Gibbon On The Decline and Fall of Miracles?

From Edward Gibbon‘s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“:

From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles, is continued without interruption; and the progress of superstition was so gradual, and almost imperceptible, that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenaeus. If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

It is amazing the snarkiness of tone you find regarding religion by 18th century writers – it certainly was “The Enlightenment”. I have to say it gives me a chuckle – clearly they were enjoying their new found freedom, albeit carefully masked in the “plausible deniability” of ambivalent sarcasm.

In any case, I love his point – when (and why) did we go from an age of miracles to one that is virtually miracle free (as in the “supernatural” form)? What changed?

I think the answer is self evident – nothing has probably changed except our ability to believe in fairy tales. Much of what was considered acceptable evidence in the early years of the Church would now be frankly considered a joke. As scientific method increased and people subsequently became more skeptical, those generating “miracles” found themselves under new scrutiny, eventually leading those inclined to the practice to give up altogether (or to be diagnosed as was probably often the case – as being insane).

That’s not to say that there were absolutely no miracles and could absolutely be no miracles, but the fact that we find ourselves in an age where there are essentially none occurring now must give one pause to those ascribed to prior history. Certainly one has to admit they were a dime a dozen in early Christianity, with little or no verification. Subsequently one has to wonder if they are any more reliable than the average politician’s claim to honesty.

The comments above of course mostly pertain to the early history of the church where just about anyone could (and did) claim authority, but what of the events of the actual Gospels? Does one have similar reason to doubt the miracles there?

Of course – without doubt. The bar of miraculous evidence was not any higher for Gospels (and frankly the Gospels were written in the early years of the Church)(ie: by the same people spitting out miracles like so much candy). Why wouldn’t the New Testament miracles themselves be just as questionable?

Let’s take a simple example – exorcisms.

Jesus, and for that matter the Apostles, regularly cast out “unclean spirits”. Now while the Catholic church might still enjoy a good exorcism now and then, those are pretty far and few between as opposed to the rather common practice as displayed in the Gospels.

Today of course pretty much every case of “unclean spirits” is correctly diagnosed for what it is – mental illness and I think it’s pretty hard to argue that what Jesus et al were “casting out” was anything but that. I say this  because first we know in those times that mental illness was ascribed to possession, and second because the need for exorcisms also  curiously disappeared as science progressed (or rather as the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness progressed).

Add to the fact that once exorcised, the “unclean spirits” were able to leave their host and say, enter pigs (or even be entered into conversation with), then one has to wonder if the miracle of “casting out of spirits” was made up from whole cloth. Clearly we know mental illness does not speak separately for itself nor can it traverse beings.

I suppose as a Christian apologist you could answer with two rebutals:

  1. That Jesus was actually curing mental illness and for the understanding of the time, the theatrics were necessary to impart the miracle, which it would still be, to the faithless masses (why explaining mental illness instead would be more difficult is another question).
  2. That there were a lot more demons floating around to infiltrate the unsuspecting and thanks to the excellent work of Jesus and those who followed, well, we live in a nice demon free world today.

Neither of these seem very compelling, and following Occam’s Razor, the far more likely explanation is these miracles were, well, false, made up, delusions, fictions, whatever.

And of course if the exorcisms were fiction, well, how many more of the so called “miracles” were also fiction? Certainly if the description of “casting out of spirits” is false, one has to doubt the reliability of the witnesses in general.

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