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Real Miracles

Entry 1371, on 2012-03-22 at 20:51:44 (Rating 4, Religion)

A while back I listened to a podcast which was critical of religious miracle claims and of religion in general. One of the points it made was that what was seen as a miracle at the time the common holy books were written has now been far surpassed by science, and that is partly thanks to the abandonment of reliance on faith.

So even if the religious miracle claims are true (an idea which is very unlikely) they aren't that great because we can do far better today using science and technology, plus modern "miracles" have the additional advantage that we know they are true!

So on to some examples...

In the New Testament Jesus is reported as having fed a large number of people using a small amount of food. These events are referred to as "feeding the multitude". On one occasion 5000 were fed from five loaves and two fish, and on the other 4000 were fed from seven loaves and fish.

Of course the historical accuracy of these events is highly doubtful, especially since the second event is only reported in 2 out of the 4 gospels, but let's just leave that and compare them with modern efforts.

Thanks to science resulting in technologies such as synthetic fertilisers, high yield crops, pesticides, and mechanisation an estimated one billion people have been saved from starvation. The improvements to agriculture occurred mainly from the 1940s to 1970s and Norman Borlaug is acknowledged as the leader of what is often known as the "green revolution".

So it's Jesus 9000 (possibly) and Norman Borlaug (representing science) one billion (approximately). Which is the greater miracle?

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival celebrating an alleged miracle during the re-dedication of the second temple. The story says that where there was only enough oil to light a lamp for one night but it managed to burn for 8.

It's a cute story, but modern technology is more impressive, I think. Long life bulbs and super-efficient LEDs make oil lamps burning for 8 days look fairly unimpressive. Another win for technology over mythology.

There are a few interesting miracles which come from Islam as well. They speak of holy men who help barren women to conceive (I really don't want to know the details of this one) and of miraculous transportation and communications over great distances.

But do these stories measure up to modern medical interventions such as IVF, high speed air and land transport, and the great array of near instantaneous communications we now have? Even if the miracles were true I still don't think they are quite in the same league.

I think that anyone transported to today from the primitive times when these miracles allegedly occurred would think that everyday life now is far more miraculous than anything described in the holy books.

My iPhone is more miraculous than anything they could have imagined. The fact that I can take a plane to the other side of the world and be anywhere in a single day is a great miracle. Modern building, communications, computing, transport, medicine, and many other things make God's efforts look pretty mediocre.

Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He was right. Some people claim that the miracle stories of the Bible are evidence that aliens with advanced technology were present at the time, but I don't think so. The miracles are too lame to be the result of advanced alien technology, but they are just lame enough that they could have been made up by people trying to make their god look good.

I'm often asked if I believe in miracles. Sure, yes. I experience technological miracles every day and they are far better than what my religious friends imagine happened.

One final point. You will have noticed that I have criticised all 3 major Abrahamic religions in this entry. I am an equal opportunity critic of religion. I think all three are ridiculous and would hate to be accused of favouring one over the others, although I certainly enjoy criticising the current dominant religion more than the others!

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Comment 1 (3001) by Rob on 2012-03-24 at 22:45:27:

Overall a good rant but you lose me at the end. Technological miracles? That just cheapens the word, especially if you see multiple miraculous events per day. Were they:

1. A wonderful event occurring in the physical world attributed to supernatural powers?
or
2. A fortunate outcome that prevails despite overwhelming odds against it?
or perhaps
3. An awesome and exceptional example of something.

I believe you should write a blog about the degradation of the English language as penance for your sin.

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Comment 2 (3002) by OJB on 2012-03-25 at 06:42:28:

First, I fully agree that the word has multiple meanings and clearly I wasn't using the "classic" supernatural one here. But that was sort of my point: as the Clarke quote suggests the two (supernatural events and extremely impressive technology) can be indistinguishable to a person who doesn't understand the details of the "miracle".

I also agree that a blog entry on the misuse of the English language is a good suggestion. I have a few ideas on my favourite transgressions already!

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Comment 3 (3003) by Rob on 2012-03-25 at 11:51:34:

Clarke's statement should come with qualifiers. Sufficiently advanced technology shouldn't be indistinguishable from magic. Magic is an illusion whereas technology is fact, physics and science. An educated, or reasonably knowledgeable person, should be able to distinguish the two. Miracles are neither magic or technology but I could see how the three could become confused, especially to some tribal member deep in the Amazon forest who hasn't seen anything more technologically advanced than fire. Do these people even exist any longer? I'll allow people attributing technology to magic or miracles when time travel becomes an option.

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Comment 4 (3004) by OJB on 2012-03-25 at 16:36:45:

By including the words "any sufficiently advanced technology" he implies that the technology must be well ahead of anything the person experiencing it knows about. Therefore it would operate on principles he couldn't even imagine.

For example, take a really intelligent person from 2000 years ago (Aristotle for example) and ask him to explain an iPhone. No chance, right? But he should be able to explain the Antikythera mechanism.

So an iPhone would be sufficiently advanced that it would look like magic but older technology wouldn't. Presumably there are intelligent aliens out there somewhere with technologies so advanced they would seem like magic to us.

Of course any smart person could distinguish between technology and a real supernatural miracle because only one of those two things actually exists! Therefore picking advanced technology would always be a good bet!

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