Half a billion healings?

Praying for healing

It is a circular argument, but it has been made often, from David Hume down to present day sceptics. There is no believable evidence for genuine miraculous healings, they say. But what about all the stories of people being healed? We know they can’t be true, they say, because no-one has ever shown scientifically that healing can occur.

So New Testament scholar Craig Keener decided to break the circle.

David Hume

Hume argued that we can know that miracles cannot occur:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof of a miracle … is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.”

Hume’s argument held sway for several centuries, but has been strongly criticised more recently, as being (1) circular (i.e. assuming what it attempts to prove) and (2) being incorrect logically and statistically. But it is still commonly quoted.

Craig Keener

Craig Keener is a New Testament scholar who felt that his New Testament study required him to address the question of the historical credibility of miracles, and the logical validity of Hume’s argument. So he set out to see what evidence there was for modern day miracles: to see if they threw any light on the Biblical miracles, and if it was true that there was “firm and unalterable experience” against miracles.

Unalterable experience?

Keener’s first and main objective was to gather plausible accounts of christian healing miracles from around the world, to see how numerous were the claims. Assessing whether they might be genuine miracles then followed as a second step. His book Miracles, outlines the evidence he found.

We hear many stories of healings, but it is hard to be sure they are not urban myths, exaggerations or fabrications. So Keener briefly recounts hundreds of plausible miracle stories from a number of countries, principally in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He obtained the stories from books, his own interviews, personal correspondence or interviews of people on his behalf, and their plausibility comes from their sheer number and his personal contact with many of the accounts. Keener conducted about a hundred interviews and had personal correspondence with more than a hundred more witnesses. He says:

…. most of those whom I interviewed struck me as deeply sincere”

Sheer numbers

Keener and others have found that large numbers of christian around the world claim to have experienced a miraculous healing or observed one. The numbers seem to come to something like 300-400 million people. Assuming many have observed more than one (as Keener’s studies suggest), the total number of claims of christian healing miracles in living memory could easily come to more than half a billion.

He makes very clear that many of these stories may not stand scrutiny or may have other more natural explanations, and most lack medical verification. He just makes the point that the evidence shows that it cannot be claimed that “firm and unalterable experience” is opposed to miracles without detailed investigation.

But how reliable are the accounts?

That is the second question Keener examines in the book. I will report on his conclusions soon.

The take-home message

Christians don’t have to worry too much about Hume’s objections. Millions of people claim to have experienced divine healing. No-one can reasonably say that there is “firm and unalterable experience” against healing miracles, nor say that every one of the claims is false. It only requires a few of them to be plausible and we can reasonably believe God has been acting in his world.

Come back soon to hear some of the stories and see if they are believable.

Photo Credit: NEFATRON via Compfight cc

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16 thoughts on “Half a billion healings?

  1. Sir Ian says:

    To be honest we *can* reasonably dismiss miracles. Because none of them have stood up to scrutiny until now. They just haven’t. The moment you do your homework (you being the experimenter) you find that god hand can’t be discerned from statistics.

    But one must also ask another question : How would this work ? If there really is such a thing as miracles, why is it that you have to look for rather obscure books on the matter to check it out ? Why is there no scientific field that deals with miracles, a whole abundance of them all verified under the scrutiny of the scientific method ?

    I wouldn’t say this lack of miracles strengthens or weakens the christian position. From a scientific point of view miracles by definition have no knowable mechanism behind them. By definition a miracle is something we can’t predict using the physical laws or mathematical models. So if there happens to be a miracles you have all your work still ahead of you, you still have to prove it’s related to your specific version of god and all other claims still have to be worked on. The sword evidently cuts both ways, if miracles can’t prove the existence of god the lack therefor is unlikely to be able to disprove it.

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  2. unkleE says:

    G’day Sir Ian, nice to see you back.

    “god hand can’t be discerned from statistics.”

    This post isn’t about discerning God’s hand (we’ll look at that later), but I believe we may be able to say that some events can more probably be explained by God than by spontaneous remission. (If I thought it could be done using numbers, I would use Bayes Theorem.) But we will see.

    “How would this work ? If there really is such a thing as miracles, why is it that you have to look for rather obscure books on the matter to check it out ? Why is there no scientific field that deals with miracles, a whole abundance of them all verified under the scrutiny of the scientific method ?”

    I think this is clear. I don’t have to look in a rather obscure book, the accounts are everywhere – he quotes hundreds of books and people. They mostly just haven’t been investigated. But if genuine miracles occur, they will be one-off actions of a personal God, which would be difficult if not impossible to test via a controlled experiment. (I have looked at this question in Can we scientifically test alleged healing miracles?.)

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  3. Sir Ian says:

    I’m interested however : If miracles by definition don’t have a mechanism behind them. How can you possibly tie them to god or even your god ? What if a miracle happens in a hindu community, would this count as evidence against your god ? I really believe you are underestimating the great social implications this would have. You’re saying most haven’t been investigated, this is true but you forget that we’re just with too many to investigate all claims.

    I really don’t think the argument from abundance works here. Nobody is arguing people can’t perceive things to be miracles or can’t have deep feelings about it. However by observing these cases we have discovered many mechanisms which can produce these kind of phenomenon without any supernatural intervention. We now know that even without this intervention many people will feel like they’ve experienced a miracle or been kidnapped by aliens or whatever. It’s part of the human condition.

    We have very good reasons to distrust anecdotes. I think you know this as well as I do. Then why do you insist on stripping yourself of the tools that allow you to discern fact from fiction clearly? We know people can be fooled easily, we know they are fooled easily and we know many of the reasons why they’re fooled so easily. To base your view of miracles on human perception when we know it is this human perception which misguides us all the time in these matters is willful plunge into obscurantism in my opinion.

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  4. unkleE says:

    “If miracles by definition don’t have a mechanism behind them. How can you possibly tie them to god or even your god ?”
    Well, I haven’t tied them to “my” God yet, I’ve just said there are so many of them that here is a phenomenon that merits further investigation. But the tie in would come if we find that these apparent miracles happen after prayer to God, and don’t happen so much without prayer.

    “What if a miracle happens in a hindu community, would this count as evidence against your god ?”
    It would depend if many miracles happen in the Hindu community, whether they are verifiable in any sense, whether there was prayer immediately beforehand, and what God the prayer was made to. I’m inclined to think that there wouldn’t be so many miracles that survived that scrutiny, but I don’t know. But I don’t see any reason why the real God (as I believe him) couldn’t answer Hindu prayers.

    “I really don’t think the argument from abundance works here. Nobody is arguing people can’t perceive things to be miracles or can’t have deep feelings about it.”
    I think it is like NDEs (Near Death Experiences) – once I think they weren’t taken seriously, but as the evidence mounted up, people started to study them more. I think the same could, and should, happen here. But it needs strong evidence of there being something worth studying – which there seems to be.

    “To base your view of miracles on human perception when we know it is this human perception which misguides us all the time in these matters is willful plunge into obscurantism in my opinion.”
    That is why we need proper study, not blind acceptance or equally blind scepticism. I have reported a few miracles on this website (Healing miracles and God) but they are all ones that have been investigated as thoroughly as possible, and seem genuine.

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  5. Robert Martin says:

    One thing I read about in a book for seminary was that the idea of miracles being a violation of nature is a very western, scientific view of things. The book was “Out of Every Tribe and Nation” by Justo Gonzalez if you’re interested.

    Essentially, if you think about it, miraculous healings are not a violation of nature. The human body can heal itself. Cut yourself, you’re tissue will mend. Break a bone, the bone will knit. Things do grow back… limited, agreed, but they do grow back. Illnesses can be fought… the bodies immune system CAN fight it… even HIV, if the body’s immune system could be bolstered, boosted, can even overcome HIV… What is a miraculous healing but an encouragement, not to violate the laws of nature, but to use those laws in a way that brings shalom even to the body, turns around the “curse” of death and illness?

    It’s an interesting idea that I find meshes well with even our scientific knowledge.. miracles aren’t AGAINST nature, they are nature running as best as possibly could be…truly SUPER natural

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  6. Sir Ian says:

    “But I don’t see any reason why the real God (as I believe him) couldn’t answer Hindu prayers.”
    The point is that this reasoning can be reversed. It might wel be any god. Due to the lack of mechanism you can barely tie it to the supernatural (if at all) let alone your specific god. Because of all the permutations that wouldn’t be considered a christian god that could have done it as well.

    “But the tie in would come if we find that these apparent miracles happen after prayer to God, and don’t happen so much without prayer.”
    There’s been a study. Want me to look it up for you ? I haven’t read it myself but as far as I know the results were underwhelming at best, there even tended to be a negative correlation.

    But it needs strong evidence of there being something worth studying – which there seems to be.- Then why the lack of peer reviewed papers. I’m assuming there are few backing your case because every atheist in town is flaunting it and I’m pretty sure every christian in town would otherwise.

    I’ve read your other post quickly but I’ll wait with responding.

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  7. unkleE says:

    “the idea of miracles being a violation of nature is a very western, scientific view of things”

    Yes, I agree with that, and I like your way of looking at it. I also think that the laws of nature aren’t rules that nature must follow (who forces it to?) so much as descriptions of what normally happens – if there is no outside interference. But the whole point of a miracle is that there is indeed outside interference.

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  8. unkleE says:

    Sir Ian,

    “Because of all the permutations that wouldn’t be considered a christian god that could have done it as well.”

    This is a big topic, and I think I need to research it, and do a separate post. But here are a few thoughts.

    1. An alleged miracle can have a number of possible causes, e.g. a misunderstanding, a natural cause, the God that was prayed to, or another supernatural cause, etc. The evidence of one case is unlikely to be conclusive, but the cumulative evidence may point most clearly in one direction. So we need a large number of cases.

    2. These cases would be decided by well-established principles, which I outlined in the two posts I referenced above. So it’s evidence analysed systematically.

    “There’s been a study. Want me to look it up for you ? I haven’t read it myself but as far as I know the results were underwhelming at best, there even tended to be a negative correlation.”

    I think I know what you are talking about – a study of prayers for healing which gave a slightly negative result. Yes, atheists love to quote it, but they ignore the fact that there have been at least 20 such studies I have been able to find, and most give mildly positive results – see Intercessory prayer and healing.

    So the full evidence is slightly in favour of prayer, but not totally. (I hope you will remember that and quote the full list in future!)

    But these studies are not assessing miracles, but are measuring the small incremental results of prayer over a large number of people. But the miracles I am talking about are not that – they are large and rare healings in response to prayer, and cannot be assessed using the same methodolgy – see Assessing healing miracles.

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  9. unkleE says:

    Ryan, of cours – I believed in God before I’d ever heard of these healings. But I think healings may be one of the best evidences for God, and add to the cumulative case.

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  10. unkleE says:

    Thanks for the reference, but it simply supports what I said – there are results both for and against the efficacy of prayer for improving health outcomes across many patients (I found more studies for than against, but I found both), but this is a poor scientific approach.

    1. When I talk of miracles, I’m not talking about small improvements averaged across scores or hundreds of patients, which is what all those studies deal with. I am talking about amazing results in a few cases (miracles are by their nature events which don’t happen all the time, and the results cannot be averaged).

    So two quite different situations.

    2. I don’t imply scientific rigour, in fact if you read the references I linked to, you’ll see that I say that it isn’t easy, perhaps impossible, to make the testing of miraculous healings by way of studies, because they are unpredictable and occasional events. You have to address them in a different way, the way we investigate one-off or occasional events.

    3. I don’t see where I appeal to any authority – what do you mean?

    4. I don’t see how I jump to conclusions. I have spent hours on the web, I have ordered books from overseas, searching for studies and accounts that have some plausibility. I have outlined a methodology and listed a reasonable set of criteria for investigating them. I have not made extravagant claims, but very modest ones.

    So I can’t really understand what you are saying in #2-#4. Perhaps I should wait for you to elaborate.

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  11. Sir Ian says:

    Yeah, I’m sorry but I have to write papers for school so I don’t have much time to make myself very clear. I should have waited longer till I could give the full reply. Because I wasn’t clear at all as is evident by your response.

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