The Charismania Collection

It suddenly hit me that I’ve written a fair few articles on various features of charismania, so I thought I’d post them all together as a “Charismatic Collection.”


Does God Heal? This is an introduction to the primary considerations why we should approach healing claims with caution:

Divine Healing and my Charismatic Deconversion: Here I briefly discuss my exit from charismania and discuss one particular healing claim I’m personally acquainted with:

Faith-Healers: Pulling Our Legs? I wrote this article shortly after discovering that the old faith-healer leg-lengthening trick was alive and well in my homeland of Northern Ireland:


Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish? In this article I discuss whether or not tongues speech is genuine.

The Apologetics of Tongues Speech: I respond in this article to the various explanatory gymnastics used by defenders of tongues speech, concluding that things don’t look so good for the “gift of tongues.”


Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology? I attempt to demonstrate that modern prophetic words are often little better than astrology, and are probably best explained in the same terms: by the so-called “Forer” (or “Barnum”) effect.


The Charismatic Movement and Princess the Hypnodog: There are similarities between the two, or so I argue, in particular in terms of tricks, and how easy it is to be fooled:

Miracles at New Wine: I analyse a number of miraculous claims that came out of the New Wine Conference in Sligo, July 2015, in this article:

Moreland and Miracles: In this piece I argue that JP Moreland’s standard for believing miracle claims is way too credulous:

Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps: A look at the often silly world of theophanies:

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

Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology?

Having already written several articles on divine healing and the phenomenon of glossolalia, I want to turn my attention to the gift of prophecy, or what all too frequently gets passed off as prophecy these days. The following “prophetic word” from Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard in Northern Ireland, appeared on Twitter on Saturday 12th September 2015:

Perhaps possibly potentially maybe a prophetic word for some – or even one church leader – in the church in the UK:

As in the natural.

So in the spirit

This is a season of transition and migration within the body as God moves His people

Many long standing ministers and ministries responding to fresh priorities and boundaries

God is upsetting, relocating and recreating.

I hear doors opening and a season of open doors emerging

Old tensions and offence being swept away from the body. Old divisions being swallowed whole by fresh compassion.

A new kingdom ordinance around the gifting of administration.

In particular wise administration coming upon the church in the UK

New solutions to old problems and the capacity to administer according to the wholeness and purpose of God.

An increasing authority emerging from a fresh vulnerability and a much grace for many needs

I hear some upheaval as leaders receive new orders

And so get ready for transition and relocation as God move his church from ambition to acceleration. Raising leaders according to the need of the moment.

The butchering of English grammar in these few sentences – and given the lack of punctuation it isn’t obvious how many sentences there actually are – is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the vagueness of the prophecy, and the rather evasive way in which it is written. It’s pretty much a bunch of fuzzy ramblings that “perhaps possibly potentially maybe” apply to someone in the church in the UK. This sort of hazy prophetic style isn’t an isolated example either. In my 15 years of experience in the Charismatic movement, and my recent research into supernatural phenomena, I have discovered that this is all too common from so-called “prophetic people.” For example, I recently listened to a prophetic seminar which was hosted by a leading UK church to see what kinds of prophetic words people would be given. The seminar was little different from what I have heard countless times before. Such seminars may as well be titled “How to Grow in Cold-Reading Techniques.” They prey on the fact that a huge number of people desperately want to hear directly from God about what they should do, what job they are to take, what neighbourhood they should live in, what school they should send their kids to; in short, to be assured that God really is interested in their lives. Here are a few samples from the workshop:

You are a man who sets captives free – a broken vessel, but God shines in the cracks. You are a man for men, with a worshipper’s heart. If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future.”

“God sees you through the eyes of kindness – you have a father’s heart – God wants to take you to a new level of intimacy with him – just to be in His presence – God will give you the gift of wisdom.”

“God has transformed something in your life into something beautiful. I had a vision of you in a field, dancing. Go for it! Others will join you!”

“God will drop a bomb – a good bomb, and God’s been building something in you. It might be messy, but things will fall into place.”

“God sees you as very useful – but the enemy has attempted to throw a spanner in the works.”

The vast majority of this strikes me as little other than a sort of Christian astrology. Of course, some people swear that astrology is genuine. They regularly pay attention to their readings and claim that they are uncannily accurate. Many people on the receiving end of prophetic words also claim that they are strangely accurate. In fact, the same explanation for the accuracy of astrology applies to much of what passes for prophetic words: the so-called “Forer Effect,” also called the “Barnum Effect.”

This psychological phenomenon was first illustrated by Bernard R Forer in 1949, and has been demonstrated over and over again since. The Barnum effect creates an illusion of accuracy; occurring when a person takes even the most vague predictions or statements and interprets them as specific to themselves. Often the person will focus on those aspects of a psychic reading or prophetic word which are particularly relevant but play down the parts that are not. In Forer’s demonstration a group of students were given a generic personality profile which was supposedly written just for them. Of course, the students were amazed at how accurate it was. The truth was that each student had been given exactly the same profile, which had been written using statements that Forer got from an astrology book. In such experiments the readings are all vague enough to allow each person to interpret the statements in light of themselves. You can see James Randi perform the trick here on a group of students:

Such statements – commonly called “Barnum statements” – are what make practices like cold reading, palm reading, astrology, and mind-reading possible. In these cases a reader will throw out a bunch of general claims hoping to get a hit. Many people are fooled by it, even to the point where they forget all the incorrect guesses that were made in the process and remember only the hits. Thus, Barnum statements work side by side with another psychological phenomenon: confirmation bias. Barnum statements work because humans are often very similar to one another. Statements like “I sense you hold back a lot in social situations,” would be a hit with a large majority of people. Or, “I get the feeling that you long for the days of your youth.”

What we really see in modern charismatic prophecy is a Christianized version of the Barnum Effect. Re-read the examples quoted earlier. I suspect that the vast majority of these statements could be interpreted by the vast majority of Christians as being applicable to their lives. Moreover, not only are they inherently vague and applicable to huge numbers of people, but they often come with built-in safeguards such as, “If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future,” which is almost guaranteed to be a hit with anyone who already believes in modern charismatic prophecy.

Take another example provided by Charismatic leader Jack Deere, a darling of the Vineyard movement. He was told by a prophet that his father had “dropped the ball” when Deere was young, and that God had allowed Deere’s athletic ability to be frustrated so he would follow intellectual pursuits. Deere reckons these were remarkable prophetic insights: his father had taken his own life, and sports injuries had plagued Deere’s youth. But, once again, we might simply be seeing the Barnum effect at work, (I say ‘might’ because, of course, it’s possible the prophet knew more about Deere than Deere realised). Let’s face it, every father fails or “drops the ball” in some regard. In fact having childhood problems with one’s father is the stuff of psychological cliché. Moreover, how many of us men think of ourselves as having some ability – often athletic – that didn’t quite reach its full (often, imagined) potential? These strike me as statements that quite easily apply to a large number of men.

Not that all prophecies amount purely to vague ramblings. Sometimes there are more specific predictions made. I was once told by an itinerant prophet that I would be a pastor. That’s a more specific prediction. However, he told me this right after I had informed him that I was studying theology. Playing the odds, perhaps? Other prophecies might warn of specific catastrophies that will only be averted by the person performing actions X, Y or Z. Of course, when the person performs these actions and the catastrophies do not happen the prophet can be applauded, and everyone remains oblivious to the fact that the catastrophies in question in all likelihood would never have happened anyway. It’s a bit like a madman waving his arms around wildly to keep the man-eating lions at bay who, when it’s pointed out there are no lions around, responds, “See, it must be working!”

Lastly, there are the predictive and specific prophecies that meet a rather different end: they turn out to be flat-out false, like Kenneth Copeland’s prophecy in the early 90s that Islam will fall and become nothing in 1995. Or Benny Hinn’s long list of prophetic failures, such as that the 1990s would see the collapse of the US economy, the death of Fidel Castro, and the homosexuals of the world destroyed by fire.

Of course, in light of the spectacular failures of these more specific prophecies it’s not difficult to see why “prophetic people” often retreat to vague statements and spiritual platitudes that could be true of almost anyone. In either case there seems little reason to think that the omniscient creator of the world is behind any of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Prophecy

Moreland and Miracles

Every time I’m tempted to think Charismatics are stupid I remind myself that I was stuck in Charismania for well over a decade. Rumours and promises of the supernatural can be incredibly alluring. When people are so desperate to experience God their levels of credulity increase dramatically. But that doesn’t mean many of these people are not intelligent. Of course they are, and I was reminded recently of one highly intelligent thinker for whom I have the utmost of respect, and who also happens to be a charismatic: JP Moreland.

JP Moreland is an influential Christian philosopher and apologist. His text “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview,” co-written with William Lane Craig is one of the best standard Christian philosophy books on the market. I also particularly like his shorter volume “The Recalcitrant Imago Dei,” in which Moreland discusses several features of humanity which are difficult to accommodate within a naturalist worldview, such as: consciousness, rationality, morality, freedom, and personhood.

And so, naturally curious about his charismatic beliefs, I picked up a book he had written called “The Kingdom Triangle,” in which he has a few things to say about Christians rediscovering the power of the Spirit, and in which the influences of his Church – Anaheim Vineyard – are quite apparent. Admittedly Moreland’s language is often baffling when he speaks of such matters. He invites us to “seek to bring God’s supernatural power to bear on [needs],” as if God’s supernatural power is ours to distribute. He encourages us to “grow in the miraculous” as if the occurrence of miracles were down to our personal growth. He also speaks about how we “grow in power,” as if wonders happen because of how spiritually strong we are.

Moreland doesn’t have a lot to say about phenomena such as speaking in tongues or prophecy – though he clearly believes in such gifts – but he does have a few things to say about divine healing, a main emphasis of the Vineyard brand. Moreland even has some stories to tell, and some advice for the rest of us concerning the proper epistemic reaction to such testimonies.

I want to share a few of Moreland’s anecdotes, and critically assess his advice that the rest of us should believe such testimonies when we hear them. I’m not normally impressed with testimonies of healing, but Moreland makes me listen more than usual, largely because this is an obviously intelligent and coolly rational mind who is far less likely to be deceived or mislead than Joe Bloggs. Anyhow, here’s a summary of Moreland’s account of his own healing:

Moreland came down with a dose of laryngitis. The timing couldn’t have been worse for him, as he now had to cancel a 3-hour lecture he was to give at another church, not to mention having to cancel academic classes which would mean he had overshot his quota of missed lectures for that semester. After church that Sunday he just wanted to get home, and had to make phone calls to cancel his lectures, but just before he left some elders from his church prayed for him. One placed their hand on his throat, and when they prayed Moreland felt warmth rushing through him, and within minutes his laryngitis was gone. He never had to cancel his talks after all.

This testimony is the most significant in Moreland’s book, because it is first-hand. Other testimonies Moreland recounts have a sort of hearsay folk tale quality to them. There was a young woman in China who came down with a virus doctors had never seen before, and for whom everyone had lost hope. However “following prayer she was healed and fully recovered.” We have a Thai missionary reporting that a church service he was conducting was interrupted by a village leader desperate because the rains had not yet come and the crops were soon to be ruined. However, the church prayed and fasted for 3 days and on the 4th day it rained. Or consider another missionary tale of a boy with a hernia in a Brazilian village. The missionaries laid hands on the boy and the hernia disappeared during prayer. Moreland also recounts the tale of a young girl who had two parakeets, and when one of these birds died the little girl prayed for another and found another just like it up a tree the very next day.

Moreland clearly believes sharing such stories is vital to boost our faith. He admonishes us to “read to grow in faith from the testimonies of others as they bear witness to the things they have seen and heard.” Further, when faced with stories of the miraculous Moreland advises: “if there is credible eyewitness testimony for an event, including a miracle, then, all things being equal, one ought to believe the event even if there is no medical proof.” [Emphasis mine]

Now, what are we to make of all this? It seems to me that Moreland sets the bar far too low for miracle reports. There are lots of good reasons to be (at least prima facie) sceptical of miracle reports even when they come from credible eyewitnesses (please remember I write this as a Christian – not as a naturalist).

Consider first-person healing testimonies. People are often very poor witnesses concerning themselves. Many don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own medical condition, so that what seems serious and incurable to them perhaps isn’t so to a medical professional. Cancer is a good example here. Many people think of cancer as if it’s a single illness which must be cut out or destroyed by chemotherapy. Few people realise that there are many forms of cancer which behave very differently from each other, and that many forms of cancer can spontaneously remit. Illnesses can behave in ways that can surprise many non-professionals who easily lapse into certain presuppositions when they think about illness. This might cause us to think a miracle has occurred in some case when in fact an illness is simply behaving in a natural way, albeit in a way that most of us don’t associate with the illness in question.

Further, when illness strikes close to home we can catastrophise matters. As someone who suffers from health anxiety I understand only too well the distorting effects health worries can have on our perceptions. Also, there is a strong temptation when testifying to healings to overdramatize things a little, to “sex-up” our stories, make them more interesting than perhaps they are. I’ve witnessed a large number of such testimonies in my time in charismania.

On top of this we must also keep in mind that many investigations have been undertaken into miracle claims which have yielded not-so-good results for miracle testimonies. Many alleged healings turn out to be dubious at best, and, sadly, often fraudulent, deceiving even intelligent and credible witnesses. How many credible witnesses saw people rise out of wheelchairs at a WV Grant crusade, not knowing they weren’t disabled in the first place or were stooges planted by the faith healer? Related to this problem is the lack of medical follow-up. Moreland says this doesn’t matter, but it obviously does. Many healing testimonies are given moments after an alleged healing. However, the sad fact is many of these people wake up the next morning only to find they are not healed, or go to the doctor only to discover the tumour is still there and that they experienced nothing other than temporary pain relief in the charged atmosphere of a healing service. And yet, credible witnesses wake up that very same morning and tell all their friends that a person with a painful tumour got healed and couldn’t feel the pain any more.

Furthermore, many witnesses do not understand the nature of illness and disease well enough to be considered good witnesses despite the fact that they might well be very honest in how they report some event or other. In fact, this ignorance is widely exploited by unscrupulous faith healers. For instance, a person might be brought on stage and “healed” of blindness. The faith healer will wave a brightly coloured handkerchief in front of their face and the person sees it and grabs it in their hand, and maybe even follows the healer around the stage. A person might honestly report that they saw a blind person healed. The truth is they were deceived. Faith-healers know that when people hear the word “blind” they typically think that the person can see nothing at all. But this is rarely the case. The vast majority of legally blind people have some visual ability, however slight. Most can at least see the blurred outlines of a brightly coloured handkerchief held in front of their face, and if not they can still hear well enough to be able to follow a healer’s voice around the stage. It all creates a very persuasive illusion.

I suspect there might be a misunderstanding of illness at work in one of Moreland’s anecdotes – the boy with the hernia that went away during prayer. I had an inguinal hernia in my late teens. With this sort of hernia a muscle tear causes part of one’s intestine to protrude, forming a lump in the groin. However, I was able to pop mine back in again at will. So, I wonder did the missionaries lay hands on this boy’s hernia – popping it back in temporarily – and think it went away under the power of prayer? Perhaps they then moved on to the next village, not knowing that the boy’s hernia manifested itself a day or so later. What we end up with is a credible witness report of a miracle that wasn’t a miracle at all.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to be cautious in the face of miracle claims: other articles on this blog give additional reasons. And these reasons lead me to think that Moreland’s claim that we “ought to believe” the sorts of anecdotes he recounts is rather epistemically wild.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, JP Moreland, Miracles

Miracles at New Wine?

New Wine is a network of churches which first came to my attention when I was investigating the leg lengthening parlour trick that occasionally reappears on the Church scene. I discovered that there was a leg lengthening miracle claim at the New Wine annual conference in Sligo, Ireland 2014. I contacted the person in question and told them they were probably the victim of a hoax, and linked to a Derren Brown video in which he gives one explanation of how the trick works. This wasn’t accepted by the person in question, who insisted that their leg was shorter and now it’s not. When I asked if there was medical evidence – in particular a diagnosis by a medical professional rather than a self-diagnosis or diagnosis by the healer, I received no further response.

Anyhow, this episode put New Wine on my radar and I kept watch on their 2015 conference which has just finished. Again, there were healing claims made. Apparently during a seminar by John Derneborg there were several people healed. So, I asked what kind of healings these were and if they were being medically verified. A few days later I received a response that healings included “arthritis to knee and shoulder pain,” but that since the conference was still in progress no one would have been checked by their doctor. I was referred to the following testimony:

The first thing to notice is that this is – as is typically the case with the vast majority of healing claims – a case of pain reduction. It is well known that pain is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion – the placebo effect – and in the rush of adrenaline of a healing service pain can seemingly disappear, even for some time. For this reason it can be incredibly misleading to hear testimonies right after the supposed healing event, since it’s simply the nature of pain to come and go. A friend of mine with fibromyalgia will often go for days or weeks without pain before suffering once more. I was informed that this alleged miracle happened on Monday night and the lady was still pain free on Wednesday. But this is not remotely abnormal. Furthermore, I do question the lady’s testimony somewhat, wondering if she is not maybe over-stating things a little or giving a false impression of her condition? If she had a number of conditions that were all relatively severe, how is it that she just forgot to bring all her medication to a conference that was to last a number of days? Admittedly that’s not totally implausible, but I wonder how bad her pain was just prior to coming to the conference. If it was severe I doubt she would have forgotten her medication. In any event, it would be interesting if New Wine followed up this case and reported back as to whether this lady’s arthritis and fibromyalgia has really gone for good. If they do so I will post the results on this blog site.

New Wine has also been running a blog, recording daily events from their conference. One in particular is of interest to me, since it included stories alleging God to be a work. You can find these testimonies here:

I want to look briefly at the first two testimonies.

In the first, a couple were told that their baby “could have a syndrome that was “incompatible with life,” and that “after weeks of prayer…the next scan was clear.” Now, it shouldn’t take much digging to see that this is not as miraculous as it might sound to less discerning ears. The baby in question “could have” a syndrome – could, not did, could. It other words there doesn’t appear to have been a diagnosis in this instance.

I know what it’s like to be a parent in that situation. When my son was born medical professionals were alarmed at his large head. He had to be checked out at a centre specialising in infant development as well as having a scan on his head at hospital when he was only a month or two old. It was an incredibly worrying time and all sorts of nightmare scenarios went through our minds. After all the tests and anxiety we finally found out what was wrong with him: he just had a big head! However, for a number of weeks we genuinely thought there was something wrong with him, though – as with the New Wine case – there was no diagnosis of any illness or condition. Despite this the feelings of relief a parent feels when the nightmare scenarios are ruled out quite easily leaves one with the feeling that Someone Up There has been pulling strings on one’s behalf. The truth is that the child was not suffering from a condition that was life-threatening in the first place.

The second case is a slightly different claim, concerning a miraculous provision of petrol. I’ve heard this sort of story on several other occasions, including the pastor of a church I attended several years ago. It’s like a modern day version of the Old Testament stories concerning the miraculous provision of oil; a feat performed by both Elijah and Elisha. The New Wine story runs like so:

Margaret from Killarney was taking a friend for lunch in Cork when she noticed the petrol light was flashing. With about 20 miles to go she decided to risk it, planning to stop at a petrol station on the way home. But they stayed longer than they had originally intended and found themselves driving home after dark. “Every petrol station we passed, was closed,” Margaret said. “I began to pray Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want’. My friend was not a Christian but I challenged her to believe with me for a miracle – that God would not let us be stranded on the side of the road. 87 miles later on an empty tank of petrol, we arrived safely home in Killarney…”

What are we to make of this? My first concern is with the estimation of distance involved. What exactly is “about 20 miles?” 15 miles? 17 miles? Given that distances in Ireland are given in kilometres, has this lady mistaken kilometres for miles? Further she claims her round trip was 87 miles in total. However, the distance from Cork to Killarney is 50 miles. Add to this the “about 20 miles” of the outbound trip from Killarney to Cork when the fuel light came on and we have 70 miles at the most, suggesting either an overestimate of distance or a confusion of miles with kilometres. So, I suspect the distance was significantly less than 87 miles. In any event, depending on the model of car, even this distance is not extraordinary. Some cars light up when there is still as much as a quarter tank of petrol left, some even capable of doing 100-150 more miles. It’s hard to make a definitive judgment, but on what we have been told there is nothing that strikes me as requiring a miraculous explanation.

Unfortunately few Christians will stop to ask such questions. I suspect when it’s re-told the first story will simply become one in which a baby was cured from a fatal illness. Or, upon hearing the petrol story, how many will stop to ask questions about the model of car, how many miles it can go once the fuel light turns on, and how far Cork is from Killarney? And herein lies a blight in modern Christendom: the lack of discernment in the face of miraculous claims. I suspect so many desire to see God’s hand at work in their lives – particularly during difficult moments – that they will claim His intervention when there is little reason to do so.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Faith Healers: Pulling Our Legs?

My regular readers may already know that I’m currently planning a book examining supernatural claims, particularly within the Christian church. A large part of this work will involve looking at the various healing claims flying around Christendom. To this end I hope to investigate a number of supposed cases of divine healing, and so I began looking around to see if there are any claims worth checking out further. This process has only just begun, but it got off to a rather frustrating start.

I first came across a church based in Northern Ireland called Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, lead by a man called Alan Scott. On May 26th Alan Scott tweeted:

Looking forward to continuing conversation on the gift of faith at 6:30 service tonight. So many people healed over the last few weeks.”

To which I responded:

Are these healings being medically confirmed and documented? I’m genuinely curious, but sceptical of healing claims.”

Alan Scott’s reaction to this was to block me on Twitter. I sent him a message on his personal website expressing my disappointment and failure to understand his reaction. He never responded, and I’m still blocked.

I quickly discovered other members of his church making other claims. The Youth Pastor at Causeway Coast tweeted on 30th May: “One of our young guys got incredible news today that her cancer is all gone after our young guys prayed for her! #childlikefaith #thankful.” Intrigued I asked “What sort of cancer was it, and had she been receiving orthodox medical treatment?” I received no response.

The Director of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, Peter Lynas, also happens to attend Scott’s church. Around the same time, Lynas retweeted a video that was originally posted by Scott. The video was a testimony from a young woman who claimed to have experienced a healing in her ear. You can watch the short testimony here:

I responded to Lynas: “Is this being medically documented and verified? I’ve seen similar testimonies that turned out not quite what it seemed at 1st.” I added “In just a few weeks your church has claimed multiple healings, inc. deafness and cancer. Willing to have them investigated?” I received no response.

On the 6th June I wrote to Causeway Coast Vineyard, introducing myself and my plan for my book, asking about the claims that had been made recently, and if I could investigate them further. I received no response. On Sunday 28th June – three weeks after my letter – I emailed the church with a reminder and a copy of my letter. So far I have received no response.

Shortly after posting my original letter to Causeway Coast I wrote to Mark Marx, a member of the church and the founder of a ministry called “Healing on the Streets.” Again, I received no response. I sent several messages on Twitter, also receiving no response. So I decided to research a little into Healing on the Streets to see if I could find any information or testimonies that I could follow up. I initially discovered a street healer in America called Todd White and watched several of his videos on Youtube. I was rather deflated to see that his signature move was the old leg lengthening parlour trick. This is a trick that has been part of the arsenal of every two bit healer across the globe. It smacks of chicanery. It reeks of charlatanry. It’s been shown time and time again to be fake. James Randi and Derren Brown are amongst the many sceptics who have conclusively demonstrated what really lies behind the trick. The ruse can be achieved in a number of ways, and Randi describes one way in his book “The Faith Healers,” or you can watch Brown performing it here: If you ever see a faith healer perform this wonder, alarm bells should be ringing. Even without this knowledge it should make one wonder: is it not strange that God would regularly expand countless legs by a mere inch or 2 but never re-grow a missing limb? And should we forget babies with AIDS, thalidomide children, and meningitis, and praise Jesus for dealing with the real scourge of the earth: people with one leg slightly shorter than the other? How odd it is that God would do an overabundance of miracles that can be easily faked, all over the globe by anyone with a little training.

If a faith healer performs an alleged instance of healing that has been shown over and over again to be false, used by chalatans to manipulate the faithful (and extract money), and which is quite easily faked, then he bears a burden of proof to show that his version of the healing is genuine. Until such time as he does so, his ministry should be disregarded and his claims rejected.

Naturally I wanted to know if there was any connection between Todd White’s Healing on the Streets and the Healing on the Streets of Mark Marx. To my chagrin I soon discovered that Mark Marx performs exactly the same signature wonder as Todd White: he makes slightly shorter legs grow out before your very eyes! You can see him perform it here: and the feat is performed in several other Healing on the Streets videos (does Marx train people to do it?). In this particular video I found it strange how sure Marx was that the woman’s leg would grow – he knew before he prayed that it would grow out, and made sure everyone had a good view to see this marvel that was sure to occur. How was he so sure? Moreover, rather than pray he seems to command the woman’s body to grow and heal. Anyhow, astounded, and rather disappointed, I tweeted Marx: “Is this a genuine miracle in your view or are you simply performing the trick exposed many times” – and I included here a link to Derren Brown’s video above. Marx finally responded: he blocked me.

This was both an amusing and incredibly frustrating episode. What are we to make of it? What are we to make of the lack of straight answers to simple questions? What are we to make of the lack of tolerance for daring to ask questions at all, and of the silence in the face of honest enquiry?

A less generous interpretation is to see Marx as yet another trickster, building a reputation and drawing in a steady stream of cash as an in-demand speaker and healer. But I’d rather not accuse Marx of that. I hope he’s honest, but just self-deceived. After all, psychologists are aware of mechanisms that could be at work here, deceiving even the faith-healer. Take, for example, the now famous ideomotor effect. This occurs when, through the mechanisms of suggestion or expectation, the body undergoes some sort of involuntary movement – often incredibly slight – without the person being aware of it. American psychologist Roy Hyman concludes that tests on the ideomotor effect show that “honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.” It is this ideomotor phenomenon that is responsible for what happens during activities such as Ouija boards or table turning (it’s not demons or the ghosts of the dead, folks!). It also – if Marx is an honest man, genuinely believing himself to be a conduit of divine power – explains what lies behind Marx’s leg growing marvels. I wonder, could Marx produce examples of this kind of healing occurring when he isn’t actually holding or touching the person’s feet or legs? Since he seems to perform the wonder on a regular basis it shouldn’t be a problem to independently verify whether or not any limbs are growing at all. Can he produce any such evidence, or is he willing to undergo such investigation? Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmith’s University of London, cautions: “The ideomotor effect is capable of producing powerful illusions that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. Those whom they fool are usually well-intentioned, often highly intelligent individuals. But the demonstrations used to convince them of the claims are never carried out under properly controlled conditions.” Can Marx provide an example of a person’s leg growing where there is medical evidence – not just self-diagnosis or diagnosis by Marx – of complications caused by having one leg shorter than another, and where medical evidence is subsequently sought after the supposed miracle to confirm that healing really has taken place? Since Marx seems to come across a rather uncanny number of people with this condition, should it be so hard to produce just one example that meets such basic criteria?

In the absence of a proper response from Marx, it’s difficult not to conclude that all that’s going on here is either self-deception, or downright trickery. Personally I prefer not to think the latter. Anyhow, Christians should have nothing to do with such claims. The Bible calls Christians to show discernment. Discernment isn’t something mystical or other-worldly. It’s simply the application of one’s rational faculties and the determination not to be so gullible in the face of every seemingly magical or supernatural phenomenon that we come across. Most of the time, it’s just someone pulling our legs.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles

Investigating the Supernatural – Healing

Do you claim to have experienced or witnessed something supernatural?

I am currently planning a book on supernatural claims and practices within the Christian church. I will be focusing on a number of phenomena, including the following:

1. Glossolalia, more commonly known as speaking on tongues/other languages
2. Words of knowledge or predictive prophecies.
3. Healings.

I wish to hear from anyone who genuinely believes they have experienced – or knows someone who has experienced – one or more of these phenomena. I am particularly interested in healing claims and I’m hoping to investigate a number of claims for my book.

Healing claims are more difficult to assess than is often thought. In many cases we are presented only with healing testimonies, and often straight after the supposed healing event. However, in order for a genuinely persuasive healing claim to be made much more is required.

Firstly, we need medical confirmation that the person had the condition they claim to have been healed from. Regrettably many people have claimed healings for ailments they were never actually diagnosed with, but perhaps simply believed themselves to have. Moreover, when brought up on stage in front of an expectant crowd, a very natural human reaction is to play to the audience, even if that means stretching the truth a little about the severity of one’s ailment, and thus how dramatic one’s healing is. A person’s understanding of their own condition is often different from that of a medical professional.

Secondly, we require medical confirmation that a person no longer suffers from the ailment. Testimonies within minutes of a claimed healing are often misleading. The nature of many conditions – particularly pain related conditions – is that they can, through the power of suggestion (the placebo effect), go away during the highly charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or worship service. The person genuinely feels their back pain has gone, only to find it return a day or two later. The literature is full of examples of people thinking they are healed at the time only to discover later that they were not. This sometimes takes a rather insidious twist, especially in the presence of a theology that says a person can lose their healing through sin or lack of faith. In such cases not only does a person fail to experience genuine healing, but they must deal with often profound guilt, blaming themselves for losing a healing they never had. I remember a particularly tragic case of this in a Pentecostal church I attended in my early twenties. A couple who attended the church had a hard time because the woman had cancer. However, after being prayed for they believed she was healed. She continued to have symptoms of cancer, and the doctors continually told her she still had cancer. However, they simply refused to believe it, because they had swallowed a theology that said these symptoms were a satanic deception intended to make them lose faith and therefore lose the healing. But medical confirmation that a person no longer has a condition is crucial to any purported genuine healing.

Thirdly, note that not all healing claims are equal. For example, praying for a person with arthritic pain in her knees that goes away during a prayer meeting is not equal to a broken leg fusing within seconds. The former is far more consistent with what we know about the natural characteristics of arthritic pain, whilst the latter is highly anomalous and thus a better candidate for a genuine healing claim. I am particularly interested in healing claims where what has occurred is highly anonymous and against the grain of what we know about that illness. Praying for one’s cold to go away and finding it go away after 2 or 3 days would not be terribly impressive as a healing claim! Or, take a more extreme case such as cancer. The majority of cancer sufferers undergo treatment such as radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. Moreover, in all likelihood virtually all cancer sufferers are prayed for by someone. We also know that many cancers will go into remission. This is a natural fact about cancer. Therefore, that some go into remission in the period of time after prayer has taken place is not necessarily surprising. However, there could of course be exceptions to this. Some people claim to have the “gift of healing,” and it would be significant if it could be shown that an overwhelming number of people they prayed for recovered, particularly if the recovery is from a form of the illness that is highly unlikely to go into remission. So, even though cancer can go into remission, it would strike me as significant if it just happened to go into remission right after a given person prayed for it to do so, and if this happened in a high proportion of cases.

I am interested in investigating any such claims as part of the research for my book, though please be aware that my approach will be analytical and investigative.

My own position with respect to divine healing is an “open but cautious” one. I am a Presbyterian who previously spent around 15 years in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. I believe God can heal anyone he chooses but I am initially sceptical of healing claims because I’ve witnessed so much that later turned out to be false. I have several articles on this website explaining my general scepticism of healing claims, but I would like to investigate specific claims in more depth.

I appreciate this can be a sensitive area for many people, who may not be entirely comfortable with sharing medical details with a stranger, however, all claims will be treated in the strictest confidence and no individual who comes forward will be identified in any subsequent book or articles.

Anyone who wishes to present a healing claim for investigation should make contact in the first instance by leaving a comment (which won’t be published publically).

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles

The Gay Cake Debacle: A Rejoinder to Robertson

Free Church of Scotland Moderator, David Robertson, has written a piece concerning the now infamous Ashers Bakery “gay cake” case.

You can read the Ashers judgment here:

You can find Robertson’s article here:

Upon reading this, I tweeted in frustration:

Yet another commentator who hasn’t bothered to read the judgment….”

To which Robertson replied:

yet another tweeter who presumes ignorance. Feel free to answer the points made in the article. If you can.”

Challenged extended!

Challenge accepted!

Robertson’s central point is that the ruling of the judge is an example of double standards being imposed. But before we get to that Robertson makes a few comments:

He states: “Ashers did not refuse a gay person a cake. They refused to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage. And that changes everything.” This is flat-out false; it doesn’t change anything, not under the law. Ashers offered a service whereby a customer could design their own cake and Ashers would bake it and print the design. In this case the customer – a gay man – chose a slogan – “support gay marriage” – which is defined as “political opinion” under the law, and Ashers, after first accepting the order, refused to follow through. In other words, they discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation and political opinion – both protected categories in Northern Irish law, made abundantly clear in the judgment Robertson claims to have read. Moreover, Robertson ignores the fact that in law Ashers is a commercial business which exists for profit. Commercial enterprises are not legally identical with their owners. Ashers therefore doesn’t have a religious conscious which is protected by the European Convention on Humans Rights, and it isn’t a religious organisation which can appeal to certain legal exemptions. Again, the judgment makes this abundantly clear.

Next, Robertson asks:

Does this ruling now mean that a Jewish baker should be forced to bake a cake with a Swastika on it for the BNP (neither the sign nor the party are illegal in the UK)?”

If Robertson is speaking of the wider UK, then the answer is: no, because political opinion is not explicitly a protected category in England, Scotland or Wales. In any event, a Jewish baker could quite easily adopt a policy – which Ashers didn’t do – of rejecting all political or religious slogans, which is entirely legitimate under Northern Irish law.

Robertson’s other example also betrays a misunderstanding:

Would the equalities commission sue a Muslim baker who refused to bake a cake with a cartoon of Mohammed on it, for a Charlie Hebdo party?”

Firstly, Robertson incorrectly identifies the Equality Commission as the plaintiff in such cases. In the Ashers case it was not the Commission who sued – it was the customer, which again should be abundantly clear from the judgment. In any event, since a picture of Muhammad would not represent anyone’s genuinely held religious belief, political beliefs, or identity, it would be difficult to make a case for discrimination here. And, of course, a Muslim-owned bakery is perfectly entitled to refuse all religious slogans (and probably would).

Robertson’s misunderstandings continue to pour forth, as he claims that “it is ridiculous for a Christian who thinks that Same-Sex Marriage is against the Word of God to be compelled to bake a cake with a message supporting it.”

Again, this isn’t true. Remember, the issue is not with a private individual but with a commercial entity. Anyhow, Ashers cannot be compelled to bake a cake with a message supporting same-sex marriage. It has been announced today that Ashers are now only printing birthday and Christening cakes – and no one can compel them to put “support same sex marriage” on a cake. Why? Because they no longer put any such slogans on their cakes. However, the problem before was that they did offer a service, which they then denied to a gay man on considerations pertaining to sexual orientation and political opinion.

Robertson then points out that in his view there was no discrimination in this case because “a heterosexual asking for such a cake would also have been turned down.” However, the judgment makes it explicit that this is not relevant. After citing a number of case law authorities the judge said: “it is my view that….the correct comparator is a heterosexual person placing an order for a cake with the graphics either “Support Marriage” or “Support Heterosexual Marriage.”” The judge deemed it clear that Ashers would have made such a cake for a heterosexual, and thus were making decisions based on sexual orientation in refusing Mr Lee (a homosexual) his cake with the slogan “Support Same Sex Marriage.”

Now beginning to lose the run of himself, Robertson claims that the real discrimination in this case is against “the Christian baker who is being told he will have to close down if he is not prepared to provide cakes with messages that contradict his beliefs.” Again, this is simply flat-out factually incorrect. The baker was not told to bake cakes with slogans contradicting his beliefs or close down. Remember, the entity in question is a commercial “for profit” business – which in law does not have religious beliefs that can be protected under the European Convention of Human Rights (as the judgment – which Robertson has read – makes abundantly clear). In any event, as I’ve already explained, Ashers will continue to bake and sell cakes and will not have to print any slogans with which they disagree.

Anyhow, to the crux of Robertson’s point: “There is a double standard in British society.”

To demonstrate this double standard Robertson mentions the example of The Scottish Christian Party (SCP), who during the general election had their election leaflet rejected by a printer because the printer, says Robertson “did not agree with the messages on it,” and that “The messages were not illegal but nonetheless they refused. Could they not be sued for the same reason?” Robertson laments that “The fact is that there is a double standard in British society just now. The law is being interpreted and enforced in one way for those who represent the cause celebres of our culture, and yet used in a completely different way for those who don’t agree with the shibboleths of our elites.”

Now this baffles me entirely. Robertson is comparing apples with oranges. There are several significant disanalogies between the two cases. Firstly, the Ashers case involved a private individual with rights under the European Convention. The SCP is a political party which, like a commercial business, enjoys no such protection. Secondly, the two cases emerge in different legal jurisdictions! It’s astounding that Robertson hasn’t noticed this fairly obvious fact. Ashers were brought to court under the following pieces of legislation:

The Fair Employment & Treatment Order (Northern Ireland) 1998, and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

Both pieces of legislation are mentioned in paragraph 1 of the Ashers judgment (maybe Robertson skipped paragraph 1?). Notice that both are uniquely applicable to Northern Ireland. They do not apply to Scotland. This clearly isn’t an instance of the law being interpreted and enforced differently in one case than another. It’s a case of different law applying in different legal jurisdictions! Perhaps Robertson misunderstands the nature of the United Kingdom. Our country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland & Wales) and Northern Ireland. There is some legislation that applies to all jurisdictions, some applies fully to some jurisdictions and only partly to others, and some that is only applicable to one jurisdiction (which happens increasingly these days since Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own regional assemblies with certain legislative powers). So, the legislation in the Ashers case simply doesn’t apply to Scotland. Scotland has its own equality laws. Note further that in the case of the SCP no case was brought before the courts, so unlike the Ashers case there was no legal interpretation or enforcement taking place at all. So, why didn’t the SCP case go to court? Simple: under Scottish law, political opinion is NOT explicitly protected as it is in Northern Irish law. The reason for political opinion being protected in Northern Ireland traces back to our political tensions and the grief that has come from political disputes here. Clearly Robertson has made a blunder. The law simply isn’t “being interpreted and enforced” differently in different cases, and certainly not to suit some grand anti-Christian or politically correct conspiracy. The laws in each jurisdiction are simply different, and thus cases that occur in Northern Ireland will be treated differently.

[It’s worth noting in passing that the Scottish Christian Party member in question – John Cormack – gives a slightly different reason for the rejection than Robertson gives. Cormack says, “The printer I had lined up refused to print the leaflets for me because they have a policy of not printing material that might offend people.” He claimed further the printer was afraid to print the leaflets – not that they refused do so for the reason Robertson claims “[they] did not agree with the messages on it.” Given that the Scottish Christian Party is borderline homophobic – it’s election material spoke of REAL marriage – capitals in the original – as opposed to, presumably, “fake” (though legal in Scotland) same-sex marriages – it is entirely legitimate for a printer to err on the side of caution and not print material which is potentially inflammatory or homophobic. Anyhow, I digress….]

I agree with Robertson in his desire that our Christian freedoms not be eroded, but what he splendidly overlooks is that he lacks no right or freedom whatsoever that a non-Christian enjoys. The law applies equally to Christian and non-Christian alike. And this was upheld by the Ashers judgment.

Stephen J. Graham


On Robertson’s own blogsite he reproduces this article but includes two notes:

“1). The man who brought the law suit is a member of a homosexual group called queer space who just happens to visit a bakery which was well known for its Christian owners, miles from his hometown. All entirely coincidental!”

Again, Robertson is showing his ignorance of the case. Gareth Lee had previously been a customer of Ashers, because it was near the office where he worked. Coincidence? No. Conspiracy theory? Maybe….

“2) SSM is illegal in Northern Ireland. The judge is supposed to uphold the law yet he finds that a bakery which refused to put a message of support for something that is illegal, are the ones breaking the law! The law is sometimes an ass!”

Another misstatement. SSM is not “illegal,” it’s simply that there is no legal provision for it. Murder is illegal. Theft is illegal. SSM is not illegal. Moreover, the judge was not a “he” – the judge was Isobel Brownlie – a she.


Filed under Discrimination, Equality

The Charismatic Movement & Princess the Hypnodog

Princess the Hypnodog made her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent a few weeks ago. You can view the act here: If you’re too dog-tired to bother then basically the act went as follows. Volunteers from the audience were brought up onto the stage and after looking at the dog for 5 seconds they collapsed into a trance on the floor. Her owner then made the audience volunteers forget the number 7, so when they were awake and were asked to count their fingers they counted to 11 instead of 10. Intrigued, the Dark Lord of Britain’s Got Talent – Simon Cowell – took to the stage and stared at Princess, but nothing happened. Or did it? Seemingly for a period of time afterwards Simon was uncannily pleasant to even some of the oddest acts. Hypnodog had made Mr Nasty rather pleasant, at least for a time.

Or so we were meant to believe.

The camera captured numerous shots of an audience amazed that a dog could possess such powers. They seemed totally taken in by it. The reaction on Twitter was somewhat more sceptical. The majority considered the act a blatant fix and were enraged at Britain’s Got Talent for taking the viewers for fools. However, there remained a sizeable number of people who were seriously asking whether or not the act was real – that is, seriously asking whether or not a cute dog with a long tongue had the powers to put human beings to sleep after they looked at her for a few seconds.

But, of course, the whole thing was a trick. Dogs do not possess hypnotic powers. To be as generous as possible to Princess we can speculate that if the audience volunteers weren’t stooges they had perhaps been hypnotised prior to the show by Princess’s owner and “programmed” to fall into a trance when brought in front of the dog, thus making it look like the dog had hypnotic powers. As for Mr. Nasty, a little bit of clever editing on the part of the TV show made it look like for a time after the act Simon Cowell was being unusually pleasant, when in fact the few occasions on which he had been judging acts out of character were simply edited together and made to look like they all followed his being hypnotised by Princess.

The first thing I noticed about this episode was the difference in reaction between the live audience and those watching on TV. The latter were, on the whole, much more sceptical. Those at the live event were far more credulous. Thus what we have here is a case of the power of a live show. It’s dramatic, you get caught up in it rather easily; expectations are high, sceptical walls are lowered. Add to this a bit of human imagination and the desire to be part of something wonderfully bizarre – even other-worldly – and we have all the ingredients for, frankly, making people stupidly gullible.

Exactly the same thing happens at big charismatic rallies. Take for example Benny Hinn. I’ve had the, umm, pleasure of witnessing a Benny Hinn show first hand, and I’ve studied his techniques for some time. Hinn uses a powerful mixture of showmanship, psycho-hypnotic techniques, and plain old deceit to produce the effect that he wants. Someone who claims such a massively positive healing record could easily minister in hospitals and heal the sick there. However, notice that Hinn needs people to come to him – to where he has control: control of lighting, mood, security (certain sick people get nowhere near him), music, and the order of service. Hinn’s events are highly choreographed and scripted. Fundamentally he’s a showman who manipulates sick and vulnerable people into opening their wallets nice and wide.

All of this plays on sheer dumb human credulity. We are a gullible species. We take things as they seem to us, rarely pausing to ask if things really are as they seem. Of course, in evolutionary terms this is understandable. If you paused to wonder “Is that really a huge tiger bearing down on me” you probably wouldn’t be around long enough to think the matter through. Our natural reaction is to believe what we see: it’s a tiger, run.

Moreover, something seems to happen to us when we gather together in large groups, particularly in a certain atmosphere like a concert, show, or healing crusade. Extensive research has gone into human behaviour in such scenarios. Take Benny Hinn again. A huge crowd has gathered, full of hope and expectation. The singing begins, and during a chorus of “How Great Thou Art” – (the reader can decide if “Thou” refers to God or Hinn) – Hinn – like a demigod – walks onto the stage and begins to orchestrate the thousands of cognitive and emotional experiences that have already begun. People are encouraged to close their eyes, empty their minds, and open themselves up to God. Before long many in the crowd show all the signs of an opiate release in the brain: they may smile or laugh, they appear to have a certain glow about them, they may shake and begin to sway, and some might even cry. Soon, those who are most susceptible to hypnotic suggestion may experience other physical effects. Some might even notice pains begin to leave their bodies, and stiff joints starting to loosen. Soon – after passing through Hinn’s rigourous screening process where the sick and infirm are effectively auditioned to see if they are good enough to perform on-stage – these people come into Hinn’s presence to be declared healed, and then typically “slain in the Spirit” – using either the power of hypnotic suggestion or a good old fashioned shove. With this apparent display of the power of God, other people watching who are perhaps less susceptible to hypnotic suggestion have any remaining scepticism undone and finally come under the showman’s spell. It’s very clever, and Benny Hinn is an expert at it.

But, as with hypnodog, there are no mysterious or other-worldly powers at play. It’s all a combination of expectation, psychological tricks, careful choreography, and the simple human propensity to accept at face value the things we perceive.

How then do we avoid being fooled? By developing a sceptical frame of mind. By paying attention to what’s going on “behind the scenes.” By coming to realise that all is not what it seems at such events. My own exit from the charismatic movement involved research and reading. I discovered that when it comes to the claims of faith-healers and charismatic preachers there have been more than enough exposes to leave such claims dead in the water. When a preacher calls out someone in the audience – about whom he supposedly can’t know anything by natural means – he’s using a trick like the “pre-service prayer card” trick of Peter Popoff or WV Grant. Sometimes homeless people have been employed by certain pastors to pose as sick and infirm and rise out of wheelchairs. Numerous bodies of evidence demonstrate that the vast majority of faith-healing miracles are nothing other than psychosomatic reactions to the highly choreographed and emotionally charged surroundings of a service. It has been demonstrated time and again how healers perform tricks to make it look like the blind see, the deaf hear, and that legs are being lengthened. One man at a Reinhard Bonnke rally was proclaimed healed of blindness. Upon follow up by a researcher it was discovered he was never blind at all. In another instance a deaf child can be seen clearly lip reading and repeating words spoken by Bonnke: but she was declared healed of deafness. For those interested in how such tricks are performed, have a look at illusionist Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sale” programme on Youtube:

So, why, in the face of all this evidence, do charismatics still believe in such things? There’s no simple answer, but I want to suggest a few factors at work. Firstly, many are desperate. They are terminally ill or permanently disabled and the only hope they have left is the charismatic healer making grand promises about their miracle healing. Secondly, perhaps the kinds of people who attend such meetings simply aren’t the type of people to read, say, James Randi’s book exposing faith-healers, or watch a Derren Brown programme about the techniques used by healers and preachers to manipulate the masses. Recently during a Twitter exchange I sent several links to articles from this blog to a charismatic. Although he claimed to have read them, according to my website statistics none of those articles had in fact been accessed. My own experience is, sadly, that often Christians live in a faith bubble – listening exclusively to Christian music and reading Christian books by authors they largely already agree with. Thirdly, many of us live in almost perpetual boredom. Our lives aren’t terribly exciting most of the time. We might desperately want something unusual to break the tedium – whether it’s a dog with hypnotic powers or a healer breaking someone’s crutches on a stage. Many people desperately wish to experience the power of God in their otherwise mundane lives.

But of course we shouldn’t conduct our lives by wishful thinking. Reality simply doesn’t bend to our desires and dreams. I desperately wish that it was the case that deaf kids were regularly healed, or that wounded soldiers could grow back limbs. I’d even love to live in a world of magical dogs! But we don’t live in a fairytale. For better or worse the world is the way it is, and no amount of desire to the contrary is going to change it.

Of course, if you’re a charismatic and you don’t like what I’ve said here, then know this: the hypnodog made me say it.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Is the Problem of Evil a Greater Problem for Atheism than Theism? A Response to David Robertson

A link to an article by David Robertson appeared on my Twitter feed recently, in which it is claimed that “The problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheists than Christians.” You can read the full article here:

Now, let me first acknowledge what the article is not. It’s not written by a professional philosopher. It’s not written for a technical or professional journal, but rather a popular Christian magazine. It makes no pretensions as to providing the final word on the matter. Some people might therefore think I’m choosing a fairly soft target here. However, I don’t wish to write a thorough critique of the piece, nor hold Robertson to the sort of standards I might wish to hold a professional philosopher. However, what he says in the article is – I think – a popular misconception which is worth pointing out, if only to help other apologists from making a similar mistake. Moreover, I couldn’t find a scholarly statement of this argument which seems to make various repeat performances across the world of popular apologetics. (I did come across a version of this argument used by William Lane Craig in his debate some years ago with Frank Zindler, though it wasn’t a scholarly treatment either).

Anyhow, what is the claim, and what is the problem with it?

Robertson claims that many atheists, when asked why they don’t believe in God will point to the amount of evil in the world – because evil exists, God does not exist. Robertson sees a problem here for atheists: “I think all of us have a sense of evil and a sense of good – I don’t think morality is relative. . . There really is such a thing as good and evil. To me this truth actually leads to God, rather than away from God.” How so? Well, according to Robertson atheism has trouble making sense of the concept of evil. If you’re a naturalist, says Robertson, “There is no ultimate foundation for morality. It’s just something that happens, and has evolved.” The problem is exacerbated – so Robertson claims – since on naturalism there is no human free will, no meaning, no life after death, and ultimately no-one to answer to. Thus, he challenges: “The problem with the atheist view of evil is that logically it doesn’t make sense. Either you agree that [evil] exists, or you don’t. If it does exist, then on what metaphysical basis does it exist? It can’t just “be” in a world that is just atoms and molecules.”

Now, it seems to me – a theist who has spent a long time on the problem of evil, and who rejects it as a convincing argument against the existence of God – that Robertson (representative of other popular apologists) is unhelpfully misrepresenting the problem of evil. What he is in fact presenting is a moral argument for the existence of God. He’d have been better simply presenting that rather than trying to tie his argument to the problem of evil. In fact, I have some sympathy with the idea that atheism struggles with the notion of objective good and evil. So, it’s not primarily this aspect of Robertson’s argument that’s the problem, but rather his misconstrual of the problem of evil. (Though in passing I should mention that I rather suspect a sizable chunk of the atheist community would believe in and attempt to defend objective morality in a non-theistic universe. Precisely how successful such efforts are I leave as homework for the reader).

Robertson presents the problem of evil “in a nutshell” roughly along the lines of the so-called logical problem of evil, which runs like so:

1. If God is omnipotent, He will be able to eradicate evil
2. If God is omnibenevolent, He will be willing to eradicate evil
3. Evil exists
4. Therefore an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God does not exist.

I agree with Robertson that such an argument is unsuccessful. In fact, most atheist philosophers would likely agree. However, Robertson ignores the fact that the problem of evil is a much bigger beast than this version suggests. In fact, the problem of evil is really a group of several arguments on a similar theme. The significance of this is that an atheist need not actually agree with the existence of objective evil in order to raise the problem of evil as a case to answer for the theist.

So, for example, William Rowe’s argument from evil is that there are many forms of suffering in our world which do not seem to have any possible justifying goods. He famously gives the example of a fawn caught in a forest fire, suffering for days before finally succumbing to death. Seemingly then, says Rowe, there are gratuitous evils (such as many forms of pain, suffering and distress), and such would not exist if God existed. Now, I don’t think Rowe’s argument is a good one (Stephen Wykstra, Alvin Plantinga and William Alston all provide strong cases against it) but notice that this version of the problem of evil doesn’t rely on any claim about the existence of “objective evil,” in the sense Robertson seems to mean. Or take Paul Draper’s version of the argument (which is, in my view, only marginally better than Rowe’s), which says that the evil we find in the world is more likely on naturalism than on theism; in fact, he reckons, given the facts of our universe it appears most reasonable to think that nothing and no-one has the interests of biological organisms at heart. Draper weighs the hypothesis of theism against an alternative hypothesis, namely: “Neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non-human persons,” using a set of observations – O – comprising “both the observations one has made of humans and animals experiencing pain or pleasure and the testimony one has encountered concerning the observations others have made of sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure.” According to Draper O has a much greater antecedent probability on this other hypothesis than on theism, and thus we have a prima facie case for thinking this alternative hypothesis is more likely to be true than theism. Again, an atheist could make use of this form of argument without bringing the “Robertson Retort” down on his own head. Robertson shows no sign of being familiar with such arguments, and even though he’s only a popular level apologist he really should pay these arguments some attention, for in doing so he mightn’t be so quick to claim that the problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheism than theism.

In any event, I hope it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. The problem of evil isn’t just a problem about morally objective evil. It’s about suffering, pain, and seemingly poor biological design. An atheist who cites the problem of evil as part of his or her case for unbelief is quite likely to have all this in mind, not just the rather restricted version Robertson presents. In my own experience I’ve heard atheists complain about things like the process of evolution and the unimaginable suffering that would have occurred as a result of the process; or the destructive power of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; or the horrendous little beasties that are visible only under the microscope, whose existence causes all manner of pain and trauma to millions of other biological organisms; or the suffering in the animal world caused by predation. Such things, so says the atheist, make it difficult to believe in the God of Classical Theism. I freely admit there are times when the world strikes me as a particularly horrid place, and though I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil I sometimes find doubts rise up in my mind through my own experience of the world’s evils.

Of course, for many reasons way beyond the scope of this short article, I don’t think any of this warrants the rejection of theism. But what it does show is that there are versions of the problem of evil which are not open to the Robertson Retort, and thus the atheist who embraces one or more of these versions of the problem isn’t caught in the contradiction Robertson seems to think he or she is.

Modern versions of the problem of evil are, quite clearly, more of a problem for theism than atheism. There is a case for theism to answer. Robertson and other popular level apologists who use such a line of argument would be better off acknowledging this, and joining the rest of us in honestly trying to make sense of the evils our world contains in light of our theistic worldview.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Come out of your Worldview Bubble

My first time reading Bertrand Russell on Christianity was a greatly frustrating experience. I found myself shaking my head and thinking “No! No! No! That’s not it at all!” Russell was critiquing a different Christianity from the one I know. Of course, that’s not terribly surprising since Russell was writing several generations ago in a different cultural milieu, but, alas, there’s no shortage of modern misfiring critiques – of Christianity, other faiths, and even religious critiques of atheism, humanism, and naturalism.

It seems to me that a large part of this failure is due to a lack of meeting of minds. By this I don’t just mean a failure to engage with the core ideas of the worldviews of others, but rather I mean a failure to engage with the actual human beings who hold these ideas. It’s fairly easy to spot when a critic of some religion (or a religious critic of atheism) has spent little or no time personally engaging with those who adhere to that particular tradition. Sure, books can teach us a lot about Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism, but many ideas – particularly religious ideas – are never just abstract, but are embodied in human persons and communities. If you read every book on Islam ever written there will still be something lacking in your education and understanding of that faith if you have never engaged with “embodied Islam.” When we engage with the individuals who adhere to some worldview or other we typically find nuances that books often struggle to communicate. Believers often disagree or understand elements of their faith in a different way from what was expounded by Joe Faith PhD in his new book on the subject. You see with your own eyes what faith means to the individuals who adhere to it, you come to appreciate the diverse reasons they hold to their faith, and you learn something of their history, culture, and psychology, in a way that books cannot communicate. It really makes a huge difference: not unlike the difference between reading all about Paris in a guidebook and then actually visiting the city for yourself to experience and appreciate the life, vibrancy and beauty of the place.

Most importantly of all, when you engage with those from other worldviews you gain a significant degree of empathy. When critics of some faith tradition haven’t engaged at a significant personal level with adherents of that faith they often speak incredibly aggressively, and in a way that tends to dehumanize those who hold to that tradition. It’s a bit like that modern internet phenomenon witnessed by anyone who reads the comments section of a controversial article or video: people tend to talk to others as if those others are more machine than man. Often things get said which would never get said if the people were sitting at the same table looking into each other’s faces. The human dimension of the exchange is, tragically, often diminished. I’ve witnessed atheists being spoken to as if they are moral degenerates trying to send the country to Hell in a handbasket. Sometimes this is given a “holy spin”: atheists really, deep deep down, know God exists; therefore their atheism is really little more than a wicked moral rebellion against their creator. I’ve also seen religious believers written off as dangerous fanatics who’d like nothing better than to cage their opponents like wild animals. As for me, I’ve been spoken to – by people who don’t know me from Adam – as if I’m a brainwashed idiot, a fool, a moron simply by virtue of the fact that I’m a theist. I suspect many of these people live their lives in something of a bubble, surrounded largely by people who think and act like they do. In my experience, I’m sad to report, religious believers in particular can be incredibly inward looking. Many Christians have no real friendships with people who do not share their beliefs. I’ve gone to churches where people only ever socialize with their fellow churchgoers. It’s easy to see how under such circumstances those who hold significantly different worldviews can come to be demonised, viewed with distrust or derision. And this applies to Christians who belong to other traditions and denominations. I often wonder to what extent the ugly spectacle of Christians at one another’s throats can be explained simply by this reluctance to form friendships and significant social interactions beyond one’s own sectarian boundaries.

Actually spending time with people who disagree with one’s own fundamental opinions can be humbling, enlightening, and mind-expanding. I once thought of Hindus as little other than irrational mystics, and I thought so largely as a result of my academic studies (I had studied world religions as part of my theology degree). Then I met some Hindus – spending several weeks in an area of London containing a 60,000 strong Gujarati Indian immigrant population. I’ll never forget one particular Hindu businessman. He knew his tradition inside out and back to front, and understood Christianity at least as well as I did. He was reflective, friendly, level-headed, sensible, and very successful. I visited several Hindu temples and met many Hindu families, experiencing their friendliness and warmth, and I left London a very humbled young theologian. Rene Descartes, whose own travels had opened his eyes to the wealth of views and opinions in the world, had written words that were ringing in my ears: “all those who hold opinions quite opposed to ours are not on that account barbarians or savages. . . many exercise as much reason as we do, or more…

In my previous article I said, “We aren’t the wholly rational impartial observers we might like to paint ourselves as. Each of us, for better or worse, is a complex of many factors and influences: our upbringing, our background experiences, our cultural milieu, our peers, our education, our innate temperament and dispositions, and much else besides. These things provide the spectacles through which we view our world.” I didn’t always believe that. I was happy thinking I was one of the few impartial rational observers and others – such as the Hindus – were irrational screw-ups. But when we take the time to get to know those of other faiths and none – beyond superficialities and text-book understandings – we come to appreciate the complexities involved in belief formation, and, crucially, come to see that those who disagree with us are not simply wicked or stupid. They are, just like us, human beings with a personal history, psychology, and culture.

As we come to appreciate this reality it should help to burst the little worldview bubble that we tend to keep ourselves in.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Inter-Faith Dialogue, Pluralism