My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, can be found here:
Stephen J Graham
My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, can be found here:
Stephen J Graham
In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.
In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.
Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.
According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.
There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.
And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?
The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.
Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.
Stephen J. Graham
Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:
(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)
(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)
Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!
Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.
There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.
In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.
Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”
There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.
Stephen J. Graham
The wonderful folks at On Religion magazine have published ny most recent article “Theodicy Revisited,” a follow up to my earlier article, “The Drama of Evil.” They have made Issue 14 freely available, so my article can be accessed here: http://www.onreligion.co.uk/theodicy-revisited/
Have a look at the other articles also and consider subscribing. It’s an excellent magazine with a broad range of opinion.
Stephen J. Graham
The word banshee comes from the Irish term “Bean Sidhe,” which means “woman of the hill.” In Celtic mythology as the ancient gods of Ireland where decreasing in power and influence, they all got their own little hill – Sidh (pronounced “Shee”) – in which to live. Many were downgraded from “divine” status and became simply “fairies.” Goddesses soon become “women of the hills” – bean sidhe – or banshees. Lots of folk tales grew up around the banshees, who were rumoured to appear on hill tops and wail into the night. Their appearance was typically taken as an omen of a death in the family of those who saw them.
My mum recently told me one particular delightful story about her grandfather – Granda Wilson – which made me smile, particularly in light of my own well-known scepticism of all such phenomena.
My Great Grandfather Wilson lived in County Tyrone just outside of a small down called Castlederg. He was a farmer, and as such lived a tough life. However, such farmers were hardy folk, with a wonderful ability to get on with life in the face of hardships, and even to be jolly as they did so. Apparently my Great Grandfather was no exception, and my mum loved to spend time with him on his farm over the summer. In fact she became his shadow and followed him everywhere he went: except when he went to face a banshee.
The weather was stormy and at night a ghostly figure was spotted wailing into the night. Others were called and confirmed that this was indeed a banshee. What else could it be? Word spread around the area and many people were afraid. The old tales of banshees were well ingrained in rural consciousness and banshees were never rumoured to bring glad-tidings! The hill was avoided, particularly at night.
But my great granda Wilson was a hardy farmer, a man too well acquainted with the earth and its natural rhythms to be afraid of any otherworldly nonsense like this! He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was going to put an end to this silly talk and find out once and for all what was going on at the top of this hill. A small group gathered to watch him as he resolved to confront the banshee. He grabbed his coat, a stick, and a torch and headed off.
The small crowd followed him to the bottom of the hill and watched. From the bottom of the hill the people could see the banshee waving and wailing at the top as it had done now for several nights. After a few minutes they heard the huge hearty laugh of my great grandfather Wilson. A few minutes later he reappeared in jolly good spirits. “A banshee?” he laughed. “Did no-one notice in day light the big bloody tree at the top of the hill had a sheet stuck on it!?!”
Yep. Apparently an old bedsheet had blown off someone’s washing line in the storm and got stuck in the tree. In the stormy weather the trees branches wailed and the sheet flapped in the wind like a ghost. What else could it be but a banshee?
The story reminds us of a number of lessons which must be borne in mind when considering all such phenomena:
1. The power stories can have over our collective consciousness,
2. The ability of groups of people to convince each other of things for which there’s a perfectly normal explanation,
3. How our perception of reality can be skewed and affected by the things we believe, and
4. That exposing the plain truth can often be achieved simply by shedding a little light on the matter.
Stephen J. Graham (proud to be 1/8th Wilson)
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
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!
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
^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