Christmas is a time to celebrate one of the most remarkable miracles found in the Bible: the virgin birth of Jesus. God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin who was engaged to Joseph. The angel explained to her that she would become pregnant through the Holy Spirit without requiring a human father. Mary was initially upset by this news but the angel explained to her that God was pleased with her and that she would give birth to a son who would save his people from their sins.
Reports of miraculous childbirth are not, however, limited to Christianity. For example, Karna, a central character in the Sanskrit epic, Mahābhārata, from ancient India, is said to have been born from his virgin mother Kunti through the sun god Surya. The Buddha is believed to have been born from the right side of Maya’s body while standing. Indeed, it is said that when the Buddha was born he immediately walked seven steps and at each step a lotus flower appeared. Muhammad is also believed to have been accompanied by a bright light when he was born, while the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi is said to have been born as a fully grey-bearded man.
My recent book Miracles: A Very Short Introduction introduces many other miracle reports found in religious texts. These examples suggest that belief in miracles is historically, geographically and culturally widespread.
Old miracles die hard
Many people believe in miracles even in the 21st century. According to recent surveys in the UK, 77% of people agree with the statement that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. Moreover, 16% say that either they or someone they know have experienced what they would call a miracle.
Philosophers typically hold that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. The virgin birth of Jesus, for instance, is a miracle because it is impossible for a virgin to give birth to a child without violating the laws of biology. But why is belief in such extraordinary events so widespread?
According to recent psychological research, a cognitive mechanism that detects violations of the laws of nature is in place as early as infancy. In one experiment, two-and-a-half-month-old infants consistently showed “surprise” when the researchers made it look like their toys violated the laws of nature – by seeming to teleport or pass through solid objects.
Some psychologists argue that such a violation of expectations creates an important opportunity for infants to seek information and learn about the world. Some psychologists also argue that well-known miracle episodes, such as the virgin birth of Jesus and his transformation of water into wine, have a common character: “minimal counterintuitiveness”. This means that they spread successfully through generations because they are slightly counterintuitive rather than outright ridiculous in an overly complex manner. While they offer an idea that is challenging enough to attract attention, they avoid overtaxing people’s conceptual systems.
Ice cream illusions
These psychological findings provide cumulative support for the hypothesis that belief in miracles is widespread because we are cognitively and developmentally biased towards forming and transmitting belief in miracles. This, however, does not necessarily mean that all miracle reports are false or untrustworthy.
Consider a parallel example. Suppose that psychologists discover that people with a sweet tooth tend to see illusions of ice cream in their freezers. This does not mean that whenever they see ice cream in their freezers they are seeing illusions. It may well be the case that they really do have ice cream in their freezers. Similarly, even if psychologists can explain that there are cognitive and developmental origins of miracle beliefs, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, whether miracles can actually take place remains an open question.
Richard Dawkins wrote that “the 19th century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment”. It seems unlikely, however, that belief in miracles will disappear any time soon. After all, millions of children still believe that Santa Claus will be paying them a visit in a few days’ time.