Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hostile Corroboration Of Modern Miracles

I've written a lot in the past about hostile corroboration of the claims made by the earliest Christians, including their miracle accounts. Craig Keener's Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011) provides many modern examples.

In an earlier post, I noted that Keener argues for widespread conversion to Christianity on the basis of modern Christian miracles. For example, surveys and other sources have found that half or more of converts to Christianity in China claim healing, their own healing or somebody else's, as one of the reasons why they converted (264, 297, 300-302). He gives many other examples of conversion to Christianity on the basis of miracles, from a wide variety of cultures, including both individual and group conversions, among Hindus, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians (317, 323, 343-344). Keener often cites corroboration of miracle-related revivals and miracle accounts from noncharismatic Christian and non-Christian sources (nn. 140 and 144 on 287, 288, 291). A prominent Protestant theologian and critic of modern miracle accounts, B.B. Warfield, conceded that "genuine cures at Lourdes are undeniable", though he tried to dismiss the cures as "hysterosis", "anomalies", etc. (n. 203 on 681)

Keener cites corroboration of healing accounts in non-Christian mainstream media sources (428, 433, 460). One journalist was an agnostic and intended to write a book against faith healing, but converted to Christianity in the process of doing her research (476).

Regarding a doctor involved with another case:

"Her main physician, Dr. Ronald Kleinman, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, was Jewish. He considered her cure 'miraculous,' reporting the cure both to the Vatican and in a 1997 interview with CBS Evening News." (479)

Another healing converted an agnostic doctor (527). Keener tells the story of a woman who had suffered from liver cancer and apparently was resuscitated shortly after dying. She was free of cancer afterward, and a non-Christian doctor she had gone to when she had the cancer converted after finding out about the healing (569-570).

Concerning Lourdes:

"One scholar skeptical of supernatural approaches readily grants that the healings occur. He affirms that 'some utterly extraordinary cures' have occurred there, noting that enemies of the Catholic Church and leading medical scientists like Alexis Carrel have been persuaded by the data. He concedes that some cases cannot even be explained psychosomatically; among examples, he lists 'the instant healing of a terribly disfigured face, and the instantaneous healing of a club foot on a two and one half year old child,' shown by non-Catholics to be permanent. Further, he cites a news article about a three-year-old with terminal cancer and the bones being eaten away; after the healing, even 'the bones in her skull grew back. Her doctor, a Protestant, said that 'miracle' would not be too strong a word to use.'" (685)

Keener writes:

"Patrick McNamara, director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at Boston University School of Medicine, and Reka Szent-Imrey, research associate at the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, challenge the traditional intellectual goal of merely debunking miracle claims rather than learning from them. In this 'scenario the hero-scientist' informs the recovering person that no real cure is occurring, 'that instead he is gullible, stupid,' and should appreciate the heroic scientist for informing the patient of this truth. By contrast, these authors contend, extraordinary healings do occur, especially in religious contexts. While agnostic about supernatural causation, they insist that scholars should study and learn from these cures." (609)

Keener recounts the experience of one anthropologist:

"More astonishingly, in the Journal of Anthropological Research one anthropologist reported that during a shamanic funerary ritual in northwestern Ghana, he witnessed a corpse that had been dead for a few days dance and play drums for at least several minutes. 'I saw the corpse jolt and occasionally pulsate' in reaction to the shaman's movements; streams of light invaded the room, and 'the corpse, shaken by spasms, then rose to its feet, spinning and dancing in a frenzy….The corpse [of a drummer] picked up the drumsticks and began to play.' Soon it was again a motionless corpse, propped against the wall….Describing his experience thirteen or fourteen years later, he both continued to insist that it was a real experience shared with the other witnesses and tried to offer an impersonal, materialistic explanation for it, namely, a sort of group hallucination caused by the rhythmic drumming and his exhaustion. In view of scientific research about hallucinations, this explanation seems probably inadequate for an experience that various persons present shared. Still, something like this explanation is not impossible, given the intense ritual context. Whatever the explanation, it differs in any case from conventional Western categories of what should be able to happen." (540-541)

Elsewhere, Keener comments that "Some anthropologists have noted the transformation of a number of other anthropologists' beliefs through their anomalous experiences." (830) Concerning a study of anthropologists who experienced paranormal phenomena:

"Another article notes some forty 'anomalous experiences,' including healings, apparitions, and the like, reported by sixteen anthropologists, all highly educated persons from and trained in the West. Their reports display significant consistency despite the great variation in cultures and independence of the reports; independent evaluators of the material drew identical conclusions. They compared with the anthropologists especially one study of '1446 anomalous experience narratives' collected in rural North Carolina from 1988 to 1996. Whereas both anthropologists and others reported comparable anomalous experiences, the level of skepticism in anthropologists' reports of their own experiences (38 percent) was considerably higher than that in the other samples (7 percent). Nevertheless, the experiences transformed the belief structures of some anthropologists as well as others. Some anthropologists rationalized their experiences to reduce cognitive dissonance with their worldview; others accepted some elements of the experience as paranormal while questioning indigenous explanations; still others, who had multiple paranormal experiences, changed their worldviews and embraced explanations closer to the indigenous worldviews." (248)


  1. "one anthropologist reported that during a shamanic funerary ritual in northwestern Ghana, he witnessed a corpse that had been dead for a few days dance and play drums for at least several minutes"


    1. As you know, "zombies" have a particular connotation in pop culture due to horror films (sometimes black comedies), TV dramas, and even music videos. But that's not the image we're meant to conjure up in this case.

      For that matter, the concept has evolved from earlier Hollywood depictions, where it was linked to voodoo. We need to clear our minds of these distracting associations.

  2. Alex, I'm guessing both Craig Keener and Jason cite the testimony as evidence for possible paranormal and/or supernatural occurrences since it would be difficult to fake something like that in northwestern Ghana. I can imagine a conman using nearly invisible string (e.g. fishing line) to make the body parts of a corpse move. Or maybe the person wasn't actually dead but pretending to be dead. But another possibility is that the anthropologist correctly concluded that the person was actually dead, AND that the body parts moved. If so, that would be evidence (not "proof") of the paranormal.

    Does that mean that this would be a case of zombies? That would depend on what one meant by a zombie. From my own perspective, I believe that it's possible for demons to manipulate physical objects. There are many examples of Christian testimonies of exorcisms where objects moved without anything visible or physical that could have moved them. Just an example, I recall Walter Martin once describing an exorcism he was involved in and how objects like books would be hurled at the people attempting to exorcise demons out of a person when no visible person was picking them up and throwing them. So, maybe a demon was moving the body parts of the corpse to encourage people believing the spiritual errors taught by the shaman. That's one possibility.

  3. Jason, what do you make of the prevalence of miracle reports in Roman Catholic contexts, given that the church of Rome preaches a false gospel? Are we to interpret these as Christian miracles, or non-Christian ones...?

    1. Bnonn,

      i) For what it's worth, I examined the permutations of that question in this post:

      ii) Jason may also be discussing Lourdes because atheists sometimes cite that as a test-case to demonstrate the lack of credibility for reported miracles. Matt McCormick is a case in point.

    2. Miracles can come from a variety of sources and can be produced for a variety of reasons. Biblical miracles sometimes occur among individuals who are unbelievers or immature in the faith (e.g., Balaam, Naaman, people in the gospels who disobeyed what Jesus told them to do just after being healed, the revelation Cornelius received prior to his salvation, Satanic agents in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13). God could perform a miracle in the life of a non-Christian out of compassion, to demonstrate His generosity, to benefit a Christian who is or will be associated with that non-Christian, or for some other reason (Acts 14:17).

      One category we should keep in mind, which people often neglect, is paranormal human phenomena. There's a lot we don't know about human capabilities, whether abilities some or all humans have throughout their lives or abilities they attain at some point. As some people have artistic or intellectual skills, for example, others may have a skill of a paranormal nature. They may have been given the ability directly by God or Satan. (I'm including associated agents, like angels and demons, under "God" and "Satan".) Or they may have received it by some other means, such as inheriting or developing it in some way that doesn't involve being given it directly by God or Satan. Somebody could have a paranormal capability that has the potential to be used for good or evil. How it's used, and even whether it's used at all, varies from one person to another.

      We have to judge miracles case-by-case, but we can also make broader observations. For reasons I've addressed elsewhere, my sense is that the most significant concentration of miracles occurred during the Biblical era. As we move out from that centerpiece of miraculous activity, the second highest level of miraculous power is found among post-Biblical professing Christians. We find less, but still a lot, among non-professing-Christians.

      Among post-Biblical Christian miracles, a large number occur among Roman Catholics. My sense is that a larger number and higher proportion occur in other circles, but the Catholic numbers are significant. For reasons I've explained elsewhere, I think many Catholics are Christians, even though Roman Catholicism teaches a false gospel. The potential reasons for the occurrence of a miracle in a Catholic context would have to be judged case-by-case. I suspect that many of the miracles are Divine and are done for the benefit of Catholics who are Christian, for the benefit of Christians who are associated with non-Christian Catholics in some way, or out of compassion for non-Christians, for example.

      Catholic miracles, such as the ones at Lourdes (though non-Catholics have been associated with Lourdes as well), are significant largely because of the evidence for those miracles that's available to us. We have such evidence because of the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy and others who have been concerned to collect that sort of information. Anybody could do that. It's not something unique to Catholicism. But many people don't do it. For reasons Keener discusses at length in his book, there are many obstacles to collecting evidence under a lot of circumstances (a lack of technology in some parts of the world, unfavorable hospital policies in some places, etc.). The largeness of the Roman Catholic denomination and the efforts Catholics have made to document some of the miracles that occur in their circles are significant factors. (A factor like the largeness of the denomination will also affect other things, like the amount of funding available to produce documentation, the willingness of doctors and others to get involved, and media attention.) Those factors could be duplicated elsewhere and sometimes are to some extent.