I’ve been contemplating a concept for awhile now that I call “mesotheism” – that is, a middling belief in an overarching spiritual power, which many people call “god.” The idea is that there is a valid positive belief somewhere between theism and atheism that isn’t due merely to confusion, weak will or apathy.
Some people would call this position agnosticism, but that’s not actually right. Agnosticism means literally a lack of knowledge, and doesn’t address belief directly – although knowledge (or lack thereof) can absolutely lead people to believe certain things. I generally like historian Bart Ehrman’s description of agnosticism and his comments about why he calls himself agnostic rather than atheist. But essentially the point is that the two labels refer to different concepts.
One area where I find both atheist and theist arguments unpersuasive is in the realm of miracles, that is individual, unrepeated (and perhaps unrepeatable) acts which defy the general laws of nature. As Richard Dawkins defines miracles in The blind watchmaker, they are occurrences that are “exceedingly surprising. If a marble statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly waved its hand at us we should treat it as a miracle, because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn’t behave like that.”
Atheists argue that if miracles happen, then they are historical and scientific facts that must necessarily be detectable by historians and scientists. In fact, Dawkins goes even further in The Magic of Reality and says even when an occurrence can’t be explained by our current understanding of natural law, we still should not assume it is a miracle:
Suppose something happens that we don’t understand, and we can’t see how it could be fraud or trickery or lies: would it ever be right to conclude that it must be supernatural? No! … It would be lazy, even dishonest, for it amounts to a claim that no natural explanation will ever be possible.
In other words, because we might some day be able to explain a particular occurrence naturally, we should not call it a miracle now. I’m a bit less positivist that everything will one day be explained through science, but I agree quite emphatically with his reluctance to apply the “miracle” label.
However, Dawkins and other atheists who use similar arguments are working from an assumption here: That miracles are detectable. We should be able to recognize situations where something happens counter to the laws of nature. After all, miracles are essentially effects with misplaced (or misattributed) causes. What such arguments fail to recognize, however, is that if there is an omnipotent, omnipresent being working miracles, then why does it follow that those miracles must be observable as miracles? Scientific observation relies on natural law, but by their very definition miracles defy natural law. Perhaps part of such defiance is to evade detection.
Of course, atheists only make this assumption (that miracles are detectable) in response to theists. Some theists take miracles on faith; however, many claim not only that miracles happen, but that they have been witnessed. Some go even further and claim that occurrences which are demonstrably not miracles are somehow miraculous. Such preposterous claims are rightly denounced by critical thinkers along the spectrum of belief.
The problem is that many theists essentially want to believe they are somehow in the know when everyone else is not. They essentially want to say that “God works in mysterious ways,” but at the same time God decided to reveal his mysteries only to them. Is this possible? I suppose theoretically it could be. And monkeys might fly out of my butt (in which case I hope to get a video of it and capture one or more of the monkeys for scientific study). The problem, however, is that such revelation isn’t an argument; it’s simply assertion.
With regard to miracles, a mesotheist would agree with both the atheist and the theist that the world generally works on well-defined, observable and understandable natural laws, about which scientists (and “we as a species”) are learning more and more every day. However, they would differ from the theist, and agree with the atheist, by saying the things considered to be miracles probably have an explanation rooted in natural law. Likewise, they would disagree with the atheist, and perhaps agree with some theists, by saying that science probably won’t be able to explain everything, and those things that are not explained could possibly be miracles, or they may simply be natural laws that are too complex for us to understand. The agnostic mesotheist would tack on the sage aphorism: We may never know.
Then again, a mesotheist may just tell you to go read some Walt Whitman.
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim — the rocks — the motion of the waves — the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?