Women, who Morris says tend to be “especially spiritually sensitive,” are more likely to believe in miracles: 85 percent of them do, compared with just 73 percent of men. Most intriguingly, older folks are less inclined to believe: 85 percent of those ages 45 through 54 believe in miracles, compared with 78 percent of those 55 through 64, and 75 percent of those 65 and up.
“I think one reason that, as people get older, they get a little more doubtful is that they end up tempered by the wisdom of their own mortality,” says Church. “They become more honest with themselves that nothing is going to save them from death.”
There’s also no ignoring the sizable 18 percent of people who simply reject the whole notion of miracles. I caught up with one of the country’s most celebrated skeptics, Penn Jillette, at his Las Vegas, Nevada, office. Half of the legendary magic team Penn and Teller, he has made a second career debunking reports of supernatural phenomena.
“Once you say something is a miracle, what you’re saying is ‘I understand every physical and mathematical property in the world, and this is outside of it,’” he says. “It’s saying ‘I know everything, and this can’t be explained by anything.’ So there’s a tremendous amount of hubris in the closed-mindedness of accepting a miracle.”
So, when the world sees a miracle, what’s really happening?
“Evolution has conditioned us to keep alert for the rustling of the leaves,” says Scientific American’s Shermer. “We’re always on the lookout for the outliers, for what’s different.”
“The answer that I love,” says Jillette, “the answer that I embrace, and that shows what a big and beautiful place the universe is: ‘I don’t know.’”
Forrest Church could count himself among those who’ve been touched by a miracle. In his latest book, Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow (Beacon, 2008), he tells how two years ago he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and given six months to live. He’s still here—and preaching, despite the removal of his esophagus. But he insists that life’s perceived miraculous events come only within the context of a larger miracle.
“I believe in the super and the natural, and not the supernatural,” he says. “Life is a miraculous gift. We tend to take life for granted, seeing it as normative rather than as miraculous. And then something magnificent happens, and we credit it to a miracle. The truth is, we don’t need to expect a miracle to experience the miraculous.”
If believers like to say “Miracles happen every day,” they must also account for the corollary statement, “Miracles don’t happen every day,” says Christian speaker Clairmont.
“My brother was on life support,” she recalls. “He was 38 and had six children. I knew those children needed their daddy. So we wanted a miracle. But we did not get one. When they took him off life support, he was gone.”
Yet only in a universe where miracles are possible, she says, can the absence of a miracle become a life-affirming event. “When you don’t get a miracle—as when you do—it is a startling moment of deciding again where you stand in the universe,” Clairmont says. “You have to say, ‘Lord, what does this mean about the two of us?’”