Monthly Archives: February 2018

Guardian Angels

Billy Graham (no relation) died today – Wednesday 21st February 2018. I confess I know very little about him. I never listened to him preach or took much interest in his career. My only contact with Graham was through his book “Angels: God’s Secret Agents,” which was given to me by an Assistant Minister in a Presbyterian Church I attended in my teens. I thought it was odd then and I still do.

It seems a large number of people not only believe in angels as distinct beings but also claim to have their very own “guardian angel,” who pops up occasionally to save them from harm. I confess the notion of guardian angels strikes me as plain silly. The aforementioned Assistant Minister once told me a story (see below) of how an angel saved his life, and whilst I found it interesting, I just thought it was a case of misperception. Many others report their own stories of having been protected by guardian angels. I went through a phase of reading as many of these stories as I could find, but my conclusion was that the vast majority of accounts were either due to misperceptions, misreporting, or just plain folk tales. Graham himself relates a tale of a young girl who fetched a doctor for her sick mother. After tending to the mother the doctor discovered that the woman’s daughter had been dead for several weeks and the coat she was wearing on this windy and rainy night was hanging up in the closet completely dry. The trouble with this story – aside from the fact that it sounds just like a clichéd ghost story – is that it is quite an old tale which has circulated in various forms and with conflicting details. The folklorist Jan Brunvand points out that it came from an original story by S Weir Mitchell, who was a physicist and writer of fiction, and who appeared to suggest the story was indeed a ghost tale.

This sort of story is quite typical, and angels routinely pop up as mysterious kind strangers who provide assistance to people in need and then suddenly just disappear. “Roadside rescue” stories are so common as to be something of a cliché. The aforementioned Assistant Minister’s own story was of this genre of angel-lore. He momentarily lost control of his car and was heading towards a steep drop in a frozen panic when suddenly a car coming from the other direction forced him to steer away from danger. When he came to a halt the other car was nowhere to be seen, and apparently on this long straight road the car should still have been in sight. It had just disappeared. But how much time had lapsed between him swerving, then coming to a halt, and then looking for the other car? It might have seemed to him to have been seconds, but it may well have been much longer. Situations of anxiety can warp our experience of reality such that minutes seem to pass in seconds. Moreover, if the other car was moving fast enough it could easily have been out of sight surprisingly quickly.

Other stories have similar easy explanations. In fact, pretty much every angel story I’ve heard seems to me to have a more straightforward explanation. I have a demonic story of my own. I once woke up in the middle of the night and saw an area of my room that seemed “darker” than the rest. It looked – and felt – like something malevolent was hanging in mid-air beside my wardrobe. It suddenly seemed to fly right up to my face, causing me to shut my eyes in utter terror. The feeling passed in a few seconds and when I opened my eyes again my room was normal. Had I close encounter with a demonic entity? No. Clearly not. It was precisely the sort of experience that is referred to as a waking dream, a kind of hallucinogenic state between sleeping and waking consciousness. Presumably dark powers have more important things to do with their time than scaring the crap out of 17 year olds in their bedrooms. Some angelic accounts have all the hallmarks of the same sort of phenomena: waking dreams, the state which is responsible for many alleged experiences of ghosts, aliens, and other wee beasties lurking in the subconscious mind.

Stress is another state that causes hallucinations (or simply misperceptions) in which people believe they have experienced angels. Robert A. Baker, a psychologist, points out that there is a “well known psychological fact that human beings, when subjected to extreme fear and stress, frequently hallucinate. These hallucinations, in many instances, take the form of helpers, aides, guides, assistants, playing the role of saviour. If the hallucinator also has religious leanings it is easy to understand how such a ‘helper’ is converted into one of the heavenly host.”

In other cases it seems as if the person in question is simply a fantasist. This is particularly common in children, and my own son would freak us out from time to time as a toddler as he seemed to interact with things that weren’t there. Other accounts are simply urban myths, passed on as if the teller was (or knows) the person in question, (people are prone to “sexing up” stories in the retelling to make them even more marvellous to their audience).

None of this means angels do not exist, but it does mean there are generally good reasons for doubting claims to have experienced them.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Perils of Faith-Healing

My most recent article “The Peril of Faith Healing” is published at On Religion here:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/the-perils-of-faith-healing/

In this article I respond to the claims of Gloria Copeland that Christians can and should refuse flu shots because they are provided with supernatural protection by Jesus. I also go on to make a number of critical comments on faith-healing generally, and lay out the dangers inherent in this theology.

Stephen J. Graham

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Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

I’m currently wading through Craig Keener’s massive two volume work “Miracles.” The book relays healing anecdote after healing anecdote. Frankly it is largely boring, incredibly tedious reading, and should have been about a quarter of the size.

Keener tells us that his main thesis is to defend the claim that people all over the globe – past and present – have claimed to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events, and thus New Testament claims can’t be dismissed as later legends, but rather they were genuine claims by eyewitnesses. I honestly don’t know who Keener is aiming at here because I have never met a single person – past or present, in real life or in literature – who doesn’t already know that many people past and present make claims concerning supposed miraculous events they witnessed. Such miracle claims abound in practically every culture. No-one seriously disputes that. I suspect Keener is being rather disingenuous with us, telling us hundreds and hundreds of miracle stories in the hope that we too begin to believe in miracles, or if we already believe then he means to affirm our belief with all these stories. I simply do not believe him when he tells us that the point of his book is the far more modest claim that people claim to have witnessed miracles.

Keener frequently refers to some instance of recovery as “medically inexplicable.” This is a common emphasis in the miracle-touting literature. This stress on medical inexplicability fits well with the definition of miracle provided by Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia: “an event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to divine intervention.” Now, admittedly Keener is at pains to stress that he does not regard all the cases he reports as miraculous, but he does seem to strongly imply that many – even most – of his cases are best explained in these terms. In fact, it seems to me that the main reason Keener presents hundreds of such claims, regardless of their quality (and most are little more than folk tales or hearsay) is to allow him to say something like “sure, some of these claims might be false but there so many of them such that they can’t all be false, and therefore some must be due to supernatural agency.” As part of his cumulative case Keener presents these medically inexplicable recoveries. But how significant is it that some recovery is “medically inexplicable?

That some healing or other is “medically inexplicable” is a woefully inadequate – albeit very common – reason for positing divine intervention. It relies not on any positive evidence but rather on the mere lack of an explanation. This amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. It is not legitimate to argue: “Doctors cannot explain why Bob’s tumour has disappeared, therefore the tumour was taken away by God.” That’s classic god of the gaps reasoning. There are lots of good potential reasons why some recovery might be “medically inexplicable.” For instance, perhaps a patient was misdiagnosed with Serious Disease A when she in fact only had Temporary Disease B. That she recovered is inexplicable as long as we think she suffered Serious Disease A, but of course she might not have. Alternatively, a doctor might well be mistaken about some condition or other. Doctors, after all, do not know everything about every disease. They can also make mistakes, thinking a disease was incurable when it in fact isn’t. Such might be very common in impoverished countries with little or no decent healthcare. Doctors might well lack the equipment for making a sound diagnosis. It is noteworthy that most of the healing claims Keener relates originate in such countries. A doctor might also use the language of “miracle” simply to mean “highly unusual,” rather than “act of God.” Moreover, a patient might misunderstand or misreport what his doctor tells him about his condition and chances of recovery, and in many cases it is the patient – not the doctor – who reports the recovery as “medically inexplicable.” Lastly, even modern medicine is far from omniscient. There are many things we do not know, such as why certain diseases behave the way they do. Remember that what was “medically inexplicable” 400 years ago is routine to us, and the same will likely be the case 400 years from now.

It is worth pointing out also that an event could be “miraculous” in some sense – as a special providence or intervention by God – even if it is completely medically explicable. For instance, suppose God heals Bob of cancer, such that had God not intervened Bob would’ve died. In this case Bob’s recovery might well be medically explicable (perhaps he had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) and yet it is miraculous nonetheless. Or imagine a faith-healer who had an uncanny success rate in praying for people to be healed of cancer. It is possible to see that the case for miraculous intervention could be made despite the fact that each and every case is technically medically explicable (cancer often does remit, particularly with treatment).

It seems clear to me, therefore, that being medically inexplicable is neither necessary nor anywhere near sufficient to establish a miracle.

Stephen J. Graham

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Why I’m (Largely) Abandoning Philosophy of Religion

It’s been an obsession for over half my life – ever since I got into my first debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend. I studied philosophy at university, read widely – often compulsively – and devoured the literature. I began my own research and writing, some of which bore fruit in publications, but all of which was simply me trying to sort out what I thought about some problem or other. But I’ve decided to call time on most of my work in philosophy of religion, and the main reason I’m doing so is because it has become boring.

There are only so many times we can keep going over the same questions, problems, and disagreements, and I’ve come to the realisation that on most of the issues of any importance I’ve more or less settled my mind, and thus it’s time to just move on. Take the existence of God. I am absolutely convinced that God exists, it seems fairly obvious to me; though natural theology just feels tedious these days. I’ve little to say to atheists and they’ve little to say to me that I haven’t heard 101 times before. We’re at an impasse that philosophy cannot resolve, and continuing bickering is pointless. The same goes for what has been probably my biggest research interest for years: the problem of evil. I’ve nothing more to say about it and, to my mind anyway, it’s dead in the water as a serious intellectual objection to Christian theism. My third primary interest focused on the nature of God, and in particular God’s providence. This is an area in which I feel I’ve made the least progress, but it’s the area wherein perhaps there’s far less progress to be made. Trying to fathom the intricate detail of the nature and work of a being I can barely comprehend seems the height of futility. I’ve been reading some Calvinist works recently and it suddenly occurred to me that few of us really have any clue whatsoever how such a being governs the world, and yet our philosophical pretensions rumble on regardless. To some, that might sound like I’m on the slippery slope to agnosticism, and to some degree they’d be right. Fundamentally, it’s a recognition of my own inability to grasp the nature of God and my acceptance that that’s just the way it is and that’s OK. I’m happy not knowing, and refusing to speculate seems the least bad option. Nothing seems to hang on one’s view of divine omniscience, eternity or providence. It makes not a jot of difference.

Philosophical thinking is, of course, inescapable, and this is no abandoning of philosophy in general on my part. It’s a re-orientation and application of what philosophical ability I have to newer (at least to me) and more important questions. To that end my work on the problem of evil, natural theology, and the nature of God, will largely cease. I will continue to explore miracle claims as I still find these intriguing and I haven’t yet settled the matter to my own satisfaction. I also intend to engage more directly in matters of ethics and political philosophy, both of which have massive implications for human life and well-being, and I will continue my work in inter-faith relations. In short, I’m abandoning heaven in favour of earth in my philosophical ruminations.

I’ll be turning 40 this year, which means that the best part of my life is almost certainly behind me. Looking ahead I’d rather not waste any more time on the same old problems that intellects of far greater philosophical power than me struggle to make any progress on, or on areas I’ve already firmly decided. Some might interpret this move as something of a mid-life crisis. Perhaps they are right, though it’s a much cheaper way to do it than buying a motorbike.

I hope readers will continue to find my writings engaging despite the change of emphasis, and maybe even because of it.

Stephen J. Graham

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