Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Atheism, Morality

Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Calvinism, Eternal Life, Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Universalism

What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Antony Flew, Belief, God, Theism

Short Article (3): The Clear Teaching of Scripture – A Response to Michael L Brown

Christian author and radio host Michael L Brown recently remarked: “The ultimate reason I’m not a Calvinist is the overwhelming testimony of scripture, carefully exegeted, from Genesis to Revelation. I understand my Calvinist friends have come to the opposite conclusion based on their study of Scripture. The question is: Why?” Brown is making the sort of statement I’ve seen time and time again from theologians on any side of some controversial question: “X is the clear teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood.” Now, the problem with that sort of statement is that when you ask why people disagree with X, you are asking why they disagree with the plain teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood, and to that question there is typically one of two answers: said person is not intelligent enough to properly understand or interpret scripture, or else they are wickedly disobeying it. With this point made – either implicitly or explicitly – the pinching and eye poking soon follows.

The problem isn’t that anyone is too stupid or too wicked (OK, sure, some theologians are one or the other, or both), the problem is that much that is pronounced as the “clear teaching of scripture” is anything but clear. Take this particular issue: Calvinist versus Arminian interpretations of scripture (we’ll leave aside for now the eminently more sensible secret option three: molinism). For either side to claim that the Bible clearly teaches their position is to vastly overstate the case. There are verses which seem to support a “Calvinist” view of providence and others which clearly support an “Arminian” one. This presents a difficulty for claiming either view is the “clear teaching” of Scripture carefully exegeted. Proponents of each position are typically adept at taking those verses which are claimed by the other side in support, and showing how they are consistent with their own position after all. Seemingly there isn’t a verse supporting Calvinism or Arminianism that can’t be interpreted differently by those with the contrary persuasion.

What is assumed more often than not in these debates is the idea that theologians – or regular church Joes – go to scripture as objective interpreters and allow it to speak to them as it actually is. But that strikes me as flat out false. We all come laden with baggage. Brown overlooks that when people approach scripture they typically do so from within a certain theological tradition and with an interpretative framework in place. Moreover, a person’s control over such things is fairly limited. Someone born and raised in a Presbyterian church is far more likely to operate from within that church’s interpretative parameters, and thus adopt a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and typically without even realising it. He’s absorbed it with his mother’s milk, as it were. It isn’t that he is less careful or less intelligent or more sinful than Michael Brown, it’s simply that his interpretative presuppositions and theological tradition differs.

This principle holds in many areas of our intellectual life. None of us – not even those brilliant internet freethinkers – arrive at our beliefs from some neutral view from nowhere after rationally and systematically following some prescribed objective method. I suspect our believing this or that is a much more passive process than we appreciate. Often, for a whole host of reasons, we simply find ourselves with the beliefs we have. Of course we can (and should) critically reflect on our beliefs, and may even effect some noetic change or other – but, by and large, the judgments we make, particularly on matters of controversy, are coloured by a multitude of factors largely beyond our direct and significant control: culture, upbringing, psychological makeup and 101 other contingencies of life. And all this before we acknowledge the all too human tendency to read one’s views into the Bible, with the result that eisegesis regularly masquerades as “careful exegesis.”

So, why does a Calvinist see the “clear teaching of scripture” differently from Michael Brown? Because they aren’t Michael Brown, and because no-one reads the Bible without some interpretative lens in place.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Arminianism, Belief, Bible, Calvinism

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

*****
Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
*****

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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