Why I’m such a cynic

Theology / Biblical Studies

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The other day I blogged to remind people that in spite of the fact that I’m more than a little sceptical, jaded and cynical about people who claim that they know of a miracle that has occurred, I believe that they can and do happen. The case of Duane Miller is powerful testimony to that. But I saw this today, just another reminder of why I am so cynical about such claims in general:

This man is part of the reason that so many people write Christians off as gullible simpletons who will believe anything if it furthers their cause. This is why Christians need to be sceptical, because what you see in this video clip is alarmingly common.

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{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Rob R April 18, 2010, 10:41 am

    So we have some claims that weren’t established by the standards of the world.

    I don’t find it unreasonable to be skeptical, but to assume that the guy is lying just because the substantiation was so limited, well, I don’t find this a thorough skepticism. It’s not a Christian skepticism where we know our God has power to raise people from the dead.

    Do we know that this guy is a charlatan for reasons other than his onstage confirmation came over a cell phone? I don’t.

    Fraud happens, it happens within the church, but why is it any less skeptical to demand it’s evidence in a case like this? Course one idea is that such events are very unlikely and fraud is more likely, and yet, I think William Lane Craig made a good point that the problem with judgments of likelihood here are in fact veiled theological claims done without doing thelogy (this wasn’t about miracles in general but about the resurection in his debate with Ehrman). In this case though, assumptions are made about the people involved as well.

    Perhaps there could have been better substantiation. I wonder why the guy sent a text and didn’t call in person. Course, it’s not as if that couldn’t have been faked. On reflection, it’s probably just cheaper for the guy, he seems to be a native Kenyan (cousin is there), and he’d communicate in the way that he’s accustomed to, the cheap way.

    I wouldn’t expect all Christians to believe an example like this and I wouldn’t use this in a setting to argue for the rationality of the belief in miracles because we have people who attest to them today, (the examples from Moreland and Miller are excellent for that), but as an example of fraud, I think it’s unfounded.

  • Deane April 18, 2010, 11:51 am

    I wondered what you found convincing, then, about Moreland’s story. As someone who found it to be as unconvincing as the guy in this vid, maybe you could talk me through how it convinced you that it was a true miracle.

  • James Rea April 18, 2010, 11:52 am

    My scepticism in this case comes not from the fact that the frontman uses a totally unverifiable story and declares it to be fact, but that this whole episode (Lakeland ‘outpouring’) was mired in the guy’s irresponsible, and often New Age, behaviour. His motives in being very non-sceptical and uncynical towards stories of the dead being raised were, I believe, selfish in order to validate the appearance of revival in his meetings.

    Declaring a miracle to have taken place requires empirical evidence, but the Christian can still believe it to be true before that evidence is produced. As believers we are called to test every spirit (1 John 4:1), discern the good from the bad (Phil 1:9-10) and weigh what is claimed to be spiritual (1 Cor 14:29). This is healthy and in our best interests, without losing faith.

    The balance is to rely on the Holy Spirit’s wisdom without becoming jaded, cynical or sceptical by devilish counterfeit miracles, or man’s over-excited impersonations (as the video portrays so clearly).

  • Glenn April 18, 2010, 2:33 pm

    James, I never said the guy was lying.

  • James Rea April 18, 2010, 4:03 pm

    I know you didn’t Glenn, so what exactly gives you reason for scepticism in this clip? If he honestly believed a miracle had happened and you weren’t sceptical, you surely would have been encouraged, not jaded by the testimony. As it stands, you appear to doubt either the story of a resurrection that remains unsubstantiated, or Bentley’s methods of insisting to the crowd and TV viewers ‘look everyone, isn’t God doing amazing thing among us’. I’m not sure what the root of your scepticism is in this case.

  • Glenn April 18, 2010, 4:45 pm

    James, the root of my scepticism is that there’s actually no basis for Bentley to say that a miracle has taken place other than that someone has said that a miracle has taken place. That’s it – that’s the entire evidential basis. Examples like this encourage the world to reject Christianity, rather than to accept it because of the amazing acts of God.

    If you got a text message from Kenya that said “a resurrection has just occurred. I didn’t see it, nor am I sure that anyone was even dead, but trust me, a resurrection has occurred,” what would your response be?

  • Glenn April 18, 2010, 4:46 pm

    And my bad, I should have said “Rob, I never said the guy was lying,” not James.

  • James Rea April 18, 2010, 9:45 pm

    My response would be to believe the texter if I knew him well and trusted his discernemnt. The connection here was the English bloke and a contact in Kenya; for Bentley to start bellowing that this was number 15 resurrection and appropriating it to bolster his own revival show was nothing short of fraudulent. Sadly, it is this sort of bahaviour which casts Christianity of all hues in such a bad light.

    That said, I have no reason to doubt the honesty of the Kenyan report. It was the manner in which it was used that was appalling.

  • Glenn April 18, 2010, 10:21 pm

    Well again, the issue is not anyone’s honesty, it’s a question thoroughness, which is completely absent in this report.

  • Rob R April 19, 2010, 2:38 am

    Examples like this encourage the world to reject Christianity, rather than to accept it because of the amazing acts of God.

    Well why shouldn’t this be an object criticism? Whether this guy is a fraud or just gullible, that says nothing about the truth of Christianity and it is a greater if not equal irrationality to for people to judge it on the basis of his alleged credulity (I suppose an argument though, and this definitely would not appeal to unbelievers, but I just don’t think that should always be our first concern, is that he was lead by the Holy Spirit to affirm these things). If people conclude that all of Christianity is equally substantiated to this just on the basis of this, we ought to be highlighting their illogical thought process of going from the specific to the general on too little evidence.

  • Glenn April 19, 2010, 1:15 pm

    Rob R, it’s true that the existence of dubious miracle claims is not evidence against Christianity. What I said is that it will encourage people to reject Christianity – and yes, for bad reasons. However, I don’t want to encourage people to do that.

  • James Rea April 20, 2010, 12:20 am

    Re 9, Glenn. Are you honestly suggesting that only a thorough investigation and analysis of an alleged miracle is sufficient to persuade non-Christians that Christians aren’t a rabble of straw-clutching halfwits (well, you said gullible simpletons actually). The very essence of Christianity is faith, defined as hope in something that is not tangible. Non-Christians – get over it.

    The truth is that most believers will choose to respond with faith that a reported miracle is just that, UNLESS they get a check in their heart (from the Holy Spirit) that all is not right (see your clip and get that check!) Let’s face it, we’re (Christians) all gullible simpletons for taking the biggest miracle of all at face value – that Jesus died for our sins so we could live forever. The only way you’ll get the full enchilada on that one Glenn is when it’s too late (or you could arrange a near-death experience such that your temporarily disembodied soul floats off towards the light and you get 28 minutes in heaven before the ambos do their stuff and then you get to go on the lecture circuit 😉 )

  • Rob R April 20, 2010, 6:17 am

    GAHHH!, I just typed something and this websight blinked and it evaporated.

    I’m not typing it all out again, here’s the abbreviated version: I agree with James Rhea’s point, but not completely his example compared to the video above. Christian Scholars have argued that is is a rationally responsible and investigatable claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but in scripture has other examples of miracles that we can’t investigate.

    Of course, from the eyes of Christian faith (not mere belief without reason) we have reason to believe accept these miracles because they are part of the scriptures which we trust for other reasons.

    But for that matter, so many converts believe on the gospel not because they have considered and analyzed historical and other evidences but because they felt the holy spirit move and the message rang true.

    I agree that we ought to test these claims, but I see no reason to be scandalized by claims that we can’t test. I think it’s completely possible that the speaker was lead by the Holy Spirit in his affirmation and celebration of these alleged resurrections, but that’s not something I can investigate hence I don’t think its wise to be scandalized by this example a priori. I don’t know the speaker, I don’t know the man with the contact, I don’t know his contact or the integrity of his qualifications but I just don’t see the wisdom in being upset about my finitude in my understanding of the situation. I say you can doubt it, you can believe it, you can withhold judgment, but I would insist that none of these ought to be held rigidly with judgment against these people without further information to make those judgments.

  • Damian April 20, 2010, 8:56 am

    James,

    The truth is that most believers will choose to respond with faith that a reported miracle is just that, UNLESS they get a check in their heart (from the Holy Spirit) that all is not right (see your clip and get that check!) Let’s face it, we’re (Christians) all gullible simpletons for taking the biggest miracle of all at face value – that Jesus died for our sins so we could live forever.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Except that I don’t think there really is such an entity as the Holy Spirit and I reckon that the term is often used as a placeholder for ‘gut instinct’.

    Skeptical thinking is of very little use if your premise is built on faith and you are attempting to apply the tools of skepticism within that predefined faith-based framework.

  • Rob R April 20, 2010, 9:50 am

    Skeptical thinking is of very little use if your premise is built on faith and you are attempting to apply the tools of skepticism within that predefined faith-based framework.

    That’s because you have an overly simplistic view of faith and reason that mistakenly puts one against the other and suggests it is all or nothing, either we have reason to believe what we believe and have no faith or we believe for no reasons at all. Fact is, virtually all knowledge requires some degree of faith and much faith is supported by reason though reason doesn’t take that belief all the way to absolute risk free certainty.

    We have checks for what we believe and scripture is a part of that, granted much else of what even skeptics believe also plays a role in our own reasonable skepticism.

  • James Rea April 20, 2010, 10:01 am

    Rob, absolutely, but my example was more to do with the fact that we can believe we will be saved (resurrected), but will never know until that moment. I agree there is historical evidence for Jesus’s death and resurrection, but not our own. I have to remain a ‘gullible simpleton’ all my life on that one. I am actually pleased to be both when it comes to believing in my salvation.

    Damian, all Christians should affirm their interaction with the Holy Spirit, but I concur that his guidance feels like gut reaction very often. Why, in your last line, can I not be sceptical (doubtful rather than the philosophical principle of Skeptics) if I believe things by faith.

    If you are an evolutionist, you have faith that many related scientific claims are true while still theory and before fact. I disagree that scepticism and faith are mutually exclusive.

  • Damian April 20, 2010, 10:10 am

    Not at all Rob. I have a fairly nuanced view of what goes in to make a belief. And I understand that there are many forms of ‘faith’ and many forms of ‘evidence’. My point is that if you have defined a framework of belief that didn’t use the tools provided by skepticism in the first place, you’ll find skepticism relatively ineffective when used within that framework because you’ll end up defaulting to a non-skepticial conclusion in the absence of evidence to the contrary. As was aptly demonstrated by Glenn with his endorsement and subsequent taking-back in the example of the guy with the lump and the change of shirts. If it weren’t for something as simple as a shirt change how would he have ever discerned otherwise? The Holy Spirit? How did that work out for him?

    Skepticism asks that you settle for “I don’t know” in the absence of evidence as opposed to filling it with an explanation which, in itself, is devoid of an reasonable explanation.

    I understand that sometimes we have to take leaps of faith in order to further work out or test ideas but I maintain that if you have chosen an explanation that is based on no known natural laws then you owe it to yourself to question that founding belief day and night if you are genuinely interested in the truth. As opposed to building an entire apologetics around it which seems all to common these days.

  • Glenn April 20, 2010, 12:11 pm

    Damian – the example of the shirt change and my change of mind is an example of generally believing that people don’t set out to lie. Believing that the people who made the video are persuaded that a miracle occurred, I would have assumed that if the shirt hadn’t changed, the events depicted would have ocurred on the same day, because I’m comparing that case with other cases where people are clearly not setting out to deceive.

    The change of shirt has changed my assessment of how honest the makers of the videos are. I don’t think that is grounds for a more general mistrust of people’s integrity, however. If that shirt change shows what I think it might, then it actually shows that someone was being highly deceptive. I do not think it’s fair for this to spill over into the other examples, nor does it make it wrong for me to approach the first clip assuming that they’re trying not to deceive.

  • Damian April 20, 2010, 12:34 pm

    Glenn, I understand how you came to the conclusions you did. But it nicely illustrates how ineffective token skepticism can be when placed in a non-skeptical framework.

    As an aside, I’ve come to realise over the years that almost all people are genuine in their beliefs. But that many, many people are self-deceived (I have seen it in myself) with all the best of intentions. This is usually down to not being quite as rigorous as we should be when examining truth claims and especially down to refusing to re-examine them when later challenged which ups the ante and makes it even harder to critically examine our beliefs and so on and so on. Thus, people often *are* genuine when making various claims but this apparent genuineness is not a reliable indicator of truth. We seem hard wired to accept the claims of people who we detect to be genuine but once we’ve seen self-deception in ourselves we learn that we have to be a little more critical of people who are ‘genuine’ in their claims.

  • Glenn April 20, 2010, 6:46 pm

    Damian, it’s simply shortsighted to call this “token skepticism” in a “non-skeptical framework.” Suppose you believed that miracles were possible. Suppose you were skeptical of the dogmatic view that no supernatural events are even possible, and you thought that if reasons to believe in such events arose, then you should consider that such an event happened. This isn’t a non-skeptical framework.

    Imagine for a moment adopting that stance.

    Then look again at the video clip. Now, with this new perspective, you won’t see me as having token skepticism in a non-skeptical framework. You’ll see me as simply taking the same skepticism towards miracles as things in general: I won’t believe it without reason, but I certainly don’t require that people demonstrate the impossible.

  • Damian April 20, 2010, 8:49 pm

    Tell me Glenn, at what age did you first form a belief in God? What evidence convinced you that there really is a God and that he will sometimes intervene in the workings of the world by way of miracles?

    If you are anything like me you believed because because you were taught it at a young age or you, at some point, made a leap of faith where you probably ought to have suspended judgement and awaited more evidence. If so, this means that you’ve established a non-skeptical framework in which to operate. Skepticism will fail in a framework like this for the reasons I outlined in previous comments.

    I used to believe in miracles and even claimed to have witnessed miracles. But on applying the skeptical method to the miracle claims of other religions (religions I *knew* not to be true) it dawned on me that if I’d been born into that particular religion I’d be applying exactly the same criteria to Christian claims of miracles. That’s when I realised that I wasn’t being honest in my search for truth. I had to hold my own dear beliefs to the same standard as I held the beliefs of others I already had little reason to mistrust.

    So, yes, I can understand how you think you are being dutifully skeptical and how you might perceive me as having a “dogmatic view that no supernatural events are even possible”. But please realise that I *don’t* have this view. I come from a position of having believed and then having tested and found that many of my beliefs were ill-founded.

    Perhaps it is true that miracles happen! I really don’t know. All I know is that either I can find very reasonable natural explanations for just about every miracle claim I investigate and for those that I can’t (regardless of the religion) I suspend judgement as skepticism demands.

    I’ll stress again that if, instead of suspending judgement, you have chosen an explanation that is based on no known natural laws then you owe it to yourself to question your founding belief ceaselessly if you are genuinely interested in the truth. And I don’t see a lot of self-questioning going on amongst Christians. Which should ring at least some alarm bells.

  • ropata April 20, 2010, 10:39 pm

    There are some strong arguments against Christianity floating around, “Toad” Bentley is one of them. It’s not meant to be a circus freak show, the Gospel is a simple message of love, redemption, and peace. I keep coming back to the life of Christ and don’t get too excited by the eccentricities of mass-marketed hyper-faith. The New Testament itself is a good antidote to false teachers, who have always been parasitic on the truth.

    Some scepticism is healthy, but atheist denials of Christian truth often amount to little more than dogmatic hyper-scepticism.

  • Nathan April 20, 2010, 11:13 pm

    Glenn, re the changing shirt, I’m not convinced the miracle is real at all. However, I’m prepared to believe that the people passing it off as a miracle genuinely believed it to be a miracle and are not intentionally being deceptive. It is them that is deceived as well as all those that swallow their story. If they’re like most Penetecostals (at least in my experience of it) as long as healing is prayed for in Jesus’ name then any answer to that prayer is a miracle, even if that healing comes through ‘natural’ means, be it medical intervention or normal bodily recovery. Sadly there’s a lot of fear in the Pentecostal movement – fear that perhaps you aren’t a real Christian if you don’t have a spectacular testimony.

    I guess what that means is that there’s a lot of work to do because there’s a heck of a lot of people who genuinely believe the events of Pentecost are normative for Christian life today.

  • Glenn April 20, 2010, 11:32 pm

    Damian – I think you reveal enough here when you say that you believe that there already exist good natural explanations for most miracles, but for the others you suspend judgement as “skepticism demands.”

    So just to be crystal clear – are you saying that if the only explanation on offer is a supernatural one, then true skepticism must suspend judgement until a natural explanation comes along? So in other words, just being a supernatural hypothesis is enough to make you suspend judgement – i.e. to reject that explanation and wait for another?

    I realise there’s a natural resistance to having one’s stance described as dogmatic, but I have to say, this sounds like it.

  • ropata April 20, 2010, 11:39 pm

    I have personal experience of (at least) 3 miracles…
    1) My own experience of God’s love, effecting a dramatic transformation in my thoughts, emotions, relationships, and perceptions
    2) A gift of faith or knowledge that a close relative would be OK through a very risky operation, despite being given only 10% chance of survival
    3) A dramatic healing of my friend’s eye (probably would have been amputated the next day, it was that bad), I personally saw it as did several others.

    Also I sometimes have prophetic type insights or revelations when praying for people — feelings, songs, or pictures

    Still I have lots of doubts but can’t deny that God is around doing stuff. Especially because of item (1) in my list.

  • Damian April 21, 2010, 7:39 am

    Glenn, in answer to your question, I would have to accept a supernatural explanation if the event was entirely obviously unnatural and I was sure there was no trickery or self-deception involved. A scenario might be a person who has an amputated leg which grows back before my eyes but with a *lot* of checks and balances in place. If, after witnessing this, I came to the conclusion that there really could be no natural explanation I would accept it but would spend the rest of my life testing and retesting this belief.

    So, I hope that shows that I’m not dogmatically against the possibility of the supernatural. Just that I have very high requirements for evidence in cases that fly in the face of everything that I understand about how the universe operates (as one should when acting skeptically). Anecdotal evidence and videos on YouTube really wouldn’t cut it for me. I can think of far, far too many ways those claims could have natural explanations.

    Now, in my last comment I asked you a couple of questions. Would you mind answering them, just out of interest?

  • Damian April 21, 2010, 8:46 am

    Glenn, my question is entirely relevant because we were talking about the value of skepticism from within a non-skeptical framework. I.e. a framework who’s core propositions have been arrived at without good use of the tools skepticism has to offer (suspending judgement, etc). The way you bristle at the question is telling.

  • Glenn April 21, 2010, 8:36 am

    Damian, to be honest I’m actually really reluctant to satisfy what I take to be – in the current discussion – ad hominem questions. Not that they are insulting (that’s not the only kind of ad hom), but it’s logically irrelevant what circumstances led to my acceptance of theism and my (separate) acceptance of miracle reports. I could have come to believe in God in an acid trip, and yet the case of Duane Miller might still be good evidence that miracles can occur.

    Most people I know who don’t believe in miracles were raised as unbelievers. I wasn’t. I was raised as a Catholic (I am no longer Catholic). Since believing that miracles occur in the world around me is a belief that Christian faith can very easily do without, it’s not something I gave serious thought to one way or the other until adulthood. For most reports I heard I either had no idea how reliable the reports were, or else the evidence was simply lacking and I didn’t believe them, but I had no reason to think that such things couldn’t happen. I was open minded about it. It was occasionaly reports like those of Duane Miller, or the account offered by Moreland, that persuaded me that there are very reliable examples out there.

    Speaking of the case of Duane Miller, I do wonder what you make of it. I assume that in the case of J P Moreland, you’re likely to think that there were things like false memories going on (because accounts like this just have to be false).

  • Damian April 21, 2010, 9:53 am

    Nathan, just on the off-chance, are you the same Nathan I met a couple of months ago at The Horse And Trap in Auckland?

  • Amy April 21, 2010, 1:17 pm

    “Come and get some”…him saying that at the end bothers me just as much as the claim that someone was raised from the dead. Why would I have to go to a certain place to “get some” of what God is offering…what ever “some” is. It seems a little like hearing a presentation for a time-share to get a free vacation or something.

  • Glenn April 21, 2010, 9:29 pm

    Damian, there is clearly a charitable way to interpret my “bristling” at the question. I already explained it. To call it “telling” for a whole other reason may well be a case of your bias confirmation tendency showing – a tendency that I freely admit that we all have. The fact is that whether or not one is a healthy kind of skeptic is not contingent on whether one was raised in a context where people had religious beliefs – any more than whether or not one is an outright dogmatist who always and only suspends judgement when the only expalantion available is a supernatural one is contingent on having been raised by unbelievers. To suggest either would be to slip into argument ad-hominem, which, while often rhetorically satisfying, is just unhelpful.

    Depending on where one stands he will regard many things as “telling.” I regard your comment about when and why you suspend judgement to be “telling” as well, but no matter is settled by what a person finds telling because it is so subjective.

  • Nathan April 22, 2010, 3:23 am

    Damian, No 🙂

  • Damian April 22, 2010, 7:43 am

    Nathan, ah well, it was worth a try. It was a Nathan who I had a very interesting conversation with about — among other things — Pentecostals and I thought that maybe, just maybe with your mention of them… etc. Nice to meet you anyway.

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