporters, and similar conditions. If all such criteria are flawlessly met, then there is uniform experience of the miracle and the testimony rises to a full proof of the event. Otherwise, we are left with a probability of the event (which may be high or low probability, depending on the quality of the evidence).

The reverse test does not begin with the evidence, but with the intrinsic likelihood of the attested event. On this approach, a putative event is assigned an epistemic status (either it rises to the level of uniform experience or it does not) prior to examining the evidence on its behalf. Philosophers discuss this under the jargon of “prior probability.” Prior to examining the evidence for an event, the event is assigned a probability based on how likely or unlikely it is given past experience. An event that has proven exceedingly common in the past is assigned a prior probability proportionate to this high probability; an event that has proven to be rare in the past is assigned a prior probability proportionate to this low probability; and so on. The reverse test applies to events generally, not just miracles. For example, Fogelin asks us to consider a report of former president George W. Bush walking a tightrope. The event falls short of a miracle, for tightrope walking has occurred in the past, albeit rarely. That is, the event, though rare, occasionally occurs in experience and so does not transgress a law of nature. Still, the event is “marvelous”—an uncommon experience—that carries a low prior probability. Its low prior probability explains why most people would be initially skeptical of the testimony, independent of further evidence. An event is miraculous (rather than marvelous) if it has never been experienced in the past; that is, if it contravenes a law of nature. In such a case, the prior probability of the event is low and negligible, which, on Hume’s terminology, means that we have a full proof of its nonoccurrence, for reasons that I now explain.

Why are we justified in believing that an event with the lowest possible prior probability is disproven? How can we disprove an event without yet having examined the evidence on its behalf? Hume believes the second method (the reverse test) yields a “proof” against a putative miracle, because he defines a miracle as an event that contravenes a law of nature. A law of nature is grounded in extensive, uniform experience of the conjunction of events. A law of nature is a regularity. For instance, it is a law of nature that people do not stand on water, for this assertion is backed by the whole of past experience, which establishes the constant conjunction of two events: (a) an individual’s feet making contact with water and (b) an individual’s feet being submerged in water. In my experience, whenever event (a) has occurred, event (b) has always followed. Hume calls such events “regularities.” If the conjunction of events (a) and (b) is a regularity, then I have never seen event (a) followed by, for example, event (c), or an individual’s feet standing on the water with no additional support. In other words, I have a full proof, from past experience, that “People do not walk on water” is both true and a law of nature. The evidence that proves to me that this is a regularity thereby proves to me that any claim that contradicts this proposition is false. So we have a full proof from the reverse test (from the regularity of experience) that the miracle report is false.

Does it follow that miracles can be dismissed a priori (i.e., without consideration of the evidence)? For Hume the answer is no. For the reverse test is only one of two ways of establishing a proposition. A miracle might be established via Hume’s second test, which Fogelin calls the direct test. The direct test is exactly what it sounds like: it is a direct examination of all of the available evidence on behalf of a miracle. If the testimony reports attesting to the miracle are sufficiently extensive and uniform, then we have a proof of the miracle. In that case, says Hume, we come up against a puzzle: we must decide whether to side with the proof that we have of the miracle (based on the direct test) or with the proof that we have against the miracle (based on the reverse test). At the end of part 1, Hume provides a maxim for resolving the puzzle (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 174), which he later glosses thus: “When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 184). Fogelin helpfully explains Hume’s resolution: “A proof on a par in strength with its counterproof yields no more than a draw. A direct proof stronger than the reverse counterproof will still be diminished in strength by the counterproof it surpasses. What is needed—to put it metaphorically—is a direct proof that outdistances the reverse counterproof by the full length of a proof” (2003, pp. 15-16). The aim of part 2 of Hume’s “Of Miracles” is to argue that no alleged miracle has ever passed the direct test; that is, no alleged miracle has ever been supported by testimonial evidence that rises to the level of a proof.

Hume provides four empirical considerations in support of his claim that the direct test has never been passed: (1) as a matter of historical fact, no testimony on behalf of a miracle has been very extensive and uniform; (2) humans are psychologically prone to believe marvelous and surprising claims, and this tendency can overpower good sense; (3) miracles are observed chiefly among “ignorant and barbarous nations” (Hume’s unfortunate terms)—i.e., miracle reports originate in societies that are susceptible to the epistemic vices of gullibility, dogmatism, and uncritical deference to authority; (4) miracles often aspire to establish the truth of one religion over all others; when miracle reports that confirm a religion are incompatible with miracle reports that confirm a rival religion, we have good reason to doubt the reports on both sides.

2. Humean Religious Significance

Hume’s critique of miracles is epistemological rather than metaphysical. His claim is that no religious miracle can be established so as to provide a just foundation for a religious system. For this reason, the more accurate definition of “miracle,” he says, is one that he provides in a footnote: “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 173). I will call this second definition the Humean definition of “religious miracle”—or Humean religious miracle, for short. This account posits two necessary and sufficient conditions for a religious miracle: (1) a violation of the laws of nature (2) that is caused by a religious deity or invisible agent acting on behalf of a religious deity. In “Of Miracles,” Hume uses the term “religious miracle” only twice. Both times, he invokes it to argue that religious miracles are highly improbable. In one such occurrence, Hume draws a rather striking conclusion: “As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered” [emphasis mine] (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 185). It seems Hume is suggesting that we can dismiss claims to a religious miracle “out of hand”—that is, without consideration of the evidence. Is Hume simply prejudicial against religious miracles, as some have alleged? To answer this question we must examine how Hume arrived at this conclusion.

The Humean definition of a religious miracle implies a distinction between religious and nonreligious miracles. A nonreligious miracle is a violation of a law of nature whose cause is a natural being or event. Hume provides a helpful example, his so-called eight-day miracle. He imagines the Earth falling into darkness for eight consecutive days. Years later, he says, the individuals who witnessed the event are still alive, their reports of the event are very extensive (for they are drawn from witnesses all over the world), and their testimony is uniform (i.e., cross-consistent). In this instance, says Hume, it would be prudent to “search for the causes whence it might be derived” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 184). His rationale is that nature decays—this being a fact of experience; furthermore, anomalous events sometimes (albeit rarely) occur in experience. Hence, “the tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 184).

Hume immediately contrasts the eight-day miracle with two iterations of a different kind of miracle. Both iterations involve Queen Elizabeth dying and then rising from the dead. Further, on both iterations, the event is attested by extensive, uniform experience, no less so and no less astonishing than what we have in the case of the eight-day miracle. Hume offers his assessment of the putative miracle:

I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be, real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgement of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature. (Hume, 1748/1999, pp. 184-185.)

The claim that Queen Elizabeth rose from the dead is thus rejected. The second iteration of the Queen Elizabeth miracle is essentially the same as the first, with this difference: the miracle is offered as justification for a new system of religion. In this instance, Hume says that he would be certain that the miracle was a “cheat,” by which he means that the event was staged, deliberately contrived. It is here that Hume lays down his “general resolution,” quoted above, which he reiterates in these harsh words: “this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 185).

Why does Hume provide two iterations of the Queen Elizabeth miracle, what explains his immediate rejection of both iterations, and how do these miracles relate to the eight-day miracle? I propose that Hume rejects both iterations of the Queen Elizabeth miracle because the event, if accepted as veridical, confirms a system of religion. This might not seem obvious on the first iteration. For the Queen does not make political use of the miracle. Nor are people within the Queen’s circles or regime seeking to establish a system of religion on the basis of the miracle. Nevertheless, it is evident from the religious context of the event that the Queen’s rising from the dead has religious significance. The Queen was a Protestant Christian. In England at the time of her reign both the political and religious authority of the state were inextricably intertwined, as kings and queens were widely held to be divinely appointed by God. For this reason, a rational person with this background knowledge would take the Queen’s rising from the dead to be a religious sign, as confirmation of the Protestant God’s favor upon her as an inspired figure, and upon England as a nation that stands upright with God; a fortiori, the miracle would be evidence of God’s existence. This religious context, for Hume, renders reports of the event unreliable. Reporters on the first iteration may be gullible and easily deceived; indeed, they have an interest in lying regardless of whether or not they succumb to this interest. For witnesses and other reporters of the event may be inclined or susceptible to believe the occurrence of the event without critically assessing the evidence. There is more than one psychological reason for this: because of their inclination toward the marvelous, because of their potential desire to see Christianity confirmed, because of the political significance of the event, and so on.

None of this baggage is built into the eight-day miracle. Hence, the fact that the Queen herself may sincerely believe that she died and resurrected is irrelevant. Because the event transpires within a religious society, the religious context alone—no ascription of religious significance required—is sufficient for conferring religious significance. Similarly, a religious ascription on the part of the historians (on the first iteration) is unnecessary, because an inference of religious significance follows from the event in conjunction with a proper understanding of the relevant background information. (The same goes for the political significance of the event—no ascription is required.) In short, the religious and political context of the Queen Elizabeth miracle creates the potential for biased reporting at both conscious and unconscious levels, thereby tainting the reliability of the reports. Taking the historical unreliability of religious testimony into account on the reverse test, the improbability of the event outstrips the uniform and very extensive testimony on behalf of the Queen Elizabeth miracle, rendering it improbable in the final analysis. Moreover, it is the religious/political significance of the Queen Elizabeth miracle that distinguishes it from the eight-day miracle.

The question that I now ask is this: What confers religious significance to a Humean miracle? I begin by distinguishing between ontic and epistemic religious significance. Ontically, the event must be caused by the appropriate religious deity for a religious purpose. Epistemically, an individual must know the religious purpose of an event for it to be religiously significant for her. This implies that the event must have a religious purpose in the first place. To establish a miracle so as to be the foundation for a system of religion, it is not sufficient that the miracle be ontically religiously significant; it must be epistemically religiously significant, too. Consider Hume’s example. A religious deity might slightly alter the movement of a suspended feather, such that the feather’s altered movement is indistinguishable from what it would have been had it not been altered by the deity. The event consisting of the altered feather’s movement is ontically religiously significant because it is caused by God; however, the event is not epistemically religiously significant because the divine agency exhibited in the feather’s altered movement is undetectable to human beings. Consequently, human beings are not justified in believing that a miracle occurred. This example demonstrates that justified belief in a religious miracle requires both ontic and epistemic religious significance.

Although Hume does not explicitly develop an account of epistemic religious significance, it is clear from what has been said above that his analysis requires such an account. A Humean miracle is epistemically religiously significant if a subject knows (a) the religious identity of the agent that caused the Humean miracle and (b) the religious purpose of the event. Hume’s tacit account of epistemic religious significance may be described as a contextualist view. A subject S is rationally in a position to ascribe religious significance to a miracle M if and only if (i) S understands that M has a supernatural cause G, in conjunction with an understanding about the religious identity of G. For S to understand the religious identity of G, it must be the case that (ii) S has background beliefs about the religious tradition to which G belongs, including theological knowledge, such that S understands G’s religious role at the moment of acting. To understand the religious role of G, however, it must be the case that (iii) S understands the religious goal of M (i.e., the reason why G performed the act). These conditions may be summed up thus:

  1. the belief that a religious deity caused the event
  2. background beliefs about the relevant religious tradition of the deity
  3. a belief about the religious purpose or function of the event

Summing them up further: S is justified in ascribing religious significance to a miracle just in case S is able to fully understand the miracle within the context of the relevant religious tradition. Of course, conditions (i)-(iii) do not guarantee that a miracle occurred, for the conditions are epistemic: that is, these conditions pertain to what an agent believes, but, of course, what an agent believes may be false. For example, condition (i) might obtain, yet one’s belief that an event was caused by a religious deity may be false. Thus Hume’s account of religious significance does not provide necessary and sufficient for the occurrence or existence of a religious miracle. Rather, given that a Humean miracle occurs, Hume’s contextualist analysis provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for conferring religious significance on to the event. In other words, these conditions justify the move from the conclusion that a Humean miracle occurred to the conclusion that a Humean religious miracle occurred.

To get a sense as to how Hume’s contextualist view of epistemic religious significance works, let us suppose that a religious miracle has occurred. Suppose that S is a witness to the Queen Elizabeth miracle. Suppose that S satisfies all three of Hume’s epistemic conditions. S is a devout Jew, however, and therefore concludes that the miracle lacks religious significance. Such an individual, according to Hume, is irrational. Hume’s contextualist view of religious significance does not psychologically compel a subject, such as S, to ascribe religious significance to the event (whether verbally or mentally). What Hume’s account suggests is that a rational person that satisfies all three conditions would draw the inference that a religious miracle occurred. If S concludes anything other than that a religious miracle occurred—for example, that a miracle occurred, but that it was not caused by God but by the Devil, or if S concludes that the miracle itself was fake (or a “cheat,” to use Hume’s term)—then S draws the wrong inference relative to S’s epistemic beliefs and is, therefore, irrational. (Of course, it might be the case that more than one interpretation of the facts is possible. For instance, the evidence might allow one to justly attribute the miracle to the Devil rather than to God. I am assuming, for purposes of the example, that no such ambiguity exists.)

Why does Hume’s account of epistemic religious significance matter? Humean religious significance matters because it suggests that religious significance and evidential significance are tightly connected. Hume’s epistemic conditions imply that understanding the religious significance of a miracle is essential to a successful argument for a religious system. Those wishing to justify religious claims on the premise that a miracle occurred must be able to explain its religious significance. This is an epistemic constraint. To know that a religious miracle occurred, to properly call a Humean miracle religious, one must have the requisite beliefs to apprehend it as such. Without the requisite knowledge, one might know that a Humean miracle occurred without knowing that a Humean religious miracle occurred. If the goal of a Humean miracle is religious—say, to convert a nonreligious individual to a religious tradition—then Hume’s epistemological conditions are essential. Failing to satisfy them renders the Humean miracle a “failed miracle.” The failure, of course, is epistemological (evidential) rather than ontological. A miracle that fails to satisfy Hume’s account of religious significance does not fail to occur, but fails to provide a religious justification for the subject.

3. A Critique of Humean Religious Significance

Hume’s argument against religious miracles presupposes that a religious miracle is one that rationally obligates religious belief relative to a context. Unfortunately, most philosophical discussions about Hume’s critique of miracles tend to ignore Hume’s sensitivity to context. One reason for this, of course, is that Hume’s contextualism (his theory of epistemic religious significance) is implicit rather than explicit in his argument. Another reason is that most philosophers have been interested in Hume’s overall epistemic framework. For example, philosophers have been interested to know whether Hume offers an a priori critique of miracles, whether Hume’s maxim at the end of part I is consistent with other parts of Hume’s essay, and so on (Earman, 2000; D. Johnson, 1999).

As mentioned above, my reading of “Of Miracles” is that Hume allows that a miracle might be proved through the direct method (provided that it surpasses the proof of the law of nature it contravenes by the length of a proof). My aim here, however, is to consider Hume’s contextualist constraints on Humean religious miracles. As argued above, knowledge of the religious context and nature of the causal agent is essential to a successful argument from miracles. My argument, in this section, is that Hume’s account of religious significance is inadequate as it stands. To render his account adequate, it is necessary to include a subjective condition that takes us beyond the epistemic framework provided in part I and the epistemological conditions that Hume presupposes in his analysis of certain examples in part II.

Above I argued that a Humean religious miracle requires an understanding of factual considerations of two kinds—facts about the occurrence of a miracle and facts about the religious nature and cause of the miracle. My critique in this section is that, in addition to these two considerations, a genuine proof of a religious miracle requires engagement with the will of the agent. I present an argument to this end. My argument is inspired by D. Z. Phillips’ discussion of the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1967) and Rush Rhees (1997).

We can begin by distinguishing two kinds of religious ascriptions: factual and normative. A factual ascription is an ascription of knowledge of a matter of fact. A normative ascription is an endorsement or evaluative judgment about a matter of fact. A person who believes that God exists may or may not be a devout follower of God. The individual may or may not be normatively committed to the corresponding system of religion. Of course, most people who believe that God exists also take themselves to be devotees of the deity. Still, a distinction here is possible. To capture this distinction, I will reserve the locution “belief that God exists” to denote factual belief in the existence of God, and “belief in God” to denote normative endorsement of God’s religious authority and purposes. These are not the same thing. For to believe that God exists is to believe that a deity (a special kind of supernatural agent) exists with the understanding that this being belongs to a particular religious tradition. By contrast, to believe in God is not just to believe that a particular supernatural being exists, but to acknowledge its power as morally authoritative and its religious character as worthy of one’s praise, fellowship, deference, worship, and the like.

Hume’s contextualism (again, his theory of epistemic religious significance) assumes that the satisfaction of his three epistemic conditions is sufficient to justify religious belief. His assumptions here can be expressed as follows:

  • Rational Assent: If a subject S justly believes that a Humean miracle M has occurred and that M satisfies all three of Hume’s epistemic conditions of religious significance, then S is rationally committed to believing that M confirms system of religion R and that M serves as a just foundation for R.
  • Religious Conversion: If S is rationally committed to believing that M confirms system of religion R and that M serves as a just foundation for R, then S is rationally obligated to: (a) believing in the religious deity D that belongs to R; and (b) adhering to all of D’s religious commands.

I find this distinction helpful in disambiguating two uses of the expression “(epistemic) religious significance.” In philosophical contexts, religious significance tends to be understood narrowly in terms of rational assent to certain propositions. However, in a religious context, rational assent to certain propositions is not enough; an argument that compels rational assent to certain propositions, but falls short of obligating religious conversion, is inadequate.

Hence, in this section I take issue with Hume’s tacit assumption that rational assent to certain religious propositions entails an obligation to religious conversion. That is, I argue that Hume’s contextualist view of religious significance fails to justify obligations (a) and (b). For it is plausible to hold that a subject might be justified in ascribing Humean religious significance to an event and yet not be obligated to believing “in” the religious deity and adhering to its commands. The fact that a miracle occurred, and that it provides a just foundation for believing that a religious deity intervened in the course of nature, is not a sufficient reason for believing in the deity, its religious mission, or its religious conduct. My thesis can be expressed thus: Hume’s contextualist view is too weak an account of epistemic religious significance, so what is needed is a stronger account. An account of epistemic religious significance is strong only if it rationally obligates a subject to adopt the religious orientation expressed in (a) and (b).

3.1 D. Z. Phillips on Religious Miracles

Once we have properly distinguished between rational assent and religious conversion, room is created to argue for the following contention. No argument from miracles can ever justify a miracle so as to be a just foundation for a system of religion, because no argument from miracles can ever justify religious conversion by itself. At best, an argument from miracles might justify a miracle so as to justify rational assent to various religious propositions—such as “God caused the miracle,” “The God of Christianity exists,” and so on (though this might be questioned, too—see, for example, D. K. Johnson, 2015). Of course, rational assent is an important stepping stone toward religious conversion. My point, however, is that rational assent to religious propositions alone is incapable of justifying religious conversion. We may call this the volitional objection to Hume’s argument against rational belief in miracles.

Surprisingly few commentators have advanced this basic criticism against Hume’s argument. One glaring exception is the Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips. In The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, Phillips writes: “In the case of certain miracles, it is a necessary condition of so regarding them, that no causal explanation of them has been found. But although that is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition” (2005, p. 15). The principal questions that Phillips is interested in are these:

  1. What counts as a miracle in everyday religious discourse?
  2. Does Hume’s account of a miracle accommodate standard religious usage of this term?
  3. If not, how does the incongruity between Hume’s philosophical usage and standard religious usage of “miracle” impact his case against religious miracles?

Phillips answers question one with a crude (incomplete) but helpful definition: “To be a miracle, the event must reveal something about God” (2005, p. 15). He argues for this definition by means of an example taken from John Perry. Perry asks us to suppose that an individual witnesses the gentle rising and setting back of the Rock of Gibraltar “for no apparent reason” (1999, p. 39). Phillips comments that by “no apparent reason”:

[Perry] means that no causal explanation has been found for it rising. He does not mean that God has done it for no apparent reason, but for all he says about the religious significance of the miracle, Perry’s character could be read in this way. He has no idea what it means to attribute the miracle to God. But, then, how does he know he is describing a miracle? Apparently, because he thinks it makes sense to do so. But what sense is that? Where does Perry’s character get it from? Certainly, not from religion. (Phillips, 2005, p. 15)

Phillips’ point is well taken. His point is that unless Perry’s miracle “reveals something about God,” it cannot be properly called a miracle in a religious sense of the term. Phillips, however, does not explain what it means for a miracle to “reveal” something about God. He does not explain what it means to see the religious point of a miracle. Consider a Humean way of understanding these religious notions. The lesson that Hume might draw from Phillips’ argument is the following principle: a religious miracle requires a religious context. That is, a religious miracle “reveals something about God” if and only if a subject understands that the cause of the event is a religious being (hence, the individual has the requisite background beliefs about the religious tradition and the like). For without the relevant religious knowledge, the individual would find herself in a position similar to that of one who knows of the Queen Elizabeth miracle but lacks the relevant knowledge to identify the religious cause of the event. Such an individual is at a loss to attribute the miracle to a religious deity, for she cannot understand the event within its religious context.

This, however, is not what Phillips means by “seeing” the religious point of the miracle. What Phillips is trying to get at is not adequately brought out by the John Perry example. For what Phillips wants is to introduce a normative constraint on epistemic religious significance. Recall that, for Phillips, a religious miracle must “reveal” something about God to the subject. What is “revealed” to the subject is not a novel piece of information. Rather, what is revealed is something that takes us beyond the realm of facts, into the realm of volition. What a miracle reveals is the dawning of a novel perspective on life. The revelation, in other words, amounts to an attitude of acceptance or endorsement of the religious purpose of the miracle. In this way, to call something a miracle is to express one’s commitment to a religious form of life. Is Phillips correct that this normative component is normally expressed in the ordinary use of “miracle,” within religious contexts of application?

Phillips’ position seems plausible. Natural births, for example, are occasionally called miracles by religious persons, for they are seen as blessings and gifts of the deity. Of course, they are not miracles in Hume’s ontic sense of the term, since they do not involve a violation of the laws of nature. But they are miracles as understood by many religious persons. This religious use of the term “miracle” straightforwardly tracks two out of three of Hume’s epistemic conditions of religious significance. For a miracle to reveal something about God, a subject must have (ii) the requisite background beliefs about the religious tradition of the deity, and (iii) a belief about the religious purpose or function of the event. One who subscribes to the Humean conception of epistemic religious significance might object that a natural event, such as a natural birth, is an event that results solely as a function of natural processes. Hence, since the event is not caused by God, it is impossible for a subject to satisfy condition (i); that is, one cannot know that the religious deity caused the natural birth. To get around this objection, the religious person might posit that a religious deity orchestrated the system of nature so that it would naturally produce the outcome that the religious deity intended. This reply is arguably inadequate, for how does one know this independent of evidence? The point I wish to emphasize, however, is that this particular understanding of religious miracles exists and that it does not necessarily require a violation of the laws of nature.

This example underscores two important points about the ordinary religious use of “miracle.” First, while natural miracles are thought to be religiously significant, they are rarely thought to be evidentially efficacious. Most (rational) theists do not think that establishing natural births ought rationally to persuade atheists to believe in God, because most theists understand that the birth of a child provides no evidence of the existence of God. Theists know just as well as atheists do that child births are caused by natural processes. Yet theists sometimes ascribe religious significance to natural births, despite their evidential inefficaciousness. Hence, in these instances, the religious significance of a natural miracle seems to be logically independent of its evidential significance.

Second, the etiology of a miracle is not sufficient to explain its religious significance. Having a supernatural origin cannot be a sufficient condition of the religious significance of certain miracles. For natural births may be religiously significant even though they are naturalistically explicable. What, then, confers religious significance on to a natural birth? For Phillips, the answer seems to lie in the expressive use of “miracle.” The believer uses this term to express her religious commitment to a religious outlook on life. Further, this seems true for all miracles, regardless of whether they are (conceived of as) natural or supernatural events. This analysis is relevant to our second question. The believer seems to be a partial determiner of religious significance, insofar as her ascription reflects a volitional state that consists in conferring normative significance on to the event. Thus, we have some reason to concur with Phillips that religious significance is determined in part by essentially personal ascriptions. That is, we have reason to endorse his volitional constraint on religious miracles.

3.2 Ordinary Religious Miracles: The Moral Test

Regarding question two, Hume’s definition of “religious miracle” fails to accommodate ordinary usage of the term. To see this, I will more precisely render Phillips’ distinction between natural and supernatural miracles. I introduce the term ordinary religious miracle (ORM) to denote an event that is called a miracle by a believer to ascribe normative religious significance to the event. Given that the term “miracle” applies to both natural and supernatural events, we may distinguish two kinds: natural ORMs and supernatural ORMs. According to Hume, “Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course of nature” (Hume, 1748/1999, p. 173). This is false. Natural ORMs are naturally caused events that are called miracles to ascribe normative religious significance to them. Natural births, as we have seen, are called miracles, for they are seen as blessings and gifts of the deity. By contrast, supernatural ORMs are Humean miracles (events that involve a violation of the laws of nature by a supernatural agent) that are ascribed normative religious significance by the subject. The resurrection of a dead man, for example, may be an ORM if it has normative religious significance for an individual.

ORMs capture the grammatical category of “religious miracle.” That is, natural and supernatural ORMs seem to accommodate the full extension of what believers normally call a “miracle” within a religious context of use. For the extension of the grammatical category “ORM” covers any and every event that is ascribed normative religious significance. Yet, the extension of ORM is wider than the extension of “Humean religious miracle,” which fails to accommodate natural ORMs. At the same time, the extension of ORM is narrower than the extension of “Humean religious miracle.” For Hume’s category accommodates Humean miracles that are caused by religious beings, even when those beings are not ascribed normative religious significance by a subject.

Imagine, for example, that the Christian God simultaneously appears to all Muslims throughout the world. He explains to them that he is tired of their worshiping the wrong deity. He demands that every last Muslim bow their knee and every last Muslim tongue confess that he is the one and only true God. They have 72 hours to make their decision. Failing to heed this warning will have dire consequences. To demonstrate the credibility of his threat, God performs several nonviolent miracles, such as turning water to wine, making lightning strike on command, etc. In the end, those who refuse God’s message are annihilated, on the spot, one by one. The question is this: Should Muslims awaiting their demise accept the Christian God’s message? Should they convert to Christianity given this credible threat? Let us consider the reaction of two Muslims, both of whom refuse to accept God’s command and, as a result, meet their deadly demise.

The first reaction is of a Muslim who stubbornly refuses to believe what he observes. He denies the “miraculous” slaughtering of Muslims as it takes place before his eyes and denies the existence of the being that is causing it. He closes his eyes and says to himself: “It is more likely that I am going mad than that the Christian God exists.” In this example one wants to say that the stubborn Muslim’s denial and refusal to “accept the facts” renders his reaction irrational. He faces an epistemic gap—one that is facilitated by epistemic vices or attitudes. Rectifying his irrational attitude would have to involve his somehow overcoming these vices. The Muslim is irrational because his doubt is rooted in epistemic considerations that militate against his attitude. He satisfies Hume’s contextualist criteria of epistemic religious significance. He is a direct witness to God’s credible miracles, including the murdering of other Muslims, and he has the relevant background knowledge to comprehend the event’s evidential significance. Given this knowledge, the Muslim is in a position to infer that the God of Christianity exists and is causally responsible for the event. He is thus irrational for flouting his epistemic obligation.

This reaction brings us back to the question: Should every last Muslim (or anybody else) convert to Christianity if it turns out that the Christian God exists? Arguably, there is more to consider here besides the supposition that the Christian God exists. We must consider whether the Christian God is worthy of respect, praise, worship, and honor. Consider, for instance, a different Muslim’s reaction to God’s credible threat. Suppose that a Muslim’s moral commitments precludes her conversion to Christianity. Upon witnessing God’s repeated miracles, she begrudgingly acknowledges the Christian God’s existence. As a result, she revokes her belief in the Islamic God. However, she refuses to accept the Christian God’s religious authority, including the message of Christian salvation. Her rationale is that ascribing religious significance to this Humean miracle amounts to endorsing it as good. For it ought to be good that God’s will be done. Embracing the religious purpose of the Christian miracle amounts to endorsing God’s conduct. One does not have to be a Muslim to appreciate the moral dilemma that she is in or the courage that it would take to refuse God’s ultimatum. Surely, many of us, including many atheists, would find God’s conduct morally reprehensible. To say that one is irrational for not embracing a “deity” that could murder an entire group of people for disbelief is to express a normative judgment that goes beyond the issue of meeting one’s epistemic duties.

The refusal to provide a positive religious response to the Christian God’s ultimatum strikes me as reasonable, regardless of whether the individual is a Muslim, atheist, or anybody else who finds the deity’s conduct morally outrageous (even a Christian!). To be sure, one might object to my moral argument for refusing to believe in the Christian God. For instance, one might think that God would surely have a good reason for killing every last Muslim if he were to issue such an ultimatum. But what might a justifiable reason in this case look like? Fortunately, we don’t need to settle this question here. My point is simply that a moral argument is necessary to settle the matter, one way or the other. For the fact (if there is one) about whether one should believe in God is not one that is determined by the mere fact that God exists. A proper defense of Muslim-to-Christian conversion, in this instance, must go beyond the fact of a Humean religious miracle. This transition is not to be equated with a different and purely epistemic transition, from disbelieving-that-God-exists to believing-that-God-exists. A compelling moral argument for conversion is necessary for the believing-that-God-exists to be religious believing.

My point is that normative considerations must be introduced to justify the religious gloss. This moves the issue beyond the domain of epistemic facts. After all, the Muslim (or atheist’s) resistance to conversion presupposes the epistemic acceptance of all of the pertinent facts. Her resistance is a direct response to the evidence. It is because she has seen God’s moral face that she concludes: “This ‘deity’—despite whatever anyone may call it—is a horrific monster, a self-serving and unjust tyrant.” The fact that God causes a Humean miracle does not entail an epistemic obligation to believe in God. Settling the question of the cause of the Humean religious miracle does not tell us whether the supernatural agent is worthy of worship, respect, and so on. Normative considerations must be introduced to settle the matter.

This example illustrates that for many ethically minded persons, the Christian God’s Humean miracle is no more an ORM than the natural birth of a child. That many religious believers consider natural births to be religious miracles shows that a law violation is not a necessary condition of religious significance. That some supernaturally caused violations of the laws of nature are not considered religious miracles shows that a law violation is not a sufficient condition of religious significance, for not all law violations are religiously significant to a subject. Therefore, Hume’s account of miracle fails to be coextensive with the grammatical category of “miracle” that applies to religious contexts of use.

3.3 The Philosophical Significance of Ordinary Religious Miracles

Regarding question three, I argue that the incongruity of Hume’s usage of “religious miracle” with standard religious usage of this term is philosophically significant. Phillips discusses the incongruity in terms of philosophical attempts to extend the grammar of religious terms—such as the terms “God,” “omnipotence,” and “miracle”—beyond their religious usage. He argues that grammatical extensions or modifications often render religious vocabulary meaningless or evidentially insignificant. The important claim, for me, is not his claim about meaning, but about evidential significance. If the philosopher’s novel/revisionist usage of “miracle” modifies the term’s meaning within the religious context, then this usage illicitly sidesteps the issue of evidential significance within that context.

Proving or establishing a Humean miracle, in a general manner, as a just foundation for a system of religion requires that the miracle necessarily have religious significance for every subject. However, we have seen that a rationally compelling argument for a religious miracle must satisfy Phillips’ volitional condition for ORMs. Unfortunately, no amount of evidence is sufficient to satisfy the volitional condition for ORMs, for the volitional condition is not an objective condition, but a subjective condition (i.e., it depends on the will of the subject). Consequently, there can be no such thing as “proving” a religious miracle if this term conveys an objective foundation that commands the assent of all rational individuals familiar with the relevant facts.

To conclude, it is possible to believe that God exists without believing in God. The temptation to equate the two comes near close to blasphemy in my hypothetical situation. For no Christian would say of the Muslim who rebukes God’s murderous conduct that she has “seen and believed.” Perhaps one might call God’s murdering of every last Muslim a “miracle” and mean by this a mere string of facts—that a Humean miracle occurred, that it had a describable supernatural cause, and so on. In that case, we are still faced with the existential question of what if anything calling it “religious” means for our lives. If God exists, what is the appropriate response? Should one commit to a religious form of life that involves following and/or worshiping the God who murdered every last Muslim? A religious sensibility may be crucially vacant here, and it is partly a nonepistemic matter whether this sensibility is rational or not. For those with a certain ethical sensibility, the absence of a favorable judgment on behalf of the Christian God in the mind of the Muslim or the atheist seems rational.


Hume’s ontic and epistemic constraints on Humean miracles are helpful in ruling out certain irrational responses. However, the problem with Hume’s philosophical understanding of the terms “miracle” and “religious miracle” is that it is purely descriptive. A Humean religious miracle entails supernatural causation and preserves material and conceptual links to a religious tradition. Certainly, this analysis captures part of what constitutes many ORMs. The thing about ORMs, however, is that they require that an event be a religious event for a subject. Hence, the subject must have a normative religious sensibility that entails a personal religious ascription. Phillips was correct to maintain that the category of ORM entails an ineliminable subjective component whichthat is essential to a religious miracle. Consequently, epistemic considerations are limited in their ability to establish that one ought to believe in a religious deity just in case that deity is the cause of a Humean religious miracle. My argument allows for the possibility of a rational foundation for a system of religion, though not one that is epistemically independent of the volitional states of the agent. The subjective nature of this rational foundation implies that nonepistemic considerations of a normative/volitional nature are necessary—hence, the argument cannot generalize beyond the subject.

Generalizing from my analysis of religious significance, no argument for the existence of God by itself can establish the religious significance of an event—not a violation of the laws of nature, nor yet an acknowledgment that a religious deity caused the event. Belief in God arguably presupposes factual belief in the existence of a supernatural entity. Yet, this is not sufficient. For believing in God is partly a matter of the will. This does not mean that evidential considerations are irrelevant to religious faith. Rather, this means that a subjective religious ascription is essential to religious faith. In the case of a miracle, the subject must “see” the religious point of the miracle, which consists in conferring religious significance to the event. Instead of arguing that a religious miracle cannot be proved so as to be a just foundation of a system of religion, Hume might have argued that proving a Humean religious miracle is not yet sufficient for providing a just foundation for a system of religion. Hume offers one set of tests for rejecting religious miracles—his direct and reverse tests. What I see myself offering is a subjective criterion for challenging the possibility of “objectively proving” a miracle so as to be the foundation for a system of religion. This challenge may be defeated by a normative argument in favor of religious conversion. Taken in conjunction with a proof of a Humean religious miracle, such an argument could objectively establish a truly religious miracle. Such a task is one that befalls the proselytizing theist.[1]


[1] This paper modifies the argument and position that I defended in “The Religious Significance of Miracles: Why Hume’s Critique of Miracles is Superfluous” (Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 2020-21, pp. 145-166). One reason for revisiting this topic is that I have changed my mind on some substantive points. Another reason is that the original paper was published without my receiving and editing the proofs of that paper. Even had I edited the proofs, however, some mistakes would have likely remained. I hope to have overcome most such mistakes in this paper, for I have had about a year to reflect on and modify my original position.


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