Response to Niels Christian Hvidt

by Claus Larsen

Dear Niels Christian,

The subject of miracles is indeed a fascinating one, that compels us to stop and take notice, and I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my article.

As you note, we do indeed come from very different backgrounds. While your worldview is founded on faith, mine is founded on knowledge. You see evidence of your god, I see none. You strive to find meaning through religion, I strive to find meaning through science.

Accountability

I will address your points of criticism as best as I can. I will start with your point about me not having an external objective editor.

It’s true, I don’t have such an editor. I am the editor, and can write editorials and articles precisely like anyone else. I put my stuff out there for anyone to scrutinize. They are most welcome.

I understand your concern about the possibility of me altering my original articles. It is a general problem with online publications: If no paper copy exists, we cannot know for sure if anyone alters their text on their websites. Fortunately, we are not totally in the dark, since there are servers such as the Wayback Machine, which I have used successfully in the past to reveal trickery by proponents of the supernatural. You can find the backlog of SkepticReport here.

SkepticReport is an online magazine. It is not a blog, it is not a discussion forum. You can read articles by authors from all over the world here – and that’s that. While I think that the Internet provides us with a growing number of possible means of communications, I simply don’t have the time or inclination to maintain a blog or a forum. It is simply not my goal with SkepticReport. I am, however, quite open to people who wish to reply to any articles there, not just mine. As you can see, it is possible to contact the authors, either through their own email or through me.

I can assure you that your concern about me “blocking” people’s responses to articles is completely unfounded. I welcome and encourage feedback. But I also want to make it crystal clear that nobody is guaranteed a presence on SkepticReport. It is not a “come one, come all” site. I don’t open up for just anyone with an opinion. There has to be some value, some relevance, which there definitely is in your case.

Logic and faith

In your critique, you point out that:

Believers may not be able to provide hard proof for the existence of God, but nor are you able to prove that he does not exist, nor that the miracles of Christianity, such as the Resurrection, are fraudulent.

You are quite right. It is true that I can’t prove that your god doesn’t exist. Precisely the same way I can’t prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Or that fairies don’t exist. I can’t prove a negative.

What we can do, is weigh the evidence pro and contra: What is the most likely to be true? That a human being was raised from the dead (a miracle) or that it was a story fit to back the idea of the Son of God (such things have happened before)? When we apply Occam’s Razor we find that, with the former option, we need to invoke supernatural forces, while the latter gives us a natural explanation.

You choose the former, I choose the latter. That does not mean that our choices have equal value. It isn’t a case of limbo or a stand-off. My choice is far, far better supported than yours, because I can point to empirical evidence that your version isn’t true. E.g., nobody has ever died and come back to life. When you’re dead, you’re dead.

What you have is your faith. Strong as that might be, faith is all it is. I am not belittling your faith, I am pointing out that faith is not a very good method of showing us the real world. The best way we have discovered so far is the scientific method.

As you point out, believers may not be able to provide hard proof for the existence of their god. But the onus is on the claimant. It isn’t up to skeptics to prove you wrong, it is up to you to prove yourself right. You are the one claiming the existence of your god. You have the burden of proof.

Irony, Sarcasm – and Humor

Let me make it absolutely clear: Your faith is no concern of mine. You seem happy in your faith, and that is fine by me. I am not attacking you or your faith at all. I will, however, freely admit to taking a perhaps more rigorous approach when investigating paranormal claims than you might be accustomed to. You see that as an aggressive tone against your faith. It isn’t. I don’t consider your beliefs any better or worse than other beliefs.

Yes, I use both irony and sarcasm, but I also use humor. I assume that you, being a Catholic, don’t crack jokes about the Pope, so maybe the humor is a bit lost on you. But if you take a step away from your faith, I’m sure you have to admit that the Annunciation could be viewed in today’s light as a visit from an embryologist. Likewise, with regards to your laptop, which froze several times during your presentation: It can, according to the definition you used, be viewed as a miracle. So, why not contact the Holy See? Don’t you find that the least bit funny?

When people’s faith becomes a hindrance to their ability to laugh, we should all take notice.

You say that I ignore the most important part of the definition of a miracle, namely the message of hope and love that builds up the community. I don’t ignore it, quite contrary: That’s included in the third aspect, namely that it has to be viewed as the work of your god or happen in the context of your god. The work of your god brings people together. It definitely brought people together at the lecture! There were quite a few smiles and giggles, because that’s a situation most of us have been in: At the worst moment, the worst happens. We have all been hit by Murphy’s Law, and since most Danes have a computer, we could definitely recognize and sympathize with your frustration. We weren’t laughing at you, we were laughing with you.

Miracles as Evidence

I don’t say that you don’t accept criticism. I say that you don’t take criticism well. I base this on your reaction to my arguments that the examples you presented, both in your book and during the lecture, simply didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Niels Christian, I was absolutely flabbergasted, when you dismissed it as unimportant that the Holy Theodora’s trees weren’t as big as you claimed they were. When John Ståhle grilled you on the evidence of prayer healing, you were also not prepared to consider that the data wasn’t sound. I could tell that you were not pleased with us not merely accepting your explanations. But that’s what skeptics do: We don’t accept explanations, if they don’t hold water. And when you – or anyone else – publicise paranormal claims, you can expect skeptics to be there.

It is crucial that you understand this: While I have no doubt that you are a deeply religious man, the moment you present evidence, you should also accept the possibility that this evidence may not be as strong as you thought it was. Now, if you have faith, you don’t need neither logic or evidence. You have faith that Jesus Christ was crucified and ressurrected, yet you don’t have any evidence that he even existed. But when you support your faith with evidence of miracles, you should be prepared to face reality, if said evidence doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Because what would happen, if your evidence did hold water? What if you could provide hardcore evidence of the existence of your god? There’s no doubt that if your evidence holds up to scrutiny, then your beliefs are also vindicated.

I am perfectly willing to accept hardcore evidence of any supernatural phenomenon. I am also perfectly willing to draw the conclusion when no such evidence holds up to scrutiny. I let the evidence decide, not what I personally believe in.

If you point to evidence, you should also let the evidence decide. Because you can’t have it both ways. You can’t point to evidence and if that turns out to be sound, see that as supportive of your beliefs, if you don’t similarly take see unsound evidence as contradicting your beliefs.

In your critique, you describe how the Catholic Church distinguishes between miracles and fraudulous events. You also say that:

“the Church does not venture to affirm that a miracle has occurred.”

I think there’s a slight misunderstanding here. For you to be elevated to sainthood, the Catholic Church investigates whether miracles can be attributed to you. The Church needs two declared miracles, one for beatification and one for sainthood (unless you have died a martyr, in which case the Pope can simply declare your martyrdom, after which beatification follows).

You also write:

“God never wishes to impose himself on us through undeniable proof of his existence.”

I disagree. It is precisely through verifiable miracles that your god makes himself known to man. It has always been like that, right from the stories in the Bible. Was Moses parting the Red Sea not a miracle? Was the water-into-wine not a miracle? Were the many healings by Jesus not miracles?

That’s exactly what you do in your book: You present miracle after miracle, events that could not have taken place, except by virtue of an existing, interacting god. Something that everyone can see, something we can investigate, something tangible we can be persuaded by. I would like to quote from your book, from chapter 16:

Why investigate miracles?
Accounts of miracles are usually rejected with the simple argument that they, despite they could theoretically happen, never could be proven empirically. Rubbish, the Vatican says. Here, it is regarded from the opposite point of view, since the Vatican for centuries has used inexplicable but medically confirmed cases of healings as empirical evidence that a person can become a saint.

That’s as clear as it gets.

Platitudes

If your god wants to speak to us through other people, I would definitely expect him to reveal something else than mere platitudes. The Bible is full of often very specific information from your god: The Annunciation, Noah receiving the news of the upcoming Flood, Moses being told to take his people out of Egypt. The list goes on and on.

But not today, not anymore. What do we get? Don’t be greedy, don’t kill each other, be good to one another. But none of these examples are particularly Christian. These are what we could call universal truths.

Not that this is solely confined to the Catholic Church, far from it. We see the exact same mundane messages dressed up as divine wisdom in e.g. spirit channelling: Psychics tell us that our dead grandmother loves us, cares for us and gently admonishes us to behave better. Yet, in neither case do we get some hardcore information, like exact names of the dearly departed (“I hear a ‘P’….or is it a ‘B’…”). Or, in the case of Vassula Rydén, whom you devote a whole chapter to. She communicates not only with Daniel but Jesus Christ himself. If Jesus – through Vassula – wants the various churches to unite, you have to admit that he is not making that much of an impact. Whatever wisdom Vassula is channelling, it isn’t particularly convincing, not even to those who should be the first to recognize the true word of your god, namely the Church itself. Your god has done it before, with great effect, through various prophets. Why not show us in terms we cannot possibly misunderstand?

I think I know what you are going to say: We shouldn’t test God by demanding evidence of his existence. But isn’t that exactly what we do, when we pray for a miracle of our own, and then point to the miracle, if it looks like one has happened?

9-11

You also mention in your book, that Vassula is claimed to have predicted the terror attack on the World Trade Center that September day in 2001. It is not the first time I have heard such post-hoc predictions, not by far: Astrologers and psychics have tried to boost their credibility and fame by abusing this terrible event as well.

I’m sorry if I get a bit harsh here, but there is a very good reason. You see, I lived in New York at the time, Niels Christian. What you saw on your television screen, I saw in real life. I saw the destruction and mayhem caused by these religious fanatics with my own eyes. I smelled the bodies for months after. So I hope you can understand it, when I say that I find these after-the-fact prophecies deeply offensive. It offends me when I hear these prophets telling us that they knew – but didn’t do anything to prevent it. I find their excuses not only pathetic, but downright cruel, immoral and heartless. To claim knowledge of a future event without doing anything to save the victims is beyond reprehensible.

That is one of the reasons why I approach the proclaimed miracles in such a rigorous manner: If these prophets are able to communicate divine information, all of humanity could benefit immensely from it. But if they are not, but merely trying to plug phony, self-serving predictions that hurt other people immensely, then they have to be stopped.

Theodora’s Trees

You have picked two examples from the book, which you feel I do not represent fairly, the first being Theodora’s Trees. Now, it isn’t merely a possibility that Fr. Stamatis overestimated the size of the trees, as you say. It is a fact that he did. Those trees are simply not as big as you both claim.

I understand that your goal was to tell the stories that have uplifted the communities, but when you visit the place yourself, even providing your own photographic evidence, the reader has to assume that the data you provide is correct. It isn’t. That’s why I express such amazement: You simply don’t check Fr. Stamatis’ claims. You were there, you had ample opportunity to investigate for yourself. You didn’t, but merely took his word for it. Even now, I don’t see signs that you are prepared to acknowledge that there is no miracle. That is a huge problem.

Audrey Santo

A couple of things I wrote about this case caught your attention. One, that I point out that the little girl might be exploited for some deity and that the Church has not accepted the events as miracles. To back up your view, you point to the Worcester Diocese study of Audrey:

“We are not yet able to confirm claims of miraculous events occurring at Audrey’s home or as a result of a visit to Audrey, or from the oils associated with her.”
Source

I interpret that as the Church does not accept the events as miracles. You don’t. The reader can decide for himself.

There is one thing that really puzzles me: Although they haven’t done it yet in this case, how are they able to confirm claims of miraculous events, if the Church does not venture to affirm that a miracle has occured?

I know, I know: Logic and religious beliefs do not mix well. But in this case, I think that there is…something amiss.

You also point out that the commission has found that Audrey seems to be in very good care:

“Their constant respect for her dignity as a child of God is a poignant reminder that God touches our lives through the love and devotion of others.”

While abuse doesn’t have to mean that you are abused for financial gains, I think the commission should take a quick look at the official Audrey Santo website. Here, we find a long list of items for sale: You can get a video for $20. A cassette for $7. A CD for $10. Photos of Audrey, Audrey’s tack pin, T-shirts with Audrey on them, an Audrey key ring. Various crucifixes (with rhinestones, to put in Audrey’s room), even something as mundane as a fridge magnet. They take foreign orders, too. If you don’t want to buy any memorabilia, you can just donate money to either her or her Ministry.

In the article, I also write:

“her body showed signs of red stripes, as if she had been scourged”

Above, I mentioned Occam’s Razor: If we have two explanations of a phenomenon, one that includes a supernatural explanation, and one that relies on natural explanations, we should choose the latter. Not because it is always the right one, but because it explains the phenomenon without including unnecessary forces. It usually turns out that we are right, too.

Think about it, Niels Christian. One day, a little girl, multi-handicapped, completely helpless, and expected by her devotees to be churning out one miracle after another, suddenly exhibits marks that look remarkably like scourge marks. Hallelujah! Just like Jesus Christ!

If this had happened in a setting that did not involve religion, the authorities would be all over the case – and rightfully so. But believers accept this as a sign from their god, simply because the girl is rumored to have miracles happening around her.

That kind of thinking scares me. It scares me a lot, Niels Christian. Because where is our mercy and compassion, if we would rather attribute the scourge marks on a helpless girl to our deity, rather than have the authorities step in? Do we ignore signs of child abuse, if the child is supposed to be living evidence of the work of our god?

I sincerely hope you can see the problem. Now, you and I don’t know how the marks appeared. You have one explanation, I fear that another is the correct one. But one thing is certain: The family has made Audrey an industry. Not only can you buy the aforementioned items, you can make a pilgrimage to her chapel (previously the family garage), where you can make your prayers and ask for miracles.

If nowhere else, little Audrey Santo is definitely a saint to her family.

Postludium

When I first heard from you, I was very surprised to learn that you wanted me to remove the article. Your reason was that, since the book isn’t translated into English, people outside Denmark wouldn’t be able to tell whether I had presented your cases correctly or not.

I find that criticism quite misplaced. SkepticReport is an online magazine for skepticism and critical thinking. It is written in English, because that’s the Lingua Franca of the world today. When I started the magazine, I wanted to reach as many readers as possible, and I have achieved that goal far beyond my wildest expectations. The authors come from all parts of the world. Not just Denmark, but also Sweden, Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Chile – to name some. As you note, not all are English-speaking countries. Should I bar these authors from writing about paranormal phenomena happening in their own countries, simply because English isn’t their native tongue? That is preposterous. We live in a global world today, we cannot isolate ourselves because of language barriers. Quite contrary, we should strive to make it possible to learn as much as we can from each other.

I’ve counted the references in your book, and of the 88 listed, no less than 32 of them are in Italian, a language that remarkably few Danes understand. You also refer to texts in English, German and French. You write about purported miracles in the United States, Greece, Italy, Israel, Syria, and Bosnia. Do you really expect a Danish reader to master all these languages, to know the details of what goes on in each country? I cannot imagine that you do.

I hope you understand my reasons for keeping the article. However, I am very pleased that you have taken the time to write your criticism, and I am very happy to provide space for it. I have similarly responded to your criticism, and I hope you are also satisfied.

All the best,
Claus Larsen
Editor, SkepticReport.com

This article is the third in a series of three. The first article can be read here, and the critique of that article can be read here.