Short Article 11 – Can Christians be Friends with Atheists?

JB Cachila (no, I’ve never heard of him/her either) caused something of a stir with a recent article in Christian Today which asked if Christians should hate atheists or could be friends with atheists.

In Cachila’s words atheists are “one of the most aggressive against the faith.” That said, the answer to the question “should Christians hate atheists is, thankfully, “no.” So far, so good. But can us Christians be friends with atheists? Well, according to Cachila, this depends on what we mean by “friend.” If we mean “one not hostile; opposed to an enemy in war,” then “yes,” we can. However, Cachila adds if by “friend” we mean “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, then on course, no. The Bible is very straightforward about this.” Cachila continues, “Friendship requires a sharing of interests…we must not allow them to influence our faith in God,” and then he quotes the Bible warning against being unequally yoked with unbelievers, and then ramming home what appears to be the chief concern: “We must take care not to let them take us away from Christ. We can be a friend to them, desiring God’s best for them, but we must not allow their unbelief to influence our faith in Christ.” For good measure the article finishes with the quote that “evil company corrupts good character.”

I confess that this article struck me a piece of fearful sectarian bile which Christians should immediately reject as contrary to the spirit of Christ. Moreover, the tone of the article, intended or not, is pompous. We might treat atheists as our nice little conversion projects but we aren’t really to treat them as, well, human beings with an inherent dignity and worth. Atheists? Yuck! Nothing but evil company that will corrupt your good character! Cachila is correct about one thing though – friendship is built upon bonds of mutual affection. But why cannot there exist bonds of mutual affection between Christians and atheists (or members of any other non-Christian faith?). As a Christian I find myself quite naturally forming bonds of mutual affection with all sorts of non-Christian people, and one of my best friends growing up was an atheist. We played football together, snooker, went on holiday (to a Christian camp!), and to this day I regard his influence in my life as a massively positive one. In fact, he it was that kick-started my interest in philosophy. If anyone had my back, this guy was it, but neither of us managed to convert the other, and in fact we never tried. We were just friends.

Furthermore, Cachila’s musings strike me a contrary to the spirit of the Jesus I read about in the Bible. This Jesus despised and rejected the religious establishment. He fraternised with “tax-collectors and sinners” and partied with prostitutes (as did his followers). Seemingly, the Christ of the gospels had no qualms about forming bonds of affection with unbelievers. There was simply no arrogant elitism or petty fear-mongering when it came to Christ’s social relationships.

It seems the fear of losing one’s faith lies at the root of Cachila’s aversion to fraternising with atheists. This point is mentioned three times in quick succession in the article. Lots of things can affect our faith, and not always for the worse. I’ve found my interactions with atheists to be an incredibly positive one and remain a Christian after all this time. If I was asked what has been the biggest negative influence on my faith I would answer, without having to think about it, other Christians, particularly those I had the misfortune to become associated with in the “Word of Faith” movement. That said, the greatest ongoing threat to my faith is myself, not atheists or people of other religions! My own reading and thinking – including the works of Christian philosophers – has been the biggest driver of my faith, for good and (according to some, perhaps) for bad. Atheists have often kept me sharp and have been a wonderful check against any unthinking dogmatism on my part. As for the moral charge of being “evil company,” that is ludicrous. I have no reason at all to regard atheists as less moral than Christians. In fact, I have far more frustration with Christians in this regard, and let’s face it our history is often not one to be morally proud of! The vast majority of people live to some degree of success in accordance with the golden rule, and we all mess up from time to time.

The sort of fearful slander against “atheists” as destroyers of the faith or corrupters of character is pure, unadulterated bile. I invite all my Christian readers, if they haven’t already, to come out of their insular bubble and embrace a big wide world of many wonderful people. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what and who you might find. It’s a much better existence than quaking in your boots behind the cold walls of an inward-looking church.

Stephen J. Graham


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Good Friday Licensing Laws & The BBC – A Short Rant

This year the Republic of Ireland will for the first time in 90 years be able to have normal pub/bar services on Good Friday. But Northern Ireland still lags some way behind: bars are not permitted to serve alcohol until 5pm. It causes annual consternation and the issue is debated every single year without fail. On the one hand there are pub owners and restauranteurs who would like the licensing conditions for Good Friday to be relaxed, and on the other side we have a motley crew of fundamentalist ministers and politicians with a serious religious fundamentalism streak.

To me the issue is simple: there should be no tighter licensing restrictions on Good Friday than any other day. Having licensing restrictions as we currently do serves no useful purpose. It doesn’t prevent Christians (I’m a Presbyterian, for those who don’t know) from celebrating Easter as they see fit, and a change would be enormously beneficial to those who run bars, hotels, and restaurants, work in tourism, or just wouldn’t mind a rum and coke with their lunch.

BBC Talkback – presented by William Crawley – had a debate the other day about our archaic licensing rules. Those defending the status quo had nothing new or reasonable to say. Politician Alban Maginness called for a “balance that is respectful of Good Friday [and] can accommodate to some extent the interests of those involved in the alcohol trade.” Respectful of Good Friday? It’s a day of the week! I don’t think it really cares much about it. It has no feelings to be respected. Or, consider Pastor Paul Burns: “I believe we have to have a time of celebration where Christian people are allowed to remember the death of their Lord.” Well, who’s stopping Christians from celebrating Easter as they see fit (again, I’m a Christian too!)? No one is going to force Christians into a pub and force single malts down their throats! The level of debate was hardly top-notch.

But, wait a minute…why on earth was “Pastor Paul Burns” invited by the BBC – our “public services broadcaster” – onto a show to preach to the nation? Pastor Paul Burns runs a tiny church in a small residential area in southeast Belfast. He holds no political office, has no established religious position, heads up no umbrella organisation, and has absolutely no significant community standing. Can someone at the BBC please explain why he was brought on to their show to discuss an issue and speak to the nation? Pastor Paul Burns has made the headlines before, of course, and typically embarrasses himself with silly and irrational outbursts. Consider, as Exhibit A, his stupid remarks about the “pornographic” window of underwear shop Ann Summers:

He’s certainly not the sort of person to contribute to issues of broad public concern. Why does the BBC treat its listeners with contempt by inviting nobodies on the lunatic fringe of society to contribute to issues of public interest? Needless to say I have written to the BBC with my concerns and am currently awaiting their response, which I will post here.

Stephen J. Graham

Here is the BBC Reply:

BBC Complaints – Case number CAS-4860476-FZG2SR

Dear Mr Graham

Complaint – Talkback (CAS-4860476)

I am responding to your complaint about the Talkback programme which discussed licensing laws as they apply to Good Friday. You are unhappy that Pastor Paul Burns appeared on the programme.

Talkback exists as a platform for our listeners to debate the issues of the day. While you describe Pastor Burns as a “nobody”, we do not characterise contributors to the programme in this way. Anyone who calls our programme has the potential to make it on air and anyone we invite on the programme is there to add something to the debate. The coverage Pastor Burns received was proportionate and appropriate within the context of the discussion.

Kind regards,

Adam Smyth

Editor Radio News/Digital News



They didn’t bother addressing the basic question: WHY was Pastor Paul Burns invited on? Presumably the BBC doesn’t just grab people at random off the street? No justification has been given, though that’s no surprise from an increasingly arrogant organisation who don’t feel the need to justify their editorial decisions to anyone.


I have emailed a follow up to my original complaint:

“In his response Adam Smyth didn’t actually address the substance of my complaint. He says “Talkback exists as a platform for our listeners to debate the issues of the day. While you describe Pastor Burns as a “nobody”, we do not characterise contributors to the programme in this way. Anyone who calls our programme has the potential to make it on air and anyone we invite on the programme is there to add something to the debate. The coverage Pastor Burns received was proportionate and appropriate within the context of the discussion.” Pastor Paul Burns was NOT just someone phoning in. He was actually invited into the studio as part of panel discussion/debate and I’m wanting to know – in light of his lack of any political/religious/social/community standing – he was given such a position. Presumably the BBC doesn’t just grab anyone off the street? So, why Pastor Paul Burns and not any of 101 other people who actually have some social standing and wider support. Why is Pastor Paul Burns being given such a platform? Why not me? Why not my best friend’s granny? Why not the guy in my cornershop who smells of cannabis? Why not Jim who drives the 11C bus at 8.33AM? You can’t control who phones in – nor should you – but you can control who is invited into the studio. Don’t Talkback listeners deserve a higher calibre of commentator than a random small-time pastor? Stephen”

Stephen J. Graham


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My “Supernatural” Dreams

Randal Rauser recently had a poll on twitter asking if people had ever had dreams they considered to be supernatural in origin. I answered “no,” despite previously believing that certain dreams I had in the past were indeed of supernatural origin – messages from God. Without much further comment I wanted to present several examples of past dreams I had. I know that in sharing this some people will think these are amazing and wonder how I ever came to abandon my belief in their supernatural origin, while others will read these examples and perhaps laugh at how stupid I was ever to believe them. Make of them what you will. I will probably write an article in the near future about dreams generally and why I no longer believe they are of supernatural origin.

Dream 1

During the first semester of my first year at university I was struggling to fit in all my revision work for my end of semester exams. I left myself with only 2 days to prepare for a Church History exam, in which I would have to write 4 essays in 3 hours. There would be about 10-12 questions on the exam paper, I needed to answer 4. What topics should I cover in the short space of time I had? I prayed asking for help, and that night I had a dream:

I was approaching a river and at the bank of the river stood a female friend of mine. She was about to be baptized by Saint Patrick but there was a large crowd of people approaching who sought to prevent her baptism and do her harm. For some reason, I don’t know why, I knew that in the dream this friend of mine was a montanist.

When I awoke I decided on 4 topics for revision – Saint Patrick (which I knew would be on the paper anyway because the Presbyterian ministerial students had to answer the question on Saint Patrick that appeared every year) – baptism in the early church – montanism – and persecutions of the early church. When I went to do my exam there was a question on each of these topics.

Dream 2

This was a similar situation, but occurred during the 2nd semester of my 1st year. This time it was Introduction to the New Testament and the paper was made more difficult by the fact that you couldn’t just answer any 4 questions, but rather you had to answer 1 question from each of 4 sections. This meant you couldn’t answer 3 questions on, say, the gospel of Mark. Your knowledge had to be so much broader and this meant you had to revise many more topics to be guaranteed to be able to answer at least one from each section. I prayed to God to let me know if there was anything else I needed to study. I had a dream:

In the dream I was sitting at a table with a single piece of paper. At the top of the paper it said “Authorship of John’s Gospel.” That was it.

I revised the topic of the authorship of John’s gospel, and lo and behold this was the only topic I was able to answer in that section of my exam paper.

Dream 3

This was a different kind of dream. I was pondering whether or not to marry my then girlfriend and was advised to pray about it to get God’s opinion on the matter. I had a dream:

I was entering a large hall, and at the middle of the hall sat a figure whose face was obscured – blank, like the features had been smudged off. I sat in a chair opposite this figure and the chair began to tilt back so that I was staring at the ceiling. On the ceiling I could read words of instruction that were scrolling in front of my eyes like credits at the end of a movie. When I awoke there was only one line of this message I could remember: “You are to marry Zena”

I’ve been married to Zena for 14 years.

Dream 4

I had been attending a Word of Faith church and was becoming increasing uneasy with much of the teaching and practices of that church and its leaders. I prayed that God would give me insight into the heart of that church. The church was at that time called “Living Rivers.” I had a dream.

I was standing at the bank of a mighty rushing river that was flowing down a hillside and into a forest. The waters swept everything along that got in the way. Suddenly, however, the river stopped flowing and dried up. Puzzled by this I began walking upstream to see what was the problem. At the source of the river was a large tap that had been turned off.

Since a Christian friend who also attended that church had made an appearance in this dream I told him about it. His interpretation was that this river was running purely on manpower (symbolized by the tap) – it wasn’t natural/God created. He said he felt the same about the church. All the pretense of spiritual power was just manufactured.

I ended up leaving this church, though not because of this dream.

So there we have it – several dreams I once thought were supernatural in origin. I’m going to resist the temptation at present to comment further on them.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Date of Billy Graham’s Death is of no Prophetic Significance

Does the date of Billy Graham’s death have “prophetic significance” for the church? That’s the question raised by Claire Musters in a recent article for Premier Christianity Magazine, ( Musters begins with a statement made by Anna Graham Lotz, Billy Graham’s daughter, in which Lotz claims her father’s death is a sign of the end times.

“I believe from heaven’s perspective that my father’s death is as significant as his life, and his life was very significant. I think when he died that was something very strategic from heaven’s point of view. And I know that before the foundations of the world were laid February 21st 2018 was the date that God chose to take my father home. Why? I had a sweet friend who urged me to look that up on the web, so I looked up what was significant about that day and I found out that February 21st 2018 is the day when Jews focus on scripture readings that focuses on the death of Moses.

“Moses was the great liberator – he brought millions of people out of bondage to slavery, got them to the edge of the Promised Land and God took him to heaven. Then God brought Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land to take them home. My father also was a great liberator; he brought millions of people out of bondage to sin and he gets us the edge of heaven, the edge of the Promised Land and then God has called him home.

“Could it be that God is going to bring Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land, to lead us to heaven? And do you know what the New Testament word is for Joshua is? It’s Jesus. I believe this is a shot across the bow from heaven – I believe God is saying wake up Church, wake up world, wake up Anne. Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming. And Jesus said…in Matthew 24:14 when the gospel is preached to the whole world then the end will come.”

One could be forgiven for simply writing this off as gross narcissism on the part of Lotz, as if the entire world revolves around her father – it most assuredly does not. In any event, it illustrates the silliness of these kinds of prophetic pretensions. It’s a form of Christian stargazing, a kind of holy reading of the tea leaves, in which one reads into an event what one wants to find there. There is nothing remotely significant about the date on which Graham died. In fact, had Graham died on any other date we could quite easily read into that some sort of religious significance. Take my birthday – 31st May. There are events that happened on this day that could be given religious significance with nothing other than a little imagination: for example Rome captured the first wall of the city of Jerusalem (70AD), and Adolf Eichmann (the Nazi SS officer who helped organized the extermination Europe’s Jewish population) was executed for his crimes against humanity. Or select any other date, perhaps my friend’s birthday – 20th July. On this date we got the first moon landing in 1969, and the US Viking landed on Mars (1976). I’ll leave it to the imagination of the reader to think how dying on these dates could also be construed as having “prophetic significance.” The world has been around for a very long time and there are billions of events every single day. It really isn’t difficult to play such a game.

This sort of imaginative reading of the signs of the times is all the rage in prophetic circles, and always has been. Predictions that the “end is nigh” have rambled on now for two millennia, in utter disregard to what Jesus himself said on the matter. Yes, that’s right, even God incarnate didn’t seem to know the time and date of his return. What chance then for Lotz and the motley crew of wannabe soothsayers bumbling along in her wake?

In her article, Musters points out that others have made similar prophecies concerning Billy Graham (hardly a surprise given that he’s been one of the most significant figures in US evangelicalism for over half a century). She points out that, in 2011, Maurice Sklar suggested Billy Graham’s death would be prophetically significant, adding – with a classic gloomy prophetic flourish – that there would be financial disasters, wars, terrorism and rioting in America, and “all-out war in the Middle East.” In typical “thus saith the Lord” prophetic style, Sklar (God, it seems, in this case) spaketh thusly: “I am taking Billy Graham home to heaven soon. When you see this, know that my time of grace for the Gentile nations is coming to a close.”

It all sounds very specific, until you think about what he is actually saying. It doesn’t take a professional historian to tell us that the history of humanity has been one of financial disasters, wars, terrorism, and rioting. Such things are routine for our species and predicting them is hardly a sign of divine insight. “All out war in the Middle East?” In 2011 that was hardly an unlikely event! (Did “all out war” happen, anyhow? Not to my mind, but there’s been enough war and unrest to allow the prophetic pretender to claim his proclamations are coming true). Moreover, did it really take a word from the Lord to tell us that Billy Graham was soon going to die? Graham was, after all, 92 years old when that prophecy was given.

It’s always the same old vague prophecies – there are rarely any specific details given, and when that happens the prophetic words turn out to be flat-out false. Witness Harold Camping’s constant specific predictions concerning the date of the end of the world, (or the Jehovah’s Witnesses for that matter also). But that doesn’t stop every wannabe soothsayer from jumping on the prophetic bandwagon. Musters mentions also “controversial preacher Benny Hinn.” A quick look at Hinn’s prophetic track record is telling, including his prophecy 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. This is, of course, the same Hinn that engages in multiple fake claims of divine healing, who travels the world gladly taking money from the sick and impoverished on the implied promise of divine healing, and who once preached that each person of the trinity was actually 3 persons, thus turning the trinity into a conglomerate of 9 persons. One might be forgiven for thinking that Hinn’s Hotline to Heaven is experiencing a technical fault. But on this occasion concerning Graham, he keeps it nice and vague, such that his proclamations could be interpreted in many ways and thus could be claimed to fit all manner of subsequent events.

In the final analysis Musters simply writes, “Ultimately, only time will tell whether the finer details of the prophecies are true.” However, there are no finer details. The prophecies are of such a nature that pretty much anything that happens can be squeezed to fit and then subsequently claimed to be a fulfilment. Specific details are the bane of any prophetic ministry, but sadly we rarely ever find them, and things are no different here. There isn’t the slightest scrap of decent evidence that any of these pronouncements should be taken more seriously than 1000s of others that have been made in the course of Christian history. Perhaps wisdom dictates taking a leaf out of Jesus’s book rather than making a silly spectacle of yourself by feigning knowledge that even the Son of God didn’t claim to have.

Stephen J. Graham

For some tricks of the prophetic trade, see my article:

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March 11, 2018 · 7:21 pm

Are Christians Being Censored?

It emerged this week that Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) in Belfast has refused to screen a movie made by the Core Issues Trust (CIT) – an evangelical group – claiming that homosexuality can be “cured.” Thus far QFT hasn’t given any reason for refusing to screen the movie.

The movie is called “Voices of the Silenced: Experts, Evidences and Ideologies,” and features 15 people who have “come out of homosexual practices” as a result of receiving therapy or through religion. The CEO of CIT – Mike Davidson – laments: “Clearly in Northern Ireland, in line with the rest of the UK, Christian freedom is restricted to freedom of worship alone. . . Homosexual identity in the UK appears now to be mandatory for those experiencing the feelings. . . It seems there may be no dissent; gay identity must be affirmed and there is no debate to be had about the matter. He went on to complain that debate was being shut down and stated his view that his group is being “censored.”

Whilst Davidson fulminations fit into a growing victim narrative amongst a certain contingent of evangelical Christianity, the labelling of QFT’s refusal to show the movie as “censorship” or “silencing” is wholly incorrect. QFT has not yet given its reasons for rejecting the movie, and it is under absolutely no obligation to show any and every movie that is proposed to it. To label this refusal as a silencing of viewpoints is patent nonsense. The CIT are free to publish their views online or in print. They can sell their movie online or as a DVD. They can – and currently are – seeking for other venues who will screen the movie. But cinemas do not have to give the CIT a platform.

Suppose I make a movie glorifying Hitler and advocating the treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, am I being silenced if some cinema refuses to screen it? Hardly. Moreover, I frequently write articles and send them for publication. Since I have many of these articles rejected, does that mean I’m being silenced? Again, that’s incredibly silly. No newspaper or magazine is obliged to give me a platform for my views. I typically publish the articles online myself, so I can hardly claim “censorship.” Censorship would be having my website shut down by the government or facing legal action for expressing my views (and even then there is some speech which is rightly outlawed, anyway). My articles can be rejected for many reasons: some simply aren’t up to standard for the particular publication, others don’t fit the publication’s style or content, and other times the publication simply has far too many articles to publish and so have to leave many unpublished no matter how good they are. The same goes for movies. Maybe this movie is just poor. Maybe the QFT are unable to show it for reasons wholly apart from its content. Alternatively, maybe the QFT regard the content as unscientific and damaging propaganda. They are thus perfectly entitled to reject it for that reason, but in doing so they are not silencing anyone. No one’s freedom of speech is being impinged upon. Not being given a platform by a newspaper, cinema, or publishing house is not an infringement on free speech.

The fact of the matter is that only government can really “censor” anyone by outlawing the expression of certain views. Cinemas, newspapers, and publishing houses do not “censor” in any meaningful sense. They simply publish what they like for a variety of reasons. Christian magazines and publishing houses do not typically publish the works of atheist philosophers or the works of skeptics criticising the Bible. Does that mean they are guilty of censoring atheists? Hardly.

Lastly, perhaps Christians need to reflect on their own attempts to “silence” movies and theatre shows. Look at the outcry over the showing of Jerry Springer: The Opera, where a Christian group tried to have the show outlawed on the grounds of blasphemy. Or consider how only a few years ago Christian politicians and leaders in Northern Ireland tried to ban the performance of the “Complete Word of God” by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (only to succeed in having the performance that so offended them completely sold out!). It would seem the height of hypocrisy for evangelicals to cry censorship when they have made their own calls for precisely that. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Christians have a right to speak their mind on any issue. We can make movies, publish books and articles, run websites, and release DVDs. What we cannot expect is to be given a platform and cry “censorship!” when denied one. Whilst there is a right to free speech, there is no right to force anyone to publish or promote your views.

Stephen J. Graham

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Pseudoscience, Faith-Healing & Testimonials

You can find testimonials to the efficacy of pretty much anything: homeopathy, cancer-killing teabags, magnetic cures, or faith-healing. It’s a form of marketing which can be incredibly persuasive. We are probably more likely to make a judgment about some treatment or other based on a personal recommendation or testimony than on the basis of expert advice or research. Take, for example, “Miracle Mineral Solution,” an elixir commonly touted as a cure for autism, and sometimes even for AIDS and cancer. Not only is MMS utterly useless as a treatment for any of these conditions, it is a noxious brew containing industrial bleach that can quickly cause renal failure. Health authorities all over the world warn against it, and sadly many people – including children –  have suffered severe internal injuries from using it. Despite being medically effete and actively hazardous to health, it isn’t hard to find glowing testimonials – on the websites of dubious pushers of the elixir – from people whose improvement coincided with using it.

The trouble is that testimonials are incredibly unreliable.

Firstly, many people don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own condition and may even be self-diagnosed, such that when they claim to have been cured of X it might well be the case that they never had it to begin with, or it wasn’t as serious as they thought. Secondly, testimonials are selected by the advertiser/pusher of some quack procedure, and represent a few hits in a sea of misses. For instance, one can find volumes of testimonials in a Christian Science reading room. It gives the strong impression that Christian Science works. However, you aren’t being told of the thousands of people who got worse or even died as a direct result of applying Christian Science methods. Suppose I show you my dart board and you see 3 darts in the bulls eye. You might be tempted to think I’m a fair player, at least until I tell you I was throwing darts for 5 hours straight before I got those 3 hits. That’s what testimonials do – they present a lop-sided and carefully selected – sample that is highly misleading. Thirdly, claiming that one got better after using some quack medicine or spiritual procedure demonstrates a correlation in that instance. It doesn’t provide evidence of causation. If every time I have a headache I take 2 aspirin and eat a tube of Smarties can I rightly conclude that Smarties help take away pain? You need proper scientific evidence of the sort that only emerges after lengthy – often expensive – research before you can justifiably claim causation. Fourthly, testimonies are used for marketing purposes and can be edited to make them sound even more persuasive. “My doctor had me on antibiotics and other medicines, but then I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” becomes simply “I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” Or “QUACK X was the only thing that helped me!” sounds convincing because it implies that all other treatments were pursued, but that might not have been the case. Testimonials are a form of marketing, and marketing is rarely straightforwardly honest with us.

Furthermore, the nature of sickness helps the quacks sound more plausible and can provide them with testimonies of cures or improvements where none are present. The trick is to understand that every illness or health condition has a natural variability. With most illnesses or conditions there are times when you feel better, or at least less rotten, and it is during these times that a quack healer will claim that his prescriptions are working. Many people will seek out alternative therapies or spiritual healers when regular treatments don’t seem to be helping. If the person begins using the therapy at a stage when the symptoms are receding then the alternative therapy looks efficacious. If the condition doesn’t improve the quack healer can claim that the patient is fortunate to have started the treatment when he did or he would be in a much worse position.  Should the patient get worse then the quack healer can claim he needs to redouble his efforts. If the patient dies then sadly he started treatment too late and everyone should take note and not make the same mistake! The pushers of quack cures – whether medicines or spiritual procedures – are in a win-win situation; if they are crafty enough they can always avoid being proved wrong, and no matter what the outcome the quack healer can have himself a testimony.

In order not to be mislead it is crucial to bear in mind how flimsy testimonials are as evidence. In fact, as Terence Hines, the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, reminds us: “It is safe to say that if testimonials play a major part in the “come on” for a cure or therapy, the cure or therapy is almost certainly worthless. If the promoters of the therapy had actual evidence for its effectiveness, they would cite it and not have to rely on testimonials.”

Stephen J. Graham

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The Power of Magical Thinking

The Christian church is full of miraculous claims. The charismatic wing of the church routinely claims miraculous healings, prophecies, and even nature miracles. Consider also Roman Catholicism with its miraculous statues, relics, and theophanies. It is rare in either case to find much by way of critical discernment even in light of an overwhelming case against some miracle claim or other, which testifies strongly to the power of magical thinking and the desire to see and experience God at work in the world.

Examples of this mind-set are not difficult to find:

(1) The Glowing Statues at St Joseph the Provider – Campbell, Ohio

Parts of two statues – Mary and Jesus – seemed to have begun to glow. It became apparent that the cause was weathering of the gold leaf that covered the statues, causing them to shine (not glow) more brightly. (In fact, it seems the shining had occurred for some time until one pilgrim decided to make a thing of it). When another pilgrim approached Joe Nickell – who was investigating the phenomena – to ask his opinion, Nickell explained the gold leaf, to which the lady dismissively replied: “I prefer not to believe that.”

(2) Miracle Dirt of El Santuario de Chimayo

At this little church pilgrims scoop miracle dirt from a pit in the floor and rub it on afflicted body parts. According to legend the pit would be refilled by divine intervention. Of course, the fact is that priests periodically refill the hole with dirt and the RCC has never investigated the healing claims. Father Jim Suntum admits the dirt has no powers but still insists “something happens in this place.” It’s unclear anything happens beyond the retelling of healing stories by an elderly priest. But pilgrims continue to flock nevertheless, many desperate for a cure.

(3) The Perambulating Mary in Thornton, California

This statue of Mary apparently changed the tilt of its head, the angle of its eyes, wept, and even strolled around the church at night (being found several feet from its usual location). An investigation by the bishop reported the changes of head and eyes were simply due to different camera angles, and the weeping and movement was probably a hoax. Some of those who were desperate for a miracle simply denounced the investigators as a “bunch of devils” rather than accept reason.

(4) Miscellaneous Moving Madonnas

Pilgrims have never been shy about rushing to venerate other miraculous statues. One such statue in Ireland apparently swayed, a phenomenon which scientists from University College Cork also witnessed, but – with the aid of a motion detector – demonstrated that it was a trick of the light coupled with the involuntary bodily movements of the pilgrims themselves, not the statue. Another statue in Conyers, Georgia, had a “heartbeat.” The heartbeat was simply the pulse in the thumbs of the pilgrim who touched it. After another statue that cried blood was questioned by skeptics, a church spokesperson said there were no plans for a formal church investigation, adding: “if people view this as a miracle and it brings them closer to God, then that’s a good thing.” Pouring skeptical waters on the flames of miracle claims is not always welcome in some quarters.

(5)  The Curious Case of the Self-Replicating Relics

From 6 foreskins of Jesus – several heads of John the Baptist – a few dozen “genuine” burial shrouds of Christ – and enough wood from the “real” cross to build a large ship – it seems something is not quite right in the world of relics. The simple reason for this multiplication is that relics were so keenly sought by churches and wealthy gentlemen seeking to enhance their status and influence that an entire business was sparked for those who would supply them, even if via unholy means. However, an alternative explanation was proffered by those who either benefited from the business or who were simply desperate to hold onto the miracles: the relics had a supernatural ability to reproduce themselves! So, no matter how many pieces of the true cross there were more could always be provided. Hadn’t Jesus fed the 5000 with only 2 fish and 5 loaves? Veneration of all these questionable relics has largely been permitted to continue on the basis that God is not dishonoured by an error made in good faith, and multitudes of pilgrims remain enthusiastic enough to travel miles to venerate them

(6) Theophanies

Mary – and sometimes Jesus – have deigned to appear to the faithful in a multitude of novel ways. Mary has appeared in a cheese toastie; Jesus in a forkful of spaghetti. Mary appeared also in a cut tree stump in Ireland, as well as in a water stain in a grimy Chicago underpass. Commenting on the stump, One Irish parishioner said: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together to say a few prayers, so what’s wrong with that?” Commenting on the Chicago underpass water stain one churchman said: “Maybe this is our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”

Perhaps these sorts of attitudes provide insight into why the RCC is a tad coy when it comes to repudiating such miracles, even when the truth (in these pareidolia and pious imagination) isn’t difficult to ascertain.

More importantly, all these attitudes to the miraculous also provide insight into how a man like Peter Popoff can be exposed as an utter charlatan and still return years later doing the same kind of ministry and commanding a devoted following. The truth is that people often don’t want a non-supernatural answer and so they simply choose not to accept there is one. People crave the miraculous, the wonderful, the novel, and the exotic. It meets a deep psychological need for those who wish their difficult or boring lives were caught up in something more meaningful and exciting. With such widespread needs and desires it is only to be expected that there are would arise people whose business it is to meet these desires, albeit through dishonest and fraudulent means.

Stephen J. Graham


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Guardian Angels

Billy Graham (no relation) died today – Wednesday 21st February 2018. I confess I know very little about him. I never listened to him preach or took much interest in his career. My only contact with Graham was through his book “Angels: God’s Secret Agents,” which was given to me by an Assistant Minister in a Presbyterian Church I attended in my teens. I thought it was odd then and I still do.

It seems a large number of people not only believe in angels as distinct beings but also claim to have their very own “guardian angel,” who pops up occasionally to save them from harm. I confess the notion of guardian angels strikes me as plain silly. The aforementioned Assistant Minister once told me a story (see below) of how an angel saved his life, and whilst I found it interesting, I just thought it was a case of misperception. Many others report their own stories of having been protected by guardian angels. I went through a phase of reading as many of these stories as I could find, but my conclusion was that the vast majority of accounts were either due to misperceptions, misreporting, or just plain folk tales. Graham himself relates a tale of a young girl who fetched a doctor for her sick mother. After tending to the mother the doctor discovered that the woman’s daughter had been dead for several weeks and the coat she was wearing on this windy and rainy night was hanging up in the closet completely dry. The trouble with this story – aside from the fact that it sounds just like a clichéd ghost story – is that it is quite an old tale which has circulated in various forms and with conflicting details. The folklorist Jan Brunvand points out that it came from an original story by S Weir Mitchell, who was a physicist and writer of fiction, and who appeared to suggest the story was indeed a ghost tale.

This sort of story is quite typical, and angels routinely pop up as mysterious kind strangers who provide assistance to people in need and then suddenly just disappear. “Roadside rescue” stories are so common as to be something of a cliché. The aforementioned Assistant Minister’s own story was of this genre of angel-lore. He momentarily lost control of his car and was heading towards a steep drop in a frozen panic when suddenly a car coming from the other direction forced him to steer away from danger. When he came to a halt the other car was nowhere to be seen, and apparently on this long straight road the car should still have been in sight. It had just disappeared. But how much time had lapsed between him swerving, then coming to a halt, and then looking for the other car? It might have seemed to him to have been seconds, but it may well have been much longer. Situations of anxiety can warp our experience of reality such that minutes seem to pass in seconds. Moreover, if the other car was moving fast enough it could easily have been out of sight surprisingly quickly.

Other stories have similar easy explanations. In fact, pretty much every angel story I’ve heard seems to me to have a more straightforward explanation. I have a demonic story of my own. I once woke up in the middle of the night and saw an area of my room that seemed “darker” than the rest. It looked – and felt – like something malevolent was hanging in mid-air beside my wardrobe. It suddenly seemed to fly right up to my face, causing me to shut my eyes in utter terror. The feeling passed in a few seconds and when I opened my eyes again my room was normal. Had I close encounter with a demonic entity? No. Clearly not. It was precisely the sort of experience that is referred to as a waking dream, a kind of hallucinogenic state between sleeping and waking consciousness. Presumably dark powers have more important things to do with their time than scaring the crap out of 17 year olds in their bedrooms. Some angelic accounts have all the hallmarks of the same sort of phenomena: waking dreams, the state which is responsible for many alleged experiences of ghosts, aliens, and other wee beasties lurking in the subconscious mind.

Stress is another state that causes hallucinations (or simply misperceptions) in which people believe they have experienced angels. Robert A. Baker, a psychologist, points out that there is a “well known psychological fact that human beings, when subjected to extreme fear and stress, frequently hallucinate. These hallucinations, in many instances, take the form of helpers, aides, guides, assistants, playing the role of saviour. If the hallucinator also has religious leanings it is easy to understand how such a ‘helper’ is converted into one of the heavenly host.”

In other cases it seems as if the person in question is simply a fantasist. This is particularly common in children, and my own son would freak us out from time to time as a toddler as he seemed to interact with things that weren’t there. Other accounts are simply urban myths, passed on as if the teller was (or knows) the person in question, (people are prone to “sexing up” stories in the retelling to make them even more marvellous to their audience).

None of this means angels do not exist, but it does mean there are generally good reasons for doubting claims to have experienced them.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Perils of Faith-Healing

My most recent article “The Peril of Faith Healing” is published at On Religion here:

In this article I respond to the claims of Gloria Copeland that Christians can and should refuse flu shots because they are provided with supernatural protection by Jesus. I also go on to make a number of critical comments on faith-healing generally, and lay out the dangers inherent in this theology.

Stephen J. Graham

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Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

I’m currently wading through Craig Keener’s massive two volume work “Miracles.” The book relays healing anecdote after healing anecdote. Frankly it is largely boring, incredibly tedious reading, and should have been about a quarter of the size.

Keener tells us that his main thesis is to defend the claim that people all over the globe – past and present – have claimed to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events, and thus New Testament claims can’t be dismissed as later legends, but rather they were genuine claims by eyewitnesses. I honestly don’t know who Keener is aiming at here because I have never met a single person – past or present, in real life or in literature – who doesn’t already know that many people past and present make claims concerning supposed miraculous events they witnessed. Such miracle claims abound in practically every culture. No-one seriously disputes that. I suspect Keener is being rather disingenuous with us, telling us hundreds and hundreds of miracle stories in the hope that we too begin to believe in miracles, or if we already believe then he means to affirm our belief with all these stories. I simply do not believe him when he tells us that the point of his book is the far more modest claim that people claim to have witnessed miracles.

Keener frequently refers to some instance of recovery as “medically inexplicable.” This is a common emphasis in the miracle-touting literature. This stress on medical inexplicability fits well with the definition of miracle provided by Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia: “an event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to divine intervention.” Now, admittedly Keener is at pains to stress that he does not regard all the cases he reports as miraculous, but he does seem to strongly imply that many – even most – of his cases are best explained in these terms. In fact, it seems to me that the main reason Keener presents hundreds of such claims, regardless of their quality (and most are little more than folk tales or hearsay) is to allow him to say something like “sure, some of these claims might be false but there so many of them such that they can’t all be false, and therefore some must be due to supernatural agency.” As part of his cumulative case Keener presents these medically inexplicable recoveries. But how significant is it that some recovery is “medically inexplicable?

That some healing or other is “medically inexplicable” is a woefully inadequate – albeit very common – reason for positing divine intervention. It relies not on any positive evidence but rather on the mere lack of an explanation. This amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. It is not legitimate to argue: “Doctors cannot explain why Bob’s tumour has disappeared, therefore the tumour was taken away by God.” That’s classic god of the gaps reasoning. There are lots of good potential reasons why some recovery might be “medically inexplicable.” For instance, perhaps a patient was misdiagnosed with Serious Disease A when she in fact only had Temporary Disease B. That she recovered is inexplicable as long as we think she suffered Serious Disease A, but of course she might not have. Alternatively, a doctor might well be mistaken about some condition or other. Doctors, after all, do not know everything about every disease. They can also make mistakes, thinking a disease was incurable when it in fact isn’t. Such might be very common in impoverished countries with little or no decent healthcare. Doctors might well lack the equipment for making a sound diagnosis. It is noteworthy that most of the healing claims Keener relates originate in such countries. A doctor might also use the language of “miracle” simply to mean “highly unusual,” rather than “act of God.” Moreover, a patient might misunderstand or misreport what his doctor tells him about his condition and chances of recovery, and in many cases it is the patient – not the doctor – who reports the recovery as “medically inexplicable.” Lastly, even modern medicine is far from omniscient. There are many things we do not know, such as why certain diseases behave the way they do. Remember that what was “medically inexplicable” 400 years ago is routine to us, and the same will likely be the case 400 years from now.

It is worth pointing out also that an event could be “miraculous” in some sense – as a special providence or intervention by God – even if it is completely medically explicable. For instance, suppose God heals Bob of cancer, such that had God not intervened Bob would’ve died. In this case Bob’s recovery might well be medically explicable (perhaps he had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) and yet it is miraculous nonetheless. Or imagine a faith-healer who had an uncanny success rate in praying for people to be healed of cancer. It is possible to see that the case for miraculous intervention could be made despite the fact that each and every case is technically medically explicable (cancer often does remit, particularly with treatment).

It seems clear to me, therefore, that being medically inexplicable is neither necessary nor anywhere near sufficient to establish a miracle.

Stephen J. Graham

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