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Standards of Evidence for Religion

by Jeff Lewis

I've often written that I could be convinced of a religion given enough evidence. I suppose it would be fair to discuss just what that evidence would be.

Basically, anything that could be defined as truly miraculous would count as evidence toward a god. This includes fulfilled prophecies, occurrences that are counter to the laws of nature, direct manifestation of the divine, a scripture that contained knowledge that couldn't have been known at the time it was written, etc [1].

However, there are many caveats. First, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing (as Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.") For example, consider the case of Prahlad Jani [2]. He's an Indian yogi who claims that he's gone 70 years without eating or drinking. A doctor has even performed some tests, observing Jani for 9 days in a hospital, supposedly without food or water, thereby confirming the claims. Unfortunately, the tests are questionable. The doctor didn't use the best methodology, and he wouldn't let another investigator who had experience exposing frauds be involved in the study. From the best information that outsiders have been able to gather, it appears that Jani’s just a normal person, who had been eating normally up until his time in the hospital, and then began suffering from the effects of dehydration and starvation while he was there.

As another example, consider Ram Bahadur Bamjan [3], who some claim is the reincarnation of the Buddha, and who others claim (since according to Buddhism, the Buddha has already achieved nirvana) is a Bodhisattva. Bamjan has supposedly sat under a tree meditating for months on end, with no food or water. However, there's no good evidence to back the claims up. There was even a screen put in front of him every night, hiding his actions. When the Discovery Channel sent a film crew to make a documentary, they couldn't detect his heat with an infrared camera the first night they tried (makes you wonder if he'd been leaving every night all along). On a second attempt, they did observe him to go without food for 96 hours, but while four days of fasting is a feat, it’s hardly miraculous.

So, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing. It can't be merely hearsay.

As another caveat, the miracle really should be something that's unexplainable by natural processes. This rules out those events that fall into the realm of unlikely, but not impossible. While my chances of winning the lottery may be a million to one, somebody still manages to win every week. In other words, given enough opportunities, unlikely events will inevitably happen to someone. I think one of my favorite examples of such an unlikely event is a pickup truck that nearly went over a cliff in Utah, but ended up landing on a small ledge just to the side of the road. You can see the pictures and read about it on Snopes [4]. Unfortunately, vehicles fall off cliffs all the time. So, as lucky as it may have been for the driver of that pickup to land where they did, it was just the odds playing out. If, say, vehicles with Jews never went over cliffs, while vehicles with non-Jews went over regularly, then there might be something to God protecting his chosen people. But in reality, religious affiliation has no effect on your chances of death by precipitous plunge.

Another example comes from Our Lady of Velankanni Church in Mumbai [5]. The church had a crucifix where water dripped from the feet of Jesus on the cross. People took the dripping water to be a miracle from God, and collected the holy water to cure their ailments, sanctify their homes, or whatever else it is that people do with such things. When a skeptic, Sanal Edamaruku, investigated the statue a few weeks after the miracle was discovered, he found that it was caused by a clogged drainage pipe and some capillary action transporting the water. (This incident also reveals a darker side of organized religions. For his ‘crime’ of exposing this miracle, the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay filed charges against Edamaruku under India’s version of blasphemy laws, and Edamaruku was forced to flee the country.)

Other, stranger seeming 'miracles', can also be explained naturally. Speaking in tongues [6], or glossolalia, appears very strange - speakers making vocalizations that they're convinced are other languages. However, as it's been studied, it's been learned that the speakers are using sounds that they're already familiar with from their own language (e.g. a native English speaker won't make the guttural vocalizations of German or French). Further, to quote the Wikipedia article, "where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech." This certainly makes it appear that it's a learned behavior. I doubt that the speakers are intentionally lying, but I also doubt that they're doing anything more than making interesting noises.

Faith healing [7] is an example that requires both above caveats. First, I'd need to see some strong evidence that a person was actually healed (and that the supposed event wasn't a fraud). Of the many examples of people who think they've been healed, most can probably be chalked up to self-hypnosis or the placebo effect. A person gets caught up in the moment, and subjective symptoms are reduced. There are probably also cases where a person does get better after visiting the healer, but most of those are likely to be coincidence. i.e. There's no guarantee that the cure came from the healer, as opposed to just occurring spontaneously, which does sometimes happen. Really, what would be needed is some type of study involving a control group, to see just how effective faith healing really is (though I doubt many researchers would be willing to deny patients real treatment for such a study).

Another consideration is that many claims for the divine cross religious borders. If a Christian and a Hindu have both claimed to have felt a god's presence, or to have received a divine message, which one of them should we trust more? Should the Christian and Hindu evidence be counted equally? Doesn't it seem more likely that it's really all in their heads? If supposed miracles occur just as often for diverse people regardless of their religion, then it doesn't argue strongly for their particular religions. This does leave open the possibility of a non-denominational god, but it seems more likely that there are more earthly causes that are being misinterpreted.

Prophecy requires special mention. Of course, these require the same standard of evidence as other miracles. Pointing to a prophecy in an old book, and then pointing to another section of the same book that says the prophecy was fulfilled, isn't very convincing without independent sources confirming the claims. But for prophecies to be convincing, they must also be specific. Nostradamus's writings are an example of how bad this can be. When every generation can interpret a prophecy to be applicable to events happening in their own time, then the prophecy probably isn't specific enough. Prophets must also have a decent accuracy. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If someone throws out enough prophecies, some are bound to come true. Prophecies must also be unlikely, or something that would be very difficult to predict otherwise. It's not very profound to prophesize that the next round of presidential candidates will lie during their campaigning.

Ideally, miracles should be witnessed by more than one person. Personal revelations fall into this category, especially considering, like I wrote above, that people from diverse religions are all convinced that they've personally felt their god's presence. An example is the case of Adele Brise [8]. She claims to have seen and spoken to an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The thing is, there were two other women with her, neither of whom could see Adele's vision. Despite the unverifiable nature of the event, the Catholic Church has officially decreed "these apparitions as worthy of belief". There are many reasons a person could claim to see apparitions or hear voices. The simplest, though I like to hope the least common because I like to think the best of people, is that they're simply lying – looking for attention, a way to make a buck, or even just playing a joke [9]. But there are also people who really do have mental problems, who have hallucinations or hear voices in their heads. Just because some of them claim the voices are coming from on high doesn't mean that we shouldn't give them the appropriate treatments they need.

Assuming that a miracle did meet the appropriate standards, I can say that I still wouldn't be convinced by a single example. There are too many other possible mechanisms. For example, let's imagine that a prophet came along who truly could predict the future. It's possible their insights were divine, but it's also possible that seeing into the future was an ability of humans, and that most people simply aren't very good at it. I would want to see research done into where the prophet's ability came from. I wouldn't immediately jump to accepting their religion.

There are other possibilities that may seem outlandish, but no more so than Thor being a real deity. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's a big universe out there, and it's possible we're not alone. Sci-fi shows like Star Trek make us want to think that advanced civilizations would be noble and peaceful, but we don't know that they would. Maybe a civilization wanted to conquer our planet, but their space ship didn't have the resources to do it outright. A few magic tricks to impress the natives would go a long way. Or maybe aliens would be practical jokers, having a bit of fun at the primitive apes' expense.

An important consideration here is the timing of miracles. As far as I've seen, there haven't been any well documented miracles, but even the claims of miracles show a decrease in grandeur over time. In Genesis 3:8, God literally walked with Adam and Eve. He didn't hide his presence. Moses parted the Red Sea. The walls of Jericho came a tumblin' down. Jesus walked on water and healed the blind and the lame. The disciples spoke in tongues. The miracles in the Bible aren't subtle. But as we’ve learned more and more about the universe around us, and as documentation of events has become better and better, miracles have become more and more minor. Why would God change his modus operandi in modern times? If there truly were a god, it wouldn't have to be that way. A god could continue performing major miracles throughout the ages. It seems likely that many supposed ancient miracles are myths, and many more are due to people not understanding how the universe really works.

Once you weed out the myths, hoaxes, and other explainable phenomena, there aren’t any well documented miracles, which I think can be extended safely to say that there haven’t actually been any miracles. But this brings up another issue - considering the dearth of true miracles in the past, the source of any new 'miracles' would have to be carefully considered. In other words, if a supposed god were to suddenly reveal itself, we would have to ask, ‘why now?’ It would benefit us to be especially skeptical, and consider all the possible alternative sources of that revelation.

This discussion of miracles is far from exhaustive. There are other classes of miracles that weren’t included, and many more specific examples. But I think that this gives a sense for the standards that would be convincing to a skeptic. Miracles must be well documented, not explainable by natural means, and more than simply unlikely events. And even if a supposed miracle was well documented, we must consider other possibilities before accepting it as evidence for any particular religion.


[1] The website, Ebon Musings, has a page titled The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists, which contains a similar discussion, and was a sort of springboard for this essay.




[5] a_statue_of_jesus_oozing_holy_water_an_indian_skeptic_debunks_miracle.html




[9] Such as the Cottingley Fairies -