Imagine that you have decided to attend a magic show. At the beginning, the magician assures everyone that he will use only magic–not sleight of hand–during his performance. By the end of the show, you find that you cannot determine how any of his tricks could work without some supernatural force at play.
Do you accept that he has used magic or do you conclude that you simply do not know enough to understand or replicate the tricks yourself?
Even most of us who do not understand magic tricks know better than to jump to the conclusion that the performer is a magical being. We are not so naive as to assume that anything beyond our current comprehension must or is likely to be supernatural. Our failure to understand simply means that we do not understand.
And yet many theists tell us that currently unexplainable phenomena–or at least phenomena that have not yet been explained to them–are the work of a deity. This is precisely like asking us to believe that the magician has magical powers. They even go so far as to call us closed-minded for not accepting their claims, as if it were open-minded to simply conclude that God did it. If that is open-mindedness, then open-mindedness is not an entirely good quality.
What other reasons do we have to reject both the magician’s and the theists’ claims? The two greatest reasons are:
Just as we have a history of magicians’ tricks being revealed as sleight of hand, we have a history of advancing our scientific knowledge to the point that we could explain once unexplainable phenomena. A supernatural explanation is effectively a denial of our scientific progress.
This is really an application of Occam’s razor: we should favor the theory with the greatest explanatory power or, if they are all equal, the simplest theory. In the case of a “miracle,” there is neither a compelling natural explanation nor a compelling supernatural explanation. After all: ”God did it” doesn’t explain anything. It is equivalent to saying “Nature did it.” However, “Nature did it” is a simpler explanation than “God did it” because the latter requires that we take on faith that (1) there is a supernatural world and (2) an all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent Creator exists. These are extraordinary claims. Ultimately, then, it is more reasonable to believe that the “miracle” is natural.
If the magician were truly a magical being, it would be reasonable to expect him to be able to perform all of his tricks anywhere and at any time, surrounded by cameras, without the help of a non-magical crew, etc. Instead we find that some of the most impressive displays of “magic” require preparation, assistance, the proper placement of the audience and cameras and props, and so on. This suggests that their acts are instead carefully designed illusions.
Similarly, if so-called “miracles” were really the work of a deity, it would be reasonable to expect some consistency among those who are affected by them. It makes little sense for a Buddhist monk, a druid, and a nun to all perform or exhibit some miracle that confirms their religious beliefs if it is specifically the Christian God who causes them to occur. Or: if Allah causes miracles, it makes little sense for one Muslim with cancer to suddenly be cured while another Muslim with cancer continues to suffer. And if one atheist converts to Catholicism because he perceives a miracle, it hardly seems fair that another atheist doesn’t get the same experience.
In response to such objections, theists often claim that God has a plan and that we cannot understand it. Unfortunately, since that plan is indistinguishable from random, meaningless events, neither the plan nor the phenomena that supposedly support it offer reasons to believe in a deity–especially if that deity is specific. The acceptance of “miracles” as evidence for a religion requires an existing bias in favor of that religion.
Both the belief in miracles and the belief in magic tend to precede compelling evidence thereof. Those who attempt to present a limited set of mysterious phenomena as proof of their religious beliefs therefore fail to not only present a good argument, but to argue what they believe for the actual reasons for which they believe it.