Short Article (7) – Miracles and Manifestations: A Short Guide

Some people don’t have time to read my articles investigating the many claims within the charismatic movement and beyond, so here is a digest of my conclusions.

1. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)

A very natural phenomenon which occurs in many religions, in children, and in people with certain mental illnesses. It’s often a learned behaviour in which people use sounds from their own native language to create a babble which on the surface sounds like another language but which linguistic analysis has revealed to be nothing of the sort.

2. Healing

I have come across very few cases of alleged healing that weren’t incredibly easily explained in natural terms. Healing claims are rarely investigated and medical evidence often never sought or offered by those who claim to have been miraculously healed. Instead we find one or a combination of the following at work: misdiagnosis, orthodox medical treatment, placebo, exaggeration, misunderstanding, rumour, anecdote, the body’s own healing ability, or plain old fraud.

3. Words of Knowledge or Prophecy

These can often sound quite persuasive, leaving us thinking “how did he/she know that if it wasn’t for supernatural revelation?” Charismatic prophets have been caught using various quite normal techniques to create the illusion: eaves dropping on conversations, researching people beforehand, cold reading techniques, and the use of vague propositions that sound specific but could apply to almost anyone.

4. Gold Dust and Glory Clouds

The appearance of gold dust is a favourite staple in the wackier charismatic churches, and it’s one of the biggest signs of fraud you could see. Samples of the gold dust have been analysed and in every single case they turn out to be nothing but cheap poster glitter, found in any art supplies store. Sometimes this is put into the air-conditioning system in a church to make it look like gold dust is raining down in a “glory cloud.” It’s fraudulent. Pure and simple.

5. Gold Teeth and Fillings

This popular miraculous manifestation relies on two things: people generally not knowing where exactly they have fillings – such that when a healer pronounces a new one the person is easily convinced – and the use of a torch by the healer, which when shined on a silver coloured surface makes the surface look golden. That’s why soon afterwards people discover that their fillings have “reverted” to a silver colour. They were never gold, they just looked golden under torch light. Moreover, there’s nothing special about a filing being cross-shaped – this is entirely normal in many types of fillings. These miracles play on our oral ignorance.

6. Angel Feathers

This has got to be my favourite fraudulent miraculous manifestation, if only for sheer hilarity. Bethel Church in California is a cesspit of fraudulent supernatural claims, and it has also claimed this one after finding lots of little white feathers around and ruling out the presence of nesting birds. The origin of the idea of angel feathers is utterly pagan. Why think angels have feathers anyway? After all, the vast majority of species on earth which can fly do NOT have feathers. It’s so unbelievably silly that anyone who claims this miracle is genuine is either a crooked conman or so utterly deluded as to be in need of a straight-jacket.

7. Miraculous Oil

As with gold dust, sometimes certain evangelists have oil manifest itself on their face and/or hands. Joshua Mills was dripping in so much oil on one occasion that he started to fill two cups with the stuff. Most others tend to look just a bit sweaty. I confess I find the greasy look very fitting for these charismatic leaders.

8. “Slaying” in the Spirit

A preacher prays for someone who ends up falling backwards allegedly under the power of God. In reality it’s just a learned behaviour and people fall under the power of suggestion and the weight of expectation. In many cases there’s a form of hypnosis at work leading up to the “slaying.” The less scrupulous evangelists aren’t beyond pushing people to the floor or subtly affecting their balance to send them falling backwards.

9. Leg Growing

No, amputated limbs do not grow back, but God is – apparently – able to grow legs that are about an inch shorter than the other leg. More likely it’s just a simple parlour trick – as exposed by James Randi and Derren Brown – which involves either manipulating people’s shoes, or their limbs to create the illusion that one leg is growing right before our eyes. Sadly, it’s not even a good trick!

10. Stigmata

The first stigmatic – St Francis of Assisi – probably engaged in self-harm during a vivid visionary experience of some kind during a period of prayer and fasting. I don’t believe he was a deliberate fraud, but pretty much everyone who has followed is exactly that. Stigmata: when self-harming becomes holy.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles, Prophecy, Stigmata

Against Exorcism

According to a recent Daily Telegraph article there is a serious shortage of………exorcists. Seemingly the church is struggling to deal with the number of foul spirits running amok in the world today. As with all such allegedly other-worldly phenomena, critical examination is crucial, and often sheds light on otherwise mysterious occurrences. Anyone familiar with my research on charismatic phenomena will not be surprised to learn that I’m skeptical about cases of demon possession and its close relative, poltergeist activity. In this article I want to give several reasons why we should be skeptical of such claims.

Firstly, it’s a matter of historical fact that as knowledge of mental illness has increased the number of alleged demon possession cases has decreased. Belief in demon possession lingers on primarily where there is ignorance about mental illness. Many accounts of demon possession simply appear to be text-book examples of mental health conditions such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, or hysteria. Accordingly, even the Vatican amended its exorcism guidelines urging practitioners not to mistake psychiatric illness for possession. Unfortunately there is little consensus regarding how we are supposed to differentiate between the two. The main telling signs of demon possession are supposed to be:

(i) Speaking in other tongues;
(ii) Prodigious strength; and
(iii) Vulgarities and blasphemies aggressively directed particularly towards the exorcist as he goes about his business.

None of these strike me as incapable of being caused by known mental or physical conditions. For instance, it is well known that schizophrenics can speak in “tongues,” people with Tourette’s syndrome might easily respond to a priest with some vulgar blasphemy, and whilst Prodigious strength is difficult to measure, people having an epileptic fit can easily do themselves or others a serious injury.

Given what we know of mental illness we should be very wary of claiming other-worldly explanations for such symptoms.

Secondly, not only are demon possession and poltergeist activity incredibly easy to fake – by an attention seeking adolescent or a disturbed adult – there have been many cases when they actually have been faked. Such was the case in an ABC broadcast in 1991 featuring a 16 year old victim/actor. Another case of faked possession involved nuns engaging in certain behaviour not because they were possessed but rather because they sought to act out their sexual frustrations, get out of having to do unpleasant chores, and attract sympathy and attention. Moreover, the entire spiritualist movement was kick-started on the back of fraudulent phenomena. The founders of spiritualism – the Fox sisters – confessed later in their lives to having fooled everyone with nothing other than childish pranks and tricks. Others – such as the famed mediums the Davenport brothers – similarly confessed to trickery later in their careers. Given the number of frauds who have made such claims, we should look upon all with some suspicion. Maybe the most recent claims are just variations of the same old pranks and trickery.

Thirdly, as psychology develops we understand more and more about the power of human imagination and emotions such as fear. Noises in the dark are often more frightening than the same noises in the daytime, and our imagination can make much more out of relatively simple occurrences than really is the case. At night time my own house makes a lot of noises. Pipes clunk and grind as they cool down. Wooden doors creak and groan as they expand or contract with changes in temperature. Sometimes we can hear a whistling/humming noise in our bedroom. It took me months to work out what it was: a very slight gap in the window frame through which the wind could whistle when it blew in a specific direction at a certain speed. All such noises could be easily interpreted as poltergeists or evil spirits. Scrapping noises are also incredibly common in such accounts, and can be caused by no more evil an entity than a mouse or a rat shuffling about. Such noises can be unsettling, particularly at night time and one’s imagination can conjure up all manner of other-worldly horrors to explain them.

Furthermore, some people can experience “waking dreams” which can involve frightening hallucinations. Here’s one I experienced myself years ago. I woke up in the middle of the night and in the gloom I noticed a figure beside my wardrobe. It looked “blacker” than everywhere else, and seemed to be hovering in the air. Suddenly it flew right up to my face and I could sense its presence just as if a human being were right there. I shut my eyes as tight as possible and lay in terror for several seconds, unable to move or open my eyes. After this brief time the “presence” seemed to evaporate away. I opened my eyes and all was normal. This could very easily be explained as an experience of some foul-spirit or ghost, and many people do indeed interpret their similar experiences in just these terms, but it was just a waking dream hallucination. Nothing ever came of it. Presumably demons have better things to do with their time than hang around watching teenagers sleep.

In fact, when we hear of various “evil” occurrences it’s often something rather trivial – scratching noises, banging pipes, objects falling off a table. There are many things the forces of evil could well be up to in the world; scaring the crap out of people by banging on a water pipe probably isn’t one of them. More likely it’s just our imagination playing tricks.

This is linked to my fourth reason for being skeptical of possession claims and poltergeist/spiritualist phenomena: the power of suggestion. We already know that the power of suggestion is behind a number of other phenomena – such as many cases of hypnosis and much of what passes for miraculous healing. It seems something similar might be plausibly a work here too. Over the centuries certain types of behaviour have become associated with demonic activity such that people seem to be playing to the stereotype. Michael Cuneo – a sociologist at Fordham university – gave his analysis of an NBC programme on exorcism in which the Rev Brian Connor and a number of associates performed an exorcism on a man who suffered depression. Cuneo observed that the behaviour of the man in question was down to subtle suggestions from the group of exorcists as to how he should behave and respond. The man was convinced by the group that he was possessed. It was a case of self-deception and group reinforcement. Other documentaries and voyeuristic “reality” shows have presented a steady stream of people willing to play up to the kind of “Exorcist Movie” stereotype, such as adopting the raspy guttural voice that we all know the Devil himself uses. Because of this adopting of stereotyped – even Hollywood inspired – behaviour amongst those who are “possessed,” many psychologists conclude that what we are dealing with is a bit of Let’s Pretend role-playing.

The final reason for skepticism is a pragmatic one: gullibility ends up fueling a growth in the practice of exorcism, and the practice of exorcism can be damaging and dangerous. Aside from the psychological and physical abuse of a mentally unwell person, there has been no shortage of fatalities in the world of exorcism. Zakieya Latrice Avery and Monifa Denise Sanford were both charged with murder after stabbing several children in the course of an exorcism. Another exorcism carried out in New Zealand by a Pentecostal pastor and other members of his church involved choking a woman and bouncing on her body. After her ordeal, which lasted several hours, she died, and the pastor was prosecuted for manslaughter. When overzealous exorcists are convinced that before them stands a demon from the bowels of Hell itself is it any wonder why they end up stabbing, choking, punching, kicking, slapping, binding, or jumping up and down on the victim?

The combination of poor understanding of mental health coupled with religious hysteria too often churns out inhumane behaviour. One wonders where evil really lies in such cases.

Stephen J. Graham

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Interview with a Former Charismatic

Below is the transcript of an interview I did for a local church newsletter with a charismatic friend – Ben Wylie – exploring my religious background, church experiences and why I left the charismatic movement. Kudos to the church – itself charismatic – for being interested in hearing what I had to say.

Ben: Thanks for agreeing to this little interview. Your church experiences are remarkably varied, taking you from traditional Church of Ireland to Pentecostal to Presbyterian back to Pentecostal to Word of Faith charismatic to reformed charismatic and back again to Presbyterian! Whew! How did it all begin?

Stephen: My parents were not Christians but my grandmother was and as a family we would accompany her to an old traditional Church of Ireland. I never liked it much and when I about 11 or 12, I was left behind with my grandfather – who worshipped only at the local pub – while everyone else headed off to church.

Ben: So, what brought you back to church?

Stephen: When I was about 15 a close friend of mine had become a Christian and was attending a local Pentecostal church. He pretty much bullied and cajoled me into going! Surprisingly I loved it, largely because it was very different from the stuffy environment I had always associated with church, and a few months later I too had become a Christian.

Ben: Did you begin at this time to have any problems with the Pentecostal movement?

Stephen: No, not at all. I simply got involved in a youth group in a neighbouring Presbyterian church and started going there. I attended that church for around 6 or 7 years and during that time I had some of the best experiences of my life, including mission trips to Croatia (shortly after the war there) and Hungary.

Ben: So what was it that led you back to Pentecost?

Stephen: The refusal of the church to modernise and change frustrated me greatly and I was hearing whisperings of some amazing things that were happening back in the Pentecostal church I had attended at first. They had just experienced a little of what was known as the “Toronto Blessing.” There were rumours of powerful manifestations of the power and presence of God. I was attracted primarily because they seemed to promise an experiential dimension to faith that I had been missing. God seemed to be moving there in powerful ways and I wanted a piece of the action, I guess. There were indeed some rather odd experiences to be had!

Ben: I’m intrigued! Tell us more about the sorts of things you experienced there.

Stephen: Most of the typical Pentecostal manifestations were present: speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, “slayings” in the Spirit, and general Pentecostal exuberance. I played drums there and on one occasion about two thirds of the congregation formed a conga line and danced right out of the church leaving us playing to a small group of bewildered more reserved people!

Ben: And did you experience anything directly yourself in your time there?

Stephen: Not much. I don’t recall ever being “slain” in the Spirit, but I did experience people trying to push me down a few times and witnessed many other people clearly pushed to the ground. I also had experience of receiving a personal prophecy. The prophet told me God told him that I was going to be a pastor. Of course, I had just told the prophet I was studying theology so I suspect he was simply playing the odds! I also eventually did learn to speak in tongues. I remember in one particular meeting being called to the front with a group of others to be prayed for to “receive the Holy Ghost.” People actually expressed their disappointment afterwards that I didn’t speak in tongues. I felt guilty and angry. But later on that same night when I was praying at home I ended up speaking in tongues, which I can still do to this day.

Ben: I want to come back to your experiences shortly, but could you tell us a bit more about your charismatic experiences after you left this church.

Stephen: Yes, I had met my wife here but as she didn’t enjoy it very much we left shortly after we got married and went to her family church – another Pentecostal church, but far less wacky. After witnessing some rather unsightly church politics we left this church and I vowed never to go to church again! Around this time I began battling with severe depression and anxiety. It was about 9 months or so before my wife got me going to another church where a group of friends had gone. It was a Word of Faith church. This is pretty much the extreme end of charismania – those who believe Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and that you can use the Bible almost like a spell book to ward off “demons of illness” from your life. I’m still embarrassed that I ended up here, but it happened during a psychologically problematic period of my life during which I was emotionally and psychological vulnerable. Perhaps I hoped these guys had the answer. I just wasn’t in my right mind. As I got a handle on my own mental health my rational faculties returned; and when they did charismania didn’t stand a chance! We left for a reformed charismatic church – part of the Newfrontiers network – but my belief in such things had already shattered.

Ben: So, you gave up on the charismatic movement, but didn’t you think there was anything genuine that you witnessed in all your time there? What about your experiences of speaking in tongues, for instance?

Stephen: I met a lot of very good and godly people, even in the wackiest of places, but I saw very little that could even plausibly count as a genuine supernatural event or phenomenon. I don’t regard my ability to speak in tongues as supernatural in the slightest. I desperately wanted to do it, I had been around people who did it all the time, and I simply copied them. I think that’s what tongues speech is: a big game of Let’s Pretend.

Ben: I confess I find it bewildering and even a little shocking that you speak that way. I speak in tongues and I regard it as a blessed thing to do. I can’t imagine giving it up! All I know is when I do it I feel close to God. Didn’t you ever feel like that?

Stephen: I did. I felt spiritual. I felt part of a spiritual elite. But I wasn’t doing anything supernatural. Speaking in tongues is a very natural thing. Linguistic research into the phenomena of tongues speech has been absolutely devastating to the practice. We know it is not language. Linguistic research has shown that tongues speakers take syllables and sounds from their native languages and babble them out so they sound like a language when it fact it’s just gibberish. This also explains why a Chinese tongues speaker will speak a different “tongue” to an English tongues speaker. Each uses sounds from their native language. If tongues was a truly supernatural phenomenon this would not be the case, but rather people could speak in other languages without having been taught them.

Ben: But might it not be a private prayer language? I find tongues most beneficial in this sort of context?

Stephen: I have no doubt people find it beneficial, but they do so because it operates like a form of meditation, not because they are speaking any kind of divinely-bestowed language. At best tongues-speech is a form of meditative babble. That it has good effects – like making people feel spiritually blessed or close to God – does not mean it is remotely a genuine phenomenon. After all, we see the same practices with identical results in other religions. For example, Hindu tongues speakers will report the blessed benefits of their practices too.

Ben: I wanted also to ask you about faith-healing, because I know a large part of your recent research project has focused on that. You once believed God healed people, but now you don’t?

Stephen: I believed God healed and I believed the many testimonies and stories I heard during my time as a charismatic. But I didn’t stop to analyse them, I took them for granted. I knew God healed, so when someone claimed God healed them I didn’t think to examine it. Healings were just to be expected. They were normal. But I began to be uneasy. Most of the healings were rather trivial – warts falling off hands or headaches and other pains going away. The disabled kid never received healing. The guy with terminal stomach cancer just got worse and worse and died. Serious physical conditions never ever got healed. It made me wonder, and so I began to investigate healing stories and time and time again there was no reason to think that there had been any supernatural intervention. In fact, in most cases just a cursory examination of the healing claim is enough to dispel the myth of a miracle. Some one or combination of the following is typically at work: placebo, exaggeration, misdiagnosis, the body’s natural healing abilities, the “Chinese-whisper” effect, medical treatment, and plain old fraud.

Ben: So you conclude that God does not heal?

Stephen: Not exactly! God might heal. In fact, he might heal all the time. My point is primarily an epistemological one: we have scant basis for believing that God does heal, and certainly not anywhere near as regularly as Charismatics make out.

Ben: What would convince you then that God had miraculously healed someone?

Stephen: One thing that would convince me is if there was clear physiological change quite outside the limits of what we know about how our bodies work. So, if a man without eye balls suddenly grew them in his head, or an amputated limb suddenly grew back. Alternatively if a healing evangelist had an astounding success of curing people, such that, say, a very high proposition of people with cancer for whom he prays get completely healed – enough people to clearly beat the odds of it all being explained by spontaneous remission.

Ben: I agree we rarely see things like that but I’d love to send you some stories of amazing healings I’ve come across to see what you make of them. For now, I would simply say that I’ve seen belief in healing do a lot of good. It gives sick people hope, and praying for healing is an excellent way to connect with people and minister to their problems. Do you see any value in that?

Stephen: I don’t have any problem at all with prayers for healing, as long as a sick person isn’t being given unreasonable expectations or made to think that they need to give money or have more faith. Sadly there’s so much scope for abuse. People have had their expectations raised so much that rather than seek medical help they seek prayer, with sometimes fatal consequences. Others, assuming they have been healed, quit taking medication, with equally potentially fatal consequences. Others hand over money they can ill-afford to spare in the hope that God will bless their generosity. I think churches would be better off supporting people’s practical needs in practical ways, and perhaps help people to face life-changing illness in emotionally helpful ways that doesn’t chiefly involve holding out hope for healing that sadly very rarely comes. There are many ways faith-healing can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. Human beings get sick and we die – no amount of faith or faith-healing can change that.

Ben: Thanks for talking us through your experiences and thinking, it was all too brief! We’ll have to catch up and get into these issues a bit deeper.

Stephen: Thank you for having me!

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Tongues

Short Article (6): Can God Create any Logically Possible World?

God’s omnipotence is a tricky beast to define, and very often the notion of logical possibility is used in defining it. In a recent discussion concerning the problem of evil I was asked which of two premises I rejected – that God, since he’s omnipotent, can do anything logically possible, or that God should remove suffering if it’s logically possible to do so. I reject both, but was specifically asked to say why I reject the former. This short article is an expanded explanation of what I said in response.

It is my contention that there are states of affairs which, though they be logically possible, are such that God cannot bring them about. Before I offer the two examples I gave it might be useful to be clear about what a logically possible world (LPW) actually is. As I understand and use the term a LPW is a complete description of reality as it could be. Take the set of all propositions that might or might not obtain, eg: A, B, C, D, E….n. A LPW will be a state of affairs in which every single one of these propositions – or their denial – obtains. So, one possible world would be:

A, B, -C, D, E, etc.


-A, B, -C, D, -E, etc

But we could not have:

-A, B, -B, C, -D, E, etc,

Because this contains a logical contradiction by trying to include both B and –B.

To take a concrete example: I have a son who is 10 years old. However, in some other LPW I have no son, but three daughters. There is no LPW in which I have a son and don’t have a son at the same time.

With this brief sketch of LPWs in mind, let’s look at my examples:

(1) Libertarian Free Will (LFW)

If human beings have LFW then there are LPWs God cannot bring about. Take, for instance, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ. There is a LPW in which Judas, under certain conditions, chooses to betray Christ, and another in which he chooses to remain faithful. In either case we will have a complete description of reality. The former LPW contains the proposition “Judas betrayed Jesus” whilst the latter contains the proposition “Judas did not betray Jesus.” However, (if human beings have LFW) which of these worlds becomes actual is not up to God. It’s up to Judas. Under these precise circumstances Judas chose to betray Jesus, but he really could have chosen not to betray. God couldn’t force him to act freely in either direction; this was Judas’s move as a free agent. Calling the former world PW(B) and the latter PW(-B) we can say that PW(B) was actualisable but PW(-B) was not. So, God could not actualise PW(-B), despite the fact that it is a LPW. This distinction between logically possible and actualisable is subtle but significant, and sadly the two are often conflated.

(2) Temporal Creation

My second example doesn’t require LFW. Take any two universes God could create: U-X and U-Y. Let’s say further than He desires to create two different universes, one after the other. There are two kinds of LPWs here:

(i) PW-Y1 – in which God creates U-Y first and then U-X,


(ii) PW-X1 – in which God creates U-X and then U-Y.

Now, both of these worlds are LPWs, that is they are complete descriptions of reality in which every proposition is either affirmed or denied. However, God can only create one of them. If he chooses PW-Y1 then he cannot create PW-X1. They exclude each other, and yet both are LPWs.

Now, it might be objected (and in fact during my previously mentioned discussion it actually was) that PW-Y1 and PW-X1 are only LPWs before God creates anything. In other words, once God chooses to create PW-X1 then PW-Y1 is no longer a LPW. This is incorrect and blurs again the subtle distinction between actualisable worlds and logically possible worlds. PW-Y1 remains a LPW. It remains a complete description of reality. It’s represents a way reality really could have been. However, it is no longer actualisable.

It seems to me then that definitions of omnipotence that rely on the notion of logical possibility can’t be quite right since it seems clear enough (to my mind anyway!) that there are LPWs that even an omnipotent being couldn’t create. This also means that arguments against God’s existence – such as some versions of the problem of evil – which rely on the notion that God can do anything logically possible are flawed and need to be revised or abandoned.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under God, Possible Worlds, Problem of Evil

The Curious Incident of the Pony in the Nighttime

^Mark Marx – of leg-growing faith-healing fame – recently made another rather intriguing claim:

Well, it seems God heals animals too. We’ve seen a flock of sheep healed, and now a pony!

Sadly Marx refuses to engage with me, but another kind tweep was able to get the story from him, which is quoted unedited and in full below:

Here’s the story, with kind permission to share… “Hi, I would just like to thank the lovely ladies who prayed for my very sick pony a few weeks ago. I know it sounds strange praying for a pony, but i cared a lot about him and the worry was affecting my health. He became v sick with Strangles and his throat swelled up so he couldn’t eat properly. He was seen by 2 different vets and given antibiotics but nothing helped. Both vets thought he would die. This went on for a few weeks and the 2nd vet said to give him till July and then he would be a loss. He also said there would probably be complications with his throat if he did survive. I went to the healing on the streets and some lovely women prayed with me for the stress and anxiety I was suffering from, and also prayed for a miracle for my pony. She prayed that that night he would be galloping about the field. Well, that evening, with 3 witnesses, my wee pony came galloping up to the field gate! He previously had been lying down or slowly walking about. I was so thankful. Just before July, the infection finally left him and he was able to eat. He has since put on loads of weight, is very bright eyed and full of life. Last week he galloped about the field non-stop for 5 minutes, a happy, healthy boy. The results have just come back from the vet that he is all clear. I am v thankful for the healing prayers he received. God cares for all creation, not just ourselves.””

Now, there’s not too much we can do with anonymous anecdotes except to analyse what little we have, without being able to follow up and ask questions of the various relevant parties.

On the face of it the story is probably enough to convince many people that the power of prayer was instrumental in healing this afflicted beast. To my mind, however, the story simply illustrates the problem with trying to use such anecdotes to defend miracles. A careful reading of the story suggests a much more simple explanation beneath the surface. Sadly, many people don’t bother to read carefully (few people have the time for that these busy days, I guess), and I suspect the story will be passed on as a simple “pony at death’s door – got prayed for – was healed – galloped in celebration” story. Perhaps in a few years we’ll hear also how eyewitnesses saw it turn into a horse, sprout wings, and fly. But let’s have a more careful reading.

Firstly, the pony was “very sick” with a condition called Strangles. Now, how many people will hear this story and bother to find out what Strangles is and how it’s treated? Very few, I suspect. But it sure does sound horrible, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sort of killer disease that would torment a poor beast, finally killing it through asphyxiation or starvation. That’s not quite what it is. Granted, like any health ailment, it isn’t pleasant, but in most cases it simply runs its course and the animal recovers in time. There can sometimes be complications, but the disease is very rarely fatal.

Which brings me to the second point: how sick was this particular animal? The anonymous owner says “very sick,” but notice that she was suffering from stress and anxiety. As a fellow-sufferer of these scourges I know only too well the reality-warping effects they can have. On several occasions I was truly convinced I was “very sick” – dying of cancer, in fact – due to the appearance of some otherwise common physical symptoms. Sufferers of anxiety tend to catastrophize, and one’s judgment is not terribly reliable under such circumstances. “But, wait a minute, Stephen,” I hear you cry, “didn’t this woman’s judgment get confirmed not only by one but two vets?” I’m glad you asked, this brings us to the third point.

The answer is “not quite.” Notice how this woman says “both vets thought he would die.” But this can’t be quite accurate since she also reports that one of them “said to give him till July and then he would be at a loss.” [Emphasis mine] So, this vet at least had not lost all hope. Seemingly in his professional opinion the animal could still get well again. Note that later on the woman tells us “just before July the infection finally left him,” which is in keeping with the vet’s prognosis.

These words bring us to the fourth point. After the pony was prayed for he was up and able to run over to a gate. But the woman appears to imply he wasn’t fully healed even at this stage. It seems to be a much more gradual recovery before “the infection finally left him” and the vet was able to give him the all clear. Perhaps the antibiotics that the woman had spoken of previously had begun kicking in, and the disease was now fading out – as one of the vets seems to have expected.

Upon our closer reading then it seems that what we really have here is a case of a pony with a disease that tends to run its course, (though this animal may have suffered some complications or perhaps for longer than is normal), and which recovered in the time frame laid down by at least one vet, after receiving treatment which included the use of antibiotics. The woman – suffering stress and anxiety as a result of her sick animal – was clearly incredibly relieved that the animal got well and, being a religious person, quite naturally attributed the recovery to a supernatural intervention.

It would be interesting to get the testimony of one of the vets rather than have to go on an interpretation of their words by a woman suffering stress and anxiety. Patients frequently have a very different understanding of their illness from that of their doctor – typically thinking they are in worse shape than they actually are. There are other questions we could ask: What was the time frame of the illness? How long after being prayed for did he fully recover? Did the vets think this within the parameters of what is normal in the circumstances? These are all questions that naturally arise on the back of a more careful reading of the story. Only by ignoring all these relevant details can anyone sensibly claim that what we have here is a case of a pony being miraculously healed by God. Sadly I suspect Mark Marx won’t care one jot about being careful, nuanced, and critical. It gives him another wonderful anecdote to share as he travels the world seeking to amaze the masses.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles

Reflections on Derren Brown’s Interview with Premier Christianity

Premier Christianity magazine recently ran an interview with Derren Brown, exploring Brown’s conversion and loss of Christian faith, his view of miracles, and the purpose of Christian faith. See here:

Brown was a leading voice in my own deconversion from Charismatic Christianity and it was interesting to see him interviewed by Justin Brierley, a charismatic. I wanted to offer some brief reflections on the interview.

Firstly, I think kudos to Premier Christianity for running the interview in the first place. Not too many Christian publications would give time and space to a critic of Christianity. Often the only time critics gets a mention in the popular Christian press is when their work, books, comments, or articles, are being critiqued. But Premier Christianity has done something quite radical for a Christian publication: allowed the sceptic his own voice.

Brierley remarked that when he went to watch Brown’s latest stage show, “Miracles,” he was concerned that the audience would walk away just as sceptical about the supernatural as Brown is. After all, the whole point of Brown’s stage show is to demonstrate how we are very easily fooled by the sorts of familiar displays put on by charismatic evangelists, healers, prophets, and pastors. Brierley writes: “prepare to be amazed, but also to encounter a very specific and uncomfortable challenge to charismatic Christianity.” And well he might worry about this because Brown and others – such as James Randi – have presented us with an absolutely devastating case against the claims and practices rampant in the world of Charismania. They’ve shown up the fraud, trickery, deceit, techniques, scams, delusion, gullibility, and other shenanigans that lie behind the staples of charismatic experience. What can Brierley – a charismatic – really say in the face of all this?

Now, Brierley is quite correct to point out that the sorts of scepticism-fuelled shows put on by Brown et al do not disprove Christianity. Nothing Brown does on stage pours doubt on the philosophical case for the existence of God or the historical case for the resurrection of Christ. In fact, I think Brown would agree. However, even though there may be a good intellectual case for believing in God or the central truths of Christianity, Brierley doesn’t directly address the damage that Brown’s performances do to their actual target: charismatic claims and practices. For instance, Brown can very easily “heal” people from various – typically pain related – ailments, using nothing other than the very same tools in the standard charismatic toolbox. He can speak in tongues (as can I!). He gets “words of knowledge” for members of the audience. He can perform the so-called “slaying in the Spirit” wonder. He does it all and explains exactly how it’s achieved.

Charismatic readers are probably screaming at me right now: “But that doesn’t prove these phenomena aren’t genuine!! It just means they can also be faked!” I agree. However, genuine or not, Brown has provided excellent reasons to remain doubtful about such phenomena. In other words, he presents the charismatic as well as the casual onlooker with massive epistemic problems: why believe that any of these phenomena are genuine when there’s a perfectly good natural explanation for them? Brierley never gets to answer that question but I would love him to address it some time.

Instead Brierley simply states that despite Brown’s spectacular displays he still believes in miracles, and cautions us against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But the question remains unanswered: is there a baby in the water in the first place? That’s what Brown and others are challenging. Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t, but there appears scant decent reason to think such phenomena are genuine; at the very least most are probably not. Faced with this evidential problem, Brierley says “I believe convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” There was little space for Brierley to outline such a case, and to do so would get in the way of the point of the article, however, I found the comments he made rather telling. He writes, “I have heard many stories of miraculous physical change. In 2001, during a mission trip in Peru, a friend of mine, Alex, witnessed an eyeball grow back into the socket of a man that he and a woman prayed for. I don’t believe he’s lying. He’s generally a sceptical guy….what do you think of Alex’s story?”

One commentator accused Brown of clearly avoiding Brierley’s question, but that was an incredibly unfair comment. Firstly, Brown cannot be reasonably expected to refute a story that he has only just heard, involving people he doesn’t even know, 15 years ago, in Peru! In any event Brown actually does offer a pertinent observation. He briefly mentions that memory can be far from perfect when it comes to recalling events. In fact, he gives an example of a trick he witnessed years ago which – when he spoke to the magician in question years later – was actually a different trick than Brown himself swears he witnessed. (After a wedding I attended I was asked what colour the bridesmaids were wearing. To this day my memory tells me it was green. They were, in fact, in lilac!) As I have written elsewhere on this blog (see: our memory does not operate like a video recorder, objectively gathering facts and occurrences. Our minds are actively engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen and our imaginations frequently fill out the gaps in events when we only have a partial recollection of them. This is particularly so when an event is sudden, shocking, unexpected, or bewildering. I think Brown’s response was a pretty fair comment on a miracle story he has not been able to investigate.

Anyhow, recall that Brierley claims that “convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” Now, I would’ve thought he’d lead with his most convincing example. But is this it? A second-hand anecdote that occurred 15 years ago in Peru? This isn’t evidence of anything at all. The world is full of such stories and yet there’s scant evidence to corroborate any of them. What constantly astounds me is the charismatic insistence that miracles are happening all the time, and yet when challenged we get nothing but an unsubstantiated anecdote from half way across the world. Brierley’s friend might well have witnessed what he claims to have witnessed. This might indeed have been a miraculous intervention of God. However, looked at as evidence to believe it was such, it appears wafer thin to anyone but those who are predisposed to believe that miracles happen all the time.

Brown is quite correct to insist that more is required. There must at the very least be some form of physical change demonstrable with the use of medical evidence such as X-rays. Sadly this is the sort of evidence we are almost never presented with. I suspect Brown is right on the money when he says that there is a strong subjective element involved in people labelling events as miraculous in the absence of any objective evidence. Human beings, Brown reminds us, are desperate to find meaning and a chief way of doing that is the very normal human act of telling stories. So, when a family prays for a relative with cancer and the cancer goes into remission, they interpret that event as miraculous. Doing so puts them into a story that gives them meaning and significance: God is working in their lives in an amazing way, and that can be a powerful and comforting thought. To such people seeking out hard data can be either unnecessary – because they already know that God has done an amazing work – or unwelcome, as it might contradict them and thus threaten the sense of meaning and significance their interpretation of the event has given them.

Brown has hit on what is the main reason for belief in things like healing miracles, tongues, and prophecy. It gives people a sense of story, meaning, identity, and significance that they so crave. The thought that the creator of the universe has an intimate relation with you and gives you all manner of supernatural gifts and blessings is certainly an alluring one. And that is why, I suspect, so few are susceptible to objective analysis. We are creatures of narrative, and if the evidence contradicts the stories we tell to give our short, humdrum lives significance they wouldn’t otherwise have, then so much the worse for the evidence.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Miracles

Special Treatment for Religion in the Workplace?

The reasonable accommodation of religion in the workplace has been a growing issue. There are two basic types of cases.

1. Cases which involve issues not directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker, was told she couldn’t wear a cross as a sign of her Christian faith. She was subsequently allowed to wear it and the European Court of Human Rights gave BA a slap on the wrists, judging that her right to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 of the European convention was being infringed without good reason.
ii. Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, made a similar claim but unlike Eweida she lost her case as her employer pleaded reasonable grounds (health and safety) for forbidding jewellery.
iii. Victoria Wasteney was disciplined by her employer due to her efforts to convert a Muslim colleague. She lost her appeal for reasons I’ll mention below.

2. Cases which are directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Lillian Ladele, a civil servant who worked as a registrar of births, deaths and marriages was disciplined for refusing to do work in connection with registering civil partnerships of gay couples.
ii. Gary McFarlane was a counsellor working for Relate who lost his job for refusing to do counselling sessions for gay couples.
iii. Stephen Copsey was dismissed for the refusal to work on Sunday.

There is, I think, a decent case for a reasonable accommodation with respect to the first set of cases, but not the second, which call not for reasonable accommodation but for special treatment.

One of the strengths of our society is its pluralist nature. Who wants a society where everyone thinks, acts, and dresses the same? Or worse, where people are afraid to speak about issues of controversy lest they offend someone? Does anyone seriously think wearing a cross is a hindrance to performing one’s duty as an employee? If we didn’t have the right to express and practice beliefs the idea of freedom of religion would be a vacuous one. Unless there is good reason – as in case 1(ii) above – to forbid certain items of clothing or jewellery – then I suggest we err on the side of freedom and individualism, and defend individuals – in law – against infringements on their freedom when there is no good reason.

With respect to employee-employee conversion attempts I think that a hands-off approach should be the default policy. Two adults should be able to engage in whatever discussion they like – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of their work – without worrying if they are breaking some silly censorious rule. Of course, if behaviour becomes inappropriate or unwanted by one or other of the parties, then an employer should be able to interfere. In case 1(iii) above, Ms Wasteney was in a superior position to the Muslim in the organisation, and engaged in unwanted behaviour such as laying her hands on her Muslim colleague to pray for her. So, Wasteney was not being denied freedom to manifest her religion in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, but rather she was being denied – quite rightly – the right to engage in unwanted, non-consensual conduct. The freedom to manifest one’s religion does not afford a right to encroach the rights of others in such ways, and Article 9(2) of the European Convention is explicit on this point.

Which brings me to the second set of cases. When a person takes a job the organisation in question has certain rights over them. Most jobs are governed by a contract of employment, and failure to fulfil the terms of that contract quite rightly brings consequences. Take case 2(ii) above. Upon taking the job Gary McFarlane signed an equal opportunities commitment and only afterwards wanted to be excused from counselling same-sex couples. There could have been no “reasonable accommodation” if the employer was to fulfil its purpose, and Mr McFarlane should not have taken this job any more than a vegan should take a job in a butcher’s shop. The same goes for any other case in this category. The beliefs we hold might well bring consequences for us, but that is our problem and not the problem of everyone else to accommodate it. Of course, it might be a nice thing for an employer to make adjustments to suit the whims of a religious believer. For example, it might well suit the employer to deploy a Muslim employee to a place they won’t have to sell alcohol. Alternatively it might suit non-Christian employees to work on a Sunday so the Christian doesn’t have to. But this does not mean the believers in question have a right to have their foibles accommodated and protected by the full force of the law. It might well be the case that the non-Christian values his Sundays off just as much, and why should he have to sacrifice them?

Furthermore, if we decide that there should always be a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs, what’s to stop an employee from pleading this in all manner of cases? Suppose I decide that it’s my firm religious belief that God forbids working before lunchtime. Should my employer be obliged to jump through all manner of hoops to accommodate me? In fact, on what grounds should religious beliefs be treated in this special way rather than ethical or political beliefs? Suppose I decide that obesity is a lifestyle I don’t want to support, can I rightly refuse to sell sweets and products high in fat to obese people? If religious beliefs concerning the sale of alcohol are to be accommodated, why aren’t these other beliefs? That way lies chaos. Surely if a person who works in a butchers shop decides to become a vegan he has only one choice: to leave his job. Part of what it means to be a mature and rational adult is the acceptance that one’s beliefs and lifestyle choices have consequences which must be accepted. Demanding the right to have everyone accommodate you betrays a staggeringly arrogant sense of entitlement.

Individuals are free to think and believe as they like, but in seeking to manifest those thoughts and beliefs in actions in the workplace they cannot rightly expect special treatment. No-one has a right to have one’s beliefs validated, particularly when the rights of others, the interests of the business, and fairness with respect to ones co-workers are also at stake; none of which are trumped by claimed religious rights. If all are to be treated equally then no one should expect preferential treatment or exemptions from certain jobs as of right: neither Christian, nor Jew, nor gay, nor straight. All are – and must be – equal under the law.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Discrimination, Equality

The Drama of Evil

My most recent article in On Religion has been made freely available on their website:

The argument looks at the so-called problem of gratuitous evil and in arguing that this argument is unsuccessful I discuss how atheists and Christians have very different approaches to the problem.

The article is written for a popular audience, not an academic one.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

The so-called “problem of heaven” emerges in the context of solutions to the problem of evil which call upon the free will defense. Moral evil – and sometimes even natural evil – is often explained by the creaturely abuse of free will. However, there are problems lurking here. I once heard a philosopher make the following argument: Adam and Eve were created in a perfect paradise, had free will, and sinned. Since heaven is once again a perfect paradise, in which we have free will, won’t there be the high possibility of someone sinning?

This philosopher obviously had in mind the traditional Augustinian understanding of creation and the fall. The idea of an finite but perfect human pair created to live in a perfect paradise is not one that I adhere to. Not only does it face strong empirical difficulties, but it makes the origin of sin an utter mystery. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? That suggests the beings in question weren’t perfect to begin with. Anyhow, since I accept that there is a large proportion of Christendom that embraces this notion, or at least something very similar to it, I’m going to grant it for the sake of argument and ask if there is any incoherence in the notion that we are free to sin in heaven but that no-one ever will despite the fact that the first humans did so in a similar perfect environment.

Imagine an island that to passing ships looks like a beautiful utopia. The island has an uncanny charm that seems to draw people to it. However, when smaller ships try to sail close the waves and the currents tear them to pieces and leave the sailors stranded on the island. What looks like a beautiful utopia from the sea is soon discovered to be anything but. The sailors must live on a diet of sour sea slugs and bitter berries, and at night time they must sleep in trees to avoid being eaten by the terrifying wild dogs which inhabit the island and hunt in packs at night. Sadly these trees are invested with mites which cause severe itching and boils, a plight which is only a little better than being torn apart by the dogs. One day a huge naval vessel spots smoke from a fire lit by the sailors and sends in a helicopter to rescue them. Suppose 5 years later one of these sailors is captaining a ship sailing in this same area. One of his shipmates points to the island and suggests a visit to it. It seems so incredibly alluring despite warnings the sailor has heard concerning it. Now, the captain is certainly free to visit the island, but there’s no way he will do so. He has lived experience which tells him to keep away at all costs. He has lived for the past 5 years in relative luxury and has no desire to return to that accursed island.

Might not something similar hold in heaven? Firstly, the inhabitants of heaven will experience what theologians have called the “beatific vision” – an intense and direct awareness of the loving presence of the almighty God to whom they owe everything. Secondly, it’s not implausible to think that the saints will retain a memory of this fallen world with all its sorrow, suffering, worry, death, and struggles. This contrast – or so it seems to me – would easily be enough to ensure that no-one in heaven ever sins, despite remaining free to do so. Just as the captain will never relinquish his comfortable life to visit the deadly island a second time, so the saints in heaven will never abandon their glorious life for the miseries they experienced during their fallen existence. They know too well from bitter experience the full consequences of rejecting God.

Interestingly, this means that only a fallen and redeemed person would be in the position of being free whilst not actually sinning. Adam and Eve – on the traditional understanding – had no knowledge of the fall, no experience of the misery it would cause; the fallen existence was not one they knew from bitter experience prior to their temptation and sin. In some ways they are like the captain of the ship when he sees the island for the first time, whereas redeemed sinners would be like the captain of the ship who had been rescued and sees the island sometime later.

So, even though I don’t ascribe to the traditional Augustinian understanding of the fall, I think that view can survive the criticism that is made of it in this case. Whether it can stand up to other problems is a question for another time.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Creation, Free Will, Heaven, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Atheism, Morality