Man is a credulous animal and must
believe something. In the absence of good grounds for
belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.
Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays
Everyone is familiar with the children's game of Chinese
Whispers. A simple phrase is whispered by one child to another,
who then whispers it to another, who then whispers it to another,
and so on. After a few repetitions the phrase is unrecognisable.
This sort of distortion happens whenever a message has to be
transmitted by people who need to remember it. Such mutations
are not always random. It is common for stories to become more
impressive: the angler's lost fish grows bigger; the stooge
becomes more absurd; the faith healer's cures become increasingly
miraculous; the good become better and the bad become worse.
A recurring pattern is the great warrior who becomes more and
more impressive: in repeated retelling of the story he grows
taller, becomes more clever and more cultured, his bearing more
noble, his horse more devoted, his conduct under fire more impressive,
and so on.
In a lifetime we may well hear the same person tell the same
personal story several times. It is rare that the story will
fail to become more astonishing, or the events more humorous,
or the supernatural elements more inexplicable, or some other
aspect noticeably exaggerated. Typically, if surprisingly, the
detail becomes more precise and convincing the more the story
departs from the truth. Sometimes a story will appeal to the
popular imagination. Once this happens it becomes entrenched.
There have always been large numbers of folk tales that have
been widely believed although they have no apparent foundation
An old favourite was the person who discovers a sealed-up room
in some ancient building. Inside is discovered a man or woman
who centuries earlier had been walled up alive in the room,
still sitting at a table with quill in hand. Another such story
concerns the simpleton who put his dog in the oven to keep it
warm and accidentally roasted it. Such stories still flourish
and are now known as Urban Myths. The simpleton who put his
dog in the kitchen oven 500 years ago is now a simpleton who
put his hamster into a microwave oven a few days ago. Such stories
resurface in the press every few years. Quite often these stories
contradict known facts. Sometimes the story can be traced back
along a line of informants and it is discovered that the original
story bears little relationship to the truth. As in other cases,
the popular story is often the exact opposite of the original.
Millions of Christians and Muslims know that the mountain came
to Mohammed, but the original story is that the mountain failed
to come to Mohammed*.
Reputable authorities can get caught up in this sort of distortion.
In the 1920s and 1930s the author A. P. Herbert wrote a series
of humorous short stories in the form of fictitious court cases.
They were never represented as anything but humorous fiction,
yet some were soon being retold and cited as actual cases heard
in British courts. A number were reported as fact by newspapers
around the world, and a serious American legal text cited one
of these cases along with references (adding with pride that
such a judgement could not be given by an American court)*.
It is almost as though people have an in-built desire to improve
stories. Over time they become more impressive, more convincing,
more authoritative, more focused on one or other human emotion,
more detailed, and so on.
If we look to the early Christians we find little reason to
hold them to be less credulous than others. An early bishop
of Rome believed in the phoenix, and described it in detail,
adding the usual sort of supporting detail: " ... in the
full light of day and before the eyes of all beholders, it flies
to the altar of the Sun ..."*.
Another bishop of Rome, Fabian, was elected because of the sort
of omen that traditionally attached to those favoured by the
gods. Something of an obscurity as a candidate, he was made
a bishop because a dove landed on his head*.
Other Church Fathers believed in, and vouched personally for,
a range of absurdities and impossibilities. Tricksters had little
difficulty in deceiving Christians and living comfortably on
their deceits, so that Christian leaders had to warn their followers
about them*. Lucian of
Samosata, who lived in the second century AD, poked fun at people's
credulity, especially that of Christians. He reported a case
of a man named Proteus (or Peregrinus),
who had previously imposed himself on Christians in Palestine
"and in no time made them all look like children. He was
prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue everything.
He interpreted their holy books and composed some himself. They
revered him as a god, treated him as a lawgiver, and made him
their leader next after the man who introduced their
cult to the world, and who was crucified in Palestine, whom
they still worship". Lucian set up a story of Proteus's
death and resurrection at the Olympic Games in AD 165, complete
with details such as an earthquake and Proteus's spirit rising
to Heaven in the form of a bird. A little later Lucian met a
man who claimed to have seen the bird rising to Heaven and to
have met the transfigured Proteus*.
Demons intercede between Apollo, Juno,
Mercury, Venus, Mars and other agan Gods in the sky and
humans on earth
Detail from St.Augustine, La Citede Dieu, Paris. Alchemy
scroll Macon BM c.1480
(Note that the gods wear contemporary clothing, and that
Apollo still has his halo)
Christians heard pagan statues talk and accepted that these
statues could indeed speak without human aid. The voices were
those of the ancient gods demons imposing themselves
on credulous pagans. Other Christians witnessed exorcisms at
which the possessing spirits admitted to being pagan gods. Yet
others heard Christian oracles speak. Christian credulity continued
to make the fortunes of the cynical for century after century.
We have already noted for example the mass production of false
relics during the Middle Ages. Visionaries continued to convince,
even after being discredited. In 1098 Peter Bartholomew, an
illiterate visionary, discovered the Holy Lance buried in the
ground after seeing visions of St Andrew. St Andrew told him
much liturgical detail about the service of thanksgiving that
was expected so much detail that a bishop became suspicious
about Peter's illiteracy and made enquiries. It was discovered
that Peter had lied about his illiteracy. He could read after
all. When tackled on this point he admitted that indeed he had
previously been able to read. But no longer, for as he now said,
he had mysteriously been struck illiterate. Reassured that he
was illiterate as claimed, his colleagues continued to believe
At no point in history have Christians distinguished themselves
by their ability to differentiate between fact and fiction.
In 1665 Reginald Scot published his Discoverie of Witchcraft.
The book was designed to expose popular misconceptions, to show
the folly of belief in witchcraft, and thus to put a stop to
the persecution of witches. For this reason James I ordered
all copies destroyed. The king need not have feared, for when
the book was republished in 1665 credulous Christians missed
the point and adopted it almost as a textbook on witchcraft.
Instead of discrediting belief, it bolstered it*.
Many people will see what they want to see and hear what they
want to hear. If the evidence does not fit their desires it
can be filtered out, or it can be distorted so that it does
fit their desires. An example of the way that distorted facts
can be built up to buttress religious claims is provided by
the Turin Shroud, a holy relic that churchmen
thought might really have dated from biblical times. This shroud
is a piece of cloth that was claimed to be the burial cloth
of Jesus, with his image miraculously imprinted on it. All manner
of claims have been made for it. For example, it was claimed
that in some unique way it held information coded onto its surface,
that its history can be traced back to the Resurrection, that
pollen samples show it to have originated in the Holy Land in
the first century AD, that it bears all the hallmarks of a genuine
relic and could have been produced
by no known human means, that scientists have tried but failed
to discredit its miraculous provenance, and so on. All this
has been frequently repeated in the press and represented as
hard fact. A few real facts rather upset the story*.
The first claim was that it mysteriously held three dimensional
information coded onto its two dimensional surface. This was
presented as evidence of its genuineness since it was claimed
to be impossible to do anything like this by any known scientific
methods. It seems to have escaped the attention of its supporters
that this is exactly what a contour map does. That the surface
embodied three-dimensional information in some unique and unprecedented
way was exposed by showing that other ordinary pictures, even
photographs, have the same properties. Another uncomfortable
fact was that the shroud does not possess a complete history
dating back to biblical times. When it first appeared at Lirey
in 1356 it was one of many such examples of its type. Such shrouds,
cloths and veronicas were being produced at the time to meet
the popular demand for such relics. The Bishop of Troyes carried
out an investigation. Not only was there no evidence of its
antiquity, but the bishop discovered it to be a fake. He even
found the individual who had manufactured it and discovered
how it had been done*.
The story about the pollen was simply not true. It was a distortion
of what botanists had really said about it which was
that at some stage the cloth had picked up pollen from a saline
desert. There were other contemporary good reasons for suspecting
the cloth to be the work of a forger. For example the hands
were placed so as to conceal the genitals, a pose not otherwise
known, but convenient for prudes and anti-Semites. Also the
rivulets of blood from the crown of thorns were suspicious.
They resemble the dramatic dribbles so popular in Christian
art. In reality scalp wounds tend to congeal and matt.
There was plenty of evidence for the shroud being a human artefact.
The blood stains turned out not to be blood stains at all, but
pigment. Pigments were also found at other parts of the cloth.
Iron oxide, an ancient pigment, has been identified in areas
marked with an image, and so has animal tempera, a common paint
medium. Far from being impossible to duplicate, the shroud has
been replicated several times in the twentieth century using
medieval materials. The final refutation came when three scientific
authorities carried out carbon dating tests in 1988 and independently
declared the material to date from the fourteenth century. As
Professor Edward Hall of Oxford University put it "someone
just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it".
It must be said that the medieval faker was a good one, and
that the negative image on the cloth is striking. But this hardly
amounts to much. The whole story of a genuine relic is fantasy.
It has been completely and repeatedly discredited. Nevertheless,
there are still many Christians who still believe that the Turin
Shroud really is the burial cloth of Jesus. Both the Pope and
the Archbishop of Turin attributed its surviving a fire in 1997
to a divine miracle*.
Some believers have even proposed that scientists are colluding
to fabricate their results.
Another curiosity is that so many other religions make such
similar claims to Christianity. Take for example a few of the
other main faiths in the world: Islam, Hinduism and the less
sophisticated forms of Buddhism. Key personalities in these
religions invariably left unlikely miraculous relics: a hair
from the prophet's beard, a flute played by Shiva, a tooth
from the Buddha's jaw. These religions all recognise saints
and other holy men whose relics can heal and work other wonders.
They each have their hierarchies of demigods and demons. All
practise exorcisms. They each have their martyrs, and visionaries
to whom God confirms the tenets of their faith. All of them
have holy shrines where prayers are answered and miracles are
worked. These shrines even look the same. The afflicted, the
sad and lonely and the bereaved in Italy, Iran, India and Thailand
all write little prayers and attach them to the gates of holy
shrines, along with ribbons, flowers and other little offerings.
Are they all religious or are some of them superstitious? How
can anyone tell where credulity stops?
Why is it, from a Christian's point of view, that non-Christians
persist in this unproductive behaviour when Christianity is
the one true faith appointed by God? In the late twentieth century
the Muslim faith was proved true on several occasions by the
discovery of miraculous aubergines that when cut in half revealed
the name of God in Arabic. Hindus were vindicated in September
1995 when a selection of Hindu idols around the world started
drinking milk. Many Roman Catholics regularly have their faith
proved by weeping statues of the Madonna and bleeding statues
of Jesus. Unless one believes in all of these miracles, one
must conclude that at least some of them are false, in which
case millions of people believe things that are false. And since
there is no objective reason to believe one set of miracles
rather than another, there is no good reason to believe any
We generally find it easy to spot credulity in others but not
in ourselves. An example is provided by a well known anthropologist
who was describing the beliefs of the Fang people of equatorial
Africa to dons at a Cambridge college high table. One of these
Fang beliefs was in the ability of witches to fly at night and
destroy crops. A prominent Catholic theologian commented that
he wondered how anyone could hold nonsensical beliefs like this.
Evidently, he was not much of a historian, or he would have
known that his own Church taught exactly such ideas for centuries.
More to the point, he seems to have no inkling of the irony.
As the anthropologist knew, the Fang people wondered how anyone
could hold unlikely beliefs like the central Christian doctrine
that all misfortunes in the world are attributable to a man
and a woman eating fruit in the far distant past.
If we look at various cults it is clear enough that there is
a large reservoir of credulity to be tapped in all societies.
Many successful cults are set up by ex-salesmen who have little
difficulty in attracting both converts and funds. Two notable
cults established by salesmen in recent years are the Emin (now
known as the Template Network) and the Church of Scientology.
Hundreds of other cults have flourished on a diet of stories
about the imminent end of the world. Typically their millions
of members are sufficiently credulous that their faith actually
increases rather than decreases when the world fails to end
on the appointed day. About 40% of American students “hear
voices”. About 50% of Americans believe in astrology.
We are simply not the rational species we might like to be.
the USA the most blatant fraudsters attract millions of followers.
Men whose insincerity shines like a beacon, whose speech abounds
with the most crass and obvious falsehoods, who are convicted
crooks and deviants, and who lead lives of sybaritic parasitism:
all are guaranteed the adulation of vast and willing congregations.
Huge numbers of people believe what to most others is arrant
nonsense: that magical charms can avert bad fortune, that the
government is controlled by space aliens, that God sends America
bad weather to dissuade the President from sending astronauts
to the Moon, that the Pope is the antichrist, that television
soap-opera characters are real people, that weather forecasters
control rather than predict the weather, that the evil eye is
a reality, and so on. At the time of writing, there are more
than ten times as many professional astrologers as professional
astronomers in the USA. A third of the population believe that
popular astrology is "scientific". The fact that hundreds
of millions of people take the trouble to read newspaper horoscopes,
coupled with the standard of such horoscopes, suggests a level
of credulity that is difficult for the rational mind to credit.
The simple truth is that people as a whole are credulous, and
Christians have not historically distinguished themselves from
others in the level of their credulity.