Since human beings invented religion thousands of years ago, the belief in miracles, that is, in acts of God which contravene natural laws governing phenomena, has been a leitmotiv in the architectonic of religious consciousness.
In particular, the holy scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam contain numerous accounts of miraculous events occasioned by active intervention of God or by extraordinary individuals backed by divine power, which appear to suspend and put in abeyance the workings of natural laws as ascertained through well-authenticated empirical evidence.
Of course, Oriental and African traditional religions also contain accounts of miraculous events, but their appeal depends less on belief in the reality of miracles than is the case in the three Abrahamic religions mentioned above.
In Nigeria, noisy and swanky Pentecostal churches have taken belief in miracles to a completely new level altogether, to the extent that traditional Christian denominations, such as Catholic and Anglican churches, are losing members steadily to the newer denominations because of frantic quest for miracles.
Notable Pentecostal churches in Nigeria where pastors have elevated regular performance of miracles to the level of an art form as a mode of winning converts.
On Sundays and other selected days in the week, millions of gullible Nigerians and foreigners attend church services and special programmes like crusade and night vigils organised by different churches to receive miracles.
Pastors of the Pentecostal churches know that a large percentage of their members are intellectually lazy and always on the lookout for quick and easy solutions to the existential challenges that confront them from time to time.
Consequently, unscrupulous â€œanointed men and women of Godâ€ exploit the hopes, fears, dreams, expectations and anxieties of believers to devastating effect.
There are numerous corroborable stories detailing thoroughly despicable legerdemain pastors employ to extort huge sums and valuable assets from naive church members desperately searching for miracles.
In fact, incidences of unreported and undocumented deaths abound which result from physical and psychological abuses and traumas suffered by ardent believers in churches, â€œholy mountains,â€ crusade grounds etc.
Such cases are usually suppressed by the churches concerned to avoid bad publicity and loss of members to rival organisations.
In real terms, the quest for miracles takes different forms, from the ridiculous to the utterly horrific and absurd.
Oftentimes, miracle seekers are cajoled by their pastors, general overseers or prophets to buy blessed water, anointed oil and special handkerchief from the church premises or other designated outlets run by the churches, which would enable them access divine healing, divine breakthrough and whatever it was that they wanted. Oftentimes women desperately desirous of children are tricked into sleeping with the â€œman of Godâ€ in order to actualise their wishes.
Sometime ago, in widely circulated audio-visual recordings, Nigerians got firsthand information from former members of T.B. Joshuaâ€™s Synagogue of all Nations and Lazarus Muokaâ€™s Lordâ€™s Chosen Charismatic Revival Ministries about the extreme activities going on in the church.
From the recordings, it is obvious that pastors and general overseers of â€œmiracle manufacturing churchesâ€ go to any length and use every possible means, to acquire alleged divine power and deploy it to exploit people en masse.
Hence, the overriding philosophy that undergirds pastorsâ€™ obsession with power to perform miracles is the crude Machiavellian principle of â€œthe end justifies the means.â€
Now, because of the explosive increase in the number of pastors claiming to perform miracles, the ridiculous extent believers are willing to go in order to experience divine interventions at the point of their needs and the dangers associated with uncritical belief in miracles, we shall investigate critically the possibility of miracles.
In this connection, we identify the nature of miracles and weigh the evidence, if any, which makes religious adherents interpret some events, occurrences and phenomena as miraculous. We also explore other possible explanations for such phenomena, and identify the consequences of rejecting belief in miracles on believers and on religion generally.
As indicated earlier, a miracle is an event or phenomenon that apparently violates known laws of nature. The Holy Bible, just like The Holy Koran, is replete with accounts of miracles. Aside from the miracles attributed to Yahweh in the Old Testament, the New Testament reports several incredible feats performed by Jesus, intended to convince his audience that he was truly the son of God.
But the profoundest miracle in Christendom is the said resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion. For Muslims, revelation of The Holy Koran is a miracle of the utmost importance to believers.
Belief in miracles, as we observed at the beginning, is as old as religion. In our own day, inspite of the tremendous achievements of science and technology in elucidating the way the world operates, people still cling tenaciously to the actuality of miracles. That attitude is partly responsible for the survival of religion in the face of rampaging contemporary secularism.
Now, belief in the reality of miracles is predicated on the presumption that the cosmos is a well-ordered system in which things happen according to determinate patterns or laws of nature.
Without the idea of natural laws that determine the structured regularities of occurrences in the observable universe, the concept of miracle would be meaningless. St. Augustineâ€™s subjective definition of â€˜miracleâ€™ reflects popular understanding of the concept. According to him, a miracle is whatever is hard or appears unusual beyond the understanding or expectation of the observer.
It follows, as Simon Blackburn observes, that our habits of mind prevents us from seeing the entire universe as the miracle that it is, and that it would appear so to someone who could see for the first time.
In the medieval period, the idea emerged that a miracle is something special, contra consuetum cursum naturae (contrary to the usual course of nature). After the seventeenth century revolution in science, particularly physics, belief in miracle receded somewhat.
It was thought that the laws of motion, as laid down by Newtonian physics, provide definitive mechanical principles that determine the occurrence of phenomena in the world, upon which laws the French mathematician, Pierre Simon de Laplace, erected a deterministic account of the universe.
The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, provides one of the best philosophical analyses of the concept of miracle. In his famous essay â€œOn Miraclesâ€ (1750), Hume defines â€˜miracleâ€™ as a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of an invisible agent.
Now, an alleged miracle invariably occurs within the backdrop of established regularities and expectations; it violates previous knowledge, which is why an extraordinary power is usually invoked to account for it.
Stories of miraculous events, particularly those recorded in religious scriptures, are never attested to by a sufficient number of men and women, of such unquestioned good sense education and learning as to rule out delusion in themselves and of such undoubted integrity as to eliminate all suspicion of any design to deceive others.