Are Extraordinary Situations Indicative of Miracles?

I often hear the following stories during conversations with theists, "Well, this one event in my life was so improbable and extraordinary that there's no way it could have happened without some sort of divine intervention!"

Last night during a meetup with the Wilkes-Barre Interfaith Community, one of these stories were told and it went like this:

I was driving down a long road with some friends and family and was lost. I had no clue where I was and I was running out of gas. There wasn't a gas station anywhere and I was getting very worried. Someone in the car, a minister, prayed that we would find gas very soon and we decided to stop at the next house that had a light on. We pulled up and an old couple actually had a gas pump and gave us gas! Now I'm a math guy... and the chances of that are so extraordinary!

A first problem we have with anecdotal stories like this is that we really can't verify them - the story is limited to the individual or other individuals who were present. They could also all be fooled, stretching the details, etc. With a story like this, I don't think that there is some sort of lie going on and the person seemed credible. It's certainly not impossible to pull up to a house and gas, but I might be more suspicious if they said that a UFO landed and transferred some sort of space gas...

A second problem with stories like this is that people often count the "hits" and ignore the
"misses." We tend to notice when our prayers seemed to produce some sort of effect, but we don't really notice (or typically tell stories about) the failures. For instance, I'm sure you've heard people thinking "I was thinking of a friend and my phone rang! I knew it was him calling at it was!" How many times have you thought of a friend and received no phone call? How many times was it someone else? If we ran some sort of experiment where we drove down long random roads and happened to pray and stop at a first house with a light we saw, how many times would we get gas from people? The chances are very slim...but that time you were successful.

A third problem is that stories like this often are based on a false premise leading to a supposed conclusion. Perhaps the prayer had nothing to do with getting the gas. Just because you prayed does not mean that this was why you got the gas. What if you rubbed your head three times before you took a test? Would you credit the head rubbing with success? We're doing the same thing with the prayer here... In other words, correlation does not imply causation.

The largest and fourth problem with stories like this is that they are huge arguments from incredulity/ignorance. The idea that we have no explanation for why something happened does not mean that we can or should attribute a supernatural cause. I often hear comments like, "The universe is so amazing and we don't understand it...God must have made it!" Well, no...religion actually has a pretty bad track record at answering questions without current answers from the idea of the sun in the sky moving with a chariot, to Zeus striking people with lightning, and famine caused by lack of worship to a deity. If we don't know, we should simply say that we don't know and look for an answer instead of drawing a hasty conclusion.

A fifth problem related to the first is that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Some theists may try to say something like "Well, disprove it then! Explain how it happened! If you can't explain it it must be because God did it!" This response is ridiculous and it's so ridiculous that I've covered it in a previous blog post. Imagine that I told you that I can fly and manipulate street lights with my eyes. You would not accept me saying "Prove that I can't do it," so don't think that the theist is justified in trying this tactic when God is involved.

The above story may not seem to be very extraordinary, but I'll pose a different one for another example.

My sister was very sick for weeks. We developed a debilitating cancer and the doctors said she would only live for one more month. My family was praying for her and the cancer remitted! God must have intervened and saved her! There's no other explanation!

In a case like this, we can apply the four major problems above and look at the situation with a skeptical eye...but what about the doctors, what about the fact that cancer does remit?

This isn't about poking fun at people or being a dick, of course...but we really should think about situations like this. Millions of people have these stories like this to tell and attribute their god or supernatural beliefs to the answer to the mysteries...

For more coverage on prayer, please read my "Perils of Prayer" post and for more coverage on miracle claims, please read my post on that subject.