What’s so Wrong with Faith-Healing?

I’m often asked why I’m so opposed to faith-healing. Surprisingly, even by people who agree with me about all the fakery at work. If people think they are being healed, if it gives them something to put their trust and hope in, isn’t that a good thing? If they’re wrong, why does it matter? If people go to faith-healers and even FEEL a little bit better, why do I seek to tear that down and take it away from them?

The answer strikes me a fairly obvious, and but for the fact that I’m frequently asked such questions I wouldn’t even feel the need to spell it out. As it is, I thought I’d write a short article listing a few ways in which faith-healing is often positively harmful.

1. Delay in Seeking Medical Appointments

There are some people who are genuinely afraid of their doctor and what he might tell them. Often these fears are groundless, but unfortunately sometimes doctors do give their patients bad news. In either event it is in the patient’s best interests to go to their doctor. If they are well, their mind will be put at rest; if they are sick they can begin necessary treatment which might even save their lives. Sadly, there are too many stories of people seeking help in all the wrong places – whether it be from homeopathy, aromatherapy, special “cancer-killing” tea bags, or faith-healing. By the time they discover that they really should go to their doctor it is often too late. Faith-healing can, and does, fuel this delay.

2. Stopping Medication

Sometimes people stop their medication after visiting a faith-healer. Sometimes this is their own choice, other times it’s the command of the faith-healer. The person might be encouraged to throw their medication away as a sign of faith. Alternatively, they might simply be so assured by the healer that they are cured that they stop taking their tablets in a bout of excitement at their divine encounter. Lamentably, many have paid with their lives for doing so. In a BBC programme called “Heart of the Matter,” which first aired in 1992, we see the case of a woman called Audrey Reynolds who suffered from an ankle injury, epilepsy, and learning difficulties. After her visit to the American faith-healer Morris Cerullo, she stopped taking her tablets. She took a fit and drowned in her bath. The coroner noted: “It’s a tragedy that she went to this meeting and thought she had been cured of everything. Sadly it lead to her death.”

3. Mistaken Healings

Closely connected to the above are cases of mistaken healings. The difference here is that the person is harmed by behaving a certain way rather than by stopping medication. So, people might be asked to run around the stage or bend and touch their toes or walk without their crutches. However, there are cases when the person – who remains unhealed – ends up exacerbating their condition, sometimes with lethal effects. The faith healer Katherine Kuhlman once declared a woman healed of spine cancer, and had her perform for the audience on stage. The woman’s spine subsequently collapsed and she died a few months later. Or consider a case related by Justin Peters when he attended a Benny Hinn rally in Birmingham, Alabama in 2002. Beside Peters was a woman with an oxygen tank and tubes up her nose. She suffered from severe emphysema and hadn’t walked in years. In the euphoria of the service she pulled out the tubes, stood up, and began to walk around. As Hinn’s assistants were walking her to the stage she got slower and slower until she had to be sat down in a chair, absolutely exhausted. She hadn’t been healed at all. Like thousands of others she had experienced nothing more than a temporary euphoria that caused an illusion of healing, and a rush of pain-reducing endorphins which can make humans achieve feats they might not normally be capable of.

4. The Distress of the Unhealed

Millions of people all over the globe have hoped for healing, been prayed for, and remain unhealed. Many of these people suffer great anguish when they listen to stories – typically false or exaggerated – of other people being healed. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians in Northern Ireland have been recently trumpeting the alleged healing of a teenage boy who suffered from an aggressive cancer (they don’t quite so loudly trumpet the fact that this boy had received months of chemotherapy and invasive surgery). However, what are parents of all those children who remain unhealed to make of it? What are the parents of a young boy called Oscar Knox – who suffered and finally died of cancer – to make of it? Did they not pray enough? Did God not love Oscar just as much as this other boy? The impression is often given – whether intentional or not – that God has healed someone because of his great love. Where does that message leave the unhealed? Too often they are left feeling unloved by God, lacking in faith, too full of sin, or not having given enough money.

5. Further Psychological Costs

The message that proponents of faith-healing spread abroad is that those who suffer should seeking their miracle, keep pursuing their healing, don’t give up! This is a hopeless endeavour that robs often the most vulnerable people of their dignity. It hinders their ability to come to terms with their condition and make the best of the time they have left. One of the most undignified sights I’ve ever seen is watching sick people desperate to be healed having to effectively audition to get on stage at a Benny Hinn rally. One man I knew personally died in hopeless distress because he didn’t get the miracle he had been lead to expect. Hope deferred makes the heart sick.

6. Financial Cost

You never meet a poor faith-healer. They might not all have pacific view mansions, but they nevertheless do very well. Much of their money comes from sick and disabled people, people who are desperate. The quest for a miracle robs the sick and disabled of the money they should be using to improve their care and quality of life. Regrettably, being disabled is an expensive business, and the needed adaptations to a home that can make life worthwhile don’t come cheap. Unlike faith-healers, disabled people rarely have a lot of money to spare, and the homes they are trying to adapt certainly don’t have 20 pacific-view rooms.

7. The Truth

As important as 1-6 are, the most fundamental reason I’m opposed to faith-healing claims and practices is that I’m convinced they are false – and often deliberately faked. There is typically one or some combination of the following at work:

i. The power of suggestion or the placebo effect – such as when a person experiences pain relief in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade.
ii. The ideomotor effect – which seems to lie behind certain miracles which involve bodily joints or limbs, such as (possibly) the leg growing miracle I discussed in my previous two articles.
iii. The natural healing ability of the human body – millions of year of evolution has equipped our bodies with amazing, and widely misunderstood, defence mechanisms.
iv. Misdiagnosis or faulty self-diagnosis – which leads people to think they have been cured of ailments they never actually had.
v. Misreporting or exaggeration – the temptation to “sex-up” one’s healing story is a strong one, especially when a person is asked to testify to an expectant crowd moments after they are proclaimed healed.
vi. Medical ignorance – which can lead people to have a very different understanding of their condition than a medical professional has.
vii. Plain old fraud, which is well documented.

If truth matters, then it’s important to investigate healing claims; and if those claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, it’s important to say so. In doing so we might just help protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from false hope, guilt, and crippling debt.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Marx of Suspect Healing – a follow up

To follow up on my previous post (https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/marx-of-suspect-healing/) about the leg growing miracle, have a look at this video of Mark Marx performing the wonder on Frances Finn in 2008:

One of the things that struck me about this video as I watched it (over and over again!) is how Frances’ right leg (the one of the left as we see it) is the one which is supposed to grow. However, check the carpet pattern as the miracle proceeds and you’ll notice that relative to the dots on the carpet the right leg doesn’t actually seem to move at all. Now look at the left leg (the one on the right as we look at it) – it certainly does move relative to the carpet – in fact, it appears to shrink. This strikes me as consistent with the shoe on the left foot (right as we look at it) having been loosened slightly and then pushed back on.

Readers will be aware that I have no desire to label Marx as a fraud or trickster. However, he certainly has a case to answer concerning his leg growing “miracles.” In addition to my previous article, here are a few considerations specific to Marx which make me suspicious:

1. The video above where the leg that is grown does not appear to move relative to the carpet pattern.

2. There are two cases I have seen where Marx lengthens the right leg – and in both cases (including the case of Frances Finn above) that leg was specifically identified as problematic. In every other case I’ve witnessed – when Marx himself checks a persons legs to see if one is shorter than the other – it’s the left leg that is shorter. That strikes me as odd. It’s consistent with Marx having a preference for performing the wonder on the left leg – perhaps if he is right-handed?

3. The video I linked to in my previous article is also highly suspicious. It begins with a young lady already seated in front of the audience, and with her shoes removed. Marx says he’s glad she has her shoes off because “sceptics” have charged him and others with manipulating shoes. He adds that he “hopes” she has one leg shorter than the other. Lo and behold, she does! This sounds artificial and staged to my ears.

4. Following from 3 above, it’s highly suspicious that Marx seems to constantly meet people who suffer from this malady. Why is there always a ready supply of people with one leg shorter than the other wherever he goes? Is the condition really as common as that?

5. Before performing the feat, Marx is almost always at pains to make sure that everyone has a good view of this amazing wonder of God that’s about to happen. But, how can he really be so sure that a leg will grow?

6. Many of the volunteers are only diagnosed with the condition when Marx seats them and lifts their legs – they have had no previous diagnosis by a medical professional. Marx himself is not a doctor (I think his previous career was in interior design), he has absolutely no medical authority or expertise to diagnose any orthopaedic condition. Moreover, if you have a look at how orthopaedic experts diagnose this condition you’ll soon discover that it cannot be done simply by seating someone in a chair and holding their legs out towards yourself.

These are just some additional reasons to be very suspicious about what is going on in these leg growing cases.

Whilst I’m highly sceptical of this phenomenon, I’m also fair minded. To that end, should Mark Marx wish to address the issues raised in this and my previous article I would love to hear from him. He is free to comment here – totally unedited and uncensored – if he cares to engage with the issues and questions I have raised.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Marx of Suspect Healing

The so-called “leg growing miracle” has a long history. Despite the fact that it’s a well-known illusionist’s trick which has also been proven to have been faked by many unscrupulous faith-healers around the globe, it still makes periodic returns to the charismatic church scene. Seemingly it has become fashionable again, and there is no shortage of faith-healers claiming to be able to work this orthopaedic wonder. The performance of the wonder changes slightly from healer to healer, but the basic routine is pretty much the same. The evangelist has a person with some sort of pain – usually back, hip, or leg – sit in a chair. He remarks that such pain can be caused by one leg being shorter than the other. Lo and behold, when he lifts the person’s legs up one is shorter than the other by 1-3 inches. After a minute or two of prayer – or, oddly, directly commanding the leg to grow – the “shorter” leg appears to grow out until it’s the same length.

I’ve been following the work of one such healer called Mark Marx, who is based in Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Northern Ireland. Youtube has many videos of Marx performing this wonder, and I was referred to his most recent work here:

I will discuss this video in more depth shortly.

Why should any rational person believe what they are seeing when someone claims to demonstrate the power of Almighty God by making a slightly shorter leg grow a little? What good reason is there to believe that these demonstrations require any kind of otherworldly explanation? Of course, the gullible require no such reason. After all, the temptation to believe one has witnessed a special wonder of God is a strong one. Not only is there no good reason to believe these demonstrations are miraculous, there is a multitude of reasons to react with scepticism, (though remember that the burden of proof rests with the healer, not the sceptic). Here are just a few:

1. This feat (pardon the pun) is incredibly easy to fake, and anyone with a little training or effort can learn to do it. There are several ways to achieve the effect and I’ve been able to replicate Marx’s wonders with my 9 year old son as a volunteer. I made his right leg grow out to match his left, but I made it too long and then made his left leg grow out to match his right! It’s very easy – try it yourself at home and amaze your friends! (Interestingly, in Marx’s videos it’s almost always the left leg that is shorter. The only occasion I found of the right leg being lengthened seemed to be a case when the person in question identified that leg as a problem).

2. The trick actually has been faked by certain faith-healers trying to pass it off as the work of the Lord. For instance, in his documentary “Miracles for Sale,” which can be viewed in full here (I strongly recommend it): https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=bouAp1pGBwk, Derren Brown demonstrates one method of achieving the effect. Later on in the documentary Brown and his team paid a visit to the church of the faith-healer WV Grant, where Brown was called out using a fake name he had written on a prayer card before the service, but which of course Grant claimed had been supernaturally revealed to him. Grant then proceeded to perform the leg growing trick on Brown using exactly the technique Brown had earlier demonstrated.

3. Leg-growing has been used as a common sideshow illusionist’s trick, as revealed by the mentalist James Randi who discusses several ways in which the trick can be performed (with reference also to the discredited faith healer AA Allen who fooled the masses with this and other tricks and claims). This is highly significant. Suppose I met a man who claimed to be able to saw a person in half and then stick them back together again totally unharmed. He then proceeds to do so right before my eyes. What would I make of this? Well, if I was a caveman who lived several thousand years ago I might well be impressed. However, I am well aware that this is a common magician’s trick – in fact I also happen to know exactly how the trick is done – so I remain sceptical. Am I not right to remain equally sceptical in the face of a much less impressive wonder?

4. Those that perform this wonder are unable to bring healing to certain ailments which are not so easy to fake. Youtube contains no videos of Marx growing out a missing leg, and yet this should be no less difficult for the omnipotent creator of the universe to achieve. Of course, some healers claim the miracle is legitimate because it is accompanied by pain relief. However, relieving pain is not in the same category as re-growing a limb or curing Down’s Syndrome. Pain is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion. I invite the reader to look at Brown’s documentary – from about 57 minutes in – to see how Brown uses a fake healer he has trained to bring pain relief to many people they meet on the streets using nothing but psychological techniques. Further, an ex-member of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church testified to me how the leg-growing wonder was performed on her without the accompanying pain relief. In fact, she never had anything wrong with her legs, but rather suffered from pregnancy-related back pain. She was told she should have more faith – a rather sickening ploy that is all too common: blame the ill and infirm for their illnesses, thus adding guilt to injury.

5. I’ve yet to come across a case which includes a proper diagnosis by a medical professional. Marx simply sits the person in a chair and lifts their legs up. It doesn’t take a degree in orthopedics to see the flaw here. This is not how such conditions are diagnosed. When a person sits in a chair there are many variables at work, given the number of joints and muscles at play: from the lower back right down to the ankle. A slight change in movement or positioning can make it look like one leg is shorter than the other. Marx is not a medical professional. He has no authority or legitimacy to diagnose any orthopaedic condition and yet he does so time and time again. In leg growing videos few people ever appear to have been properly diagnosed with the condition of having a shorter leg. The first they hear of it is when the healer sits them down, lifts their legs up, and points it out. Note that if they subsequently go to their doctor and are told that their legs are fine it looks as if the healer has worked a miracle, when in fact they had nothing wrong with their legs in the first place.

6. Faith healers are notoriously reluctant to be investigated. See this article – https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/faith-healers-pulling-our-legs/ – where I discuss how difficult it was trying to engage with Marx and several other members of his church. Getting information from a faith-healer is like trying to get blood out of a stone. You are shunned and met with silence at every turn; honest questions and expressions of scepticism simply are not tolerated.

7. Even though faith-healers rarely co-operate with objective investigation, there remain highly plausible explanations for what might be going on in such cases – aside from the possibility of fraud and trickery. Take, for example, the 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.” 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.” It is the ideomotor phenomenon that is responsible for what happens during activities such as Ouija boards or table turning, and could very easily explain the phenomenon of leg growing (assuming there’s no fraud or trickery at work).

These are just a few of the reasons why we are rightly sceptical of this supposed miracle. Have a look at the video of Marx above. Note at the beginning how the young woman is already seated with her shoes off even before we know she has the malady. Note also how Marx is at pains to stress that he’s glad she’s not wearing shoes because there has been a criticism that the wonder is explained by manipulating a person’s shoes. Seemingly Marx is well aware of the version of the trick demonstrated by Derren Brown (and used by WV Grant) which involves manipulating the shoes of the healee. But, as I indicated above, there are other ways to achieve the required result, and I performed the wonder on my barefoot son a few nights ago using two methods: firstly, moving his legs slightly sideways, and also by pushing the bottom of one heal with my hands in exactly the same position as Marx’s hands are in this video. Anyhow, note how Marx then tells the young woman that he hopes she does indeed have one leg shorter than the other – presumably so he can prove to all of us sceptics that it’s not shoe manipulation but a miracle! And, well, whaddya know, when he lifts up her legs there is one shorter than the other! Fancy that! (I will note in passing that the difference is much less pronounced than in videos showing people with their shoes on). To be honest, if Marx was a charlatan I don’t think the rest of the video would run any differently, since the effect would be exactly the same.

As things stand I find no reason to think there is anything remotely miraculous going on here. What would be more impressive is if we had an actual medically documented case; one where a person had actually been diagnosed by a medical professional as having a shorter leg which was then grown out miraculously and confirmed by an independent objective medical professional. We never see this, despite the fact that Marx and others come across a rather uncanny number of people with this malady – (there’s damn near an epidemic of this condition wherever these guys go!) – such that it shouldn’t be so difficult to provide objective medical evidence. One member of the Vineyard Church replied to me on Youtube that medical evidence doesn’t matter so much. Instead, what really matters is the “fruit” – the person experiences pain relief. Isn’t that all the matters? Well, no. If that’s all that matters then presumably we should see every African witchdoctor as a genuine miracle worker when he brings pain relief to the masses with his mixture of tonics, enchantments, and quack medical procedures.

Many might conclude that Marx is just another fraud, a trickster building himself a lucrative ministry as an in-demand speaker and healer, and earning money off the gullible. That isn’t my claim here. My claim is far more restrained – a simple call for scepticism in the face of supposed wonders. To put it simply: if a faith healer performs an alleged instance of healing that has been shown over and over again to be false, used by charlatans 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, we are right to disregard his ministry and reject his claims.

Stephen J. Graham

See my follow-up article also: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/marx-of-suspect-healing-a-follow-up/


Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing

Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: The Stories

John’s story

I was a believing evangelical Christian until I was around 29 years old. I was a trustee in my church and an active volunteer (sound guy) for 8 years before I deconverted and became an atheist.

Even though I’m straight and have been happily married for over a decade, homosexuality was the initial cause for my deconversion. I have two gay friends, a couple which were recently married now that it’s legal. Back when I was a believer, the fact that I could see that my friends were very clearly in love stood out to me as something that contradicted the bible. I had to either accept that their love was wrong or that the bible was wrong, and I could not call their love wrong. Worse than that, I accepted my friends accounts that this is simply how they were and that their relationship made them happy. They didn’t choose to have their attractions any more than I chose mine. This caused a problem because I also had to accept that they were going to hell according to my faith.

That lead to questioning how a loving god who created everything could morally create a place of eternal conscious torture, knowing that a majority of creation would be condemned to it. In that situation, the only moral option is to simply not create anything. Theodicies where the reprobate is seen as being necessary for the elect to get into heaven made god into more of a monster.

This lead to questioning why I believed in a god in the first place. I realized I’d never seriously asked myself that question before. I was born into a Catholic family that converted Baptist when I was 9. I was taught Jesus was the son of god the same time I was taught water was wet and that 2+2=4. God was axiomatic, not the conclusion of an investigation. I realized I had no reason to believe.
That was when I started to devour apologetics, trying to cobble my faith back together for the sake of my marriage and family. I found nothing convincing. Worse, as an engineer by training I found science being misrepresented in many cosmological arguments. I was disgusted by the aura of certainty that was used to present arguments I found to be based on flimsy metaphysical assumptions that often defy our best scientific understanding of reality. When I read attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in the bible or things in the bible that were scientifically proven false, I found the interpretations to be tortured and/or ad hoc. If anything apologetics cemented my apostasy and my atheism.

Fortunately for me eventually my wife also deconverted. Almost exactly nine months after that our daughter was born. I’m currently happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I consider myself lucky to have escaped religion.

Jenny’s Story

I can’t say I was an aggressive atheist. Whilst I didn’t believe in God, I wasn’t particularly interested in examining the evidence of God’s existence. If He existed, well, He knew where to find me. But, I wasn’t going to hold my breath either. What got me wondering about God and the purpose of existence was the death of my friend Lizzie. Lizzie and I were inseparable from childhood. Then she got sick and died suddenly from meningitis. I sat at her funeral and somehow couldn’t get my head around the fact that someone so alive could just not be there anymore. And then I examined my atheism and saw that if it was true then all exists for no reason and comes to nothing. Life just seemed more significant than that. And so for the first time I wondered was there maybe a God. I came across many different arguments, but none finally convinced me. I guess what moved me to theism was opening my eyes to the world in a new way. I began to “see” or “perceive” a creator in the natural world around me. The atheist view just seemed so incredible. That everything just came from nothing by nothing and for nothing. I couldn’t accept that, and to be honest I didn’t want to either.

Daniel’s Story

I am no longer Christian in any straightforward sense of the word. How could I be? I had trouble connecting to people, let alone a personal God who wasn’t even in front of me. I am an “Aspie;” I am on the Autism Spectrum. Of course now, I know that there are other theologies that put less stress on a personal God, i.e. Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ or the impersonal ordering of the cosmos that the Chinese call T’ien (Heaven). And I am drawn to these more than I am to a personal God.

However, at this point there are so many different conceptions of God that I don’t think I can have any epistemological certainty about God, be it God’s existence or qualities. This does not fully explain it though, as I believe that belief in God is not primarily what religion is about. To me religion is about a community that shares beliefs and rituals– that is community is primary and belief is secondary. However, I am generally leery of tight knit groups who think and do the same things, perhaps also partly due to Asperger’s.

Joseph’s Story

Conversion is a tricky thing. As most people who have attempted to write their conversion story know, to try and put it into words and explain why one converted (or in my case, reverted) inevitably falls short. With that being said, as one ought to do before any essay, I beg forgiveness.

I shall admit that this isn’t my first time writing my “reversion story.” I’ve written multiple before this, and – the funny thing is – they never end up being the same. That I know. What I also know from past experience is this: that writing of this article won’t be me simply reciting reasons that I am already aware of as to why I am a Catholic, but rather, it will be a way – as a sort of self-examination – for me to actually figure out said prompt for myself.

A couple of days ago, I was reading Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 41, and this passage stuck out for me:

“It was thus that while admiring the members of the tabernacle, he was lead unto the house of God – by following a certain delight, an inward mysterious and hidden pleasure, as if some instrument sounded sweetly from the house of God. While he was walking in the tabernacle, he heard this inward sound; he was led on by its sweetness, and following the guidance of the sound and withdrawing himself from all noises of flesh and blood, he made his way even to the house of God.”

For in many ways, this short little passage encapsulates the whole of my reversion. To say anymore would be to risk over-complication; but – so as to not short change the reader – I shall continue.
Balthasar, in the first volume of his magisterial Glory of the Lord trilogy, says that:

“It is not dry manuals (full as these may be of unquestionable truths) that plausibly express to the world the truth of Christ’s Gospel, but the existence of the saints, who have been grasped by Christ’s Holy Spirit. And Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

I concur.

What lead me back into the confessional and “unto the house of God” wasn’t the discovery of any new, novel arguments put forward by an “apologist”, but rather it was the “sweetness” of the saints. Anything else, in Balthasar terminology, would be to collapse revelation into “a set of ‘propositions’” to be “established as ‘reasonable’ by an extrinsic principle.” The universalizing tendency latent with the Enlightenment ‘reason’ must simply, pace Romans 14:11, bow its knee to the self-revealing glory of the Lord: the truest of universalisms. Much like a work of art, the glory of revelation needs no further justification outside of itself. Revelation’s gestalt is it’s own raison d’être, subsuming everything into itself. And, as for us, living as we do over two thousand after Christ, the glory of the Lord is precisely revealed through the Holy Spirit working through and within the lives of the saints.

As Balthasar said: “Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

And with that being said, I shall spare you of the particulars, with the exception of three words: Thérèse of Lisieux.

Kate’s Story

My atheism was dogmatic, but utterly unexamined. I remember arguing once with a Christian friend and I was furious at completely losing the argument, and my temper. My problem, as I came to see, maybe wasn’t that I disbelieved in God, but rather than I resented Him for bad life experiences! But who knows! But as I came to critical assess the case for God I found the evidence overwhelming. The main considerations for me were: that something like our universe should exist as a “brute fact” was simply unbelievable; that it should just pop into existence from nothing and for no reason was surely impossible; that life should then just develop by chance from non-living matter calls for extreme credulity. Moreover, when I considered the complexity of life and the fine-tuned conditions of the cosmos that allowed it to develop, atheism struck me as untenable. And that was before I discovered the problems atheism has accounting for morality, consciousness, free will, and personhood. In short: theism makes sense of the world in which I live – atheism just doesn’t, and so I couldn’t remain an atheist.

Nathan’s Story

From the time I was a young child until I was out of high school, I went to church nearly every week. I was never made to go to church once I was old enough to reasonably make that decision, but I enjoyed almost everything about it. I liked the sermons, I liked the singing, and I really liked the people. My church was a small Brethren church in a tiny farm town, so everybody knew each other and it was a pretty tight knit community. It was a fairly moderate church, no speaking in tongues or fire and brimstone. I was heavily involved with our youth group as a teen, and even attended ‘Acquire The Fire’ a few times.

Once I started college, I didn’t attend church as often, but I never really had my faith challenged too seriously during my undergrad studies. While working on my MBA, I had a job with a lot of downtime and decided that I wanted to read more often. At the time, my view on evolution was best described as an old earth creationist who believed in some “microevolution”. A few conversations I had with a friend made me realize that I was pretty ignorant about evolution, which sparked my curiosity. I read books specifically on human evolution at first because that’s what conflicted with my faith, but then began to read material that dealt more with the details and the process of evolution. This is when doubts about my faith started to creep in. I never had a problem accepting that Noah’s Ark or some of the other Bible stories were probably a myth or fable to teach a lesson, but if the whole creation story is a myth, why should I believe in any of it?

I hung on by a thread for a while as I read books in other areas of science which continued to chisel away at my belief in the God of the Bible. Up until this point, I was primarily reading material dealing with science and not really getting into the arguments for or against God. Eventually though, I started listening to debates and reading arguments for atheism. I found myself agreeing with the arguments for atheism and against theism most of the time, and I eventually realized that I was only holding on to any belief in God for emotional reasons even though I really no longer believed. Atheism was always a dirty word to me, and it took another year after I stopped believing to actually identify as an atheist.

I hate the stereotype that as an atheist, I must have had a bad experience in church, or that I am being rebellious. I have nothing but good memories from my time in church. I still admire the community aspect of it, how when someone is sick or in trouble, people are there to help without question. There are no bad experiences at church that I have to share, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the suggestion that I’m rebellious. I just simply no longer believe that God is needed as an explanation for our existence.

Johnny’s Story


I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught to believe by blind faith and thought that’s what everyone did. We just picked which beliefs to hold to, I thought, and lived by them. So that’s how I lived up until just a few years ago. I had never much questioned my beliefs, except maybe here and there when instances of evil popped up, until a friend that I met online challenged me by asking some tough questions. He was going through his own personal deconversion and was seeking answers – answers that I didn’t have. I did what every anti-intellectual would do. I ran to the Christian apologetic sites on Google and responded to him with the first things I saw. The confirmation bias in me held onto anything that would conform to my predispositions. And this, rather ironically now that I reflect on it, is how my intellectual journey began.

I started buying all of the popular apologetics books by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alister McGrath, Ed Feser, John Lennox, etc. I especially became familiar with some of the work of Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Larry Hurtado, Craig Evans, and Craig Blomberg. I even attended a semester of Bible college, and this is where I started losing confidence in the Christian worldview.

I spent about two years in Christian apologetics. I attended the Bible college not even a year ago today. My journey to doubt began around this time. As a side interest, I would study biology (which I am now majoring in at Winthrop University). I couldn’t help but be troubled by the horrendous evils founded throughout the history of life on Earth. Life began looking a lot more like the products of the tinkering of nature rather than the carefully crafted works of the Divine hands of a Maximally Intelligible and all-loving being. To give one example that I’ve been troubled with lately, and an issue I’ll be researching later in my academic career: In our DNA, we have regions that code for proteins that are responsible for suppressing tumors. It just so happens that the chemical structure of these regions of DNA make them highly susceptible to being silenced by a process called DNA methylation (you don’t have to know what this is to get my point here). Of course, if the genes are silenced, they can’t do their job of suppressing tumors. What sort of intelligible creator, out of the very depths of his all-loving heart and omniscient mind, makes His children in such a way as to be perfectly vulnerable to cancer? Not only are we perfectly made for cancer, we are also perfectly made for about 6,000+ other SINGLE-gene diseases that are founded in about 24% of our ~25,000 genes. Now, this is just a few instances of evil that seemed very much gratuitous. The evolutionary picture of life painted by the vast amounts of data from the life sciences portrays nothing but a picture of these horrendous evils and indifference. Now, I didn’t expect that God would create some hedonic Utopia, but I did figure he would reduce suffering as much as possible and only allow evils that were necessary to either prevent worse evils or bring about greater goods. I find it awfully hard to believe that every instance of horrendous, seemingly gratuitous evil is necessary for the obtaining of such conditions. The issue is that an all-loving Creator would not allow such gratuitous evil and since I’ve concluded that many of these seemingly gratuitous evils are very most likely actually gratuitous, the conclusion that follows is that an all-loving Creator very probably doesn’t exist.

That being said, the evidential problem of evil was not the biggest stumbling block for me. I was still trying to hold on to my Christian worldview. I was definitely emotionally attached. “What about all of the good arguments for God’s existence?” I kept asking myself. The more I studied them, the less compelling they became. The meta-ethical argument presented by William Lane Craig, for example, began to look like an awful argument as I become familiar with reasons why many reject the argument. I actually became unconvinced of every argument I once thought was virtually indisputable – the cosmological arguments, the design arguments, etc. . . I even became convinced that verifying a miracle via historical methodology is out of our epistemic capacities.

I was in a position where I was beginning to see good reason to affirm the nonexistence of God and I was left in the dark for compelling arguments for the existence of God. I was left with nothing but the hopes of hearing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this is what one ought to expect when they are in tears crying out to God for spiritual confirmation. I’ve checked myself over. I’ve admitted that I may be wicked in His eyes -essentially undeserving if that so be the case. I’ve admitted that maybe I’m entirely wrong in my assessment of the fundamental nature of reality and maybe there will be a day I stand before the Divine, despite my current unbelief. If He is there and created me to know Him, there I was then, and here I am still. I’m still waiting for that inner confirmation or some intellectual spark that I’ve missed. I’ve cried out. I’ve repented. I’ve prayed. I’ve acknowledged that I may be unrighteous when compared to a perfect being, and I’ve asked to be accepted and transformed. I’ve sought God in every venue of life. God was nowhere to be found. So, as of now, I am intellectually inclined to disbelieve.


Filed under Atheism, Belief, Theism

Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

Conversion and Deconversion stories have fascinated me for a long time. All stories are unique, and yet there are often common themes that occur. The main reason for my interest in such stories lies in the fact that it is rare to find people changing their position entirely on some matter of ultimate importance. Many of the people I knew 20 years ago still hold the same views and opinions today as they did back then. Not only do people rarely change their minds on big issues, movement on smaller issues is often lacking also. As we grow older perhaps we become more set in our ways. It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of people appear to make their minds up about religion in their teens and don’t change their mind as they get older. This is a fact well known by religious evangelists, hence the massive stress on youth work in many churches and religious organisations, often to the detriment or neglect of the middle-aged and elderly. It is a well-known Jesuit maxim (though the saying, or something like it, originates with Aristotle): “Give me a child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” As true as this might generally be, there are a few brave souls who go into reverse as they get older. They reject their earlier belief/unbelief, changing their minds about an issue of ultimate importance. Their stories are worth hearing. What is it that causes people to make such a radical U-turn?

There are, of course, a few famous examples. For instance, we might think of my fellow native of Belfast C.S. Lewis. Lewis believed the evidence for the existence of God too strong to ignore, but admitted to being a most reluctant convert. We might also think of more recent examples. Probably two of the most well-known are those of the former atheist journalist Lee Strobel, and the atheist-philosopher turned deist/theist Antony Flew. Lee Strobel worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and after the conversion of his wife he decided to look into the truth claims of Christianity. After several years of sifting through the evidence Strobel himself converted to Christian and is now one of the most influential popular-level apologists in the world. He recounts his journey from atheism to theism in a number of books, chiefly: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, and The Case for Faith.

Antony Flew was one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion and one of the foremost voices for philosophical atheism for the vast majority of his academic career. Then, towards the end of his life, there were rumours that he was moving towards theism. These rumours were affirmed when he published his book “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” In this book Flew lays out a number of pieces of evidence which convinced him that some sort of creator exists. Whilst not embracing Christian Theism Flew indicated that he regarded NT Wright’s case for the resurrection as the best there is in print, and hinted that he was moving in this direction in his thinking. Some skeptics were, well, skeptical. Many saw this not as a genuine conversion but simply an old man hedging his bets in his dotage as death beckoned. Others believed that his book had not properly reflected Flew’s own thoughts, but rather those of Roy Abraham Varghese, a theist philosopher who did most of the actual writing of the book. Flew denied that this was the case, but many still believe his mental state at the time was such that he was exploited. Seemingly conversion & deconversion stories can raise strong feelings!

On the other side one of the best known deconversions that I’m aware of is that of Jonathan Edwards, the British Olympic gold medallist triple-jumper. Once upon a time Edwards even refused to compete on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. Today he is an atheist who claims not to miss his faith, and that he is happier without it. Edwards even speaks of looking back at his time as a Christian with an acute sense of embarrassment at how judgmental and even “scary” he considers himself to have been.

That such radical changes can occur in people really grabs my attention. Why did they change? Were there arguments that lead to the change? What other life experiences were they going through that pushed them to make such a radical turn-around?

And so I thought I’d collect a number of brief stories – of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion – to give a flavour of what’s going on in the minds of people who radically change their worldview. I don’t offer these stories up for critique or refutation. They are brief, and there’s far more that each person could say about their own life and how their decision panned out the way it did. We are creatures of narrative and often decisions we make one day have been years in the making, involving a complex of rational, psychological, social, and cultural factors. I’m grateful for the people who came forward to state an incredibly complex situation into a few hundred words.

I never edit or screen comments, but I’ve decided on this occasion not to accept critical comments on anyone’s particular story. They are intended only to give (all too) brief snapshots of the goings-on in the minds of people who “repent” of their former selves. Their purpose is to inform rather than provoke critique.

So as not to take away from the stories themselves, I intend to post them separately from this introduction: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/conversion-deconversion-reconversion-the-stories/

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Atheism, Belief, Theism

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:


Marx of Suspect Healing: In this article I present reason for scepticism in the face of the increasingly popular “leg growing miracle,” with particular reference to the faith-healer Mark Marx from Healing on the streets.



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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dp2Zqk8vHw

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m_GfEn5gfo&feature=youtu.be

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpz_9_KalFY. 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW2IgE78qzQ 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