Risked death? Had septuplets? Welcome to the age of miracles

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It was, declared the proud parents, a miracle and newspapers all over the world appeared to agree with them, rubber-stamping the delivery of living septuplets with that increasingly familiar cliche for the unexpected (even this newspaper, which usually prides itself on its rational sobriety, joined in). But, as miracles go, this was a rather intriguing one, because it neatly united two incompatible usages of the word. The first of these is by far the more venerable one - the sense of a divine intervention that momentarily annuls the laws of nature so as to permit the impossible. Both parents were devout Baptists and I take it that they meant exactly what they said. God had decided that their fervent prayers for one more child should be answered sevenfold.

This strikes me as maliciously superfluous on God's part, almost a black joke about the dangers of getting what you wish for, but their faith seemed undisturbed. (It was equally undisturbed by other logical paradoxes in the case - the parents had decided that it would be wrong to abort any of the foetuses, for instance, despite the considerable risk this decision involved for the health of every one of them. Here they left themselves in God's hands, trusting to his benign adjudication. But they were only faced with this predicament, it seemed to me, because they had refused to settle for God's first decision, which was that they would not in the normal course of events conceive a second child. Quite how they know that God won't mind being overruled by the fertility treatment but absolutely puts His foot down at attempts to improve its chances of success I cannot tell, but then I don't believe in Him so He's unlikely to show me His workings.)

The second meaning of miracle is more recent and entirely secular in its force. It is frequently expressed in oxymoronic form as the "miracle of science" and it refers not to events which supernaturally contradict the laws of nature (and thus act as a reproof to the imperial ambitions of reason) but to any evidence of scientific technology's ability to make the laws obsolete. These days, for instance, "miracle babies" are two a penny. They don't require a star and a stable, just the application of techniques that were once pioneering but which are becoming increasingly practised and increasingly likely of success.

This is, of course, a self-defeating exercise as far as the miracle goes - because infrequency is a quality without which miracles wither away. In Soul Searching, an admirable dissection of human credulity, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey quotes Newton on this point: "For miracles are so called ... because they happen seldom and for that reason create wonder. If they should happen constantly according to certain laws impressed upon the nature of things, they would no longer be wonders or miracles". Newton might have been talking about test-tube babies - once a prodigious miracle but now sufficiently well established to count as a "law impressed upon the nature of things". (The matter is complicated even further by the fact that quantum mechanics appears to countenance - indeed require - events which would have struck Newton as an entirely miraculous contradiction of his own mechanics.)

But there is a third meaning at work here too - neither the original notion of a divine display of power nor the stealthy way in which we have transferred to science the power to stand between us and the inexorable dictates of nature (only apparently inexorable, of course, because science's miracles never actually transgress the law, they simply re-interpret them for changing circumstances). The third meaning is the casual use of "miracle" as an all purpose intensifier - an economical way of saying "Wonders'll never cease!" or "Crikey, that was close!" In the last month alone the word "miracle" was used 394 times in British newspapers, a tally that does not, I think, indicate that we are living through the last days but rather that the notion of a miracle has now become substantially devalued.

It's also true, of course, that we live in a time with an undiscriminating appetite for wonders, whether it is the apparition of Lady Diana's profile in a cloud formation, as reported in the Daily Star last week, or the discovery of a cinnamon bun bearing the image of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Never mind that it really would be a miracle if cinnamon buns and cloud formations didn't occasionally bear a resemblance to persons living or dead, these revelations feed the hungry. But almost anything can pass as a miracle these days. Take the instance of Mr George Sneddon, a Scottish motorist described earlier this month as having had a "miracle escape" after he took a wrong turning at a level crossing and found himself driving down one of Scotland's busiest railway lines. A Railtrack representative obligingly said that it was a miracle that a tragedy had not occurred (or, more probably, answered, "Um ... yes" when a journalist asked, "Would you say that it was a miracle a tragedy didn't occur?"). But if you read the piece it was soon clear that no supernatural forces had been involved in Mr Sneddon's deliverance. A passer-by who saw his radical solution to traffic congestion called from an emergency phone and Scotrail swung into action. The oncoming express was halted "just a mile" from his car, which doesn't quite qualify as a "hair's breadth" escape in my book.

What's odd about the prevalence of such routine miracles (how many times have you heard that it was "a miracle no one was hurt"?) is that they don't testify to any religious faith on the part of those who use the word. If anything it's quite the opposite - an unfulfilled wish that our destiny might be in the hands of something other than pure contingency. But between them science and the ebb of faith have secularised the miracle so effectively that it has lost all power to astound - has become a mere expression of confounded odds - whether it relates to road accident statistics or the success rate of fertility treatment. A miracle isn't any more what Goethe called it - "the dearest child of faith" - it's faith's surviving orphan.