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Examining Miracle Claims

Joe Nickell

["Examining Miracle Claims" was originally published in the March 1996 issue of Deolog.]

Today's widespread scientific illiteracy, even an outright attitude of anti-science, is concurrent with the spread of magical thinking even in our own relatively enlightened culture. With the rise of the "New Age" movement has come a resurgence of such nonsense as astrology, crystal healing, the "channeling" of departed spirits, and alleged abductions by creatures in flying saucers. Similarly, there has been a revival of religious fundamentalism, including miracle claims. These range from magical images and "miraculous" relics to various "divine" experiences and claims of healing by faith alone. Here is a brief look at some of the miracle claims paranormal investigators encounter.

Magical Images

While New Agers have their "Face on Mars" (a simple formation that is touted as evidence of an ancient civilization on the planet), the new religionists, especially Catholics, have their image of Jesus discovered in the skillet burns of a tortilla in 1978 (as still preserved in the New Mexico home of Mrs. Mario Rubio, as I learned from her daughter, when we appeared together on "Oprah"). This was followed by similar "miraculous" images that appeared in such unlikely locations as the foliage of a vine-covered tree (West Virginia, 1982), rust stains on a 40-foot-high soybean oil tank (Ohio, 1986), and a forkful of spaghetti illustrated on a billboard (Georgia, 1991). As well, portraits of the Virgin Mary were seen in such diverse places as the stains on the bathroom floor of a Texas auto parts store (1990), and the grime on a window in an Italian village (1987). These appeared not to be anything more than the result of what one priest termed "a pious imagination."

"Miracle" images have frequently had an assist from the hand of man, not always a pious hand to be sure. Consider the mysterious faces that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared with changes of expression on the floor of a peasant woman's house in the town of Belmez de la Moraleda in Spain. By Easter 1972, hundreds of pilgrims had come to see the phantom portraits. Before long, however, local newspapers charged that the peasant woman was perpetrating a hoax for personal gain, and the secular and ecclesiastical authorities soon banned tourist trade at the site.

Similarly notorious effigies are the "weeping," "bleeding," and otherwise animated icons that surface from time to time and raise troubling questions even for religious believers. For in shifting from the view that a statue is only a representation to the belief that it is truly animated is to seemingly cross a line from veneration to idolatry. Invariably, however, these are either investigated and found to be pious frauds or they are withheld from scrutiny. An example of the former was the statue of Our Lady of Fatima at a Catholic church in Thornton, California, in 1981. The sculpted virgin not only changed the angle of her eyes and tilt of her chin, reported churchgoers, but also wept, and even moved about the church at night. A bishop's investigation, however, found that the movement of eyes and chin were apparently only variations in photographic images, while the weeping and perambulations were branded a probable hoax. Conversely, in the case of a weeping icon in a Greek Orthodox church in Chicago in 1986, the bishop refused permission for tests, thus leaving the inference, to skeptics at least, that there was something to hide.

As the Thornton case indicated, allegedly miraculous photographs are quite common. A few of these, in my experience, are blatant hoaxes, while most are photographic "glitches" of one sort or another. As "Investigative Files" columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, I received last year some "miracle" photos from the popular TV series "Unsolved Mysteries." My subsequent investigation showed that one was a "Golden Door" photo common to Marian apparition sites and thought by pilgrims to be proof of the doorway to heaven mentioned in Revelation 4:1; another, that showed (at least to Marian zealots) "angel wings" was caused by light leakage into the film pack; and so on.

No doubt the most famous image that is touted as a miracle is that of an apparently crucified man appearing on the Shroud of Turin. Many believe this is the actual burial cloth of Jesus, and claim that the image cannot be explained by modern science.

In fact, the shroud has no history prior to the mid-fourteenth century, at which time (according to a later bishop's report) the forger who made it was discovered and he confessed to having "cunningly painted" the image. Obvious problems with the image include hair that hangs as for a standing rather than recumbent figure, "blood" flows that are unrealistically "picture-like" and suspiciously still red (unlike real blood that blackens over time), and the unnatural elongation of the figure (resembling those in gothic art). "Blind" microscopic analyses show significant traces of paint pigment on image areas, thus proving the pigment red ocher was a component of the image. The "blood" was actually tempera paint. In 1988 samples of the cloth were independently carbon-dated at three laboratories around the world. Using accelerator mass spectrometry, the labs obtained dates in close agreement: The cloth dated from about 1260-1390, and that time span was given enhanced credibility by correct dates obtained from samples of ancient cloths of known date.

As to the "impossible" image on the shroud likened to a photographic negative because its darks and lights are reversed skeptics have countered that the reversal is only partial and that similar quasi-negative images are automatically produced by an artistic rubbing technique. (Somewhat analogous to a gravestone rubbing, the cloth is first wet-molded to a bas-relief and, when it is dry, pigment is rubbed on with a dauber so as to darken the prominences and leave the recesses white. I proposed this solution in 1978.)

Miraculous Relics

If it were not a fake, the shroud of Turin might be called a relic an object associated with a saint or martyr. So prevalent had relic veneration become in St. Augustine's time (about 400 AD) that he deplored "hypocrites in the garb of monks" for hawking the bones of martyrs, adding with due skepticism, "if indeed of martyrs." His contemporary, Vigilantius of Talouse, condemned the veneration of relics as being nothing more than a form of idolatry, but St. Jerome defended the practice on the basis that God works miracles through them.

Among the "miraculous" relics of Catholicism is the much publicized "blood" of San Gennaro St. Januarius in Naples. Januarius was supposedly martyred during the persecution of Christians by Diocletian, although the church has never been able to verify his existence as an actual historical person. In any case, since the fourteenth century what is represented as the martyred saint's congealed blood periodically liquefies and reddens, in apparent contravention of nature's laws.

While outside researchers have never been permitted to conduct definitive tests on the material in the sealed vial, two modern investigative teams have nevertheless proposed solutions to the mystery. One, by three Italian chemists, involves a thixatropic gel (made by mixing chalk and hydrated iron chloride with a small amount of salt water) which liquefies when agitated and re-solidifies when allowed to stand. The other, proposed by forensic analyst John F. Fischer and me, uses an oil-wax-pigment mixture that liquefies at even a slight increase in temperature. The apparent reddening may merely be due to light being more readily transmitted through the liquefied substance. Although the actual formula may never be uncovered, it is important to note that the "blood" has occasionally liquefied on its own, without the usual prayerful entreaties and under circumstances (such as repair of its casket) that would seem unlikely for the working of a miracle. It should also be noted that since the fourteenth century there have been several additional saints' bloods that liquefy all in the Naples area and thus suggestive of some regional secret.

Even more macabre relics exist among them the allegedly "incorruptible" bodies of saints, i.e. corpses that have "miraculously" failed to succumb to decay. Actually, however, in many cases artificial means even embalming have been used to help preserve corpses; other means, such as wax masks, have frequently been employed to conceal their poor condition. Some appear merely to have to have become mummified (fostered by tomb rather than earthen burial), or saponified (in which burial in lime-impregnated soil converts the body fat into a hard soap that resists putrefaction). Periodic examination and conservation are other factors that promote "miraculous" preservation. It should also be noted that many instances of alleged incorruptibility cannot be verified or more importantly are disproved by the facts, the bodies eventually being reduced to bones or requiring extensive restoration in order to be placed on view.

Divine Experiences

Some Christian fundamentalists (those who believe in the literal truth of scripture) place special emphasis on what are called "charismatic gifts of the Spirit" which include, notably, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and even (among a distinct minority) demonstrating imperviousness to fire and poisons, including poisonous snakes.

Speaking in tongues known in psychological jargon as glossolalia is an ancient practice, mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 2:1-4), and recurring in Christian revivals through the ages. Modern analysis, however shows that it is actually "linguistic nonsense." A professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, William T. Samarin, conducted an exhaustive five-year study of the phenomenon on several continents and concluded:

Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage in the form of words and sentences.

Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language.

Samarin also noted that according to more than half of the glossolalists he studied, it was easier to speak in tongues than in ordinary language. "You don't have to think just let the words flow. One minister said he could 'go on forever: it's just like drumming.'"

Another charismatic gift of the spirit is prophecy. Early Christians mined the richly metaphorical ore of the Old Testament to "discover" therein supposedly prophetic passages of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Some verses were held to accurately foretell such key events in Jesus' life as his birth at Bethlehem, his miraculous healings, his arrest and scourging, and his crucifixion. Actually, it appears that certain New Testament details were deliberately appropriated by the gospel writers from the Old Testament. For example, Isaac Asimov points to a passage in Matthew one absent from the other gospels "Which may well have arisen merely out of Matthew's penchant for interpreting and describing everything in accordance with Old Testament prophecy, ritual, and idiom..."

Among modern prophecies, the most attention-getting ones are those that predict the biblical apocalypse or other doomsday scenarios. For example, consider the prophecy made by the founder of the Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (whose surname, incidentally, is genuine: she is the former Mrs. Mark Prophet). She has predicted that the world will end in a nuclear holocaust, and her followers have located themselves on a Montana ranch where they are busily building nuclear shelters and stockpiling weapons. She has frequently postponed the date of Armageddon and explained each time that it did not occur as being the result of fervent church prayers. Countless such cases have occurred throughout history, not only attesting to the failure of prophecy but also bearing witness to the credulity of religious zealots.

Taking up serpents is a practice of certain fundamentalist Christians (who take literally the passage from Mark 16:16-18, "they will pick up snakes in their hands"), that is too extreme even for many ardent Pentecostals. The practice is actually part of regular church worship that includes fervent preaching, "witnessing," speaking in tongues, and "hillbilly"-type singing. While poisonous snakes are indeed dangerous and must be handled carefully, the knowledge that the rural folk bring to the practice can be most helpful. For example, unless snakes are hot, hungry, or frightened, they move little and are relatively non-aggressive. Also, snakes raised from hatchlings can become accustomed to handling. Large snakes grasped behind the head will be unable to bite, and whenever they are lifted from the ground they usually will not bite.

In the event a participant is bitten, the fact is attributed to lack of faith. The devout forego any medical help for snakebite, but that does not mean they forgo all treatment, which may consist of rest, the use of ice packs, and elevation of the wound to slow the spread of the poison and thus lessen the shock to the body. In fact, the effect of snake bites varies according to such factors as the health and size of the victim, the speed of venom absorption, the location of the bite and the nature of the bite whether it is mild (as with a glancing strike), moderate (which consists of only local pain and swelling), or severe (which results in excruciating pain, significant swelling and discoloration, and a general sick feeling); multiple bites are the most deadly, and an attack of several snakes is life-threatening in the extreme.

The same biblical passage that refers to taking up serpents also promises, "if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." Among certain independent "Holy Roller" churches, therefore, is the custom of drinking strychnine. This often precedes snake handling, which is interesting in light of the fact that strychnine has been advocated to treat certain physiological effects resulting from snake bite. It would appear that a healthy person could sip a little dilute strychnine without serious harm and that, in the event of snake bite, its presence could actually be beneficial.

As to fire immunity, that is sometimes practiced by members of the Free Pentecostal Holiness Church, and it usually takes the form of holding kerosene lamps improvised from bottles to their hands or feet, even their chests and faces. Scott Rogo, author of the credulous Miracles: A Parascientific Inquiry into Wondrous Phenomena (1982), was impressed by this "type of 'miracle,'" but in fact the fire handlers invariably place their flesh beside rather than above the flames, keep their hands moving when they pass through the fire, and otherwise apply well-known principles of physics just like firewalkers and fire eaters throughout history.

Among Catholics, there is an impressive variety of experiences that are held to be miraculous, including stigmata and visionary experiences. Stigmata, the supposedly miraculous duplication of Christ's wounds upon the body of a Christian, typically take the form of wounds in the hands less commonly the foot, side, and brow (as from the nail and lance wounds and punctures from the crown of thorns). Some writers believe the explanation for stigmata is an "auto-suggested effect," although experimental attempts to duplicate the phenomenon, as with hypnosis, have been ultimately unsuccessful. My own view considering the numerous cases in which a cause is known is that pious hoaxing may account for all such cases.

Catholicism has a long tradition of visionary experiences, including that of a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego who in 1531 was allegedly visited by the Virgin Mary who caused her self-portrait to appear miraculously upon his claim that beneath the paint on the obviously traditional portrait is the divine image!

Among the Marian apparitions in this century have been those at Fatima, Medjugorje, and Conyers. Only the visions at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 have been declared authentic. They were reported by three shepherd children, only one of whom talked with the Virgin. She was ten-year-old Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, an obviously fantasy-prone personality who frequently claimed to see angels and other apparitions and whose own mother described her as "nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray." The events culminated on a rainy October 13 with an estimated seventy thousand pilgrims in attendance. Suddenly, Lucia directed everyone's gaze upward as the sun appeared from behind clouds whereupon many experienced what is known in the terminology of Marian apparitions as a "sun miracle." The effects are varyingly described but many say the sun performed strange gyrations none of which actually occurred, as astronomers know. The effects were surely optical ones. For example, because one cannot focus on an object so bright, the eyes may dart back and forth, thus creating, by the effect of image and after-image, the appearance that the sun is "dancing," or the eyes may attempt to focus, retreat, again attempt, and so on, thereby giving the illusion that the sun was "pulsating."

Sun miracles are still reported at such modern-day sites as those which began at Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1981, and Conyers, Georgia, in 1990. Unfortunately, some pilgrims have reportedly suffered retinal damage at some sites, and there has lately been a tendency to discourage the masses from staring directly at the sun. Instead, many are now attempting to photograph the sun miracles with video sequences and polaroid snapshots (mentioned earlier). The former sometimes record an apparently "pulsating" sun, but that is due to the automatic light meter shutting off and on.

Other reported phenomena at today's sites include rosaries that reportedly turn to gold (some claimants are careful to state "a gold color"). Examinations of many of these show them to have acquired a yellowish tarnish or to have worn through their silver plating so that the underlying brass showed through. An even more remarkable claim came from Conyers where statues with heartbeats were alleged. Asked to investigate these (and other effects) by an Atlanta television station, I found that there were no surprise heartbeats detectable by my stethoscope. Apparently people were reaching up to feel the pulsations and were feeling the pulse in their own thumbs.

Faith Healing

One of the most significant of the Marian apparitions was that allegedly seen in 1858 by fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (now Saint Bernadette), at a grotto near Lourdes, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Although the parish cur branded the affair a hoax, Bernadette's several visions culminated in her being directed to a hidden spring in the cave that had "healing" waters. Despite "multitudinous failures" over the intervening years (one such failure being Bernadette herself, who suffered for many years from tuberculosis of the bone and died at age thirty-five), a few cases have been certified as miraculous or rather as "medically inexplicable." Independent medical investigators have found otherwise, however, observing that virtually all of the diseases that were supposedly cured were those that were susceptible to psychosomatic influences and/or were known to show spontaneous remissions. Emphasizing the uncertain nature of Lourdes' power, French writer Anatole France visited the site in the late nineteenth century and said, surveying all the discarded crutches, "What, what, no wooden legs???"

Uncertainty is characteristic of faith-healing cases in general. Healing occurs naturally in the body and as many as an estimated seventy-five percent of patients would get better even if they had no medical treatment. That fact together with spontaneous remissions, illnesses that have been misdiagnosed or simply misreported, and other factors, including psychosomatic illnesses and even outright fraud helps to explain the apparent success of so many faith healings. Quite often, the apparent success is short-lived and follow-ups often reveal that the old condition has resurfaced.

So-called faith healing can even be deadly, if it causes people to reject medical treatment. This has happened in all too many instances, notably among adherents of Christian Science who following church dogma reject all forms of medical intervention, including drugs and instruments such as thermometers, as well as even such simple measures as ice packs or back rubs. Instead, members depend on faith healers called practitioners whose training consists of a brief period of religious tutelage and whose treatment is limited exclusively to praying.

Of course one cannot prove miracles do not exist, but apart from the well known difficulty of proving a negative one does not have that burden, which is actually on the claimant. Invariably, when we subtract the cases which have been clearly disproved, or which have plausible counter- explanations, or that are inadmissible because they cannot be substantiated, there seems insufficient grounds for invoking a miracle. Perhaps this article will make people more aware of how easily they are deceived not only by pious fakes but also by their own wish-fulfilling natures.


Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and he contributes a column to that organization's magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer. A former professional magician and private investigator for an international detective agency, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1983;1988), Secrets of the Supernatural (1988), and Looking for a Miracle (1993).

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