Prove all things; hold fast that which
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
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)
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.
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
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
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
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
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
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
(made of wax)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Another Saint Uncumber
And another Saint Uncumber
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
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
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
Saint Lifard with a dragon, by Jean
Bourdichon, Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne.1503
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
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.
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. 149295
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.
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
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.
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
Similar examples emerge whenever miracles are investigated even
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.
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.
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
Such demonstrations might have seemed convincing to an ancient
audience, but to the modern mind they look more than a little
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
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.
Prayers are to men as dolls are to children.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Notebooks
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?
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
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 Jesuss 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
centuries Mary used to speak a European language, but in Africa
she has recently taken to speaking in local languages, and even
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
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
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.
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
Margaret of Cortona (1247-97)
Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308)
Angela of Foligno (d. 1309)
Catherine of Siena (1347-80)
Frances of Rome (1384-1440);
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows
Paul Valéry (1871-1945), Mauvaises Pensées
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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