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From A C Grayling (Meditations for the Humanist 2002)


Men talk about Bible miracles because there is no miracle in their lives. Cease to gnaw that crust. There is ripe fruit over your head. Thoreau


The happy fact about miracles is that they require no support in the way of evidence or rational evaluation. Indeed, they do better without them. Mark Twain illustrates this by relating how an enquirer asked a celebrated professor whether recently-received reports (it was then 1909) claiming that Dr Frederick Cook had discovered the North Pole were true. 'The answer, yes or no,' replied the professor, 'depends entirely upon the answer to this question: Is it claimed that Dr Cook's achievement is a Fact, or a Miracle? If it is a Miracle, any sort of evidence will answer, but if it is a Fact, proof is necessary.' 'Is that the law?' asked the enquirer. 'Yes,' said the professor, 'it is absolute. Modifications of it are not permissible. A very pertinent remark has been quoted from the Westminster Gazette, which points out that "the golfer, when he puts in a record round, has to have his card signed, and that there is nobody to sign Dr Cook's card; there are two Eskimos to vouch for his feat, to be sure, but they were his caddies, and at golf their evidence would not be accepted." There you have the whole case. If Dr Cook's feat is put forward as Fact, the evidence of the two caddies is inadequate; if it is put forward as Miracle, one caddy is plenty.'

Miracles are standardly described as supernatural abrogations of the laws of nature. Some believers hold that they are not abrogations of nature's laws, but only seem that way to ignorant humanity. In any event they are extremely non-standard events. Obviously, the concept of the miraculous is very useful because it can be invoked to explain anything whatever. But therein also lays its weakness; as David Hume pointed out, when one weighs the evidence supporting the regular functioning of natural laws with evidence supporting claims that there has been a singular violation of them, the former must always so far outweigh the latter as to render them nugatory. And he added that it is infinitely more likely that a person who claims to have witnessed a miracle is mistaken, or deluded, or lying, than that the relevant laws of nature should in fact have been abolished temporarily for some local purpose.

There is another and better sense of 'miracle', a colloquial one, denoting what is wonderful in both nature and human nature at their best. No gods are needed to explain them, and the only faith required is in the world's own capacity for good -a capacity which, in its variety and extent, is itself miraculous.


Study prophecies when they are become histories. Sir Thomas Browne


It seems that the third prophecy of Fatima, kept secret until recently, concerned the assassination attempt on the Pope in 1981. Heaven's choice of what to alert us to is a mystery - the famines, genocides, earthquakes and plagues provided by the divine mercy since Fatima were not advertised as forthcoming in its bulletin, yet the assassination attempt was. According to a Cardinal who is the Vatican secretary of state, a complete text of the prophecy will be published after what he unblushingly describes as 'appropriate' preparation, so perhaps the special significance of the event will be explained.

Still, the banality of most Christian messages from heaven since St John (the Apocalypse is a hard act to follow) is something of a relief in comparison to those in other religions, which seem mainly to encourage the murder of heretics (i.e. those who disagree with the leaders of the faith in question).

News that the third prophecy of Fatima was fulfilled two decades ago suggests that the Vatican know Thomas Browne's remark, quoted above. Prophecies are always more plausible when their futures are in our pasts, so that we can interpret them historically. As with Rorschach blots, the past is very generous in the interpretations it admits.  If, as with the quatrains of Nostradamus, the prophecies themselves are couched in maximally obscure terms, a happy marriage results: all prophecies can be made to come out true.

In biblical times, and for a long period afterwards, 'prophecy' meant interpreting the will of God. A prophet was a teacher, a moralist, as well as a forecaster. All religions and traditions have their seers. Apollo, frustrated in his passion for the chaste Cassandra, cursed her prophecies so that no one would believe them. Tiresias the blind seer saw more and further than any sighted man. Soothsayers have never been short of work because humans are superstitious and life is uncertain - a profitable combination from the soothsayer's point of view. The church condemned many seers as votaries of Satan, on the grounds that attempting to know the future is sinful. This applied only to prophecy not licensed by the church itself, of course, and represents a market strategy for undermining the competition.

Prophecy in the sense of foretelling the future makes sense only if determinism is true - that is, if the future history of the world is already settled and fixed. Theologians have their work cut out reconciling the free will required for sin with the omniscience of God who, knowing everything, knows what is to come. The medieval Schoolmen devised elaborate explanations of how human freedom and divine foreknowledge can coexist. For sheer ingenuity their arguments earn high marks.

Prophecy has a respectable and necessary cousin, which is rational forecasting based on past experience and current data, with a view to assessing what is more probable than not in such matters as tomorrow's weather, next year's social trends, and the long-term effects of cigarette-smoking and pollution. All life is movement into the future, and therefore planning and preparing is essential if life is to be worth living. The premise of this view is the exact opposite of the one underlying belief in prophecy: it is that the future does not yet exist, but is ours to make - and that we can make it best on the basis of intelligent understanding of the past and present.

Even in antiquity the examination of auspices was not always seen as predictive, but as revealing the current state of the gods' attitudes. If the gods were hostile, the likelihood was that the proposed venture - a battle, or the building of a palace - would fail. But enough libations and sacrifices could change the gods' minds, securing success. Some ancient philosophers recognized the startling implication of this idea. It is that if we can influence what will happen, we are therefore responsible for what will happen, for even doing nothing is a choice. Regarding the future as open therefore makes us the captains of our fate. To think the opposite - that prophecy is possible, and that therefore the future is fixed - leaves us merely fate's victims.


All great truths begin as blasphemies. George Bernard Shaw


If I impugn your God or gods, in your view I blaspheme. So if an alien comes to a Christian country and tells its devout citizens that their belief in virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and so forth, is nonsense, and that they should instead bow down before the horned toad as the true incarnation of deity, that alien would be branded a blasphemer. The alien, of course, would retort the charge on his accusers' heads. And so it would go on, until either he or they were reduced to cinders at some convenient stake.

It is hard to give a straightforward definition of blasphemy, because blasphemy comes into existence when something that someone says or writes gives a special kind of offence to someone else, the offence typically consisting in a perceived insult to something cherished as divine. But it depends on cases; and it always takes two - a giver and a receiver of offence - to make blasphemy possible. We gain insights into the concept by looking at examples of its application. Consider the story of the Italian miller Menocchio, brilliantly told in Carlo Ginzburg's classic The Cheese and the Worms. Menocchio perished at the stake in 1600 for denying the virginity of Mary and the divinity of Jesus. He had his own theology, which he attempted to persuade his contemporaries to accept; but because it was not the theology of the Inquisition, he died at the stake. Examples can be multiplied endlessly; what they have in common is: difference in perception, with the stronger power persecuting the weaker as a result.

It is a mistake to think that controversies over blasphemy are, despite occasional flare-ups like the Rushdie affair, dying out. It is a Freudian idea that religion, like perversion, is a precultural phenomenon, belonging to the infancy of mankind, and that with its slow demise go all the appurtenances of belief in witchcraft, evil, devil-possession, heresy, blasphemy and the like. But although Freud all his life opposed religion as a sinister force that must be defeated - he was a 'master blasphemer' in this sense - the threat of conflict always lurks. Blasphemy is a destructive idea, a dangerous, subjective catch-all used by superstitious people to deny others their liberty of thought. The world would be a better place if the notion were purged from it.

And that in particular means that blasphemy laws should be abolished wherever they still exist. Such laws, like those about obscenity and censorship, are simply instruments for controlling ideas. Thus viewed, blasphemy is a healthy phenomenon because it is a sign of free speech, and demonstrates the maturing of society from one level of belief and practice to another.


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com)

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