The other day I stumbled onto a video clip that featured a “faith healer” who was working to heal a subject who appeared to have one arm shorter than the other. The subject was standing with his arms stretched out in front of him, his palms facing each other and touching. But the subject’s palms did not match up. Instead, it appeared that his left arm (on the side toward the camera) was about two inches shorter than the right. The healer was frantically waving his arms over the subject’s hands, and as he did, the subject’s left hand slowly started to move to line up with the right. When eventually the subject’s two hands coincided, the crowd, as they say, went wild.
Really, now. Did these people actually believe that the “healer” had caused the subject’s left arm to grow? In the video that seemed to be the case at least with the onlookers, though nowadays it is difficult to know whether or not the whole thing had been staged.
I assume—hope, at least—that anyone who is reading this would be highly skeptical of the legitimacy of the claim made in the video clip, even if the bystanders in the clip might not have been. Most of us would prefer to believe that the subject was simply moving his shoulders, originally so that one arm appeared shorter than the other and then so that they appeared the same length. Why is that? Why are we so skeptical of the legitimacy of the clip? I think the answer has to do with how we generally evaluate certain kinds of evidence.
The fact is that we know better than to take everything we witness at face value. We are more wary of claims that we consider extraordinary. As Carl Sagan succinctly put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This principle was not original with him; it has been around for centuries. It’s an idea that is fundamental to the scientific method and to rational analysis. And most of us adopt this principle consciously or unconsciously in analyzing most claims.
We have all seen magic acts where our senses are deceived. But in the end we do not believe the illusion. We do not come away believing that the magician actually sawed his assistant in half. Instead, we find ourselves looking for alternative explanations that account for the illusion in a more prosaic fashion. In effect, this is an application of Ockham’s razor, a practical rule of thumb for sorting through possible explanations: All else being equal, one should favor the explanation that requires the least number of basic assumptions. We do not see instances of individuals whose arms lengthen in a matter of seconds. After all, where would the additional flesh come from? Other parts of the subject’s body? Thin air? How would that work, exactly? So we ask if there is a more conventional explanation. Couldn’t the patient simply be shifting his shoulders so that his hands do not and then do line up?
In brief, we generally demand a higher standard of evidence to support extraordinary claims, and we look for alternative, more prosaic explanations for such claims. But not always. Consider what is perhaps the most fundamental proposition of the Christian faith, the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day following his crucifixion.
Superficially, the resurrection story may seem very different from the faith healing video. But are they really that different? Just as the faith healing video makes extraordinary claims for which we demand extraordinary evidence and look to alternative explanations, so the resurrection story makes extraordinary claims for which we should also demand extraordinary evidence and for which we should also look for more mundane explanations.
First, the resurrection story makes an extraordinary claim—the return to life of someone who was dead. There is simply no contemporary objective evidence of individuals rising from the dead. None. Second, there are more prosaic alternative explanations to account for the story: The gospels were written nearly two thousand years ago. None of the gospel writers was a contemporary of Jesus. There is scant evidence outside of scripture that Jesus was a historical figure. Even if Jesus was historical, at the time the gospels were written it was common and acceptable for biographical accounts to incorporate fantastical, miraculous elements.
Should one not simply consider the resurrection story as one that is made up—a fiction, perhaps with a few elements of fact mixed in? Isn’t that a more reasonable explanation than to claim that all of it is true? But that is not the position of the Christian faith. Despite the extraordinary claims contained in the resurrection story, Christians do not demand extraordinary evidence to substantiate those claims. Nor do they consider more prosaic explanations for the claims.
In effect, Christians place tenets of faith into a different category from other beliefs, a category that is exempt from refutation or falsifiability. Most of us were taught at an early age—before we had developed critical thinking skills—that scripture, including, in particular, the resurrection story, is true and not subject to question. I respect my Christian friends’ point of view that religious beliefs belong in a different category from all other beliefs, but I do not agree. My skepticism, my demand for evidence, particularly with respect to extraordinary claims, extends to all areas of belief, not just those outside of the sphere of religion.
© 2017 John M. Phillips