Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Gawd! It's a Miracle!

On October 29, 2011, the Associated Press ran a heartwarming story about an adorable dog that cheated death. ("Stray dog awaits adoption after surving gas chamber," The Buffalo News, p. A7.)

On October 3rd, a new operator of a gas chamber run by the Animal Control Department in Florence, Alabama, placed the dog into the chamber with other animals. Carbon monoxide was fed into the chamber. The lucky dog was the only survivor.

Surely a genuine miracle of a religious nature must have occurred. After all, there is no other possible explanation as to how the dog could have survived. Indeed, workers at the animal shelter named the dog Daniel, after the biblical hero that made it out of the lion's den.

Not so fast. About four paragraphs into the news story, a spokesman for the city, Phil Stevenson, offered another possible scenario. "It may be that his breathing was shallow because of a cold or something." Sadly, however, Stevenson added, "Or maybe God just had a better plan for this one."

Fortunately, Julie Morris, senior vice president of community outreach for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, delved more thoughtfully into the subject. According to the news article, Morris said:

Variables that could allow a dog to survive such a gassing include the number of animals placed in the chamber, the concentration of carbon monoxide, whether the chamber is airtight and the health of the animal, with young healthy animals having the best chance for survival...Since carbon monoxide is heavier than air, it sinks, so a tall dog, or one that climbed to the top of a pile, would have a better chance of surviving....

Such cases are extremely rare. However, they do occur. A rare case, an amazing coincidence, or a mystery should never be mistaken for the occurrence of a genuine miracle of a religious nature.

However, such ignorance lies at the foundation of theistic religion. For example, Bible believers claim that God created the rainbow as a promise to humanity that he would never again destroy the Earth with a Flood. Yet we now know that rainbows are created by the refraction and dispersioin of sunlight on drops of rain. Still, people prefer the poetic religious tale.

Similarly, many theists embrace the biblical story that God created the stars. However,we have known for years how stars are formed naturally. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we can see areas in the galaxy where stars and planetary systems are being born. (There is no reason to suppose that a mystery God is making it all happen.)

What about the "miracle" of life? Certainly God must have created life on Earth. However, amino acids, the basic building blocks of life, oranize themselves. Moreover, they do so selectively. Again, there is no reason to suppose that there is a God lying at the bottom of it all.

Still, certainly genuine religious miracles occur with regularity throuhout the world. For example, what about all of the wonderful faith healers doing good through the power of Jesus? Many faith healers are simply dishonest. The skeptic James Randi has exposed such faith healers as Peter Popoff. For example, Randi discovered that Popoff was able to secretly get information from his followers because he had a tiny electronic transmitter in his ear. His wife, unbeknown to his followers, was relaying him the information, and he appeared to be quite the impressive man of God. Steve Martin revisted this faith healing trick in his film, "Leap of Faith."

One could talk about morality, the origins of life or the universe as we know it, etc. Unless there is a Theory of Everything (TOE), it is highly likely that there will always be gaps in human knowledge. However, why are theists always so anxious to rush and fill in those gaps by positing a mystery God? Why should there be so much shame in saying, "I simply do not know"? After all, once the gaps are finally filled (always by naturalistic explanations), theistic explanations come to look embarrassingly foolish. (For example, since the germ theory supplanted the belief that demons caused diseases, the demon theory has come to be viewed as ridiculously childish, and rightfully so.)

Nature is not nearly as lame as most theists seem to believe. On the contrary, nature is far more complex and powerful than most theists dare to imagine. It operates according to its own laws. Most importantly, it seems in no way obligated to humanity or any other life form to reveal any of its secrets. It is up to human beings to try to learn as much about the universe as possible. Deists used to talk about Nature's God. However, most human beings believe they need God. Nature is in need of no God.

We should not be afraid to confront perplexing questions. Bill Cosby used to joke about his experience with philosophy. He was once faced with the question, "Why is there air?" He responded, "to blow up basketballs." That is certainly a better answer than to simply say, "because God created it."

After all is said and done, there is no good reason to assume that miracles of a religious nature occur. We will be confronted with questions such as, "Where does gravity come from?" However, rather than copping out and resorting to miracle mongering, we can pursue another course. We can say, "We don't know, but in all probablity, it is the result of natural, though deeply mysterious, processes." Such a response would certaily embolden scientists to try get to the bottom of the matter. The truth is not always poetic. Then again, why should it have to be?

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