“Miracles” is just the sort of topic that is perfect for Oxford University Press’s extensive “Very Short Introductions” series in that it is specific enough to allow for a focused treatment, and yet expansive enough to be of interest to a wide readership. Indeed, miracles are a key aspect of many religious people’s experiences. Miracle stories in religious myths as well as modern-day miraculous events communicate to religious people that their gods can and do intervene in their lives, even in ways that are in conflict with the natural laws of the created order. Academics in many disciplines have long studied miracles to try to address a variety of questions including: What is a miracle? Are there psychological or other scientific explanations for persistent belief in miracles? What do miracle stories communicate about the inner structures and theologies of religions? What functions do miracles play in the lives of those who experience them? This book offers a good review of some of these questions and how they have been addressed.
Yujin Nagasawa, the author of this very short introduction, is a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, and so it is not surprising that he is especially interested in classical philosophical definitions of miracles, Hume’s famous critique of miracles, and whether it is ever rational to believe in miracles. He augments his discussion of these issues with a review of cognitive research into possible evolutionary origins for the human propensity to believe in anything supernatural, including the ostensible divine intervention that typifies miracles. Since his (and most other) definitions of “miracle” rely on a supernatural agent, Nagasawa also includes a brief survey of ancient miracle stories from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The book concludes with a surprising chapter that suggests that altruistic behavior, even though not technically miraculous, is a laudable rational substitute for miracles in today’s world.
The best part of this little book is Nagasawa’s clear and concise discussion in the first chapter of what constitutes a miracle. His engaging writing style includes many real-world examples as well as elegant thought experiments that help the reader understand the differences between unusual or amazing events and what we ought to consider true miracles. For instance, he recounts the story of a gas explosion in a Nebraska church in 1950 that surely would have killed all the choir members who were scheduled to be there for their weekly practice session if they had not all been delayed for a variety of unrelated reasons (10). He uses this amazing event to demonstrate that, while believers may identify such an occurrence as a miracle, it likely does not meet satisfactory definitions of miracles, which demand that the alleged miracle may not be merely a probabilistically unlikely coincidence. He concludes this section with his own formulation of the common philosophical definition of miracles: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent; and it has religious significance” (18).
Another important chapter in the book is chapter 3, entitled “Why do so many people believe in miracles?” Nagasawa’s synopsis of psychological and cognitive research about miracles leads him to conclude that “belief in miracles is widespread because humans are cognitively and developmentally biased towards forming and transmitting such a belief” (68). Examples of these cognitive biases include “minimal counterintuitiveness theory”—which holds that slightly surprising ideas or events are more successfully transmitted than ordinary ones—and “pareidolia”: the phenomenon by which humans discover meaningful patterns where none actually exist, such as seeing faces in tree bark. Likewise, psychologists have shown that humans often attribute purposeful intention to supernatural agents for what are arguably random events. It is due to this tendency, Nagasawa explains, that it is commonplace to hear people declare that “everything happens for a reason.” Readers who are sympathetic to these types of cognitive and psychological theories for religious behavior will find this section of the book satisfying. Those who find such theories reductive will be less satisfied, as the author offers no discussion of common critiques of the cognitive approach.
Indeed, scholars of religions, the majority of whom bring some type of cultural analysis to their studies, will likely find Nagasawa’s cursory treatment of anthropological research into miracles to be insufficient. His basic project is to explain what miracles are and why people persist in believing in them even when this belief is demonstrably irrational. This means that he mostly ignores or dismisses phenomenological studies of religious people, their miracle narratives, and the social functions that these narratives play. Of course, in a “very short introduction,” one cannot expect that every aspect of the topic will be covered in detail, but religious studies scholars who focus on the social ramifications of the miraculous may be disappointed to find little of their insights and discoveries in this book.
Overall, Miracles: A Very Short Introduction achieves its goal to introduce general readers to the topic of miracles. The book would certainly be a helpful addition to any undergraduate course that touches on miracles, particularly because of the many lively illustrations and examples that Nagasawa includes in the text. While it would have been nice to see a more robust examination of the social implications of miracle stories in the lives of religious practitioners, the book remains a useful and well-written entrée into the academic study of miracles.
Yujin Nagasawa is Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He is author of God and Phenomenal Consciousness: A Novel Approach to Knowledge Arguments (CUP, 2008), The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction (Routledge, 2011), and Maximal God: A New Defence of Perfect Being Theism (OUP, forthcoming).
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