The Great Miracle Swindle

Religious quacks and fraudsters have been around since the beginning of time.  They range from those claiming psychic ability to self-proclaimed visionaries and angel gurus.  The practitioners of these acts of charlatanism prey on our desire for comfort, hope and a yearning for meaning.  Every year new variants of the same scam come onto the market. The psychic and spiritualist movement have been a bastion of fraud and deception ever since it was started by the Fox sisters in New York in 1848. Forty years later they confessed to using fraudulent methods to deceive their audience.  By this time the spiritualist movement had attracted millions of followers across the US and worldwide.

The great magician Harry Houdini even dabbled in psychic experimentation upon the death of his mother in the 1920s. In an understandable response to a severe bereavement, he visited a number of self-proclaimed mediums. He very quickly grew wary of their behaviour and he knew how to replicate their performance on stage.  He became increasingly angry at their exploitation of the grief stricken and became a leading sceptic and debunker of the psychics of his day. This tradition of scepticism among stage magicians would later be carried on by the most famous sceptic of our time James Randi and continued through other magicians such as Penn & Teller and Derren Brown.

We need to understand as a society that there is no evidence for such ability and it is not without having put considerable research and effort into the area of so called parapsychology. The US military and several prestigious universities spent vast amounts of money investigating these claims to no avail. Leading stage psychics in both Britain and the US have been implicated in fraud and deception. Sally Morgan was exposed for using the trick tactic of hot reading in Dublin on the Joe Duffy radio show and on a number of other occasions in Britain. Derek Acorah was also shown to engage in fraudulent behaviour in a set up by parapsychologist Ciaran O Keaffe on the show most haunted.  Those claiming psychic powers are far from harmless and can prolong the period of grief as well as violating the living memory of deceased loved ones for ill-gotten fame and financial success.

While Britain has produced many stage psychics with very dubious credentials, Ireland’s brand of dishonest superstitious marketing tends to exploit our traditionally Catholic religious experience. The fraudulent activities of Christina Gallagher need no mention. It simply begs the question why is she not serving prison time?  Similarly the formerly Catholic Church approved organisation Direction for our Times has also been implicated in dishonest behaviour.  The “lay apostle” Anne was accused of financial gain for her work. The self-proclaimed Knock visionary Joe Coleman led vulnerable believers in their thousands to stare at the sun in knock, resulting in several suspected cases of solar retinopathies.  While traditional Catholic values decline, a new breed of miracle claimant has arrived to fill the gap in peoples wish for non-evidence based comfort. Lorna Byrne claims a whole raft of supernatural abilities in her book Angels in my hair. The bizarre claims of this individual are numerous. Among the most concerning is the claim that she has the power to usher the archangel Michael to appear in human form and walk through Mullingar alongside her, apparently being witnessed and mistaken for a human friend of Lorna’s by a number of people there. She also said that the same archangel appeared in her garden in physical angel form and wrapped his feathered fingers around her while she awaited the death of her husband Joe, who she claimed was terminally ill at the time. She claims to be able to see sickness as a greyness in the body before it can be detected medically. Finally she claimed to be spiritually forewarned about the Dublin bombings and the fatal terrorist attack on a person she knew through work. In an enlightened society such a person should simply not be a celebrity. Journalists have said one after another that she seemed convincing and didn’t look like she was insane. This shows an incredible and potentially dangerous lack of understanding of what could potentially motivate people who make the claims Lorna Byrne does.

Our education system, media and legal system all encourage the growth of these dishonest charlatans. We need to instil in our children the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that there will be those who are ready and waiting to exploit our emotional vulnerability. We need our children to notice the difference between beliefs acquired by authority, tradition or celebrity culture versus those observed, questioned and verified by the scientific method. It is my opinion from the study of miracle claimants across several cultures that they will ruthlessly exploit our psychological belief biases. Sally Morgan is marketed as psychic to the stars and her association with the late princess Diana is known to all her fans. The reality is many celebrities are even less scientifically literate than the general public. Emotional fragility is often the hallmark of celebrity culture and dishonest individuals have always exploited these people. Prince Charles has bizarre beliefs about such things as alternative medicine and homeopathy that are anything but evidence based.  We need only look at Lorna Byrnes celebrity fan base to see this relationship of exploitation of emotionally broken celebrities.  Jim Corr is well known in the sceptic world for his delusional and paranoid world view yet Lorna Byrne’s marketing team view his celebrity status as a marketing tool despite the downside that he is obviously a confused and emotionally fragile individual. As for Daniel O Donnell, he is not exactly a James Randi figure and is in no way placed to make a critical judgement about Lorna Byrnes abilities or lack of.

The authority bias is exploited yet again by the media. The very people that charlatans prey on are further encouraged in their false belief in them by the guru’s relationship with the media. Television, radio and print media rely on ratings and often journalists and reporters are not scientists and have little training in scepticism. The job of the reporter or journalist is to present an interesting story and captivate their audience.  The sad reality is that science fiction is better at doing this than science fact. The benefit imposters get from television exposure is a false sense of credibility. They will often splash the name of the television channel or programme on their web or facebook page to cement their false status as an authority figure in their chosen field, which quite often amounts to plain nonsense. If Joe Coleman or Christina Gallagher were not entertained by mainstream media they might have had less of an impact on their victims. The word victim is not too strong as many of their believers succumb to emotional abuse and dependency on the false comfort these miracle claimants peddle. This comfort is often shattered when they are caught out for engaging in fraud as was the case on the Joe Duffy show, when a devastated former fan of Sally Morgan described how her once unshakable trust in this individual was violated. Fraud can be anything from financial abuse, as was the case with Christina Gallagher, danger to health, as was the case with Joe Coleman and in worst cases, the sexual abuse of children as was the case with Sai Baba in India.

Finally the laws on defamation must be challenged to allow sceptics and interested parties investigate suspicious individuals without the fear of unjust litigation in the courts. There is a very high profile libel case about to take place this summer regarding a leading psychic who has been implicated in dishonest behaviour.  The libel laws at present place the burden of proof of dishonest behaviour on the accuser and not on the accused. This makes sense in the case of standard criminal law but makes no sense whatsoever when it comes to miracle claimants. If you call out an electrician and demand to see his qualifications he must oblige. If he doesn’t and you subsequently raise questions about his character and the possibility of dishonesty, he will be very unlikely to succeed in a libel case against you. This astonishingly is not the case with psychics and miracle claimants. The James Randi educational foundation has offered an unclaimed $1 million to anyone who can prove supernatural ability. No one has been able to claim the prize yet stage psychics and other con artists have unjustly used the courts to try to silence their accusers. James Randi himself became prey to an unsuccessful libel case by the subsequently disgraced spoon bender Uri Geller.  Many countries have an endemic problem with miracle claimants in popular culture. The self-proclaimed Godmen Sathya Sai Baba and Chandraswami held such esteem among ordinary people that they were able to influence the government of India for decades and evade prosecution for their many crimes. Rasputin of Russia also had a profound influence over the Russian Czars in the pre-Bolshevik era.  We need to change our culture of acceptance of unproven miracle claims. This is not an Atheist agenda as many religious have often cited. It is a matter of justice that those who lie and deceive us, either intentionally or as a result of delusional narcissism, are held to account. It doesn’t matter whether it is internet dating scams, emails claiming to be from the heir of a rich prince or false and dishonest claims of supernatural power. Unfortunately the latter remains accepted within our culture under a false and intellectually dishonest approach to religious tolerance. There is nothing virtuous or respectful about tolerating such individuals and we as a society must fight for the weak as we claim to do in every other respect.