The Power of Magical Thinking

The Christian church is full of miraculous claims. The charismatic wing of the church routinely claims miraculous healings, prophecies, and even nature miracles. Consider also Roman Catholicism with its miraculous statues, relics, and theophanies. It is rare in either case to find much by way of critical discernment even in light of an overwhelming case against some miracle claim or other, which testifies strongly to the power of magical thinking and the desire to see and experience God at work in the world.

Examples of this mind-set are not difficult to find:

(1) The Glowing Statues at St Joseph the Provider – Campbell, Ohio

Parts of two statues – Mary and Jesus – seemed to have begun to glow. It became apparent that the cause was weathering of the gold leaf that covered the statues, causing them to shine (not glow) more brightly. (In fact, it seems the shining had occurred for some time until one pilgrim decided to make a thing of it). When another pilgrim approached Joe Nickell – who was investigating the phenomena – to ask his opinion, Nickell explained the gold leaf, to which the lady dismissively replied: “I prefer not to believe that.”

(2) Miracle Dirt of El Santuario de Chimayo

At this little church pilgrims scoop miracle dirt from a pit in the floor and rub it on afflicted body parts. According to legend the pit would be refilled by divine intervention. Of course, the fact is that priests periodically refill the hole with dirt and the RCC has never investigated the healing claims. Father Jim Suntum admits the dirt has no powers but still insists “something happens in this place.” It’s unclear anything happens beyond the retelling of healing stories by an elderly priest. But pilgrims continue to flock nevertheless, many desperate for a cure.

(3) The Perambulating Mary in Thornton, California

This statue of Mary apparently changed the tilt of its head, the angle of its eyes, wept, and even strolled around the church at night (being found several feet from its usual location). An investigation by the bishop reported the changes of head and eyes were simply due to different camera angles, and the weeping and movement was probably a hoax. Some of those who were desperate for a miracle simply denounced the investigators as a “bunch of devils” rather than accept reason.

(4) Miscellaneous Moving Madonnas

Pilgrims have never been shy about rushing to venerate other miraculous statues. One such statue in Ireland apparently swayed, a phenomenon which scientists from University College Cork also witnessed, but – with the aid of a motion detector – demonstrated that it was a trick of the light coupled with the involuntary bodily movements of the pilgrims themselves, not the statue. Another statue in Conyers, Georgia, had a “heartbeat.” The heartbeat was simply the pulse in the thumbs of the pilgrim who touched it. After another statue that cried blood was questioned by skeptics, a church spokesperson said there were no plans for a formal church investigation, adding: “if people view this as a miracle and it brings them closer to God, then that’s a good thing.” Pouring skeptical waters on the flames of miracle claims is not always welcome in some quarters.

(5)  The Curious Case of the Self-Replicating Relics

From 6 foreskins of Jesus – several heads of John the Baptist – a few dozen “genuine” burial shrouds of Christ – and enough wood from the “real” cross to build a large ship – it seems something is not quite right in the world of relics. The simple reason for this multiplication is that relics were so keenly sought by churches and wealthy gentlemen seeking to enhance their status and influence that an entire business was sparked for those who would supply them, even if via unholy means. However, an alternative explanation was proffered by those who either benefited from the business or who were simply desperate to hold onto the miracles: the relics had a supernatural ability to reproduce themselves! So, no matter how many pieces of the true cross there were more could always be provided. Hadn’t Jesus fed the 5000 with only 2 fish and 5 loaves? Veneration of all these questionable relics has largely been permitted to continue on the basis that God is not dishonoured by an error made in good faith, and multitudes of pilgrims remain enthusiastic enough to travel miles to venerate them

(6) Theophanies

Mary – and sometimes Jesus – have deigned to appear to the faithful in a multitude of novel ways. Mary has appeared in a cheese toastie; Jesus in a forkful of spaghetti. Mary appeared also in a cut tree stump in Ireland, as well as in a water stain in a grimy Chicago underpass. Commenting on the stump, One Irish parishioner said: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together to say a few prayers, so what’s wrong with that?” Commenting on the Chicago underpass water stain one churchman said: “Maybe this is our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”

Perhaps these sorts of attitudes provide insight into why the RCC is a tad coy when it comes to repudiating such miracles, even when the truth (in these pareidolia and pious imagination) isn’t difficult to ascertain.

More importantly, all these attitudes to the miraculous also provide insight into how a man like Peter Popoff can be exposed as an utter charlatan and still return years later doing the same kind of ministry and commanding a devoted following. The truth is that people often don’t want a non-supernatural answer and so they simply choose not to accept there is one. People crave the miraculous, the wonderful, the novel, and the exotic. It meets a deep psychological need for those who wish their difficult or boring lives were caught up in something more meaningful and exciting. With such widespread needs and desires it is only to be expected that there are would arise people whose business it is to meet these desires, albeit through dishonest and fraudulent means.

Stephen J. Graham


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