Short Article (2): Abortion & Public Discourse

Is the general public now just incapable of having an intelligent discussion about an emotive subject like abortion? I rarely enter the abortion debate these days, and not because I’m a man who has no right to an opinion – I do – but because the level of public debate is now so juvenile that rarely can any good come from being involved in it. What is a critically important issue – a matter of life and death – deserves to be approached carefully, and perhaps with a certain level of gravitas. Instead the public debate is a noxious mix of cheap sloganeering, crass commentary, and venomous vitriol against anyone with a contrary opinion.

Abortion was one of the big issues discussed during the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, largely due to a criminal case in which a woman received a suspended sentence for procuring abortion pills to administer her own abortion because she couldn’t afford to travel to mainland Britain where abortion – under certain circumstances – is freely and legally available on the NHS. However, rarely has public ignorance been so stark than when it came to discussing abortion. On a political debate programme one audience member claimed that a baby “shouldn’t be considered human” until it’s born. Another remarked that it’s irrelevant that a foetus has human DNA because, after all, “a banana has human DNA.” Sadly such mindless and uninformed comments were not isolated. They reflect the general level of the public debate recently.

Catchy slogans have replaced carefully nuanced argument. Prolife people are told to “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” as if everyone who opposes abortion is a practicing Roman Catholic. When two evangelicals appeared on TV as part of panel discussion the comments aimed at them were hideously ugly. There was next to no engagement with any of their points, as critics were over-focused on the fact that they held a religious faith. Consider also the well worn “my body my rights” slogan, used to silence those who disagree, when the fact of the matter is abortion is an ethical issue precisely because it isn’t just a woman’s body that is at stake. Perhaps the most ridiculous slogan touted was: “If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism,” because pro-life people argue for the full humanity of sperm cells, right? A classic case of trying to be smart and witty, but instead sounding silly and classlessly vulgar.

Nor can we let the so-called “prolife” movement off the hook here. Sadly many vulnerable young women are verbally abused by “prolife” activists simply for entering the premises of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. They are often called sluts or murderers. A friend of mine received abuse at the hands of these zealots, who mistakenly thought she too was entering the clinic when in fact she was going to the offices next door. Additionally, we have the rather disgusting spectacle of placards bearing the mangled bodies of foetuses, images which don’t belong in a public place, and from which I’ve had to shield a young child.

Even the terms “prolife” and “prochoice” create a false dichotomy and contribute to a general lack of nuance in the public arena. Bernadette Smyth, the leader of Precious Life – a rather extreme anti-abortion group who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances – makes much of the fact that Northern Ireland is “prolife,” claiming the majority agree with her. The truth is a tad more complicated. Whilst Northern Irish people are perhaps more reserved about abortion than the rest of the United Kingdom, to say they agree with the staunch “no abortion in any circumstances” position of Precious Life is wildly inaccurate. There’s an entire spectrum of views. A majority would agree with abortion when the mother’s life is at serious risk. A large portion of this group would also agree with abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and perhaps slightly fewer would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. And of course people will disagree about the time limit for abortions – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks. Very few people are either utterly against abortion or in favour of it under any circumstances right up to 9 months of pregnancy (despite the fact that many of the standard “pro-choice” slogans logically support abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy).

Everyone has a right to an opinion, but too few want to do the difficult spade-work of serious moral reflection. What features of human life make it valuable? When does a human being become conscious? What is personhood and when does a being possess it? Does abortion cause pain to a sentient being? At what stage does a being deserve to be protected from being killed? Is there a moral difference between a being inside the womb and one outside, and if so why? What are human rights, where do they come from, and when can a human be said to possess them?

These are just a few of the difficult questions we must face with abortion. Unless you are willing to seriously reflect on them your opinion will be little more than a clanging cymbal.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article (1): Healing & Disobedience

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Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
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Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland has me blocked on Twitter (for having the audacity to question him), but one of his tweets was retweeted by John Dickinson – a Presbyterian minister in Carnmoney, Northern Ireland – who I follow. The tweet – aimed at a Christian audience – said “The call to heal the sick is inescapable. If you don’t have the gift of healing, try out the gift of obedience.” A little perplexed by this notion I asked is it really the case that failure to heal the sick amounts to disobedience on our part. Unsurprisingly I got nothing from Scott, but Dickinson responded with: “Matthew 10:8.”

I looked it up:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Frankly I was even more baffled than before. First of all, if this verse means we are disobedient to a command of Christ by failing to heal the sick then we are equally disobedient for failing to raise the dead. In any event, Dickinson appears to have taken little or no notice of the context of this verse: a narrative in which Jesus sends out his disciples on an evangelistic mission. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a divine injunction for all believers everywhere for all of time. I made the point to Dickinson – asking him, perhaps a little cheekily, when he had last raised the dead – but sadly he didn’t respond.

I confess I feel sorry for the people who choose to sit under the teaching of those who would place such a burden on their backs. You don’t heal the sick? Then suffer the guilt of being disobedient to Christ. When I read the tweet to my wife she asked, “what about people like me? I don’t know how to heal the sick. How am I supposed to obey a command to do something I can’t do?” Despite not being philosophical astute, my wife had hit upon the ethical principle of “ought implies can:” if it is the case that I ought to do something, then the thing in question must be something I am indeed capable of doing. My wife can of course pray for the sick, but as for actually healing them, that’s beyond her power. Is she therefore disobedient? On the theological ruminations of Scott – seconded, seemingly, by John Dickinson – the answer is “yes.” But isn’t that simply a reductio ad absurdum of their position?

I wonder how this wonderful “gift of obedience” works out for Scott (or Dickinson). In practical terms how does one obey Christ by healing the sick? Scott’s friend Mark Marx regularly performs the “leg growing” wonder which I’ve written about numerous times before. He simply commands legs to grow – he commands muscle and sinew and bone to grow in the name of Jesus. Is this what we should be doing to obey Christ, commanding body parts to normalise, diseases to leave, and tumours to shrink? Does Scott (or Dickinson, if he agrees with this theology) do this or is there some other method available? Do they regularly see the lame walk? The blind see? The dead rise? I doubt it, though if they wish to present evidence to the contrary I’ll gladly consider it.

As well as putting a burden of guilt on the backs of other believers, such theology achieves another purpose: the elevation of the leader in the eyes of the congregation. This kind of theology creates the illusion that the leader sees much more success in healing people – because, unlike regular believers like you and I, these guys really really obey Jesus. This mix of guilt and admiration is a bewitching brew used as a form of social control over the lives of often vulnerable and impressionable people. It keeps the flock in check, and helps create and maintain the sort of spiritual hierarchy in which a certain breed of modern – typically charismatic – church leader thrives. However, it’s fundamentally abusive and leaves people emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked. My wife and I have suffered our fair share of abuse at the hands of such theology and the men and women who preach it. It was most liberating to leave it behind and come to realise that despite all the hype the preachers of such theology don’t have much success themselves. They certainly do, however, possess the gift of beguilement.

Stephen J Graham

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Modern Miracle Claims & the Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony

It is not uncommon for those who claim to have witnessed miraculous events to chastise sceptics with lines like, “you weren’t there, I was!” And that’s understandable, since humans quite naturally ascribe great weight to eyewitness testimony. However, psychological research in the past few decades has documented numerous problems with eyewitness testimony, particularly when it comes to events which are shocking, surprising, alarming, or “miraculous.” In this article I want to briefly explore some of these problems to show that when it comes to examining alleged miracles eyewitness testimony carries far less weight than is typically assumed. It needs to be examined very critically, analysed in the context of other evidence, sometimes taken with a pinch of salt, or even rejected altogether.

A report by the Innocence Project estimated that 73% of 239 convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence had been initially based on eyewitness testimony. John Munkman, an expert in court advocacy writes: “The most honest witnesses frequently give evidence which is unsound, though they are quite sure that it is true.” There are several reasons for witness mistakes which I will examine in turn.

1. Errors of Perception

In order for observations to be accurate the person must have the opportunity to observe – he or she must be in the right place, under the right conditions, and paying close attention. Errors of perception are particularly more likely when events happen very quickly, or a lot happens in a short space of time. Most witnesses in such cases see and hear only a fraction of the total occurrence, and of course we can be easily distracted from one thing by another. In fact, a bigger picture of an event is typically created subsequently – as smaller mental images are linked together by inference and imagination. Further, psychologists tell us that surprise and excitement, as well as the presence of intense pain or strong emotion, can make a picture confused and obscure the precise details, so much so that our senses can be prevented from operating normally and produce memories which are distorted or completely imaginary. Moreover, if an eyewitness has a personal interest in the matter then his or her attention will be focused on those parts of an event which are – or can be interpreted as – favourable to him, whilst ignoring those which aren’t.

So, just because someone happens to be in a room in which an alleged miracle occurs does not make them particularly useful witnesses. What exactly did they see and hear? Were they in an atmosphere of intense emotion and hype? Are they so focused on one thing that they miss something else? This tends to happen to those who claim to witness the supposed leg growing miracle: they are so focused on one leg “growing” that they miss the fact that a loosened shoe is being pushed back on the other foot to create an illusion of leg growth.

2. Errors in Interpretation

Perception is just one stage in building up a picture of an event. Our minds are also engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen. We interpret events through a complex mix of perception, inference, previous experience, and imagination. Errors can very easily occur at this stage – through mistaken assumptions or poor inferences. So, eyewitnesses at a WV Grant healing crusade will witness people being pulled out of wheelchairs and conclude that paralysed people have been healed, despite the fact these people were not in fact paralysed to begin with. People might more easily believe that paralysed people are healed before their very eyes because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment, or simply have a bias that makes them too easily interpret an event as miraculous when a much more plausible explanation is available. Seeing a person rise out of a wheelchair after prayer is not the same as seeing the lame walk, though the former is often interpreted as a case of the latter.

3. Errors of Memory and Imagination

Too many people buy into the “video recorder” view of memory, a view which has long since been discarded by experts in the phenomenology of memory. On this conception our mind simply records an event and later on replays it just as it really happened. Psychologists, such as the eminent memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus, tell us memories are “reconstructed” rather than “played back.” Rather than storing information exactly as presented to us, we extract from it the gist or underlying meaning, storing information in a way that makes most sense to us, even reconstructing memories to conform to our beliefs and expectations.

Memory also fades with the lapse of time, and is frequently supplemented by imagination. In fact, psychologists are aware of several factors which accentuate our natural tendency to use our imagination to supplement our memory of some event. For example, psychologists are aware that after an event witnesses talk to each other and run things over in their minds. During this process a picture of the event is filled out – certain details get omitted, others get added, and memories get modified. Witness A might talk to Witness B and in the course of the conversation B mentions aspects of the event that A was either only hazily aware of or not conscious of at all. However, it frequently happens that witness A will later report this aspect of the event as if he himself actually witnessed it clearly.

Even more importantly is the power of suggestion. In discussing a very basic coin trick, Derren Brown shows how it’s possible to make a person remember seeing something they never actually saw. At the beginning of the trick a coin is placed on a table. The magician goes to pick it up but in doing so simply slips the coin into their lap. He holds up his hand as if still holding the coin and makes a gesture as if he’s moving the coin into his other hand. The magician blows on this hand, opens it, and the coin has “gone.” The person guesses it must still be in the first hand, which is also empty. As the person is stumped the magician talks about the stages of the trick: “you saw me lift it, hold it up in front of you, pass it into my other hand….etc…” In most cases the person will agree that they actually saw the coin in the magicians hand before he passed it into his other hand. It’s a simple trick of suggestion, and people are most prone to being fooled by it when they are puzzled, confused, or in a high state of emotion. The creation of false memories has been reported time and time again by psychologists. Elizabeth Loftus’ experiments demonstrated how false facts are introduced into memory; she was able to have subjects remember false images, and even to change their memory of an event simply by wording questions about it in a certain way. Crucially, many of the subjects of such experiments are certain that their memories are real. This is well-known in the legal world, with the judge in the case of Krist v Eli Lilly writing: “memory is highly suggestible – people are easily ‘reminded’ of events that never happened, and having been ‘reminded’ may thereafter hold the false recollection as tenaciously as they would a true one.”

We should be wary then of eyewitness reports of miracles, particularly when they occur in the context of a healing crusade or charismatic worship service. Under such conditions people who are susceptible to miraculous interpretations of events can very easily imagine that a miracle of some kind has occurred, especially if they have discussed the events with others of a similar disposition, or if a charismatic leader has – whether consciously or not – used the power of suggestion.

4. Errors of Expression

No-one reports an event exactly as it happens. We tell stories, and these stories are selective. We omit details that are seemingly superfluous, or we exaggerate elements which we hope will surprise and delight the person we are talking to. If I had a pound for every time I heard phrases like “people were being healed all over the place!” Often this phrase simply means people were being prayed for all over the place, and the person was assuming they were being healed. Or “we prayed for Joe yesterday and the pain he’d had for 30 years totally left him for good.” Crucially, our stories can actually change our memories of the very events in question. Laura Englehardt writes, “Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory – even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.”

This is very common amongst charismatic leaders, who seem to thrive on personal anecdotes about wonders they have performed around the globe. One is left wondering to precisely what extent has their memory of some event been modified by the telling and retelling of such stories.

What all this means is that eyewitness testimony – as important as it can be – should be examined thoroughly, preferably by someone who was not present at the event in question. With claims of miraculous healing we are right to require additional evidence such as medical histories and expert opinion, rather than simply believing the testimony of an eyewitness, who could be – and in many cases is – in error about what exactly they witnessed or remember happening.

Stephen J Graham

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Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection

In my previous article I stated that when it comes to telling stories of the miraculous Charismatics habitually damage their own credibility though overstatement and even fabrication of facts. I also alluded to how Robby Dawkins – an in demand travelling healer/evangelist and member of the Vineyard group of churches – made claims to have ministered a resurrection in March 2015. I knew little about this incident at the time but I’ve been researching it recently and, unsurprisingly, have discovered that the truth is not quite how Dawkins has stated it.

The incident occurred in March at Inglewhite Congregational Church in North England. Whilst Dawkins was speaking, a man I will simply call Matthew began to suffer contortions of the face as well as involuntary jerking movements. Seeing this, Dawkins ran over and began to “[bind] demonic powers and [command] his body to be loosed in Jesus’ name.” Matthew’s lips turned blue and he went stiff. As Dawkins continued to “bind the spirit of death” he claimed that he “heard the death rattle” – a sound made by dying people as fluid accumulates at the top of the chest. Dawkins told “death” that he could not have Matthew, and he “began to declare the resurrection life of Jesus over him.” When Matthew began to come round Dawkins pulled him into a hug – because doing so, according to Dawkins, “imparts life.” Dawkins claimed a resurrection had occurred, and in defence of his claims he temporarily posted the report of a doctor who had been sitting behind Matthew when this all happened. Even in this doctor’s report the evidence to suggest Matthew had died was flimsy in excelsis. The report states that Matthew’s breathing became worse – “agonal breathing” – and then declared “in other words, he was dead” – a somewhat hasty comment for the doctor to make, particularly as he had not taken a pulse, and admitted that Matthew didn’t need heart massage. Seemingly the doctor in question subsequently sought to withdraw his report. (In addition to claiming a resurrection, Dawkins claimed that Matthew’s speech was massively improved thanks to his ministering efforts).

Of course, all this is suspicious enough, but the thing that is utterly devastating to Dawkins’ claims is the testimony of Matthew’s sister Rebecca, a testimony which was deleted from Robby Dawkins’ Facebook pages. Here is her testimony in full as stated on her Facebook page. I have made a few minor editorial amendments:

“Robby Dawkins claims to have raised my brother from the dead.

I’d like you to hear the truth. I have noticed a few people have questioned his story and each time their comments mysteriously get deleted. Seems a little suspicious if you ask me.

Matthew is my brother and it seems that Robby Dawkins is in fact feeding people a few twists of the truth. Maybe it sells more books and keeps him more in the public view, but as his family are so distressed by what he has been putting on Facebook I am doing what I can to get our story out. We have been blocked from commenting on his Facebook sites and therefore unable to explain our side of events.

Although I wasn’t there at the meeting, my mother and many extended family and friends were. We come from a Christian background; my father is married to a pastor and the family attends church regularly. I am writing this so people are given the chance to hear what we have to say and make up their own minds as to whether to believe Mr Robby Dawkins.

Matthew had a stroke about a year ago. Physically he was not affected, but his speech and communication unfortunately were affected. He is 10 times better at communicating than he was a year ago, but this improvement occurred prior to the meeting and was due to all the hard work Matthew has put into retraining his brain. Therefore, for Robby to claim that his speech is 100% improved as a result of his ministrations is a pure lie. He did not know Matthew beforehand and therefore is unable to comment on whether his speech had improved or not.

With respect to the “death,” what Robby is telling everyone is also not true. It has since been MEDICALLY proven that Matthew had suffered an epileptic seizure which can often display similar signs to someone dying. TWO nurse family friends of ours both had their hands on Matthew throughout and not once lost his pulse. So no, Matthew did not die.

The preacher from Inglewhite church has been so thrown by all of this that on Sunday just gone he stood at the front of church and apologized to his congregation for allowing Robby into their church. The doctor who was also there is said to be apologizing to them next week for all the pain caused through this unbelievable encounter that he had given and the shock that all this had been broadcast on Facebook by this coward of a man who will not face up to the actual truth.

What you choose to believe is up to you. As his sister I have known him for 30+ years, Dawkins met my brother for all of half an hour.

I just want the freedom to be able to share our side of the story instead of being silenced.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.”

Commenting further on Matthew’s state shortly after the episode, Rebecca writes:

He is struggling right now. More seizures. Very low. And every time he sees something on Facebook about Robby Dawkins and that night and the promises that were made to him about being healed, it gets him down.”

Lest anyone should think that Rebecca has had any change of mind after a year of reflection, know that she has approved my reproducing her story here.

So, there we have it. It certainly casts events in a very different light. Despite having the facts provided to him, Dawkins has not retracted his claims to have ministered a resurrection. In passing we should note this further comment by Dawkins on the event: “The Charisma article on the resurrection in England has official [sic] gone viral on social media…my book…has shot to number one in 3 best sellers categories. It’s at number on [sic] in Evangelism.”

Dawkins is being completely honest about the success of his book, but his claims concerning the resurrection are far from compelling and trustworthy. His own understanding of the event is so sloppy that he was chastised by Rebecca for failing to get Matthew’s surname right let alone understand his medical history. Moreover, Dawkins seems to accept that Matthew was dead simply because his pupils were dilated and he was struggling to breathe. Furthermore, Dawkins never mentioned the nurses who were present until Rebecca pointed it out, a convenient omission since at least one of these nurses could confirm that Matthew’s pulse was never lost once during the entire episode. In any event, even aside from this fact there was no positive evidence that Matthew had died, and even the doctor seemed to suggest Matthew did not stop breathing. I would think it’s fairly reasonable to suppose that a man who retained his pulse and ability to breathe was still very much alive. Dawkins’ claims are therefore blown completely out of the water.

We could add other curious features of Dawkins’ claim. The doctor he cited was initially named but very quickly made anonymous; who was he, what were his credentials? In fact, in his report to Dawkins he seems incredibly relieved that he didn’t have to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation. Was he nervous at having to do so? Why? Is this normal for a medical professional? Of course, doctors have various specialisms, and in this case at least it seems the doctor in question wasn’t an expert in Matthew’s condition.

Dawkins appears to have Rebecca in mind when he implied that certain family members were not fit to comment because they were not present. However, whilst there can be certain advantages to being an eyewitness, there are well-known problems also. In fact, it’s more likely that those who were not present are more able to provide an objective analysis, especially when they are far more knowledgeable about the background of the event (in this case, familiarity with Matthew’s physical condition, his medical history, and his actual subsequent diagnosis). Lawyers who are trained to cross-examine eyewitnesses in court are well aware that eyewitnesses are often unreliable. They can suffer from errors of perception, errors in interpreting the data of perception, errors of memory and confusions that occur when memory is blended with imagination (which is surprisingly common), and errors in how they express their understanding of what happened (typically, damaging omissions or grandstanding exaggerations). If an event happens quickly, or is particularly surprising, exciting, or adrenaline inducing, then so much the worst for accurate eyewitness perception. Munkman writes that the presence of such strong emotion “may prevent the senses from operating in a natural way, and may produce pictures or sounds which are distorted, or totally imaginary.”

I will discuss these issues in full in my next article (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/). For now I simply wish to stress that those who aren’t eyewitnesses to some event can actually be in a much better position to objectively sift the facts after the event than those who are caught up in the emotional hype of the moment. This is why police investigations and court room proceedings are incredibly successful mechanisms for discovering the truth, even in the face of eyewitness testimony. I think, therefore, that Rebecca’s distance from the event is a point in her favour. Moreover, she has nothing to gain by criticising Dawkins. Robby, on the other hand, is compromised as an objective reporter on the basis that he was caught up in the hype, and has a ministry and a book to punt to the masses. In his case it’s easy to see how truth might be sacrificed on the alter of self-interest.

Rebecca states that “who you choose to believe is up to you,” but to be honest there shouldn’t be much debate as to precisely where the evidence points in this case. Perhaps Dawkins is too busy selling his books and building his reputation and career as an in demand speaker and healer to bother too much with inconvenient facts.

Stephen J. Graham

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Dishonest Charismatic Claims

UPDATE: The Charisma News article now acknowledges the multiple surgeries. The other problems I identify in their report remain unremedied.

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 2ND UPDATE: I’ve been looking into Robby Dawkins’ resurrection claims and as I suspected there seems a fair amount of misstating or glossing over of facts. In fact the family of the resurrectee himself have a very different take on Dawkins’ claims! I would write about it but I discovered a two-part series which does a great job of exposing the truth behind the hype:

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-1/

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/a-skeptical-evaluation-of-robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-2/

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Much of modern charismatic hype concerning miracles of divine healing is due to misreporting, misinformation, and plain wanton ignorance. This was wonderfully illustrated earlier this week in an article by Charisma News: “To passionate, Spirit-filled Christians, Charisma News is the most trusted source for credible news and insight from a charismatic perspective.” The article was shared on Twitter by Robby Dawkins a few days ago. Robby Dawkins is an advocate of faith-healing; he practices and teaches others how to perform the old leg-growing carnival trick, and even claims to have seen the dead brought back to life. Anyhow, here’s the article he tweeted:

http://www.charismanews.com/world/56535-cripple-healed-by-prayer-danced-after-visiting-miracle-ministry

“Cripple healed by prayer danced after visiting miracle ministry.”

The case was well publicised in Northern Ireland, being picked up by several newspapers. Joshua Martin was 14 years old when doctors discovered that his suspected appendicitis was really a number of cancerous tumours in his abdomen. Joshua’s parents brought him to see Mark Marx, the leader of Healing on the Streets in Coleraine, whose claims and practices I’ve discussed in several articles on this site. Marx claimed that one of Joshua’s legs was shorter than the other. Of course, Marx has no orthopaedic expertise whatsoever and diagnoses this condition simple by lifting a person’s legs and comparing them in length. It’s utter nonsense. Anyhow, he performed his signature leg-growing wonder on a 14 year old cancer sufferer, claiming that this was a sign of what was happening inside Joshua. Joshua, who was using a wheelchair at the time due to his condition, got out and began to dance. It turned out that Joshua was cancer free.

It certainly sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it? Well, no. As with most healing claims the case for miraculous intervention evaporates upon even a cursory glance at the actual facts. Sadly charismatics have been incredibly dishonest in their use of this story as evidence of miraculous healing. Firstly, the headline reads as if a wheelchair bound cripple miraculously got to his feet and danced. However, Joshua was not a “cripple” as Charisma magazine states. By its use of the word “cripple,” and the fact that most people naturally identify “cripple” with “paralysed,” the report implies that Joshua couldn’t walk at all. This was not the case: Joshua could walk. Not everyone in a wheelchair is paralysed. My father-in-law uses a wheel-chair, though – like many who use wheelchairs – on his better days can manage without one. Secondly, the Charisma article rather deceitfully hides the full truth of the matter – and Robby Dawkins and his ilk aren’t terribly quick to proclaim the full truth (“the truth shall set you free,” eh?). They do not mention that Joshua had undergone months of chemotherapy. Nor do they mention that he went through a series of radiotherapy treatment. Worse, they neglected to mention not only that Joshua had undergone invasive surgery, but that by the time he went to see Marx he had had his third operation. Furthermore, Joshua was not declared clear of cancer straight away. It was only several months later – after intensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and three bouts of surgery – that he was finally declare free of his cancer. And yet, all the medical intervention is glossed over or completely ignored by charismatics in their exuberance to claim yet another miraculous healing at the hands of a man who took advantage of a 14 year old cancer sufferer to boost his own ministry.

Frankly, I’m astounded at the deceit. And yet I shouldn’t be. I’ve seen this time and again from charismatics. As stories of healing get passed around they lose relevant details – like facts concerning medical intervention – and become simple stories of amazing and sudden healing.

I would love to investigate Robby Dawkins’ claim of seeing the dead come back to life. It reminds me of a story that went around Northern Ireland way back in the days of the so-called “Florida Revival,” lead by the discredited and publically shamed healing evangelist Todd Bentley. One church in North Belfast claimed a “raising of the dead” during this time. Now, what does that phrase mean to you, dear reader? To me it means someone who was irreversibly dead – and declared so – being miraculously brought back to life again in response to prayer and in the face of the utter failure of medical intervention. However, that isn’t what happened in this case. It involved a young man who had been in a car accident and had “died” on an operating table for a number of minutes. Doctors kept working on him and he was resuscitated, something which happens all over the world every day of the week. But because the man’s father had contacted a local pastor, and because that pastor had contacted Todd Bentley’s prayer team, and because the prayer team were praying, the case was declared as a “raising from the dead.” At best this is over-exuberance, at worst it’s plain dishonesty. Possibly the former, since the pastor of the church in question at the time took to going to morgues to pray for dead bodies, so he seems to at least have believed it. Needless to say, his prayers for actual irreversibly dead people had no success.

When we are faced with claims such as these it’s incredibly important to examine exactly what we are being told. It’s even more crucial to wonder what exactly we aren’t being told. Charismatics themselves have simply given us one more reason not to believe them.

Stephen J Graham

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Stigmata – A Fraudulent Copycat Phenomenon

When researching miraculous claims it’s striking how certain groups or individual healers have a “thing” – something that “works,” their own little miraculous idiosyncrasies. In this article I want to discuss the phenomenon of stigmata which is – barring a tiny number of exceptions – an exclusively Roman Catholic phenomenon. It’s funny how God limits the performance of certain wonders to specific groups.

Stigmata are the marks which Christ received during his crucifixion, and stigmatics claim these marks appear on their own bodies – nail holes in the hands and feet, a side wound, and sometimes even marks on the head from the crown of thorns. There have been many claimed stigmatics throughout the years, but only a few have been officially declared miraculous by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

The first known stigmatic – regarded by the RCC as miraculous – was Saint Francis of Assisi who allegedly received his stigmata in 1224 (that’s well over a millennium before God saw fit to work the wonder). The sceptical opinion concerning stigmatics – an opinion with which I agree, for reasons I’ll explain shortly – is that they are “pious frauds.” However, I confess that I struggle to think St Francis was simply a fraud. In any event, fraud is not the only non-supernatural explanation for his stigmata.

There are those who deny the story of St Francis’ stigmata altogether. According to such theorists the account is simply a legend. It was common for legends to grow up around certain saints after their deaths, and perhaps the story of St Francis’ stigmata is simply one such legend. I have some sympathy for this theory, particularly as the story has a certain folk-tale feel to it. Anyhow, for sake of argument I don’t intend to dispute the tradition; I’ll grant that St Francis did indeed exhibit marks which were interpreted as stigmata.

One explanation for the stigmata is that Saint Francis suffered from malignant malaria, which can cause haemorrhaging of blood through the skin on the hands and feet. Others have attributed the wounds to a form of leprosy. This is possible, but strikes me as too speculative. Some have tried to attribute a psychosomatic cause to the stigmata. Whilst this might work as an explanation of “phantom stigmata” – where the person experiences the pains of crucifixion but not the wounds – as an explanation for physical wounds it seems highly implausible. I think the truth lies elsewhere.

In order to understand his stigmatic experience it’s crucial to grasp the circumstances under which it occurred. Saint Francis was a mystic. In early August 1224 he went to Mount La Verna with several friends to fast and pray in seclusion for 40 days. Towards the end of this time he had a vision during which he allegedly received his stigmata. We know that the human mind is ripe for hallucinations under such circumstances (seclusion and food deprivation). We also know that St Francis’ mind was one obsessed by the crucifixion of Christ, that he carried an obsession with imitating Christ in every way, and had a strong desire to understand – and even experience – the suffering of Christ. Furthermore, Francis was known to engage in practices of mortification, religious self-harm being a fairly common practice. To my mind, therefore, it’s highly plausible that St Francis underwent a vivid hallucination informed by a highly religious mind obsessed with suffering, and unwittingly engaged in self-harm, though it seemed to him that the wounds were caused by an external source. I think such an explanation best fits the evidence we have.

Whatever we make of the stigmata of St Francis, there’s no denying that it triggered numerous copycats, becoming something of a pious obsession. Over 300 cases were recorded by the start of the 20th century, all European Roman Catholics. The 20th Century saw cases in Britain, Australia, and the USA – which also produced one of the very few non-Catholic stigmatics.

When we examine cases of stigmata we find numerous troubling features. In fact, it’s instructive to notice how stigmatic wounds have evolved over time and how they differ from each other – variation which is difficult to square with replication of one single pattern. Some bleed, others don’t. Some appear to have blood but no wound. Some wounds are tiny slits, others shaped like crosses, some appear as multiple slash wounds, and some as simple indentations. Oddly, the nail marks on one stigmatic – Therese Neumann – changed their shape over time from round to rectangular. One wonders did she suddenly come to learn the true shape of Roman nails? Furthermore, some stigmatics have had their side wound on the left side (Padre Pio), others on the right (St Francis) – and often taking different shapes (or, much more commonly, being absent altogether). And whilst historians suggest that victims were crucified through the wrists, most stigmatics have their marks on their hands. Of course if one was going to fake a stigmata wound it’s much safer to cut the hands than the wrists. One commentator observed that stigmata on the wrists only appeared once it was discovered that this is where the marks are on the Turin Shroud. The earliest stigmatics – influenced by images of Christ crucified by the hands – had hand wounds, whilst more recent stigmatics increasingly display wrist wounds. None of this bodes well for the acceptance of stigmata as a genuine phenomenon – it’s far more consistent with a less heavenly explanation. Moreover, certain wounds seem far too stylised to be authentic. For instance, Padre Pio’s side wound was in the shape of a cross – artistry that a spear thrust from a Roman soldier would not have created.

In addition, there have been quite a few proven stigmatic frauds. For instance, Magdalena de la Cruz confessed her stigmata to be fraudulent when she was ill and feared she was dying. Also, Maria de la Visitacion was seen by another nun painting fake wounds on her hands. After being brought before the Inquisition her wounds were quickly scrubbed off. Other stigmatics have something of a questionable character: Teresa Helena Higginson being dismissed from her job as teacher on accusations of theft and drunkenness; Berthe Mrazek was arrested for fraud and wound up in a mental asylum. Moreover, a strong propensity amongst stigmatics for self-punishment and self-mutilation has been well-documented.

Several attempts to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomenon have led to staged displays which are dubious at best if not clearly fraudulent. For instance, Katja Rivas appeared on the Fox Television programme “Signs from God” in 1999. At the beginning of the event she was in bed, complete with bed covers which could easily conceal any trickery. The “wounds” were not actually seen in the act of spontaneously issuing (they never are). In fact, the manner of their appearance was consistent with their being self-inflicted during periods of concealment. Some marks did not appear to be wounds at all, and the wounds that could be seen were not puncture wounds but multiple cuts and slashes. It was noted that during the entire display Rivas was wearing a ring which could easily have been responsible for the wounds.

Take also the case of Lilian Bernas, a convert to Roman Catholicism. She displayed scars on the backs of her hands which were from stigmata received during heavenly visions. Whilst she claimed to bleed from her palms also she didn’t have any marks there. Her explanation is that God “permitted” her to retain the scars on the backs of her hands and the tops of her feet. This is curious indeed. If one was going to fake stigmata by self-harm it is best to create the wounds on the backs of the hand and tops of the feet rather than the palms and the soles which would hurt more, take longer to heal, and present further practical difficulties. It probably best to cut only the backs of the hands and – through blood transfer – create the illusion of a palm wound. Bernas – like many stigmatics – did not have a side wound, which is understandable as such a wound would take a huge amount of commitment from a fake stigmatist!

What we are seeing in cases of stigmata is a desire for attention, acceptance, or fame. As is typical of miraculous claims generally, people’s yearnings for intense religious experiences have lead simply to multiple cases of pious fraud.

Stephen J Graham

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“Explain THAT!” A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims

As a researcher into charismatic miracle claims and phenomena, I’m often presented with healing stories or videos and asked for my thoughts. Frequently the tone is one of challenge: “Explain THAT!” So, just what approach should we take when faced with some miraculous claim or other? Just how DO we “explain THAT!”?

Here’s one video that was recently shared with me (though, admittedly, not by way of an aggressive challenge, but simply asking me what I made if it): https://www.facebook.com/thenormalchristianlife/videos/813578605414072/

So, what do we do? There are two common routes – one taken by charismatics, the other by atheists – which I think should be rejected:

1. The “Praise Jesus” Route. Check the comments below the video and you’ll find multiple examples of this approach to miraculous claims. Here the claims are simply accepted at face value and Jesus is praised, but discernment is trampled underfoot and charismatic types are left wide open to unscrupulous miracle workers – of which there are many – and the manipulation and abuse that they bring.

2. The “That’s Bullshit!” Route. Here all miracle claims are written off before any investigation or attempt to examine them – God doesn’t exist, therefore God doesn’t heal. This is fine and dandy as a practical approach – after all, few have the time and resources these busy days to examine the various claims that come their way – however, it doesn’t help them to understand exactly what is going on in cases of miraculous claims. And so the response tends to be “bullshit!” rather than “I think that’s a false claim because…” Moreover, if some miraculous claim turns out to be genuine we’d miss it if we took this approach.

My own approach is to agree with the charismatics that miracles are possible, whilst adopting the scepticism of the second route when faced with miraculous claims, given that frauds and fake miracle claims abound and are dangerous. In order to help steer a course between these extremes, here are a few very basic questions we should all stop to ask.

Firstly, who produced the video or published the testimony? Often the claims are made by healing ministries – not the alleged healees themselves, and almost never by the medical community. Have the claims been adequately scrutinised? Has there been any attempt to be objective? Videos can – and are – edited to suit the needs of the people making them. It isn’t difficult, through the use of editing, to make something more appealing and persuasive than it really is. For example, when a psychic spends hours giving readings to people it can be edited to, say, a 20 minute feature which can make the psychic look more impressive than he or she really is; just edit out all the mistakes and misses that are made.

Secondly, does the video or testimony present objective evidence such as medical documentation, or is it purely anecdotal? The lack of medical evidence is a constant feature of healing claims, and one is often left with the impression that the person is “sexing up” his story for the camera, is mistaken about his ailment, or has even engaged in a faulty self-diagnosis. If healings are happening regularly then there shouldn’t be any difficulty providing medical evidence, and the lack of such evidence is concerning and suggests to me there’s something we aren’t being told.

Thirdly, what exactly is being claimed? I heard one couple give testimony that sounded like a healing in relation to their new born. However, after paying careful attention to what they actually said you note that their child had never actually been diagnosed with anything but was simply under investigation. Thus, when the child was declared healthy it wasn’t a case of healing as there was never anything confirmed to have been wrong with the child in the first place. In another testimony a man claimed to have been healed of cancer as a result of prayer, and yet careful attention to his story reveals a period of several months between the prayer and his all-clear from cancer, which opens up the question as to whether he had in fact been receiving orthodox treatment in the interim. Or, one boy in Northern Ireland has recently been trumpeted as the recipient of a divine miracle healing from cancer, despite his having received chemotherapy and invasive surgery. Paying attention to what is actually claimed can be very revealing, though there are often vagaries with which we must contend. For instance, we might hear a person is “blind” or has “diabetes,” words which conjure up images in our minds (typically total lack of visual ability, or type-A requiring injections) but which can take forms which do not often match what we imagine them to be (for example, “blind” covers a range of visual ability, and there are different types & severities of diabetes). Other claims might involve pain relief, and pain is, of course, notoriously subjective and susceptible to psychological techniques.

Fourthly, can we reasonably rule out misdiagnosis (often due to self-diagnosis), natural healing, placebo, medical intervention, exaggeration, misreporting, and good old fashioned fraud and fakery? It’s a tad disingenuous to claim a boy who has received aggressive chemotherapy and invasive surgery has really been cured due to a miracle. It’s hardly convincing to pray for a cure for one’s cold and claim divine intervention 3-4 days later when it starts to wane. Further, is the claim of the sort that can be easily faked or which actually has been faked many times before by unscrupulous healers? One of the reasons why I reject the leg growing claims of Mark Marx is that such demonstrations are easy to fake and have been proven fake time and time again. Or, again, take pain relief. Sometimes people chalk pain relief up as proof of miraculous intervention, when in fact we know that it is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion. Note how the mentalist Derren Brown was able to train someone as a faith-healer who could bring pain relief to people on the streets simply using psychological techniques and the power of suggestion.

Lastly, is there any way to verify the report? Often reports have a “folk take” quality to them and lack the kinds of details required to properly investigate. When it’s possible to scrutinise claims it’s important to note how the people you are investigating react to questioning or scepticism. Are you snubbed, dismissed, blocked, shunned, demonised or viewed with suspicion simply for asking questions? If so, there’s probably something fishy going on and you have every right to be suspicious. If a genuine miracle has occurred, then there shouldn’t be any difficulty in having claims scrutinised, investigated, and examined. Genuine claims can stand up to honest investigation.

These are just a few of the initial questions we should ask when invited to “explain THAT!” How we should apply this to the above video I leave as homework for the reader.

Stephen J. Graham

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Message to Young Apologists, or Letter to my Younger Self

I remember the excitement of first getting into apologetics. I was in my late teens and had just given a rather ropey performance in a debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend who had studied some philosophy during his first year at university. I thought I’d better read up on the matter, so off I trotted to the local Christian bookstore, where after browsing a few shelves of apologetics books I came across a small plainly bound black book called “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by some guy called William Lane Craig. I bought it and devoured it, reading it over and over and committing the main lines of the argument to memory. This was the first time I had ever read a philosophical defence of the existence of God, and I was hooked.

I began to find other books – taking a keen interest in teleological and cosmological arguments in particular. Soon, I was studying philosophy of religion academically through my degree programme and began writing papers and essays (often for fun, not just for assignments) on many of the arguments for the existence of God. I also took to debating in internet chat rooms with (as I then saw) idiot atheists who were too stupid to see that God’s existence was obvious, and too thick-headed to grasp my wonderfully crafted (plagiarized) theistic arguments.

In short, I had become an arrogant young apologist. True enough (as the Bible points out), knowledge puffs up. I was often disrespectful, condescending, patronising, and, frankly, an insufferable arrogant ass. Sadly my case is not an isolated one. I have a far more modest assessment of theistic arguments these days, and finally came to admit that my faith didn’t – and never did – rest on any of them. But I still see my younger self out there on the internet, arrogantly bludgeoning atheists with apologetic arguments – calling all those who don’t see or admit the obvious truth of God’s existence either thick or dishonest.

Here’s my message to my younger self:

Keep in mind that few arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion is so obvious that those who don’t accept it are either stupid or wicked. There are usually thorny philosophical problems lurking in the background of any neat little argument. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) that had me enamoured for years. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – three short premises and BOOM! we have proved the existence of God. Regrettably the simplicity is merely prima facie simplicity. There are many issues and assumptions lying behind the KCA. For instance, it relies on the A-Theory of time being correct – that temporal becoming is a feature of reality. If the B-Theory is correct then the KCA cannot succeed. Many of those who triumphantly proclaim the KCA as a clear proof aren’t even aware of these different views of time. Personally I prefer the A-Theory, but it’s probably a minority view in both philosophy and physics. This fact alone should be caution against using the KCA as a clear proof of God. It simply isn’t.

The same goes for any other theistic argument. They are always more contentious than young apologists typically realise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that theistic arguments are of no value. There are several which I think do lend some degree of evidence to theism: I particularly like the Leibnizian contingency argument, the fine tuning argument, and cumulative case arguments from the nature of humankind as conscious, rational, free agents with moral obligations. But none of these is obviously conclusive, and it’s important to see that when anyone examines an argument their current worldview forms part of the lens through which they see it.

Which brings me to my second point: remember that the vast majority of Christians do not come to faith as a result of apologetic arguments. Sure, we know of several high profile cases of thinkers who changed their mind for evidential reasons – CS Lewis, Antony Flew, Lee Strobel, or Alister McGrath – but most of us who give a positive appraisal of apologetic arguments are already Christians or theists. So, to you young apologists pushing your apologetic wares all over hyperspace, take note that most of you didn’t come to believe because of the arguments you now offer to your atheist interlocutors. Like me you probably discovered these arguments as a theist. Most of us – theist and atheist alike – are not the wholly rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. Many proclaim to be objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, but very few are really doing anything of the sort. Many are, as William James pointed out, simply reorganising their prejudices. We are, for better or worse, heavily influenced by social, cultural, and psychological factors which greatly shape who we are, how we think, what background beliefs we hold, and what strikes us as plausible or implausible. This is why highly intelligent people can look at the same body of evidence and come to radically different conclusions.

Which brings me to my third point: keep in mind that no matter how smart you think you are there is someone smarter who disagrees with you. As a theist it should be humbling to recall the names of atheists or sceptics such as philosophers JL Mackie, Michael Martin, JL Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, WV Quine, Paul Draper, William Rowe, Kai Nielson; or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, John Nash, Peter Higgs……. When you’re tempted to consider an atheist too stupid to grasp your neat apologetic argument please recall any of these names; the philosophers listed have a sounder grasp of the philosophical issues at stake than you do, and likewise the scientists have a sounder grasp of the scientific issues. None of these can plausibly be written off as ill-informed or wicked.

The more observant reader will detect a common theme here: show a bit of intellectual humility. Ultimate issues are tricky and contentious with plenty of room for honest, rational disagreement. Accepting this fact will make you engagements with the “other side” a little bit sweeter. After all, did you ever hear a former atheist say, “I came to faith thanks to a smarter-than-thou theist who patronised and berated me with genius apologetic arguments”? No, you don’t, so stop doing that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Books in 2016

I thought I’d create a list of all the books I read in 2016, more for myself than anything else, but some folks might be interested in what literary offerings float my boat. I’m not recording essays and articles here, just books and perhaps a note as to whether they were worth reading. I’ll add to this list as the year goes on and I finish each book.

FINISHED:

1. History of Ancient Greece – Nathaniel Harris.

A fantastic introduction to the life, literature, philosophy, culture and art of ancient Greece – one of the few books I’ve read with pictures!

2. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

Recommended reading for anyone who wants an insight into how various psychic/supernatural charlatans operate and the tricks they use.

3. The Plague – Albert Camus

I don’t read a lot of novels these days, this one is – not surprisingly – excellent. My love for Camus continues.

4. Religions of Ancient China – HA Giles

Published in 1905 this is a charming little book, but doesn’t read terribly well. But it helped fill a small gap in my knowledge of religions.

5. Is The Atheist My Neighbor? – Randal Rauser

Rauser does an excellent job of squeezing so much worthwhile content into such a short book, challenging a very common Christian assumption that atheists really deep down know there’s a God.

6. In Search of the Trojan War – Michael Wood

Although a little bit dated it’s a great read for anyone in love with Homer’s the Iliad who wants to discover the link between the myth and the real world.

7. Discourse on Method & The Meditations – Rene Descartes

Not the first time I’ve read this philosophical classic, and probably not the last time either. This is a must read for any budding philosopher.

8. The War of The Worlds – HG Wells

Short book, short chapters – perfect holiday reading! Of course it’s a classic so well worth reading if you haven’t whether you’re on holiday or not. Martians attack the earth, what more can you ask for?

9. Four Tragedies & Octavia – Seneca, translated by EF Watling

Seneca is one of those classical authors I have managed to avoid all these years. This volume contains his versions of several Greek classics: Thyestes, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, and Oedipus. Seneca is no Sophocles, but if you love the stories of ancient Greece it’s a good read nevertheless.

10. The Greeks, Kenneth Dover

In the author’s words: “This book is a handful of pebbles picked up from a long, bright beach and arranged in a sequence of my own choose.” The book was a but haphazard to me and I would have chosen different pebbles and arranged them differently. Still, it’s not a bad overview of certain aspects of “The Greeks.”

11. Church in Hard Places, Mez McConnell & Mike NcKinley

I read very little popular Christian books, but this one was worth reading and has some interesting, and counter-intuitive, things to say about how churches can best help those in “hard places.”

12. A History of Philosophy – Volume 2 Part 2 – Frederick Copleston (SJ)

This is only one volume of a massive multi-volume work. In this volume Copleston considers the philosophy of several medieval philosophers, giving most of his attention to Aquinas and Scotus. Reading Copleston on Aquinas is a delight, and the book is worth it for those chapters alone. My only beef is that Copleston constantly throws out Latin phrases when he doesn’t need to, and with no translation. It got a bit tiresome, particularly during the treatment of Scotus. That said this book was excellent, and I wouldn’t mind collecting the remaining volumes.

CURRENTLY READING

Philosophy of Religion: A Guide & Anthology, Brian Davies et al

The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers, Ted Honderich et al

Kant, Roger Scruton

 

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Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles: A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas

*****
UPDATE 4TH APRIL

The article below was written a few weeks ago, I still haven’t heard back from Peter Lynas. In any event, Lynas appeared on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme on Sunday 3rd April to discuss prayer. In the course of the discussion he made reference to an apparent divine healing involving a self-harming scar which disappeared after prayer from Lynas’s wife. Lynas claimed that this is a verifiable healing. I therefore ask him to provide further information and evidence to support this claim. I admit that whilst scars can heal naturally (I had one that disappeared with time) it would be quite uncanny if a clearly visible scar suddenly disappeared after prayer.

So, if this is a verifiable miracle, as Lynas claims, where is the evidence to verify it? I will gladly publish it – completely unedited – on this blog.

Again, I look forward to hearing from Peter Lynas regarding this claim.

*****

Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is a source of constant miracle claims, and these claims have received some rather soft-soap treatment recently from two major local newspapers: The Belfast Telegraph & The Irish Times. However, these claims must be examined much more carefully than either paper has bothered to do. These claims, if true, are brilliant news for humankind, for it means that God is healing a lot of people through the power of prayer. However, if they are false then they are incredibly dangerous and need to be exposed as such. Faith-healing claims and practices are inherently very dangerous, particularly in contexts in which there is a constant stream of them. People very easily get into thinking of divine healing as the norm for people who hold onto God in faith and hope. Sadly, many of these people delay seeking medical help, sometimes with fatal consequences. Others stop their medication prematurely with equally serious effects. Still more mistakenly think they are healed and in the heat of the moment they act in ways which end up exacerbating their condition. And then those – typically with the most serious conditions – who find no change in their circumstances must deal with the psychological and spiritual trauma caused by deferred hope and the feeling that God doesn’t really love them the way he loves the others. Lastly, there are many people who spend every last penny chasing a healing, money which would be better spent on making their lives and their environment more tolerable. The consequences of faith-healing claims and practices can be severe – sometimes deadly. They at least better be true.

Regular readers of my blog will be well aware of my reservations concerning charismatic supernatural claims, (so I was greatly pleased to see that the overwhelming reaction to the local newspaper features has been largely sceptical). I will continue to write articles on this blogsite, but I think it would be a valuable thing to have the other side present to give their explanation of the phenomena and practices in question. I’ve said several times before that the claims coming from Causeway Coast in general and Mark Marx in particular are unfounded at best. It seems to me that the church has a case to answer. They owe the wider society of which they are a part an explanation of their claims. To refuse to submit their claims to rational scrutiny is socially, morally, and intellectual irresponsible. Since Mark Marx blocks and ignores anyone who shows the slightest degree of scepticism, I doubt he’ll be interested in a public debate. However, Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and a Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church – seems a much more reasonable and open person. I therefore invite him to publicly debate his church’s miracle claims to see if they really can stand up to critical analysis, and if he can manage to convince a largely sceptical public. I ask him to produce evidence beyond the anecdotal that miracles and divine healing really do happen as regularly as his church makes out. We can work out the mechanics of this debate later, but for now I ask him – publicly – if he will give his commitment to a public debate of an issue which is clearly in the public interest.

As a Christian I am open to God performing whatever wonders He pleases to perform; however, as a sceptic I think it is unwise and dangerous to peddle such claims if they are not true. I think being a sceptical Christian puts me in a better position to examine the claims than either an unbelieving sceptic or a credulous believer. Unbelieving sceptics tend to dismiss all healing claims with a shake of the hand, or with little more than “God doesn’t exist, therefore he doesn’t heal.” That attitude might be acceptable for them to take personally, but it doesn’t help them to get to the bottom of healing claims and really discover exactly what’s going on. Credulous believers on the other hand tend to gasp and cheer at even the slightest whiff of a supernatural healing, without ever stopping to ask some very basic questions. However, a sceptical Christian is open to a miracle or divine healing, but conscious of the need to test claims as rigorously as possible, given the sheer number of false and fraudulent claims that have been made in recent years.

My academic background has trained me in both philosophy and theology, both of which are vital for understanding and analysing miracles claims and the theological context in which they emerge. Moreover, I have a breadth of church experience including almost 15 years in a variety of charismatic churches, from traditional Pentecostal churches to moderate charismatic churches like Newfrontiers, and more extreme charismatic churches such as Word of Faith. My experience in these churches lead to years of research which ultimately saw me leave this form of Christianity. My academic background, experience, and research puts me in a good position to cross-examine the claims of Causeway Coast Vineyard, and I hope that they can see the value of putting their claims to the test. If they are true and sound they have nothing to fear.

In addition to my invitation to a public debate, I reiterate my offer to Lynas, or any member of Healing on the Streets or Causeway Coast Vineyard, that should they wish to respond to any of my articles on this blogsite, I will gladly publish them, unedited.

I am also interested to hear from any groups – church groups, humanists, or other interested parties – who would like to facilitate such a debate.

I eagerly await a response from Mr Lynas.

Stephen J. Graham

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