Newswise — People who experience threats to their existence — which these days may well be economic and political instability — are more likely to experience miracles, according to a Baylor University study.

While many sociologists have studied the effects of religious experiences, what causes a person to have miraculous experiences has received little attention, said Baylor University sociologist and researcher Ed Eschler, Ph.D., a graduate student and editorial assistant for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 

His study“In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Insecurity and Miraculous Experiences” — is published in the journal Review of Religious Research.

For his research, Eschler investigated the prevalence of miracles in Latin America using data from a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of religious beliefs and experiences. Data were analyzed from 15,400 respondents from 16 countries. In this Q&A, he discusses his findings.

Q: How did you define a miracle for purposes of this study?

ESCHLER: That seems simple to answer, but it’s actually tricky —like defining religion itself. It's tempting to think of miracles on a biblical scale: Moses parting the Red Sea and Jesus restoring sight to the blind. However, unless I've been reading the wrong newspapers, this thinking excludes the lived experiences of most people. 

Several years ago, my father underwent a high-risk surgery. An angel did not descend to operate, but I still saw it as a miracle when he came out of the operation unscathed. I am a rational person: I give doctors their due. I am also a man of faith, and I believe that a supernatural agent responded to prayer and guided the doctor’s hands. If I were an atheist, I would call it luck. This focus on how people experience miracles informs my definition: a miracle is any experience in which an individual believes an event or outcome was influenced by supernatural agents.

There’s a societal assumption that wealthy and educated people favor scientific, “more rational” explanations for these events. However, there is rising evidence that it has more to do with the security that being rich and educated brings: people who experience fewer existential threats do not rely on religious explanations of events.

Q: Why did you choose Latin America for your research?

ESCHLER: Data on miracles in the United States is a little thin. People assume miracles are a rare occurrence in developed nations despite the fact most people have had some sort of supernatural experience. Latin America is less developed, so researchers are willing to ask about these “fringe beliefs” — although again, these beliefs actually aren’t that fringe in the U.S. either.

Fighting this bias is another reason to look at Latin America: higher education is less common there. Latin America produces many great scholars, and the people who live there are just as intelligent as anywhere else, but there is not the same education infrastructure. In the United States, more than 90% of people have a high school education, compared to around 40% in Latin America. This lets us study if miracles are for the uneducated in a population where the majority has either an elementary school education or less.   

Finally, despite an economic downturn at the end of the Cold War, Latin America has made incredible developmental gains in the past 30 years. Studying Latin America lets us test if a country’s human and economic development matter more than an individual’s education and class.

Q: What were your major findings?  

ESCHLER: Well, first and simplest was that 57% of respondents had experienced a miracle of some kind. We're not talking about a fringe belief/behavior. But more important was what I didn't find: education had no relationship with experiencing miracles at all. Respondents with no formal education were just as likely to experience a miracle as those with a college degree. I also found that income doesn't influence your likelihood of experiencing a miracle, but absolute poverty, not being able to afford food, clothing or medicine, is associated with experiencing miracles.

This goes against ideas discussed above that societies become less religious as science and rationality replace religion, and it supports the theory that people become more religious when their existence is under threat and less religious when their life is stable. But I was surprised to find some things that would bring stability — like marriage — still were associated with experiencing a miracle. Overall, neither completely explained who experienced miracles, but they weren't explained away either.

Q: Who is most likely to experience a miracle?

ESCHLER: From my analysis, an older, Black, Pentecostal Protestant woman with strongly held traditional social and religious beliefs who is uncertain about her financial future and has had difficulty paying for health care, clothing or food is by far more likely to experience a miracle than a young, white/mestizo Catholic who holds fewer traditional social and religious beliefs and is financially secure. However, every group has members who have experienced miracles.

The richest and most well educated are still more likely to experience miracles if their life becomes uncertain or is threatened. This makes sense from what we know about paranormalists in the United States. We have stereotypes – when you think of Bigfoot hunters, for instance, you probably don't think of high-level executives trading in their Brioni suits for Carhart jackets, but that happens regularly. However, the only thing that distinguishes people who experience miracles or the paranormal from “normal people” is those experiences, not any particular lifestyle or habits. 

Q: How has the perception of miracles changed throughout history? 

ESCHLER: The difference between a miracle and dumb luck is whether you believe there are supernatural entities that can influence our lives. So historically, because basically everyone believed in the supernatural, miracles were more common. The philosopher Charles Taylor has said the defining impact of secularism is that faith is no longer naïve. In other words, we are aware that it all could just be random chance, even if we believe in the divine.

What has not changed is that these attributions to the divine are a way to bring order into a world where we feel we do not have control. In my study, I looked at individual economic hardship, but other studies compare countries impacted by warfare or terrorist extremism to those where there has been relative peace. We may be more likely to turn to doctors or the government instead of magic and miracles, but there are uncertainties in modern life which some still address with the supernatural.  

Q: What were some of the limitations of the study? What should future research explore?

ESCHLER: I used existing Pew data, so I didn't get to ask all the questions I wanted or in the way I would have liked. For instance, my analysis found living in a rural or urban environment had no impact. However, many Latin American countries are urbanizing, so many people in the urbanization section were born in the country. The available data did not allow me to delve deeper into that. It would be nice to gather my own data so I can ask those sorts of questions.

Q: Any other comments you’d like to make about the study?

 ESCHLER: What really strikes me about this project is that, even though it was started several years ago, it actually helps me understand some of the craziness going on in our world today, particularly the recent explosion of conspiracy theories. The people pushing these things are likely doing it because it helps them deal with uncertainty. For them, a world controlled by a villainous conspiracy is better than a world controlled by nobody.

If we try to define other people's experiences using our own criteria, there's a lot we can miss that hinders our ability to hear and understand what they're saying. An important part of studying people, especially a group that is seen as fringe, is just extending the courtesy of looking at them with empathy and acknowledging that most people believe what they believe because of their life experiences. I think my research shows how doing so allows us to study certain “subjective” topics.  





Journal Link: Review of Religious Research