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Remember Uri Geller? He was the psychic (or entertainer) who bent spoons and performed similar demonstrations in the 1970s and later. He claimed that extraterrestrials gave him paranormal powers, but wet blankets like magician James Randi stated that all of Geller’s claimed paranormal demonstrations were done with conventional stage magic. Randi showed this by publicly duplicating all of Geller’s tricks.
Geller responded: “Sure, there are magicians who can duplicate [my performances] through trickery.” In other words, just because others can do these things as tricks doesn’t mean that he’s not doing them using paranormal powers. But Randi observed that if Geller was actually doing what he claims, “He is doing it the hard way.”
Miraculous Bible claims
I was reminded of Geller when I recently read a defense of one of the Bible’s miracle claims. Maybe it was the Genesis flood story (which looks a lot like the prior Gilgamesh epic). Or the creation story (which looks a lot like the prior Sumerian creation story). Or the Jesus virgin birth story (which looks a lot like prior virgin birth claims of other great men). Or the Jesus resurrection story (which looks a lot like prior dying-and-rising stories of other gods from cultures in the eastern Mediterranean).
It doesn’t much matter which Bible story the apologist was trying to shore up—the defense is the same. It’s the Uri Geller Defense. Geller would say that just because they did his stunts through tricks doesn’t mean that he’s not doing them for real. And the Bible apologist says that just because other cultures anticipated some of the Bible’s fundamental miracle claims long before the Bible story was written doesn’t mean that that Bible story isn’t for real.
Granted. But if Randi can duplicate Geller’s demonstrations as tricks, that makes the starting hypothesis that Geller did the same, and his paranormal claims are fraudulent. Geller has the burden of proof to show that this simple and obvious natural explanation is wrong. And if we have precedents for many of the Bible’s miracle stories, that makes the null hypothesis that these are just ancient Jewish versions of well-known supernatural stories. The apologist has the burden of proof to show that, while the other stories are just myths and legends, the Bible miracles actually happened.
Yes, but those earlier stories don’t count!
Some apologists try to dismiss the earlier stories, but early church father Justin Martyr tried to spin the similarities between Jesus’s virgin birth claim and those of other gods to his advantage. He turned the tables. Why should the Greeks dismiss this miracle claim of Jesus, Justin asked, when they make similar claims about their own gods?
About the Jesus resurrection story, Justin speculated that the similar Dionysus story was planted in history by the devil himself. (I give Justin’s arguments in more detail here.)
Another angle is to emphasize that each Bible story is different from its precedents. Of course it’s different—if the Jesus story were identical to that of Dionysus (say), we’d call him Dionysus instead of Jesus. The question is: how can we trust a Jewish or Christian story as history when it came out of a culture swimming with older (false) stories with the same supernatural claims?
How we deal with similar claims.
Psychics might really be talking to the dead. Though that’s not where the evidence points, desperate customers want the psychics’ story to be true.
Crop circles might really be made by extraterrestrials. Though that’s not where the evidence points (creators have documented how they do it), crop circle enthusiasts dismiss the mundane explanation.
Uri Geller might be for real, though that’s not where the evidence points. Similarly, the Bible miracle stories might be true, but similar miracle stories in nearby cultures make copying by Bible authors the best explanation.
We can’t prove that the Bible’s miracle claims aren’t for real, despite all the precedents, but that’s the way to bet. The plausible natural explanation makes the supernatural explanation unappealing and unnecessary. Only someone with a desire to support a preconception wouldn’t follow the evidence where it leads.

I don’t want to argue 
with people who believe the world is flat.
— Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong

Photo credit: Wikimedia
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/5/13.)

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...