The Sense of “miracle” That Matters
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 puts things this way: “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.” The principal questions Phillips is interested in are these:
- What counts as a miracle in everyday religious discourse?
- Does Hume’s second (more accurate) definition of “miracle” accommodate standard religious usage of this term?
- If not, how (if at all) does the disconnect between Hume’s philosophical usage and standard religious usage of the term “miracle” impact his case against religious miracles?
I consider each of these questions, in turn.
Phillips answers question one with a crude but helpful definition: “To be a miracle, the event must reveal something about God.” Specifically, he means that the event must have normative religious significance for a subject. Notice how his account differs from Hume’s. Hume claims that a religious miracle must actually serve a religious purpose and that an individual must know what this purpose is for the event to be religious. Phillips claims that the purpose of the miracle must be “revealed”to the subject. By this he means that the subject has a normative attitude of accepting or endorsing the religious purpose of the miracle. Phillips provides several examples, some of which I discuss below. However, I want to emphasize a neglected, atypical example, which cannot be accommodated by either of Hume’s philosophical definitions of “miracle.”
Neither of Hume’s philosophical categories of religious and non-religious miracles correspond to the grammatical category of “religious miracle.” For suppose we wanted an account of religious miracles that captures everything that falls under the extension of this term in everyday religious discourse. It is evident that the extension of this term will be much larger than the extension of “Humean religious miracle,” for the extension of “religious miracle” in religious usage covers any and every event that is ascribed normative religious significance. I call such events ordinary religious miracles (ORMs).
An ORM is an event that is called a miracle by a believer to ascribe normative religious significance to the event. As the term “miracle” in its ordinary, religious sense applies to both natural and supernatural events, we may distinguish two kinds: natural and supernatural ORMs.
According to Hume, “Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happen in the common course of nature.” This is false. Natural ORMs are naturally caused events that are called miracles to ascribe normative religious significance to them. Natural births, for example, are often called miracles, for they are seen as blessings and gifts of the divine. By contrast, supernatural ORMs are events that involve a violation or transgression of the laws of nature by a supernatural agent, which 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.
Natural ORMs provide particularly good support for the claim that religious significance is grounded in personal religious ascriptions, because the source of their significance cannot be analysed in causal terms. No theist would dream of denying that the birth of a child is naturalistically explicable. Theists know just as much as atheists do that childbirths occur regularly, are caused by natural processes, and accord with the laws of nature. Theists do not think that establishing natural births ought rationallyto persuade atheists to believe in God, yet they are ascribed religious significance for all that. The religious significance of natural ORMs is logically independent of their causal source.
Whence then their religious significance? The believer, I submit, is a partial determiner of religious significance, for it is the believer who determines her personal religious ascriptions and does so vis-à-vis her personal, logically antecedent, religious convictions. Essential also is the role of the religious attitude in the life of the believer. Thus, we have some reason to concur with Phillips that religious significance is determined in part by essentially personal ascriptions, for religious ascriptions are expressions of (and thus are internally related to) the believer’s religious attitudes and form of life.
It might be objected that a purely subjective account of religious miracles fails to acknowledge the obvious fact that religious significance cannot be determined by the subject alone. For one thing, an event cannot be a miracle if there is no religious context for it. Without a religious purpose a personal religious expression seems to become incoherent. Religious miracles are intimately connected with other religious concepts, such as religious salvation, liberation, and the like. Such links, however, take us well beyond the subjectivity of the believer. This point is implicitly acknowledged by Hume, and seems to be the inspiration for his second (more accurate) definition.
The objector is correct that subjectivity alone does not, and cannot, determine the various elements of the religious context which confers religious significance to a miracle. However, I have not denied this fact; my argument is not that the believer’s subjectivity is necessary and sufficient for every religious miracle. My contention, to be clear, is that subjectivity (and its connection to religious life) is a necessary condition of both natural and supernatural ORMs, at least as understood within traditional theistic religions. Personal religious ascription is insufficient even for natural ORMs, for religious ascription must link up with other elements of religious life if it is to reveal something about God.
Having outlined what is perhaps the most important essential feature of religious miracles tout court, I next turn to question two. It is evident that Hume’s two philosophical uses of the term “miracle” fail to accommodate ordinary usage of the term “miracle,” for although he captures some significant aspects of supernatural ORMs—namely, their inexplicability in natural terms and their source in supernatural agency—he does not capture the essential religious component of subjective religious ascription, despite this feature’s being essential to all religious miracles. This brings us to question three: How does the disconnect between philosophical usage and normal religious usage of “miracle” impact the philosophical debate about miracles?
Phillips discusses the disconnect between philosophical and ordinary usage in the context of philosophical attempts to extend the grammar of religious terms—such as the terms “God,” “omnipotence,” and “miracle”—beyond their religious contexts of use. He argues that such extensions render religious vocabulary meaningless or insignificant. By this he does not mean that the new usage has no application outside of the religious context—it may or may not have an interesting and/or useful application outside religion.
Rather, he means that the new usage is insignificant within the religious contexts from which the vocabulary was taken. For the new philosophical meaning “bypasses” the religious meaning and context. He offers a familiar but instructive example to illustrate the disconnect between religious and philosophical usage of the term “miracle” and its philosophical upshot.
Phillips uses John Perry’s example of a miracle as a foil for assessing the debate over whether religious propositions can be objectively proved. For Perry is engaged in the same dialectical debate as Hume. Perry asks us to suppose that an individual witnesses the gentle rising and setting back of the Rock of Gibraltar “for no apparent reason.” 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’ point is not merely that the meaning of “miracle” is insignificant within a religious context. Philips is also stressing a dialectical point. Applying the religious term “miracle” outside of its normal religious context—say, to denote unexplained events, like the rising and setting back of the Rock of the Gibraltar—fails for the philosopher’s dialectical purpose of assessing whether miracles can provide a just foundation for religion. For unless a religious reason is given for the rising and setting back of the Rock of Gibraltar, we cannot properly call this event a religious miracle; ipso facto, the event cannot serve as a just foundation for a system of religion.
For a subject that is able to prove the occurrence of the event but unable to identify its religious purpose has no reason for attributing it to a religious deity (or religious tradition). It follows, then, that definitions of “miracle” that stress causal relations but say nothing about religious significance are inadequate. A truly religiousmiracle reveals something about religion—and reveals it to a subject. The sense of “miracle” that matters to discussions about the rationality of believers is the normal religious use.
Consider, for example, Phillips’ analysis of a miracle discussed by Rush Rhees. The miracle in question is Lazarus’s rising from the dead. Suppose Lazarus, not understanding what happened to him, lives the rest of his life bewildered and silent. To this we can add that he leads a tormented life because he is unable to see why the miracle happened to him. Here the event would not be a miracle in the religious sense of the term, except perhaps as a “failed miracle,” which is to say, an event that intended a certain outcome that alas is unachieved. The event’s religious inexplicability for Lazarus, far from determining its religious significance, explains precisely why it has none.
The event is a failed miracle in virtue of its religious inexplicability, for the event fails because it has no religious significance for Lazarus. Even if we acknowledge the “religious context” of the event (that a man named Jesus performed the miracle, etc.), Lazarus might feel that getting a second chance at life is too much for him to bear—that he didn’t deserve it, perhaps. Hence, the religious sense of “miracle” might be lost on him. For Phillips, the event is not a religious miracle since it does not serve or meet its intended religious purpose. It might be objected that it remains a miracle in Hume’s sense. If we insist upon this point, Phillips’ reply is a simple one: “Fine, but what’s this got to do with religion? Why call it a religious event?”
Again, if the point of the Lazarus miracle was a religious one, it is one that seems to fail in the case of Lazarus. The argument that he ought to believe in Jesus holds no weight with him. So no objective foundation for Christianity can be based on it.Phillips’ claim that ORMs capture the heart of the religious concept of miracle implies that dialectical attempts to establish religious systems on an objective rational foundation are confused.
The rationale behind his claim seems to be that ORMs, unlike Humean miracles, have subjective and objective components: they involve personal religious ascriptions, on the one hand, and events that are connected to a wider religious context, practice, and history, on the other. The former, however, seems to preclude the possibility of establishing the rationality/irrationality of religious belief on epistemic (factual and logical) grounds, alone.
Is Religious Disbelief Irrational?
An objection to Phillips’ analysis is that Lazarus’ reaction to Jesus’ miracle is unwarranted because the context is underdescribed. (Perhaps it also trades in attributing implausible mental states to Lazarus.) Why, for example, could not Jesus reveal the religious significance of Lazarus’ resurrection to Lazarus himself? The same objection, it seems, can be raised against a related kind of reaction to a Humean miracle. Phillips discusses Rhees’ own reaction to the Lazarus event.
Rhees says he would be amazed by the event, but admits his awe would be directed at a “natural” event—that is, an anomalous, naturalistically inexplicable event, lacking religious significance. The event is “natural,” not in the sense that it comports with the laws of nature (for it appears not to), but in the sense which contrasts with the term “significant” (as in religiously significant). That is, the event is non-religious, for Rhees has no religious reaction to the event; the Christian message associated with the miracle does not compel him.
The difference between Rhees and Lazarus’ reactions can arguably be explained by a lack of information and understanding. Lazarus does not see himself as worthy of God’s special favor, nor does he understand what religious purpose his resurrection serves. Rhees, by contrast, says he lacks appreciation for the Christian message and wonders whether additional context about early Christianity—for example, whether knowledge of crucial details essential to appreciating the role of miracles within the New Testament—might inspire religious faith or at least a religious reaction from him.
The Humean miracle is “miraculous” for Rhees in the ordinary (non-religious) sense that it is marvelous and awe-inspiring. However, it is not “miraculous” in the sense required for normative religious ascription—that is, it does not inspire faith and hope, does not compel repentance, and so on. In both cases, an intended religious aim is unachieved; hence, it fails to be religious. And since the religious end of a miracle is what marks it as a religious event, we cannot properly call it a miracle.
Nevertheless, it might be objected that a deepened understanding of the religious context may be sufficient to change Lazarus and Rhees’ minds. In that case, I would point out that other reactions are possible. Let us then modify the Rhees example as follows. Rhees indicates that he wonders how a person might be saved by the resurrection of a man, as Wittgenstein wonders why living forever constitutes a form of salvation. If “salvation” means that one will live eternally in a literal place called heaven after death, Rhees could be rationally compelled to acknowledge this, given the superpowers of the miracle worker.
Rhees may well concede that failing to believe in Jesus means he will spend an eternity in “hell,” a place of eternal torment or separation from God. Yet, he may believe that moral (even spiritual) truth is on his side. His knowledge of the Christian context of Lazarus’ resurrection does not compel him to accept Christian values and Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice for his sins, as one that washes away his sins. Perhaps above all, Christian salvation seems to Rhees to come on the cheap, unearned.
In the spirit of this modified example, let us consider a clear instance of this non-religious reaction. Suppose sufficient evidence proves that the God of Christianity exists. The evidence consists of God’s simultaneous appearance 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 her knee and every last Muslim tongue confess that he is the one and only true God. Failing to heed this warning, says God, will have dire consequences. Ultimately, those who resist God’s message are destroyed on the spot. I now, in turn, two atheistic reactions to the event.
The first reaction is of an atheist who stubbornly refuses to believe what she observes. She denies the “miraculous” slaughtering of Muslims as it is taking place and denies the existence of the being causing it. She closes her eyes and says to herself that it is more likely that she is going mad than that a supernatural being exists. Here we have the kind of example that suits the objector.
For one wants to say that the stubborn atheist’s refusal to “accept the facts” renders her reaction irrational. She faces an epistemic gap—a lack of understanding, predicated perhaps on epistemic or moral vices and attitudes, that must be rectified for right understanding. In addition to moral shifts in the atheist’s attitudes, her epistemic misunderstanding must also be corrected. Ultimately, she must be made to acknowledge the evidence before her. As things stand, our first atheist seems irrational.
Given one’s personally witnessing God murder all Muslim people, every rational person ought to infer that the God of Christianity exists and is causally responsible for the event. This is an epistemic obligation, and perhaps a moral one. Does it follow that our atheist should believe in God? Should she describe the event as a miracle? Suppose that a religious reaction is precluded by her moral commitments. Her anti-religious reaction does not seem irrational to me, for her resistance presupposes the epistemic acceptance of all pertinent facts.
That is, her resistance is largely based on, and determined by, thoughtful consideration of 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.” If our atheist lacks an epistemic obligation to believe in God, might she have a moral obligation to do so? Plausibly, she does not. For her reaction is neither hardened nor stubborn, since it does not fly in the face of the evidence; on the contrary, God’s moral fruits provide confirmation of the atheist’s longstanding, moral suspicion that the God of Christianity is a self-serving and unjust tyrant. It seems that knowledge of God’s activities in the world are compatible with our atheist’s failure to disbelieve in God. (This seems analogous to accepting that a human being caused murder and also objecting that it as wrong.)
To tell the atheist that she must believe inGod is to insist that she ought to ascribe religious significance to God’s Humean religious miracle. Yet this Humean miracle is no religious miracle in the ordinary sense (an ORM), at least not for many ethically-minded persons. To accept the Humean miracle of murdering all Muslims in the religious sense is to accept the death of every last Muslim as having religious significance. Embracing the Christian purpose of the miracle amounts to endorsing God’s conduct, in some sense.
This surely strikes many of us as morally outrageous. To say that one is irrational for not embracing a “deity” that could murder an entire group of people for disbelief is to advance a normative judgment that goes well beyond the issue of meeting one’s epistemic duties. It seems to require a moral argument of sorts that has little if anything to do with the epistemic possibility of proving Humean miracles.
Given the possibility of non- and even anti-religious reactions to failed religious miracles, it might be conceded that an evidentially significant miracle must contain the two aspects of religious miracles I have emphasized in my account of ORMs. First, the miracle must contain the subjective quality captured in normal religious usage of the term “miracle.” Second, it must contain the objective (ontic) quality that exists in some religious usage of the term “miracle” (expressed in Hume’s account of religious miracle).
Given this concession, one might go on to argue that supernatural ORMs might prove to be a just foundation for a system of religion. To establish a supernatural ORM one needs two lines of argumentation: an argument that a Humean religious miracle occurred and an argument that it would be irrational to believe in the occurrence of the Humean religious miracle without accompanying it with a normative religious ascription. The idea might be that if personal religious ascriptions are not just expressions of normative attitudes and commitments, then their connection to objective aspects of the world entails certain moral and epistemic obligations. `
Unlike Phillips, I am not completely averse to this line of thinking. The only point I would emphasize here is this. There is nothing trivial in the concession that “establishing” the rationality/irrationality of religious claims is not possible on epistemic considerations alone. Neither is it trivial to concede that a distinctly normative argument is necessary to establish religious claims. If such an argument is possible and necessary, my point still stands that such a case cannot be made by mere reference to facts about whether certain types of events occur.
First, the miracle debate cannot be settled by reference to mere facts about whether violations of the laws of nature occur. Second, it cannot be settled by mere reference to facts about whether a supernatural agent caused the violation. Finally, it cannot be settled by reference to mere facts about whether a supernatural agent satisfies the description of this or that religious tradition, unless of course the description includes normative titles, terms, and propositions that entail religious commitment on the part of those using them. In that case, the dispute about miracles necessarily turns on the question of the identity of the supernatural agent, which requires a normative determination about the moral status of the agent and its conduct. So again, we cannot settle the issue by appeal to mere facts, alone.
If I am right, then it is possible to believe that God exists without believing in God. It follows that it is highly misleading, if not misguided, to assert that mere belief that God exists is a genuine form of religious belief. After all, to say such a thing can come close to committing blasphemy, for no Christian would say of the atheist who rebukes God’s conduct that she has “seen and believed.” Hume’s critique of miracles is thus superfluous (as it currently stands). If we call the resurrection of Lazarus a miracle and mean by this a mere string of facts—e.g., that a Humean miracle occurred; that it had a describable supernatural cause; and so on—then we are still faced with the existential problem of what if anything calling it a religious event means for our lives.
Mere acknowledgement of a Humean miracle is not sufficient motivation for devoting one’s life to a being that has superpowers any more than an individual’s acknowledgment of God’s existence is sufficient motivation for her to worship the God who murdered every last Muslim. A religious sensibility is crucially vacant here. To end on a dramatic note: it is hardly trivial, to return to my hypothetical atheist, that the evidence of God’s existence confirms her gravest fears and doubts about the “vicious and vindictive monster” religious believers call God.
The problem with the Humean-philosophical use of ‘miracle,’ therefore, is not that it is false but that it is not a religious use of the term. No argument for the existence of God can establish the religious significance of an event—not even an extraordinary event, nor yet a violation of the laws of nature. Whether one believes or disbelieves in God may presuppose factual belief in the existence of a supernatural entity. But the belief itself is not of a factual nature.
Most fundamentally, it is a matter of the heart, not of the mind. This does not mean that evidential considerations are completely irrelevant to religious faith. Rather, this means that a subjective religious ascription is essential to seeing the point of a miracle in the ordinary (religious) sense of this term. Hume can accommodate my subjective condition of religious significance only by undercutting the basis for debating the possibility of establishing a just foundation for a religion.
Alberto Urquidez is a CFD Postdoctoral Fellow at Bowdoin College. He is the author of (Re-)Defining Racism: A Philosophical Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
 D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
 Ibid., 15.
 Hume, “Of Miracles,” 173.
 We might question the legitimacy of such usage based on the etymological meaning of “miracle.” Consider David Corner’s remarks in “Miracles,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 13 June 2020, https://www.iep.utm.edu/miracles/: “As a rough beginning, however, we might observe that the term is from the Latin miraculum, which is derived from mirari, to wonder, thus the most general characterization of a miracle is as an event that provokes wonder. As such, it must be in some way extraordinary, unusual, or contrary to our expectations. Disagreement arises, however, as to what makes a miracle something worth wondering about. In what sense must a miracle be extraordinary?” (ibid., sect. 1). Is it inappropriate, then, to call the birth of a child a miracle? Corner’s analysis invites us to ask: What wonder characterizes the birth of a child? From both moral and religious perspectives, there is much to wonder about. How and why does a human being so pure and innocent as a child come to be so impure and imperfect as a human adult? What makes a parent worthy of so wonderful a gift as a child? Why have I been selected by God to have this child? These and similar such questions have religious components that cannot be reduced to naturalistic explanations.
 John Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1999), 39-40.
 The quotation continues: “Otherwise, what would be religious about it? Why would it be a miracle? What does the ‘rising up’ and ‘setting back’ of the Rock of Gibraltar show us about God? We are given no idea. Why, in that case, should we put 2 in the conceptual category of ‘the miraculous’?” (Phillips, Problem of Evil, 15).
 It is important to emphasize the diversity of apparent rational reactions to Humean miracles. Lazarus, Rhees, and my hypothetical atheist’s (see below) reactions to my hypothetical Christian Humean miracle are not the only nonreligious reactions. Wittgenstein, for example, speaking of the miracle in Lourdes, France, says he would treat the event as a poorly executed experiment, implying he would be dubious of all ascribed supernatural implications, for reasons having more to do with his faith in science than religious skepticism (“Lectures on Religious Belief,” 60-61). A more recent example is found in Keith Parson’s “The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics” (Masters Thesis, Georgia State University, 1997), http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/thesis. Parsons argues that “so far as we know the cosmos could contain beings whose intelligence and powers exceed our own as much as ours exceed an ant’s. Yet these beings could have evolved with the cosmos over a long period of time just as we have… In fact, however, those events would have been brought about in accordance with the laws of nature by beings who are just as much a part of the cosmos as we are” (ibid., “Three Criticisms”).