Monthly Archives: August 2016

Reflections on Derren Brown’s Interview with Premier Christianity

Premier Christianity magazine recently ran an interview with Derren Brown, exploring Brown’s conversion and loss of Christian faith, his view of miracles, and the purpose of Christian faith. See here: http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2016/September-2016/Derren-Brown-The-miracle-maker-reveals-his-Christian-past

Brown was a leading voice in my own deconversion from Charismatic Christianity and it was interesting to see him interviewed by Justin Brierley, a charismatic. I wanted to offer some brief reflections on the interview.

Firstly, I think kudos to Premier Christianity for running the interview in the first place. Not too many Christian publications would give time and space to a critic of Christianity. Often the only time critics gets a mention in the popular Christian press is when their work, books, comments, or articles, are being critiqued. But Premier Christianity has done something quite radical for a Christian publication: allowed the sceptic his own voice.

Brierley remarked that when he went to watch Brown’s latest stage show, “Miracles,” he was concerned that the audience would walk away just as sceptical about the supernatural as Brown is. After all, the whole point of Brown’s stage show is to demonstrate how we are very easily fooled by the sorts of familiar displays put on by charismatic evangelists, healers, prophets, and pastors. Brierley writes: “prepare to be amazed, but also to encounter a very specific and uncomfortable challenge to charismatic Christianity.” And well he might worry about this because Brown and others – such as James Randi – have presented us with an absolutely devastating case against the claims and practices rampant in the world of Charismania. They’ve shown up the fraud, trickery, deceit, techniques, scams, delusion, gullibility, and other shenanigans that lie behind the staples of charismatic experience. What can Brierley – a charismatic – really say in the face of all this?

Now, Brierley is quite correct to point out that the sorts of scepticism-fuelled shows put on by Brown et al do not disprove Christianity. Nothing Brown does on stage pours doubt on the philosophical case for the existence of God or the historical case for the resurrection of Christ. In fact, I think Brown would agree. However, even though there may be a good intellectual case for believing in God or the central truths of Christianity, Brierley doesn’t directly address the damage that Brown’s performances do to their actual target: charismatic claims and practices. For instance, Brown can very easily “heal” people from various – typically pain related – ailments, using nothing other than the very same tools in the standard charismatic toolbox. He can speak in tongues (as can I!). He gets “words of knowledge” for members of the audience. He can perform the so-called “slaying in the Spirit” wonder. He does it all and explains exactly how it’s achieved.

Charismatic readers are probably screaming at me right now: “But that doesn’t prove these phenomena aren’t genuine!! It just means they can also be faked!” I agree. However, genuine or not, Brown has provided excellent reasons to remain doubtful about such phenomena. In other words, he presents the charismatic as well as the casual onlooker with massive epistemic problems: why believe that any of these phenomena are genuine when there’s a perfectly good natural explanation for them? Brierley never gets to answer that question but I would love him to address it some time.

Instead Brierley simply states that despite Brown’s spectacular displays he still believes in miracles, and cautions us against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But the question remains unanswered: is there a baby in the water in the first place? That’s what Brown and others are challenging. Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t, but there appears scant decent reason to think such phenomena are genuine; at the very least most are probably not. Faced with this evidential problem, Brierley says “I believe convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” There was little space for Brierley to outline such a case, and to do so would get in the way of the point of the article, however, I found the comments he made rather telling. He writes, “I have heard many stories of miraculous physical change. In 2001, during a mission trip in Peru, a friend of mine, Alex, witnessed an eyeball grow back into the socket of a man that he and a woman prayed for. I don’t believe he’s lying. He’s generally a sceptical guy….what do you think of Alex’s story?”

One commentator accused Brown of clearly avoiding Brierley’s question, but that was an incredibly unfair comment. Firstly, Brown cannot be reasonably expected to refute a story that he has only just heard, involving people he doesn’t even know, 15 years ago, in Peru! In any event Brown actually does offer a pertinent observation. He briefly mentions that memory can be far from perfect when it comes to recalling events. In fact, he gives an example of a trick he witnessed years ago which – when he spoke to the magician in question years later – was actually a different trick than Brown himself swears he witnessed. (After a wedding I attended I was asked what colour the bridesmaids were wearing. To this day my memory tells me it was green. They were, in fact, in lilac!) As I have written elsewhere on this blog (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/) our memory does not operate like a video recorder, objectively gathering facts and occurrences. Our minds are actively engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen and our imaginations frequently fill out the gaps in events when we only have a partial recollection of them. This is particularly so when an event is sudden, shocking, unexpected, or bewildering. I think Brown’s response was a pretty fair comment on a miracle story he has not been able to investigate.

Anyhow, recall that Brierley claims that “convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” Now, I would’ve thought he’d lead with his most convincing example. But is this it? A second-hand anecdote that occurred 15 years ago in Peru? This isn’t evidence of anything at all. The world is full of such stories and yet there’s scant evidence to corroborate any of them. What constantly astounds me is the charismatic insistence that miracles are happening all the time, and yet when challenged we get nothing but an unsubstantiated anecdote from half way across the world. Brierley’s friend might well have witnessed what he claims to have witnessed. This might indeed have been a miraculous intervention of God. However, looked at as evidence to believe it was such, it appears wafer thin to anyone but those who are predisposed to believe that miracles happen all the time.

Brown is quite correct to insist that more is required. There must at the very least be some form of physical change demonstrable with the use of medical evidence such as X-rays. Sadly this is the sort of evidence we are almost never presented with. I suspect Brown is right on the money when he says that there is a strong subjective element involved in people labelling events as miraculous in the absence of any objective evidence. Human beings, Brown reminds us, are desperate to find meaning and a chief way of doing that is the very normal human act of telling stories. So, when a family prays for a relative with cancer and the cancer goes into remission, they interpret that event as miraculous. Doing so puts them into a story that gives them meaning and significance: God is working in their lives in an amazing way, and that can be a powerful and comforting thought. To such people seeking out hard data can be either unnecessary – because they already know that God has done an amazing work – or unwelcome, as it might contradict them and thus threaten the sense of meaning and significance their interpretation of the event has given them.

Brown has hit on what is the main reason for belief in things like healing miracles, tongues, and prophecy. It gives people a sense of story, meaning, identity, and significance that they so crave. The thought that the creator of the universe has an intimate relation with you and gives you all manner of supernatural gifts and blessings is certainly an alluring one. And that is why, I suspect, so few are susceptible to objective analysis. We are creatures of narrative, and if the evidence contradicts the stories we tell to give our short, humdrum lives significance they wouldn’t otherwise have, then so much the worse for the evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Miracles

Special Treatment for Religion in the Workplace?

The reasonable accommodation of religion in the workplace has been a growing issue. There are two basic types of cases.

1. Cases which involve issues not directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker, was told she couldn’t wear a cross as a sign of her Christian faith. She was subsequently allowed to wear it and the European Court of Human Rights gave BA a slap on the wrists, judging that her right to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 of the European convention was being infringed without good reason.
ii. Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, made a similar claim but unlike Eweida she lost her case as her employer pleaded reasonable grounds (health and safety) for forbidding jewellery.
iii. Victoria Wasteney was disciplined by her employer due to her efforts to convert a Muslim colleague. She lost her appeal for reasons I’ll mention below.

2. Cases which are directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Lillian Ladele, a civil servant who worked as a registrar of births, deaths and marriages was disciplined for refusing to do work in connection with registering civil partnerships of gay couples.
ii. Gary McFarlane was a counsellor working for Relate who lost his job for refusing to do counselling sessions for gay couples.
iii. Stephen Copsey was dismissed for the refusal to work on Sunday.

There is, I think, a decent case for a reasonable accommodation with respect to the first set of cases, but not the second, which call not for reasonable accommodation but for special treatment.

One of the strengths of our society is its pluralist nature. Who wants a society where everyone thinks, acts, and dresses the same? Or worse, where people are afraid to speak about issues of controversy lest they offend someone? Does anyone seriously think wearing a cross is a hindrance to performing one’s duty as an employee? If we didn’t have the right to express and practice beliefs the idea of freedom of religion would be a vacuous one. Unless there is good reason – as in case 1(ii) above – to forbid certain items of clothing or jewellery – then I suggest we err on the side of freedom and individualism, and defend individuals – in law – against infringements on their freedom when there is no good reason.

With respect to employee-employee conversion attempts I think that a hands-off approach should be the default policy. Two adults should be able to engage in whatever discussion they like – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of their work – without worrying if they are breaking some silly censorious rule. Of course, if behaviour becomes inappropriate or unwanted by one or other of the parties, then an employer should be able to interfere. In case 1(iii) above, Ms Wasteney was in a superior position to the Muslim in the organisation, and engaged in unwanted behaviour such as laying her hands on her Muslim colleague to pray for her. So, Wasteney was not being denied freedom to manifest her religion in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, but rather she was being denied – quite rightly – the right to engage in unwanted, non-consensual conduct. The freedom to manifest one’s religion does not afford a right to encroach the rights of others in such ways, and Article 9(2) of the European Convention is explicit on this point.

Which brings me to the second set of cases. When a person takes a job the organisation in question has certain rights over them. Most jobs are governed by a contract of employment, and failure to fulfil the terms of that contract quite rightly brings consequences. Take case 2(ii) above. Upon taking the job Gary McFarlane signed an equal opportunities commitment and only afterwards wanted to be excused from counselling same-sex couples. There could have been no “reasonable accommodation” if the employer was to fulfil its purpose, and Mr McFarlane should not have taken this job any more than a vegan should take a job in a butcher’s shop. The same goes for any other case in this category. The beliefs we hold might well bring consequences for us, but that is our problem and not the problem of everyone else to accommodate it. Of course, it might be a nice thing for an employer to make adjustments to suit the whims of a religious believer. For example, it might well suit the employer to deploy a Muslim employee to a place they won’t have to sell alcohol. Alternatively it might suit non-Christian employees to work on a Sunday so the Christian doesn’t have to. But this does not mean the believers in question have a right to have their foibles accommodated and protected by the full force of the law. It might well be the case that the non-Christian values his Sundays off just as much, and why should he have to sacrifice them?

Furthermore, if we decide that there should always be a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs, what’s to stop an employee from pleading this in all manner of cases? Suppose I decide that it’s my firm religious belief that God forbids working before lunchtime. Should my employer be obliged to jump through all manner of hoops to accommodate me? In fact, on what grounds should religious beliefs be treated in this special way rather than ethical or political beliefs? Suppose I decide that obesity is a lifestyle I don’t want to support, can I rightly refuse to sell sweets and products high in fat to obese people? If religious beliefs concerning the sale of alcohol are to be accommodated, why aren’t these other beliefs? That way lies chaos. Surely if a person who works in a butchers shop decides to become a vegan he has only one choice: to leave his job. Part of what it means to be a mature and rational adult is the acceptance that one’s beliefs and lifestyle choices have consequences which must be accepted. Demanding the right to have everyone accommodate you betrays a staggeringly arrogant sense of entitlement.

Individuals are free to think and believe as they like, but in seeking to manifest those thoughts and beliefs in actions in the workplace they cannot rightly expect special treatment. No-one has a right to have one’s beliefs validated, particularly when the rights of others, the interests of the business, and fairness with respect to ones co-workers are also at stake; none of which are trumped by claimed religious rights. If all are to be treated equally then no one should expect preferential treatment or exemptions from certain jobs as of right: neither Christian, nor Jew, nor gay, nor straight. All are – and must be – equal under the law.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Drama of Evil

My most recent article in On Religion has been made freely available on their website:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/the-drama-of-evil/

The argument looks at the so-called problem of gratuitous evil and in arguing that this argument is unsuccessful I discuss how atheists and Christians have very different approaches to the problem.

The article is written for a popular audience, not an academic one.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

The so-called “problem of heaven” emerges in the context of solutions to the problem of evil which call upon the free will defense. Moral evil – and sometimes even natural evil – is often explained by the creaturely abuse of free will. However, there are problems lurking here. I once heard a philosopher make the following argument: Adam and Eve were created in a perfect paradise, had free will, and sinned. Since heaven is once again a perfect paradise, in which we have free will, won’t there be the high possibility of someone sinning?

This philosopher obviously had in mind the traditional Augustinian understanding of creation and the fall. The idea of an finite but perfect human pair created to live in a perfect paradise is not one that I adhere to. Not only does it face strong empirical difficulties, but it makes the origin of sin an utter mystery. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? That suggests the beings in question weren’t perfect to begin with. Anyhow, since I accept that there is a large proportion of Christendom that embraces this notion, or at least something very similar to it, I’m going to grant it for the sake of argument and ask if there is any incoherence in the notion that we are free to sin in heaven but that no-one ever will despite the fact that the first humans did so in a similar perfect environment.

Imagine an island that to passing ships looks like a beautiful utopia. The island has an uncanny charm that seems to draw people to it. However, when smaller ships try to sail close the waves and the currents tear them to pieces and leave the sailors stranded on the island. What looks like a beautiful utopia from the sea is soon discovered to be anything but. The sailors must live on a diet of sour sea slugs and bitter berries, and at night time they must sleep in trees to avoid being eaten by the terrifying wild dogs which inhabit the island and hunt in packs at night. Sadly these trees are invested with mites which cause severe itching and boils, a plight which is only a little better than being torn apart by the dogs. One day a huge naval vessel spots smoke from a fire lit by the sailors and sends in a helicopter to rescue them. Suppose 5 years later one of these sailors is captaining a ship sailing in this same area. One of his shipmates points to the island and suggests a visit to it. It seems so incredibly alluring despite warnings the sailor has heard concerning it. Now, the captain is certainly free to visit the island, but there’s no way he will do so. He has lived experience which tells him to keep away at all costs. He has lived for the past 5 years in relative luxury and has no desire to return to that accursed island.

Might not something similar hold in heaven? Firstly, the inhabitants of heaven will experience what theologians have called the “beatific vision” – an intense and direct awareness of the loving presence of the almighty God to whom they owe everything. Secondly, it’s not implausible to think that the saints will retain a memory of this fallen world with all its sorrow, suffering, worry, death, and struggles. This contrast – or so it seems to me – would easily be enough to ensure that no-one in heaven ever sins, despite remaining free to do so. Just as the captain will never relinquish his comfortable life to visit the deadly island a second time, so the saints in heaven will never abandon their glorious life for the miseries they experienced during their fallen existence. They know too well from bitter experience the full consequences of rejecting God.

Interestingly, this means that only a fallen and redeemed person would be in the position of being free whilst not actually sinning. Adam and Eve – on the traditional understanding – had no knowledge of the fall, no experience of the misery it would cause; the fallen existence was not one they knew from bitter experience prior to their temptation and sin. In some ways they are like the captain of the ship when he sees the island for the first time, whereas redeemed sinners would be like the captain of the ship who had been rescued and sees the island sometime later.

So, even though I don’t ascribe to the traditional Augustinian understanding of the fall, I think that view can survive the criticism that is made of it in this case. Whether it can stand up to other problems is a question for another time.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Creation, Free Will, Heaven, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine