On Miracles and Miracle Workers (2019)
Washerwoman to French queen: “Is Milady making the pilgrimage to Chartres?”
“Yes”, says the queen, “God has cursed me with barrenness, and I am going there hoping to be cured.”
“Useless!” replies the washerwoman; “the big, strapping monk that used to do the miracles is dead”
—Gershon Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (1971), pp. 794-795
Miracles are the staple food of religions. Where would religions be without the parting of the Red Sea, the resurrection of Jesus, Mohammed’s splitting of the moon, or the Buddha’s six higher knowledges? For a religion to flourish, the faithful must believe in the supernatural, in a divine power superior to that of mere mortals.
Thaumaturgy, or wonder-working, has been of great interest to both theologians and philosophers. The Anglican clergyman Samuel Clarke wrote that:
[T]he true Definition of a Miracle, in the Theological Sense of the Word, is this; that it is a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superiour to Man, for the Proof or Evidence of some particular Doctrine, or in attestation to the Authority of some particular Person. (1719, pp. 311-312).
Contemporary philosopher J. L. Mackie defined miracles in a similar way, except for the religious component: “The laws of nature … describe the ways in which the world—including, of course, human beings—works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it” (1982, pp. 19-20).
Others have objected to the very term “miracle.” In chapter 6 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza argued that nature “preserves a fixed and immutable course,” in consequence of which a miracle is “a sheer absurdity” (Spinoza 1670/1862, p. 123 & p. 128). Voltaire concurred: “A miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws. By the very exposition itself, a miracle is a contradiction in terms: a law cannot at the same time be immutable and violated” (1764/1901, p. 272). An even more extreme argument against miracles appears in Littlewood’s Law: If a miracle is an exceptional event that occurs once in a million, and during 8 hours of daily alertness a person comes across an event every second, then “one can expect to observe one miraculous event for every 35 days’ time, on average—and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace” (Wikipedia, 2018b; cf. Littlewood, 1986).
While miracles may be performed by the divinity itself, more often than not this unusual skill is delegated to chosen individuals. It is the latter that this essay is concerned with: the miracle-workers.
What motivates thaumaturges? Like so-called prophets, in my view miracle-workers are either liars or suffer from some form of psychopathology, or perhaps both (Moore, 2016). The following examples will support this claim:
I met John Mellor, a well-known Australian healer, in Worthing—a stop on his global healing tour—in October 2016. He was quick to tell me he had healed others with cerebral palsy, with abilities that Jesus had given him, and there was no reason that the same outcome couldn’t be granted to me, through his hands. I was bowled over by John’s charisma and upbeat attitude, and also surprised by the large following he had both online (over 30,000 followers on Twitter, and regular video views of over 80,000 on YouTube)…. We found no medical evidence to support John’s faith healing abilities, only the testimonies of those who claimed to have been healed by him, and I left with many questions unanswered. For some, faith is exactly that; learning to find comfort in not always having a solution, or knowing ‘why.’ For others, this lack of certainty or evidence could well make John more of a salesman than a miracle worker. (Yates, 2017)
The researchers had demonstrated that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them…. [O]ne of the authors of the Columbia Cha/Wirth/Lobo study has left the University and refuses to comment, another now claims he did not even know about the study until six months to a year after its completion and also refuses to comment. The remaining author is on his way to federal prison for fraud and conspiracy. (Flamm, 2004)
In April 2001, HBO aired a documentary entitled A Question of Miracles that focused on Hinn and a well-documented fellow Word-of-Faith German minister based in Africa, Reinhard Bonnke. Both Hinn and Bonnke offered full access to their events to the documentary crew, and the documentary team followed seven cases of ‘miracle healings’ from Hinn’s crusade over the next year. The film’s director, Antony Thomas, told CNN’s Kyra Phillips that they did not find any cases where people were actually healed by Hinn. Thomas said in a New York Times interview that ‘If I had seen miracles [from Hinn’s ministry], I would have been happy to trumpet it… but in retrospect, I think they do more damage to Christianity than the most committed atheist’. (Wikipedia, 2018a)
Botswana has shut down the church of a controversial Malawian self-styled prophet, who claimed to walk on air. The government confirmed the closure of Shepherd Bushiri’s Enlightened Christian Gathering Church (ECG) in Gaborone, reportedly due to concerns over so-called ‘miracle money’…. Malawi-born ‘prophet’ who now runs churches from Ghana to South Africa … claims to have cured people of HIV and brought people back from the dead. (BBC, 2018)
The revelation that a South African pastor has been spraying insecticide on his church members in a healing ritual has shocked many but he is not the only self-styled pastor in Africa to resort to highly questionable practices. Pastor Lesego Daniel heads the Rabboni Ministries based in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. He famously instructed members of his congregation to drink petrol, claiming that he had turned it into pineapple juice. (BBC, 2016)
Penuel Mnguni is only 25 yet has been running the End Times Disciples Ministries church since 2014…. In the same year he opened his church, pictures of worshippers eating grass and flowers on his orders were shared on Facebook and on the church’s website. Other images showed the self-proclaimed prophet feeding his members stones which he claimed to have turned into bread. He earned his nickname ‘snake pastor’ last year after pictures emerged of him feeding his followers snakes and rats, which he claimed had been turned into chocolate. (BBC, 2016)
In Ghana, Bishop Daniel Obinim of International Godsway Ministries has an expansive list of rituals which he uses in various cases. In one incident, which was widely shared he was shown stepping on the abdomen of a woman, who was reportedly pregnant, to exorcise her from being possessed by evil spirits. In another case in June, he is seen grabbing men’s crotches, saying this would heal their erectile dysfunction. In another video shared online last year he is seen praying over a man whose penis is exposed. More recently, he was seen flogging a young woman and man during a service for allegedly having extra-marital sex. (BBC, 2016)
Is the old charlatan ‘Reverend’ Peter Popoff returning to his wicked ways? The American snake oil salesman has been in the UK, churning out begging letters and holding a rally to heal the sick.” It turned out that the woman he “healed” was part of his team. In a previous appearance in the US, “God wasn’t telling him the ailments of people in the audience, it was his wife through a hidden radio earpiece. (Penman, 2015)
An investigation by Kenya’s KTN TV station in November 2014 exposed the tricks Victor Kanyari, a famous televangelist, was allegedly using to fool worshippers at his Salvation Healing Ministry church. He used potassium permanganate, a chemical compound that easily dissolves in water to give a reddish solution, to wash the feet of his members and then claim that blood was oozing from their feet as a sign of healing…. Another video shows him putting his hand under a woman’s dress to touch her breast, saying this would cure her from breast cancer. (BBC, 2016)
Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended the Gilbert Deya Ministries church in Peckham, south-east London, were told they could have ‘miracle’ babies…. When the BBC asked Mr. Deya during its 2014 investigation how he explained the births of children with DNA different to that of their alleged parents, the 65-year-old Mr. Deya said: ‘The miracle babies which are happening in our ministry are beyond human imagination. It is not something I can say I can explain because they are of God and things of God cannot be explained by a human being.’ Desperate women … were actually given babies which had been taken from local women. (BBC, 2017)
There is an interesting twist concerning the miracles performed by the founder of Hasidic Judaism—Israel ben Eliezer aka Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760). His Hebrew name means “Master of the Good Name” or “one with a good reputation.” After his death countless legends were told about the miraculous healing powers of this Jewish mystical rabbi. Yet his followers do not necessarily trust these legends. According to Yitzhak Buxbaum, a Hassidic leader declared that “Whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov … is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is an apikoros [a heretic]” (2006, p. 5). Another authority said that “Even if a story about him never actually occurred, and there was no such miracle, it was in the power of the Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be a blessing for the life of the World-to-Come, to perform everything” (Buxbaum, 2006, p. 5).
The above are but a handful of instances that have caught the attention of journalists and other investigators. Many more are found in Loren Pankratz’s description of how the magician James Randi exposed several faith healer as frauds (Pankratz, 1987), in Richard Wiseman’s work on the main psychological methods used by fake psychics and healers (2014, pp. 51-59), in John P. Callan’s view on the proponents of “holistic health” (Callan, 1979), as well as in Joe Nickell’s work, especially his debunking of ten famous miracles (Nickell, 2013). But I am certain that the bulk of cases, in which naïve believers in the mystical powers of miracle-workers are duped, is hidden from our eyes.
 “The Buddha meditated and passed through the highest stages of meditation that culminated in Enlightenment. Among his many abilities were the power to levitate, to multiply his body, to read the minds of others, to pass through solid rock and such” (Parami, n. d.).
 See also the renowned Scottish philosopher David Hume’s (1748/1985) argument “which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.”
 “Mesmer could heal people of psychosomatic illnesses by psychosomatic cures. And so can today’s evangelists and faith teachers. But they can’t heal people of organic diseases. You have these guys—the very guys that are pandering this kind of stuff—walking around with bad toupees. If they really were into the genuine article, perhaps they’d heal their hair” (Hanegraaff, 1997).
BBC. (2016, November 27). “The Men Who Claim to be Africa’s ‘Miracle Workers’.” <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38063882>.
BBC. (2017, August 4). “Gilbert Deya: ‘Miracle Babies’ Pastor Extradited to Kenya.” <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-40824267>.
BBC. (2018, January 10). “Botswana Shuts ‘Miracle’ Pastor Shepherd Bushiri’s Church.” <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42634112>.
Buxbaum, Yitzhak. (2006). The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Callan, John P. (1979). “Holistic Health or Holistic Hoax?” Journal of the American Medical Association Vol. 241, No. 11 (March 16): 1156.
Clarke, Samuel (1719). A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, 5th ed. London, UK: James Knapton.
Flamm, Bruce. (2004). “The Columbia University ‘Miracle’ Study: Flawed and Fraud.” Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 28, No. 5 (September): 25-31.
Hanegraaff, Hank. (1997). Faith Healing Hoax. Mother Jones Vol. 22 (November/December): 66.
Hume, David. (1985). Of Miracles. Introduction by Antony Flew. La Salle, IL: Open Court Classic. (Originally published 1748.)
Legman, Gershon. (1971). Rationale of the Dirty Joke. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Littlewood, John E. (1986). Littlewood’s Miscellany. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Mackie, J. L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Moore, Michael. (2016). “On (False) Prophets and Messiahs.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_moore/false-prophets.html>
Nickell, Joe. (2013, May 13). “10 Faked Historical Miracles.” The Huffington Post. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/joe-nickell/10-faked-historical-mirac_b_3268143.html>
Pankratz, Loren. (1987). “Magician Accuses Faith Healers of Hoax.” Journal of Religion and Health Vol. 26, No. 2 (June): 115-124.
Parami. (n.d.). Buddhism and Miracles. Parami—The Buddhist Home. <http://www.parami.org/buddhism-and-miracles/>.
Penman, Andrew. (September 23, 2015). “Two Very Different Charlatans Both Selling the Divine Right to Get Rich Quick.” Daily Mirror. <https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/two-very-different-charlatans-both-6501321>
Spinoza, Baruch. (1862). Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. London, UK: Trübner & Co. (Originally published 1670.)
Stairs, Allen & Christopher Bernard. (2006). A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. New York, NY: Routledge.
Voltaire. (1901). Philosophical Dictionary in The Works of Voltaire, vol. 11. New York, NY: E. R. DuMont. (Originally published 1764.)
Wikipedia. (2018a). “Benny Hinn.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benny_Hinn>
Wikipedia. (2018b). “Littlewood’s Law.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Littlewood’s_law>
Wiseman, Richard. (2014). “The Psychology of Psychic Fraud” in Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experience (pp. 51-59) ed. Ron Roberts & David Groome. New York, NY: Routledge.
Yates, Emily. (2017, February 13). “A Faith Healer Tried to Cure My Disability.” BBC News. <https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/12fb29da-567c-488b-8523-d1f11a79e40c>.
Copyright ©2019 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.