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.
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.
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