Standards for Belief in the Age of Reason

Can historical accounts of supernatural events be properly evaluated in today's science-based environment?

All religious faiths have included historical accounts of supernatural events or beings. In very early history these were passed down as an oral tradition with no expectation of contemporaneous verification.

Starting with the Jews (in the Western traditions) these accounts have been codified in written materials. In nearly all cases these written materials include eye witness accounts of supernatural events or interactions with persons having supernatural characteristics or abilities. In Christianity there are the stories of Jesus and numerous saints, for example.

More recently founded religions such as the Mormons also contain written accounts from an eye witness point of view. With the rise of the scientific method starting in the seventeenth century there has been increasing pressure to subject these historical accounts to rigorous validation.

One of the first validation steps to be taken is an attempt to find physical evidence for the events described. For unusual natural phenomena such as Noah's flood many researchers attempt to resolve a general description into one of a local nature. Given the poor communications and localization of living in earlier times it is quite plausible that local events might be given more universal context by the eye witnesses.

The description of human actions is a much harder task to verify. All of us have observed the discrepancies which arise when several people relate events that we have personally observed. With eye witness accounts in the past there are even greater problems since there is usually no account of how soon and by whom the written record was created. For events of a religious or supernatural nature there is also the question of whether the event described is meant to be taken literally or as a parable or lesson.

To illustrate the difficulty in validating such writings the following example is offered. Since it involves a well-known person, only references to the abilities and events are noted. It is assumed that the reader can remember or easily refer to the underlying material, if necessary.

Proof of the Existence of Santa Claus

Santa Claus is the only supernatural being whose existence has been verified in modern times. This is a short summary of the available evidence.

Saint Nicholas was a real person who was probably born around the year 280 in Turkey. He thus has a long appearance in European history.

His current manifestation has been fully documented in the seminal document "Twas the Night Before Christmas". This is an eye witness account which appeared in 1822 in a Troy, NY newspaper.

Subsequent skepticism has been fully debunked by a prominent impartial reporter in Francis P. Church's editorial, "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus". This appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.

Most children are told of Santa Claus and his supernatural powers by their parents at a very young age. Something this important would not be taught to impressionable children, by the most important influences in their life, if it wasn't true.

Santa Claus must be supernatural since he is able to deliver toys to millions of people simultaneously. Even in those cases where parents claim to have delivered the gifts, it is obvious that they are just acting as Santa Claus's agent. He has determined what they will purchase and deliver. This leads them to believe they are making the gift, but they are deluded.

I, and many others, have personally seen Santa Claus on many occasions in shopping malls and other locations. Only a supernatural being could appear in so many locations during the Christmas season. Those who claim they are Santa's "helpers" are just trying to mislead us.

Imploring Santa Claus for special consideration is considered a necessary act if appropriate gifts are to be received.

Ethical rules are attributed to Santa Claus:

"He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!"

Rewards are thus based upon ethical behavior.

Images and works of art depicting Santa Claus appear frequently. If he were not a true supernatural being society would not expend so much time and effort on this personage.

We see that Santa Claus meets all the criteria commonly applied to written, historical accounts for supernatural beings. The underlying issues of the reliability of the eye witnesses is crux of the issue. Much ink is spilled in discussions of the validity of the eye witness accounts, but there is almost no way to validate the reliability of the persons reporting the events. The best that can be done is an appeal to likelihood that the person would have a reason to misreport events. Unfortunately, in most cases the reporter has a great deal to gain from being believed and thus the impartiality can never be relied on.

The tests used above are summarized in the table below. As can be seen Santa Claus meets all the criteria and thus cannot be distinguished from more popular supernatural personages. Try applying the tests given for your choice of supernatural personage.

The conclusion that must be reached is that historical eye witness accounts of supernatural people or events do not meet the standard for scientific validation. They do not conform to generally expected behaviors in the observed world, they are not independently verifiable, and they are not reproducible.

Supernatural Being Comparison Chart

Supernatural property

Santa Claus

Your Supernatural Being

Historical Personage

Yes


Eye Witness written account

Yes


Existence verified by respected person

Yes


Belief in powers taught to next generation

Yes


Able to do something no one else can do

Yes


Personal experience of supernatural being

Yes


Promotes Ethical precepts

Yes


Must be appealed to for assistance

Yes


Important in society's iconology

Yes



Moral: Beliefs based upon hearsay are not proofs.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.