The Religious Significance Of Miracles – Why Hume’s Critique Is Superfluous, Part 2 (Alberto Urquidez)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.

The question I shall now consider is this: If not all miracles are religious miracles, how does Hume differentiate the two? How does he determine that, for two Humean miracles M1 and M2, the former is religiously significant and the latter is not? For Hume, identifying the cause of each event is the crucial factor in settling this question: to establish a religious miracle we must know that a religious deity is responsible for it. Given this position, identifying the cause of the miracle is the most important thing.

What criterion does Hume invoke when he infers religious supernatural causation? Hume’s own examples can be used to illustrate the point: What justifies Hume’s belief that the Queen Elizabeth miracle is a religious event, but not the eight-day miracle? What makes the former religious and the latter non-religious? If the difference in these two cases is the cause of the event, we still need to understand how Hume identifies religious causes. As I argue in section 3, however, establishing the religious cause of a miracle is not sufficient for establishing that the event has religious significance.

Why Religious Significance Matters

Hume’s case against miracles is not a case against their occurrence but against knowledge of their occurrence. His is an epistemological argument. The possibility of establishing a miracle so as to be the foundation for a system of religion implies not only that there are objective conditions under which it is rational to infer that a miracle occurred, but also that there are objective conditions under which it is rational to infer that a miracle is religiously significant. For suppose we concede the former and deny the latter. Then an individual that objectively proves the occurrence of a miracle would be incapable of objectively proving that the miracle in question is a religious miracle. Such a one would not be able to establish a miracle so as to be the foundation for a system of religion. In that case, Hume’s argument against religious miracles would be rendered superfluous.

What, then, are the objective conditions that determine religious significance? The question of what, for Hume, makes a miracle a religious event is not of mere historical or scholarly significance. For without a criterion of identity of religious miracles, without the ability to identify religious miracles among the class of Humean miracles, it is impossible to know that a religious miracle occurred. For example, Hume needs a criterion for judging that the Queen Elizabeth miracle, but not the eight-day miracle, is religiously significant. It thus seems that if Hume’s argument against miracles is to be significant rather than superfluous, he owes us an account of religious significance.

To this end, my aim in this section is to unpack Hume’s account of epistemological religious significance. In doing so, it will be necessary to articulate his account of ontic religious significance. The reason for this is that ontic and epistemological religious significance are intertwined on Hume’s account. Given Hume’s desire to preserve the objectivity of establishing miracles, this is hardly surprising; the premise of his argument requires a link between what is knowable and what is the case.

The philosophical upshot of my analysis is that Hume’s epistemological account of religious significance posits objective conditions. As such, his account occludes a subjective condition of religious significance; that is, it forecloses the possibility that an ascription of religious significance is essential to the religious character of a religious miracle. To better appreciate this point, it will be helpful to discuss the role of religious context on Hume’s objective account of religious significance. In section 3, I lay out my case for thinking Hume was wrong to think that religious significance is a purely objective matter.

The Relevance of Religious Context

Given an analogous comparison of two miracles—a situation in which there is very extensive, uniform testimony in behalf of the eight-day miracle and equally extensive, uniform testimony in behalf of the Queen Elizabeth miracle—Hume unequivocally states he would accept the former and reject the latter. This initially seems puzzling. For, in both cases, Hume describes a full proof of the event on the direct method of appraising testimony. For this reason, one might conclude that Hume betrays his own religious bias against the Queen Elizabeth miracle.

I think this view is mistaken. Hume’s rejection of the Queen Elizabeth miracle and his acceptance of the eight-day miracle does not betray a religious bias on his part, for he has principled reasons for rejecting religious testimony (as I’ve explained in section 1). In particular, he argues that religious testimony is notoriously historically unreliable. Even here, however, the high prior improbability of a putative miracles does not mean that religious testimony can never succeed—it simply means that, to succeed, it must be very, very extensive and uniform, and religious testimony to date has not met such a standard. That said, it is true that Hume rejects the Queen Elizabeth miracle because he takes it to have religious significance. His awareness of the event’s religious significance is inferred from the religious context of the event, and assessing a context for religious significance is a purely objective matter, for Hume.

It may be helpful here to note that Hume considers and rejects two iterations of the Queen Elizabeth miracle. In the first iteration, the event is not ascribed religious significance; in the second iteration, it is ascribed religious significance. In the former case, he imagines historians arguing that extensive and uniform testimony in behalf of the miracle ought to lead the objective observer to accept it (our historians avoid ascribing religious significance to the event). In the latter case, Hume imagines people arguing that extensive and uniform testimony in behalf of the miracle provides a just foundation for a new religion.Interestingly, on both iterations, Hume says he would reject the Queen Elizabeth miracle. This requires explanation. For, as we have seen, Hume emphatically accepts the eight-day miracle on testimonial evidence that is analogous to his first iteration of the Queen Elizabeth miracle.

If the eight-day and Queen Elizabeth miracles are analogous with respect to the quality and extensiveness of the reports, then the difference in these two events must lie elsewhere. For Hume, their difference lies in their prior improbabilities. Puzzlement regarding Hume’s differential assessment of the eight-day and Queen Elizabeth miracles is easily dissolved by reference to Hume’s reverse method. Recall that the reverse test requires assessment of an event’s prior probability or improbability.

Hume seems to think that the Queen Elizabeth miracle is more intrinsically improbable than the eight-day miracle because the former event has religious significance, which Hume thinks creates the potential for bias, deception, gullibility, and the like—rendering the reports epistemically unreliable. His reason for suspecting bias, deception, and the like, however, is not his own anti-religious bias; it is past experience and what it suggests about religious testimony. Given that the miracle in question comes with the implication that the Christian religion is true, the rational observer must take account of the fact that the well of testimony in behalf of this event has likely been poisoned.

For unlike the eight-day miracle, the reporters of the former miracle have an interest in lying; apart from that, reporters 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 marvellous, because of their desire to see Christianity confirmed, and so on.

The religious context of the Queen Elizabeth miracle, in short, creates the potential for biased reporting at both conscious and unconscious levels. Therefore, if past experience of testimony in general (particularly within religious contexts) is any indication of the quality of future reports of religiously significant miracles (and this is all we have to go on as far as Hume can see), the historical unreliability of religious testimony outstrips the uniform and very extensive testimony in behalf of the Queen Elizabeth miracle, rendering it highly improbable on the final analysis.

Hume’s reasoning tacitly draws upon the religious context of the Queen Elizabeth miracle. He tacitly assumes that the religious context confers religious significance to the event and thereby makes an ascription of religious significance rational. Describing this religious context in some detail may be helpful here. Queen Elizabeth 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 would take the Queen’s rising from the dead to be a religious sign, confirmation of the Protestant God’s favour upon her as an inspired figure and upon England as a nation that stands upright with God; ipso facto, the miracle would be evidence of God’s existence. Because all of this is conveyed from the religious context in connection with the miracle, the religious context alone—no ascription of religious significance required—is sufficient for ascribing religious significance to the miracle.

For example, 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. (Hume assumes that if a rational person with the relevant background knowledge is able to infer the truth of Christianity from the miraculous rising of Queen Elizabeth, this inference is epistemically significant regardless of whether anyone carries out this inference; therefore, the relevant context in which an event occurs ought to be considered in determining the event’s prior probability. Hence, the sceptic should assign a significantly higher prior improbability to the Queen Elizabeth miracle than to the eight-day miracle.)

From this example we can infer a Humean account of religious significance. As we have seen, Hume’s inference that the Queen Elizabeth miracle is religiously significant does not depend on an ascription of religious significance to the event. An ascription on the part of historians (in the second iteration) is superfluous, for it is possible to “read” the religious significance right off the event, as I have argued. All one needs to read the religious significance off the event is the requisite background information.

For example, one needs historical knowledge of the fact that Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant Christian, that the authority of kings and queens was believed to be ordained by God, and other pertinent historical facts. One also needs theological knowledge of what Christianity involves, for example, that the Christian God is a personal agent that desires to guide the course of history, that God reveals himself to his creation through miracles, that God uses miracles to confirm the authority of individuals acting on his behalf, and so on. Given the relevant background knowledge, the best explanation of Queen Elizabeth’s rising from the dead is that the Christian God caused it.

We have seen that experience teaches Hume an important lesson about the nature of religious testimony, to wit, it is generally more unreliable than non-religious testimony. This lesson translates into a very high prior improbability that a miracle occurred—an improbability that can only be overcome by a direct-method proof that is so uniform and extensive that it surpasses the reverse-method proof that the miracle did not occur (i.e., the proof that the regularity it opposes is a law of nature), and it must surpass it by the full length of a proof.

The Queen Elizabeth miracle, with and without ascribed religious significance, simply does not meet this threshold. Analysing this argument has revealed that Hume presupposes an account of religious significance which requires a religious context that necessarily informs the assignment of prior improbabilities, on the reverse method. The success of Hume’s argument crucially relies on an epistemological condition involving the understanding of context. This condition, however, is an objective condition, on Hume’s argument, for it is a matter of drawing on facts.

Ontic and Epistemological Religious Significance

We can now present Hume’s account of religious significance. It has two major components, which may be presented as ontic and epistemological theses. The ontic thesis states that a Humean miracle is religiously significant in virtue of serving a religious purpose or furthering the religious aims of the deity. This ontic claim is consistent with Hume’s observation that a miracle can be religiously significant—can serve a religious purpose—without anybody’s knowing it.[1] For example, even if there is no witness to the miraculous birth of a child otherwise destined to death, a supernatural agent might have intervened in the natural course of events to preserve its life.

Suppose now that the supernatural agent is the God of Christianity, and that his reason for saving the child is that he knows the child will grow up to be a powerful evangelist and conveyor of the Christian message. Then, though the act of saving the child is unknown to us mere mortals, it is no less a religious miracle. On the other hand, supernatural causation alone does not entail religious significance. For a supernatural agent might not act with a religious purpose in mind. Suppose, for example, the supernatural agent is a non-religious entity—a being that simply happens to exist and that occasionally randomly violates the laws of nature for no reason other than its own fancy. Here we would have a Humean miracle, but the event would have no religious significance; it would not be a religious miracle.

The next condition of Humean religious significance is intimately connected with the first. Hume’s epistemological thesis holds that a subject S knows that a miracle M has religious significance if and only if (i) S knows the purpose of M. However, for S to have knowledge of M, (ii) S must have knowledge that M has a supernatural cause G, in conjunction with knowledge of the religious identity of G. And to know this, (iii) S must have the relevant theological knowledge about the religious tradition to which G belongs and the relevant historical knowledge to appreciate G’s active role at the moment of acting; otherwise, S will not know that G is a religious deity. Conditions (i)-(iii) can be summed up in this statement: S knows that a miracle M has religious significance if and only if S is able to fully understand the event within the context of the relevant religious tradition.

Hume’s account of religious significance seems plausible. There is good reason to accept the Humean insight that religious context is essential for religious significance, for this can be motivated outside of the context of religious miracles. The act of handwashing is not ordinarily called a religious event. But if the act occurs within a distinctly religious context, its religious significance is immediately evident. Even nonbelievers agree that handwashing, under certain circumstances, is a distinctly religious event. Hume is thus correct that whether an act acquires religious significance depends in part on whether it occurs in a religious context. Let us next consider an evidentially significant religious context.

Suppose we witness a Humean miracle involving a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary. If the evidence is adequate for this (as we are supposing), then it is plausible to infer that the event was supernaturally caused. Are we justified in inferring the religious identity of the supernatural being?Presumably, we are justified in doing so, at least if we are familiar with the religious tradition of Catholicism.

For an eyewitness to justly infer the Catholic deity’s involvement, the following minimal facts, it seems, must be known by the subject: the agent must know something about the nature of the God of Catholicism and the Virgin Mary; that Catholicism has an important miracle tradition; the significance of the Virgin Mary within Catholicism; and the importance of veneration of religious statues in Catholicism. Apart from this knowledge, a witness would at best be justified in inferring general supernatural causation—that some action was performed by a supernatural agent the identify of which lacks further specificity.

However, given the proper religious background, a witness is justified in inferring two things. First, the religious nature of the deity (particularsupernatural causation): knowledge that a particular religious deity, namely, the Virgin Mary and/or the God of Catholicism, caused the event. Second, the witness is justified in inferring the significance of the deity’s action: for example, that (part of) the point of the statue’s weeping is to generate veneration of the Virgin Mary.

It may be helpful here to distinguish what is understood by the reporters of the miracle, whether they convey an understanding of the religious significance of the event, and what a rational person with the relevant background knowledge would understand regarding the religious significance of the event. Reporters who attest to the weeping statue may not know of the Catholic religion, much less the religious significance of the event. But this is immaterial to whether the event is religiously significant or not.

The salient point for Hume is that anyone who comes to believe in the occurrence of the miracle—whether by witnessing it personally or by inferring its occurrence from the reports of others—must have the religious background knowledge to properly call it a religious miracle. Without knowledge of the requisite religious context, the miracle amounts to a “failed miracle.” I do not mean that it fails ontically, of course, for God can perform a miracle that achieves its religious purpose (e.g., making a statue weep or resurrecting a dead person) even if those who witness the event (or learn of its occurrence) fail to see its religious significance.

Rather, the sense in which the miracle fails is epistemological; those who learn of the event fail to see its evidential significance with respect to confirming the religious tradition of the miracle, for they do not identify it as a religious miracle. Such evidential failure on the part of the subject, of course, means that the miracle cannot serve as a just foundation for a system of religion.

Religious Ascriptions

Hume’s argument against miracles presupposes that a religious miracle is one that rationally obligates the assent of a rational agent. If a religious miracle can be established, then only the irrational fool would reject it. This section argues that Hume was wrong to think that it is logically possible to prove a miracle so as to justify an important family of religious claims—namely, normative religious ascriptions, for believing inGod is an essentially personal matter. I present a sustained argument to this end, which includes, among other things, thought experiments inspired by the religious reflections of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rush Rhees.[2]

One important implication of the Humean account of religious significance is that religious ascription is inessential to religious miracles. To pin down the meaning of “religious ascription,” as I use this term, let us first distinguish explicit and implicit ascriptions. If I assert that an event is a religious miracle, then my ascription of religious significance is explicit; if I make no such assertion but understand the event to be a religious miracle anyway, then my ascription of religious significance is implicit. In what follows I use the term “ascription” of religious significance in an inclusive sense, to encompass explicit and implicit ascriptions.

Let us next distinguish two kinds of ascriptions: factual and normative ascriptions. A factual ascription is an ascription of knowledge concerning a matter of fact. A normative ascription is an ascription of an endorsement or value. For example, I might ascribe the factual belief that God exists to someone who may or may not be a devout follower of a theistic religion. Alternatively, I might ascribe the normative belief in God to someone who considers herself a devout follower of a theistic religious tradition. To capture this distinction, I will use the locution “belief that God exists” to signify factual belief, and “belief in God” to signify normative belief.

These are not the same thing. For to believe that God exists is to believe that a particular 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 God exists but to acknowledge God’s power as morally authoritative and God’s religious character as worthy of one’s praise, fellowship, deference, worship, and the like.

What these distinctions in place, it seems that the Humean account requires an ascription of religious significance on the part of the subject. But what is the character of this ascription, and is it adequate to ground his case against religious miracles? It seems to me that Hume’s analysis of religious significance entails factual ascriptions of religious significance, but not normative ascriptions of religious significance. I argue that Hume’s case against religious miracles tacitly and falsely presupposes that a factual ascription of religious significance suffices for establishing a normative ascription of religious significance. My general argument can be summed up as follows.

If a person S claims that a religious miracle occurred—in Hume’s sense of the term—then S must be sufficiently knowledgeable of the religious context of the event. Such a one must implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that the deity of a particular religious tradition caused the miracle. These conditions must be met if S is to properly believe that a Humean religious miracle occurred. Now, suppose that believing in a religious miracle in the Humean sense does not entail a normative endorsement of religious authority. Suppose, for example, that S believes that God exists and also rejects the religious authority of God (S, let us suppose, objects to God’s Humean miracle on moral grounds).

In that case, establishing the occurrence of a Humean miracle that satisfies Hume’s epistemological account of religious significance is not sufficient for establishing the event as one that has religious significance for S. The event thus lacks evidential significance for S—that is, it fails to provide a just foundation for a system of religion. Hume’s argument against religious miracles, in that case, is superfluous.

Said differently, I argue that two aspects that Hume builds into his use of the term “religious miracle” sometimes drift apart. These dual aspects can be parsed as follows:

Meaning one (factual significance): A religious miracle is a Humean miracle that has religious significance (where “religious significance” consists in satisfying all three of Hume’s conditions of epistemological religious significance).

Meaning two (evidential significance): A religious miracle is a Humean miracle that has religious significance (where “religious significance” entails that the miracle in question confirms a system of religion for a subject, serves as a foundation for it).

Drift in these accounts of religious significance is possible because satisfying Hume’s three conditions of epistemological religious significance entails a factual ascription of religious significance, whereas what is required for religious significance that is evidentially significant is an ascription of normative religious significance. Said differently, satisfying Hume’s three epistemological conditions entails belief that a religious deity exists and caused an event for a religious purpose.

Comprehending this, however, does not entail religious belief in the deity, nor that one ought to so believe. Hume’s argument against religious miracles is superfluous because no miracle that serves as a just foundation for belief that a religious deity exists and intervenes in the world can be a just foundation for believing in it. Or, if such an argument is possible, it will not be derived from the establishing of a Humean religious miracle, alone.

Alberto Urquidez is a CFD Postdoctoral Fellow at Bowdoin College. He is the author of (Re-)Defining Racism: A Philosophical Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).


[1] “A miracle,” says Hume, “may either be discoverable by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence. The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle. The raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a force requisite for that purpose, is as real a miracle, though not so sensible with regard to us” (“Of Miracles,” 173, note 23).

[2] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Lectures on Religious Belief,” in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967; reprint, 40th Anniversary Edition), 53-72; Rush Rhees, “Miracles,” in On Religion and Philosophy, ed. D. Z. Phillips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 322-27.

, , , , , , ,

About editors_religioustheory

View all posts by editors_religioustheory →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.