A belief in miracles is atheistic

This was a statement made by one of Darwin’s intellectual contemporaries Mathematician Baden Powell.

What did he mean by this? I would generally think of belief in miracles as being very "theistic"The wiki source gives no additional context for this statement.

Try the entry for Baden Powell, himself:

Mr. Powell’s argument is that, since the universe was created by God with certain natural laws, the belief in miracles, which by definition violate natural law, is a denial of divine providence, and atheistic.

Insert babel fish joke here.

Working totally from the Wikipedia article, it appears he took a bizarre position: In the quasi-deist Victorian theistic intellectual stance, God was the legislator who created the natural laws governing how physical objects interact, the ones that human scientists discover and formulate definitions of. In other words, we discover and define that the gravitational pull between two objects varies proportionately as the square of their distance; God in His wisdom was the one who ordained that that relationship should obtain.

Given this proposition, then, a belief that miracles occur was a denial of God’s role as the Supreme Legislator of Natural Law – and hence a denial of His power, and thus atheistic.

It is not, frankly, an argument I would care to defend, even against a bright five-year-old. But I follow the “logic” of what he was asserting.


In this regard, it’s interesting to note one proposition advanced by C.S. Lewis, a follower in the same intellectual tradition, in his Miracles. (And this one has the benefit of slightly more plausibility.) To wit: None of the recorded miracles in Scripture, save the Resurrection itself, is strictly contrary to natural law, but instead represents an acceleration of natural processes. Water (with other ingredients) is turned into wine naturally by the growth and fruiting of grape vines, and then the action of viniferous microbes. A paralyzed limb properly treated medically eventually regains the ability to function. Under the forces of wind and weather, a fig tree eventually will wither and die. CPR and defibrillation will return to life someone who was briefly clinically dead. And so on. What the Biblical miracles do, according to Lewis, is to “short-circuit” the natural process by the equivalent of forced growth, to produce immediately the same results as might occur naturally over time.

Given the amount of third-party retellings, legend, and such that appear to have permeated the Biblical accounts, the debunking of this theory is easy enough. But if you accept for the sake of argument the premise that the Biblical accounts are accurate if naive retellings of real occurrences, Lewis’s point becomes very strong: The Biblical miracles are not **anti-**natural, things that never happen in nature,but supernatural, things that do not happen normally in the manner described, but do happen naturally under variant conditions. Jesus at Cana did nothing a vintner could not accomplish over years of effort; any basilisk lizard or water-strider bug can walk on water by using tricks with surface tension. The “E” account of the Parting of the Reed Sea (oddly, the English names of the Red Sea and the former marsh just north of the site of Suez mimic the close Hebrew parallels in the two names) even attributes the “miraculous” event to a strong wind forcing the shallow water back from the desired passage across.

I am not interested in promoting the idea as probable-fact, but I do find it a very intriguing point.

Curious, I can follow the logic.

Country clergymen were not precluded from being mathematicions or logicians, and that solitary layman might well have been one of their ilk, but devoid of a ‘living’.

In modern terms, if you asked a computer programmer whether ‘miracles’ occurred in computers most would probably say no ( others would snigger ) and if you asked them whether there is a ‘grand design’ in software, most would probably say yes, but I would not like to post what they would say afterwards.

While I reckon that religion is a load of tosh, I can understand that people with minds capable of seeing mathematical patterns would see a ‘grand design’ that is compatible with Evolution - but would be nervous of ‘miracles’.

Possibly they were determinists.

Incidentally, volumes sold is a poor indication of readership, a ‘hot’ book will be passed around, whereas a coffee table book is used to impress visitors.

Possibly they were opportunists :slight_smile:

Which is, of course, the conservative/fundamentalist response to the modernist position.

I don’t understand why you describe that as a bizarre position, I’ve always thought that was one of the standard positions taken for those that believe in current scientific findings as well as God.

Sorry for not being clearer. You’re right (to the best of my understanding) as far as that goes, of course. What I considered “bizarre” is the proposition that miracles constitute a violation of Divinely Ordained Natural Law, so a belief in them betokens atheism.

:::: scurries off to inform PRR and Der Trihs that if they were True Atheists, they’d need to believe in miracles! :smiley: :dubious: ::::

Eh. The problem with this idea as I see it is that it assumes that God has created a world in which there are natural laws which cannot be broken, which I don’t think anyone would claim. The situation actually would be that God has created a world in which there are natural laws which cannot be broken by anyone but him. So any miracle can be perfectly theistic.

Seriously, wouldn’t they need to? If there is no overarching “God creator-enforcer” of natural laws, and atheists derive their consideration of the immutability of natural laws via the limits of their limited, human mediated observations of the universe, wouldn’t miracles be more likely or possible in the unknowns of a Blind Watchmaker universe, than in a God created & mediated universe?

But this makes God a petty cheat if he can’t even follow his own rules.

But he is following his own rules. It’s not “No one messes with natural laws” which he chooses to break; it’s “No one messes with natural laws except me”. It’s a bigger difference than just a change in word would indicate.

It was a joke? It’s better theological logic than most of what comes from the mouths of the devout.

He’s also a bad tempered little brat who smites people when they displease him and plays nasty practical jokes like putting an irresistable apple tree in the middle of a garden and telling the children inside not to touch it “or else”. I’ve seen three year olds with better manners.


Excellent, I was just about to start a thread very similar to this one. Good to have it started with a “notable cite”, the type dopers like more than waggy random thoughts.

I have always believed that believing a miracle that breaks the laws of nature is the ultimate mark of the person that doesn’t really believe in God. At least not an omnimax God in a deterministic universe. When God furnishes the living room, He doesn’t need to change the sofa to the other wall to see what it looks like. He darned well knows and He gets it right the first time. Being omnimax is never having to say I’m sorry.

I recently posted in a different thread, If Jesus walked on water, it is not because the laws of physics were suspended for him at the moment. Maybe it was just that there were rocks there and he was just stepping on them; Maybe it was giant turtles who had lost their course and were passing by and he walked on their backs; Maybe it was a flow of lambda-gravitons from Zeta-Jesudani that left there 5 billion years ago and met him right there, right then to pull him up; Maybe it was a mass hallucination that made them see him walking on water while he was doggie-paddling; Maybe they dreamed the whole thing from the safety of home.

No matter how it happened, God intended it to happen from the very creation of the universe, and it had the intended effect. It built the apostles’ faith on Jesus and in God.

God’s Will was done in a simple act of creation. He has no need to expect, to react, to change, to test, to waffle and improvise. Those are mortal things.

Even in a non-deterministic universe, where God could easily “change things around”, He should have no need to. He KNOWS.

The version I heard was a bit more mundane.

A sort of translation slip up between walking on the shore of Galilee or trotting around on the meniscus.

Actually the last and only time I was on Lake Tiberius was some years ago (1991), and a colleague of mine was enquiring how he should go about killing someone who had robbed him big time. My answer was ‘with a hammer - and no witnesses’.

I thought it rather ironic - but I sympathize with his irritation.

I’ve never heard the idea that miracles are normal processes which God has ‘sped up’ to impress - pretty intriguing. But how does the walking-on-water fit in? How ever long Jesus waited he wouldn’t have the necessary small mass to pull the same trick as water-boatmen type insects.

Or maybe flatulence - Sir Christopher Cockerell’s invention might have been derivative

This site has Essays and Reviews online, but their ASCII version doesn’t seem to yet extend to Powell’s “On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity”. You can download the essay as a series of JPGs, but it’s a slow site and I haven’t bothered.
They do have an ASCII version of his earlier article The Study of Christian Evidences, which gives a flavour of his style.

And, goodness, he’s horribly verbose. At least his opening paragraphs give the gist of his point:

It doesn’t seem too much of a characature to further summarise this to: if we let the Roman Catholic attitude towards miracles prevail, then we might as well be atheists.

But that may be unfair. Historians of 19th century biology have tended to see Powell as a reasonably substantial figure, whose views were partially shaped by his role in the arguments around - and specifically against - the Oxford Movement. His biological views emphasised continuity, so that the history of the universe and the species within it were an unbroken, smooth unfolding. That wasn’t a new idea at the time, but in Britain it’d tended to have been associated with radicalism (and hence atheism). This was to be compared with the arbitrary divine interventions implicit in the writings of the likes of Paley. And he argued that his vision, based on observed natural laws rather than one-off unknowable events, was a stronger version of the Argument from Design than Paley’s.
In contemporary terms, he might be seen as a forerunner of Paul Davies or Francis Collins in these matters, but could be expected to throw up his hands in horror at Michael Behe.

While his biological views thus involved rejecting miracles, reading the linked article suggest that this might not quite be the precise context for a statement that “belief in miracles is atheistic” or whatever. You’d probably have to read “On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity” to be sure.

I can understand the premise. If you take that God created the universe and everything in it in 6 days at the time of the big bang. Not that He created everything at that time, but set into motion the events that would cause the earth, animals, plants, ect. This points to a very powerful God, one that has intentionally created man by blowing at the proto-matter of the big bang, in a way that man will come about trillions of years later.

The requirement of miracles seem to be corrections, which a God should not need. The counter argument is that certain creatures, including man has free will and has the ability to knock God’s creation a bit off kilter and in order to keep everything ‘good’ requires those corrections.

So if anything miracles are proof of our free will.