If, as some say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky
Why did He burn his churches down
And spare Hotaling's whiskey?

Charles Kellogg Field, on observing the Hotaling Whiskey warehouse standing undamaged amid the rubble of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

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The word "miracle" is used in a variety of ways. Though it can simply mean "an occurrence that is statistically unlikely," it is used by many people to signify "an event caused directly by the hand of God." In the latter case, the use of the word usually means that the event defies the laws of the natural world.

It is overused, as so many words are. I recall its use by a local sheriff in connection with the escape of a kidnapped boy, who worked loose from the ropes with which his captor had bound him and ran to freedom. In this case, either attributing the escape to God's intervention or claiming it simply was an occurrence of extremely low likelihood are equally inappropriate -- all the escape really signified is that the kidnapper didn't know how to tie effective knots, an ignorance he probably shared with a majority of the population.

The biggest problem I have with the word "miracle" is that there are so many people who make no distinction between the two above meanings: If it defies the odds, then God must have done it. No other explanation is considered.

One thing that really sets my teeth on edge is when people say they see the hand of God in an event in which they were far more lucky than other people were -- the man who "miraculously" survives a train wreck, for example, in which everyone else riding in the same train car he was in died. When the survivor tells news reporters that "God was watching over me and saved me," I really wish he could see how incredibly arrogant and shockingly insensitive he is being. He is saying that God considered him more important, his survival more essential, than all of those people who died. It is a slap in the face to all family members of the people who died, as if they needed insult to their loved ones added to their tragedy. The same is true if none were killed but some were hurt, when an uninjured passenger credits God for the "miracle" of her personal safety -- she is thoughtlessly insulting all of those who did get hurt. She is saying God didn't find them worth protecting.

What about the train crash in which everyone survives without serious injury, in defiance of the odds? Can they say, or can we say, that God saved them? Is it one of God's "miracles"? The trouble is that if no one was killed or even badly hurt, that opens up the question: if God didn't want any of those people hurt and worked to prevent it, then why did He allow the crash to happen at all? If we grant that God has the power to save all those people from death and injury, then He clearly must have the power to prevent the accident from occurring to begin with. Wouldn't that have been much simpler?

Citing Satan as the instigator of the accident doesn't help explain it -- it only opens up, once more, the subject of that inexplicable competition between God and Satan (see chapter on "Good and Evil") that runs counter to every notion of God being omnipotent.

The next time you hear of an unlikely event being awarded the status of a "miracle," here is something to keep in mind: we live in a very big world, and every day, around the world, one-chance-in-a-million events are given millions of opportunities to happen. That being the case, the laws of mathematics, and even of common sense, say that some of them are going to happen. God isn't required for that.

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During the 2014 Congressional campaign, candidate Susanne Atanus was quoted saying that "Everybody knows that God controls the weather," a "fact" she offered as proof of her contention that tornadoes (along with autism and dementia) were God's punishment for gay marriage and access to abortions. (For the record, she won the Republican primary, but lost the general election by a 2-1 margin.)

The purposeful tornadoes cited by Ms. Atanus are a perfect example of what I call "God's Blunderbuss," the weapon employed by God for exercising His wrath on wrongdoers that ends up destroying completely innocent victims, while often missing the actual target.

The blunderbuss was a muzzle-loaded shotgun popular two to three centuries ago, with a short, flared barrel capable of scattering shot over a wide area, most of it (if not all of it) missing the intended target. To many devoted believers in God, in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic-and-almost-any-other-religion world, it seems to be God's weapon of choice.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, was God's Blunderbuss. It was widely said, among conservative Christians, that God threw Katrina at New Orleans in response to the wild, hedonistic lifestyle of the denizens of Bourbon Street, where women parade topless at Mardi Gras and you can purchase mixed alcoholic drinks without departing from the sidewalk on any night of the year. It seems like a reasonable tantrum for a fed-up God to have, if you overlook one important detail: the hurricane largely spared the sinful tourist trap of Bourbon Street of all but minor flood damage while focusing all of its significant destruction in New Orleans on an inner-city neighborhood of desperately poor African-Americans who attended church every Sunday, prayed to God every night and at every meal, and had absolutely no connection with any of the activities on Bourbon Street that God might have been angry at. (Not to mention all the destruction visited on the people of the Bayou whose misfortune it was to be living in the area the hurricane had to pass through to get to New Orleans.) Meanwhile, in contrast to the utter demolition of New Orleans' 9th Ward: Harrah's Casino, a den of gambling near the foot of Canal Street just across from the entrance to Bourbon Street, was so untouched that the police used it to set up a command post! Is God really that clumsy that He completely misses all of the people He wants to punish and ends up striking only bystanders who just got in the way? Think of all the power God is supposed to have. Shouldn't He be capable of using it more effectively than that?

God's Blunderbuss is one side of a coin, of which miracles are the other side. God rewards the good people, He punishes the bad ones. That fits well with what most people think God's job is, and anyone who chooses to ignore all of the obvious inconsistencies in the real-world application of that process, all of the questions about who deserved what, all of the collateral damage, and all of the failures to hit the intended target, is welcome to hold onto that belief. But I can't. Just read the poem at the start of this chapter for another example of one of the reasons I can't.