Category Archives: Miracles

Miracles in “Traditional Religions” – A Response to Fiona Bowie

In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.

http://www.academia.edu/459694/Miracle_in_Traditional_Religion

In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.

Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.

According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.

There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.

And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?

The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.

Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.

Stephen J. Graham

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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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The Curious Incident of the Pony in the Nighttime

^Mark Marx – of leg-growing faith-healing fame – recently made another rather intriguing claim:

Well, it seems God heals animals too. We’ve seen a flock of sheep healed, and now a pony!

Sadly Marx refuses to engage with me, but another kind tweep was able to get the story from him, which is quoted unedited and in full below:

Here’s the story, with kind permission to share… “Hi, I would just like to thank the lovely ladies who prayed for my very sick pony a few weeks ago. I know it sounds strange praying for a pony, but i cared a lot about him and the worry was affecting my health. He became v sick with Strangles and his throat swelled up so he couldn’t eat properly. He was seen by 2 different vets and given antibiotics but nothing helped. Both vets thought he would die. This went on for a few weeks and the 2nd vet said to give him till July and then he would be a loss. He also said there would probably be complications with his throat if he did survive. I went to the healing on the streets and some lovely women prayed with me for the stress and anxiety I was suffering from, and also prayed for a miracle for my pony. She prayed that that night he would be galloping about the field. Well, that evening, with 3 witnesses, my wee pony came galloping up to the field gate! He previously had been lying down or slowly walking about. I was so thankful. Just before July, the infection finally left him and he was able to eat. He has since put on loads of weight, is very bright eyed and full of life. Last week he galloped about the field non-stop for 5 minutes, a happy, healthy boy. The results have just come back from the vet that he is all clear. I am v thankful for the healing prayers he received. God cares for all creation, not just ourselves.””

Now, there’s not too much we can do with anonymous anecdotes except to analyse what little we have, without being able to follow up and ask questions of the various relevant parties.

On the face of it the story is probably enough to convince many people that the power of prayer was instrumental in healing this afflicted beast. To my mind, however, the story simply illustrates the problem with trying to use such anecdotes to defend miracles. A careful reading of the story suggests a much more simple explanation beneath the surface. Sadly, many people don’t bother to read carefully (few people have the time for that these busy days, I guess), and I suspect the story will be passed on as a simple “pony at death’s door – got prayed for – was healed – galloped in celebration” story. Perhaps in a few years we’ll hear also how eyewitnesses saw it turn into a horse, sprout wings, and fly. But let’s have a more careful reading.

Firstly, the pony was “very sick” with a condition called Strangles. Now, how many people will hear this story and bother to find out what Strangles is and how it’s treated? Very few, I suspect. But it sure does sound horrible, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sort of killer disease that would torment a poor beast, finally killing it through asphyxiation or starvation. That’s not quite what it is. Granted, like any health ailment, it isn’t pleasant, but in most cases it simply runs its course and the animal recovers in time. There can sometimes be complications, but the disease is very rarely fatal.

Which brings me to the second point: how sick was this particular animal? The anonymous owner says “very sick,” but notice that she was suffering from stress and anxiety. As a fellow-sufferer of these scourges I know only too well the reality-warping effects they can have. On several occasions I was truly convinced I was “very sick” – dying of cancer, in fact – due to the appearance of some otherwise common physical symptoms. Sufferers of anxiety tend to catastrophize, and one’s judgment is not terribly reliable under such circumstances. “But, wait a minute, Stephen,” I hear you cry, “didn’t this woman’s judgment get confirmed not only by one but two vets?” I’m glad you asked, this brings us to the third point.

The answer is “not quite.” Notice how this woman says “both vets thought he would die.” But this can’t be quite accurate since she also reports that one of them “said to give him till July and then he would be at a loss.” [Emphasis mine] So, this vet at least had not lost all hope. Seemingly in his professional opinion the animal could still get well again. Note that later on the woman tells us “just before July the infection finally left him,” which is in keeping with the vet’s prognosis.

These words bring us to the fourth point. After the pony was prayed for he was up and able to run over to a gate. But the woman appears to imply he wasn’t fully healed even at this stage. It seems to be a much more gradual recovery before “the infection finally left him” and the vet was able to give him the all clear. Perhaps the antibiotics that the woman had spoken of previously had begun kicking in, and the disease was now fading out – as one of the vets seems to have expected.

Upon our closer reading then it seems that what we really have here is a case of a pony with a disease that tends to run its course, (though this animal may have suffered some complications or perhaps for longer than is normal), and which recovered in the time frame laid down by at least one vet, after receiving treatment which included the use of antibiotics. The woman – suffering stress and anxiety as a result of her sick animal – was clearly incredibly relieved that the animal got well and, being a religious person, quite naturally attributed the recovery to a supernatural intervention.

It would be interesting to get the testimony of one of the vets rather than have to go on an interpretation of their words by a woman suffering stress and anxiety. Patients frequently have a very different understanding of their illness from that of their doctor – typically thinking they are in worse shape than they actually are. There are other questions we could ask: What was the time frame of the illness? How long after being prayed for did he fully recover? Did the vets think this within the parameters of what is normal in the circumstances? These are all questions that naturally arise on the back of a more careful reading of the story. Only by ignoring all these relevant details can anyone sensibly claim that what we have here is a case of a pony being miraculously healed by God. Sadly I suspect Mark Marx won’t care one jot about being careful, nuanced, and critical. It gives him another wonderful anecdote to share as he travels the world seeking to amaze the masses.

Stephen J. Graham

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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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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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Stigmata – A Fraudulent Copycat Phenomenon

When researching miraculous claims it’s striking how certain groups or individual healers have a “thing” – something that “works,” their own little miraculous idiosyncrasies. In this article I want to discuss the phenomenon of stigmata which is – barring a tiny number of exceptions – an exclusively Roman Catholic phenomenon. It’s funny how God limits the performance of certain wonders to specific groups.

Stigmata are the marks which Christ received during his crucifixion, and stigmatics claim these marks appear on their own bodies – nail holes in the hands and feet, a side wound, and sometimes even marks on the head from the crown of thorns. There have been many claimed stigmatics throughout the years, but only a few have been officially declared miraculous by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

The first known stigmatic – regarded by the RCC as miraculous – was Saint Francis of Assisi who allegedly received his stigmata in 1224 (that’s well over a millennium before God saw fit to work the wonder). The sceptical opinion concerning stigmatics – an opinion with which I agree, for reasons I’ll explain shortly – is that they are “pious frauds.” However, I confess that I struggle to think St Francis was simply a fraud. In any event, fraud is not the only non-supernatural explanation for his stigmata.

There are those who deny the story of St Francis’ stigmata altogether. According to such theorists the account is simply a legend. It was common for legends to grow up around certain saints after their deaths, and perhaps the story of St Francis’ stigmata is simply one such legend. I have some sympathy for this theory, particularly as the story has a certain folk-tale feel to it. Anyhow, for sake of argument I don’t intend to dispute the tradition; I’ll grant that St Francis did indeed exhibit marks which were interpreted as stigmata.

One explanation for the stigmata is that Saint Francis suffered from malignant malaria, which can cause haemorrhaging of blood through the skin on the hands and feet. Others have attributed the wounds to a form of leprosy. This is possible, but strikes me as too speculative. Some have tried to attribute a psychosomatic cause to the stigmata. Whilst this might work as an explanation of “phantom stigmata” – where the person experiences the pains of crucifixion but not the wounds – as an explanation for physical wounds it seems highly implausible. I think the truth lies elsewhere.

In order to understand his stigmatic experience it’s crucial to grasp the circumstances under which it occurred. Saint Francis was a mystic. In early August 1224 he went to Mount La Verna with several friends to fast and pray in seclusion for 40 days. Towards the end of this time he had a vision during which he allegedly received his stigmata. We know that the human mind is ripe for hallucinations under such circumstances (seclusion and food deprivation). We also know that St Francis’ mind was one obsessed by the crucifixion of Christ, that he carried an obsession with imitating Christ in every way, and had a strong desire to understand – and even experience – the suffering of Christ. Furthermore, Francis was known to engage in practices of mortification, religious self-harm being a fairly common practice. To my mind, therefore, it’s highly plausible that St Francis underwent a vivid hallucination informed by a highly religious mind obsessed with suffering, and unwittingly engaged in self-harm, though it seemed to him that the wounds were caused by an external source. I think such an explanation best fits the evidence we have.

Whatever we make of the stigmata of St Francis, there’s no denying that it triggered numerous copycats, becoming something of a pious obsession. Over 300 cases were recorded by the start of the 20th century, all European Roman Catholics. The 20th Century saw cases in Britain, Australia, and the USA – which also produced one of the very few non-Catholic stigmatics.

When we examine cases of stigmata we find numerous troubling features. In fact, it’s instructive to notice how stigmatic wounds have evolved over time and how they differ from each other – variation which is difficult to square with replication of one single pattern. Some bleed, others don’t. Some appear to have blood but no wound. Some wounds are tiny slits, others shaped like crosses, some appear as multiple slash wounds, and some as simple indentations. Oddly, the nail marks on one stigmatic – Therese Neumann – changed their shape over time from round to rectangular. One wonders did she suddenly come to learn the true shape of Roman nails? Furthermore, some stigmatics have had their side wound on the left side (Padre Pio), others on the right (St Francis) – and often taking different shapes (or, much more commonly, being absent altogether). And whilst historians suggest that victims were crucified through the wrists, most stigmatics have their marks on their hands. Of course if one was going to fake a stigmata wound it’s much safer to cut the hands than the wrists. One commentator observed that stigmata on the wrists only appeared once it was discovered that this is where the marks are on the Turin Shroud. The earliest stigmatics – influenced by images of Christ crucified by the hands – had hand wounds, whilst more recent stigmatics increasingly display wrist wounds. None of this bodes well for the acceptance of stigmata as a genuine phenomenon – it’s far more consistent with a less heavenly explanation. Moreover, certain wounds seem far too stylised to be authentic. For instance, Padre Pio’s side wound was in the shape of a cross – artistry that a spear thrust from a Roman soldier would not have created.

In addition, there have been quite a few proven stigmatic frauds. For instance, Magdalena de la Cruz confessed her stigmata to be fraudulent when she was ill and feared she was dying. Also, Maria de la Visitacion was seen by another nun painting fake wounds on her hands. After being brought before the Inquisition her wounds were quickly scrubbed off. Other stigmatics have something of a questionable character: Teresa Helena Higginson being dismissed from her job as teacher on accusations of theft and drunkenness; Berthe Mrazek was arrested for fraud and wound up in a mental asylum. Moreover, a strong propensity amongst stigmatics for self-punishment and self-mutilation has been well-documented.

Several attempts to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomenon have led to staged displays which are dubious at best if not clearly fraudulent. For instance, Katja Rivas appeared on the Fox Television programme “Signs from God” in 1999. At the beginning of the event she was in bed, complete with bed covers which could easily conceal any trickery. The “wounds” were not actually seen in the act of spontaneously issuing (they never are). In fact, the manner of their appearance was consistent with their being self-inflicted during periods of concealment. Some marks did not appear to be wounds at all, and the wounds that could be seen were not puncture wounds but multiple cuts and slashes. It was noted that during the entire display Rivas was wearing a ring which could easily have been responsible for the wounds.

Take also the case of Lilian Bernas, a convert to Roman Catholicism. She displayed scars on the backs of her hands which were from stigmata received during heavenly visions. Whilst she claimed to bleed from her palms also she didn’t have any marks there. Her explanation is that God “permitted” her to retain the scars on the backs of her hands and the tops of her feet. This is curious indeed. If one was going to fake stigmata by self-harm it is best to create the wounds on the backs of the hand and tops of the feet rather than the palms and the soles which would hurt more, take longer to heal, and present further practical difficulties. It probably best to cut only the backs of the hands and – through blood transfer – create the illusion of a palm wound. Bernas – like many stigmatics – did not have a side wound, which is understandable as such a wound would take a huge amount of commitment from a fake stigmatist!

What we are seeing in cases of stigmata is a desire for attention, acceptance, or fame. As is typical of miraculous claims generally, people’s yearnings for intense religious experiences have lead simply to multiple cases of pious fraud.

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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Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles: A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas

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UPDATE 4TH APRIL

The article below was written a few weeks ago, I still haven’t heard back from Peter Lynas. In any event, Lynas appeared on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme on Sunday 3rd April to discuss prayer. In the course of the discussion he made reference to an apparent divine healing involving a self-harming scar which disappeared after prayer from Lynas’s wife. Lynas claimed that this is a verifiable healing. I therefore ask him to provide further information and evidence to support this claim. I admit that whilst scars can heal naturally (I had one that disappeared with time) it would be quite uncanny if a clearly visible scar suddenly disappeared after prayer.

So, if this is a verifiable miracle, as Lynas claims, where is the evidence to verify it? I will gladly publish it – completely unedited – on this blog.

Again, I look forward to hearing from Peter Lynas regarding this claim.

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Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is a source of constant miracle claims, and these claims have received some rather soft-soap treatment recently from two major local newspapers: The Belfast Telegraph & The Irish Times. However, these claims must be examined much more carefully than either paper has bothered to do. These claims, if true, are brilliant news for humankind, for it means that God is healing a lot of people through the power of prayer. However, if they are false then they are incredibly dangerous and need to be exposed as such. Faith-healing claims and practices are inherently very dangerous, particularly in contexts in which there is a constant stream of them. People very easily get into thinking of divine healing as the norm for people who hold onto God in faith and hope. Sadly, many of these people delay seeking medical help, sometimes with fatal consequences. Others stop their medication prematurely with equally serious effects. Still more mistakenly think they are healed and in the heat of the moment they act in ways which end up exacerbating their condition. And then those – typically with the most serious conditions – who find no change in their circumstances must deal with the psychological and spiritual trauma caused by deferred hope and the feeling that God doesn’t really love them the way he loves the others. Lastly, there are many people who spend every last penny chasing a healing, money which would be better spent on making their lives and their environment more tolerable. The consequences of faith-healing claims and practices can be severe – sometimes deadly. They at least better be true.

Regular readers of my blog will be well aware of my reservations concerning charismatic supernatural claims, (so I was greatly pleased to see that the overwhelming reaction to the local newspaper features has been largely sceptical). I will continue to write articles on this blogsite, but I think it would be a valuable thing to have the other side present to give their explanation of the phenomena and practices in question. I’ve said several times before that the claims coming from Causeway Coast in general and Mark Marx in particular are unfounded at best. It seems to me that the church has a case to answer. They owe the wider society of which they are a part an explanation of their claims. To refuse to submit their claims to rational scrutiny is socially, morally, and intellectual irresponsible. Since Mark Marx blocks and ignores anyone who shows the slightest degree of scepticism, I doubt he’ll be interested in a public debate. However, Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and a Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church – seems a much more reasonable and open person. I therefore invite him to publicly debate his church’s miracle claims to see if they really can stand up to critical analysis, and if he can manage to convince a largely sceptical public. I ask him to produce evidence beyond the anecdotal that miracles and divine healing really do happen as regularly as his church makes out. We can work out the mechanics of this debate later, but for now I ask him – publicly – if he will give his commitment to a public debate of an issue which is clearly in the public interest.

As a Christian I am open to God performing whatever wonders He pleases to perform; however, as a sceptic I think it is unwise and dangerous to peddle such claims if they are not true. I think being a sceptical Christian puts me in a better position to examine the claims than either an unbelieving sceptic or a credulous believer. Unbelieving sceptics tend to dismiss all healing claims with a shake of the hand, or with little more than “God doesn’t exist, therefore he doesn’t heal.” That attitude might be acceptable for them to take personally, but it doesn’t help them to get to the bottom of healing claims and really discover exactly what’s going on. Credulous believers on the other hand tend to gasp and cheer at even the slightest whiff of a supernatural healing, without ever stopping to ask some very basic questions. However, a sceptical Christian is open to a miracle or divine healing, but conscious of the need to test claims as rigorously as possible, given the sheer number of false and fraudulent claims that have been made in recent years.

My academic background has trained me in both philosophy and theology, both of which are vital for understanding and analysing miracles claims and the theological context in which they emerge. Moreover, I have a breadth of church experience including almost 15 years in a variety of charismatic churches, from traditional Pentecostal churches to moderate charismatic churches like Newfrontiers, and more extreme charismatic churches such as Word of Faith. My experience in these churches lead to years of research which ultimately saw me leave this form of Christianity. My academic background, experience, and research puts me in a good position to cross-examine the claims of Causeway Coast Vineyard, and I hope that they can see the value of putting their claims to the test. If they are true and sound they have nothing to fear.

In addition to my invitation to a public debate, I reiterate my offer to Lynas, or any member of Healing on the Streets or Causeway Coast Vineyard, that should they wish to respond to any of my articles on this blogsite, I will gladly publish them, unedited.

I am also interested to hear from any groups – church groups, humanists, or other interested parties – who would like to facilitate such a debate.

I eagerly await a response from Mr Lynas.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Debate, Faith-Healing, Miracles