Short Article 11 – The Resurrection as Myth

Imagine a debate in which an orthodox(ish) Christian says that the resurrection narratives aren’t very good stories, whilst the atheist insists they are charged full of meaning and significance. That’s the position I found myself in during an exchange with fellow Tweep Shane McKee, a self-described Christian Atheist.

To my mind the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits. However, I say this only insofar as the story is true. Shane, on the other hand, insists that the story is false – utterly mythical – but that it’s none the worse for that, speaking to us about human life, death, hope, and many other issues. So much does it resonate with Shane that he sees fit to add the description “Christian” to his “Atheist.”

I want to explain – in more than 140 characters – why that strikes me as rather absurd.

Firstly, take the resurrection narrative purely as a story, the kind of thing that someone might make up around the campfire on a cold night, perhaps. Is it a good story? It might come as a surprise, particularly to my Christian friends, that I don’t regard the resurrection story – considered purely as fiction – to be particularly interesting. There are certainly some interesting moments in the run up to the resurrection, such as the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends who subsequently has such regret that he kills himself, or that most poignant moment on the cross when Christ cries out those haunting words of Psalm 22: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?.” But the actual resurrection narratives – again, taken purely as fiction – don’t amount to a literary hill of beans. They are a combination of the mundane with the surreal, lacking the power and pathos of the crucifixion account. Considered purely as literature the narratives are of minor interest. Of course, if the event really happened then the story is suddenly far more interesting. There’s now a wonder and a significance that was lacking previously. The only reason the Easter story has such a grip on even the non-Christian imagination is because it has been passed on and preached as true by centuries of Christians. Had it never been preached as true the story would today be of only minor interest to a handful of classicists, if indeed it was remembered at all.

Secondly, whilst it’s true that the resurrection story contains certain “big themes” of human life, there are literally thousands of other such stories doing a much better job. Take a story like The Plague by Albert Camus, for example. Hell, even take the graphic novel I read last week – Thor: Gods & Men! It tells the story of Asgard crashing into New York City. Thor, the god of thunder and now ruler of Asgard, proceeds to take over earth and make life as brilliant and easy as possible for humankind. However, the more he tries the more human beings resent him for it and begin to fight back. The story touches on themes of power, freedom, divine-human relations, and repentance; it’s full of intrigue, double-dealing, sacrifice, and love. Other stories – such as many ancient Greek, Celtic or Norse myths – are full of such notions also. However, no matter how much these stories resonate with us, no matter how much they raise our spirits, warm our hearts, or make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end, it seems bizarre in excelsis to define our identity in terms of any of them. It would be like me calling myself a “Grimmian Christian” because not only am I a Christian but the Brothers Grimm stories give me the warm fuzzies.

Thirdly, the power of any myth lies in its use of images to portray a truth beyond itself, typically a metaphysical truth. So, for instance, the Genesis myth isn’t just a cutesy story about a magician God who poofs the world into existence in 6 days and makes a nice garden with a talking snake. It’s saying much more than that. It’s pointing to the absolute power and supremacy of Israel’s God. “You worship the sun? Pah! Our God made that almost as an afterthought!” Theological points are crammed into these few chapters. What though of the resurrection if it never happened? What’s its mythological point? It doesn’t actually have one. The authors wrote the story as true. There isn’t any bigger point under it all, which is why – considered as myth – it’s incredibly bland. If it didn’t happen we are left with a rather sad story of a man unjustly killed by the state, and a bit of make believe tacked onto the end. That’s hardly great material out of which to create something of religious significance, or personal identity.

The resurrection story is therefore significant – existentially, religiously, cosmically – only if it’s true.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 10 – The Importance of the Resurrection

This week the BBC reported the results of a religious belief poll, with the headline proclaiming that one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39153121). My response to this was a simple “Psssst…they’re not Christians.” I was promptly taken to task by a few Twitter followers for the comment, which was described as “harsh” by one, while another chastised me for not taking into account other important features of religious faith besides belief (such as practice). Many of my fellow Christians seemed to agree with me, however.

Why should I adopt such a stance on a single doctrinal position? Isn’t Christianity much bigger than a single belief? Well, of course it is. However, there are several pretty major beliefs the rejection of which leaves people outside of historic orthodox Christianity. The resurrection is one such belief, and those who reject it surely know – if they are remotely reflective – that they are placing themselves outside of orthodoxy here. Resurrection was the founding belief of the entire Christian movement; without it there would have been no Christianity. It appears in virtually all Christian creeds which are accepted universally across denominational boundaries. Contrary to one accusation, therefore, this isn’t an arbitrary move on my part.

The fact of the matter is that all faiths have distinctives. Whilst religions are obviously more than just belief systems, they do at least include a cognitive element which is essential to their being the sort of thing they are. Could I one day wake up and just decide to be “Muslim” despite not believing the Qu’ran is the final Word of God, or that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets? Of course not. When it comes to religious faith we can’t believe or live as we like and still reasonably apply some label to ourselves. Words such as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” actually mean something, despite how difficult it might be to provide an exhaustive definition of what they are. And there are clear cases when such labels do not apply. “Muslim,” for instance, clearly does not apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But – so I was challenged – who decides?! Well, in this case we all must make our own minds up as to what we are willing to accept as being “Christian.” It seems to me to be eminently reasonable, however, to use belief in the resurrection as a marker of orthodoxy here. It always has been in a way that certain other doctrines – such as the eternal mode of God’s existence – never have been. Someone might not agree with the boundaries that I draw, but that person will still have some boundaries, however vague. Without such boundaries the word “Christian” would be literally meaningless.

It may be true that Christianity – like all religions – has evolved somewhat with time. However, churches today still largely accept historic creeds from centuries ago. These creeds embody some of the earliest Christian beliefs and they are still distinctives of Christianity today. In that regard the core of Christianity remains the same. It was founded on faith in a risen Christ and it continues to be so. There are some who would reject certain quintessential Christian beliefs as the resurrection and attempt to salvage something from the remains. They might reduce Christian faith to a collection of false but meaningful stories. But that’s hardly enough for religious significance. After all the Brothers Grimm also have a collection of false but meaningful stories but it would be a tad silly to construct a religious faith out of them. There might be other such attempts to construct a quasi-Christian alternative, but any such a system is no longer historic Christianity. It’s an aberration. A Big Mac without the meat.

And so, what do we make of the report than one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection? I suspect it’s a simple case of nominal Christianity. My dad still puts his religion down on forms as “Church of Ireland,” despite the fact that he doesn’t believe a word of Church of Ireland doctrine – he’s not religious at all. Which means that a quarter of “Christians” don’t believe in the resurrection, perhaps, but not a quarter of Christians. Rejection of the resurrection is a rejection of historic Christianity.

Stephen J. Graham

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Q & A, Mind Farts, & Brain Vomit: Solutions

I managed to catch the final lecture of William Lane Craig’s “Reasons for Hope” tour of Ireland. The venue was Assembly Buildings in Belfast city centre, home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The event was managed by Christian Unions Ireland and attracted several hundred people. It wasn’t a debate or a hard-headed philosophical lecture. It was a popular level apologetics talk, pitched to interested lay-people. Still, Craig was engaging and easy to listen to. He’s undoubtedly a fantastic communicator, whatever you think of his philosophy. Sadly he only spoke for around 45 minutes of the event, the rest of the 1.25 hours being dedicated to Q & A. What a disaster.

Seriously. It was a train wreck. It was so bad that I confess I left half-way through and went home. Every Q & A cliché was on display. The guy who has a rambling speech to deliver. The guy who can’t quite turn his incoherent thoughts into a question. The guy who asks his simple question in such a convoluted way that no-one – not even Craig with two doctorates – can understand it. It’s maddening. Here we were with one of the most influential Christian philosophers at our disposal but instead we were having to listen to Joe Bullplop rambling about cosmic nihilism, or Jimmy Whattheheck trying to make some point about humans being pleasure seeking animals (or perhaps, as another attendee suggested, it was “pattern seeking,” I have no idea. The point is – it was about a clear as dirty dishwater).

I assume these people have come to this event because they have at least some interest in philosophy. Why, then, can they not ask a simple question? Why do they even struggle to form a coherent sentence? Don’t they know I’m not interested in their brain vomit? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? What inspires them to embarrass themselves with a mind fart in front of several hundred people? It’s painful to watch.

It’s utterly unnecessary too. It’s about time we clamped down on it. Far too many perfectly decent events are ruined by badly handled Q & A sessions. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Never have an “open mic.” If you do, there is no quality control at all. You’re leaving yourself open to every swivel-eyed loon who thinks he has something important to add to the debate.

2. Lots of well-meaning people can become unstuck and tongue-tied when they suddenly hear their voice magnified across an auditorium. Insist they write their question down and read it.

3. If you want to help the people above, have their question checked by an assistant before they ask it. If it doesn’t make sense to the assistant, it probably won’t make sense to others. Time to rethink and rewrite.

4. Even better – have questions written down and submitted beforehand. This way the best and most relevant questions can be picked out rather than prioritising questions based on who had the balls to get up in front of a microphone first.

5. Don’t be afraid to embarrass people publically. Yes, it might be cruel, but it’s time to stop tolerating incoherent babble. Cut people off if you have to. Tell them to take a seat to get their thoughts together and try again later. Tell them they have 10 seconds to get their question out or they lose the mic. Not only do you cut short their nonsense, you also put off others tempted to do the same.

6. Here’s a rule I recommend you announce to the audience: if you can’t ask your question in a single short sentence don’t get to your feet until you can. If your question takes a paragraph of explanation, then this Q & A isn’t for you.

7. It might be cheating, but it’s not always a bad idea to have a few audience “plants.” These are people who have been primed with questions to ask beforehand. It helps get the Q & A off to a good start and sets the tone.

8. Insist – with no exceptions – that the questions relate to the topic of the evening. If they don’t, cut the person off and move on.

9. Normally during a Q & A there is a chairperson controlling the event. This role is absolutely crucial – not only for 1-8 above, but also to save a dying Q & A session. If it’s falling flat he or she should intervene to ask a few questions in and around the topic, turning the Q & A into an interview for a brief time.

10. Don’t think the Q & A time is a time when the hard work is done and you can just sit back and relax. Q & A can make the difference between an audience member staying and praising your event or going home and writing a disgruntled blog post about it.

Stephen J Graham

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The Prosperity Gospel & Donald Trump

My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, can be found here:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/trumps-prosperity-gospel/

Stephen J Graham

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Miracles in “Traditional Religions” – A Response to Fiona Bowie

In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.

http://www.academia.edu/459694/Miracle_in_Traditional_Religion

In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.

Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.

According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.

There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.

And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?

The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.

Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 9: Does Matthew 20 contradict Mark 10?

Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:

(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)

(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)

Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!

Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.

There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.

In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.

Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”

There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.

Stephen J. Graham

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Theodicy Revisited

The wonderful folks at On Religion magazine have published ny most recent article “Theodicy Revisited,” a follow up to my earlier article, “The Drama of Evil.” They have made Issue 14 freely available, so my article can be accessed here: http://www.onreligion.co.uk/theodicy-revisited/

Have a look at the other articles also and consider subscribing. It’s an excellent magazine with a broad range of opinion.

Cheers!

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 8: Skepticism & The Banshee of Castlederg

The word banshee comes from the Irish term “Bean Sidhe,” which means “woman of the hill.” In Celtic mythology as the ancient gods of Ireland where decreasing in power and influence, they all got their own little hill – Sidh (pronounced “Shee”) – in which to live. Many were downgraded from “divine” status and became simply “fairies.” Goddesses soon become “women of the hills” – bean sidhe – or banshees. Lots of folk tales grew up around the banshees, who were rumoured to appear on hill tops and wail into the night. Their appearance was typically taken as an omen of a death in the family of those who saw them.

My mum recently told me one particular delightful story about her grandfather – Granda Wilson – which made me smile, particularly in light of my own well-known scepticism of all such phenomena.

My Great Grandfather Wilson lived in County Tyrone just outside of a small down called Castlederg. He was a farmer, and as such lived a tough life. However, such farmers were hardy folk, with a wonderful ability to get on with life in the face of hardships, and even to be jolly as they did so. Apparently my Great Grandfather was no exception, and my mum loved to spend time with him on his farm over the summer. In fact she became his shadow and followed him everywhere he went: except when he went to face a banshee.

The weather was stormy and at night a ghostly figure was spotted wailing into the night. Others were called and confirmed that this was indeed a banshee. What else could it be? Word spread around the area and many people were afraid. The old tales of banshees were well ingrained in rural consciousness and banshees were never rumoured to bring glad-tidings! The hill was avoided, particularly at night.

But my great granda Wilson was a hardy farmer, a man too well acquainted with the earth and its natural rhythms to be afraid of any otherworldly nonsense like this! He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was going to put an end to this silly talk and find out once and for all what was going on at the top of this hill. A small group gathered to watch him as he resolved to confront the banshee. He grabbed his coat, a stick, and a torch and headed off.

The small crowd followed him to the bottom of the hill and watched. From the bottom of the hill the people could see the banshee waving and wailing at the top as it had done now for several nights. After a few minutes they heard the huge hearty laugh of my great grandfather Wilson. A few minutes later he reappeared in jolly good spirits. “A banshee?” he laughed. “Did no-one notice in day light the big bloody tree at the top of the hill had a sheet stuck on it!?!”

Yep. Apparently an old bedsheet had blown off someone’s washing line in the storm and got stuck in the tree. In the stormy weather the trees branches wailed and the sheet flapped in the wind like a ghost. What else could it be but a banshee?

The story reminds us of a number of lessons which must be borne in mind when considering all such phenomena:

1. The power stories can have over our collective consciousness,
2. The ability of groups of people to convince each other of things for which there’s a perfectly normal explanation,
3. How our perception of reality can be skewed and affected by the things we believe, and
4. That exposing the plain truth can often be achieved simply by shedding a little light on the matter.

Stephen J. Graham (proud to be 1/8th Wilson)

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Short Article (7) – Miracles and Manifestations: A Short Guide

Some people don’t have time to read my articles investigating the many claims within the charismatic movement and beyond, so here is a digest of my conclusions.

1. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)

A very natural phenomenon which occurs in many religions, in children, and in people with certain mental illnesses. It’s often a learned behaviour in which people use sounds from their own native language to create a babble which on the surface sounds like another language but which linguistic analysis has revealed to be nothing of the sort.

2. Healing

I have come across very few cases of alleged healing that weren’t incredibly easily explained in natural terms. Healing claims are rarely investigated and medical evidence often never sought or offered by those who claim to have been miraculously healed. Instead we find one or a combination of the following at work: misdiagnosis, orthodox medical treatment, placebo, exaggeration, misunderstanding, rumour, anecdote, the body’s own healing ability, or plain old fraud.

3. Words of Knowledge or Prophecy

These can often sound quite persuasive, leaving us thinking “how did he/she know that if it wasn’t for supernatural revelation?” Charismatic prophets have been caught using various quite normal techniques to create the illusion: eaves dropping on conversations, researching people beforehand, cold reading techniques, and the use of vague propositions that sound specific but could apply to almost anyone.

4. Gold Dust and Glory Clouds

The appearance of gold dust is a favourite staple in the wackier charismatic churches, and it’s one of the biggest signs of fraud you could see. Samples of the gold dust have been analysed and in every single case they turn out to be nothing but cheap poster glitter, found in any art supplies store. Sometimes this is put into the air-conditioning system in a church to make it look like gold dust is raining down in a “glory cloud.” It’s fraudulent. Pure and simple.

5. Gold Teeth and Fillings

This popular miraculous manifestation relies on two things: people generally not knowing where exactly they have fillings – such that when a healer pronounces a new one the person is easily convinced – and the use of a torch by the healer, which when shined on a silver coloured surface makes the surface look golden. That’s why soon afterwards people discover that their fillings have “reverted” to a silver colour. They were never gold, they just looked golden under torch light. Moreover, there’s nothing special about a filing being cross-shaped – this is entirely normal in many types of fillings. These miracles play on our oral ignorance.

6. Angel Feathers

This has got to be my favourite fraudulent miraculous manifestation, if only for sheer hilarity. Bethel Church in California is a cesspit of fraudulent supernatural claims, and it has also claimed this one after finding lots of little white feathers around and ruling out the presence of nesting birds. The origin of the idea of angel feathers is utterly pagan. Why think angels have feathers anyway? After all, the vast majority of species on earth which can fly do NOT have feathers. It’s so unbelievably silly that anyone who claims this miracle is genuine is either a crooked conman or so utterly deluded as to be in need of a straight-jacket.

7. Miraculous Oil

As with gold dust, sometimes certain evangelists have oil manifest itself on their face and/or hands. Joshua Mills was dripping in so much oil on one occasion that he started to fill two cups with the stuff. Most others tend to look just a bit sweaty. I confess I find the greasy look very fitting for these charismatic leaders.

8. “Slaying” in the Spirit

A preacher prays for someone who ends up falling backwards allegedly under the power of God. In reality it’s just a learned behaviour and people fall under the power of suggestion and the weight of expectation. In many cases there’s a form of hypnosis at work leading up to the “slaying.” The less scrupulous evangelists aren’t beyond pushing people to the floor or subtly affecting their balance to send them falling backwards.

9. Leg Growing

No, amputated limbs do not grow back, but God is – apparently – able to grow legs that are about an inch shorter than the other leg. More likely it’s just a simple parlour trick – as exposed by James Randi and Derren Brown – which involves either manipulating people’s shoes, or their limbs to create the illusion that one leg is growing right before our eyes. Sadly, it’s not even a good trick!

10. Stigmata

The first stigmatic – St Francis of Assisi – probably engaged in self-harm during a vivid visionary experience of some kind during a period of prayer and fasting. I don’t believe he was a deliberate fraud, but pretty much everyone who has followed is exactly that. Stigmata: when self-harming becomes holy.

Stephen J. Graham

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Against Exorcism

According to a recent Daily Telegraph article there is a serious shortage of………exorcists. Seemingly the church is struggling to deal with the number of foul spirits running amok in the world today. As with all such allegedly other-worldly phenomena, critical examination is crucial, and often sheds light on otherwise mysterious occurrences. Anyone familiar with my research on charismatic phenomena will not be surprised to learn that I’m skeptical about cases of demon possession and its close relative, poltergeist activity. In this article I want to give several reasons why we should be skeptical of such claims.

Firstly, it’s a matter of historical fact that as knowledge of mental illness has increased the number of alleged demon possession cases has decreased. Belief in demon possession lingers on primarily where there is ignorance about mental illness. Many accounts of demon possession simply appear to be text-book examples of mental health conditions such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, or hysteria. Accordingly, even the Vatican amended its exorcism guidelines urging practitioners not to mistake psychiatric illness for possession. Unfortunately there is little consensus regarding how we are supposed to differentiate between the two. The main telling signs of demon possession are supposed to be:

(i) Speaking in other tongues;
(ii) Prodigious strength; and
(iii) Vulgarities and blasphemies aggressively directed particularly towards the exorcist as he goes about his business.

None of these strike me as incapable of being caused by known mental or physical conditions. For instance, it is well known that schizophrenics can speak in “tongues,” people with Tourette’s syndrome might easily respond to a priest with some vulgar blasphemy, and whilst Prodigious strength is difficult to measure, people having an epileptic fit can easily do themselves or others a serious injury.

Given what we know of mental illness we should be very wary of claiming other-worldly explanations for such symptoms.

Secondly, not only are demon possession and poltergeist activity incredibly easy to fake – by an attention seeking adolescent or a disturbed adult – there have been many cases when they actually have been faked. Such was the case in an ABC broadcast in 1991 featuring a 16 year old victim/actor. Another case of faked possession involved nuns engaging in certain behaviour not because they were possessed but rather because they sought to act out their sexual frustrations, get out of having to do unpleasant chores, and attract sympathy and attention. Moreover, the entire spiritualist movement was kick-started on the back of fraudulent phenomena. The founders of spiritualism – the Fox sisters – confessed later in their lives to having fooled everyone with nothing other than childish pranks and tricks. Others – such as the famed mediums the Davenport brothers – similarly confessed to trickery later in their careers. Given the number of frauds who have made such claims, we should look upon all with some suspicion. Maybe the most recent claims are just variations of the same old pranks and trickery.

Thirdly, as psychology develops we understand more and more about the power of human imagination and emotions such as fear. Noises in the dark are often more frightening than the same noises in the daytime, and our imagination can make much more out of relatively simple occurrences than really is the case. At night time my own house makes a lot of noises. Pipes clunk and grind as they cool down. Wooden doors creak and groan as they expand or contract with changes in temperature. Sometimes we can hear a whistling/humming noise in our bedroom. It took me months to work out what it was: a very slight gap in the window frame through which the wind could whistle when it blew in a specific direction at a certain speed. All such noises could be easily interpreted as poltergeists or evil spirits. Scrapping noises are also incredibly common in such accounts, and can be caused by no more evil an entity than a mouse or a rat shuffling about. Such noises can be unsettling, particularly at night time and one’s imagination can conjure up all manner of other-worldly horrors to explain them.

Furthermore, some people can experience “waking dreams” which can involve frightening hallucinations. Here’s one I experienced myself years ago. I woke up in the middle of the night and in the gloom I noticed a figure beside my wardrobe. It looked “blacker” than everywhere else, and seemed to be hovering in the air. Suddenly it flew right up to my face and I could sense its presence just as if a human being were right there. I shut my eyes as tight as possible and lay in terror for several seconds, unable to move or open my eyes. After this brief time the “presence” seemed to evaporate away. I opened my eyes and all was normal. This could very easily be explained as an experience of some foul-spirit or ghost, and many people do indeed interpret their similar experiences in just these terms, but it was just a waking dream hallucination. Nothing ever came of it. Presumably demons have better things to do with their time than hang around watching teenagers sleep.

In fact, when we hear of various “evil” occurrences it’s often something rather trivial – scratching noises, banging pipes, objects falling off a table. There are many things the forces of evil could well be up to in the world; scaring the crap out of people by banging on a water pipe probably isn’t one of them. More likely it’s just our imagination playing tricks.

This is linked to my fourth reason for being skeptical of possession claims and poltergeist/spiritualist phenomena: the power of suggestion. We already know that the power of suggestion is behind a number of other phenomena – such as many cases of hypnosis and much of what passes for miraculous healing. It seems something similar might be plausibly a work here too. Over the centuries certain types of behaviour have become associated with demonic activity such that people seem to be playing to the stereotype. Michael Cuneo – a sociologist at Fordham university – gave his analysis of an NBC programme on exorcism in which the Rev Brian Connor and a number of associates performed an exorcism on a man who suffered depression. Cuneo observed that the behaviour of the man in question was down to subtle suggestions from the group of exorcists as to how he should behave and respond. The man was convinced by the group that he was possessed. It was a case of self-deception and group reinforcement. Other documentaries and voyeuristic “reality” shows have presented a steady stream of people willing to play up to the kind of “Exorcist Movie” stereotype, such as adopting the raspy guttural voice that we all know the Devil himself uses. Because of this adopting of stereotyped – even Hollywood inspired – behaviour amongst those who are “possessed,” many psychologists conclude that what we are dealing with is a bit of Let’s Pretend role-playing.

The final reason for skepticism is a pragmatic one: gullibility ends up fueling a growth in the practice of exorcism, and the practice of exorcism can be damaging and dangerous. Aside from the psychological and physical abuse of a mentally unwell person, there has been no shortage of fatalities in the world of exorcism. Zakieya Latrice Avery and Monifa Denise Sanford were both charged with murder after stabbing several children in the course of an exorcism. Another exorcism carried out in New Zealand by a Pentecostal pastor and other members of his church involved choking a woman and bouncing on her body. After her ordeal, which lasted several hours, she died, and the pastor was prosecuted for manslaughter. When overzealous exorcists are convinced that before them stands a demon from the bowels of Hell itself is it any wonder why they end up stabbing, choking, punching, kicking, slapping, binding, or jumping up and down on the victim?

The combination of poor understanding of mental health coupled with religious hysteria too often churns out inhumane behaviour. One wonders where evil really lies in such cases.

Stephen J. Graham

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