David Hume and Competing Miracle Claims
In his essay Of Miracles, David Hume argues that the presence of miracle claims in competing religions has a sort of neutralizing effect. Hume writes, “All prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.” 1
Essentially, Hume argues that the “credit” of an earlier testimony is “destroyed” by the presence of a later one; and thus, competing miracle claims cancel one another out. The logic behind this argument is seen more clearly in the following syllogism:
- The truth of any one miracle claim is neutralized if other miracle claims are found in competing religions
- Miracle claims are found in competing religions
- Therefore, the truth of any miracle claim is neutralized
When Hume’s argument is placed into this syllogism, it is seen to be so blatantly false that it hardly dignifies a response. Why should one think (as premise “A” assumes) that the mere presence of a miracle claim in one religion would do anything to negate the veridicality of a miracle claim in another? Hume’s logic does not follow in any perceivable way.
But, perhaps Hume means to put forward a softer argument than the one above. Perhaps he means to say that the presence of so many false miracle claims in multiple religions, serves to discredit even the best attested miracles in other religions. So, although some miracle claims may in fact be true, one is never justified in believing that they are because of the existence of numerous false miracle claims.
In response the rational man must insist that the mere presence of false miracle claims in some religions does nothing to negate, discount, or even qualify other – possibly true! – miracle claims in competing religions. As Dr. Clark puts it, “Religious counterfeits do not discredit genuine, supernatural phenomena any more than counterfeit dollar bills somehow invalidate real ones.” 2
Miracles in Other Religions
Just as the non-Christian must not discount miracle claims a priori, likewise the Christian cannot discount miracle claims in competing religions without investigation. This is where the hard work of historical investigation comes in to play.
Ultimately, if a miracle claim in a competing religion is well attested and supported by multiple lines of historical evidence then the Christian is well within her epistemic rights in thinking that a miracle occurred. The question then arises, ‘How does one explain this miraculous event?’
Given the Christian conceptual system there seems to be two options open to the believer in this case. First, in as much as the Christian worldview includes spiritual activity, the believer should be open to the possibility that malevolent spiritual agents could be at work. And thus, positing demonic activity is a perfectly viable option if warranted by the context.
Second, the Christian might acknowledge that God has chosen to work miraculously outside of the Christian context. 3 As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not think that it is the duty of the Christian apologist (as many sceptics suppose) to disprove all stories of the miraculous which fall outside the Christian records…I am in no way committed to the assertion that god has never worked miracles through and for Pagans.” 4
In conclusion the careful thinker must acknowledge two truths. First, the presence of false miracle claims in some religions does not a priori discredit the veridicality of miracle claims in others. Second, the Christian should be as open to miracle claims in competing religions as the unbeliever should be to the miracle claims of Christianity. If, by chance, a believer comes across a well-authenticated miracle claim in another religious system then she should interpret that claim in light of the Christian conceptual system which: 1) allows for demonic activity, and 2) does not negate the possibility that God has worked miracles outside of the Christian context.
- Hume, Of Miracles in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, Part II. ↩
- R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, eds., “Miracles in the Worlds Religions,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 206. ↩
- Ibid., 211. ↩
- Lewis C.S., Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 132. ↩