Tag Archives: miracles

The Power of Magical Thinking

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

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

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

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

(2) Miracle Dirt of El Santuario de Chimayo

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

(3) The Perambulating Mary in Thornton, California

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

(4) Miscellaneous Moving Madonnas

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

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

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

(6) Theophanies

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

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

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

Stephen J. Graham

 

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The Perils of Faith-Healing

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

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

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

Stephen J. Graham

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Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen J. Graham

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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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“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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