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by David Hume
The original, squashed down to read in about 5 minutes
'Of Miracles' is part of a collection of essays by David Hume, the genial billiard-playing Scottish historian, journalist and philosopher. It is considered a foundation of the 'Enlightenment' - the time in the 18th Century when humans began to realise that reason and observation were probably better guides to living than tradition and deference.
Not just 'On Miracles', but every single thing Hume ever wrote has been prohibited by the Church.
Evidence for the truth of our Christian religion is founded on the testimony of eye-witnesses to the miracles of our saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence is then less than that of our senses, it is external evidence and not brought home to everyone's breast by the immediate operation of the holy spirit.
I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die of a sudden; such a death, though unusual, has frequently been observed. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise it would not merit the appellation.
The consequent general maxim is, "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish."
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I consider whether it be more probable that this person deceive or be deceived, or that the fact should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command by belief or opinion.
In the foregoing we have supposed that testimony of a miracle may amount to a proof, but it is easy to shew that we have been too liberal.
First, there is not to be found in all history any chroniclers of a miracle who are entirely above suspicion.
Secondly. The passion of surprise or wonder, being an agreeable emotion, tends towards the belief in miracles, even among those who must hear only stories. Eloquence leaves little room for reflection.
Thirdly, it forms a strong presumption against supernatural revelations that they chiefly abound among ignorant and barbarous nations. It is strange a judicious reader is apt to say that such prodigious events never happen in our days.
Fourth. Testimony that a religion is proved by miracles, must confound itself. The religions of ancient Rome, Turkey, Siam or China abound in miracles. But to claim that the miracles of one's religion confound all others, must likewise destroy all credit in miracles.
I need not add the difficulty of detecting falsehoods. Even a court of judicature, with all the authority, accuracy and judgement it can employ, often finds itself at a loss to distinguish truth from falsehood. The wise and learned commonly think the infancy of new religions too small a matter to deserve regard, and when they would later detect a cheat, the season is past and the witnesses perished.
It is experience alone which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience which assures us of the laws of nature. Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not reason, and whoever assents to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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