Monthly Archives: February 2016

Books in 2016

I have made a rather modest challenge to myself of reading 30 books in 2016. I thought I’d keep a list here of all my books, more for myself than anything else, but some folks might be interested in what literary offerings float my boat. I’m not recording essays (unless I read an entire book of them) or articles here, just books and perhaps a note as to whether they were worth reading. I’ll add to this list as the year goes on and I finish each book.

FINISHED:

1. History of Ancient Greece – Nathaniel Harris.

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

2. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

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

3. The Plague – Albert Camus

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

4. Religions of Ancient China – HA Giles

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

5. Is The Atheist My Neighbor? – Randal Rauser

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

6. In Search of the Trojan War – Michael Wood

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

7. Discourse on Method & The Meditations – Rene Descartes

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

8. The War of The Worlds – HG Wells

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

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

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

10. The Greeks, Kenneth Dover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty much what the title suggests. Each essay is written by a different author and gives a very brief overview of the life and work of one particular philosopher. There are some philosophers I wouldn’t have included, and some missing I would have. Generally the essays do the job well, but a few are poorly written, leaving the novice no more wiser than when he began.

14. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis

I rarely read devotional books and had this one lying around for a few years. I didn’t read it “devotionally” but it’s structured perfectly for that, and is rightly considered a classic. At times Kempis is just a tad too anti-intellectual for my tastes, but that’s a very minor criticism of an overall very enjoyable and thought-provoking text.

15. Greece and Rome: Myths and Legends, HA Guerber

This was a brilliant collection (and retelling) of the myths of Greece and Rome, with the added bonus of a final chapter that gives an interesting (though not to me persuasive) account of the origin of the myths from an analysis of linguistics. The stories told in the book are interspersed with small sections of poetry from a massive array of poets through the ages, showing just how influential these myths have been. Well worth reading.

16. Moral Philosophy, DD Raphael

This is a relatively short and very readable guide to moral philosophy. It’s recommended for those new to moral philosophy – students or the legendary general reader. It has particularly useful chapters on utilitarianism, justice, and liberty.

17. The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas

I’d read a kids version of this classic when I was about 10, but never Dumas’ original. I loved it from start to finish. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years. It ended too quickly!

18. The Will to Believe & Other Essays, William James

As with any collection of essays this contains a few duds that didn’t particularly interest me. But, there are gems here, not least of all the title essay which is one my favourite pieces of philosophy. James is one of the most influential philosophers on my own approach. If nothing else you must admire any man who, in an effort to refute Hegel, gets himself intoxicated with nitrous oxide!

19. The 39 Steps, John Buchan

A short and enjoyable thriller. It was a bit loose in parts but was a decent yarn worth a read.

20. Miracles and Idolatry, Voltaire

This is basically a collection of short essays – enlightenment blog posts, if you will. The book is very readable, and I particularly enjoyed his rather surprising discussion of atheism and his sarcasm soaked lampooning of church councils. Voltaire’s message is always simple: learn to think well, and then think for yourself.

21. Augustine, Henry Chadwick

This short book is part of OUP’s “Past Masters” series, which is excellent as an introduction to many historical thinkers. During my university days modules in church history were my least favourite, and Chadwick almost single-handedly got me through them. This book is a good introduction to Augustine, with my only minor criticism being that the structure of the book isn’t in any particular logical or historical order (that I could discern), but I unhesitatingly recommend OUP’s entire series.

22. The Religious Experience of Mankind, Ninian Smart

I read parts of this as a student but never start to finish, and what a rollicking romp across time and space it is as Smart documents the ideas and growth of religious traditions, ideas and experiences all over the world over thousands of years. A must-read for theologians and philosophers of religion, or anyone else wanting to learn something about world religions.

23. Philebus, Plato.

What constitutes the good life? Pleasure? Reason? Some mix of the two? You’ll have to read it for Plato’s answer. Not my favourite of Plato’s dialogues, but still, it’s Plato and it’s a dialogue – a form of writing philosophy whose resurrection is long overdue.

24. Judge Not, Todd Friel

Friel is a staunchly conservative Christian. He’s like marmite: love him or hate him. My wife can’t stand him, I like him despite his views being closer to hers than mine. He’s snarky, sarcastic, and often funny – rare traits in conservative Christians. In this book he basically has a go at all the things that drives him a bit nuts in evangelicalism. Some chapters deserve to be torn from the book and burned, but he speaks a fair bit of sense in others, and entertains along the way.

25. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

To my shame I have never read this classic before now. It’s a weighty tome and I confess after 100 pages I was a bit concerned it was going to be a bust, but ultimately Dostevsky didn’t disappoint. Although the main plot doesn’t really begin until 400 pages in, even before this there are flashes of literally brilliance. The book maybe didn’t need to be so long, but it’s well worth the effort. Read it before you turn 38!

26. God: A Guide for the Persplexed, Keith Ward

A very readable book discussing the many approaches to who and what God is. Ward adopts a quasi-agnostic via negativa approach, which I don’t much care for, but cautioning the religious against metaphysical certainties and grand assured systems is to be welcomed.

27. The Norse Myths, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I’ve read other versions of Norse myths, but this one is the best, both in terms of how the stories are told as well as the way they are arranged to tell a longer saga. As a lover of myth I thoroughly recommend this volume.

28. Descartes, Anthony Kenny

Anthony Kenny has seen many a philosophy student safely through their studies, and it’s easy to see why. In this book it’s obvious that Kenny has the utmost respect for Rene Descartes. He lays out Descartes philosophy carefully, and critiques it with fairness and clarity. Make sure you read Descartes works first, though!

29. The Oresteian Trilogy, Aeschylus

I read this one not for the first time and not for the last time. Aeschylus was a master of Greek Tragedy and this volume should appeal to lovers of literature, mythology, and philosophy. I’d love to see it performed live!

30. Mythology of the Celtic People, Charles Squire

This book discusses the two main branches of Celtic mythology: Gaelic and British. The first part – Gaelic – is better written, more coherent, and far more interesting. The second part got a bit boring. I would have rather had more stories than explanation. But, anyone interested in Gaelic mythology could do worse than Part 1.

Bonus Track – “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens

I’ve seen several movie versions but never read the original story. It was amazingly good…delightful…meaningful…and a brilliant way to finish off my 2016 book challenge.

Stephen J Graham

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

*****
UPDATE 4TH APRIL

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

I eagerly await a response from Mr Lynas.

Stephen J. Graham

3 Comments

Filed under Debate, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham

2 Comments

Filed under Belief, Faith, Theism

Are There Any Honest Atheists?

Jeffrey Jay Lowder strikes me as one of the most fair-minded atheist thinkers; he’s civil, deeply thoughtful, and charitable to his opponents. Further, he has no qualms about chastising his fellow atheists when their manner descends below that which is helpful in civil discourse, or when they make poor arguments. He has also in the past conceded that there are features of the world that lend some evidence to theism. I wish more atheists – and theists – adopted his attitude.

Lowder expressed irritation recently concerning how so many theists consider atheists to be liars, linking to an article by Sam Storms in which Storms rejects the concept of an “honest atheist.” Storms is not a lone voice either. This view of atheists is incredibly widespread. In his short, but substantial, book “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?,” Randal Rauser provides an excellent brief overview of thinkers past and present who adopt what Rauser labels “The Rebellion Thesis.” The thrust of the rebellion thesis is that no one really disbelieves in God; atheists are simply in moral rebellion against their creator – and, crucially, they know it. They hate God and desire a life of sin. Rauser cites an account of the Christian theologian RC Sproul who was invited to present a case for the existence of God to a university sceptics group. After presenting the case, Sproul told them: “Your problem is not that you do not know that God exists; your problem is that you despise the God whom you know exists. Your problem is not intellectual; it is moral—you hate God.” So, here was a group of sceptics reaching out to the “opposition,” and giving him a platform, their time, and attention – a very charitable act these partisan days – and Sproul shows his thanks by pretty much spitting in their faces. I call upon my fellow theists to – at the very least – acknowledge how frustrating it must be to have one’s honesty called into question. Sproul basically accuses an entire room full of strangers of being self-deluded liars. The brazen arrogance is astounding.

Imagine the following conversation:

John: “I’m a vegetarian now, I believe killing animals for food is wrong.”

George: “You say that, but you know eating meat is not wrong.”

John: “Pardon me? I’m telling you I believe eating meat is wrong!”

George: “Yeah, but you’re a human, and we’re one of millions of species who eat meat. We’re designed to eat it; there’s no way any human can REALLY think it’s wrong when it’s hard-wired into our being.”

John: “Well, I think it’s wrong!”

George: “You’re only saying that, deep down you know there’s nothing wrong with eating meat! I bet you even stuff your face with bacon sandwiches when no-one’s looking!”

John: “You’re insane! I really believe killing animals for food is wrong!”

George: (fingers in ears) I can’t hear you MEAT LOVER!”

A parody perhaps, but the view of atheists held by many theists isn’t a whole lot different. Where does it come from?

Many of those challenging the “honest atheist” concept cite certain Biblical texts in support of their position. Sam Storms – when he isn’t quoting John Calvin at length – relies on Romans chapter 1. Others draw also on the two near identical passages in Psalms which tell us “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” [Ps 14:1 & 53:1]. Upon such texts these theologians build a theology which labels all unbelievers generally, and atheists in particular, as liars. In other words, not only are they considered as living a life estranged from God, but they know they are and are in wilful rejection of the God in which they claim not to believe. Saying that atheists – or other non-believers – are in some way estranged from God is one thing, but it’s a whole different ball-game to claim that they really know there is a God and have wilfully and with full understanding rejected Him. The latter is a much stronger claim, and I contend that the evidence – biblical evidence, testimonies from atheists and converts from atheism, and psychological evidence – simply doesn’t support it.

I haven’t the time to exegete properly the relevant biblical texts here, but I want to make just a few comments, and I refer the reader to Rauser’s book for more details. Firstly, it seems to be rather anachronistic to read modern intellectual atheism into either of these texts. In fact, as Rauser points out with respect to Psalm 14:1, even if modern atheism was indeed in view it still wouldn’t justify the thesis that atheists are dishonest, or that all atheists are fools. Just because the fool says in his heart “there is no God,” does not entail that everyone who says “there is no God” is a fool. That would be logically fallacious. In any event, I am in full agreement with Rauser, who argues that when we examine the wider cultural and literary context we discover the most likely targets of Psalm 14 are those who believe in God but live as if they do not. That’s religious hypocrites like you and I, not atheists.

Romans 1 is perhaps a more convincing basis for denying the “honest atheist” concept. But even here there are problems. Rauser points out that the passage is part of a larger discourse concerning the universality of the sinfulness of humankind, and thus shouldn’t be used to single out any particular group. In addition, the immediate context is that of Gentile pagans who supress their natural knowledge of God and embrace pagan religion. Rauser also cautions that by applying this text in the way proponents of the rebellion thesis do, we cause all manner of mischief for any Christian who goes through a period of doubting God. Is such a person really just sinfully rebelling? That seems highly implausible. As Christians we can have all manner of doubts – stemming from intellectual doubts caused by some atheistic argument, to existential doubts, perhaps caused by some period of suffering and the apparent absence of God. I find myself in agreement with Rauser’s comments that: “The Christian cannot deny the fact that God’s existence and nature are not always plain and clear. The fact is that there are countless people of religious faith who have not always found God’s existence and nature to be plain and clear.” Perhaps some theologians will simply bite the bullet and insist that this is indeed all just sinful rebellion, but that strikes me as uncharitable and implausible in excelsis. Whatever we make of Romans 1, there seems to be good enough reason to doubt that the intention is to teach that all atheists are really believers in God knowingly and sinfully rejecting their creator.

When the interpretation of a passage is dubious it seems prudent to bring to bear other considerations on the matter, and there are a few non-biblical indications that the rebellion thesis can’t be quite right. Firstly, there are atheists who seem completely genuine. They are good, decent, and very honest people (shocking, I know!), and they tell us that they genuinely don’t believe in God. They aren’t angry or particularly immoral. They are well-balanced and psychologically stable people. That in itself is very good reason to believe they are accurately reporting their epistemic situation. From a purely psychological perspective the rebellion thesis seems like quite a tall tale. Secondly, Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a “seeing the light” or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously. In fact, Storms would have to call me a liar when I report as a Christian that prior to my conversion I genuinely didn’t believe in Jesus or the God of Christianity. If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. If this is true of the vast majority of Christians, why is it so difficult for Storms et al to accept that atheists are currently in this same state?

Despite the lack of evidence and high implausibility of the rebellion thesis, perhaps it is true after all that every atheist really knows that God exists. Still, I can’t see how any good can come from making such a claim. It’s irritatingly patronising, smacks of arrogance, does nothing for theist-atheist dialogue, and reeks to high heaven of self-righteousness. I therefore propose that we adopt a principle of charity: that when we engage in any intellectual discussion, we do our interlocutors the courtesy such that when they tell us that they hold such and such a position, we simply accept it and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed a truthful report of their epistemic situation.

Anything else is to spit in their face.

Stephen J Graham

**********
Randal Rauser’s book “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism” (Cascade Books, 2015) is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheist-Neighbor-Rethinking-Christian-Attitudes/dp/1498217168 or through the Kindle shop.
**********

6 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Belief

Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”

The charismatic movement is not the only source of miraculous claims. In fact, many of the “gifts of the spirit” can be found elsewhere. I want to take a brief look at a few examples and ask the charismatic what we should make of them.

1. Healing

Beyond the fringe of Christianity lies a movement called Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Scientists claim to know the exact method by which Jesus healed people, and they claim to be able to replicate his results systematically and repeatedly. Christian Scientists do not get trained in diagnosing illness, largely because they believe illness is an illusion which is tackled by prayer.

I suspect most charismatics would agree that Christian Science is nonsense. However, it seems to me that there’s as much evidence for the claims of Christian Science as there is for those of modern charismatics. The vast majority of charismatic healing claims amount to purely testimonies and anecdotes, passed on from person to person with all the embellishment that inevitably goes with that. Christian Science has published volumes of healing testimonies – literally thousands of them, claiming to demonstrate the potency of Christian Science healing methods. Of course, this reliance on anecdotes suffers from huge problems. Whilst it might initially seem impressive to see volumes of healing testimonies, it’s important to pay attention to what Christian Science does not tell us: 1000s of other cases when the methods did not work, some including people who decided to turn their backs on conventional medicine and paid with their lives for their folly. Likewise, charismatic healers will rarely tell tales of failure. In short, they count only the hits and ignore all the misses, and declare their practices genuine. When it’s possible to examine individual cases, one or a combination of the following always appears highly likely: placebo, misdiagnosis (either by a doctor or, more likely, due to self-diagnosis), medical ignorance, natural healing, medical intervention, exaggeration, or plain old fraud. If there really were genuine healings taking place these groups would not have to rely exclusively on anecdotes to make their case.

I ask the charismatic: why should I believe your anecdotes but not those of Christian Science? Why would you reject the testimonies of Christian Science but expect me to accept yours, which suffer from near identical evidential problems?

2. Tongues & Interpretation

The charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues can be found in many religions past and present. In fact, even children and people suffering from certain mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia – can do it. It appears in all manner of non-Christian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, or African Voodoo. Studies of tongues-speech have yet to find a single convincing case of a person speaking in another language without having previous exposure to that language. Further, the vast majority of tongues-speech turns out not to be a language at all, but rather is free vocalisation, produced from sounds the speaker uses as part of his native language. Thus there is no substantial difference between the tongues of an Indian Hindu and an Indian Charismatic who both speak Hindi as their mother-tongue. When we take an English-speaking charismatic and compare him to a Hindi speaking charismatic we find that their tongues are quite different – each reflecting the sounds (phonemes) of his native language. Moreover, interpretation of tongues – right across religious boundaries – is something of a dubious business. Time and again different interpreters will give very different interpretations of the same sample of tongues speech, or an actual foreign language will be completely wrongly interpreted. Indeed, frequently the interpretation is significantly longer or shorter than the original message in tongues. All of this is far most consistent with a natural psychological interpretation of the phenomenon than a supernatural one.

Such linguistic studies have been absolutely devastating to charismatic claims, and yet the charismatic would make an exception for his own practice, while seeing all these others as false; and this despite the fact that there is no better case for the genuineness of his own tongues speech.

3. Prophecy & Words of Knowledge

Prophecies are massively widespread. Not only do they occur all over the world in many different religions past and present, but there is a secular equivalent in the work of modern psychics. As part of my research I’ve compared the musings of charismatic prophets to those of modern day psychics, and it’s astounding how very similar they are in nature. In fact, the two main techniques used by psychics are also employed by charismatics: cold-reading and hot-reading. Cold-reading occurs in a number of ways. For example, a psychic or prophet might make a very vague or general statement that could apply to virtually anyone and make it seem as if the information had to be revealed in some supernatural or magical way. During a prophetic workshop held by a leading UK church a man was told he had a real heart to hear from God. Well, of course he does! He’s voluntarily attending a prophetic workshop! Statements that are inherently vague but seem to be specific are known as “Barnum statements,” and are used time and time again in modern prophecies, the work of psychics, and newspaper horoscopes. In addition, cold-reading picks up on lots of clues given unintentionally by the person to the prophet or psychic. Without saying a word to someone they can know a lot about us: based on how we dress, our mood, mannerisms, and demeanour. Hot-reading, on the other hand, involves the use of information already known to the prophet or psychic. Thus, famously, Peter Popoff was fed information through an earpiece from his wife that he was passing off as supernatural knowledge about people in the congregation.

I’ve even witnessed mistakes covered over in the same ways: so, if something is not a reality now the person is invited to take it as a promise or reality in the future. The crucial thing in prophecies, as in psychic readings, is the interpretation of the words of the prophet/psychic by the receiver of the prophecy. By simply following these simple techniques it’s not too difficult to give very convincing performances.

4. Miracles

In 1995 the world was treated to the miraculous events of Hindu statutes drinking milk. Many Hindu deities joined in the fun – from Ganesh to Nandi the Bull, to Shiva. So many Hindus were caught up in the hysteria that milk supplies were seriously depleted. Many charismatics might shake their heads at such behaviour, but the same reactions occur within charismania itself in the face of miraculous claims. The most significant lesson to learn from the milk-drinking statue extravaganza is just how quickly millions of people jumped on the bandwagon without ever pausing to ask some very basic questions. Before rational investigation was even getting its shoes on, the wave of miracle hype had taken off around the world. Calm investigation soon revealed the truth. In many cases the statues were made from baked clay which readily absorbs liquids through capillary attraction. With regards to other statues which were made from a non-porous material (such as marble), it was noticed that milk was pooling at their base. How come? Well, when milk is offered on a spoon to an idol which is wet from ritual washing, it drains imperceptibly over the idol in a virtually transparent layer, and then runs off and pools at the base. Mystery solved. Lastly, a small number of cases were discovered to be the result of hoaxing.

Presumably Charismatics would applaud the efforts of the investigators; and yet they routinely fail to investigate miracle claims closer to home. Far too many are more than happy to pass anecdotes of miraculous events from person to person without stopping to think or check a single fact.

The standard charismatic reaction is to label all these non-Charismatic “gifts of the Spirit” as “counterfeit.” A surprising number will go further and say the existence of the counterfeit is actually proof of the real! Firstly, it isn’t true that the existence of the counterfeit is proof of the real. James Randi notes that someone could produce a counterfeit $3 bill, despite there being no genuine $3 bill. The existence of magicians performing tricks hardly testifies to the existence of real magic. However, even if it was indeed the case that the counterfeit was proof of the real, how do we know what is counterfeit and what is real? In both the charismatic and non-charismatic versions of these gifts the same problems appear. None of them seem to be genuine at all. (In fact, at least in the case of tongues it’s interesting to note that the “counterfeit” came along centuries before the “real thing” as practised by modern charismatics!) In any event it would perhaps be more useful to speak not of counterfeit and real, but of genuine miracle claims and false ones. When presented with any claim we should investigate it as objectively as possible and come to a conclusion. With little more than shoddy evidence being offered on behalf of all these claims – charismatic and non-charismatic – we are right to be a tad sceptical.

If you are a charismatic reading this then put yourself in the shoes of the sceptic. What reason is there to accept your claims about all these things but not equally good (or bad!) claims from outside your borders? Why should the sceptic believe you? Until such time as you can give a reasonable answer to that question your claims to the miraculous will be – quite rightly – written off as yet more supernatural silliness flying in the face of evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

1 Comment

Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles, Prophecy, Tongues

The Seduction of Charismania

For about a year I’ve been putting my opposition to the many bizarre practices and miraculous claims of the charismatic movement into print for the edification and annoyance of sceptics and charismatics alike. How successful have I been in this endeavour? That depends on how we define success. My main intention has been two-fold: to verbalise exactly what is wrong with many of these charismatic claims and practices, and to try out various ideas which I intend to put into a book on the subject. It was never my primary aim to convince charismatics to see the folly of their ways. With that said, I have had some success doing precisely that. However, I’ve met a fair amount of stubbornness too. For example, one guy on Twitter asked me to tell him what was wrong with the practices of a certain faith-healer. When I wrote an article on the matter and sent it to him, rather than engage with the case I had made he simply blocked me. My exchanges tend to be rather civil, but I’m left frustrated by what I see as a certain thick-headedness in my interlocutor, particularly when they insist miracles happen all the time (when they clearly don’t) or that God wills to physically heal every sick person (which is patent nonsense). So, despite my moderate success, why aren’t more people able to see through the vast array of silliness going on within the charismatic movement? Why is it that a proven fraud like Peter Popoff can still have a successful multi-million dollar business promising supernatural debt relief and peddling “miracle spring water?”

Having once been a part of this movement (for almost 15 years), and having left it upon rational reflection of the many dubious claims and practices, I think I’m in a decent place to at least point in the direction of answers to that question.

I think the best place to start is with the power of desire and of experience. There is a real desperation within many people to experience some greater meaning in their lives. How wonderful it would be if God was actively at work in miraculous ways in our daily lives. For a long time I yearned for and greatly desired to see God working in the world in the sort of supernatural ways charismatics claim he routinely does act. This desire is an incredibly strong one, and once we add it to the phenomenon of charismatic experiences it creates a seduction that’s damn near impossible to break away from. Charismatic experiences are often quite intense, involving powerful emotions. In charismatic worship people will often close their eyes, sway to the music, and end up in a highly suggestible state. Under certain circumstances people will experience a release of endorphins, as a result of which they take on something of a glowing countenance, they may even laugh for no reason or cry tears of joy. Some will even begin to feel and behave as if they’ve had a couple of drinks. In short, charismatic experiences make you feel good, but more importantly they put you into a highly suggestible state – not unlike the sort of state that can be produced in a person using psychological tricks and hypnosis techniques. It’s really little wonder why even highly intelligent people who have spent 30 minutes or even an hour in such a state are far more likely to give credence to the miracle claims that often follow.

Given how intense charismatic experiences can be, it’s not easy to look upon them in the cold light of reason to see them for what they really are. Moreover, it’s very difficult to admit that one was wrong about such matters given how foolish we might feel as a result. Take the charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I used to speak in tongues, and in fact I can still do so at will. I no longer regard it as a supernatural ability to speak in another language (human or angelic), but rather as a learned behaviour picked up through too many years in a Pentecostal church and a strong social pressure to engage in what is at best a meditative practice using free vocalisation. I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit to having been a tongues speaker. When I realized that I wasn’t doing anything remotely supernatural I felt incredibly stupid. It still makes me cringe. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, and it’s a painful realisation. It was tempting to bury my doubts rather than face up to having been so stupidly….stupid. Interestingly, magicians are well aware that this fear of appearing foolish when we find we’ve been duped can lead people to exaggerate their experiences, to deny the evidence before them, or to be highly vulnerable to suggestion from the magician (who of course makes them believe they experienced something more impressive than they really did). Understandably, many choose not to face up to the embarrassing reality.

Of course, when one goes to a charismatic church all these things are routine, and how often do we ever stop to question things that are routine? Everyone is doing it. It’s normal. In fact, it’s sometimes a little competitive and I’ve witnessed all manner of pretence: people vying with each other to see who can give the best performance or display the most intense spiritual experience. And the peer pressure doesn’t stop there. The social lives of many revolve around their church. When all your friends are claiming miracles and speaking in tongues it’s all the more difficult to dissent. Dissent can bring with it social exclusion. I have very few Pentecostal or charismatic friends left; they tend to view me with suspicion these days.

When we consider the social consequences that follow from not being in spiritual affinity with everyone else, it can be tempting to bury doubts or exaggerate one’s experiences. Dissenters run the risk of losing their entire social circle. Of course, you might not be explicitly vilified and actively shunned (as shamefully common as that is); rather, the exclusion might be of a benign, but no less devastating, kind, as one ends up drifting away from what had been a very strong social connection and a fundamental part of one’s identity. Unsurprisingly this is a very painful thing to go through, and it’s easy to see why doubts and dissent aren’t entered into lightly.

Humans are social animals, craving acceptance and friendship. Some of the more questionable charismatic leaders are well aware of this aspect of human psychology and use it to great effect in “personalised” letters that they send “just for you because I’ve been praying for you.” Wow, he’s been praying for ME? I’m blessed to have a friend who sits at the right hand side of God.” Of course, many Charismatic leaders are not charlatans, but they still create a strong impression on their congregations. Some seem to receive a steady stream of prophetic information directly from the throne of the Almighty. Despite being little more than a series of Barnum statements (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/), this creates the illusion of the supernatural, particularly in the minds of those who have been made suggestible by the hypnotic nature of much charismatic worship. Others give the impression that they are regular conduits for the working of divine healing power. Of course, this healing power (when it isn’t downright fraudulent) is clearly one or a combination of the following: placebo, exaggeration, anecdote, natural healing, medical intervention, or what has come to be known as the “shot gun technique,” whereby the leader announces on stage that God is – right at this very moment – healing someone with back pain, another of diabetes, He’s touch a woman with cancer, that asthmatic can breathe more easily – without ever identifying who he’s talking about. Many of these leaders are undoubtedly genuine people who really believe God is indeed working such wonders. But all they are really doing is following the techniques of less scrupulous charismatic celebrities, though in doing so they easily create an illusion that wonders and miracles are happening all over the place. Do you wanna get in with God? Then you gotta get in with the leader!

For other people this social phenomenon helps to insulate their beliefs and practices from criticism. Take Peter Popoff again. How is it that so many people could still fall for the shenanigans of a proven fraud? Well, for some of these people the answer lies in not knowing he’s a proven fraud. How many people who engage in charismatic beliefs and practices will read a book like James Randi’s “The Faith-Healers,” or watch a critical documentary like Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sales.” Instead they are far more likely to read books in defence of their beliefs and practices, and rather than listening to a sceptic’s critique they tend to stick to events where people provide impressive sounding anecdotes of miracles they witnessed in Mozambique. And so, via our old friend Confirmation Bias, their claims get constantly affirmed and rarely subjected to challenge. Note the reaction of the guy I mentioned earlier who blocked me on Twitter simply for sharing a critical article about a faith-healer he liked. Even more recently, when I shared that same article with another person I was instantly labelled as a troll.

Sadly, there are others who are simply desperate. Why do they fall for faith-healing charlatans? Because the charlatan is the only person offering any hope at all. Sure, Popoff was once a crook but maybe he’s changed now. Maybe his miracle spring water will work. What have I got to lose from giving it a try? Such people are easy prey for charismatic faith-healers simply because they want hope and the charismatic faith-healer is the only one offering it (albeit of a false kind).

These factors are powerful, blinding even highly intelligent people. It took me years, but one day the scales finally fell from my eyes and I could see through the web of delusion which had been spun around me. If my writings can help even a few others break free even a bit sooner, they will have been well worth it.

Stephen J. Graham

1 Comment

Filed under Charismatic Movement