Category Archives: Charismatic Movement

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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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles, Prophecy, Stigmata

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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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

Short Article (1): Healing & Disobedience

*****
Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
*****

Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland has me blocked on Twitter (for having the audacity to question him), but one of his tweets was retweeted by John Dickinson – a Presbyterian minister in Carnmoney, Northern Ireland – who I follow. The tweet – aimed at a Christian audience – said “The call to heal the sick is inescapable. If you don’t have the gift of healing, try out the gift of obedience.” A little perplexed by this notion I asked is it really the case that failure to heal the sick amounts to disobedience on our part. Unsurprisingly I got nothing from Scott, but Dickinson responded with: “Matthew 10:8.”

I looked it up:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Frankly I was even more baffled than before. First of all, if this verse means we are disobedient to a command of Christ by failing to heal the sick then we are equally disobedient for failing to raise the dead. In any event, Dickinson appears to have taken little or no notice of the context of this verse: a narrative in which Jesus sends out his disciples on an evangelistic mission. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a divine injunction for all believers everywhere for all of time. I made the point to Dickinson – asking him, perhaps a little cheekily, when he had last raised the dead – but sadly he didn’t respond.

I confess I feel sorry for the people who choose to sit under the teaching of those who would place such a burden on their backs. You don’t heal the sick? Then suffer the guilt of being disobedient to Christ. When I read the tweet to my wife she asked, “what about people like me? I don’t know how to heal the sick. How am I supposed to obey a command to do something I can’t do?” Despite not being philosophical astute, my wife had hit upon the ethical principle of “ought implies can:” if it is the case that I ought to do something, then the thing in question must be something I am indeed capable of doing. My wife can of course pray for the sick, but as for actually healing them, that’s beyond her power. Is she therefore disobedient? On the theological ruminations of Scott – seconded, seemingly, by John Dickinson – the answer is “yes.” But isn’t that simply a reductio ad absurdum of their position?

I wonder how this wonderful “gift of obedience” works out for Scott (or Dickinson). In practical terms how does one obey Christ by healing the sick? Scott’s friend Mark Marx regularly performs the “leg growing” wonder which I’ve written about numerous times before. He simply commands legs to grow – he commands muscle and sinew and bone to grow in the name of Jesus. Is this what we should be doing to obey Christ, commanding body parts to normalise, diseases to leave, and tumours to shrink? Does Scott (or Dickinson, if he agrees with this theology) do this or is there some other method available? Do they regularly see the lame walk? The blind see? The dead rise? I doubt it, though if they wish to present evidence to the contrary I’ll gladly consider it.

As well as putting a burden of guilt on the backs of other believers, such theology achieves another purpose: the elevation of the leader in the eyes of the congregation. This kind of theology creates the illusion that the leader sees much more success in healing people – because, unlike regular believers like you and I, these guys really really obey Jesus. This mix of guilt and admiration is a bewitching brew used as a form of social control over the lives of often vulnerable and impressionable people. It keeps the flock in check, and helps create and maintain the sort of spiritual hierarchy in which a certain breed of modern – typically charismatic – church leader thrives. However, it’s fundamentally abusive and leaves people emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked. My wife and I have suffered our fair share of abuse at the hands of such theology and the men and women who preach it. It was most liberating to leave it behind and come to realise that despite all the hype the preachers of such theology don’t have much success themselves. They certainly do, however, possess the gift of beguilement.

Stephen J Graham

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Modern Miracle Claims & the Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony

It is not uncommon for those who claim to have witnessed miraculous events to chastise sceptics with lines like, “you weren’t there, I was!” And that’s understandable, since humans quite naturally ascribe great weight to eyewitness testimony. However, psychological research in the past few decades has documented numerous problems with eyewitness testimony, particularly when it comes to events which are shocking, surprising, alarming, or “miraculous.” In this article I want to briefly explore some of these problems to show that when it comes to examining alleged miracles eyewitness testimony carries far less weight than is typically assumed. It needs to be examined very critically, analysed in the context of other evidence, sometimes taken with a pinch of salt, or even rejected altogether.

A report by the Innocence Project estimated that 73% of 239 convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence had been initially based on eyewitness testimony. John Munkman, an expert in court advocacy writes: “The most honest witnesses frequently give evidence which is unsound, though they are quite sure that it is true.” There are several reasons for witness mistakes which I will examine in turn.

1. Errors of Perception

In order for observations to be accurate the person must have the opportunity to observe – he or she must be in the right place, under the right conditions, and paying close attention. Errors of perception are particularly more likely when events happen very quickly, or a lot happens in a short space of time. Most witnesses in such cases see and hear only a fraction of the total occurrence, and of course we can be easily distracted from one thing by another. In fact, a bigger picture of an event is typically created subsequently – as smaller mental images are linked together by inference and imagination. Further, psychologists tell us that surprise and excitement, as well as the presence of intense pain or strong emotion, can make a picture confused and obscure the precise details, so much so that our senses can be prevented from operating normally and produce memories which are distorted or completely imaginary. Moreover, if an eyewitness has a personal interest in the matter then his or her attention will be focused on those parts of an event which are – or can be interpreted as – favourable to him, whilst ignoring those which aren’t.

So, just because someone happens to be in a room in which an alleged miracle occurs does not make them particularly useful witnesses. What exactly did they see and hear? Were they in an atmosphere of intense emotion and hype? Are they so focused on one thing that they miss something else? This tends to happen to those who claim to witness the supposed leg growing miracle: they are so focused on one leg “growing” that they miss the fact that a loosened shoe is being pushed back on the other foot to create an illusion of leg growth.

2. Errors in Interpretation

Perception is just one stage in building up a picture of an event. Our minds are also engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen. We interpret events through a complex mix of perception, inference, previous experience, and imagination. Errors can very easily occur at this stage – through mistaken assumptions or poor inferences. So, eyewitnesses at a WV Grant healing crusade will witness people being pulled out of wheelchairs and conclude that paralysed people have been healed, despite the fact these people were not in fact paralysed to begin with. People might more easily believe that paralysed people are healed before their very eyes because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment, or simply have a bias that makes them too easily interpret an event as miraculous when a much more plausible explanation is available. Seeing a person rise out of a wheelchair after prayer is not the same as seeing the lame walk, though the former is often interpreted as a case of the latter.

3. Errors of Memory and Imagination

Too many people buy into the “video recorder” view of memory, a view which has long since been discarded by experts in the phenomenology of memory. On this conception our mind simply records an event and later on replays it just as it really happened. Psychologists, such as the eminent memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus, tell us memories are “reconstructed” rather than “played back.” Rather than storing information exactly as presented to us, we extract from it the gist or underlying meaning, storing information in a way that makes most sense to us, even reconstructing memories to conform to our beliefs and expectations.

Memory also fades with the lapse of time, and is frequently supplemented by imagination. In fact, psychologists are aware of several factors which accentuate our natural tendency to use our imagination to supplement our memory of some event. For example, psychologists are aware that after an event witnesses talk to each other and run things over in their minds. During this process a picture of the event is filled out – certain details get omitted, others get added, and memories get modified. Witness A might talk to Witness B and in the course of the conversation B mentions aspects of the event that A was either only hazily aware of or not conscious of at all. However, it frequently happens that witness A will later report this aspect of the event as if he himself actually witnessed it clearly.

Even more importantly is the power of suggestion. In discussing a very basic coin trick, Derren Brown shows how it’s possible to make a person remember seeing something they never actually saw. At the beginning of the trick a coin is placed on a table. The magician goes to pick it up but in doing so simply slips the coin into their lap. He holds up his hand as if still holding the coin and makes a gesture as if he’s moving the coin into his other hand. The magician blows on this hand, opens it, and the coin has “gone.” The person guesses it must still be in the first hand, which is also empty. As the person is stumped the magician talks about the stages of the trick: “you saw me lift it, hold it up in front of you, pass it into my other hand….etc…” In most cases the person will agree that they actually saw the coin in the magicians hand before he passed it into his other hand. It’s a simple trick of suggestion, and people are most prone to being fooled by it when they are puzzled, confused, or in a high state of emotion. The creation of false memories has been reported time and time again by psychologists. Elizabeth Loftus’ experiments demonstrated how false facts are introduced into memory; she was able to have subjects remember false images, and even to change their memory of an event simply by wording questions about it in a certain way. Crucially, many of the subjects of such experiments are certain that their memories are real. This is well-known in the legal world, with the judge in the case of Krist v Eli Lilly writing: “memory is highly suggestible – people are easily ‘reminded’ of events that never happened, and having been ‘reminded’ may thereafter hold the false recollection as tenaciously as they would a true one.”

We should be wary then of eyewitness reports of miracles, particularly when they occur in the context of a healing crusade or charismatic worship service. Under such conditions people who are susceptible to miraculous interpretations of events can very easily imagine that a miracle of some kind has occurred, especially if they have discussed the events with others of a similar disposition, or if a charismatic leader has – whether consciously or not – used the power of suggestion.

4. Errors of Expression

No-one reports an event exactly as it happens. We tell stories, and these stories are selective. We omit details that are seemingly superfluous, or we exaggerate elements which we hope will surprise and delight the person we are talking to. If I had a pound for every time I heard phrases like “people were being healed all over the place!” Often this phrase simply means people were being prayed for all over the place, and the person was assuming they were being healed. Or “we prayed for Joe yesterday and the pain he’d had for 30 years totally left him for good.” Crucially, our stories can actually change our memories of the very events in question. Laura Englehardt writes, “Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory – even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.”

This is very common amongst charismatic leaders, who seem to thrive on personal anecdotes about wonders they have performed around the globe. One is left wondering to precisely what extent has their memory of some event been modified by the telling and retelling of such stories.

What all this means is that eyewitness testimony – as important as it can be – should be examined thoroughly, preferably by someone who was not present at the event in question. With claims of miraculous healing we are right to require additional evidence such as medical histories and expert opinion, rather than simply believing the testimony of an eyewitness, who could be – and in many cases is – in error about what exactly they witnessed or remember happening.

Stephen J Graham

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Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection

In my previous article I stated that when it comes to telling stories of the miraculous Charismatics habitually damage their own credibility though overstatement and even fabrication of facts. I also alluded to how Robby Dawkins – an in demand travelling healer/evangelist and member of the Vineyard group of churches – made claims to have ministered a resurrection in March 2015. I knew little about this incident at the time but I’ve been researching it recently and, unsurprisingly, have discovered that the truth is not quite how Dawkins has stated it.

The incident occurred in March at Inglewhite Congregational Church in North England. Whilst Dawkins was speaking, a man I will simply call Matthew began to suffer contortions of the face as well as involuntary jerking movements. Seeing this, Dawkins ran over and began to “[bind] demonic powers and [command] his body to be loosed in Jesus’ name.” Matthew’s lips turned blue and he went stiff. As Dawkins continued to “bind the spirit of death” he claimed that he “heard the death rattle” – a sound made by dying people as fluid accumulates at the top of the chest. Dawkins told “death” that he could not have Matthew, and he “began to declare the resurrection life of Jesus over him.” When Matthew began to come round Dawkins pulled him into a hug – because doing so, according to Dawkins, “imparts life.” Dawkins claimed a resurrection had occurred, and in defence of his claims he temporarily posted the report of a doctor who had been sitting behind Matthew when this all happened. Even in this doctor’s report the evidence to suggest Matthew had died was flimsy in excelsis. The report states that Matthew’s breathing became worse – “agonal breathing” – and then declared “in other words, he was dead” – a somewhat hasty comment for the doctor to make, particularly as he had not taken a pulse, and admitted that Matthew didn’t need heart massage. Seemingly the doctor in question subsequently sought to withdraw his report. (In addition to claiming a resurrection, Dawkins claimed that Matthew’s speech was massively improved thanks to his ministering efforts).

Of course, all this is suspicious enough, but the thing that is utterly devastating to Dawkins’ claims is the testimony of Matthew’s sister Rebecca, a testimony which was deleted from Robby Dawkins’ Facebook pages. Here is her testimony in full as stated on her Facebook page. I have made a few minor editorial amendments:

“Robby Dawkins claims to have raised my brother from the dead.

I’d like you to hear the truth. I have noticed a few people have questioned his story and each time their comments mysteriously get deleted. Seems a little suspicious if you ask me.

Matthew is my brother and it seems that Robby Dawkins is in fact feeding people a few twists of the truth. Maybe it sells more books and keeps him more in the public view, but as his family are so distressed by what he has been putting on Facebook I am doing what I can to get our story out. We have been blocked from commenting on his Facebook sites and therefore unable to explain our side of events.

Although I wasn’t there at the meeting, my mother and many extended family and friends were. We come from a Christian background; my father is married to a pastor and the family attends church regularly. I am writing this so people are given the chance to hear what we have to say and make up their own minds as to whether to believe Mr Robby Dawkins.

Matthew had a stroke about a year ago. Physically he was not affected, but his speech and communication unfortunately were affected. He is 10 times better at communicating than he was a year ago, but this improvement occurred prior to the meeting and was due to all the hard work Matthew has put into retraining his brain. Therefore, for Robby to claim that his speech is 100% improved as a result of his ministrations is a pure lie. He did not know Matthew beforehand and therefore is unable to comment on whether his speech had improved or not.

With respect to the “death,” what Robby is telling everyone is also not true. It has since been MEDICALLY proven that Matthew had suffered an epileptic seizure which can often display similar signs to someone dying. TWO nurse family friends of ours both had their hands on Matthew throughout and not once lost his pulse. So no, Matthew did not die.

The preacher from Inglewhite church has been so thrown by all of this that on Sunday just gone he stood at the front of church and apologized to his congregation for allowing Robby into their church. The doctor who was also there is said to be apologizing to them next week for all the pain caused through this unbelievable encounter that he had given and the shock that all this had been broadcast on Facebook by this coward of a man who will not face up to the actual truth.

What you choose to believe is up to you. As his sister I have known him for 30+ years, Dawkins met my brother for all of half an hour.

I just want the freedom to be able to share our side of the story instead of being silenced.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.”

Commenting further on Matthew’s state shortly after the episode, Rebecca writes:

He is struggling right now. More seizures. Very low. And every time he sees something on Facebook about Robby Dawkins and that night and the promises that were made to him about being healed, it gets him down.”

Lest anyone should think that Rebecca has had any change of mind after a year of reflection, know that she has approved my reproducing her story here.

So, there we have it. It certainly casts events in a very different light. Despite having the facts provided to him, Dawkins has not retracted his claims to have ministered a resurrection. In passing we should note this further comment by Dawkins on the event: “The Charisma article on the resurrection in England has official [sic] gone viral on social media…my book…has shot to number one in 3 best sellers categories. It’s at number on [sic] in Evangelism.”

Dawkins is being completely honest about the success of his book, but his claims concerning the resurrection are far from compelling and trustworthy. His own understanding of the event is so sloppy that he was chastised by Rebecca for failing to get Matthew’s surname right let alone understand his medical history. Moreover, Dawkins seems to accept that Matthew was dead simply because his pupils were dilated and he was struggling to breathe. Furthermore, Dawkins never mentioned the nurses who were present until Rebecca pointed it out, a convenient omission since at least one of these nurses could confirm that Matthew’s pulse was never lost once during the entire episode. In any event, even aside from this fact there was no positive evidence that Matthew had died, and even the doctor seemed to suggest Matthew did not stop breathing. I would think it’s fairly reasonable to suppose that a man who retained his pulse and ability to breathe was still very much alive. Dawkins’ claims are therefore blown completely out of the water.

We could add other curious features of Dawkins’ claim. The doctor he cited was initially named but very quickly made anonymous; who was he, what were his credentials? In fact, in his report to Dawkins he seems incredibly relieved that he didn’t have to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation. Was he nervous at having to do so? Why? Is this normal for a medical professional? Of course, doctors have various specialisms, and in this case at least it seems the doctor in question wasn’t an expert in Matthew’s condition.

Dawkins appears to have Rebecca in mind when he implied that certain family members were not fit to comment because they were not present. However, whilst there can be certain advantages to being an eyewitness, there are well-known problems also. In fact, it’s more likely that those who were not present are more able to provide an objective analysis, especially when they are far more knowledgeable about the background of the event (in this case, familiarity with Matthew’s physical condition, his medical history, and his actual subsequent diagnosis). Lawyers who are trained to cross-examine eyewitnesses in court are well aware that eyewitnesses are often unreliable. They can suffer from errors of perception, errors in interpreting the data of perception, errors of memory and confusions that occur when memory is blended with imagination (which is surprisingly common), and errors in how they express their understanding of what happened (typically, damaging omissions or grandstanding exaggerations). If an event happens quickly, or is particularly surprising, exciting, or adrenaline inducing, then so much the worst for accurate eyewitness perception. Munkman writes that the presence of such strong emotion “may prevent the senses from operating in a natural way, and may produce pictures or sounds which are distorted, or totally imaginary.”

I will discuss these issues in full in my next article (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/). For now I simply wish to stress that those who aren’t eyewitnesses to some event can actually be in a much better position to objectively sift the facts after the event than those who are caught up in the emotional hype of the moment. This is why police investigations and court room proceedings are incredibly successful mechanisms for discovering the truth, even in the face of eyewitness testimony. I think, therefore, that Rebecca’s distance from the event is a point in her favour. Moreover, she has nothing to gain by criticising Dawkins. Robby, on the other hand, is compromised as an objective reporter on the basis that he was caught up in the hype, and has a ministry and a book to punt to the masses. In his case it’s easy to see how truth might be sacrificed on the altar of self-interest.

Rebecca states that “who you choose to believe is up to you,” but to be honest there shouldn’t be much debate as to precisely where the evidence points in this case. Perhaps Dawkins is too busy selling his books and building his reputation and career as an in demand speaker and healer to bother too much with inconvenient facts.

Stephen J. Graham

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Dishonest Charismatic Claims

UPDATE: The Charisma News article now acknowledges the multiple surgeries. The other problems I identify in their report remain unremedied.

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 2ND UPDATE: I’ve been looking into Robby Dawkins’ resurrection claims and as I suspected there seems a fair amount of misstating or glossing over of facts. In fact the family of the resurrectee himself have a very different take on Dawkins’ claims! I would write about it but I discovered a two-part series which does a great job of exposing the truth behind the hype:

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-1/

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/a-skeptical-evaluation-of-robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-2/

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Much of modern charismatic hype concerning miracles of divine healing is due to misreporting, misinformation, and plain wanton ignorance. This was wonderfully illustrated earlier this week in an article by Charisma News: “To passionate, Spirit-filled Christians, Charisma News is the most trusted source for credible news and insight from a charismatic perspective.” The article was shared on Twitter by Robby Dawkins a few days ago. Robby Dawkins is an advocate of faith-healing; he practices and teaches others how to perform the old leg-growing carnival trick, and even claims to have seen the dead brought back to life. Anyhow, here’s the article he tweeted:

http://www.charismanews.com/world/56535-cripple-healed-by-prayer-danced-after-visiting-miracle-ministry

“Cripple healed by prayer danced after visiting miracle ministry.”

The case was well publicised in Northern Ireland, being picked up by several newspapers. Joshua Martin was 14 years old when doctors discovered that his suspected appendicitis was really a number of cancerous tumours in his abdomen. Joshua’s parents brought him to see Mark Marx, the leader of Healing on the Streets in Coleraine, whose claims and practices I’ve discussed in several articles on this site. Marx claimed that one of Joshua’s legs was shorter than the other. Of course, Marx has no orthopaedic expertise whatsoever and diagnoses this condition simple by lifting a person’s legs and comparing them in length. It’s utter nonsense. Anyhow, he performed his signature leg-growing wonder on a 14 year old cancer sufferer, claiming that this was a sign of what was happening inside Joshua. Joshua, who was using a wheelchair at the time due to his condition, got out and began to dance. It turned out that Joshua was cancer free.

It certainly sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it? Well, no. As with most healing claims the case for miraculous intervention evaporates upon even a cursory glance at the actual facts. Sadly charismatics have been incredibly dishonest in their use of this story as evidence of miraculous healing. Firstly, the headline reads as if a wheelchair bound cripple miraculously got to his feet and danced. However, Joshua was not a “cripple” as Charisma magazine states. By its use of the word “cripple,” and the fact that most people naturally identify “cripple” with “paralysed,” the report implies that Joshua couldn’t walk at all. This was not the case: Joshua could walk. Not everyone in a wheelchair is paralysed. My father-in-law uses a wheel-chair, though – like many who use wheelchairs – on his better days can manage without one. Secondly, the Charisma article rather deceitfully hides the full truth of the matter – and Robby Dawkins and his ilk aren’t terribly quick to proclaim the full truth (“the truth shall set you free,” eh?). They do not mention that Joshua had undergone months of chemotherapy. Nor do they mention that he went through a series of radiotherapy treatment. Worse, they neglected to mention not only that Joshua had undergone invasive surgery, but that by the time he went to see Marx he had had his third operation. Furthermore, Joshua was not declared clear of cancer straight away. It was only several months later – after intensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and three bouts of surgery – that he was finally declare free of his cancer. And yet, all the medical intervention is glossed over or completely ignored by charismatics in their exuberance to claim yet another miraculous healing at the hands of a man who took advantage of a 14 year old cancer sufferer to boost his own ministry.

Frankly, I’m astounded at the deceit. And yet I shouldn’t be. I’ve seen this time and again from charismatics. As stories of healing get passed around they lose relevant details – like facts concerning medical intervention – and become simple stories of amazing and sudden healing.

I would love to investigate Robby Dawkins’ claim of seeing the dead come back to life. It reminds me of a story that went around Northern Ireland way back in the days of the so-called “Florida Revival,” lead by the discredited and publically shamed healing evangelist Todd Bentley. One church in North Belfast claimed a “raising of the dead” during this time. Now, what does that phrase mean to you, dear reader? To me it means someone who was irreversibly dead – and declared so – being miraculously brought back to life again in response to prayer and in the face of the utter failure of medical intervention. However, that isn’t what happened in this case. It involved a young man who had been in a car accident and had “died” on an operating table for a number of minutes. Doctors kept working on him and he was resuscitated, something which happens all over the world every day of the week. But because the man’s father had contacted a local pastor, and because that pastor had contacted Todd Bentley’s prayer team, and because the prayer team were praying, the case was declared as a “raising from the dead.” At best this is over-exuberance, at worst it’s plain dishonesty. Possibly the former, since the pastor of the church in question at the time took to going to morgues to pray for dead bodies, so he seems to at least have believed it. Needless to say, his prayers for actual irreversibly dead people had no success.

When we are faced with claims such as these it’s incredibly important to examine exactly what we are being told. It’s even more crucial to wonder what exactly we aren’t being told. Charismatics themselves have simply given us one more reason not to believe them.

Stephen J Graham

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“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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Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”

The charismatic movement is not the only source of miraculous claims. In fact, many of the “gifts of the spirit” can be found elsewhere. I want to take a brief look at a few examples and ask the charismatic what we should make of them.

1. Healing

Beyond the fringe of Christianity lies a movement called Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Scientists claim to know the exact method by which Jesus healed people, and they claim to be able to replicate his results systematically and repeatedly. Christian Scientists do not get trained in diagnosing illness, largely because they believe illness is an illusion which is tackled by prayer.

I suspect most charismatics would agree that Christian Science is nonsense. However, it seems to me that there’s as much evidence for the claims of Christian Science as there is for those of modern charismatics. The vast majority of charismatic healing claims amount to purely testimonies and anecdotes, passed on from person to person with all the embellishment that inevitably goes with that. Christian Science has published volumes of healing testimonies – literally thousands of them, claiming to demonstrate the potency of Christian Science healing methods. Of course, this reliance on anecdotes suffers from huge problems. Whilst it might initially seem impressive to see volumes of healing testimonies, it’s important to pay attention to what Christian Science does not tell us: 1000s of other cases when the methods did not work, some including people who decided to turn their backs on conventional medicine and paid with their lives for their folly. Likewise, charismatic healers will rarely tell tales of failure. In short, they count only the hits and ignore all the misses, and declare their practices genuine. When it’s possible to examine individual cases, one or a combination of the following always appears highly likely: placebo, misdiagnosis (either by a doctor or, more likely, due to self-diagnosis), medical ignorance, natural healing, medical intervention, exaggeration, or plain old fraud. If there really were genuine healings taking place these groups would not have to rely exclusively on anecdotes to make their case.

I ask the charismatic: why should I believe your anecdotes but not those of Christian Science? Why would you reject the testimonies of Christian Science but expect me to accept yours, which suffer from near identical evidential problems?

2. Tongues & Interpretation

The charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues can be found in many religions past and present. In fact, even children and people suffering from certain mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia – can do it. It appears in all manner of non-Christian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, or African Voodoo. Studies of tongues-speech have yet to find a single convincing case of a person speaking in another language without having previous exposure to that language. Further, the vast majority of tongues-speech turns out not to be a language at all, but rather is free vocalisation, produced from sounds the speaker uses as part of his native language. Thus there is no substantial difference between the tongues of an Indian Hindu and an Indian Charismatic who both speak Hindi as their mother-tongue. When we take an English-speaking charismatic and compare him to a Hindi speaking charismatic we find that their tongues are quite different – each reflecting the sounds (phonemes) of his native language. Moreover, interpretation of tongues – right across religious boundaries – is something of a dubious business. Time and again different interpreters will give very different interpretations of the same sample of tongues speech, or an actual foreign language will be completely wrongly interpreted. Indeed, frequently the interpretation is significantly longer or shorter than the original message in tongues. All of this is far most consistent with a natural psychological interpretation of the phenomenon than a supernatural one.

Such linguistic studies have been absolutely devastating to charismatic claims, and yet the charismatic would make an exception for his own practice, while seeing all these others as false; and this despite the fact that there is no better case for the genuineness of his own tongues speech.

3. Prophecy & Words of Knowledge

Prophecies are massively widespread. Not only do they occur all over the world in many different religions past and present, but there is a secular equivalent in the work of modern psychics. As part of my research I’ve compared the musings of charismatic prophets to those of modern day psychics, and it’s astounding how very similar they are in nature. In fact, the two main techniques used by psychics are also employed by charismatics: cold-reading and hot-reading. Cold-reading occurs in a number of ways. For example, a psychic or prophet might make a very vague or general statement that could apply to virtually anyone and make it seem as if the information had to be revealed in some supernatural or magical way. During a prophetic workshop held by a leading UK church a man was told he had a real heart to hear from God. Well, of course he does! He’s voluntarily attending a prophetic workshop! Statements that are inherently vague but seem to be specific are known as “Barnum statements,” and are used time and time again in modern prophecies, the work of psychics, and newspaper horoscopes. In addition, cold-reading picks up on lots of clues given unintentionally by the person to the prophet or psychic. Without saying a word to someone they can know a lot about us: based on how we dress, our mood, mannerisms, and demeanour. Hot-reading, on the other hand, involves the use of information already known to the prophet or psychic. Thus, famously, Peter Popoff was fed information through an earpiece from his wife that he was passing off as supernatural knowledge about people in the congregation.

I’ve even witnessed mistakes covered over in the same ways: so, if something is not a reality now the person is invited to take it as a promise or reality in the future. The crucial thing in prophecies, as in psychic readings, is the interpretation of the words of the prophet/psychic by the receiver of the prophecy. By simply following these simple techniques it’s not too difficult to give very convincing performances.

4. Miracles

In 1995 the world was treated to the miraculous events of Hindu statutes drinking milk. Many Hindu deities joined in the fun – from Ganesh to Nandi the Bull, to Shiva. So many Hindus were caught up in the hysteria that milk supplies were seriously depleted. Many charismatics might shake their heads at such behaviour, but the same reactions occur within charismania itself in the face of miraculous claims. The most significant lesson to learn from the milk-drinking statue extravaganza is just how quickly millions of people jumped on the bandwagon without ever pausing to ask some very basic questions. Before rational investigation was even getting its shoes on, the wave of miracle hype had taken off around the world. Calm investigation soon revealed the truth. In many cases the statues were made from baked clay which readily absorbs liquids through capillary attraction. With regards to other statues which were made from a non-porous material (such as marble), it was noticed that milk was pooling at their base. How come? Well, when milk is offered on a spoon to an idol which is wet from ritual washing, it drains imperceptibly over the idol in a virtually transparent layer, and then runs off and pools at the base. Mystery solved. Lastly, a small number of cases were discovered to be the result of hoaxing.

Presumably Charismatics would applaud the efforts of the investigators; and yet they routinely fail to investigate miracle claims closer to home. Far too many are more than happy to pass anecdotes of miraculous events from person to person without stopping to think or check a single fact.

The standard charismatic reaction is to label all these non-Charismatic “gifts of the Spirit” as “counterfeit.” A surprising number will go further and say the existence of the counterfeit is actually proof of the real! Firstly, it isn’t true that the existence of the counterfeit is proof of the real. James Randi notes that someone could produce a counterfeit $3 bill, despite there being no genuine $3 bill. The existence of magicians performing tricks hardly testifies to the existence of real magic. However, even if it was indeed the case that the counterfeit was proof of the real, how do we know what is counterfeit and what is real? In both the charismatic and non-charismatic versions of these gifts the same problems appear. None of them seem to be genuine at all. (In fact, at least in the case of tongues it’s interesting to note that the “counterfeit” came along centuries before the “real thing” as practised by modern charismatics!) In any event it would perhaps be more useful to speak not of counterfeit and real, but of genuine miracle claims and false ones. When presented with any claim we should investigate it as objectively as possible and come to a conclusion. With little more than shoddy evidence being offered on behalf of all these claims – charismatic and non-charismatic – we are right to be a tad sceptical.

If you are a charismatic reading this then put yourself in the shoes of the sceptic. What reason is there to accept your claims about all these things but not equally good (or bad!) claims from outside your borders? Why should the sceptic believe you? Until such time as you can give a reasonable answer to that question your claims to the miraculous will be – quite rightly – written off as yet more supernatural silliness flying in the face of evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Seduction of Charismania

For about a year I’ve been putting my opposition to the many bizarre practices and miraculous claims of the charismatic movement into print for the edification and annoyance of sceptics and charismatics alike. How successful have I been in this endeavour? That depends on how we define success. My main intention has been two-fold: to verbalise exactly what is wrong with many of these charismatic claims and practices, and to try out various ideas which I intend to put into a book on the subject. It was never my primary aim to convince charismatics to see the folly of their ways. With that said, I have had some success doing precisely that. However, I’ve met a fair amount of stubbornness too. For example, one guy on Twitter asked me to tell him what was wrong with the practices of a certain faith-healer. When I wrote an article on the matter and sent it to him, rather than engage with the case I had made he simply blocked me. My exchanges tend to be rather civil, but I’m left frustrated by what I see as a certain thick-headedness in my interlocutor, particularly when they insist miracles happen all the time (when they clearly don’t) or that God wills to physically heal every sick person (which is patent nonsense). So, despite my moderate success, why aren’t more people able to see through the vast array of silliness going on within the charismatic movement? Why is it that a proven fraud like Peter Popoff can still have a successful multi-million dollar business promising supernatural debt relief and peddling “miracle spring water?”

Having once been a part of this movement (for almost 15 years), and having left it upon rational reflection of the many dubious claims and practices, I think I’m in a decent place to at least point in the direction of answers to that question.

I think the best place to start is with the power of desire and of experience. There is a real desperation within many people to experience some greater meaning in their lives. How wonderful it would be if God was actively at work in miraculous ways in our daily lives. For a long time I yearned for and greatly desired to see God working in the world in the sort of supernatural ways charismatics claim he routinely does act. This desire is an incredibly strong one, and once we add it to the phenomenon of charismatic experiences it creates a seduction that’s damn near impossible to break away from. Charismatic experiences are often quite intense, involving powerful emotions. In charismatic worship people will often close their eyes, sway to the music, and end up in a highly suggestible state. Under certain circumstances people will experience a release of endorphins, as a result of which they take on something of a glowing countenance, they may even laugh for no reason or cry tears of joy. Some will even begin to feel and behave as if they’ve had a couple of drinks. In short, charismatic experiences make you feel good, but more importantly they put you into a highly suggestible state – not unlike the sort of state that can be produced in a person using psychological tricks and hypnosis techniques. It’s really little wonder why even highly intelligent people who have spent 30 minutes or even an hour in such a state are far more likely to give credence to the miracle claims that often follow.

Given how intense charismatic experiences can be, it’s not easy to look upon them in the cold light of reason to see them for what they really are. Moreover, it’s very difficult to admit that one was wrong about such matters given how foolish we might feel as a result. Take the charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I used to speak in tongues, and in fact I can still do so at will. I no longer regard it as a supernatural ability to speak in another language (human or angelic), but rather as a learned behaviour picked up through too many years in a Pentecostal church and a strong social pressure to engage in what is at best a meditative practice using free vocalisation. I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit to having been a tongues speaker. When I realized that I wasn’t doing anything remotely supernatural I felt incredibly stupid. It still makes me cringe. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, and it’s a painful realisation. It was tempting to bury my doubts rather than face up to having been so stupidly….stupid. Interestingly, magicians are well aware that this fear of appearing foolish when we find we’ve been duped can lead people to exaggerate their experiences, to deny the evidence before them, or to be highly vulnerable to suggestion from the magician (who of course makes them believe they experienced something more impressive than they really did). Understandably, many choose not to face up to the embarrassing reality.

Of course, when one goes to a charismatic church all these things are routine, and how often do we ever stop to question things that are routine? Everyone is doing it. It’s normal. In fact, it’s sometimes a little competitive and I’ve witnessed all manner of pretence: people vying with each other to see who can give the best performance or display the most intense spiritual experience. And the peer pressure doesn’t stop there. The social lives of many revolve around their church. When all your friends are claiming miracles and speaking in tongues it’s all the more difficult to dissent. Dissent can bring with it social exclusion. I have very few Pentecostal or charismatic friends left; they tend to view me with suspicion these days.

When we consider the social consequences that follow from not being in spiritual affinity with everyone else, it can be tempting to bury doubts or exaggerate one’s experiences. Dissenters run the risk of losing their entire social circle. Of course, you might not be explicitly vilified and actively shunned (as shamefully common as that is); rather, the exclusion might be of a benign, but no less devastating, kind, as one ends up drifting away from what had been a very strong social connection and a fundamental part of one’s identity. Unsurprisingly this is a very painful thing to go through, and it’s easy to see why doubts and dissent aren’t entered into lightly.

Humans are social animals, craving acceptance and friendship. Some of the more questionable charismatic leaders are well aware of this aspect of human psychology and use it to great effect in “personalised” letters that they send “just for you because I’ve been praying for you.” Wow, he’s been praying for ME? I’m blessed to have a friend who sits at the right hand side of God.” Of course, many Charismatic leaders are not charlatans, but they still create a strong impression on their congregations. Some seem to receive a steady stream of prophetic information directly from the throne of the Almighty. Despite being little more than a series of Barnum statements (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/), this creates the illusion of the supernatural, particularly in the minds of those who have been made suggestible by the hypnotic nature of much charismatic worship. Others give the impression that they are regular conduits for the working of divine healing power. Of course, this healing power (when it isn’t downright fraudulent) is clearly one or a combination of the following: placebo, exaggeration, anecdote, natural healing, medical intervention, or what has come to be known as the “shot gun technique,” whereby the leader announces on stage that God is – right at this very moment – healing someone with back pain, another of diabetes, He’s touch a woman with cancer, that asthmatic can breathe more easily – without ever identifying who he’s talking about. Many of these leaders are undoubtedly genuine people who really believe God is indeed working such wonders. But all they are really doing is following the techniques of less scrupulous charismatic celebrities, though in doing so they easily create an illusion that wonders and miracles are happening all over the place. Do you wanna get in with God? Then you gotta get in with the leader!

For other people this social phenomenon helps to insulate their beliefs and practices from criticism. Take Peter Popoff again. How is it that so many people could still fall for the shenanigans of a proven fraud? Well, for some of these people the answer lies in not knowing he’s a proven fraud. How many people who engage in charismatic beliefs and practices will read a book like James Randi’s “The Faith-Healers,” or watch a critical documentary like Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sales.” Instead they are far more likely to read books in defence of their beliefs and practices, and rather than listening to a sceptic’s critique they tend to stick to events where people provide impressive sounding anecdotes of miracles they witnessed in Mozambique. And so, via our old friend Confirmation Bias, their claims get constantly affirmed and rarely subjected to challenge. Note the reaction of the guy I mentioned earlier who blocked me on Twitter simply for sharing a critical article about a faith-healer he liked. Even more recently, when I shared that same article with another person I was instantly labelled as a troll.

Sadly, there are others who are simply desperate. Why do they fall for faith-healing charlatans? Because the charlatan is the only person offering any hope at all. Sure, Popoff was once a crook but maybe he’s changed now. Maybe his miracle spring water will work. What have I got to lose from giving it a try? Such people are easy prey for charismatic faith-healers simply because they want hope and the charismatic faith-healer is the only one offering it (albeit of a false kind).

These factors are powerful, blinding even highly intelligent people. It took me years, but one day the scales finally fell from my eyes and I could see through the web of delusion which had been spun around me. If my writings can help even a few others break free even a bit sooner, they will have been well worth it.

Stephen J. Graham

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