Belief in miracles increasing in U.S.

Two caveats: this report is from PuffHo, and the original study hasn’t yet been published, so I haven’t seen it; the data come from a report at a meeting. Nevertheless, I expect that data, reported by David Briggs in his piece “Belief in miracles is on the rise,” are correct. (Briggs’s PuffHo bio notes that he is “a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School”).

. . . as more people appear to be turning away from organized religion, a new study finds that the number of Americans who definitely believe in religious miracles increased 22 percent in the past two decades, with 55 percent now certain of this supernatural phenomenon.

Overall, some four in five Americans believe miracles definitely or probably occur, researcher Robert Martin of Pennsylvania State University reported at the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.

While beliefs in heaven and hell have remained steady in recent decades, the increased belief in miracles crosses all religious traditions, with the strongest gains reported by those who attend services infrequently, Martin reported.

. . . Penn State’s Martin analyzed General Social Survey data from 1991 to 2008. He found the belief in miracles is growing in recent years. Nearly 73 percent of American adults in 1991 believed that miracles definitely or probably existed, compared to 78 percent in 2008. The percentage who “definitely” believed in miracles rose from 45 percent in 1991 to 55 percent in 2008.

Well, a 5% increase isn’t that much, and better be statistically significant if the results are to mean anything (the 10% increase in the “definite” is more credible). But what’s disturbing is that 78% of Americans believe in miracles at all, and more than half “definitely” do.  And this in an age of science, with no miracle ever substantiated!

But the observation that strongest gains occur in those who go to church less frequently gives a clue to this puzzling result, which doesn’t seem to comport with the increase in “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) over the U.S. in the last decade. What’s the cause? According to Briggs, it may be the rise of “spirituality”:

One potential explanation, according to Martin, is the cultural preoccupation with miracles promoted in non-dogmatic ways by a series of popular television programs such as “Touched by an Angel” and best-selling books such as the “Left Behind” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.

No one, Martin and other researchers point out, may have done more for this spiritual phenomenon than Oprah Winfrey, who with her extraordinarily popular television show and other ventures made accounts of the miraculous a regular part of the lives of millions of Americans.

Whatever the cause, what the evidence on miracles and other research on personal spirituality also indicates to researchers is the persistence of transcendent beliefs even as fewer Americans identify with a particular religious group.

To me this explanation isn’t credible (and we must assume the trend is real, though I’m dubious). Why would Americans who either flee the church to become “nones,” or those who simply grow up lacking faith, show more belief in miracles than people 17 years ago? Yes, being a “none” is no guarantee that you don’t believe in woo; that’s a fallacy. But certainly some of the “nones” are skeptics and would be expected to abjure miracles.

Anyway, it’s still dispiriting, and a reminder that lack of religion doesn’t mean lack of belief in woo or an increase in criticality. We still need ways to teach children critical thinking, and some way to discourage religious brainwashing of kids, so that we can avoid outcomes like this:

In the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, 23 percent of respondents said they witnessed a miraculous physical healing and 16 percent said they received a miraculous healing.

And in the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, three-quarters of respondents said they prayed to God to receive healing from an illness or injury; more than five in six respondents prayed for someone else’s healing.

What is most telling about this unceasing belief in miracles, Dougherty said, is that it is another indicator that “as a society, as Americans in general. [We] are not in this uniform march toward secularism.”

One in six people say they received a miraculous healing! Do they not consider spontaneous remission or cure of disease that doesn’t have a goddy cause? And, of course, why don’t those praying amputees get their legs, or the eyeless their eyes?

In the end, though, I am convinced that Americans are on a uniform march toward secularism. It will just be a slow march.


  1. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Perhaps everybody likes to think that there is something extraordinary in life, and that they are involved with it.

    • John Lee
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      perhaps you like to believe that there is nothing extraordinary in life. Your beliefs are no more scientific than those those who believe in miracles. You cannot prove to me that there are no miracles. I had a miracle happen to me and that is why I believe in them. There is no way to convince you of it and I have no reason to even try. Instead of bashing those who believe differently than you perhaps you should realize that you do not have all the answers.

      • Matt G
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        There are logical errors in each of your sentences. I’m actually surprised that your entire post wasn’t one long sentence which you finished nearly out of breath!

        They are: 1. Straw Man; 2. Burden of Proof; 3. Burden of Proof; 4. Argument from Anecdote; 5. Ad Hominem; 6. Straw Man.

        Did I miss any, or make any mistakes?

        • John Lee
          Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          Yes, I do believe in God because to me it is obvious that everything had to be created. I’m sure you cannot name something you got for Christmas that wasn’t created. But that’s a different topic. My point was that the best you can do is to say that miracles may not exist. Miracles, by definition, are not subject to scientific scrutiny or they would not be miracles. I have no idea if ghosts exist either but I would not spend my time trying to show that those who believe in them are crazy. I don’t know everything about the universe, seen or unseen and neither do you.

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

            You forgot to add, as I requested, to delineate the miracle that helped convince you of God. What was it.

            Also, if everything had to be created, who created God? And don’t say that God was uncreated by definition, because I could respond that the universe could be uncreated by definition.

            • John Lee
              Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              the miracle was not the reason I came to believe in God. My father who was a great man was kicked out of my house when I was 9 years old and he wasn’t allowed to contact us. Our phone was disconnected and eventually the number changed. 20 years later when leaving the service and I was trying to figure out where to go and what to do I ran into my father on a train. My father’s room mate had just died so there was a place for me to stay. The story goes on and on but that is the gist of it.
              Who created God is simple. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. If I land on the moon and find a shovel, a shoe, and a watch do I really have to know who created the person who created those things. No, of course not. I would know that somebody made those things whether or not I know where that person came from, who his parents are, was he born in a hospital etc. All those questions are irrelevant.

              • Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                An unlikely coincidence is not a miracle. Unlikely events take place all the time. In a certain sense, everything that happens is unlikely, because the odds of any particular event happening are minuscule compared to the events that might’ve happened in their stead. The unlikeliness of events doesn’t demonstrate anything.

                Why is a child being struck and killed by a stray bullet not a miracle? That, too, is an unlikely event.

                Children are killed by stray bullets, ergo god?

              • John Lee
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                musical beef, you are correct that events that are unlikely do not demonstrate anything. A tornado hits a building and the one survivor claims that it was because of God. I understand what you are saying. But, to claim that miracles do not exist is a fallacy because under your own assumption about the nature of miracles, you would deny them whether they occurred or not. Defining miracles as unlikely events and then saying that unlikely events are not miracles does not allow for the possibility of miracles.

              • Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                The seeming miraculousness of your own example rests on the unlikeliness of running into your father after so many years. That I’d why I’m telling you that unlikely events are not necessarily miracles.

                The fallacy being committed here is your special pleading: you want an unlikely event with a positive outcome to count as a miracle, and evidence for god, but you’re not placing unlikely events with neutral or negative outcomes on the other side of the scale. Things happen. Some are positive, some are negative, and so r if both those sets are unlikely. That events falling into any of those categories happen is not remarkable; not miraculous, not evidence for a god.

              • Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

                *that is why* and *some from both*

              • John Lee
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

                musical beef, yes negative and positive things happen all the time and cannot necessarily imply a miracle. But, the followers of Dr. Coyne wants everybody to believe that there can be no miracles and that is not something you can show. I believe what happened to me was a miracle because of a set of circumstances surrounding running into my father whom I had no idea where he was for 20 years and coincidentally he was on my train. I don’t really care if anybody agrees with me, it is my experience and that is how I feel. The Harvard Professor, Eben Alexander, and former skeptic was brain dead and says he saw heaven. Do I know for a fact that this happened? Of course not. Can I rule out a miracle just because I should not believe in miracles? No. You guys should just admit you don’t have all the answers and open your mind to the possibility.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

                Come on, John Lee, nobody here claims to “have all the answers”. As has been said elsewhere, keeping an open mind is a good thing, but not so open that your brain falls out.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

                “The Harvard Professor, Eben Alexander, and former skeptic was brain dead and says he saw heaven.”

                He wasn’t brain dead; he was in a coma. Coma is not brain death; you can wake up from a coma, but nobody wakes up once their brain has stopped functioning. Get your facts right if you want to be taken seriously.

                And he can say whatever he wants about what he saw, but that doesn’t make it real. It’s just a story he’s telling about a dream that he had, and it tells us nothing about the afterlife, only about what went on in his head while he was unconscious.

              • Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                If you acknowledge that a given event, no matter whether it’s positive, negative, coincidental, etc, cannot imply a miracle, then why simply decide that you’re going to call one of these events a miracle?

                Can we conclusively show miracles are impossible? No. You can’t prove a negative. But everything we know about reality comes pretty damn close to showing miracles (as they’re commonly conceived) are impossible.

                But we don’t need to show that. The default position is that the laws of physics universally apply, i. e., no miracles. Rather, we are waiting for conclusive evidence that such miraculous suspensions of physical laws occur. Your story doesn’t rise to the level of conclusive evidence. That story most certainly could’ve happened in a world with no miracles.

                I predict we’ll be waiting a looong time.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 7, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

                I was an undergrad student at UW Madison and took some French classes. Several years later I was traveling in Mexico and ran into my old French TA at the Museo National de Anthropologia.

                A miracle!

                Ever since I have worshiped Xipe Totec.

              • David Nguyen
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

                Gregory Kusnik,

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                David, we’ve seen that Ecklund study before. She’s notorious for drawing conclusions not supported by her own data. Search this site for Jerry’s critique of her work.

          • teacupoftheapocalypse
            Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            “Miracles, by definition, are not subject to scientific scrutiny”? I do not know of any definition of “miracle” that renders it free of scientific scrutiny, and I am sure that you don’t, either. Religious dictionaries do not count.

            A “miracle” is an event that is, prima facie, contrary to the established laws of nature. By definition, therefore, any “miracle” MUST be subject to scientific scrutiny to discover whether it does, indeed, fall into this definition.

            • John Lee
              Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              you are just plain wrong. You need to think about what you are saying. If I told you “look, this apple floated up” then you would say, “I didn’t see it, show me again”. So I dropped the apple and it fell to the ground. Of course you wouldn’t believe me and of course I could not verify by scientific scrutiny that it had floated up.

              • Sastra
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                So are you saying that God COULD not do a miracle which was so clear and obvious that even the scientists would have to be convinced that God exists — and did this miracle?

                How do you limit God like that?

              • teacupoftheapocalypse
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                Surely if the apple had, indeed floated upwards, it would still be there, either hanging in space or continuing its upward journey? There is, after all, a lot more ‘up’ than there is ‘down’.

                It would be very stupid for you to drop an apple, only for it to float upwards, and for you then snatch to it from the air before alerting someone else to the phenomenon.

              • John Lee
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

                Sastra, I never said God COULD not do something. I think the order of the universe should be enough to convince scientists of God’s existence. What do you mean limit God? In what way? Because he doesn’t do what you want?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                “I think the order of the universe should be enough to convince scientists of God’s existence.”

                It turns out it isn’t. In fact what we actually observe is the opposite: the more scientists find out about the order of the universe and how it works, the less they believe in God.

                This is the whole point of science. Intuition is a very poor guide to what’s true. Skepticism and investigation turn out to be much more reliable, as a matter of practical fact.

              • John Lee
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                Gregory Kusnik, you need to say more than just ” the more scientists find out about the order of the universe….the less they believe in God” to be convincing. So, in other words, if the universe were not ordered then a God would be more believable? Believing in God has nothing to do with intellect. There are many very smart scientists who do believe and many who don’t believe in God. I think Jerry Coyne is obviously very intelligent and knows a lot about evolution but in philosophical questions I think he is wrong.

              • Sastra
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                John Lee wrote:

                What do you mean limit God? In what way? Because he doesn’t do what you want?

                No, you’re not getting my point. You said that miracles, by definition, are not subject to scientific scrutiny.

                So I asked if God could do a miracle (or many miracles) which WERE subject to scientific scrutiny.

                The answer, apparently, is yes (“I never said God could not do something.”) That means that miracles could — in theory — be subject to scientific scrutiny. There’s nothing in the definition or phenomenon itself which makes this impossible.

                You just think God doesn’t allow it. You think this because you’re very very sure you know what God has and hasn’t done, and will and won’t do. Could you be wrong? Or does God have to do what you want?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

                “Believing in God has nothing to do with intellect.”

                It has to do with education. In general, the more knowledgeable people are about science, the less likely they are to believe in God. This is not an opinion I’m trying to convince you of; it’s a fact that I invite you to verify for yourself by looking it up.

                Interestingly, the same holds true for theology: many people who go into divinity school as believers come out as atheists. Their faith doesn’t hold up under the weight of evidence that God and religion are human inventions. Knowledge displaces belief. Look up Daniel Dennett’s Clergy Project.

          • Timothy Hughbanks
            Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            If you manage to get anyone who regularly reads this web site to believe you really experienced a miracle, well…it’ll be a miracle.

            • John Lee
              Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

              that is why I hesitated to respond.

              • Chris
                Posted December 7, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

                OK, so I ran into a guy I knew at 1st year university (he flunked in 1991, university was in Manchester UK) at a new year party for 1996/1997 in London, UK.

                Was that a miracle?

          • Brygida Berse
            Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            I’m sure you cannot name something you got for Christmas that wasn’t created.

            A puppy?
            A fruit basket?
            A diamond?

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Before you can post again, John Lee (and this is website policy), you have to describe the miracle that happened to you and the other reasons why you believe in God, if you do.

  2. Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Note that in Lourdes, the number of miracles officially recognized by the Catholic Church is less than what one would expect based on spontaneous remission!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      It’s a miracle!

      • Occam
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        🙂 A miracle? No it’s not.

        In my wayward journalistic youth, I went on an assignment to Lourdes in the late ’70s and interviewed, among several others the then head of the Medical Bureau and a ranking priest from Pilgrimages Bureau (now called something else again).

        For one thing, CMIL (the international medical commission at Lourdes) does not proclaim ‘miracles’, they just have to declare a documented cure ‘inexplicable’ according to the informed medical consensus of the day.

        A cure has to be immediate, complete, permanent, and pertaining to a well-documented condition deemed ‘incurable’ by contemporary medical consensus.
        The investigation takes at least five years, sometimes more. If a verdict of ‘inexplicable cure’ has been reached by the CMIL board, it’s up to the Catholic church to perform its own arcane and very bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo until they find a colourable religious justification and declare the cure a ‘miracle’.

        Both medical and ecclesiastic sources told me off the record that they were anxious as hell to avoid any embarrassment, checking and double-checking everything. That’s why the rate is so abysmally low, with only 67 or so cases recognised, of which I see only 3 cancer-related, way even below clinical “spontaneous remission” rates. Let’s say they sift carefully through spontaneous remissions and absolute statistical outliers and pin the ‘miracle’ label on a select few. Counting on innumeracy and credulity to do the rest.

        The current ‘miraculous cures’ list:

        • Marella
          Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          Don’t forget that only the worst cases are likely to take the trouble to go to Lourdes, so you’d expect their cure rate to be lower than the usual for remissions etc. Going to Lourdes doesn’t stop you getting lucky, but the fact you are prepared to go means you’re out of luck to begin with.

          • Occam
            Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

            Sounds plausible, but it’s not true in my experience, and not true in statistics.
            Consider the numbers for 2010: 6094215 pilgrims went to Lourdes. Hardly a manageable crowd if a majority, or even a sizable proportion among them, had been gravely ill ‘incurables’.

            No, it would appear that most folks go to Lourdes like Californians in the light bulb joke: “to share the experience”.
            BTW, the more intelligent members of the local clergy tend to emphasize the social aspect of the mass events and downplay the ‘miracles’ side. It’s the safer and less embarrassing aspect.
            Oh, and one statistic every troublesome skeptic asks about — or should: how many folks die en route to Lourdes or on the way back? I never obtained satisfactory data, but when I visited the hospital at Lourdes, I was told that traffic accidents involving pilgrims were a serious hazard, taking up a lot of resources. So yes, going to Lourdes involves risks that reduce your probability of a lucky break.

  3. Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I blame this directly on Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler.

  4. gravelinspector
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    My favourite SF author, Larry Niven, had a tag line in one of his books where, whenever someone died through stupidity, the phrase “Just Think Of It As Evolution In Action” would be trotted out by (some of) the characters.
    I think that the Darwin Awards people often use the same line.
    (Irrelevantly, I mis-read “American Sociological Association” as “American Scatological Association” first time through. It took my eyes about a line to obey the “Woah! Stop! Read that again!” instruction from the comprehension end of my brain.)

  5. Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I’m finding references to this story from October, although I find get any more information about Briggs.

    This seems like just another PuffHo nonstory of the type with which we are all familiar. How many people were surveyed, and what were the exact questions? Above all, what definition of “miracle” was used? Many things seem like miracles to the ignorant, or to Oprah Winfrey.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      Sorry – meant’ to say “I can’t find,” not “i find get,” which of course is gibberish. I blame my iPad.

      • Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        The source is the General Social Survey; the exact question was “Do you believe in religious miracles?”, codebook variable MIRACLES. Standard responses were “yes, definitely”, “yes, probably”, “no, probably not”, “no, definitely not”; there were also some unprompted “don’t know” and uncodeable, on the order of 10%. Total N (including those) was 1,359 in 1991, 1,284 for 1998, and 1,365 for 2008.

        (That reaction would appear to have elements of source derogation, attitude bolstering, and possibly message distortion. While new data should be regarded with caution, skepticism is a poor excuse for disregarding disconfirmatory evidence.)

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      A major source of depression for me is the spectacular success and popularity of Oprah.

      Jimminy Christmas but I cannot stand her and her woo-spawn Drs. Oz and Phil (who will no doubt spawn their own woomeisters – and around and around we go…).

  6. gbjames
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t a lot of this just boil down to mushy word usage? Someone gets sick. They get better without knowing exactly why they got sick or better. “It’s a miracle!”

    Could it mean “I don’t know” for many folk as opposed to “a deity/spirit is looking out for me”?

    • Barry
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I think this is absolutely right. The term “miracle” has become common parlance for things ranging from “surprising” to “unusual” and doesn’t necessarily comport with angels and breaching the laws of physics. I also think the ridiculous publicity given to conspiracy theories such as 9/11 lend a pseudo credibility to extraordinary claims.

      The fact of the matter is that one in a million chances will happen to about 300 Americans everyday and the reporting of these fuels the credulous.

    • eric
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I would also agree. Some of the survey respondents may have been interpreting the “miracle” as meaning “very unlikely event which had a positive impact.” Like someone they know winning the lottery or a cancer spontaneously going in to recession.

      I think it may be a false assumption to assume that every respondent meant “I believe [events that break the laws of physics] probably happen.”

      • eric
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        er…”the word miracle” and “remission” rather than recession. Its early, mea culpa.

      • Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        The question specifies “religious”, which is a bit more specific than you suggest; so, your examples would need something to make the context of them appear religious to qualify.

        • Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          I guess most respondents imagined “religious miracle” to be a tautology.

          If we assume those americans accept monotheism (surely we must) then by definition they believe history contains at least 1 miracle, Genesis 1:1-3. Secular miracles needn’t come into it. They believe.

          • Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            Sigh. So, we have one person seeming to argue the sense of miracles is broader than the usual sense of religious; and another seeming to argue everyone who believes in miracles considers them to be religious.

            It seems like a bit of equivocation, there.

            • Posted December 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

              I’m meaning to suggest that we can expect “do you believe in religious miracles?” to capture all monotheists as Yes’s. Practically everyone in the US. The question doesn’t invite respondents to think about “secular miracles”. Imo that nuance would have seemed so odd to ‘merican christians that it’d be utterly confusing.

              • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

                Your initial expectation is testably wrong. Almost all, yes; and it’s an amazingly strong correlation between belief in God and belief in religious miracles. However, there’s a few Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the US (responses 1, 2, 10, 3, 9 on RELIG) who have said to the GSS that they are certain they believe in God (response 6 on GOD), but that they definitely do not believe in religious miracles (response 4 on MIRACLES).

                Now, whether they’re accurate in their answer is another question, but that opens up a much larger methodological can of worms.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

                Wrt “Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the US…who have said to the GSS… certain they believe in God …but definitely do not believe in religious miracles

                Methodological can of worms, yes I agree.

                They feel a god and doubt he spoke to prophets.

                That monotheist doesn’t sound abrahamic to me.

    • Sajanas
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I bet if there was a Richard Dawkins’ style survey, where they asked more detailed questions, you would not see such a high response. I actually wonder if surveys like this aren’t the religious version of the polls Mitt Romeny was using, where they ask general questions that give good results to make religious people feel better, rather than more specific ones like, do you attend church, do you think Jesus Christ is the son of God, etc.

      • Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        This result is from the General Social Survey. It’s not one of the “feel-good” type lightweight ones; it’s a professionally designed academic research study, run (mostly biannually, with various questions) for 40 years.

        • Posted December 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for providing real information!

          • Posted December 7, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            That it was a result from analysis of the General Social Survey was mentioned even in the original piece Dr. Coyne quoted. There’s more details on the GSS at Wikipedia.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Just so. If “miracle” has come to mean nothing more than pareidolia or improbable coincidence, then sure, I believe in them too, but I don’t consider them instances of divine intervention.

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t a lot of this just boil down to mushy word usage?

      On the other hand, 75-80% of Americans believe in the existence of angels. There is nothing mushy about that term, I presume. And one would expect those two beliefs to go hand in hand.

  7. Kat C
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    I blame gambling, or perhaps that most people in America and around the world don’t believe in true stochasticity when they see it. An unlikely long run of heads or tails in a series of coin flips may seem “miraculous” or “fated” or whatever -but, true randomness does generally produce these “miracles” or coincidences. This kind of thing probably permeates to other areas of life like a perceived “fated” meeting with an old friend in a random spot, and is then reinforced as a”miracle” instead of “highly unlikely but still probable.” We’re more likely to remember these things than normal non-meetings. So I guess all in all, I blame Bernoulli and his sensible trials.

  8. TJR
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Every time I see something about a survey I’m reminded of the following classic bit of Sir Humphrey:

    (I’ve deleted the http:// at the start so here’s hoping it came out right)

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Well done – it worked! One of my favourites, that one, and very true.

  9. Dominic
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    This item about woo may be of related interest –
    “Crop circles provide one of many examples of the way religious and spiritual emotions are finding new modes of expression.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 7, 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink

      And I thought they just provided a mode of expression for ingenious and mischievously-inclined students…

  10. Rob
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    To me it’s not all that surprising. Economy is in the crapper, and this is just a side effect of other underlying problems, much as religion itself can be.

    The increase in “nones” would have a similar cause, just someplace to put hope – if miracles happen, they can happen to me.

    This is just a guess, pooma, but it seems reasonable to me. I wonder if the figures in the paper could be used to validate that, correlating with some economic index

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      I agree. Formal religions are being tarred with the same brush as Politicians and Bankers – they really don’t care about the ordinary man. But this doesn’t stop people in crappy situations hoping for some ‘magical’ assistance or cure.

      If I ran a religion I’d be worrying that people were looking elsewhere for their snake oil. Religions are losing their Unique Selling Point.

      • teacupoftheapocalypse
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        Since when did any religion have a USP? After all, they are all peddling the same snake oil, just in different bottles.

  11. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    How certain can we be that all of the respondents to the various surveys fully understood ‘miracle’ to mean “an effect or event manifesting or considered as a work of God” or simply a wonder or marvel. The dictionary definition is very broad, really, and since the dictionary definition reflects the current common usage of the word, is it possible that many of the respondents focused more on their own, internal definition of ‘miracle’, rather than the one proposed by the surveys?

    I chanced upon three stories on the BBC website this morning. Two sports stories, proclaiming ‘miracles’, where I am sure that Mr Lennon and Mr Alonso were not implying divine intervention, and a third piece on microbiology, where Prof Laura Piddock proclaims antibiotics as “miracle drugs”. Again, I doubt that the good professor was implying any divine intervention.

    “Miracle” and “great” are just two words that are bandied about, these days, without much thought given to their full meaning.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      “Miracle” and “great” are just two words that are bandied about, these days, without much thought given to their full meaning.”

      Yes. Add to that the American tendency toward hyperbole, especially in the media, and suddenly “mairkuls” are everywhere. And people tend to assign more credibility to something if they hear about it all the time…especially if their brain is on autopilot. I think this accounts for a lot of people’s belief in a god. It’s insidious background noise that they accept without question.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      As I note below, the GSS codebook is on-line. The exact wording of the question is “Do you believe in religious miracles?”, as part of a group of five “Do you believe in” religious response questions.

      • Marella
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        They don’t ask if you believe prayer to be an effective way of getting things done. Pity.

        • Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

          Closest I can find in the codebook is RELTRUTH, which asks about truth(s) in religion(s); and PAXHAPPY, which asks whether it can make people happy (which doing SOMEthing). They also did ask about whether we trust too much in science (TRUSTSCI); the correlation relationship to MIRACLES shouldn’t be too surprising.

          Feel free to write up a proposal for a 2014 module….

  12. jay
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t see a big disconnect between the loss of formal religion and belief in miracles. There is plenty of mushy ‘spirituality’ around, people who still have the religious mindset but have been turned off by the authoritarian crap of organized religion.

    This gives them something to believe in without having to actually conform to a religion.

  13. Goliath Field
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    “I am convinced that Americans are on a uniform march toward secularism. It will just be a slow march.”

    The evidence seems to indicate a slow march toward non-denominational superstition, rather than toward either religion or secularism.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Not once you control the responses for religiosity. The beliefs of the Nones have not changed by much, if any.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        I think GF is saying SOCIETIES (over generations) are marching towards that more nebulous divinity, even if irreligious INDIVIDUALS (over their life time) aren’t marching anywhere.

        Btw, decreasing religiosity isn’t the same as increasing secularity.

        Dismantling the structure of christendom is a seperate activity to building the structure of church/state separation.

        We see evidence of democracies (our leaders) gradually ramping down both.

        • Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          To the first point, in so far as the beliefs of the Nones as a group have remained relatively constant, and in so far as the number of Nones has been rising, yes, that looks like a march to secularism.

          To the second point, “the evidence” is the GSS, whose questions more readily address decreasing individual religiosity. While the distinction is a potentially valid one, you need to be explicit about how to measure “secularity” — and particularly, measure it in a sense that that allows for controlling for individual degree of religiosity.

          • Posted December 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            in so far as the number of Nones has been rising, yes, that looks like a march to secularism

            No, secularism isn’t about headcounts. The building/erosion of jefferson’s church-state wall (secularisation) depends on the political success of 2 competing movements. Not their membership trends. Their legislative successes. Imo profoundly asymmetrical in terms of (A) american history, (B) religious funding, and (C) the uphill nature of the Left needing to build inertia to change a democratic law.

            “be explicit about how to measure Secularity”

            For a start we can’t ask individuals about their personal beliefs. To measure a state’s freedom from christendom, we can weigh up if its legislation is tending towards “more or less influenced by monotheism”. I’d focus on sex laws since that’s where most religio-political teams are mostly competing.

            “[measurements] that allows for controlling for individual degree of religiosity”

            I think measuring legal outcomes gives us a way to look at church-state separation without needing to pick peoples’ storytelling brains.

            • Posted December 11, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

              My feeling is that we’d find the rate of secularisation in Australia (for example) to be slower than the –accelerating– speed of global scientific progress.

              If so, our aging legislation is becoming less and less appropriate for the bioethical dilemmas facing her citizens. And I’d be very tempted to upgrade our jefferson-like wall from a locale for religious leaders to play lego, to a multinational-corporation no fly zone.

            • Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

              In that case, you’re talking about an entirely different body of evidence (and measure) than was originally being discussed… which is well enough, but in that case, clarity would dictate starting by explicitly stating that.

              As a secondary quibble, TJ’s role is overrated; Madison deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

              • Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

                Yes I agree, an entirely different body of evidence needed to measure “march towards secularism”.

                Which btw Goliath Field brought up here, not the OP nor me.

  14. Tulse
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Anyway, it’s still dispiriting

    Apparently not — that’s the problem!

    • Kevin
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink


    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      *chuckle* (ie not quite LOL, but amusing nonetheless)

  15. Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Well, Benny the Rat Singer still hasn’t been eaten alive by his spawn, and that’s miracle enough for me!


  16. Kevin
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Definitions for our modern world.

    Miracle (n): 1) Anything that occurs contrary to the statistical probability of that thing occurring. 2) A demonstration of great skill (as in a miracle shot in basketball. 3) Any recovery from a serious illness, or the birth of any child. Especially ignoring the use of applied science (ie, medicine) in the outcome.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Of course, the question specified religious miracles….

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        …but without actually defining what that means. Which still leaves respondents free to interpret it however they like.

        I’m sure there are lots of people who would consider both 1 and 3 above to be evidence of divine action. And apparently quite a few sports fans think God plays on their side as well.

        To the religiously inclined, everything is a miracle, from parental love to frozen waterfalls, because it all comes from God. So I don’t see how the distinction between religious miracles and some other kind of miracle (whatever that may be) matters much. By your own argument elsewhere in the thread, it’s religious people who account for the increase, and they’re the ones who interpret “religious” most broadly.

        • Posted December 6, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

          Oh, yes. There’s plenty of room for interpretation about what kind of miracle might be religious in origin/appearance/whatnot. However, that range of interpretation doesn’t explain the change in the cultural attitude over time. It could be more acceptance of the same level of miracle, it could be smaller things being considered to meet the threshold of miracle, or it could be something else. Not enough data there.

          (Also, the ”everything is a miracle” attitude seems more the extreme than the norm for the religious, save as a fatuous platitude; and it’s not so much “my argument” that religious people who account for the increase; simply pointing at the data makes for a pretty trivial sort of argument. But those bits are just reflexive quibbling.)

      • Marella
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        When Serena Williams thanks god for giving her the Australian Open title (as she has done), the idea of a religious miracle is obviously pretty loose.

  17. MAUCH
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the reason that we accept miracles is because we are educationally disabled. As an example if we had learned population theory in school we might have been able to understand how random mutations and and the fixation of alleles within a population of animals can result in the natural creation of new species. The acceptance of unnatural miracles is so much easier that having to wrap you head around some complicated math.

  18. Prof.Pedant
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    My impression is that many people use the word ‘miracle’ to mean ‘something wonderful that happened’. It is only if you ask them ‘how did that wonderful thing happen’ that they assume God.

  19. Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The entire GSS data set is publicly available for download from NORC. Furthermore, there is an on-line tool at Berkeley, allowing various nigh-instant analyses. The variable in question is “MIRACLES”, asked in YEARs 1991, 1998, and 2008. Given that Dr. Coyne regularly teaches biostatistics, he can probably make better sense of the analyses than I can, but there appears to have been a shift.

    Furthermore, the SDA interface allows a nigh-instant answer to Dr. Coyne’s question Why would Americans who either flee the church to become “nones,” or those who simply grow up lacking faith, show more belief in miracles than people 17 years ago? Answer: if you control for strength of religiosity (RELITEN, or recode RELITENR on the Berkeley server, if someone hasn’t deleted it yet), there’s essentially no trend among the unaffiliated — but a more pronounced trend among those not very, somewhat, and strongly religious. It’s not the Nones showing more belief in miracles, it’s everyone else showing a lot more belief in miracles, such that the rise of the Nones is overshadowed in this respect.

    Some fun quasi-demographic variables to try playing with are WORDSUM, DEGREE, BIBLE, RELIG, DENOM, RELIG16, RELITEN, RACE, HISPANIC, ZODIAC (mainly for sanity checks), COHORT (usefully recoded into decade chunks as CHRTDEC) PARTYID, and POLVIEWS; the full codebook is available at the Berkely site, as well as from NORC.

  20. Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Nowhere does Briggs define what a miracle is, except if you include a tongue-in-cheek third-hand comment from Voltaire. And it’s true, just about anything can be, and is, described as a miracle.

    But usually miracles are defined as violations or suspensions of natural laws. And nature is made up of entities, each of which has properties describing what they are and what they can do, and just as important, what their limitations are.

    For something to be a miracle, the event has to correspond to something or things not conforming to their own properties. Essentially, anything involved in a miracle ceases to be itself. That’s a contradiction, and as every rational person knows, contradictions don’t exist in reality, and therefore, neither do miracles.

    If, occasionally, an apple on the Earth’s surface floats upwards then there’s something that we hadn’t realised about apples or about gravity. Not that there’s any reason to think that that would happen, but even if it did, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

    This analysis holds for unusual coincidences or good fortune, just as much as violations of nature.

  21. KP
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Anyway, it’s still dispiriting, and a reminder that lack of religion doesn’t mean lack of belief in woo or an increase in criticality.

    I am acquainted with a lot of people like this. They agree with me fully about the problems with the “mainstream” religions. But they still insist on some property of the universe that affects us in myriad ways. They can be as fixed in this insistence as fundamentalists can be about the literal truth of the Bible/Koran.

  22. Sastra
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I think the rise in numbers of people who “believe in miracles” is fueled by a growing cultural emphasis on the value of being the kind of person who believes in miracles. Believe.

    Someone who believes in miracles is doing something admirable. They’re open-minded, upbeat, filled with wonder,and discerning. They see and appreciate what others would not. They’re optimists.

    The others are the skeptics. Who wants to be like an atheist?

    I think skeptics, humanists, and atheists need to speak out MORE in our culture, so that eventually we start to seem like we might be heroes, too. Then — they will listen to what we say about the actual facts. Being right will matter.

    Till then, I think too many are too intent on playing dress-up and being the kind of person who believes in miracles.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink


    • Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink


      Monotheism (mis)informs us that the religious know more than the sciences about SOMEthing.

      They of course do not.

      (Except if history contains biblical miracles)

  23. Andrew
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I think the polls reveal more of a trend towards wishful (woo-full) thinking than seriously informed beliefs about miracles.
    Given the preponderance of fantasy in our culture – through media such as television, movies, video games and the internet, etc., – the lines between what’s probable and what in not possible, but what we can imagine and fantasize about (don’t split hairs on this); it’s easy to believe in magical thinking and assign supernatural causes to highly improbable events. I don’t think religion directly influences this trend as much as pop culture; after all, miracles feel good – lots of brain dope.

  24. The Stolen Dormouse
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    The best use of the word “miracle” I ever saw was on a black 1930s delivery truck that passed me one night in Pasadena (CA) circa 1970. On its side it said in large letters “Miracle Baking Company,” with a smaller slogan “If it’s good, it’s a Miracle!

    • The Stolen Dormouse
      Posted December 7, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Just did a quick Google search, finding such items as “miracle blanket” for soothing babies; “miracle noodles” for not gaining weight; Miracle Systems government contractor; “miracle fruit” whose berries turn sour-/bitter-tasting foods to sweet; and the famous Miracle on Ice, Olympics ice hockey playoff where the USA beat the USSR team in 1980.

      None of these are true miracles, which goes with the idea that the word miracle has become debased to mean anything surprising.

  25. DV
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    What can we expect when half of the people are below average intelligence.

    • Posted December 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      The WORDSUM cross sub-sample is too small for much confidence; the trend is at least more pronounced in those below average intelligence, but it’s a pretty weak correlation, suggesting there’s likely something more directly related.

  26. Kevin
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    “with no miracle ever substantiated”

    Just for the record, how would you propose substantiating one?

    • Susan
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Just for the record, how would you propose substantiating one?

      That seems fairly simple, Kevin. Define what you mean by “miracle”. Then, don’t insist that it is beyond evidence.

      Be consistent.

      • Posted December 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        Easy. If our best contemporary scholars within academia hold to explanations of our universe that insists on a creator character, then we have substantiated a genuine miracle event.

        Historically this *WAS* substantiated! And a very good idea it was, right up until cosmology discovered a better one. Now it’s increasingly wrongheaded.

        Beyond this point, claimants of historical miracles within academia can pick their enxt favourite strongly/weakly evidenced act of god. Preferably biblical, otherwise let’s call it a statistical fluke or glitch in the matrix.

        Alternatively academia might teach kids the goodness of magic-thinkers learning to concede… ?

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    I’m wondering if the change is partly due to a subtle difference in the popular understanding of the meaning of the word ‘miracle’. That is to say, decades ago people may have understood quite clearly that a miracle was an ‘impossible’ supernatural event, these days they may think a ‘miracle’ is just something highly improbable and very lucky (like John Lee’s chance meeting with his father upthread) – not supernatural at all.
    That would account for there being a lot more miracles around now – I could instance one of the latter sort myself.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 7, 2012 at 12:16 am | Permalink

      I see that was all discussed already somewhere upthread. Drat! Upstaged. My bad. Sorry for the repetition.

    • Posted December 7, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Still, it seems a significant drift in meaning for a mere two decades, if that’s the main factor behind this.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 7, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        Compare the meanings of words like “phone”, “text”, “net”, “site”, and so on two decades ago to their meanings today. Compare “tea party” five years ago to its meaning today.

        Words like “gay” and “awesome” underwent similarly rapid shifts of meaning in recent decades. In just the past couple of years, “literally” has somehow come to mean “figuratively” in popular usage.

        I think it would be interesting to see statistics on how often the word “miracle” is mentioned in TV news broadcasts over the last two decades, if such data exist. It may be worth noting that Fox News is less than two decades old.

  28. John Weiss
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    I experienced a miracle. I my present wife and I – literally! – saw one another across a crowded room. No chance of of smelling one another or such. It was like I imagine a lightning strike would be.

    Miracle enough for me.


    • gbjames
      Posted December 7, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      I trust you and she have established at least a small shrine in honor of the event!

  29. Posted December 7, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    There’s a quote often attributed to Augustine of Hippo, not your typical icon of rationality but he was influenced by Greek philosophy, that goes something like “Miracles happen not in opposition to Nature, but in opposition to what we know about Nature.” So if you define miracles as phenomena that can’t be explained logically then miracles are real but on the decline as our scientific understand of the universe increases. Most people, however, are even more liberal in their definition of miracles, meaning something like phenomena that they personally don’t understand, like how we often say it’s a miracle that cousin Billy survived the fall from a 5 story building, or how Aunt Martha beat cancer. We know there is a logical explanation that has to do with advances in Trauma care and Oncological Science; we just don’t have the background and training to understand the specifics.

  30. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

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