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Volume 7, Issue 6: Non Est

Miracles or Magic Tricks

Douglas Jones

It is not inconceivable that Jesus, whether believing or half-believing that he had a divine mission, also practiced the arts of deception. The hypothesis has at least some credence, not simply because it was the view of many of his critics in antiquity, but because it can be further corroborated by analogy with how similar methods are used today." Humanist Paul Kurtz raises this ancient objection against Christ in his critique of religion entitled, The Transcendental Temptation. 1

Of the "many critics in antiquity," Kurtz cites Celsus, to whom Origen attributes the claim that, "(Jesus) hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, in which the Egyptians greatly prided themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God" (p. 134).
As examples of Jesus' use of conjuring methods, Kurtz suggests that "'getting a spirit' (as in Jesus' baptism) was the first step for many magicians," and Jesus being driven by a spirit into the wilderness was "a common variant of shamanistic initiation" (p. 141). Similarly, Jesus' use of spitting, and even mixing it with sand, was a common Egyptian magical practice, and a trickster named Marcus would consecrate a cup of water and then cause the water to take on a red color. Perhaps, suggests Kurtz, that when Jesus told the Samaritan woman facts about herself, he could have used similar "cold" or "hot" reading techniques common to today's psychic frauds. Moreover, often when Jesus was asked for a sign, He gave none, "thus we see that Jesus was not always able to perform on demand, which raises suspicion that he needed some advance preparation" (p.145).
What are we to make of such claims? First, Kurtz isn't exactly citing a nonpartisan commentator when he cites Celsus. Celsus was a virulent opponent of Christianity "who charged that Christians contributed nothing to the common welfare of the empire". 2 Citing Celsus, then, would be like citing Kurtz as evidence against Christianity. No stretch. Moreover, Celsus himself believed in magic and openly accused Christians of being magicians (though in fact the Christians had quite a reputation for debunking pagan frauds). 3
More fundamentally, though, Kurtz poses an epistemological challenge. Jesus' miracles resemble those of charlatans, and aren't we justified in siding with human experience against the likelihood of miracles? Following Hume, Kurtz explains that "our knowledge of nature or history must be based upon the evidences of the senses, including reports of reliable witnesses. . . . Is the evidence for historical miracles strong enough so that we may reject past and present testimony of the senses?" (p. 137).
Kurtz certainly thinks this is a neutral, reasonable standard, but in fact it greatly begs the question at hand. This sort of empirical criterion assumes the truth of his worldview and excludes Christianity from the start. If Christianity is true, then we would be foolish to limit probability to the very narrow constraints of sense perception. God would immediately be excluded. What would Kurtz say if a Christian proposed a similarly "neutral" standard for probability by suggesting that we toss out any humanist claim as irrational and improbable which violates the standard of Scripture. The humanist would quickly cry foul, but he is doing the same thing.
Equally problematic for this humanistic standard of probability is that it isn't Humean enough. If the humanist is going to limit knowledge to Humean sense perception, then he can't justifiably speak of past and present testimony to count against miracles. For the Humean empiricist, all sense perceptions are fleeting, disconnected images that forever sever us from the real world. Our present perceptions have no intrinsic connection to anything in the past, for the Humean, so talk of accumulating testimony is like speaking of spilled marbles as if they were a solid ruler. Kurtz's standard not only destroys empirical testimony but also mathematics, meaning, ethics, and the standard itself since it is not perceivable by the senses. That's quite a feat for someone so confident that the evidence for miracles is weak.
Not only, then, is this standard question-begging and self-defeating, but Kurtz shows more of a penchant for magic than Christians do. For example, Kurtz most clearly wants to evaluate and reject Christian claims on the basis of objective rationality. He says that one's views are "connected by logical inference" where "the rules of deductive logic apply" (p. 52). But when raising ultimate questions, he hedges: "to demand a justification for first principles . . . is to raise a spurious question. In regard to the justification of deduction, the justification of general rules derives as much from particular judgments . . . as from an examination of the general rules themselves. . . . Thus, the rules and particular inferences alike are justified by being brought into agreement with each other. A rule is amended if it yields an inference we are unwilling to accept " (p. 55; emphasis added).
Particular judgments somehow add up to universal claims and are ultimately accepted if we like the inference. Wow. This not only kills the objectivity of reason, but he certainly doesn't speak in such subjectivist, hesitant terms while he is junking Christianity. There he is quite confident. That's the real magic of humanism. Somehow they whisper incantations over subjective standards, and, hocus pocus, the subjective turns into the objective. Everyone nods and applauds but refuses to check under the table. It's much easier to believe that a sovereign God can perform miracles than to believe that a humanist can preserve rationality.

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