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Profoundly Ignorant: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part I

There is almost nothing to like in Larry Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified. But, as Shapiro would be sure to agree almost nothing is not nothing.

What’s good is Shapiro admits he cannot prove the impossibility of miracles, saying he “wouldn’t even know where to start” such a proof. It’s clear he believes in this impossibility, however, just as it’s also clear he wouldn’t know where to start. For though Shapiro has interesting, but mostly wrong, things to say on the epistemology of miracles, his metaphysics is lacking.

The book is focused, however, on the epistemology of miraculous claims, a subject near and dear to regular readers. Shapiro has two main arguments which insist nobody is ever justified in believing in miracles which involve the probability of miracles and something called inference to the best explanation. Since explaining these will takes some space, I will in other parts refute these arguments. Today I highlight some general problems.

Another thing worthy of praise. Shapiro loves a bad joke and never passes up an opportunity to insert a groaner. I am a connoissewer of bad jokes—maybe because these are the only jokes I’m good at. Let that pass.

Here’s one more jewel. Shapiro recognizes the lousy but popular argument that says the laws of nature are inviolable, and miracles are violations of these laws; therefore miracles are impossible. This assumes what it wishes to prove. “I don’t assume that there’s a way the world works that makes violations of natural laws impossible. Maybe laws of nature can be violated.” But he doubts it.

All this rather depends on what a “law” is, or if laws are, and here Shapiro is of no help. His lack of metaphysical grounding (a bad joke!) stings. He says things like “after all, the very recently dead can be revived with medical interventions in some lucky cases.” So is it a law of nature that the dead can return to life? Hence resurrections are possible? No. Dead means dead, and it is the nature of dead things to stay dead things unless a supernatural force changes the nature of that particular dead thing so that it can come back to life.

It has been said, and said with truth, that the laws of nature are the law of natures. What we see are the operations of things according to their natures, not puppets operated on (somehow) by laws. Natures have to have authors, and there is only one candidate for the author of the essence of all things. Even if this explanation of nature is wrong, which it isn’t, and laws were the rule (another gem!), it still must be that the laws had to have an author other than themselves. And again there is only one candidate.

But let’s skip all that for now, coming back to it as needed in explaining Shapiro’s epistemology. Let’s do history, instead.

Today’s title is a quotation from page 111 from the chapter in which Shapiro in vain attempts to disprove Jesus’s resurrection.

Before I began researching this book, I had a pretty naive view about the New Testament. Actually, the word naive hardly begins to capture my understanding of it. “Profoundly ignorant” is perhaps a better way of putting things.

If he started that way before researching the book, he didn’t end far from it at its end, either. His case would have been far better if he did not attack a subject in which he was blind, and it’s a wonder he included it at all. A guess would be his publisher thought a book of only epistemology would be dull, and could he juice it up by attacking a cherished belief?

He says, “The men who followed Jesus around also couldn’t or didn’t write anything. They were fishermen, day laborers, and tax collectors. We thus have no written record from Jesus or anyone associated with Jesus of anything Jesus said or did during his lifetime.”

Except for Peter and John, of course, the authors of letters and, in John’s case, a gospel and an apocalypse. And then there’s Paul and Luke, and, but, oh, never mind. But since Shapiro admits to never having read the New Testament before, it’s not surprisingly these lowly men, and the lengthy chapters containing their exploits, slipped his mind.

Shapiro does explain he’s “not an expert in this literature” and that professional historians would do a better job. And that leads him to say, in print and in public and without blushing, that “Most of what [he] learned about the gospels and their history comes from reading historians such as Bart Ehrman and”—wait for it…wait for it—“Richard Carrier.”

To which the learned response is Bwahahahahahahahahaha!

You’ll allow me that bad joke. The litigious Richard Carrier is an embarrassment even to fellow atheists. What Shapiro never tells his audience is that Carrier not only denies Jesus rose from the dead, but he insists Jesus never even lived. This “Jesus” is one gigantic conspiracy theory, designed to keep Carrier from his utopia-pan-orientation, or whatever label he is using now. Don’t believe me. Read Tim O’Neill, a self-described atheist appalled by Carrier’s antics.

Next time, an explanation of inference to the best explanation and its limitations.

22 thoughts on “Profoundly Ignorant: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part I Leave a comment

  1. I would also ask if he considered Dr. Craig Keener’s 1100 page scholarly tome, appropriately entitled “Miracles” where he documents several thousand modern day miracles, including some with pre and post medical examinations (including MRIs in some cases). It almost dulls the senses when page after page there is miracle after miracle documented.

    Then to hear of books like this…

  2. Guy who knows nothing about a subject writes a book about the subject telling you he knows nothing about the subject.

    People actually buy this stuff?

  3. MRI!:
    The correlation between imaging and clinical findings is not reliably accurate. MRI images are an aid towards a diagnosis, not a diagnosis on their own.

    The same is true of X-Ray imaging although the images themselves are far less clear, with soft tissue only inferred by spaces, for instance. Hence they are now used only in certain cases where an expectation of a finding is likely to be seen on X-Ray that will affect treatment options.

    A patient may have normal findings or ‘signal’ on MRI scan and marked symptoms of pathology, even signs of pathology which do not show on MRI.

    Another may have a dreadful looking MRI, more commonly, with little or no symptoms or physical signs.
    MRI would not be a safe, reliable proof of a miracle if that were used on it’s own.

    MRI’s are useful but not in the way that people assume.
    The human body is way more complex than taking an internal picture as if it were a car engine.

  4. For those who believe in miracles:

    How do you distinguish between

    (1) Something happened that I do not understand;

    and

    (2) This thing that happened must be a miracle because I don’t understand how it happened?

  5. “his metaphysics is lacking”

    The usual claim. You can’t demonstrate the existence of God, so have to rely on metaphysical word salads.

    “Natures have to have authors, and there is only one candidate for the author of the essence of all things.”

    Why?

    “Except for Peter and John […]”

    But the gospels were written many decades after Jesus died, and not by the people whose names are attached to them.

    “Carrier not only denies Jesus rose from the dead, but he insists Jesus never even lived.”

    He doesn’t ‘insist’, he argues that it is improbable that Jesus lived, an entirely reasonable position. As a statistician, do you think it is 100% probable that Jesus existed based on flimsy evidence?

  6. Swordfish most historians think it is not a matter of doubt that Jesus existed. The one hundred percent proof of his having lived is no better than doubting Julius Caesar’s existence. What people are talking about is Faith in the truth of the resurrection. Without which, Christianity falls.
    ….
    First there is what is a miracle, which can be something so highly improbable but meaningful as to appear miraculous, or something which, like resurrection, is apparently a transgression of laws.

    I don’t think that in the fullness of time resurrection will look so much like a breaking of a natural law but the picture will be more complete.

    They are the evidence for believers that God knows infinitely more than humans. They are if witnessed a call for humility by the faithful but few Christian intellectuals show this trait and so perhaps have not witnessed anything of the living God. There’s no darkness but ignorance.

  7. There are many Jesuses out there. There is absolutely no doubt that a man named Jesus has existed at some point in time. I have met 10 or 20.

    I am one of those ignorant Atheists. Every time I start down the path of learning the Mysteries, I am confronted by the problems of language that make me step back. I no longer attack those of faith. Faith has a rational place in life. Getting too enamored of faith does not. The discussions of metaphysics are attempts to point at the things we can’t quite point at. Word salads do come out of these discussions. The harder it is to point at, the more words will flow.

    Popperesque Science is about getting rid of the bad ideas. All ideas are bad to some degree. The better we can get rid of the bad ideas the better we can view the rest. Which once again is the start of word salad. Someone standing up and declaring they know the TRUTH is much more likely to get followers that someone who says “Hey, I can point at lots of things that ARE NOT the truth”…

  8. “Faith has a rational place in life. Getting too enamored (sic) of faith does not.”
    According to whom, Brad?

  9. Hard to judge without the context behind the quotes. However, this scholarly writing by Briggs successfully conveys the message that if you don’t agree with him, then you must be profoundly ignorant.

    I have attended a few bio-statistics seminars in which the well-known statisticians/speakers admitted that they did not have deep understanding of genetics and would often rely on geneticists to confirm their findings based on data. (The fun of a statistician!) Nothing wrong with saying that. Seriously, they probably know more genetics than I do. The more research we do, the more we realize how little we know about other areas. Humility!

    Except for Peter and John, of course, the authors of letters and, in John’s case, a gospel and an apocalypse.

    Are you sure about this claim?

  10. I have experienced several events that people would see as miracles. Because of those events, my grandma often told me that I must be a prince who accumulated great Karma in my past life. Not sure why I couldn’t be a princess or if she truly believed so, but I like her belief.

  11. Lee, Grant people the credit they deserve.
    Some of the worlds ‘highest intellect’ believe in miracles. They do not make the assumption you claim about simple failure to understand. It is failure to be able to explain. Neither can you. The only claim can be that people are either lying or mistaken.
    There’s nothing new there. Of course people believing in miracles know this too.

  12. Its reassuring to see/read how accepting folks are for miracles — where the flimsiest correlation based on assurances of a rare event(s) suffices, while demanding much more rigor for other things where a pattern of correlations is dismissed as being insufficient to attribute cause.

    How does one apply the minimal-correlation-validates-miracle sans any evidence versus a pattern of correlations cannot be accepted as causal, even with some evidence?

    The criterion seems predictable in advance: If miracle, then flimsy is accepted without question. If mundane, rigor is applied. Any violations of that (there’s a statistical analysis buried there!)?

  13. Dead means dead, and it is the nature of dead things to stay dead things unless a supernatural force changes the nature of that particular dead thing so that it can come back to life.

    Sorta makes you wonder how all that dead matter was alive to begin with.

    But the gospels were written many decades after Jesus died

    So what? They were not written many decades after the apostles died.

    …and not by the people whose names are attached to them.

    How would anyone other than 19th century German academics know this? Do they have copies of them with other names attached?

    [Carrier] argues that it is improbable that Jesus lived, an entirely reasonable position.

    Or would be if other historians took him seriously. By his criteria, it is an entirely reasonable position that Socrates or Hannibal never lived. And where does he get his probabilities from?

    Its reassuring to see/read how accepting folks are for miracles — where the flimsiest correlation based on assurances of a rare event(s) suffices

    One sees instances of this on the evening news quite often. Only once have I seen a report of a statistical correlation study reported with all the cautions and caveats appertaining to such a thing; and that was one reporting a relationship between breast cancer and abortion. All sorts of objections were raised that I have never seen raised before or since. Otherwise, the “associations” are reported with charming credulity.

  14. Joy,

    “Swordfish most historians think it is not a matter of doubt that Jesus existed. The one hundred percent proof of his having lived is no better than doubting Julius Caesar’s existence.”

    That’s what I used to think, but it simply isn’t true. We have Caeser’s profile on coins, but almost nothing for Jesus. I wonder why, if carrier is so unpersuasive, Briggs and others attack him so aggressively? I recommend the following video, although it’s quite long:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUYRoYl7i6U

  15. Ye Olde Statistician,

    “So what? They [the gospels] were not written many decades after the apostles died.”

    “How would anyone other than 19th century German academics know this? Do they have copies of them with other names attached?”

    From Wikipedia:

    Mark

    According to tradition and early church fathers, first attested by Papias of Hierapolis, the author is Mark the Evangelist, the companion of the apostle Peter. The gospel, however, appears to rely on several underlying sources, varying in form and in theology, which tells against the tradition that the gospel was based on Peter’s preaching. Various elements within the gospel, including the importance of the authority of Peter and the broadness of the basic theology, suggest that the author wrote in Syria or Palestine for a non-Jewish Christian community which had earlier absorbed the influence of pre-Pauline beliefs and then developed them further independent of Paul.

    Matthew

    Early Christian tradition, first attested by Papias of Hierapolis, held that the Gospel of Matthew was written in “Hebrew” (Aramaic, the language of Judea) by the apostle Matthew, the tax-collector and disciple of Jesus, but according to the majority of modern scholars it is unlikely that this Gospel was written by an eyewitness. Modern scholars interpret the tradition to mean that Papias, writing about 125–150 CE, believed that Matthew had made a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Papias’s description does not correspond well with what is known of the gospel: it was most probably written in Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew, it depends on the Greek Gospel of Mark and on the hypothetical Q document, and it is not a collection of sayings. Although the identity of the author is unknown, the internal evidence of the Gospel suggests that he was an ethnic Jewish male scribe from a Hellenised city, possibly Antioch in Syria, and that he wrote between 70 and 100 CE using a variety of oral traditions and written sources about Jesus.

    Luke

    There is general acceptance that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles originated as a two-volume work by a single author addressed to an otherwise unknown individual named Theophilus. This author was an “amateur Hellenistic historian” versed in Greek rhetoric, that being the standard training for historians in the ancient world.

    John

    John 21:24 identifies the author of the Gospel of John as “the beloved disciple,” and from the late 2nd century tradition, first attested by Irenaeus, this figure, unnamed in the Gospel itself, was identified with John the son of Zebedee. Today, however, most scholars agree that John 21 is an appendix to the Gospel, which originally ended at John 20:30–31. The majority of scholars date the Gospel of John to c. 80–95, and propose that the author made use of two major sources, a “Signs” source (a collection of seven miracle stories) and a “Discourse” source.

  16. Yes. Wikipedia is even more incisive than 19th century German academics. Of course, Wiki is simply repeating what these 19th century academics read into the texts. They pulled out from John a set of miracle stories and declared without any outside evidence that these constituted a “Signs” gospel.

    Me, being something of an empiricist, I’ll believe in “Signs” and “Q” when copies are found, or contemporary references to them. Otherwise, they seem to be the 19th century skeptic/academic equivalent of seeing the face of Jesus in a potato; that is, of seeing what they want to or expect to see.

    You can pull the same trick with virtually any document. Morton used stylometric analysis to show that St. Paul’s Epistles were written by six different authors. But Schoenbaum applied the same method to James Joyce and found that Ulysses was written by five different people. Who knows what they would make of Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.

    Even Wikipedia acknowledges that the gospel tradition was set by Papias, Iranaeus, and others. Iraneaus was a student of John and Papias, also a “hearer of John,” was in contact with Apollon, John the Presbyter, the daughters of Philip, and the disciples in Antioch and Jerusalem who had known the other apostles personally.

    (Jerome also mentions Aramaic Matthew as being the only gospel used by the Ebionites, a sect of Jewish Christians in Palestine. One interesting theory is that Aramaic Matthew just is the hypothetical Q, and Greek Matthew is a translation of this for the Gentile audience with some added explanatory material regarding Jewish lore and customs.)

    There is considerable internal evidence tying Mark to Peter.

  17. Briggs may attack Carrier for the same reason historians and other scholars attack him — when they take any notice of him at all. Here’s one from an atheist with an interest in history:

    Tim O’Neill says:
    October 23, 2017 at 10:51 pm
    I consider Carrier a pseudo scholar because his bias IS that bad. He repeatedly champions fringe ideas, peddles ludicrously contrived and unconvincing theories and makes patent errors of interpretation purely because of his weird biases against religion in general and Christianity in particular. The fact that he had a PhD does not make him “an expert in the field”, it just makes him someone who is qualified to be an expert. It’s what you do after that first step that decides whether you are an expert in the field and all Carrier has done is prove himself a failure.

    https://historyforatheists.com/2017/05/did-jesus-exist-the-jesus-myth-theory-again/

  18. Ye Olde Statistician channelling someone called Tim O’Neill,

    “He [Carrier] repeatedly champions fringe ideas, peddles ludicrously contrived and unconvincing theories”

    Unlike the completely uncontrived and convincing theories which decide on the strength of a few selected, self-contradictory, partially-cribbed stories, that a god-man who was his own father, and whose mother was a virgin, was able to walk on water, turn water into wine and raise people from the dead, came back to life after being killed, then disappeared.

  19. @Mr. Bone:
    I am only pointing out that Briggs’ opinion of Carrier is the mainstream opinion of scholars in the field. I picked O’Neill because he is also an atheist and makes not representation that the stories told in the gospels are true. (Neither do Ehrman and other scholars, for that matter.) Also, O’Neill has a particular animus regarding the poor historical knowledge of the soi disant “new atheists” of the modern “whatever” generation. Other posts to the same effect can be found at the site I linked.

    The present question of whether Jesus was an actual historical character is independent of any religious burden that has been laid upon him. Certainly, Josephus and Tacitus gave him no such credit in giving mention to his existence.