Monthly Archives: October 2016

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

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

1. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)

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

2. Healing

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

3. Words of Knowledge or Prophecy

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

4. Gold Dust and Glory Clouds

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

5. Gold Teeth and Fillings

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

6. Angel Feathers

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

7. Miraculous Oil

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

8. “Slaying” in the Spirit

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

9. Leg Growing

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

10. Stigmata

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

Stephen J. Graham

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Against Exorcism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J. Graham

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Interview with a Former Charismatic

Below is the transcript of an interview I did for a local church newsletter with a charismatic friend – Ben Wylie – exploring my religious background, church experiences and why I left the charismatic movement. Kudos to the church – itself charismatic – for being interested in hearing what I had to say.

Ben: Thanks for agreeing to this little interview. Your church experiences are remarkably varied, taking you from traditional Church of Ireland to Pentecostal to Presbyterian back to Pentecostal to Word of Faith charismatic to reformed charismatic and back again to Presbyterian! Whew! How did it all begin?

Stephen: My parents were not Christians but my grandmother was and as a family we would accompany her to an old traditional Church of Ireland. I never liked it much and when I about 11 or 12, I was left behind with my grandfather – who worshipped only at the local pub – while everyone else headed off to church.

Ben: So, what brought you back to church?

Stephen: When I was about 15 a close friend of mine had become a Christian and was attending a local Pentecostal church. He pretty much bullied and cajoled me into going! Surprisingly I loved it, largely because it was very different from the stuffy environment I had always associated with church, and a few months later I too had become a Christian.

Ben: Did you begin at this time to have any problems with the Pentecostal movement?

Stephen: No, not at all. I simply got involved in a youth group in a neighbouring Presbyterian church and started going there. I attended that church for around 6 or 7 years and during that time I had some of the best experiences of my life, including mission trips to Croatia (shortly after the war there) and Hungary.

Ben: So what was it that led you back to Pentecost?

Stephen: The refusal of the church to modernise and change frustrated me greatly and I was hearing whisperings of some amazing things that were happening back in the Pentecostal church I had attended at first. They had just experienced a little of what was known as the “Toronto Blessing.” There were rumours of powerful manifestations of the power and presence of God. I was attracted primarily because they seemed to promise an experiential dimension to faith that I had been missing. God seemed to be moving there in powerful ways and I wanted a piece of the action, I guess. There were indeed some rather odd experiences to be had!

Ben: I’m intrigued! Tell us more about the sorts of things you experienced there.

Stephen: Most of the typical Pentecostal manifestations were present: speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, “slayings” in the Spirit, and general Pentecostal exuberance. I played drums there and on one occasion about two thirds of the congregation formed a conga line and danced right out of the church leaving us playing to a small group of bewildered more reserved people!

Ben: And did you experience anything directly yourself in your time there?

Stephen: Not much. I don’t recall ever being “slain” in the Spirit, but I did experience people trying to push me down a few times and witnessed many other people clearly pushed to the ground. I also had experience of receiving a personal prophecy. The prophet told me God told him that I was going to be a pastor. Of course, I had just told the prophet I was studying theology so I suspect he was simply playing the odds! I also eventually did learn to speak in tongues. I remember in one particular meeting being called to the front with a group of others to be prayed for to “receive the Holy Ghost.” People actually expressed their disappointment afterwards that I didn’t speak in tongues. I felt guilty and angry. But later on that same night when I was praying at home I ended up speaking in tongues, which I can still do to this day.

Ben: I want to come back to your experiences shortly, but could you tell us a bit more about your charismatic experiences after you left this church.

Stephen: Yes, I had met my wife here but as she didn’t enjoy it very much we left shortly after we got married and went to her family church – another Pentecostal church, but far less wacky. After witnessing some rather unsightly church politics we left this church and I vowed never to go to church again! Around this time I began battling with severe depression and anxiety. It was about 9 months or so before my wife got me going to another church where a group of friends had gone. It was a Word of Faith church. This is pretty much the extreme end of charismania – those who believe Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and that you can use the Bible almost like a spell book to ward off “demons of illness” from your life. I’m still embarrassed that I ended up here, but it happened during a psychologically problematic period of my life during which I was emotionally and psychological vulnerable. Perhaps I hoped these guys had the answer. I just wasn’t in my right mind. As I got a handle on my own mental health my rational faculties returned; and when they did charismania didn’t stand a chance! We left for a reformed charismatic church – part of the Newfrontiers network – but my belief in such things had already shattered.

Ben: So, you gave up on the charismatic movement, but didn’t you think there was anything genuine that you witnessed in all your time there? What about your experiences of speaking in tongues, for instance?

Stephen: I met a lot of very good and godly people, even in the wackiest of places, but I saw very little that could even plausibly count as a genuine supernatural event or phenomenon. I don’t regard my ability to speak in tongues as supernatural in the slightest. I desperately wanted to do it, I had been around people who did it all the time, and I simply copied them. I think that’s what tongues speech is: a big game of Let’s Pretend.

Ben: I confess I find it bewildering and even a little shocking that you speak that way. I speak in tongues and I regard it as a blessed thing to do. I can’t imagine giving it up! All I know is when I do it I feel close to God. Didn’t you ever feel like that?

Stephen: I did. I felt spiritual. I felt part of a spiritual elite. But I wasn’t doing anything supernatural. Speaking in tongues is a very natural thing. Linguistic research into the phenomena of tongues speech has been absolutely devastating to the practice. We know it is not language. Linguistic research has shown that tongues speakers take syllables and sounds from their native languages and babble them out so they sound like a language when it fact it’s just gibberish. This also explains why a Chinese tongues speaker will speak a different “tongue” to an English tongues speaker. Each uses sounds from their native language. If tongues was a truly supernatural phenomenon this would not be the case, but rather people could speak in other languages without having been taught them.

Ben: But might it not be a private prayer language? I find tongues most beneficial in this sort of context?

Stephen: I have no doubt people find it beneficial, but they do so because it operates like a form of meditation, not because they are speaking any kind of divinely-bestowed language. At best tongues-speech is a form of meditative babble. That it has good effects – like making people feel spiritually blessed or close to God – does not mean it is remotely a genuine phenomenon. After all, we see the same practices with identical results in other religions. For example, Hindu tongues speakers will report the blessed benefits of their practices too.

Ben: I wanted also to ask you about faith-healing, because I know a large part of your recent research project has focused on that. You once believed God healed people, but now you don’t?

Stephen: I believed God healed and I believed the many testimonies and stories I heard during my time as a charismatic. But I didn’t stop to analyse them, I took them for granted. I knew God healed, so when someone claimed God healed them I didn’t think to examine it. Healings were just to be expected. They were normal. But I began to be uneasy. Most of the healings were rather trivial – warts falling off hands or headaches and other pains going away. The disabled kid never received healing. The guy with terminal stomach cancer just got worse and worse and died. Serious physical conditions never ever got healed. It made me wonder, and so I began to investigate healing stories and time and time again there was no reason to think that there had been any supernatural intervention. In fact, in most cases just a cursory examination of the healing claim is enough to dispel the myth of a miracle. Some one or combination of the following is typically at work: placebo, exaggeration, misdiagnosis, the body’s natural healing abilities, the “Chinese-whisper” effect, medical treatment, and plain old fraud.

Ben: So you conclude that God does not heal?

Stephen: Not exactly! God might heal. In fact, he might heal all the time. My point is primarily an epistemological one: we have scant basis for believing that God does heal, and certainly not anywhere near as regularly as Charismatics make out.

Ben: What would convince you then that God had miraculously healed someone?

Stephen: One thing that would convince me is if there was clear physiological change quite outside the limits of what we know about how our bodies work. So, if a man without eye balls suddenly grew them in his head, or an amputated limb suddenly grew back. Alternatively if a healing evangelist had an astounding success of curing people, such that, say, a very high proposition of people with cancer for whom he prays get completely healed – enough people to clearly beat the odds of it all being explained by spontaneous remission.

Ben: I agree we rarely see things like that but I’d love to send you some stories of amazing healings I’ve come across to see what you make of them. For now, I would simply say that I’ve seen belief in healing do a lot of good. It gives sick people hope, and praying for healing is an excellent way to connect with people and minister to their problems. Do you see any value in that?

Stephen: I don’t have any problem at all with prayers for healing, as long as a sick person isn’t being given unreasonable expectations or made to think that they need to give money or have more faith. Sadly there’s so much scope for abuse. People have had their expectations raised so much that rather than seek medical help they seek prayer, with sometimes fatal consequences. Others, assuming they have been healed, quit taking medication, with equally potentially fatal consequences. Others hand over money they can ill-afford to spare in the hope that God will bless their generosity. I think churches would be better off supporting people’s practical needs in practical ways, and perhaps help people to face life-changing illness in emotionally helpful ways that doesn’t chiefly involve holding out hope for healing that sadly very rarely comes. There are many ways faith-healing can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. Human beings get sick and we die – no amount of faith or faith-healing can change that.

Ben: Thanks for talking us through your experiences and thinking, it was all too brief! We’ll have to catch up and get into these issues a bit deeper.

Stephen: Thank you for having me!

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