Monthly Archives: March 2016

“Explain THAT!” A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims

As a researcher into charismatic miracle claims and phenomena, I’m often presented with healing stories or videos and asked for my thoughts. Frequently the tone is one of challenge: “Explain THAT!” So, just what approach should we take when faced with some miraculous claim or other? Just how DO we “explain THAT!”?

Here’s one video that was recently shared with me (though, admittedly, not by way of an aggressive challenge, but simply asking me what I made if it): https://www.facebook.com/thenormalchristianlife/videos/813578605414072/

So, what do we do? There are two common routes – one taken by charismatics, the other by atheists – which I think should be rejected:

1. The “Praise Jesus” Route. Check the comments below the video and you’ll find multiple examples of this approach to miraculous claims. Here the claims are simply accepted at face value and Jesus is praised, but discernment is trampled underfoot and charismatic types are left wide open to unscrupulous miracle workers – of which there are many – and the manipulation and abuse that they bring.

2. The “That’s Bullshit!” Route. Here all miracle claims are written off before any investigation or attempt to examine them – God doesn’t exist, therefore God doesn’t heal. This is fine and dandy as a practical approach – after all, few have the time and resources these busy days to examine the various claims that come their way – however, it doesn’t help them to understand exactly what is going on in cases of miraculous claims. And so the response tends to be “bullshit!” rather than “I think that’s a false claim because…” Moreover, if some miraculous claim turns out to be genuine we’d miss it if we took this approach.

My own approach is to agree with the charismatics that miracles are possible, whilst adopting the scepticism of the second route when faced with miraculous claims, given that frauds and fake miracle claims abound and are dangerous. In order to help steer a course between these extremes, here are a few very basic questions we should all stop to ask.

Firstly, who produced the video or published the testimony? Often the claims are made by healing ministries – not the alleged healees themselves, and almost never by the medical community. Have the claims been adequately scrutinised? Has there been any attempt to be objective? Videos can – and are – edited to suit the needs of the people making them. It isn’t difficult, through the use of editing, to make something more appealing and persuasive than it really is. For example, when a psychic spends hours giving readings to people it can be edited to, say, a 20 minute feature which can make the psychic look more impressive than he or she really is; just edit out all the mistakes and misses that are made.

Secondly, does the video or testimony present objective evidence such as medical documentation, or is it purely anecdotal? The lack of medical evidence is a constant feature of healing claims, and one is often left with the impression that the person is “sexing up” his story for the camera, is mistaken about his ailment, or has even engaged in a faulty self-diagnosis. If healings are happening regularly then there shouldn’t be any difficulty providing medical evidence, and the lack of such evidence is concerning and suggests to me there’s something we aren’t being told.

Thirdly, what exactly is being claimed? I heard one couple give testimony that sounded like a healing in relation to their new born. However, after paying careful attention to what they actually said you note that their child had never actually been diagnosed with anything but was simply under investigation. Thus, when the child was declared healthy it wasn’t a case of healing as there was never anything confirmed to have been wrong with the child in the first place. In another testimony a man claimed to have been healed of cancer as a result of prayer, and yet careful attention to his story reveals a period of several months between the prayer and his all-clear from cancer, which opens up the question as to whether he had in fact been receiving orthodox treatment in the interim. Or, one boy in Northern Ireland has recently been trumpeted as the recipient of a divine miracle healing from cancer, despite his having received chemotherapy and invasive surgery. Paying attention to what is actually claimed can be very revealing, though there are often vagaries with which we must contend. For instance, we might hear a person is “blind” or has “diabetes,” words which conjure up images in our minds (typically total lack of visual ability, or type-A requiring injections) but which can take forms which do not often match what we imagine them to be (for example, “blind” covers a range of visual ability, and there are different types & severities of diabetes). Other claims might involve pain relief, and pain is, of course, notoriously subjective and susceptible to psychological techniques.

Fourthly, can we reasonably rule out misdiagnosis (often due to self-diagnosis), natural healing, placebo, medical intervention, exaggeration, misreporting, and good old fashioned fraud and fakery? It’s a tad disingenuous to claim a boy who has received aggressive chemotherapy and invasive surgery has really been cured due to a miracle. It’s hardly convincing to pray for a cure for one’s cold and claim divine intervention 3-4 days later when it starts to wane. Further, is the claim of the sort that can be easily faked or which actually has been faked many times before by unscrupulous healers? One of the reasons why I reject the leg growing claims of Mark Marx is that such demonstrations are easy to fake and have been proven fake time and time again. Or, again, take pain relief. Sometimes people chalk pain relief up as proof of miraculous intervention, when in fact we know that it is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion. Note how the mentalist Derren Brown was able to train someone as a faith-healer who could bring pain relief to people on the streets simply using psychological techniques and the power of suggestion.

Lastly, is there any way to verify the report? Often reports have a “folk take” quality to them and lack the kinds of details required to properly investigate. When it’s possible to scrutinise claims it’s important to note how the people you are investigating react to questioning or scepticism. Are you snubbed, dismissed, blocked, shunned, demonised or viewed with suspicion simply for asking questions? If so, there’s probably something fishy going on and you have every right to be suspicious. If a genuine miracle has occurred, then there shouldn’t be any difficulty in having claims scrutinised, investigated, and examined. Genuine claims can stand up to honest investigation.

These are just a few of the initial questions we should ask when invited to “explain THAT!” How we should apply this to the above video I leave as homework for the reader.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles, Scepticism

Message to Young Apologists, or Letter to my Younger Self

I remember the excitement of first getting into apologetics. I was in my late teens and had just given a rather ropey performance in a debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend who had studied some philosophy during his first year at university. I thought I’d better read up on the matter, so off I trotted to the local Christian bookstore, where after browsing a few shelves of apologetics books I came across a small plainly bound black book called “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by some guy called William Lane Craig. I bought it and devoured it, reading it over and over and committing the main lines of the argument to memory. This was the first time I had ever read a philosophical defence of the existence of God, and I was hooked.

I began to find other books – taking a keen interest in teleological and cosmological arguments in particular. Soon, I was studying philosophy of religion academically through my degree programme and began writing papers and essays (often for fun, not just for assignments) on many of the arguments for the existence of God. I also took to debating in internet chat rooms with (as I then saw) idiot atheists who were too stupid to see that God’s existence was obvious, and too thick-headed to grasp my wonderfully crafted (plagiarized) theistic arguments.

In short, I had become an arrogant young apologist. True enough (as the Bible points out), knowledge puffs up. I was often disrespectful, condescending, patronising, and, frankly, an insufferable arrogant ass. Sadly my case is not an isolated one. I have a far more modest assessment of theistic arguments these days, and finally came to admit that my faith didn’t – and never did – rest on any of them. But I still see my younger self out there on the internet, arrogantly bludgeoning atheists with apologetic arguments – calling all those who don’t see or admit the obvious truth of God’s existence either thick or dishonest.

Here’s my message to my younger self:

Keep in mind that few arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion is so obvious that those who don’t accept it are either stupid or wicked. There are usually thorny philosophical problems lurking in the background of any neat little argument. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) that had me enamoured for years. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – three short premises and BOOM! we have proved the existence of God. Regrettably the simplicity is merely prima facie simplicity. There are many issues and assumptions lying behind the KCA. For instance, it relies on the A-Theory of time being correct – that temporal becoming is a feature of reality. If the B-Theory is correct then the KCA cannot succeed. Many of those who triumphantly proclaim the KCA as a clear proof aren’t even aware of these different views of time. Personally I prefer the A-Theory, but it’s probably a minority view in both philosophy and physics. This fact alone should be caution against using the KCA as a clear proof of God. It simply isn’t.

The same goes for any other theistic argument. They are always more contentious than young apologists typically realise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that theistic arguments are of no value. There are several which I think do lend some degree of evidence to theism: I particularly like the Leibnizian contingency argument, the fine tuning argument, and cumulative case arguments from the nature of humankind as conscious, rational, free agents with moral obligations. But none of these is obviously conclusive, and it’s important to see that when anyone examines an argument their current worldview forms part of the lens through which they see it.

Which brings me to my second point: remember that the vast majority of Christians do not come to faith as a result of apologetic arguments. Sure, we know of several high profile cases of thinkers who changed their mind for evidential reasons – CS Lewis, Antony Flew, Lee Strobel, or Alister McGrath – but most of us who give a positive appraisal of apologetic arguments are already Christians or theists. So, to you young apologists pushing your apologetic wares all over hyperspace, take note that most of you didn’t come to believe because of the arguments you now offer to your atheist interlocutors. Like me you probably discovered these arguments as a theist. Most of us – theist and atheist alike – are not the wholly rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. Many proclaim to be objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, but very few are really doing anything of the sort. Many are, as William James pointed out, simply reorganising their prejudices. We are, for better or worse, heavily influenced by social, cultural, and psychological factors which greatly shape who we are, how we think, what background beliefs we hold, and what strikes us as plausible or implausible. This is why highly intelligent people can look at the same body of evidence and come to radically different conclusions.

Which brings me to my third point: keep in mind that no matter how smart you think you are there is someone smarter who disagrees with you. As a theist it should be humbling to recall the names of atheists or sceptics such as philosophers JL Mackie, Michael Martin, JL Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, WV Quine, Paul Draper, William Rowe, Kai Nielson; or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, John Nash, Peter Higgs……. When you’re tempted to consider an atheist too stupid to grasp your neat apologetic argument please recall any of these names; the philosophers listed have a sounder grasp of the philosophical issues at stake than you do, and likewise the scientists have a sounder grasp of the scientific issues. None of these can plausibly be written off as ill-informed or wicked.

The more observant reader will detect a common theme here: show a bit of intellectual humility. Ultimate issues are tricky and contentious with plenty of room for honest, rational disagreement. Accepting this fact will make you engagements with the “other side” a little bit sweeter. After all, did you ever hear a former atheist say, “I came to faith thanks to a smarter-than-thou theist who patronised and berated me with genius apologetic arguments”? No, you don’t, so stop doing that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Theism