Monday, March 02, 2009

The skeptical position and the apparent miracle

I've been meaning to state my skeptical position on this blog for a couple of weeks now, but hadn't found the time to write it down before I was overtaken by events yesterday, and now feel I have to comment on what I saw yesterday, but prefix it with a brief statement of my position.

The Skeptical Position

I've noticed in a few discussions online and in the real world recently, that the idea of taking a 'skeptical' position on an issue is frequently perceived as meaning taking a 'non-believing' stance. But this is not the case.

Suppose that something 'miraculous' happens, or appears to happen. The 'believer' will tend, by default, to see it as an act of God and will dismiss other theories. The 'non-believer' will tend, by default, to see it as a fake and will dismiss all possibility of 'supernatural' activities. One side sees the event as white, the other sees it as black. The true skeptic, however, must remain open to the possibility that either side could be true, or even that there are more possibilities out there. The skeptic should remain agnostic on the issue unless there is good evidence (not necessarily proof) to support one hypothesis over the other(s). The skeptic, therefore, sees the issue not as black or white, but only in shades of grey.

This is where I often find myself. For example, in the discussion on miracles which went on last week [here and here on my blog, and here on Chris's], I find myself stuck in the grey area in between two opinions [within the church!], that of:
  1. The Meeting House: "big, obvious miracles and healings, of the kind performed by (or through) the Apostles in the book of Acts, are not possible today." [my paraphrase]
  2. The 'Modern Evangelical' View: "God has not run out of "miracle-juice", nor has it become watered down over the millennia. He is the same awesome miracle working God today that he was two-thousand years' ago." [quote from Chris's blog]
The grey area I find myself in is that I can see no reason (biblical or otherwise) why opinion 1 should be the case, but I see little or no evidence to support opinion 2. So I remain skeptical of claims of healing, but open minded.

That is my position. Now my experience and observations from yesterday...

"Healing on the streets"

Our church (that's the Almond Vineyard in Edinburgh) were host to a couple of visitors from the Causeway Coast Vineyard in Northern Ireland this weekend. Both have been involved in their 'Healing on the streets' initiative, one of them started the initiative in 2005. Basically, a team from their church goes out onto the high street in their town -every Saturday- and offers prayer for healing to anyone who wants. They say the public response has become quite favourable and the claim to have seen quite a number of people being healed of various ailments.

Now while I am skeptical (as in open minded, but unsure) about what can be achieved through prayer for healing in this way, I am convinced that - at the very least - people can sometimes experience relief from pain, reduction of symptoms and occasional remission through this activity. A few folk from our church are involved in this kind of ministry in Edinburgh on a semi-regular basis, and I support them in this. It is a good thing. I haven't been brave enough to participate yet, but I might in the future.

So, the guy from 'Healing on the streets' preached at our church yesterday, spoke a bit about his experience 'on the streets' and in the church in Northern Ireland, and then offered to pray for healing for people. Several people were ministered to and prayed for. He specifically called for anyone who has 'one leg longer than the other' to come for prayer, and invited 'anyone who wanted to see a miraculous healing' to gather round and watch. I watched. Something appeared to happen.

This left me inclining toward the lighter greys, I have to say. It was convincing.

But then, when the next two people who came for healing, claiming back pain, appeared to also have one leg slightly longer than the other, my inner skeptic alarm bells started ringing. Having one leg longer than the other is not particularly common. If you counted the number of people who apparently had this complaint at church yesterday, it would appear to be about 5-10% of the gathering, but most of them were unaware of this 'complaint' before the healer identified it.

And I began to remember hearing someone talk about 'debunking' a 'leg lengthening miracle' before. The skeptical needle began to incline towards the darker greys.

The 'Leg Lengthening' Scam

Later on I Googled it and was reminded that it was (professional magician and paranormal fraudster debunker) James Randi who I'd heard talking about it. He even discussed the 'scam' at length in his book "The Faith Healers" back in the 1980s.

If done well, the person being 'healed', as well as the audience, are completely unaware of the scam. The trick is, when getting the patient seated and settled, to gently pull the heel of the shoe on the 'longer' leg. Now, when the audience is gathered around, they will clearly see a small difference in the relative positions of the person's two heels. As the healing takes place, the focus of the interest of the audience (and the patient) is on the 'short' leg, so they're not looking at the foot on the long leg as the healer slowly slides the shoe back to its original place, making the 'short' leg apparently grow relative to the long leg.

That is the scam. I'm still not sure if that's what I saw yesterday, but I'm inclining toward believing that that is what was going on.

Its interesting that in all cases, the 'short' leg was made to grow, the 'long' leg was never made to shrink. That would be a harder one to pull off...

What I now find myself wondering is whether it is possible for an entirely genuine person to have stumbled onto a 'technique' which seems to work for people during prayer ministry and remaining entirely unaware that they are perpetuating a fraud. Or is it always a deliberate fraud? In other words, was the guy misguided or a charlatan?

I really don't want to believe the latter, as the guy appreared to be a nice enough guy. And he works in a Church full of good people. But, of course, a good con-artist will never appear to be a con-artist.

There is one way of possible verification, of course. Someone was there yesterday who I know has one leg a bit shorter than the other. She was prayed for by the guy. If her leg did get longer, I'll have to stop being so skeptical. I'll be keeping my eyes open...

Due to inexplicable spam on this post, no further comments are being allowed.


Anonymous said...

We prayed for a lot of things, we just started with legs! You have a wonderful church. Be blessed!

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks Mark.

I'm trying very hard to believe the best of you. Just 'testing the spirits' (1 Jn 4v1).

I hope what you did came from an honest heart, following a God of love.

And either way, I pray that God moves in power in your life!

Ric. (the guy on the sound desk on Sunday)

Josh W said...

I've come across "leg-lengthening" before, and interestingly in our case, the person who was there got random people from our church to do it. My issue was this at the time; too much technique. He actually didn't do anything with shoes, but the instructions sounded too similar to light physical manipulation for me to be satisfied.

At the time this gave me a big conviction; if you want to pray for someone to be healed, don't do anything "appropriate" to that part of the body unless God specifically asks you to, so you will be above reproach.

Unknown said...

I have some recent experiences in this and found your blog through google search because I have some questions of my own as well.

I am an odinary believer who was enouraged to practice the prayer (dont want to call it technique before I dont think it should matter that much). So I prayed for my wife at home last Saturday because she complained about leg pain. I purposely didn't want to look at her legs while I prayed, because I want to make sure I dont unconsciously pull her legs out. She saw and felt her legs grew. She said as soon as I started to pray the she felt something in her legs. So we are kind of excited. Her leg pain didn't go away though. On Sunday someone at church prayed for her and her leg pain was completely gone to her surprise. Two hours latter, after sitting for a bit too long she felt the similar leg pain, also to her surprise. We are not sure how to explain that.

I have ruled out physical manipulation as the cause of legs growing by doing an experiment yesterday - having my wife hold my legs up, following the same instruction without the prayer. Nothing happened. Then she started to pray for me in the name of Jesus. She saw my legs grew to even length. And I did feel something. I asked if she had pulled my legs or not, she said no.

I am considering other experiementst to rule out phycological effect, but havn't come up with plans yet. So it is easier for me to believe it is the power of God released by the proclaiming the name of Jesus that did the work.

I am testing this not because I dont believe in miracles - I have seen harder evidences, but because a false miracle could do more harm than good to God and His people.

BBYhere said...

Your a Bayesian, yet at Vineyard?!?! I found your site by googling for leg lengthening scam. 'nuff said. God wants you to be a skeptic. The church is fraught with its experts who claim the miraculous for publicity in order to sell books and conferences. It's the only way they know to earn a living and get the adulation they don't deserve. After so many years in the "God business", they really don't have any other skills to get by in the secular world, so they fleece the flock to maintain their lifestyle. Miracles, when they occur, are private affairs that are unexpected. Otherwise they wouldn't be miracles.
The wishful thinking of so many christians provides a fertile bed for fraudsters to grow their crops...

Ricky Carvel said...

Hi BBYhere.

Yes, of course as a Bayesian, being in a Vineyard is good.

I mean, what's the point of allowing your beliefs to be changed by new observations and experiences if you go to a church in which nothing happens (or even appears to happen)?