Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Comparative religious miracles

i) An atheist trope is to neutralize the Christian argument from miracles by appealing to many purported miracles in other religions. In my experience, I've never seen an atheist actually document anything comparable in non-Christian religions. This is just a hypothetical counterexample they toss out. 

ii) Many atheists labor under the illusion that the occurrence of non-Christian miracles is incompatible with the truth of Christianity. They never explain why they think that. 

iii) Hume appealed to purported non-Christian miracles. His argument is that such a phenomenon creates a stalemate between revival religious claimants. Up to a point that's true if the argument from miracles was the sole argument for Christianity, but it's not. 

iv) In Miracles: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018), Yujin Nagasawa has block quotes of reported Christian/biblical, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim miracles without any footnotes to the source material he's quoting from. It would be nearly impossible for the reader to track down the source in order to consider elementary questions about genre, the date of the source, &c. in relation to the putative event. He does have a chapter bibliography which hints at where he's quoting this material from, but that's it.

v) I'm going to quote from The Cambridge Companion to Miracles (Cambridge 2011), G. Twelftree, ed. This has contributors representing different religious viewpoints. It bends over backwards to be evenhanded. Each contributor gives a sympathetic account of purported miracles in non-Christian religions. So this is about as good as it gets. As scholarly, nonpartisan reference work. 

Despite that, notice the poverty of the examples. Notice the distance in time and space between the purported miracles and the source material. There's nothing comparable to the Christian argument from miracles. I'll be quoting from the following chapters: 4. Miracles in the Greek and Roman world by Robert Garland; 10. Miracles in Hinduism by Gavin Flood; 11. Miracles in Islam by David Thomas; 12. Tales of miraculous teachings: miracles in early Indian Buddhism by Rupert Gethin:

The fact that the Greeks used the word iama from iaomai, meaning "to heal", rather than thauma, suggests, however, the cures are to be regarded as routine rather than miraculous, even though they came about in surprising ways (81). 

[Aelius Aristides] is the only firsthand literary account from the beneficiary of a miraculous cure that has come down to us from Graeco-Roman antiquity (82)…Regarding the "truth" of the claims, Charles A. Behr, Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968), 39, writes, "Many of Aristides' cures seem transient…" (92n20). 

Salmoxis was denounced as a charlatan by Herodotus' Greek informant (4.94-6). They claimed that he faked his resurrection by building a hall with an underground chamber and then went into hiding for three years, after which he popped up again–literally so, perhaps–to the amazement of all (83).

Even more ridicule attached to the philosopher Empedocles of Acragas (c. 492-32 BCE), who is said to have stayed the winds, cured the sick, resuscitated the dead and become a god. His chief claim to fame, however, was the bathetic manner of his death. The most colorful account has him leaping into the volcanic crater of Mt. Etna with the intuition of faking his apotheosis, only to be revealed as a fraud when the volcano belched up one of his bronze sandals (Diogenes Laeritius, Lives 8.69). It may be that the reports of his miraculous powers, largely extrapolated from his poetry, aroused such derision that posterity exacted its revenge by assigning him a particularly ignominious death (83).

In the absence of any contemporary account of Pythagoras' life, there is no knowing when reports of his wondrous deeds first began to circular (83). 

We hear of no Roman miracles workers, and it may be that here, as in so many other areas of professional expertise, the Greeks claimed a monopoly, particularly in light of the fact that miracle workers were, as we have seen, to some degree perceived as entertainers (84).

The Jewish philosopher Philo (Embassy 144-5) credited the deified Augustus with the ability not only to "calm the torrential storm on every side" but also to "heal plagues that afflicted both the Greeks and the barbarians". However, extravagant flattery of this sort was routinely offered by those seeking favors or rewards and is part of the language of soteriology (84).

Tacitus' account is nicely nuanced. Though he does not dismiss the story outright as fabrication, he falls short of endorsing the claim that Vespasian had miraculous powers…There are no reports of Vespasian performing miracles after his accession. Quite possibly claims to this effect would have been greeted with incredulity in the capital itself (85). 

Julian the Theurge is said to to have caused a miraculous downpour in 172 CE, when the Roman army was dying from thirst during Marcus Aurelius' campaign in Germany (88)…The earliest surviving reference to the rain miracles is in Tertullian, Apology 5.6 (c. 197-8) [93n27]. 

Perhaps the most famous contemporary guru associated with the miraculous is Sathya Sai Baba…There is much controversy surrounding Sai Baba…He has borne the brunt of negative criticism that his "miracles" are in fact sleight-of-hand [cf. Erlendur Haraldsson, Modern Miracles: An investigative Report on the Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba (New York: Fawcett, 1997) and accusations of sexual abuse and even complicity in murder [cf. David Bailey, A Journey to Love (Prasanthi Nilayam: Sri Sathya Sai Towers Hotels Pvt. Ltd, 1997] (195; 197n33; 197n34). 

In this context we must lastly mention the "miracles" associated with icons of the gods. In September 1995, a "miracle" occurred in a Delhi temple when the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, drank milk offered during worship. Due to mass communication this phenomenon spread and icons of Ganesha were drinking milk throughout the world within a few days. This was attested from Malaysia to London and 60 percent of the Delhi's population visited a Ganesha temple at the time. The phenomenon died down in due course and was explained by "rationalists" in India as the porous stone of the image absorbing the liquid (196).

According to traditional accounts, the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad between 610 and 632 CE by the angel Gabriel from God himself…The reference in 54:1-2–"the hour [of judgment] is nigh, and the moon is cleft asunder. But if they see a sign, they turn away, and say, "this is [but] transient magic'"–was interpreted as a physical occurrence in the heavens witnessed by Muhammad and people around the world. And the reference in 17:1 formed the basis of a tradition that became a whole genre of literature in itself: "Glory  to [Allah] who did take his servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts we did bless–in order that we might show some of our signs"….The story of this event was greatly elaborated as time went on…These later amplifications of references in the Qur'an that at best hint at miracles associated with Muhammad boost his status to that of at least the equal of the greatest of his predecessors (204-5).

One of the best-known early examples of this genre is the Kitab al-din wa-al-dawla, The Book of Religion and Empire, by 'Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari (d. c. 860 CD), who worked at the caliphal court in Baghdad for many years as a Christian but then converted to Islam at the age of seventy…'Ali also adduces examples of miraculous events that are immediately recognizable as works of wonder. They include the Night Journey, which here Muhammad proves when he returns home by giving the skeptical Meccans details about a caravan approaching the town that he could not have known about without seeing it, the sudden and painful deaths of five of his most vehement critics in Mecca, his diverting a storm that threatened to damage some dwellings, turning a plant stem into a sword and understanding what a bird was communicating, a calf that was about to be slaughtered proclaiming his advent, a wolf doing the same, his withholding rain, increasing food and providing water for his companions on a journey (207-8). 

From its beginnings in the fourth or third century BCE, Buddhist literature abounds in tales of miracles…In the earliest texts, the Buddha himself is  routinely portrayed as exercising his ability to perform miracles: he makes someone sitting near him invisible to another (Vin 1 16); he overpowers fiery dragons (naga) by himself bursting into flames (Vin 1 25), he disappears from one shore of the Ganges and reappears together with the community of monks on the far shore (D II 89), when the great god Brahma fails in his own attempt to make himself invisible, the Buddha makes himself invisible (M 1 330) [216,21). 

1 comment:

  1. For more examples of significant passages in the book Steve is discussing, see here.