2009-03-03

Eddy and Boyd – miracles and global human experience

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from previous post’s notes on Eddy’s and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . . . .

Comparing the world views of ancients and moderns

It is difficult to get a clear handle on exactly what Eddy and Boyd are arguing against when they complain that “modern Western academics” are misguided over the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and beliefs in miracles.

They charge “modern Western academics” with falsely believing that there is a huge divide between ancient and modern worldviews.

A False Dichotomy

. . . We are told that the reason people in the past could believe in and claim to experience miracles, while modern Western people supposedly cannot, is because, unlike us, ancient people were “naive and mythologically minded.” Ancient people supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . . (p.64)

Ancient people “supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . .”? I would have been interested in reading how E and B might have explained exactly what they meant here.

It is through generalized statements like this that E and B are actually the ones who are constructing “a false dichotomy”. Many major academic studies have been dedicated to understanding the minds and worldviews of both ancient and present day peoples. It is simply nonsense to suggest that when someone speaks generally of a modern worldview based on a scientific paradigm contrasting with worldviews from a pre-scientific era, they are to be somehow blamed for failing to understand the extents and nuances of human experiences. The former claim is a generic claim about social norms in a modern western culture, while the latter is a statement about actual behaviours and beliefs at an experiential level. The fact that social institutions (not just a narrow slice of academia) legitimize the scientific world view for social educational purposes is a separate issue from the personal beliefs of many individuals and sub-groups of society.

From the same “modern Western academics” about whom Eddy and Boyd complain are out of touch with “global human experience” come sociological and anthropological studies demonstrating the universality of beliefs in the supernatural. (See Human Universals compiled by Donald E Brown.)

So the studies of “modern Western academics” belie E and B’s sweeping generalization about “modern Western academics”.

Is present human experience on a global scale saturated with experiences of the supernatural?

Of course not. Unless one defines an experience of the supernatural to be whatever one believes to be a supernatural experience.

I can say that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with untimely tragic deaths, with weddings, with buying and selling, with home-building. Such experiences are open for all to see and witness. And we can all read and hear of people reporting supernatural experiences and fulfillments of astrological or other occult predictions. But of course the latter category merely represents beliefs about experiences.

Eddy and Boyd obviously know this, and concede that most such reports can be explained naturally.

Thus, a recovery from an illness or a pay-rise can be both be “experiences of the supernatural” to one who believes they are answers to prayer. The same people often, I think, also consider failure to recover from an illness as a negative answer to prayer, so even that may be defined as a supernatural experience, too. Or even a calamity, like a car crash, as a message or punishment from the supernatural.

And in Asia countless people offer prayers before Buddhist and other shrines, presumably very often in thanksgiving for “supernatural” favours.

And many people believe that their gambling wins and losses are the results of omens, charms or little rituals. I suppose they could also be defined as “supernatural experiences”.

So Eddy and Boyd don’t put the proposition quite like that, but rather as:

. . . present human experience on a global scale is saturated with reported experiences of the supernatural.

Well, of course. And they cite no “modern Western academic” who disagrees with THAT claim, despite their laboured efforts to give  just that impression.

And of course the difference between reported experiences of the supernatural and actual experiences of the supernatural is the same as difference between those believing a cure from an illness was an answer to prayer and those believing it was a natural or medically assisted process. In other words, the issue at stake is not the experience itself, but the belief about the experience.

Eddy and Boyd are in fact asserting nothing more than that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with supernatural interpretations of experiences.

Are academics really out of touch when they assign different interpretations to such experiences? One presumes that levels of education would correspond with levels of understanding about how the world works.

Eddy and Boyd are not really arguing about experiences, but interpretations of experiences. Their choice of words is misleading or confusing, however. Consider their complaints against “secular academics”. E and B charge them with defining “‘present human experience’ too narrowly” (p.67). But instead of pointing to the vast areas of human experience that their “narrow definitions” exclude, they can only bring themselves to point to what is “commonly reported” across cultures. So it seems the bottom line of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint is that “modern secular academics” do not include “common reports” or interpretations of experiences on the same level as common experiences themselves. It was once commonly reported that left handed people and eccentric women were in league with evil powers. It was once commonly reported that the earth was flat.

A demon haunted world

Eddy and Boyd don’t cite cross cultural experiences with good angelic beings, nor even cross cultural experiences of a single deity. I would have found such a discussion more interesting than the one they do cite. They cite instead the “cross-cultural” report of “demonization” as evidence that the vast bulk of humanity experience the supernatural. (I thought demonization means to actually turn something or someone into a demon, literally or figuratively, and that the more appropriate term for what E&B are describing is “demon possession”. But I’ll use E and B’s term, assuming they know the literature on this topic better than I do.)

E and B list some of the “cross-cultural characteristics” of this “demonization” (p.68):

  • being seized by a demon so that they fall into a trance or seizure
  • frequent outbursts of violent behaviour, sometimes exhibiting strength beyond the normal
  • the ability to recite information that the one demonized is not expected to know
  • the ability to speak some words of a language they did not learn
  • the ability to contort ones muscles and limbs in an unnatural way
  • objects move and fly near the demonized person

There is nothing new here, and these characteristics might have been more persuasive if E&B had taken the trouble to actually cite the details of just one report of the several they footnote that actually defy possible natural explanation. Disappointingly, on page 70 they write:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.

They continue:

But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms?

Firstly, there are no “reports of the supernatural” in any of this. There are only reports of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable human experiences that are interpreted by some observers as being caused by demons. In a pre-scientific age lightning and earthquakes and illness and even accidents were interpreted in many quarters as being caused by supernatural forces. Many people even today still interpret them the same way.

In our scientific age we still have much to learn. We don’t look at each remaining unsolved question and assume it is unsolved because it is forever beyond the possibility of a natural explanation. Maybe we will even find more evidence in time that not all problem events were fully (or fully honestly) reported. Reporting shortcomings, or even fraud, are not entirely unknown.

But back to the point. If most can be explained naturalistically, then why not single out just one that must surely prove not to be the case for us all to see and consider? Why resort to an argument from credulity? If I keep hearing of alien abductions so often, do I really suddenly encounter one that is so totally different from the rest that it is in a class of its own? If so, then let’s cut to the chase and identify and discuss those singular cases only!

Secondly, if most of the cases of the above behaviours can be explained in naturalistic terms, what is left of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint that “modern scholars” define “present human experience too narrowly”? If most cases can be naturalistically explained, then E&B’s complaint surely falls flat.

The fact that some academics themselves believe in the supernatural is neither here nor there, notwithstanding E&B’s efforts to see this as significant. Time and peer-review assessments and investigations will test their claims.

Epistemological humility?

After having shown the poverty of postmodernism for establishing “truth and fact” in historiography, E&B turn to postmodernism to argue that non-secular beliefs should be treated on an equal footing with religious ones. They are of the view that to do otherwise is a kind of “cultural imperialism” and smacks of intellectual arrogance.

I suggest that the secular worldview is really the spin-off from it being thoroughly and repeatedly tested and proven in the field of the natural sciences. This success rate gives a priori validity to approaching the rest of human experience through the same mindset.

A supernatural worldview has no comparable a priori validity to appeal to.

“The world view” and an American view?

E&B disagree strongly that the “Western worldview” is basically a naturalistic one. They contend that only a narrow clique of secular academic culture has embraced naturalism. “The majority of Western people”, they claim, are as believing and experiencing of the supernatural as the ancients ever were. They cite polls taken within the United States to support this claim (p.74). Over 80% of Americans believe God performs miracles today. This is apparently enough for E&B to believe that  over 80% of humanity experience “miracles”. They do not clarify if they would include a pay-rise as a miracle if that supposedly followed someone’s prayer request. But even if they mean only miracles of the kind where the dead are raised, it is good to keep such statistics in global perspective:

There have, for years, been comparative studies of religious fanaticism and factors that correlate with it. By and large, it tends to decline with increasing industrialization and education. The US, however, is off the chart, ranking near devastated peasant societies. About 1/2 the population believe the world was created a few thousand years ago . . . (Chomsky, 1999)

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