I see today many newspaper columnists etc. say that atheism is a faith as much as any religious one. But surely (I say to myself) the success of science makes any religious claim about a supposed miracle, highly questionable.

I'm not asking whether miracles are impossible, exactly, but wanted to read a good argument - ideally one which is available to the atheist in the street - against any particular miracle. The resurrection, for example.

  • 1
    You don't argue against miracles. You refute these. Miracles never happen.
    – John Am
    Oct 24, 2015 at 18:21
  • @JohnAm i think i get what you mean, the best explanation of the resurrection e.g.
    – user6917
    Oct 24, 2015 at 18:24
  • What resurrection?
    – John Am
    Oct 24, 2015 at 18:25
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    Considering the resurrection: some people (e.g. Gerald O'Collins; Rethinking Fundamental Theology) claim the resurrection is significantly different from miracles. There are important differences between how miracles are narrated in the Gospels and how the Easter appearances are narrated. The latter have some sort of ordinarity over them. Furthermore, the resurrection itself isn't described. That doesn't invalidate your question of course, I'm just not sure if the resurrection is the best example here.
    – user2953
    Oct 25, 2015 at 9:04
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    Every religion resists the miracles of all other religions. When Moses turned sticks into snakes, it was a miracle. Later, the Jews are warned off all forms of magic, witches and sorcerers. So that snake trick, was it OK, or not? Oh, OUR tricks are miracles, YOURS are tricks!
    – user9166
    Oct 25, 2015 at 21:39

5 Answers 5


Until science fully explains the self, it is impossible for science to make the claim "miracles cannot occur," for there is a region of reality which they do not fully explain, so it would be folly to claim that which they do not know. You have to know everything about everywhere to make a negative claim such as "X does not exist."

That being said, science is very comfortable claiming things which it has no right to claim, and then falsifying them later. That's a very powerful feature of science. Science has no problem saying "there are no miracles," and then changing their stance when proof of a miracle occurs.

EDIT: From a lengthy chat with John Am, its clear there are many definitions of "miracle," and which one you wish to use affects the answer. This answer presumes what I will call a "soft miracle," which is one which is unsatisfactorily answered by the laws of science. Compare to a "hard miracle" which is one that, by science's laws, is provably impossible

  • if a miracle could be scientifically explained then i assumed it wouldn't be a miracle. wouldn't it be the job of a philosopher to show that everything can be, and for science to offer an explanation of any particular report?
    – user6917
    Oct 25, 2015 at 1:32
  • ah i think i just don't understand, maybe add some references whatever
    – user6917
    Oct 25, 2015 at 1:47
  • Ahh, i think I misread. I was trying to argue that miracles can exist in the presence of science. Now that I'm reading your question, it's not that lofty... it looks like you're just asking us to pick a miracle of our choosing and try to beat it to death with science?
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 25, 2015 at 2:05
  • i don't know tbh, i don't know what is so base about asking whether there have ever been any miracles. i'm not asking about the metaphysics of it, so am less interested in whether they can exist, only if they do
    – user6917
    Oct 25, 2015 at 2:09
  • In that case, in formal language, define "miracle."
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 25, 2015 at 2:22

If divine interventions (and thus miracles) are allowed, then the time and position at which they happen become distinguished, hence violating the laws of physics (if it were not, then it wouldn't be extra-natural, and could therefore be interpreted as part of "normal" life supposedly explainable by science). Thus, it would break the invariance of the laws of physics by time and space translation (no preserved energy or momentum, not even locally), and consequently distinguish both a point in space-time from any others, and a frame where the events happen at rest. It would also introduce a new form of dynamics and change: acausality, which is pretty scary.

In this respect, it is either our belief that there is no privileged inertial frames in physics that is a misconception, either the believe that divine intervention seen as extra-natural events can occur.

Now, not everything is explainable by science (thus the distinction between what is extra-natural and what is not is ill-defined - think about consciousness and life), nor the absence of divine intervention is killing the concept of a transcending "god" (in a weakened sense), with absolute moral and so on (encoded into existence through consciousness, feelings, ...).

My belief is that atheism as a rejection of any form of "supreme authority*" transcending the individuals and belonging to a deeper level of existence is much more naive than our usual religions. The success of science actually offers a much stronger objection to atheism and nihilism than it rejects the existence of some weaken form of god. "A little science estranges men from God, but much science leads them back to Him"

* the laws of existence itself (of physics, of reasoning, ...) are like that, try jumping from the 10th floor and see if you don't crash yourself on the ground.

  • you seem to pick a miraculous event and show it cannot happen, and then generalise to anything similarly scary. is that right ?
    – user6917
    Oct 25, 2015 at 17:48
  • I show that if our conception of physics is a conception we don't want to abandon (preservation of energy, momentum, causality, ...), then any form of divine intervention that goes against it cannot happen. This does not rule out any form of "indirect" divine intervention, either by something encoded in nature itself (and its laws), or in the parts of life that are in any case not explained by science (consciousness for example).
    – sure
    Oct 25, 2015 at 19:37

Winch has suggested based on Wittgenstein's analysis of a miracle as a "gesture" of God

If Winch is correct, then the skeptic, who seeks to show that a putative miracle has a natural cause, is proceeding in the wrong direction—but then so is the theist who tries to show that the event cannot be explained scientifically. Such a theist commits the same error as one would who thinks that in order to show that a particular gesture is a bow, we must show that no physiological explanation can be given for it.

But if we agree with Salmon that we explain something when we know

  • it had to happen

I'm not sure that I can agree that explaining a miracle leaves a place God's agency.

Whether or not we have a perfectly good explanation of the sorts of claims that report on miracles (sudden bravery, or change of heart, reports from reliable people, etc.) is up to you, I guess.


I distinctly remember Juan Smith telling people in an interview that doctors told him that he would never play rugby again after tearing his Achilles tendon a second time.

He is currently playing for Toulon. Lets we think that things scientist say will never happen do happen. I know only anecdotal evidence at best but still I think it has some worth to the discussion we are having.


The biologist Stephen Gould had a theory of non-overlapping magisteria for the truths of science as opposed to religion.

An update of this can be found in Badiou where he posits four sites of not truth but truth-procedures: love, art, politics and science.

Notably and curiously as he is a philosopher, philosophy is missing in this account - but this is simply because he takes philosophy to be dialectic and Socratic; and the clay from which these sites were fashioned.

The logic that ties these sites and their suspension is not classical but intuitive, paraconsistent and progressive (in Whitehead - dynamic).

Notably again religion is missing from this account - and one might remark here that Badiou being explicitly communist has the common communist prejudice against religion; one cannot say because it is not scientific - for art is not scientific either.

One can perhaps locate an additional site for religion fashioned from the other four:

From Love: revelation or unveiling, and the relationship of personal involvement, as in Bubers I-Thou; luminousity and personal transcendence; also community - agape

From Politics: the clearing of space so that it's being can be, sought or defended

From Art: the numinous and the archetype; ritual and tradition; the positing of worlds other than this

From science: scholarship, exegesis, and hermeneutics.

Then religion having its own truth-procedure is neither denied nor affirmed by science (though in some senses it can be).

If this seems rather as though the issue is being ducked; recall the logic that ties these sites including now religion together is paraconsistent and dynamic.

  • 1
    ok, i don't mind the inconsistencies, but i don't know what to do with them.
    – user6917
    Oct 25, 2015 at 2:10

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