politics and reform. Jefferson’s experiment ran squarely
against the grain of American culture, adds Barbara Clark
Smith, a Smithsonian expert in 18th-century America. “He
was attacked,” she says. “People wrote he was an infidel.”
To this day, there are those who stand aghast at Jefferson’s chutzpah, and that raises a fair question: Does faith
exist without miracles? Are there miracles at all, and if
not, just how do we explain those events that inevitably
become defined as such?
Nearly 200 years after Jefferson, we decided to find out
who’s winning that intellectual tug of war. In an AARP THE
MAGAZINE survey, we asked 1,300 people 45 and over what
they thought about miracles, and the results were striking:
fully 80 percent said they believe in them, 41 percent said
they happen every day—and 37 percent said they have actually witnessed one.
brother-in-law Roy—who had both passed on—and I was
really upset because they wouldn’t talk to me.
“Well, it turned out they wouldn’t talk to me because it
wasn’t my time. I lived. The doctors still don’t know what
was wrong with me, and they also don’t know why I survived.
One doctor calls me his miracle child.”
Among poll respondents we spoke with in depth, Finch’s
miracle story is the most typical: a hopeless illness, a desper-
ate prayer, an inexplicable recovery. Strictly speaking, per-
haps, these stories may not fit into our narrow definition of
a miracle because, after all, most medical ailments have been
found to be at least occasionally treatable. But those who
report such cases as miracles feel there is an extra ingredient
present—a “spiritual something”—and their conviction is as
certain as the fact that they are alive today.
Consider the survey results: of those who believe in miracles, 84 percent say they happen because
of God. About three quarters further identify Jesus and the Holy Spirit as sources of
miracles, while lesser numbers attribute
them to angels ( 47 percent), saints ( 32 percent), deceased relatives or others who
have passed on ( 19 percent), and other
spirits ( 18 percent).
So what’s going on? Wouldn’t the Creator
of the universe have better things to tend to
than pulling off the occasional miracle? It
depends, of course, on whom you ask.
To a scientist, events that many would
consider miracles are not only explainable, they’re inevitable—because in a
universe of nearly infinite possibilities, outrageously unexpected things have to happen at least occasionally.
“The Law of Large Numbers shows that
an event with a low probability of occur-
rence in a small number of trials has a high
probability of occurrence in a large number
of trials,” says Scientific American columnist
Michael Shermer, author of Why People
Believe Weird Things (W.H. Freeman, re-
vised, 2002). “Events with a million-to-one
odds happen 295 times a day in America.”
traordinary things as “miracles” happen, it is the province of
believers to try to put these events into the context of their
belief systems. “I think that through miracles we step back and
we start reevaluating our place in the universe,” says Patsy Clair-
mont, a Christian speaker and author of All Cracked Up: Expe-
riencing God in the Broken Places (Thomas Nelson, 2006). “We
see something miraculous and ask ourselves, ‘What is this? I
can’t explain it. Is there truly something more than me?’”
Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News commentator and
the author of The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When
Life Hurts (HarperOne, 2008), agrees that for believers,
miracles reveal as much about the nature of God as they do
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Intriguingly, though, the older you are, the less
likely you are to believe in miracles.
In setting out to understand how Americans feel
about miracles, we first had to come up with a def-
inition for the word—because, frankly, miracle
seems to get tossed around an awful lot. Some may
quibble, but for our purposes the Mets’ winning
the 1969 World Series is not a miracle. Neither is hitting 24
Black on a roulette wheel. Rather, we chose to raise the bar
and define a miracle as “an incredible event that cannot be
Then we went in search: Why do skeptical, modern
Americans still believe in them?
Dennis Finch, 63, of Kuna, Idaho, says it’s simple: he himself experienced one. “A few years ago I was in the hospital,
in a coma,” he recalls. “I stopped breathing several times, and
the doctors told all my relatives they’d better get to the hospital to say their goodbyes. But people were praying for me.
I remember, in my coma, seeing my brother David and my
The Smithsonian is looking for a miracle of its
own: $300,000 from a
donor to preserve
Thomas Jefferson’s 189-
year-old edited Bible.
54 AARP JANUARY&FEBRUAR Y 2009