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    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
    1 Thessalonians 5:21


    Miracles were once everyday events that confirmed the truth of Christian teachings. According to the New Testament, God's purpose in performing miracles was to convince disbelievers. Jesus cured a blind man specifically in order to prove who he was. The apostles performed similar miracles — again specifically to prove their divine appointment. So did St Paul. And so did a long line of important Christian leaders, right up to the eighteenth century and beyond. Hundreds of American tele-evangelists are still convincing millions of their veracity by means of healing miracles.

    Christian authorities agreed that the purpose of miracles was to convince people of the divine appointment of their perpetrators, and thus the reliability of what they said. Miracles were regarded as, and explicitly described as, "proof" in the conventional sense of the word. God produced thousands of "proofs" of his existence every day, for everyone to see. Saint Augustine of Hippo declared that he would not have believed in Christianity if it were not for miracles. As one leading authority, commissioned by a pope, pointed out in the late fifteenth century, a miracle was not really a miracle unless it helped prove the truth of the Christian religion:

    For in a miracle four conditions are required: that it should be done by God; that it should be beyond the existing order of nature; thirdly, that it should be manifest; and fourthly, that it should be for the corroboration of the Faith1

    The history of Christianity overflows with claims of miraculous events. In the next few sections we take a look at some of the most impressive ones, and why they seem to have reduced in quality and quantity over recent centuries.



    Any stigma, as the old saying is, will serve to beat a dogma.
    Philip Guedalla (1889-1944)

    Historically, one of the most impressive pieces of miraculous evidence for divine favour has been the occurrence of stigmata. Stigmata are wounds, similar to those suffered by Jesus before and during his crucifixion, that are found on the bodies of some devout Christians. These wounds appear, allegedly without any physical agency, in men or women, many of whom also experience divine visions. Stigmata are regarded by the faithful as supernatural phenomena and as evidence of the truth of the Christian religion.

    The correspondence between the wounds of Jesus and the stigmatic is regarded as evidence of their heavenly provenance. But there are problems here. At least some stigmatics lack verisimilitude, for some display their spear wounds on the right side, while others have them on the left. Other wounds have always matched the wounds represented in crucifixion scenes of art rather than the actual wounds suffered by Jesus. Thus nail holes for example appear through the palm of the hand, though it is now known that crucifixion victims were nailed through the wrists. A cynic might be led to suspect some sort of psychosomatic agency for stigmata. Certainly, women with hysterical personalities seem particularly prone to them2. The only other explanation would seem to be downright fraud, for it is difficult to see how, throughout the centuries, God himself could have confused historical fact with inaccurate medieval artistic representation.

    This illustration shows how crucifiction victims were nailed through the wrists
    - establishing that no alleged stigmatic has accurately imitated a genuine crucifiction.


    Stigmatics' nail holes are also innacurate. It is now known that crucifiction victims were nailed through the heel. The photgraph below shows (top) how the nail was placed, based on (below) an archaeological find - the heel bone of Yehohanan ben Hagkol, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem, crucified in AD 21,
    IIsrael Museum, Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land.


    There are other suspicious features. No stigmatic was ever reported before Saint Francis displayed his characteristic wounds in Medieval times. Since then, dozens of stigmatics have appeared. Many clearly suffered from mental problems, and claimed to have experienced visions. None has ever had their claims scientifically tested. Even odder is the fact that there are distinct differences in the reported phenomena. For example Saint Francis manifested not only nail holes, but also the nails still in the holes. No one else did. Here is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about stigmata::

    None are known prior to the thirteenth century. The first mentioned is St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the stigmata were of a character never seen subsequently; in the wounds of feet and hands were excrescences of flesh representing nails, those on one side having round back heads, those on the other having rather long points, which bent back and grasped the skin.

    It is, incidentally, known that Church authorities have in the past faked stigmata. Friar John Letser, for example, had his stigmata painted on in 1507 by Dominicans in Berne. The Dominicans had chosen Berne specifically because of its gullible population.

    The Ecstatic Virgin Anna Katharina Emmerich, 1885, by Gabriel von Max

    Anne Catherine spent her life suffering severe illness. She suffered from hallucinations which she believed to be "visions". Like other particularly devout visionary nuns, she was extremely unpopular with other sisters in the nunnery. She benefited from an unusually lively imagination and like other Catholics of the period believed that "Jews ... strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices". She suffered stigmata which mysteriously disappeared when investigated, and she appears to have been manipulated by poet Clemens Brentano who fabricated writings attributed to her. Her (ie Brentano's) fabricated book The Dolorous Passion later became a key source for Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ.



    Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
    Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

    Relics are holy items that are able to work miracles. Many relics were preserved since biblical times in some hidden place, and later miraculously discovered by devout Christians. Such discoveries included the preserved wooden boards from the manger in which Jesus had been lain as an infant, the cross on which he had been crucified, and the hammer and nails that had been used to nail him to it. Also discovered were his crown of thorns and seamless coat, the flail with which he had been whipped, the sponge from which he had drunk, the lance with which his side had been pierced, and the cloth in which he had been buried. Copious amounts of various bits and effusions of Jesus were sold to the faithful: his blood, sweat, tears, hair clippings, fingernails and toenails, and a number of navels and foreskins. There were crusts and cups from the Last Supper and even Jesus' used table napkin.

    The Second Council of Nicæa in 787 ordered that no church should be consecrated without relics, and they are still housed in the altars of Roman Catholic churches around the world. Technically, an altar was not really an altar unless it contained a relic. The Orthodox Church also possesses miracle-working relics, and so, perhaps surprisingly, does the Anglican Church3, although Protestants consider the veneration of relics to be idolatrous.


    The modest collection of relics of a Church in France
    - including a "copy" of one of the nails used at the crucifixion.


    It is a poor Roman Catholic church in Europe that does not boast several relics. Some churches have collected hundreds of them, and so have devout individuals. In the sixteenth century the Archbishop of Mainz possessed a collection of around 9,000 relics, including a piece of the crown of thorns and a jar of wine from the wedding feast at Cana. There were also one of the bones of Isaac, some manna, a branch of the burning bush, and several whole skeletons of saints. His neighbour boasted 17,433 relics including the body of one of the Holy Innocents*.

    Relics were discovered for almost everyone and everything mentioned in the Bible: the baskets that were used for the feeding of the five thousand, the bag that contained the 30 pieces of silver, the sword with which Peter cut off the soldier's ear, tents manufactured during St Paul's tent-making phase, and so on. Items not specifically mentioned but assumed to have existed were also discovered, for example Mary's wedding ring. Canterbury Cathedral once possessed some of the clay left over after God had created Adam. Many such relics survive to this day, including the burning bush, wing feathers from the angel Gabriel, and some of those crusts from the Last Supper. In Jerusalem it is still possible to view the coffins of Holy Innocents. In Cologne Cathedral may be found the tomb of the three kings. Rome's Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme boasts the titulus from the True Cross, written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic by someone who thought that Latin and Greek were written from right to left like Aramaic.

    Churches regarded miracle-working relics as "proof" of their veracity. Relics proved not only God's existence but also the truth of the Christian religion. These were hard, testable miracles that could be investigated and confirmed. The Empress Constantia, for example, needed to be convinced of the genuineness of a piece of cloth purporting to be the burial shroud of John the Evangelist. Pope Gregory I proved it to be genuine by piercing it with a knife so that it miraculously began to bleed — a simple, demonstrable proof, that would convince any doubter. The veil of St Agatha, the patron saint of Catania in Sicily, could also produce convincing proofs: it could be used to turn back a lava flow from Mount Etna, to stop an earthquake, or to quench a fire. So reliable were the miracles of holy relics that it was possible to identify holy items by simple scientific tests. When three crosses were discovered by Constantine's mother in 326 it was suspected that one might have been the cross on which Jesus was crucified. How could anyone tell? The answer was simple — the true cross worked miracles, while the other two did not. This was cited as "proof" for many centuries, and explains why this cross was distinguished from many others explicitly as the True Cross.

    All Christians seem to accepted the reality of the holy power of relics, just as they accepted the power of demons. St. Ambrose, in his disputes with the Arian Christians, produced men possessed by devils. On the approach of the holy relics these demons confirmed that the Nicean doctrine of the Trinity was true. The Arians did not seek to expose the obvious fraud in ways that would be obvious today, but took the line that Ambrose must have suborned these demonic witnesses with weighty bribes.

    The miraculously preserved hand of a saint
    (made of wax)

    The Knights Templar owned one of Jesus' many crowns of thorns, which flowered in the hands of the Order's chaplains each year. When the Knights Templar were accused of systematic heresy, they pointed out that this miracle demonstrated their innocence. If they had been guilty, God would not have allowed the miracle to happen. The miracle literally proved the holiness of their Order, and thus their innocence, as well as the fact that this was the true crown. The power of holy relics was palpable.

    Again, in the Monastery of San Lorenzo El Real (El Escorial) the highest points of the building were protected by relics placed in special golden orbs ("ladrillos de oro") - see left. As in thousands of other sacred buildings such relics provided supposedly demonstrable protection from lightning and related demonic dangers.

    Some relics seem so improbable that to many it is itself almost miraculous that anyone can have believed them to be genuine. Loreto in Italy boasts the Virgin's house, magically flown from Nazareth by angels in the thirteenth century, to escape the Saracens4. The miracles performed there were so convincing that in 1507 Pope Julius II approved it as a place of pilgrimage. In 1920 Mary, in her guise as Our Lady of Loreto, was appointed patron saint of aviation. Apparently she had proved her aeronautical skill in commanding the angelic squadron that had flown her house to Loreto over 400 years earlier.

    The Virgin's House in Loreto today

    In the twelfth century the canons of Coutances were surprised at the discovery of a lock of the Virgin's hair because, as they noted, no relic of the Virgin was known to exist on Earth5. Within the next few hundred years pious Christians discovered that she had left a vast quantity of hair. Her other relics included not just one but a number of wedding rings, fine medieval dresses, footwear and purses. Vast quantities of her nail parings had been miraculously preserved along with copious amounts of her breast milk. In Germany, the Virgin's milk was known as liebfraumilch, and the quantity of it that Mary produced can scarcely have been less than the quantity of modern white wine that commemorates it. (Calvin observed that had Mary been a cow or a wet nurse she would have been hard put to produce such a great quantity of milk6.

    Detail from Mary, Queen-of-Mercy by Pedro Machuca (16 C) from the Prado, Madrid
    Mary and Jesus are squirting Mary's breast milk onto souls in Purgatory, below.

    Sometimes a hint of suspicion is invited by contradictory claims. Some of Mary's hair was blonde, some gold, some red, some brown, and some black. Perhaps she dyed it, for little of it is grey. Again, the one true cross was evidently rather a complex structure. Splinters from it are composed of many different types of wood. Furthermore, Jesus must have been comprehensively pinned to this cross, since there are dozens of nails from the crucifixion still surviving. Although the Bible does not mention it, John the Baptist apparently had more than one head. Several of them are preserved in European churches. There are dozens more in eastern churches, and another one in the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus. Jesus' foreskin must have required regular pruning, for there are at least sixteen separate snippings miraculously preserved in European churches. Agatha, the saint whose veil could stop flows of lava, had numerous breasts cut off, for at least six of them have been preserved into modern times.

    In the church of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli in Rome may be found the Santo Bambino (Holy Child). It was once claimed to be the miraculously preserved body of the infant Jesus. Sceptics spotted that, since Jesus did not die as an infant, it is unlikely to be a genuine body. The story had to be amended. The current version is that the bambino was carved from olive wood by angels. Some shrines boasted Jesus' navel, though it is not clear why he needed more than one, or indeed why he needed one at all — traditional teaching is that Mary produced no afterbirth (i.e. no placenta), so there would be nowhere for a conventional umbilical cord to plug into.

    Many shrines boasted bones from the body of the Virgin Mary, who seems to have suffered other anatomical peculiarities. Spanish churches had at least seven of her thigh bones. Elsewhere churches had kept complete skeletons. This all became something of an embarrassment to the Roman Church when Pope Pius XII declared in 1950 that Mary had ascended bodily into Heaven, presumably without leaving so much as a single thigh bone here on Earth.

    Another oddity is the different behaviours of Eastern and Western relics. In the East the body parts of saints (and icons) exude myrrh in such quantities that these saints are referred to as Myrrh Gushers. Hundreds of such saints are recognised in the Orthodox Church, but none are known in the Catholic Church.

    There seems to have been some selective doubt about miraculous relics even in the Middle Ages — the evidence of Templars' flowering crown of thorns failed to save them. A degree of scepticism is understandable since even the devout must have wondered about the provenance of hundreds of gallons of holy blood, countless tons of bones from the holy family, thousands of chunks of wood from the one true cross, the extensive prunings of Jesus' foreskin, Mary's multiple skeletons, and sacks-full of St Peter's toenails. Science has increased scepticism, since not a single relic from biblical times has been shown to be genuine.


    Saints and their Miracles

    The Christian religion not only was first attended by a miracle, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.
    David Hume, On Miracles

    We tend to think of tales of dragons as mere fairy stories, but they were once integral to the Christian faith, and featured heavily in factual accounts of the lives of saints, including the prime authority on them, The Golden Legend*.

    In medieval times people gave credence to the dozens of saints who owed their position to the slaying of dragons. These huge damsel-eating, fire-breathing, scaly, flying creatures seem a little improbable now, even to the most devout Christians. But these stories were not originally presented as figurative. They were presented as factual, and were to be interpreted literally.

    We may find it difficult to believe that anyone ever gave credence to the belief that Irish saints were in the habit of hanging their washing on rainbows to dry, but even these stories were presented and accepted as literal factual accounts of historical events.

    A photograph of a real dragon from a website for particularly devout Christians

    The existence of many saints is as improbable as that of the dragons they slew, the deeds they performed, and the sufferings they underwent. Some saints owe their position to stories that are now known to have been fictions. For example a number of child-saints owe their canonisation to their martyrdom at the hands of Jews. But the Church now acknowledges that these martyrdoms never took place. Nevertheless the shrines of these infant martyrs worked the most amazing miracles for centuries. Others gained sainthood through misunderstandings. Early Christians worshipped in the houses of Romans like Cecilia, Clemente and Pudenziana. Churches were later built on the sites of these houses, the original owners' names being remembered in the new buildings. It was later assumed that Cecilia, Clemente and Pudenziana must have been martyrs buried in these churches, and soon these imaginary martyrs were promoted to saints, performing miracles just like other saints. Their miracles are still worked at the basilicas of Santa Cecilia, San Clemente and Santa Pudenziana in modern Rome.

    One of the many "facts" known about saints in the Middle Ages was that a number of saints had had dog's heads, including Saint Mark and Saint Christopher.

    Saint Mark depicted in Bodlian MS. Auct. D. 2. 16

    Traditional eastern depiction of a dog-headed St. Christopher - an icon from the Byzantine Museum, Athens

    Other saints seem never to have existed at all — St Cross for example seems to have arisen through a confusion about the Holy (sancte) Cross, just as St Sophia had been created from a misunderstanding about Sancta Sophia, the Holy Wisdom. St Expeditus reputedly owes his existence to some French nuns who saw the word expeditus on the side of a crate full of bones from the catacombs, and assumed that they must have belonged to a saint called Expeditus. St Christopher was another saint who never existed and owes his reputation to a popular pagan story.

    The story of St Ursula illustrates the later stages of how many such stories developed. In the early versions Ursula had a number of female companions who, like her, set-sail from England and were martyred for their faith in Cologne. Originally there were just a few of them, up to ten according to some accounts — making eleven martyrs including Ursula herself. Then in the tenth century someone seems to have misread XI MV ("unidecim martyres virgines" = eleven virgin martyrs) as XI M V, which they took to mean unidecim millia virgines = 11,000 virgins. Suddenly there were 11,000 women martyrs. In the twelfth century the bones of all 11,000 were discovered at Cologne, and these bones were distributed around Western Christendom as holy relics. A visionary confirmed that these were indeed the bones of the female companions of St Ursula, and all manner of other contemporary supporting evidence appeared. An astonishing number of miracles were carried out through these holy relics, which served to prove the story that they belonged to the 11,000 virgin martyrs. In modern times many of these bones have been identified as belonging to children and men, and hence not to female virgin martyrs at all — another miracle! St Ursula herself now seems never to have existed, and her feast day had to be removed from the Roman Calendar of saints in 1969.

    St Uncumber, also known as St Wilgefortis, a bearded lady, owes her existence to another misunderstanding. Crucifixes before the twelfth century generally showed Jesus fully clothed and with a beard. When the fashion changed and he was shown clean-shaven and wearing only a loincloth, people assumed that the old figures were of someone else. The story arose that it was a bearded woman who had been crucified for failing to follow her father's wish for her to marry a non-Christian. God had furnished her with her beard to make her unmarriageable and to ensure her death as a martyr.

    She became popular amongst women who wanted to be rid of their husbands. St Uncumber would miraculously eliminate the husband of any woman who could afford the price of a peck of oats. She is still revered and images of her can be found in churches throughout Europe.

    Another Saint Uncumber

    And another Saint Uncumber

    Once again, despite the fact that these saints never existed, their ability to perform miracles was apparently as good as any other saints. Another reason to doubt the veracity of many legends concerning saints is that they often follow recognisable patterns, which seem to have been reasonable to medieval minds, but which now appear less so. For example miracles were granted automatically in response to prayers. According to the Golden Legend, a bird that had learned to say the phrase "St Thomas, help me" successfully appealed to St Thomas Becket of Canterbury when it was being chased by a hawk. The hawk fell dead, and the clever bird escaped. Again, medieval minds were quite happy with the idea that saints would use their miraculous powers to do harm, just as the ancient gods had done. Saints would blind (e.g. Paul), paralyse (e.g. Andrew), induce fevers (e.g. Andrew again), or kill (Peter, Thomas, Andrew). And it was not just apostles who enjoyed the power of supernatural murder. Many early Saints proved their divine backing by killing people. Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, clocked up at least 507. Medieval people also tended to accept practices that seemed devout at the time but now seem merely improbable. For example St Nicholas followed pious eating rules even as an infant and would suckle only once each Wednesday and Friday 8

    It is now known that many supposed early martyrs did not exist. Stories of pagans persecuting Christians in the first few centuries are almost entirely fictional.8a.

    Some of the supposed Christian martyrs are recycled characters from history or mythology. Perhaps the most spectacular of these is Saint Josaphat who is non other than Siddhartha Gautama - The Buddha. In the Christian story he was an Indian prince whose story parallels the life of the Buddha except that he lived after Jesus instead of before him, and that he converted to Christianity. As one Christian academic says "Since the nineteenth century scholars have recognized the similarities and acknowledged that this story is simply the legend of Siddhartha thinly covered in a Christian glaze"8b In recent times, scholars have traced the story's development from the Medieval European story of Barlaam and Josaphat back through Moslem lands to Indian and Uigur versions. His story is now vigorously downplayed in the west and another much later Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych covers the embarrassment of his supposed existence. (Josaphat Kuntsevych was murdered by fellow Christians in 1623). Nevertheless, the Medieval Josaphat is still officially a saint in both the Eastern and Western Churches.

    Saint Lifard with a dragon, by Jean Bourdichon, Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne.1503 to 1508.

    In earlier centuries there was no doubt at all that holy men like Saint Lifard could subdue dragons, which were real satanic creatures. Here Saint Lifard has a pet dragon on a lead - hard evidence of his exceptional holiness. Unfortunately we now know that dragons never existed, so stories like this have had to be represented as allegorical.

    A common theme is that wicked pagans tried to kill a devout Christian but kept failing through divine intervention. Often the method of execution employed was turned on the perpetrators, who were themselves killed. The devout Christian was eventually dispatched by a sword, generally by being beheaded. Thus, those who tried to burn St Agnes were themselves burned by the flames, and she was finally martyred by being beheaded. Euphemia survived not only the flames but also lions and bears, before she was dispatched with a sword. St George survived poison, stretching on a wheel and being boiled alive, before his death by beheading. St Christopher was unharmed by the arrows of 40 archers, but one of the arrows was miraculously deflected and struck his persecutor, the King of Lycia, in the eye. Christopher too had to be beheaded. Catherine of Alexandria was to be tortured to death on a wheel, but a heavenly bolt destroyed the wheel and killed her persecutors, so she too had to be beheaded. Similar stories were related for the three virgin martyrs Faith, Hope and Charity, and for hundreds of other martyrs.

    The medieval mind was quite comfortable with the idea that God would not allow people to kill his favourites in certain ways but was content to have them dispatched in the upper class manner by beheading. Satan was apparently not aware of the convention. He appeared in the form of a dragon and devoured St Margaret of Antioch. She however knew the rules and burst out of the dragon's belly with the aid of a crucifix, surviving to be executed in the approved manner by beheading with a sword. As a result of her sojourn in the belly of the dragon, Margaret became the patron saint of women in labour, but the story being a little unlikely, she was removed from the Calendar of Saints in 1969. Other popular saints were removed from the Roman Calendar at the same time because of their uncertain or imaginary origins. As well as St Christopher, St Ursula and St Catherine of Alexandria, they included St George and St Nicholas (Santa Claus).

    Saint Margaret, unstained after having broken out of the dragon
    Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne Illuminated by Jean Poyer France, Tours, c. 1492–95
    The Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.50 (fol. 20v)


    It should be a simple matter to distinguish the dead bodies of saints from the dead bodies of non-saints. According to the Western Church, the bodies of saints are known to be miraculously immune from ordinary decomposition, while ordinary bodies simply rot. Better still, the bodies of saints give off a pleasant smell (the "odour of sanctity") while ordinary bodies merely stink like any other dead animal. Here then is a simple way of testing the assertions of thousands of churches that claim to possess the miraculously preserved hands, arms, feet, legs, heads, and hearts of saints. Until recently, such relics constituted proof of their original owners' sanctity, but now that scientists have asked to verify these proofs, it has become wrong to use this sort of evidence as proof, and they are not therefore made available for testing.

    Older saints whose putrefaction or mummification is complete can be made presentable by masks and perfume. The deception of perfect preservation and the odour of sanctity are more difficult for the recently deceased - as for example the fraudulent stigmatic Padre Pio, who became Saint Pio (Pius) of Pietrelcina after his death - see below.

    At the beginning of May each year the dried blood of St Gennaro (or Januarius), the late bishop and patron saint of Naples, liquefies to the delight of waiting Neapolitans. For many the show is blatantly bogus, and the Vatican refuses to accept it as a miracle, and yet it continues to provide "proof" of the claims of the Christian religion to thousands, perhaps millions.

    A simple explanation for blood relics that liquefy only in summer is that some mixtures of waxes, fats and oils melt when the temperature reaches a certain level, usually 30C. In 1996 Italy's national TV company, RAI asked a chemist, Luigi Garlaschelli, to test the congealed blood of St Lorenzo. This blood, held in a sealed phial, liquefies every August 10 at a church in Amaseno near Naples. Normally the "blood" is a solid, tan-coloured substance, but Garlaschelli found that the substance in the phial had already liquefied and was now bright red. It was a hot day. The temperature inside the church was more than 30C. Garlaschelli made an obvious connexion. He put the phial in iced water, and the contents solidified again. He then heated the water to 30C. The contents melted again. The conclusion was obvious, especially as the miracle could be easily replicated using common local materials. The Church had clearly made an error in allowing even this limited experiment. Garlaschelli noted that "This suggests that the relic, and many like it, consists of natural fats, waxes, or a mixture of the two, and is coloured with a dash of 'devil's blood', a fat-soluble red vegetable resin that was widely used as a dye during the middle ages. For proof, you'd need to analyse the contents by extracting a tiny sample with a syringe, but the church hasn't given permission to do so."8c

    Even in the revised calendar, there is not a single saint whose miracles can be verified by objective tests in the way that they reputedly could have been in the past.


    Healers and other Miracle Workers

    It takes a long while for a naturally trustful person to reconcile himself to the idea that after all God will not help him. H. L. Mencken ,

    Some diseases could be cured by religious means, such as praying to the particular saint with responsibility for the disease in question. Many Christians still do this for both incurable and curable illnesses. The New Testament says explicitly that the prayers of Church officials will cure illness (James 5:14-15). This then is another traditional way of proving the Christian faith. If biblical claims and traditional teachings were true, then patterns of illness and mortality for believers would be different from those of non-believers.

    Many thousands of Christians claim that God has healed them of otherwise incurable diseases. Yet there is no statistical evidence of anything other than ordinary rates of spontaneous remission among these claimants. This is particularly odd since it is well known that mental attitudes can have a significant influence on the course of physical diseases, so one might expect higher rates of remission even without supernatural assistance9. On the other hand the overwhelming majority of people who are medically diagnosed as terminal cases and who claim that they are benefiting from divine healing die anyway.

    Despite their claims of miraculous cures and huge success rates, there is not a single faith healer whose successes have been verified by independent medical assessments — although many faith healers claim that they have been. A number of faith healers continue to practise even after they have been exposed as frauds. Indeed, the ease with which people can be induced to believe in the power of faith healing is well illustrated by the remarkable success of modern frauds. Even without deliberate fraud it is easy for those who want to believe to convince themselves. In 1984 a visitor to Rome sat in a vacant wheelchair to take the weight off his feet. Unexpectedly he found himself being blessed by Pope John Paul II. As the Pope left, the man stood up, and a group of nuns immediately acclaimed the incident as a miracle10. Similar examples emerge whenever miracles are investigated even superficially11.

    More often the deception is deliberate. Bogus faith healers thrive throughout Christendom, and are still believed, even after they have been exposed as frauds, so strong apparently is the need to believe. Medical props like wheelchairs and white sticks are often provided to those with minor ailments who are about to be healed. When they walk away after the "healing" it looks to the audience as though the fraudulent healer has made cripples walk and the blind see12. Another technique is to cajole genuinely disabled people into saying that they have been cured when they have not been. One of the cruellest things I have ever seen was a Christian faith healer bully a little blind girl, in front of an ecstatic crowd of pilgrims at Medjugorje, into saying that her sight had been restored when it obviously had not been.

    Out of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that have visited Lourdes to be healed, the official medical committees have recognised only a handful of miracles — not yet into three figures — since 1858. But even these are doubtful. If the medical committees had been independent, their views might carry more credibility. Significantly, the rate at which miracle cures occurs decreases as medical knowledge increases, and the miracle cures are not by their nature convincing — as for example the replacement of a missing limb would be*. Worse still, the number of these certified miracles is rather smaller than the number of cases of spontaneous remission that would be expected by pure chance. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) calculated that the rate of spontaneous remissions of cancer amongst Lourdes' pilgrims is probably lower than the rate of spontaneous remission if they had stayed at home13. Also slightly odd is the fact that the total number of miraculous cures is far smaller than the number of pilgrims who have died in accidents on the way to Lourdes or on the way back home.

    The existence of the medical committee at Lourdes shows that the Roman Church has no problem in principle with examining and testing claims to miraculous events — the problem only seems to be with independent objective examinations. Independent tests could be used in principle to establish the veracity of miraculous healings but in practice they never are. In the twentieth century, Pope Pius X was in the habit of lending his socks to sufferers of foot complaints in order to cure a range of diseases. The efficacy of such cures could easily have been tested, but no one seems to have thought it worth the effort, and more recent popes seem not to have enjoyed the supernatural powers that won Pius his canonisation.

    Closely associated with faith healing is the power of casting out devils, attributed to Jesus and his apostles. The connection is the idea that illness was caused by evil spirits. The power has been claimed by many Christians. In the early church it was extremely common for them to carry out such exorcisms publicly in order to prove Christianity's divine sanction. Referring to the practice in the early church Gibbon explains:

    The awful ceremony was usually performed in a public manner and in the presence of a great number of spectators; the patient was relieved by the power or skill of the exorcist; and the vanquished demon was heard to confess that he was one of the fabled gods of antiquity who had impiously usurped the adoration of mankind14.

    Such demonstrations might have seemed convincing to an ancient audience, but to the modern mind they look more than a little suspicious.

    St Benedict. Fresco by Spinello Aretino (detail) basilica San Miniato al Monte, Florence, Italy. Monks are engaged in a building project which comes to a halt when a “heavy devil” decides to sit on a stone. No one can lift the stone until Saint Benedict intervenes to remove the demon.
    Demons like this mysteriously disappeared when photography was invented.

    Again, around the end of the second century it was common for Christians to raise the dead. Many people who had died were seen walking around again. They were particularly common in Antioch, although when challenged to produce even one of them the local bishop failed to do so.

    As in the case of the other types of miracle we have looked at, we know of many frauds, and have reason to suspect many others. On the other hand there is no evidence at all to support traditional claims. The pattern of illness and mortality is not better for Christian believers than for others. And there is not a single case of a miraculous healing for which there is not a better alternative explanation.


    Petitionary Prayers Answered

    Prayers are to men as dolls are to children.
    Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Notebooks

    One of the many proofs of God's existence was his willingness to respond to the requests of those who believed in him. Prayers were powerful tools for achieving all manner of concrete results: winning battles, controlling the weather, curing illnesses, changing the course of history, and so on.

    In the nineteenth century Francis Galton decided to test the efficacy of prayers. He did some research into prayers for royalty. Massive numbers of prayers had been offered up to God for the long life of numerous sovereigns, so Galton wondered how effective they had been. How much longer did sovereigns live than others who enjoyed similar lifestyles? Even excluding those who met violent or accidental deaths, he discovered that overall sovereigns had shorter lifespans than others in public life15. Does this mean that prayer has a negative effect?

    The Pope leads prayers for world peace every Easter, and every year new wars break out. Jesus had promised long life to all believers, yet it does not seem to be possible to find any correlation between belief and longevity, and it would appear that in general atheists enjoy longer lifespans16. Other statistical studies on the power of prayer (for example whether it can help the sick to recover their health) have shown it to have no discernible effect17. This is particularly strange since all major denominations continue to claim to be able to cure the sick by prayer or other supernatural means. Even the Anglican Church has reaffirmed it in the twentieth century. There is as yet no statistical confirmation of this claim whatsoever18.

    Prayers that were once so effective in bringing rain and controlling the weather also seem to have lost their power since they attracted the attention of statisticians. Such prayers still appear in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but are widely regarded by the clergy as an embarrassment*. Prayers of blessing and cursing are still available to many sects, but no one seems to consider it worthwhile to carry out any statistical analysis of their efficacy. Neither do blessings seem to have any effect. It would also be interesting to test whether bombs and other weapons of war that have been blessed by a priest cause higher mortality than similar unblessed weapons, but this experiment does not seem to have been attempted.

    French soldiers gather around a priest as he blesses an aircraft on the Western Front, 1915



    The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
    Is my vision's greatest enemy
    Thine has a great hook nose like thine
    Mine has a snub nose like to mine
    William Blake (1757-1827), The Everlasting Gospel

    As expectations changed, so does the information provided by God in divine visions. Visionaries tend to experience the sort of visions that they expect to experience, and what is revealed to them appears to follow the fashion of the day. In early times Christians believed that they were required to die as martyrs for the faith, and divine visions confirmed this view. Christians would refuse to swear oaths in any circumstances, knowing that this would ensure their deaths19. God seems to have changed his mind about the need for martyrdom around the time that Christianity became a significant force, and also seems to have become less sure about the need not to swear oaths. In later centuries mainstream Christians would execute fellow Christians for adopting identical views about swearing oaths, yet God never seems to have mentioned to the mainstream Christian persecutors that what they were doing was in any way wrong — though he did often enough to the victims.

    Visions of crosses floating in the air were common when they were expected, for example in 1216 in anticipation of a new crusade. When public self-flagellation was an acceptable everyday activity, saints experienced visions that instructed them to join in. In 1396 St Vincent Ferrer led a party of flagellants around southern Europe following instructions given in a divine revelation. The fashion passed when the visions stopped — or perhaps the visions stopped when the fashion passed.

    As various doctrines were crystallised, supernatural visions would soon be confirming them. Often ghosts ("revenants") would appear to the living to relate their first-hand experience. Thus, after the idea of Purgatory was developed in the twelfth century, ghosts with an exeat to visit the living were soon appearing on Earth to describe their imprisonment in Purgatory, a place that earlier revenants had omitted to mention. When various practices were agreed to be "sacraments", ghosts were soon confirming that these practices were indeed sacraments and that they brought salvation. Similarly, ghosts confirmed that excommunication blocked any hope of salvation. When the Church took against tournaments, ghosts were soon confirming that participants would be condemned to Hell, again something that they had previously omitted to mention.

    Ghosts, like angels and visionary saints, had an unfortunate habit of contradicting each other, which is difficult to reconcile with their divine provenance. Some contradicted themselves. St George was a spectacular example. He fought for England until the Wars of the Roses. During these wars, everyone agreed that the saint would fight on the side that had the true, divinely sanctioned, claim to the throne. Sadly he was seen fighting for both armies, yet never once told either side that they were mistaken and that God and he favoured their opponents — which would have been much more convincing.

    Another illustration of how visionary experiences correspond to expectation is provided by the many visionaries who have seen visions of saints who are now acknowledged never to have existed. One of the voices heard by Joan of Arc belonged to St Catherine of Alexandria, whose existence was unquestioned at that time. Joan seems less credible now that it is widely acknowledged that Catherine never existed. Visions frequently seem to have been inspired by contemporary images. For example a later St Catherine (St Catherine of Siena) experienced a vision in which she received a wedding ring from the infant Jesus, just as her namesake, the fictitious Catherine of Alexandria, had done — a popular motif in art at that time, and available for young Catherine to see in Siena.

    St Catherine of Siena reported that the baby Jesus’s had appeared to her, snipped off his own foreskin, and gave it to her as a wedding ring. Reports of her vision generally omit to mention the details of her report, and artistic representations usually show Jesus giving her something other than a prepuce. A gold wedding ring is often substituted for the fleshy one.


    “Mystic Marriage of St Catherine” Barna da Siena - c. 1340
    In this version Jesus is an adult and the foreskin is invisible

    In another vision Catherine of Siena was bathed in rays of light emanating from the wounds of Jesus. This was exactly how St Francis was represented in art, experiencing his vision, but this conventional artistic representation bore almost no relationship to the earliest accounts of St Francis's vision. Catherine's visions matched her expectations but not reality.

    Old Testament angels never had wings, but under Greek influence Christian angels sprouted them. When these angels appeared to Christians their bird-like wings were clearly visible, and numerous visionaries described them. When the mechanics of flight came to be understood, it was soon appreciated that these wings could not work in a conventional way. As noted by the evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, an angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working the wings. Furthermore, however efficient the wings were, they would be totally useless in space. Visionaries who knew this started being visited by angels without wings, just like the original Jewish ones, except that they still tended to wear haloes and standard issue white robes.

    Jesus is sometimes recognised in visions by his distinctive cruciform halo, which again is an artistic convention. His clothes generally match expectations as well — a loincloth, medieval outfits or royal robes. On the rare occasions when he appeared to nonconformists he tended to resemble their ideal of simplicity. In the seventeenth century, when he appeared to Mary Pennington, soon to become a Quaker, he took the form of a youth "clad in grey cloth, very plain and neat"20, a long way from the majestic crowned heavenly king seen by high church visionaries. Members of the Native American Church in North America take peyote to induce hallucinations, and these hallucinations also match the expectations of their religion. Those who convert to Roman Catholicism often start experiencing typically Catholic visions, such as those of the Virgin Mary.

    Many aspects of Marian visions invite suspicion. Mainstream Protestants hardly ever see visions of the Virgin Mary, yet she frequently appears to young uneducated Roman Catholic peasant girls. She has always been a keen follower of fashion. She never seems to say anything novel or particularly intelligent, and often takes sides in local religious-political squabbles. In the Middle Ages, Mary's visitations generally followed a set pattern, one feature of which was that initially the authorities refused to believe the visionaries until evidence was produced. The visionaries explained this to Mary when she next appeared. Although this happened on many occasions, it was some time before Mary began to anticipate the need for evidence, but eventually she consented to provide proof of her visits, by giving physical tokens to the visionaries. These proof tokens varied but were generally mundane objects that could easily have been faked. In modern times theologians have reassessed the traditional attitude to proof, and Mary has stopped providing her little tokens of evidence.

    Mary's appearances and practices altered from time to time according to conventions of the day. When James the Greater saw her in a vision she appeared on top of a pillar, which at that time carried its own implications (gods and emperors tended to be shown on top of pillars). The Virgin generally appears to Roman Catholics dressed in a blue cloak, which is how she is usually depicted in European art. This tradition of representing her dressed in blue arose in the Middle Ages, not because of any known fondness for the colour on her part, but because blue paint happened to be expensive and it was thought appropriate to use the most expensive materials for her image. Again, she is traditionally depicted as a medieval queen complete with sash, veil and crown. This convention is wildly anachronistic, yet she apparently favours such dress when she visits those who are familiar with images of her looking like this. If she wears a royal crown in local art she tends to wear that same crown for her apparitions, but if she wears a crown of stars in local art then that is the one she favours instead. She is also keen on rosaries, although these were first introduced into the Church more than 1,000 years after her sojourn here on Earth. Sometimes she confirms views that turn out to be tied to contemporary errors. For example she mentioned to one influential visionary (Maria d'Agreda) in the seventeenth century that she owed her physical condition to the perfect balance of the "four humours". This seemed reasonable when Christians were still wedded to Galenic medicine, but now seems unlikely.

    When all good Christians believed in the reality of eternal hellfire, so did Mary. She promised one visionary that wearing a scapular (a sort of apron adopted by Carmelites) would ensure protection against the fires of Hell, and Pope John XXII, who also enjoyed direct communication with God, confirmed this in a papal bull21, and evidently some Christians still believe it - as evidenced by the scapular shown on the right. These are devotional scapulars (smaller than the original apron) consisting of two small rectangular pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper, a few inches in size. These are joined by two bands of cloth and the wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands one on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back

    Mary also sports a halo, although this only belonged to her in Church art. The Lourdes visionary, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed that the woman in her 1858 visions had the same face and clothes as the blessed Virgin in her parish church. At Knock in Ireland, where Mary appeared in 1879, visionaries identified her attendant saints because they looked like their statues in the local church. They were unaware that those idealised statues could have born little resemblance to the saints in life, if indeed these saints had ever existed.

    This representation of the apparition at Knock omits the nearby building, from the upper floor of which a projector cast images on the church wall. Cinematography was still a rare novelty in rural Ireland in 1879 so an image on a wall a few feet above the ground could easily be misinterpreted. Modern Catholic accounts of visions always omit relevant details (inconvenient facts like this, alternative non-supernatural explanations; the result of independent tests; blunders by, contradictions among and known mental conditions of the visionaries; miraculous predictions that prove to be in error; fraudulent histories of the participants; subsequent admissions of fraud, and so on)

    As Western society has become more prudish, so has the Virgin. In earlier centuries she was free with her breasts and distributed vast quantities of her breast milk to work miraculous cures.

    Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano,1650, Madrid, Museo del Prado
    the Virgin Mary is expertly squirting her breast milk into the mouth of St Bernard

    In keeping with modern mores Mary is now much more reticent about these mammary exhibitions.

    “Virgin de la Leche with Christ Child and St.Bernard Clairvaux” by an unknown artist from Peru - 1680 - Oil on canvas - Peyton Wright Gallery, Santa Fe. In previous times the Virgin Mary distributed her breast milk freely, but she has become ever more reticent as her followers have become more prudish.

    The Virgin Mary induges more adult suckling, late 14th century.

    After 2,000 years she may have stopped lactating altogether.

    There is no convincing reason to suppose that Mary looked any different from other women of her time and place, but the Church liked neither Jews nor their supposed physical appearance. In visions Mary tends to look like the visionary's ideal woman. According to the earliest accounts of Mary's looks, by the monk Epiphanius in the eighth century, she conformed to the Byzantine idea of beauty. She had a long face, light brown hair, light complexion, black eyebrows, light brown eyes, a straight nose, and long hands and fingers. By the end of the twelfth century she conformed, in western Europe at least, to the ideal medieval maiden: blonde hair, clear skin, markedly curved eyebrows, blue eyes, slightly aquiline nose, fuller lips, clean teeth, and so on. When she appeared in visions to St Bridget of Sweden in the fourteenth century she had golden hair. Soon she was appearing with golden hair and blue eyes throughout Europe. When she visited Africa early in the twentieth century she continued to look European, often with the same blue eyes and golden hair. More recently she has taken on the appearance of a black African.

    During her visitations Mary frequently advocated a line that was favoured by a local religious interest group — for example, exhorting parishioners to pay their tithes, or observe the Sabbath, or more frequently, confirming doctrine or admonishing the authorities. These facets have continued into modern times. In 1858, at Lourdes in France, she confirmed the new dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

    In many appearances to French visionaries she promised regeneration for France if only the nation would abandon modern ideas and return to unquestioning faith in the Church. In 1917, at Fátima in Portugal, she expressed her displeasure that a government run by the Church had been replaced by a secular one, and in 1961-5 at Garabandal in Spain, she threatened the end of the world unless conservative political and religious doctrines were adopted.

    For centuries Mary used to speak a European language, but in Africa she has recently taken to speaking in local languages, and even local dialects22. Apparently her racial consciousness has suddenly been raised, just like that of her followers.

    When she appeared to French visionaries she sometimes spoke in the local patois (e.g. at Lourdes) but sometimes in Parisian French, switching to the local patois only when the peasant visionaries failed to understand (e.g. at La Sallette). This seems to demonstrate not only a measure of inconsistency but also a certain lack of prescience.

    Sometimes there are political implications to the choice. Local Franciscans in Medjugorje, who supported their local visionaries, also passionately supported Croatian nationalism and claimed that the Virgin spoke pure Croat (rather than Serbo-Croat).

    Our Lady of Africa and a Black Madonna by Martyna Jeziorska Ascafen
    She sports a crown or a scarred face according to the expectations of those she visits


    Some Marian visions are mutually contradictory. In the fourteenth century, when the Marian cult was being promoted, St Bridget and members of the Franciscan order experienced divine visions assuring them of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Dominicans (who opposed the doctrine) experienced similar revelations assuring them that on the contrary her conception was just as maculate as that of everyone else. God frequently tells one faction one thing but tells another faction the exact opposite. In such cases he generally tells each side what they want to hear. Sometimes he sends increasingly impressive messengers. Visionary A receives a visitation from a revenant who says something is true. Visionary B receives a visitation from a saint who says it is not true. Visionary A receives a visitation from a more prestigious saint who says it is. Visionary B receives a visitation from an apostle who says it is not. Visionary A receives a visitation from the Virgin Mary who says it is. Visionary B receives a visitation from Jesus himself who says it is not. Pantomime visions like this have been going on for centuries. During the First Crusade, two crusader visionaries experienced a series of competing and increasingly impressive supernatural visits that ended only when one of the visionaries submitted himself to ordeal of fire and died of the consequences.

    During the many years when there were rival claimants to the papal throne, secular rulers had no way of telling which was the true pope. Unless there were political considerations, many of them sought the views of visionaries. Thus there arose a market in visionary prophets, who would announce who was the true pope, often denouncing other visionaries as frauds in the pay of the anti-pope. Noblemen, and even the popes themselves, kept visionaries for instant authoritative decisions on such matters. Sometimes divine visions produced facts that turned out to be simply untrue. For example one visionary, engaged in establishing that Philomena was a genuine saint, asserted that the name Philomena was a Latin name meaning "daughter of light". Her divine source was apparently unaware that the name Philomena is of Greek origin and means "beloved".

    Another oddity is that major visions of the Virgin Mary were common throughout the Middle Ages but stopped in 1531 when she appeared at Guadalupe. They started again in 1830 when she appeared in Paris, after which they became common again. How is this to be explained? Did she stop visiting for 300 years? Is it a coincidence that the Inquisition flourished over these same 300 years? Certainly fraudsters would not have dared to perform while inquisitors were active, but why should genuine visionaries not have come forward? No one seems to have advanced any possible reason for this lacuna that does not reflect badly on the Virgin's abilities, the role of the Church, or the honesty of visionaries. A degree of scepticism is also invited by the fact that visions often conveniently occur in times of financial need. In the past visions often gave backing to specific fund-raising efforts, for example to build a new church or back a military expedition. The Virgin would appear to prospective donors with the frequency of a doorstep saleswoman, a habit that she now seems to have abandoned.

    Visionary sites could be moved around in order to maintain an income from pilgrims. Emmaus, the place where the resurrected Jesus had appeared to Clopas, had traditionally been located by the Greek Church near Amwas. In the twelfth century the Roman Church relocated it to a more convenient spot at Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem. Then after Jerusalem had fallen and Christian pilgrims were restricted to a road north of Jerusalem, the site was miraculously relocated again, this time to Qubaila, a town that had not even existed before the twelfth century. Many new European sites were developed around the time of the Crusades, when it became fashionable to create centres of pilgrimage at the shrines of murdered children — all highly profitable. Recent visionary events have serendipitously relieved hardship, enabling local people to establish profitable business enterprises. Visions at many places of pilgrimage have attracted millions of pilgrims and vast amounts of foreign income to poor areas. Often specific interest groups actively promote new profitable sites. The Jesuits promoted Loreto, a great money-spinner, as a centre of pilgrimage from the end of the sixteenth century. Franciscans have been behind the development of Medjugorje since the early 1980s.

    Following the financial success of Mary's appearance at Fátima in Portugal in 1917 she has been making an ever-increasing number of appearances, often to illiterate peasant children. By the 1980s she was appearing at around 12 different places a year, for major visions, and hundreds of other places for minor ones23. There was an outbreak of miraculous apparitions in Ireland. At least 30 of them were reported in 1985 alone. These sightings coincided with poor harvests, a reduced tourist trade and economic depression. Some observers have noted that the coincidence may not be entirely pure, and could be connected to the financial success of Lourdes, Knock and Medjugorje. The usual pattern was that children witnessed religious statues moving, glowing or speaking. Within days thousands of visitors came. Within a week business had blossomed. Stalls sold holy mementos of the traditional high price and low quality. Vans sold customised grottoburgers. Soon the local council was asking for hundreds of thousands of pounds for new roads, car parks and other facilities for their visitors. The more ambitious were looking towards the day that their village could have its own international airport, just like Knock.

    For sceptics it seems suspicious that visions are so often induced. It is well known that anyone who stays awake far a few days will experience hallucinations, and this is only one of many techniques employed Fasting, privation, repetitive chanting, breathing control, prolonged mortification of the flesh, physical exhaustion, incense or drugs generally do the trick, especially if two or three are combined, and particularly in those already predisposed to hallucinations. At pilgrimage sites conditions are arranged to maximise the likelihood of a religious experience. For example, smoke is produced to swirl around an oversized crucifix on a dark night, while spotlights are played on it, incense is burned and continual chanting is kept up. A proportion of the audience, who have come a long way in the hope of having a religious experience, who may have crawled there on their knees and who have fasted for the occasion, duly experience their desired visions.

    Mass hysteria, hysterical contagion," or "psychogenic epidemic," is the phenomenon of people experiencing sharing common symptoms of hysteria, including mass delusions where groups of people claim to have seen impossible events, which are not shared by bystanders or recorded by cameras.


    It is notable that visions are often provided to the highly impressionable, the suggestible, and those with brain dysfunction. Those suffering from certain mental states (such as transmarginal inhibition, a type of nervous system shutdown) are particularly prone to hysterical suggestibility. Historical accounts of visions and revelations experienced by saints unwittingly provide evidence of psychotic, schizophrenic, epileptic and hysterical symptoms - and even of severe migraines.

    Many saints were clearly schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder, common symptoms of which include auditory hallucinations, bizarre delusions, and disorganized speech and thinking. The onset of symptoms typically occurs in the young. People with schizophrenia are likely to have additional conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorders. In one subtype, the person may be largely mute, remain motionless in bizarre postures, or exhibit purposeless agitation, all signs of catatonia. In the early 20th century, the psychiatrist Kurt Schneider listed the forms of psychotic symptoms that distinguish schizophrenia from other psychotic disorders. These are called first-rank symptoms. They include delusions of being controlled by an external force; the belief that thoughts are being inserted into or withdrawn from one's conscious mind; the belief that one's thoughts are being broadcast to other people; and hearing hallucinatory voices that comment on one's thoughts or actions or that have a conversation with other hallucinated voices. Hallucinations can be tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory and gustatory hallucinations, manifestations of psychosis. Hallucinations are also typically related to the content of the delusional theme. Sufferers often a lack of desire to form relationships. Almost all of the saints who win their sainthood by seeing visions of Christ and becoming his bride look suspiciously like schizophrenics as their recorded experiences and behaviour match perfectly. Significantly, such visionaries were commonly acclaimed in past centuries, and have disappeared since the advent of modern psychiatry.


    A few of the Catholic saints, stigmatics and visionaries who probably suffered from schizophrenia or other mental conditions

    Lutgarde (1182-1246)
    Margaret of Cortona (1247-97)
    Gertrude (1256-1302),
    Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308)
    Angela of Foligno (d. 1309)
    Catherine of Siena (1347-80)
    Lidwine (1380-1433);
    Frances of Rome (1384-1440);
    Colette (1380-1447)
    Rita of Cassia (1386-1456)
    Osanna of Mantua (1499-1505)
    Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)
    Baptista Varani (1458-1524)
    Lucy of Narni (1476-1547)
    Catherine of Racconigi (1486-1547)
    John of God (1495-1550)
    Catherine de' Ricci (1522-89)
    Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi (1566-1607)
    Marie de l'Incarnation (1566-1618)
    Mary Anne of Jesus (1557-1620)
    Carlo of Sezze (d. 1670);
    Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90),
    Veronica Giuliani (1600-1727);
    Mary Frances of the Five Wounds (1715-91)
    Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
    Elizabeth Canori Mora (1774-1825)
    Anna Maria Taïgi (1769-1837)
    Maria Dominica Lazzari (1815-48);
    Marie de Moerl (1812-68)
    Louise Lateau (1850-83)


    St Theresa of Ávila had marked symptoms of hysteria. Other visions are attributable to severe migraine attacks. The experiences of the twelfth century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, were sufficiently well documented for a leading professor of clinical neurology to assert that they were indisputably migrainous24. Other conditions were more serious. Writing about the psychology of religious leaders, one authority observes ".... those who were revered as mystics in the Middle Ages might be hospitalised today"25.

    Many religious leaders as well as saints have experienced questionable visions. Sometimes their visions can be attributed to specific incidents. Ellen White, the Founder of the 7th Day Adventists, for example seems to have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy after being hit on the head by a stone at the age of nine. She was semi-conscious for several weeks and afterwards was so ill she never returned to school. Following the incident, her personality changed. She became highly religious and moralistic. For the first time in her life, she began to have religious visions, and these visions have been identified by scientists and phycisians as epileptic in nature.25a

    It is possible to induce religious experiences using electro-magnets. Scientists have created tiny seizures in the brains of people. When the seizures are created in the temporal lobes many of the subjects reported supernatural experiences, sometimes religious ones. They felt presences in the room, bodily distortions and a range of religious feelings26. Christian visionaries have also reported exactly these experiences, including bodily distortions.

    Loss of conscious control is characteristic of many mystics and religious leaders. It has been observed that some sort of automatism has been characteristic of nearly all important Christian leaders, including St Paul, St Barnard, St Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, George Fox and Charles Wesley27. It also seems to account for the experiences of Pentecostalists. For example, glossolalia ("speaking in foreign tongues") appears to be a speech automatism, in which control of the speech centres becomes sub cortical28. Mental hospitals are well stocked by people who hear religious voices and see religious visions. Many of their experiences match Christian expectations and biblical texts. Paranoid schizophrenics are often particularly keen on the book of Revelation. Even when there are clear reasons to suspect some sort of cerebral malfunction, the faithful still seem to favour supernatural explanations.


    The Mystery of the Vanishing Proofs

    Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.
    Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975), Religion without Revelation

    We have seen examples of events that were once "proofs" of the truth of Christianity. These were only a small fraction of those available. In early times holy individuals had been able to drink poison without harm. Others had been unaffected by the bites of poisonous animals. Yet others literally moved mountains through faith alone, as Jesus had affirmed believers would be able to29. Those upon whom the Holy Spirit had descended were able to talk in foreign languages while visible tongues of flame danced on their heads. Souls left the bodies of martyrs in the form of birds that were visible to all. Witches and vampires stalked the night for all to see. Demons confessed their wicked deeds when challenged in the name of Jesus. Holy items, like bibles and prayer books, enjoyed divine protection. Holy books thrown into a fire would emerge unharmed, no matter how hot the flames or how long they were exposed to them. This provided an easy way to distinguish holy from heretical books

    The existence of vampire hunting kits for adults seemed to validate the existence of vampires

    .Murdered bodies bled in the presence of their murderers, and if the murderer touched the body of his victim it would gush blood, establishing his guilt beyond all doubt. Those possessed by evil spirits vomited pins and other satanic detritus that they had not eaten. Important events were marked by earthly and celestial novelties as they had been in pagan times — comets, monstrous births, plagues, blood-filled rivers, crosses in the sky, and a thousand other omens. Oracles and prophets accurately predicted the future. God gave judgement by lot and by ordeal. The medieval world interacted closely with God's hidden world to provide proof after proof of God's daily involvement in human affairs. These miracles affected every aspect of life and could be used to discover all manner of interesting information. For example an olive planted by a chaste woman would be fruitful, while one planted by a harlot would not be30.

    Christians were able to prove that statues belonging to other religions were merely statues and possessed no supernatural power. This was easy. All the Christians needed to do was smash or burn the statue in question, and the act proved their point, for the god whose statue it was spectacularly failed to stop the desecration. When Christians started using statues and icons themselves the parallel argument does not seem to have been extensively applied. However, there were some less than devout individuals in the Middle Ages who performed their own experiments. They fired arrows or crossbow bolts into statues of the crucified Jesus. These statues, we are assured by Christian writers, would bleed real blood from their wounds31. This was clearly miraculous, and was cited as proof of God identifying himself with the statue. Similarly, statues would shed tears or groan or move their heads mournfully on the occurrence of certain unhappy events, such as an enemy victory. So too, pieces of consecrated bread, if mistreated, would bleed and groan. All this was hard evidence for the existence of the Christian God.

    Since Heaven and Hell, and later Purgatory, were real physical places it was reasonable to find various types of physical evidence for their existence. Sulphurous fumes from Hell were known to escape through fissures in Earth's crust. In principle, those who were willing to could go and visit Hell themselves. An entrance to Purgatory lay beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Monks bricked it off to avoid being disturbed by souls undergoing punishment, but if they had not done so it would have been possible to descend into Purgatory too, as Dante imagined himself doing. Those who dared to could hear the screams from the other side of the bricked-up passageway. Again, Heaven was known to be in the sky. Certainly it was a long way away — far enough away for it to take a full day or more for an object to fall to Earth — but still it was a finite distance that could be traversed. Prophets and angels used to commute regularly, literally going up from Earth to Heaven, and descending from Heaven to Earth. Sometimes they used ladders. Many people had seen them.

    Clergymen were able to prove the divine approval of faith because they could exorcise demons, detect witches, work miracles, invoke God's aid, and so on. This was a useful way to distinguish the one true Church from the others. For centuries, the miracle of the Holy Fire has occurred each Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when candles are spontaneously lit without human assistance. At one time this church was shared by representatives of both the Eastern and Western Churches, and the divine favour shown to the Eastern Church was reflected by their candles igniting spontaneously while those of the Roman Church had to be lit by priests.

    Miracles confirmed not only the true Church but also God's favour for his appointed rulers. Thus the phial of Holy Oil used to anoint the kings of France at Rheims miraculously never diminished, so that there was an infinite supply available to anoint a line of kings until the end of time. (Inexplicably, this turned out to be unnecessary after the French Revolution.) Again, scrofula could be cured by the touch of a French or English monarch. This power provided proof that the monarch was divinely appointed. Queen Elizabeth I's continued power to cure the disease was cited as proof that her excommunication by the Pope had been ineffective. Later, Stuart sympathisers would point to the Stuart pretenders' power to cure the disease as proof that he was the rightful king. There were other proofs too. For example, it was possible to prove that King Charles I had enjoyed divine support because a handkerchief soaked in his blood after his execution was able to work miracles. It was once possible to tell a true King of Scotland from a mere usurper, for when a true king sat on the Stone of Scone at his coronation, the stone would give out a satisfied groan32.

    For centuries Christians regarded the calendar as a divine creation rather than a human one. Strong supporting evidence for this was that many miraculous events would occur annually on their divinely appointed day. Thus for example a particular thorn tree at Glastonbury would miraculously bloom each year on Christmas Day, and the Templars' crown of thorns would bloom on Holy Thursday. Cattle and other farm animals in Christian countries would fall to their knees at midnight on the anniversary of Jesus' birth. This provided hard evidence that 25 th December was indeed Jesus' birthday and proved that those heretics who had celebrated it on other days were wrong.


    Seeds of Doubt

    God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.
    Paul Valéry (1871-1945), Mauvaises Pensées et Autres

    Many purported miracles or miraculous objects were exposed as frauds at the Reformation. The Boxley Rood, for example, was a carved cross bearing a figure that could miraculously move its eyes, lips and head. Once considered holy, it was dismantled and buried in 1538 after being shown to contain concealed springs, wheels and manually operated wires. Another trick was to build a speaking pipe into a statue so that a concealed priest could make the statue appear to talk. At Wells Cathedral a concealed chorister made a carved angel on the great West front seem to sing on Easter Sunday (once a miraculous effect, now just a spectacular effect).

    Elizabeth Barton, a nun and possibly an epileptic, made a name for herself by her prophetic visions during the reign of Henry VIII which were tolerated and even encouraged as long as they conformed to the King's own views. When Henry took up with Ann Bolyn, she conveyed messages from God (or possibly from bishops) who sided with Catherine of Aragon and did not approve of English translations of the New Testament, to the effect that Henry would die the death of a villain within a month if he did not change his ways. Elizabeth and a number of her clerical sponsors were executed at Tyburn in 1534. Five others, including Bishop Fisher, were imprisoned.

    After the Reformation clergymen of all denominations were keen to reveal the impostures and conjuring tricks of others. As we have seen, some Roman Catholic impostures involved stooges who were trained to imitate the symptoms of possession, but it was not only Roman priests who were exposed in this way. Some of the leading Puritan clergy of the sixteenth century assisted the Puritan exorcist John Darrell in his exorcisms, until a High Commission exposed him as an impostor in 1589. His patients had also been trained to simulate the symptoms of possession.

    After the restoration of the monarchy in England, the Roman Church continued to prove its validity by demonstrating that its priests could exercise supernatural powers while Puritan ministers could not. This was a two-way traffic. Puritan ministers also sought to prove that their Church was the one true Church. If they, and only they, could exorcise demons then it was clear that the Roman Church was a false Church. Clergymen of each Church taunted each other that their miracles were fraudulent and offered to convert if their opponents could produce even one genuine miracle. Not a single one from any sect seems ever to have succeeded.

    As time went on, various contradictions invited doubts. How could competing sects all have proofs of their divine appointment? How could competing royal claimants both have proofs of their status? Why should priests and ministers set up frauds if they were able to work real miracles? Perhaps it was worth looking at supernatural claims a little bit more carefully.

    That Orthodox miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem turned out to be fraudulent - a fact well known to Moslems, Catholics, Protestants and pretty much everyone except devout Orthodox pilgrims. (The miracle continues each Easter, though it known to be bogus and like all other contemporary miracles is not permitted to be subjected to scientific testing33). A limitless supply of miracle-working embalmed infant bodies sold to Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem as biblical Holy Innocents, murdered by Herod, turned out to be contemporary still-born babies - which must have opened up questions of how their supposed miracles had come about.

    Throughout the Middle Ages it was customary to detect witches by simple tests: their hair could not be cut, they were incapable of shedding tears, they cast no shadows even in bright sunlight. When people started to test these phenomena objectively, in the seventeenth century, they suddenly ceased. Other aspects of witchcraft proved equally insubstantial. For example, victims of witchcraft possessed by demons would often go into fits when they heard certain biblical passages. Doubters hit upon the idea of allowing the possessed to overhear that demons were accomplished linguists, and that the same passage was to be read again this time in Greek or Latin. A passage from a classical pagan author, rather than from the Bible, would then be read aloud in its original language, and was found to elicit the same hysterical response from the ingenuous victim. Just as worrying was the fact that if the possessed person did not know what they were hearing, then genuine biblical passages in Greek or Latin had no effect. As King James I came to realise through using these techniques, supernatural phenomena were matching human expectations.

    Rationalism was not universally welcomed. Victims of witchcraft often fell into fits if touched by those who had bewitched them, and this was proof of the witch's power. A simple test was to blindfold "bewitched" people and then let them be touched by a series of different people. It should have been easy to distinguish the true witch from others, since the fits would start only on the touch of the real witch. Such techniques could reveal impostures, but as late as the 1660s senior judges in England were rejecting these methods. The introduction of such methods corresponded with the disappearance of witches and the decline in witch-hunting. Wherever rationalists looked the evidence evaporated. No one could any longer muster enough faith to enjoy immunity from poisons or snake bites. Holy wafers no longer bled when they were stabbed; holy statues no longer bled when they were injured; bodies no longer bled in the presence of their murderers. Bibles burned just as well as heretical books. Those blessed by a visit from the Holy Spirit now spoke unintelligible garble instead of fluent foreign languages, and the flames above their heads were no longer visible.

    Other miracles dried up, or changed so as not to be testable any more. In earlier centuries holy water was a highly potent liquid. It drove devils out of the possessed and brought terror to all manner of demons. Bells baptised with holy water could frighten away storm demons, and Church bells were baptised and rung for exactly this purpose. When it was realised that it is a simple matter to test the efficacy of a baptised bell against an unbaptised bell, the claims evaporated, and almost no one now believes that baptised bells are more potent than unbaptised ones in keeping storms away. Similarly, the efficacy of holy water in dislodging various evil spirits turns out to be much the same as that of ordinary water that is believed to be holy water.

    The position is much the same for miracle-working relics. If holy relics really did work miracles then it would be simple to distinguish between genuine ones and fraudulent ones. Genuine ones would work miracles and fake ones would not. Yet, for some reason this simple test, once so widely employed, became ineffective. Fraudulent relics were found to be just as potent as genuine ones — if there are any genuine ones. Splinters from the one true cross are now indistinguishable from the tons of splinters from the many false ones. St Agatha's veil is not reliable enough to have it flown out when various populations around the world are threatened by volcanoes or earthquakes. It was not only rationalists asking questions now. Even the most fervent believers wondered about the evidence. Why should miracles dry up whenever they are investigated? Why should fictitious saints work miracles just as impressive as any other saint? Why should bogus relics work miracles just as impressive as any other relic? Why should Christian miracles be so similar to, and no more reliable than, those of any other religions?

    Those widely accepted tales of miraculous martyrdoms in Classical times also started to look doubtful. After the martyrdom of Getulius his bereaved family had continued to worship the Christian God. Upset by this, pagan gods complained to the Emperor Hadrian that "The widow Symphorosa and her sons torment us daily by invoking their God". As a result of this, Symphorosa and her seven sons were all martyred. This story had once seemed perfectly reasonable, but if the story was true, then the pagan gods must have really existed. For a while the story could be rationalised, by blaming demons for impersonating ancient gods, but this too came to seem improbable to increasingly sceptical minds. Today only the staunchest believers believe that incidents like this are accurate accounts of historical events.


    New Explanations

    The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.
    Thomas Paine, Introduction to the The Age of Reason, Part I

    Churches retrenched as they were obliged to cede ever more ground. Miracles really had happened in the past, but they did not happen any more. There really had been witches in the past, they were just less common or more cunning now. Some medical conditions might have physical causes, but not all — people were still occasionally possessed by evil spirits and needed exorcising.

    Even those supernatural Christmas events became problematic when the calendar was reformed and a number of days were lost. Did the annual miracle occur on the new 25 th December, or did it occur some days later, 365 days after the old 25 th December? Clearly, the miracle would provide a certain way of knowing whether God had sanctioned the new calendar or whether he preferred the old one. He seems not to have been consistent, for the miracle generally occurred on the old Christmas Day in countries that stuck to the old calendar, but on the new Christmas Day in countries that adopted the new calendar. There were, however, some exceptions. For example cattle belonging to conservative types who objected to the new calendar often continued to kneel on the old Christmas Day, whichever country they lived in. In the twentieth century the last testable miracles disappeared. Cattle finally stopped kneeling down at Christmas-time using either calendar..

    Those passageways to Hell turned out not to lead to Hell after all, and neither did others lead to Purgatory. When astronauts were first sent into space, devout Christians feared God's reaction to having space rockets intruding into Heaven. The astronauts failed to discover any physical Heaven, and theologians explained that Heaven was not a physical place after all. There had, it turned out, never been the remotest possibility of astronauts meeting the inhabitants of Heaven. Heaven, like Hell and Purgatory, was no longer a place that could be visited.

    A few testable ideas continued, possibly because it did not occur to believers that they were testable. They tend to be abandoned as soon as a test methodology is proposed. For example, it has been claimed that consecrating a Church makes it holy in some palpable way. Thus the feeling experienced on entering a great cathedral is not merely awe at the scale of the human effort, but something more mystical or spiritual. There are still people around who believe that they can detect a sanctified place through a purely spiritual experience. In fact it is possible to devise simple tests to see whether any genuine spiritual experience is taking place: if the act of consecrating a building really had an effect then it would be possible to distinguish a newly built church the day before its consecration from the same building the day after its consecration. Similarly it would be possible to distinguish an old consecrated church from one that had been deconsecrated. But no one seems to be able to distinguish consecrated from unconsecrated buildings. Another example is provided by the popular conception that it is always possible to identify the exact moment of someone's death. The suggestion is that a body with a spirit is essentially different from a body without a spirit, and it is possible to sense the difference. However, the fact that physicians sometimes have great difficulty in determining whether a patient is alive or dead seriously undermines this theory.

    To many it seems suspicious that God provided a stream of miracles for as long as the Church controlled all aspects of learning, but reduced the number and impressiveness of these miracles as more and more independent people started to investigate them. From many thousands every day, miraculous proofs were reduced to just a few each year by the eighteenth century, and are still declining both in quantity and quality at the beginning of the third millennium.

    Some theologians still maintain that miracles really did happen in the past, but that the age of miracles has now ceased. This, however, was difficult to square with the purpose of miracles, as universally agreed up until recent centuries. If the purpose of miracles were to corroborate the faith, then one would expect miracles to be more common when there were fewer believers. Yet miracles were extremely common throughout Christendom when belief was almost universal, and have become extremely rare now that there are many more doubters to be convinced.



    A miracle is an event which creates faith. Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive; therefore it is not a fraud but a miracle.
    George Bernard Shaw, St Joan

    Many theologians now accept the sceptical position that miracles have never really happened, and that what have been regarded as miracles were really a mixture of different events: coincidences, misunderstandings, embroidered urban myths, conjuring tricks and deliberate frauds. Certainly it is known that clergymen have been practising deliberate frauds for centuries. Pope Boniface VIII gained the papal throne in the thirteenth century by practising a visionary fraud on his predecessor Celestine V. In 1507 a group of Dominicans were exposed as frauds by a magistrate in Berne. Acting under instructions from superiors of their Order, the Dominicans had drugged one of their own friars. Then, dressed as the Virgin, one of the fraudsters appeared to him and condemned the views of the Franciscans (the Dominican's rivals on various points of doctrine). When Duke Albert of Austria investigated the bleeding host found in the home of a Jew in 1338, which had led to many deaths in Lower Austria and Moravia, it turned out to have been planted by a Christian. For centuries the manufacture of bogus miracle-working relics was a highly profitable industry, largely concentrated on major religious centres. Many of these relics have always been in Church hands so there is no possibility of fraud by secular powers. Sometimes the relics were improved over the centuries to make them more impressive. A tilma, a cloth with supposedly inexplicable images provided by St Mary of Guadalupe during a visionary appearance, turns out to have undergone such improvements: sunburst rays painted on, new tassels, a cherub, a horned Moon, stars, gold edging, and so on. This suggests that its keepers never really believed it to be genuine. Why would anyone want to tamper with a relic if they really thought it to be of divine origin?

    Even in medieval times it had been common knowledge that animal bones were being passed off as holy relics. Chaucer referred to some of them as piggis bones ("pig's bones"). In the twentieth century it became possible to apply tests to determine the age, sex and species of a bone's original owner, and how long ago they lived. The results confirm widespread fraud. The same is true for miracle-working bodily effusions. When blood, milk and tears have been collected for analysis they turn out to be pig's blood, cow's milk, rainwater, and so on. The fraudulent tradition within Christianity is still flourishing, and known fraudsters are practising today. The investigator James Randi has revealed a number of American Christian faith healers to be tricksters, yet this does not disconcert their most faithful followers, who seem not to mind being victims of demonstrable frauds34.

    The development of DNA analysis in the late 1990's put an end to holy statues of the Virgin Mary that shed tears acclaimed to be the real tears or sometimes the blood of the Virgin. Up until then, thousands of statues and statuettes had been acclaimed as miraculously shedding tears - and no one could prove otherwise as long as the fraudsters used human tears or human blood. Suddenly it was possible to identify not just the species, but also the gender and even the identity of the original shedder of the tears or blood. From 1995 the Weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia worked miracles in the church of St Agostino in Pantano, a suburb of the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome. The authorities suspected what in Italy they call a "pious fraud" and investigated the matter. A DNA examination of the tears revealed that they came from a man. The statue's owner, Fabio Gregori was asked to provide a sample for comparison. He refused. Everyone except the most devout made the obvious deduction. Dozens of other miraculous statues proved to be hoaxes, and soon only the most ignorant fraudster thought it worthwhile to try a new weeping statue fraud. Then in 2008 a church custodian Vincenzo Di Costanzo went on trial in northern Italy for faking blood on a statue of the Virgin Mary when his own DNA was matched Virgin's blood. Weeping statues are now kept well away from anyone who might carry out DNA tests. At no point has the Church shown any interest in prosecuting fraudsters.

    A few of the many bogus miracle-working Catholic weeping statues, giving an idea of the range of fraudulent techniques, including dabbing on the blood using fingers.


    Many Christians are now in two minds about earthly manifestations of the divine. On the one hand they cite scientific corroboration when it suits. Traditional proofs are, in principle, still popular at places like Lourdes. Pilgrims often talk about rosaries that have miraculously turned to gold, to the bafflement of scientists. When investigated, it turns out that these stories are urban myths*. The crutches and prosthetic limbs allegedly left by pilgrims who have been miraculously cured are presented specifically as proofs, and miracle cures are validated by an official medical committee. On the other hand by accepting that miracles can be confirmed by science, believers invite objective testing. Yet Churches are generally unwilling to let their relics be subjected to scientific examination. Rarely they do permit scientific testing. The owners of those prosthetic limbs can never be traced. Weeping statues never weep when fraud investigators are present.

    The so-called shroud of Turin, one of many of Jesus' purported burial cloths, once seemed to be genuine, and was allowed to be tested but proved to be just another medieval fraud (see page 597). On all other occasions, when science might be expected to reveal fraud, its help is rejected. Stigmata, miracle-working holy relics, prayers to saints, faith healing, glossolalia, and visionary experiences are of interest to paranormal investigators, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and medical scientists but their assistance as independent investigators is invariably rejected. Such ambivalence about scientific testing invites the suspicion that Church authorities are aware that they are harbouring and promoting various types of fraud.

    Since no one doubts that fraud exists, one might expect Christians to be keen to distinguish between genuine miracles and false miracles. Yet believers of all denominations seem to be unwilling to expose frauds, or even to investigate genuine mistakes (such as might result from certain mental conditions). If Churches wanted to distinguish between true and false miracle workers it would be a simple matter to do so. The real ones would be vindicated, while the frauds would be exposed as what they are. A few tests would distinguish between the two categories. Yet no one in any Church seems to want to do this. Suspicions can only be increased by the fact that deliberate fraud has often been officially endorsed. Those Dominicans who counterfeited visionary experiences in Berne, although burned for it, were only following orders and are regarded as martyrs by their fellow Dominicans.



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    § The word stigmata is the Greek plural of stigma.

    § The Holy Innocents were the male babies who, according to the Matthew gospel, were slaughtered in and around Bethlehem after Jesus' birth on the orders of Herod the Great.

    § The Golden Legend was written around 1260 by a Dominican monk, Jacobus de Voragine, who was later made Archbishop of Genoa (1292), and later still was beatified (1816). The saints included in the book were those who had been officially declared worthy of public veneration, and especially those whose feast days were celebrated in the Church's liturgy.

    §. For a deeper consideration of this question see

    § There are still Christians who think that God arranges weather patterns to reward or punish his creatures. An apparently serious letter to The Times in 1985 suggests that the bad weather in the summer of that year had been brought about by God. The Scottish Tourist Board had used an adapted St Andrew's cross in a humorous manner, and the bad weather was identified as God's way of punishing the board for its "blasphemous parody of the crucifixion of the patron saint of Scotland". (Letter from Dr I. M. Brown and Peter Davidson, published in The Times on 3 rd October 1995 ).

    § The belief that animals kneel at midnight at Christmas was still extant among some country Christians into the twentieth century. Thomas Hardy refers to the belief in his poem "The Oxen".

    § Every pilgrim has heard of numerous friends of friends to whom it has happened, but it is never quite possible to track down these rosaries, nor the lucky owners, nor any of the baffled scientists.

    1. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q1, c9.

    2. H. Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, Burns, Oates & Washbourne ( London, 1951).

    3. The Anglican Church retains for example the relics of St Thomas Becket. Anglican affection for his shrine causes annual jeering and scuffles at the annual pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk as Protestants accuse other Protestants of popery. See for example "Protesters Jeer at “Popish” Pilgrims", The Times, 29 th May 1990.

    4. The house was flown from Nazareth to the Dalmatian coast in 1291, but Mary seems to have made a mistake, for it was later necessary to fly on to Loreto.

    5. J. Sumption, Pilgrimage - an Image of Medieval Religion ( London, 1975), p 49.

    6. From Calvin's Treatise on Relics, quoted by J. A. S. Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Critique des Réliques et Images Miraculeuses, 3 vols (Paris 1821-2), 2:160-1

    7. Michael Staunton, The Illustrated History of Christian Ireland, Emerald Press ( Dublin, 2001), p 23.

    8. For all of these examples, other than those that are well-known biblical stories, see The Golden Legend under the appropriate saint.

    8a. Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution. How Early Christians Invented a story of Martydom (HarperOne, 2013). Candida is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity on the theology faculty of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana in the United States.

    8b. Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution. How Early Christians Invented a story of Martydom (HarperOne, 2013) p 88

    8c. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2000/dec/09/weekend7.weekend1

    9. See for example Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, pp 222-4.

    10. "The Pope's “miracle” pleases nuns", The Times, 3 rd May 1984 {Press cutting 41}.

    11. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great PP 145-147 gives a good example of Malcolm Muggeridge inventing a miracle concerning Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and triggering further demonstrably bogus miracles.

    12. Fitting healthy people up with dark glasses, white sticks, crutches and wheelchairs is a common practice of faith healers. For a notable example see James Randi "Be Healed in the Name of God" in Basil et al (eds.), On the Barricades, PP 165-185.

    13. Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p 221.

    14. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 280.

    15. Sir Francis Galton, "Statistical Enquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer", The Fortnightly Review, vol. 12. 1872.

    16. Atheists are generally better educated and more affluent than Christians, and on average belong to higher social groups. All of these factors correlate positively with expected longevity.

    17. The John Templeton Foundation also tried it in 1997. See "Let us Pray, in the interest of science" in The Times, 11 th April 1997.

    18. There is of course no shortage of fraudulent studies, much quoted in Christian circles, that purportedly provide scientific confirmation of the power of intercessionary prayer. Some of these have been published in respectable scientific journals before being exposed as fraudulent. A good example is a study carried out at the Columbia University and published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001. According to this bogus study previously infertile women were twice as likely to conceive if they were prayed for. For the original paper see Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA. Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization-Embryo Transfer: Report of a Masked, Randomized Trial. Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 2001;46:781—787. For more on the exposure of the fraud see http://www.improvingmedicalstatistics.com/Columbia%20Miracle%20Study1.htm

    19. Eusebius tells us of Potamiaena, who having won her own martyrdom, took to appearing in divine visions to others, encouraging them to follow her example. One Basilides engineered his own death by refusing to swear an oath in any circumstances. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6:5.

    20. A. Griffiths, Some Account of Circumstances in the Life of Mary Pennington (1821), p 24, cited by Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 566.

    21. People still wear scapulars, or vestigial scapulars, in the expectation of salvation — and of being released from Purgatory on the Saturday after their deaths (the so-called Sabbatine Privilege). See John Matthias Haffert, Mary in her Scapular Promise (New Jersey, 1940). It used to be universally accepted that the Sabbatine Privilege had been confirmed by a papal bull in 1322, but Church scholars have recently become reticent about it.

    22. The Virgin Mary appeared as a black African and spoke in a local dialect when she appeared at Kibeho in southern Rwanda in 1981.

    23. Some of Mary's principal appearances in the twentieth century have included the following. 1930s: Beauraing and Banneux in Belgium; 1947: Stockport, England; 1954: St Tropez in France; 1960s: Lithuania and Garabandal in Spain {later in 1960s}, then Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt (to Copts); 1980s: Kibeho in southern Rwanda, Kinelo in Uganda, Oliveto Citra in Italy, Ukraine, Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina (part of Yugoslavia at that time), Mbuye in Uganda, and numerous sites in Ireland.

    24. Oliver Sacks, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Pan Books ( London, 1986), PP 158-161.

    25. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 137.

    25a. Professor Gregory Holmes, a neurologist at Dartmouth Medical School, for example was convinced that the blow to Ellen White's head had caused her to develop temporal lobe epilepsy.as reported by the BBC in February 2005

    26. See for example Michael Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, Praeger Publishers (NY, 1987). ).

    27. W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longman, (New York, 1902), p 467.

    28. F. Goodman, Speaking In Tongues: a Cross Cultural Study in Glossolalia, Chicago University Press (1972).

    29. The Venerable Bede for example in his commentary upon Mark 11 assures us that a mountain was miraculously moved by Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Neocaesarea, in the third century.

    30. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q5, citing William of ParisDe universo.

    31. For an example of such a bleeding statue see Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q1, c16.

    32. The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, was held to have been Jacob's pillow. Until 1997 it was housed under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, but it has now been returned to Scotland.

    33. As early as the 1140's the travel writer Ali al-Harawi mentioned that "I lived long enough in Jerusalem at the time of the Franks to know how the trick of the Holy Fire was achieved". In the coming centuries pretty much everyone except devout pilgrims were aware of the fraud and how it was done. In 1238, Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud. Edward Gibbon wrote "This pious fraud, first devised in the ninth century, was devoutly cherished by the Latin crusaders, and is annually repeated by the clergy of the Greek, Armenian, and Coptic sects, who impose on the credulous spectators for their own benefit and that of their tyrants". Bishop Porphyrius (Uspensky) (1804-1885) mentions in his diary that he told that the clergy in Jerusalem knew that the Holy Fire was fraudulent. In 2005 in a live demonstration on Greek television, Michael Kalopoulos, author and historian of religion demonstrated how easy it is to reproduce the miracle using materials known in ancient times. He dipped three candles in white phosphorus. They spontaneously ignited after approximately 20 minutes. If the phosphorus is dissolved in an appropriate organic solvent, ignition can be delayed for half an hour or more. The actual method might have changed over the centuries. The Moslem writer Elviya Çelebi (1611 – 1682) claimed that it was done be a concealed monk dripping a concealed zinc jar of naphtha down a chain.

    34. James Randi is famous for exposing fraudulent methods used by Christian preachers in the USA, but it does not seem to worry the faithful at all. See Basil et al (eds.), On the Barricades, part 5, especially "Peter Popoff Reaches Heaven via 39.17 Megahertz" by James Randi.























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