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Common Reasons for Dismissing Miracles Are Mistaken, Study Shows

Religious people are more likely to say they’ve experienced a miracle but they aren’t the only ones who do

In a research article published in Review of Religious Research in July, sociologist Edwin Eschler comes to some unexpected conclusions about who experiences miracles—defined as “any experience in which a person believes an event or outcome was influenced by supernatural agents”:

For example,

➤ Well-educated and well-to-do people are just as likely to say they have experienced a miracle as poor and uneducated people—if they encounter an existential threat in life:

Q: What were your major findings?

Eschler: Well, first and simplest was that 57% of respondents had experienced a miracle of some kind. We’re not talking about a fringe belief/behavior. But more important was what I didn’t find: education had no relationship with experiencing miracles at all. Respondents with no formal education were just as likely to experience a miracle as those with a college degree. I also found that income doesn’t influence your likelihood of experiencing a miracle, but absolute poverty, not being able to afford food, clothing or medicine, is associated with experiencing miracles.

Media Communications, “People Who Feel Their Lives Are Threatened Are More Likely to Experience Miracles” at Baylor University (August 17, 2020)

Eschler relied on 2013 Pew data from South America (15,400 respondents from 16 countries) because the region has made rapid gains in development and education in the past thirty years, enabling a sharp comparison between more and less well-off or well-educated groups.

Dr. Eschler’s paper is definitely not an endorsement of the reality of miracles. He offers no dissent from the naturalist view that claims of miracles are in principle false. He wanted to test three naturalist hypotheses and report the findings:

1. Greater modernization will be associated with fewer miraculous experiences.

The richest and most well educated are still more likely to experience miracles if their life becomes uncertain or is threatened. This makes sense from what we know about paranormalists in the United States. We have stereotypes – when you think of Bigfoot hunters, for instance, you probably don’ t think of high-level executives trading in their Brioni suits for Carhart jackets, but that happens regularly. However, the only thing that distinguishes people who experience miracles or the paranormal from “normal people” is those experiences, not any particular lifestyle or habits.

Media Communications, “People Who Feel Their Lives Are Threatened Are More Likely to Experience Miracles” at Baylor University (August 17, 2020)

2. Greater existential threat will be associated with more miraculous experiences.

As Eschler told an interviewer,

There’s a societal assumption that wealthy and educated people favor scientific, more “rational” explanations for these events. However, there is rising evidence that it has more to do with the security that being rich and educated brings: people who experience fewer existential threats do not rely on religious explanations of events.

Baylor University, “People who feel their lives are threatened are more likely to experience miracles” at Eurekalert (August 18, 2020)

3. Being religiously socialized will be associated with more miraculous experiences.

Yes, in a general way, religious beliefs and activities did correlate with a greater likelihood of reporting that one has experienced a miracle. But the sociology literature assumes that urbanization and other modern trends would reduce religious belief and acceptance of miracles. That wasn’t well supported. As he says in the paper, “greater cultural diversity as measured by urbanity was actually associated with higher odds of experiencing a miracle.”

He put it this way in an interview:

From my analysis, an older, Black, Pentecostal Protestant woman with strongly held traditional social and religious beliefs who is uncertain about her financial future and has had difficulty paying for health care, clothing or food is by far more likely to experience a miracle than a young, white/mestizo Catholic who holds fewer traditional social and religious beliefs and is financially secure. However, every group has members who have experienced miracles.

Media Communications, “People Who Feel Their Lives Are Threatened Are More Likely to Experience Miracles” at Baylor University (August 17, 2020)

On a personal note, he recounted,

Several years ago, my father underwent a high-risk surgery. An angel did not descend to operate, but I still saw it as a miracle when he came out of the operation unscathed. I am a rational person: I give doctors their due. I am also a man of faith, and I believe that a supernatural agent responded to prayer and guided the doctor’ s hands. If I were an atheist, I would call it luck. This focus on how people experience miracles informs my definition: a miracle is any experience in which an individual believes an event or outcome was influenced by supernatural agents.

Media Communications, “People Who Feel Their Lives Are Threatened Are More Likely to Experience Miracles” at Baylor University (August 17, 2020)

It’s worth noting that Eschler’s results would look pretty much the same if miracles really do happen. That is, taking his hypotheses in order, traditions around miracles hold that

➤ 1. They can happen anyone, rich or poor, scholar or worker.

➤ 2. They don’t happen randomly but when people really need them.

➤ 3. They are more likely to happen to people who have faith in a higher power and pray.

And that is pretty much what Eschler found. Those who are looking for a simple, dismissive explanation of miracles will need to look elsewhere.

Abstract: Experiencing a miracle is often assumed to be predicated on a lack of rational, scientific explanations of phenomena as measured with education or class. Existential threat theories would predict religious experiences are not directly related to these measures of modernization, but rather the economic and political stability that accompanies modernization. Those who experience threats to their existence are more likely to experience miracles. I investigate the prevalence of miracles in Latin American using a 2013 Pew survey of religious beliefs and experiences. Looking at 15,400 respondents from 16 separate countries, I analyze the extent to which experiencing miracles is correlated with education, SES, financial insecurity, cultural traditionalism, and several religious variables. I find education and SES have little correlation with the number of miracles experienced, financial insecurity is positively correlated with experiencing miracles, and Protestants have more divine encounters than Catholics. This suggests that both religious socialization and existential threat explain why individuals experience miracles.

– Eschler, E. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Insecurity and Miraculous Experiences. Rev Relig Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00419-w (subscription required)

You may also wish to read: Why reasonable people think near-death experiences are real. Distinguished engineers Walter Bradley and Robert J.Marks sift through the evidence.

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Common Reasons for Dismissing Miracles Are Mistaken, Study Shows