Richard Dawkins has shrewdly noticed that miracles represent the common ground on which religion and science seem to make rival claims. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould argues in his book Rocks of Ages that science and religion can comfortably coexist as they operate in separate realms: “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world…. Religion on the other hand operates in the equally important, but utterlydifferent, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.” Dawkins correctly observes that this distinction doesn’t always work. The reason is that religion too makes claims about nature. The Old Testament reports that Moses parted the Red Sea, and that Jonah lived in the belly of the whale. The New Testament tells of a virgin named Mary who conceived a child, and of a fellow named Jesus who performed innumerable acts that defy human expla- nation.
“Science is based upon verifiable evidence,” Dawkins says. The miracle stories of Christianity, according to Dawkins, are “blatant intrusions into scientific territory. Every one of these miracles amounts to a scientific claim, a violation of the normal running of the natural world:’ Consequently, “any belief in miracles is flatly contradictory not just to the facts of science but also to the spirit of science.” Indeed, in Dawkins’s estimation, miracles are nothing other than “bad science.” As scientific laws cannot be violated, miracles cannot occur. Reasonable people therefore “have to renounce miracles.”
Many liberal Christians are so intimidated by the authority of science that they do their best to banish the miracles. In doing so, they rely on a tradition of biblical scholarship that goes back to David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, first published in 1835. Strauss treated the miracles as myths. How did Jesus feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes? Perhaps he had a secret store of food, or people brought their own packed lunches. How did Jesus walk on water? Maybe there was a platform floating just beneath the surface. How did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Lazarus might simply have been in a trance. How did Jesus come back from the tomb? He probably didn’t, but the important thing is that his followers believed he did and that belief filled them with joy and hope. These explanations have actually been suggested by theologians. They get rid of miracles by getting rid of Christianity.