Category Archives: Prophecy

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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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 Charismania Collection

It suddenly hit me that I’ve written a fair few articles on various features of charismania, so I thought I’d post them all together as a “Charismatic Collection.”

FAITH HEALING

Does God Heal? This is an introduction to the primary considerations why we should approach healing claims with caution:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/does-god-heal/

 

Divine Healing and my Charismatic Deconversion: Here I briefly discuss my exit from charismania and discuss one particular healing claim I’m personally acquainted with:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/divine-healing-my-charismatic-deconversion/

 

Faith-Healers: Pulling Our Legs? I wrote this article shortly after discovering that the old faith-healer leg-lengthening trick was alive and well in my homeland of Northern Ireland:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/faith-healers-pulling-our-legs/

 

Marx of Suspect Healing: In this article I present reason for scepticism in the face of the increasingly popular “leg growing miracle,” with particular reference to the faith-healer Mark Marx from Healing on the streets.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/marx-of-suspect-healing/

 

Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles – A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas: I think it’s only fair to give ones opponents a right of reply. In this article I invite Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard – one of the biggest charismatic churches in Northern Ireland – to a public debate, and explain why I think I’m well placed to examine their claims. Peter and his church make a lot of claims, but they never produce evidence, submit their claims to examination, or even answer basic questions. In fact, several months later Lynas is still ignoring me.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/debating-claimed-healings-miracles-a-public-invitation-to-peter-lynas/

 

What’s So Wrong with Faith-Healing: In this article I discuss a number of features of faith-healing claims and practices which are dangerous, and even potentially deadly.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/whats-so-wrong-with-faith-healing/

 

Dishonest Charismatic Claims: In this article I discuss the tendancy to overstatement and flat-out fabrication which continually dogs charismatic miracle claims, looking at Charisma magazine’s report about the alleged healing of a teenager from cancer, and Robby Dawkins claim to have raised a man from the dead.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/dishonest-charismatic-claims/

 

Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection: This is an examination of Robby Dawkins’ claim to have raised a man from the dead. I include here the full text of the testimony of the man’s sister which gives a very different slant on the matter.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/robby-dawkins-miracle-worker-or-factually-challenged/

 

Healing & Disobedience: This is a brief reflection on the claim that if we don’t heal the sick we are disobedient to the commands of Christ.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/short-article-1-healing-disobedience/

GLOSSOLALIA

Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish? In this article I discuss whether or not tongues speech is genuine.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/soeaking-in-tongues-gibberish/

 

The Apologetics of Tongues Speech: I respond in this article to the various explanatory gymnastics used by defenders of tongues speech, concluding that things don’t look so good for the “gift of tongues.”

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/the-apologetics-of-tongues-speech/

 

PROPHECY

Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology? I attempt to demonstrate that modern prophetic words are often little better than astrology, and are probably best explained in the same terms: by the so-called “Forer” (or “Barnum”) effect.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/

 

MISCELLANEOUS MIRACULOUS

The Charismatic Movement and Princess the Hypnodog: There are similarities between the two, or so I argue, in particular in terms of tricks, and how easy it is to be fooled:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/the-charismatic-movement-princess-the-hypnodog/

 

Miracles at New Wine: I analyse a number of miraculous claims that came out of the New Wine Conference in Sligo, July 2015, in this article:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/miracles-at-new-wine/

 

Moreland and Miracles: In this piece I argue that JP Moreland’s standard for believing miracle claims is way too credulous:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/moreland-and-miracles/

 

Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps: A look at the often silly world of theophanies:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/our-lady-of-the-illogical-leaps/

 

Explain That! A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims: Every charismatic has a miraculous anecdote ready to fire at the unprepared sceptic. This article gives advice as to what we should do when faced with miraculous claims:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/explain-that-a-guide-to-investigating-miraculous-claims/

 

Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”: There are many miracle claims outside the charismatic movement. I discuss a few of them in this article, showing how they are evidentially comparable with charismatic claims, and challenge the charismatic why I should give any more credence to his claims than those of Christian Science of even milk drinking statutes!

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/non-charismatic-gifts-of-the-spirit/

 

The Seduction of Charismania: It’s not easy to break away from the Charismatic movement – it took me years. In this article I attempt to explain its allure and why people get trapped.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/the-seduction-of-charismania/

 

The Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony: This articles addresses the many problems of appealing to eyewitness testimony as proof of some miracle or other. I outline 4 problems with eyewitness testimony illustrating how and why it is often unreliable and not good enough by itself to prove a miraculous claim.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/

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Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology?

Having already written several articles on divine healing and the phenomenon of glossolalia, I want to turn my attention to the gift of prophecy, or what all too frequently gets passed off as prophecy these days. The following “prophetic word” from Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard in Northern Ireland, appeared on Twitter on Saturday 12th September 2015:

Perhaps possibly potentially maybe a prophetic word for some – or even one church leader – in the church in the UK:

As in the natural.

So in the spirit

This is a season of transition and migration within the body as God moves His people

Many long standing ministers and ministries responding to fresh priorities and boundaries

God is upsetting, relocating and recreating.

I hear doors opening and a season of open doors emerging

Old tensions and offence being swept away from the body. Old divisions being swallowed whole by fresh compassion.

A new kingdom ordinance around the gifting of administration.

In particular wise administration coming upon the church in the UK

New solutions to old problems and the capacity to administer according to the wholeness and purpose of God.

An increasing authority emerging from a fresh vulnerability and a much grace for many needs

I hear some upheaval as leaders receive new orders

And so get ready for transition and relocation as God move his church from ambition to acceleration. Raising leaders according to the need of the moment.

The butchering of English grammar in these few sentences – and given the lack of punctuation it isn’t obvious how many sentences there actually are – is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the vagueness of the prophecy, and the rather evasive way in which it is written. It’s pretty much a bunch of fuzzy ramblings that “perhaps possibly potentially maybe” apply to someone in the church in the UK. This sort of hazy prophetic style isn’t an isolated example either. In my 15 years of experience in the Charismatic movement, and my recent research into supernatural phenomena, I have discovered that this is all too common from so-called “prophetic people.” For example, I recently listened to a prophetic seminar which was hosted by a leading UK church to see what kinds of prophetic words people would be given. The seminar was little different from what I have heard countless times before. Such seminars may as well be titled “How to Grow in Cold-Reading Techniques.” They prey on the fact that a huge number of people desperately want to hear directly from God about what they should do, what job they are to take, what neighbourhood they should live in, what school they should send their kids to; in short, to be assured that God really is interested in their lives. Here are a few samples from the workshop:

You are a man who sets captives free – a broken vessel, but God shines in the cracks. You are a man for men, with a worshipper’s heart. If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future.”

“God sees you through the eyes of kindness – you have a father’s heart – God wants to take you to a new level of intimacy with him – just to be in His presence – God will give you the gift of wisdom.”

“God has transformed something in your life into something beautiful. I had a vision of you in a field, dancing. Go for it! Others will join you!”

“God will drop a bomb – a good bomb, and God’s been building something in you. It might be messy, but things will fall into place.”

“God sees you as very useful – but the enemy has attempted to throw a spanner in the works.”

The vast majority of this strikes me as little other than a sort of Christian astrology. Of course, some people swear that astrology is genuine. They regularly pay attention to their readings and claim that they are uncannily accurate. Many people on the receiving end of prophetic words also claim that they are strangely accurate. In fact, the same explanation for the accuracy of astrology applies to much of what passes for prophetic words: the so-called “Forer Effect,” also called the “Barnum Effect.”

This psychological phenomenon was first illustrated by Bernard R Forer in 1949, and has been demonstrated over and over again since. The Barnum effect creates an illusion of accuracy; occurring when a person takes even the most vague predictions or statements and interprets them as specific to themselves. Often the person will focus on those aspects of a psychic reading or prophetic word which are particularly relevant but play down the parts that are not. In Forer’s demonstration a group of students were given a generic personality profile which was supposedly written just for them. Of course, the students were amazed at how accurate it was. The truth was that each student had been given exactly the same profile, which had been written using statements that Forer got from an astrology book. In such experiments the readings are all vague enough to allow each person to interpret the statements in light of themselves. You can see James Randi perform the trick here on a group of students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dp2Zqk8vHw

Such statements – commonly called “Barnum statements” – are what make practices like cold reading, palm reading, astrology, and mind-reading possible. In these cases a reader will throw out a bunch of general claims hoping to get a hit. Many people are fooled by it, even to the point where they forget all the incorrect guesses that were made in the process and remember only the hits. Thus, Barnum statements work side by side with another psychological phenomenon: confirmation bias. Barnum statements work because humans are often very similar to one another. Statements like “I sense you hold back a lot in social situations,” would be a hit with a large majority of people. Or, “I get the feeling that you long for the days of your youth.”

What we really see in modern charismatic prophecy is a Christianized version of the Barnum Effect. Re-read the examples quoted earlier. I suspect that the vast majority of these statements could be interpreted by the vast majority of Christians as being applicable to their lives. Moreover, not only are they inherently vague and applicable to huge numbers of people, but they often come with built-in safeguards such as, “If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future,” which is almost guaranteed to be a hit with anyone who already believes in modern charismatic prophecy.

Take another example provided by Charismatic leader Jack Deere, a darling of the Vineyard movement. He was told by a prophet that his father had “dropped the ball” when Deere was young, and that God had allowed Deere’s athletic ability to be frustrated so he would follow intellectual pursuits. Deere reckons these were remarkable prophetic insights: his father had taken his own life, and sports injuries had plagued Deere’s youth. But, once again, we might simply be seeing the Barnum effect at work, (I say ‘might’ because, of course, it’s possible the prophet knew more about Deere than Deere realised). Let’s face it, every father fails or “drops the ball” in some regard. In fact having childhood problems with one’s father is the stuff of psychological cliché. Moreover, how many of us men think of ourselves as having some ability – often athletic – that didn’t quite reach its full (often, imagined) potential? These strike me as statements that quite easily apply to a large number of men.

Not that all prophecies amount purely to vague ramblings. Sometimes there are more specific predictions made. I was once told by an itinerant prophet that I would be a pastor. That’s a more specific prediction. However, he told me this right after I had informed him that I was studying theology. Playing the odds, perhaps? Other prophecies might warn of specific catastrophies that will only be averted by the person performing actions X, Y or Z. Of course, when the person performs these actions and the catastrophies do not happen the prophet can be applauded, and everyone remains oblivious to the fact that the catastrophies in question in all likelihood would never have happened anyway. It’s a bit like a madman waving his arms around wildly to keep the man-eating lions at bay who, when it’s pointed out there are no lions around, responds, “See, it must be working!”

Lastly, there are the predictive and specific prophecies that meet a rather different end: they turn out to be flat-out false, like Kenneth Copeland’s prophecy in the early 90s that Islam will fall and become nothing in 1995. Or Benny Hinn’s long list of prophetic failures, such as that the 1990s would see the collapse of the US economy, the death of Fidel Castro, and the homosexuals of the world destroyed by fire.

Of course, in light of the spectacular failures of these more specific prophecies it’s not difficult to see why “prophetic people” often retreat to vague statements and spiritual platitudes that could be true of almost anyone. In either case there seems little reason to think that the omniscient creator of the world is behind any of it.

Stephen J Graham

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