Wesley J. Smith writes about what appears to have been a small miracle at his church last year. I can attest to the fact that his photo wasn’t faked; I saw it last year, shortly after the event it documents. In fact, though Wes and I have never met, we were party to a similar kind of thing during Lent last year, I think it was. Our mutual friend Frederica Mathewes-Green had sent both of us a cotton ball into which oil of myrrh streaming from what is believed by many to be a miraculous icon of the Virgin had been captured. The cotton came in small glass vials, a keepsake from when the icon visited Frederica’s Orthodox parish.
One day, Frederica, who lives near Baltimore, noticed that a bunch of beads of myrrh appeared on the inside of the vial where her cotton ball was stored. They had not been there before, and nobody had opened the vial. She soaked other cotton balls in olive oil and put them in similar vials, to see if they would bead up. Nothing. She mentioned it to Wes, who lives in California, and Louisiana-based me. To our astonishment, we examined our vials, and found the same thing, which neither of us had observed before in those vials. Three people in three different climates, experiencing this at the same time. It abated after a few days, and I’ve never seen it again.
Was that a “miracle” in the sense that it was something that cannot be explained naturally? I don’t know. I don’t really care. My faith doesn’t depend on this being true or not. I believe it could have been; I believe miracles, both big and small, are possible. I regard them as a sign of God’s constant presence, a reminder that we are not alone. Maybe there’s something more meant to be communicated by these events. I don’t know. I think one should cultivate a general attitude of skepticism, simply to avoid being misled, as I have been in the past when confronted with things like this.
But there’s skepticism, and there’s skepticism. There’s a certain kind of person who would dismiss the Holy Water and the Flowers as meaningless because it doesn’t happen every time you put flowers in Holy Water, and therefore cannot be scientifically verified (never mind that the essence of a miracle is that it is a temporary suspension of the ordinary laws of nature). There are others who would dismiss it because if God worked miracles, then something as trivial as this is not the kind of miracle He would work. “Why doesn’t He cure cancer? Why is He fooling around with flowers on an altar?” they say. The answer is: I don’t know. I do know that the Creator of the Universe not acting in ways that make sense to me is not evidence that He hasn’t done so.
And there are some scientists and scientific types who purport to be open-minded, but who are as epistemically closed to data that violate their belief structure as religious people are. Wes Smith writes:
According to the meme, religious believers reject science if it conflicts with their faith. But science also has its prejudices. Steven Pinker and his wife Rebecca Goldstein recounted in a Salon interview their refusal to explore a potentially supernatural experience:
Q: I know neither of you believes in paranormal experiences like telepathy or clairvoyant dreams or contact with the dead. But hypothetically, suppose even one of these experiences were proven beyond a doubt to be real. Would the materialist position on the mind-brain question collapse in a single stroke?
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, if there was no other explanation. We’d need to have such clear evidence. I have to tell you, I’ve had some uncanny experiences. Once, in fact, I had a very strange experience where I seemed to be getting information from a dead person. I racked my brain trying to figure out how this could be happening. I did come up with an explanation for how I could reason this away . But it was a very powerful experience.
“How I could reason this away.” Rather than being open to all possibilities—with potentially uncomfortable ideological implications—Goldstein fled from grappling with a mystical experience that might undermine her worldview. How is that fundamentally different from religionists rejecting a scientific hypothesis out of hand because it would materially challenge their faith?
Smith says there is a middle ground between total credulity and its opposite. Read his column for more. Here’s a thought question for the room: What evidence would convince you that your belief system — religious/supernatural, or atheist/materialist — would be wrong?
I’m not asking something like, “What would convince you that Christianity is wrong?” It is entirely possible that Christianity is wrong, and that theism itself is wrong, but that a world of spirit exists.
I am, of course, a Believer, and at this point, I can’t imagine anything that would make me believe in a purely materialist model. I have had too many personal experiences with the miraculous and the supernatural to believe otherwise. I don’t know why I have had these things happen to me, but most people I know have not. But they did happen, and in at least two of the most dramatic instances, I radically changed my life in response, because I could not explain them away.
But that’s me. What about you? Is there anything that would falsify your belief? If your belief cannot be falsified, as mine cannot be, then by Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle, it qualifies as faith, not science. If it is not possible to falsify materialism — that is, if there’s no possible evidence that would convince you to abandon a purely materialistic view of the universe — then, ironically, you have made a religion of materialism.