Faith & Reason: Harry Houdini and the New Age of Credulity as Religious Groups Offering Healing and Miracles Apparently to Order Proliferate, How Are We to Judge Their Competing Claims to Truth?

Article excerpt

A TELEVISION company called me the other day. The Advertising Standards Authority had adjudicated upon a variety of evangelists claiming to work miracles. Would I comment? One group was claiming to perform "healing and miracles". Another group offered "healing miracles". The theologians of the ASA used impeccable logic to make a crucial distinction. A "healing miracle" was in principle verifiable and so unless there was such verification it could not be advertised; but "healing and miracles" were too vague to be verified and so advertising was permitted.

Making a comment proved tricky. I put the standard liberal line. All life is endlessly miraculous, but certain events evoke such wonder in us that we feel they could have come only from God. But that kind of event can't be summoned to order, and those who make such claims may be fooling themselves and their followers.

On reflection, this was a priggish little lecture. It completely discounts the nature of ecstatic worship - sweating, raucous, lyrical, hours-long, falling-over-giggling religion. With all that charging round the system, who wouldn't believe in miracles? And yes, the ASA has to hold up that gently umpirical finger if public claims get out of hand. In this age of burgeoning credulity and dissolving religious authority, there is obviously a great future for such an institution, with much wider terms of reference and, if necessary, weaponry. And it would make a great new cop show, preferably with Daniela Nardini in it. As its dungareed special teams converge in a lightning strike on a suspected outbreak of the miraculous, you can hear the charismatic healer complain: "By what authority do ye this?" "Advertising Standards Authority, chum - you're nicked!" The idea may need some working out. Getting this wrong would make the trials of the Child Support Agency seem as nothing by comparison. The Belief Police might find themselves in trouble if their zero- tolerance scepticism united too many sects against them on the streets. Best, I suggest, to let us believers police ourselves, in the two key areas - fraud and inhumanity. Any sceptical assault on religious fraud carries with it the discordant sound of axe- grinding. There's nothing like a true believer to sort out the crooks, if you can find one. Perhaps the most astounding example of such a believer was Harry Houdini. Most people vaguely remember Houdini as the great escape artist who died in 1926. But there was more to him than that. His burning desire was to get in touch with his dead mother, and he applied himself relentlessly to the task. He saw that many mediums were frauds, including himself - he had worked the American fairgrounds for years. …