I recently had a discussion with someone in the YouTube comments section. Despite being one of the worst possible places to hold a conversation about controversial topics like religion – not only because of the format but also because of the constant badgering and interruptions from trolls – I felt like the outcome was generally quite positive.
The person I was speaking to introduced himself as an atheist who was considering converting to either Islam or Christianity but was having trouble deciding between them. I tried to help as best I could, but the interesting part was that he seemed unusually preoccupied with miracles. His first example was a section of the Quran where Muhammad supposedly predicted the coming of airplanes and air travel (Surah 51:7), but when I explained that this was just an oath and to take it as a prophecy was a stretch, he wanted to know about Christianity's miracles. The conversation went on for some time until I offered him my email address to continue in a better format. He accepted – though I never actually heard from him again – by telling me that he would love for me to tell him all about Christian miracles.
In hindsight, the conversation makes sense though I found it unusual at the time. As an atheist, it would seem reasonable to him that the religion which can actually provide proof of supernatural activity is the one that must be true, but I hesitate to go along with that line of thought. Not only do I have very little "solid evidence" for the sort of contemporary miracles that this man was looking for (it's out there, but since this has never been an area of real study for me, all I have is hearsay and stories which aren't all that convincing if you're not predisposed to believe them at face value), but I do not believe that this is a good reason to accept or reject any particular faith. We simply cannot evaluate the truth value of a religion based on its claims to miracles or other sorts of religious or spiritual experiences. This may seem an odd thing to say as a Christian, but I believe I have good reasons for doing so.
With the exception of atheism, every faith system that I'm aware of affirms the existence of some sort of super-, extra-, or supra-natural reality. Buddhism, for instance, rests on the non-physical realities of reincarnation (where a person dies and is somehow carried over into rebirth as a new life) and Nirvana (a sort of spiritual existence of complete oneness with the essence of the universe). Hinduism affirms the reality of hundreds of millions of gods. In addition to this, there seems to be a universal understanding that there are both "good" and "bad" spiritual realities, be they angels and demons, positive and negative furies, good and bad karma, or the petulant machinations of the Greek pantheon. The extents of these supernatural realities will vary greatly from faith to faith (karma, for example, is more like a spiritual bank account than a conscious entity like an angel or demon), but their existence is largely unquestioned by their adherents. It is for this reason that the Jews were not impressed by Jesus's miracles:
The Pharisees recognized that, even though God is the only true god, he is not the only game in town. These men had grown up hearing the story of Moses before Pharaoh, where Pharaoh's consultants practiced a little black magic to discredit God's true prophet:
Now, I do believe that the Pharisees were wrong about the nature of Jesus's miracles and exorcisms, but I believe my point still stands. Because the Pharisees recognized that there are evil supernatural forces in the world that are in opposition to the true God and seek to undermine his authority and deceive his people, it gave them an "out" when confronted with the evidence of Jesus's miracles. Ultimately, this was not due to a healthy skepticism on their part, but rather the hardness of their hearts.
Even though Jesus came down on the opposite side of this debate with the Pharisees, he did not deny their premises:
According to Jesus, these people are pointing to the "many mighty works" they did in his name as well as the prophecies they gave and demons they cast out, even though they did not have the blessing of God and were not his people. These "mighty works" seem to be real and not simply slight-of-hand or trickery.
The apostles continued this line of thinking:
… and dealt with the effects:
It is for these reasons that it neither surprises nor bothers me when I hear about supernatural experiences from people in other faiths. I can watch the Going Clear documentary on Scientology and hear about out-of-body experiences or read about visitations from the dead at Mormon temples in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries without so much as blinking. I can hear stories about witches and occultists moving tables around without touching them or becoming invisible (I'm serious) without questioning my faith because I know that – while God is sovereign and omnipotent – there are other forces in the world who want nothing more than to keep people away from him and will do whatever they can to deceive. A Jew or a Muslim would agree with me on this.
Now, I say that these things don’t “bother me” in the sense that they do nothing to erode my worldview. I imagine that if these things happened in my presence I would find them unnerving or repulsive, but that’s a different sort of “bothering”. What I mean is that, given my belief in the reality of demonic forces in the world, veridical accounts (much of these are nonsense) of pagan sorcery, paranormal activity, near-death or out-of-body experiences can be explained as demonic in nature, just like the demoniacs in the New Testament or the false prophets in the Old Testament.
Now, it doesn’t all need to be dark magic or pagan rituals. The same can be said of what we might call “positive” religious experiences of people in other faiths, such as the infamous “burning in the bosom” that is appealed to as verification of the truth of the Book of Mormon. I’ve heard various descriptions of this experience from different Mormons. For some, this experience is very powerful and will evoke tears when recounted to a third party. For others I have talked to, it’s very subtle – a sort of peacefulness about the decision. In either case, the nature of this experience is irrelevant because this experience must be weighed in light of other facts. For instance, if Joseph Smith can objectively be shown to be a false prophet, then there is no reason to accept anything he said or the Book of Mormon that he delivered. We could also say that, if the Book of Mormon contains factual errors that expose it as a work of fiction rather than an historical account of ancient people (as it claims), then my “burning in the bosom” is clearly mistaken.
In light of all this, I do believe that miracles and supernatural experiences can act as a powerful confirmation of the truth of a religion, but they must be taken in light of other lines of evidence. Spiritual or religious experiences are largely subjective, tend to be highly emotional and cannot stand on their own when they are in direct opposition to other, more objective findings. Resting such a monumental decision solely on an emotionally charged and subjective experience is a recipe for deception.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.