Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have much to teach us about the social, political, and even economic dynamics that produce and sustain miracle narratives and miracle traditions in particular cultures and communities (cf. Claverie 2003; Markle and McCrea 1994). Pyysiainen (2004) described how believing in miracles was the most efficient and least costly way of processing information in certain cultural settings, given our brain architecture. This chapter looks at the logic of belief and believers, and at the psychological process leading believers to embrace such narratives.
Explaining the general belief in miracles and/or acceptance of specific miracle narratives does not require us to use any concepts beyond those needed to explain the existence and prevalence of religious discourse in general. This chapter elaborates the notion that miracle narratives are prototypical religious fantasies. Secular fantasies may express improbable or impossible ideas, but there is always a unique element of religious ideation in all religious discourse. It has to do with the world of the spirits.
Defining Religious Discourse
Religious beliefs have been around for 100,000 years, or even longer, and have changed relatively little. The irreducible core common to all religions, tying humanity to the cosmos, contains the belief in spirits inhabiting an invisible world and having a relationship with us (Beit-Hallahmi 1989). All religions promote the idea of an invisible world, inhabited by gods, angels, and devils, that control much of what happens to us. Religion as a social institution is for us the mediator between the invisible supernatural or transcendent world and the visible human and natural world. That institution, with the behaviors associated with it, does not exist without the belief in the supernatural or transcendent world. Belief systems will be defined as religions only if those following them make specific references to supernatural agents or interventions. Thouless stated that what distinguished religious individuals from others is that they “believe that there is also some kind of spiritual world which makes demands on our behavior, our thinking and our feeling” (1971, 12).
The presence of the supernatural premise is the touchstone for defining behaviors as religious. What is this premise? “It is the premise of every religion—and this premise is religion’s defining characteristic—that souls, supernatural beings, and supernatural forces exist. Furthermore, there are certain, minimal categories of behavior, which, in the context of the supernatural premise, are always found in association with one another, and which are the substance of religion itself” (Wallace 1966, 52).
Similarly, William James described the coexistence of the visible and the invisible worlds:
Religion has meant many things in human history: but when from now onward I use the word I mean to use it in the supernaturalist sense, as declaring that the so-called order of nature, which constitutes this world’s experience, is only one portion of the total universe, and that there stretches beyond this visible world an unseen world of which we now know nothing positive, but in its relation to which the true significance of our present mundane life consists. A man’s religious faith … means for me essentially his faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found explained. (James  1956, 51)
Religious utterances contain both supernaturalist and naturalist claims (Beit-Hallahmi 2001). While naturalist claims are often found in religious discourse, they are not what gives religion its unique character. While a claim such as “A man named Jesus was born in Judea under Herod” is straightforward and naturalistic, though lacking any supporting evidence, it is part of a religious narrative that is anything but naturalist, and replete with miracle stories. The naturalist, mostly fictitious, claims that religions offer us are less central and less essential than miracle narratives, which dominate religious discourse everywhere. This is the substance of religion, the discourse that makes religion attractive and is designed quite consciously and purposefully to attract believers.
Religion’s most unique claim, which combines the two worlds, that of nature and that of the spirits, is the denial of death. Common to all religions is avoiding the recognition of death as the end of any individual existence, and this is one of religion’s strongest compensators (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997). “Religion, whether it be shamanism or Protestantism, rises from our apprehension of death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of religion…. Clearly we possess religion, if we want to, precisely to obscure the truth of our perishing…. When death becomes the center, then religion begins” (Bloom 1992, 29).
Frazer described religion, with “the almost universal belief in the survival of the human spirit after death” (Frazer 1933-36, v) at its center, as resulting from the fear of the dead, which is the fear of death itself. The terror of death leads to the creation of powerful psychological and cultural mechanisms (Becker 1973; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon 1995; Pyszczynski et al. 2004), religion being the most important. James described the function of religion as follows “Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race, means immortality and nothing else” (James 1961, 406).
The illusion of immortality, pivotal in all religions, is humanity’s reaction to the inevitability of death, the universal threat to every individual human. Within the religious framework, death is not a singular event occurring only once in the history of the individual, but a transition from one form of existence to another. All religions state that dying is only a passage, a transition point in the existence of the soul, as it comes out of a particular human body.
Most humans accept the supernatural premise, and its corollary: the two-worlds assumption. The two-worlds assumption leads us to two separate modes of comprehending the physical world. The first is that of observing physical events and coping with them through much hardship, as we eat bread in the sweat of our faces, and constantly confront suffering, frustration, and injustice. The second is the notion of exceptions to hard work, frustration, and suffering in this world, which constitute miracles. For most religious people their particular tradition is experienced through routine rituals, rather than ecstasy. There are no miracles, no religious crises, and no mystical experiences in their own lives, so that any claims about exceptional events easily stand out.
Millions of miracle narratives have been circulating in human history, many obviously reused and recycled. Each one of the approximately 10,000 religions currently active on earth has claimed a few. Miracles are, for those who believe in them, natural material events that imply an intervention by supernatural forces. They are often defined as events that seem to violate our sense of the laws of nature or the order of nature, but the point of the supernatural premise is to tell us that the true order of nature includes entities and actions that transcend our mundane experiences.
Miracles are believed to take place in this world, not in the invisible world of the spirits. This is their most important characteristic in the framework of religious discourse. They are believed to occur through the intercession of benevolent spirits, but their effects are totally material, palpable, and provable to the believers, in naturalist terms. When it comes to explaining disease and cures, what is unique about miracles is not a deficient knowledge of physiology, for such can be found in many purely secular assertions, but the claimed intervention by the great spirits.
Reports of miracles deal chiefly with being saved from immanent death, either through a hostile attack or through life-threatening illness. In the Roman Catholic Church today, miracles are defined as cases of great suffering and danger, in which a physical solution is inadequate, and a special contact with a saint, such as putting his picture on the patient’s body, praying to him, or making pilgrimage to his tomb, is followed by a total recovery, not explainable by the physicians involved. The only explanation then is an intercession by a saint, who, from his or her abode in the world of the spirits, chose to intervene in physiological processes occurring in this material world. To the Roman Catholic Church, the recovery must be proven with standard medical tests, including modern imaging devices.
The idea of mana, a powerful essence found in some objects, is reflected in common beliefs about places and persons that are imbued with the ability of causing miracles. Special miracle-making powers have been attributed to kings, saints, or sacred objects. Pilgrimages to special locations all over the world are initiated in the hope of finding miracle cures, visiting relics such as a hair from the beard of the prophet Muhammad, or tombs, places in which apparitions have been reported, or just mountains considered sacred since time immemorial.
A few years ago I visited the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal and had a chance to observe hundreds of pairs of crutches hanging from the ceiling, evidence of miracle cures effected by the resident saint. Lourdes, France, is one of the best-known pilgrimage sites in the world since the nineteenth century and is the scene of numerous reported miracles (Cranston 1957). As Paloutzian (1996) pointed out, actual cure rates at Lourdes are lower than expected from what we know about spontaneous remissions of serious illness, which do occur sometimes. Sometimes the miracle-making object can come to believers who experience its power:
Eight miles from Lyesopolye lay the village of Obnino, possessing a miraculous icon. A procession started from Obnino every summer bearing the wonder-working icon and making the round of all the neighboring villages. The church-bells would ring all day long first in one village, then in another, and to little Pavel (His Reverence was called little Pavel then) the air itself seemed tremulous with rapture. (Chekhov 1915/1979, 279)
Claims about persons with special powers can be found today all over the world.
Dan Stratton is the founder and pastor of the Faith Exchange Fellowship, a fundamentalist Christian congregation in Manhattan’s financial district. His wife Ann is described as a born-again miracle worker, “whose prayers once supposedly raised a German au pair from the dead on the street in front of the Blue Moon Mexican Cafe in Englewood, N.J.” (Chafets 2006, 21).
Ann Stratton told the congregation that, thanks to her prayers,
A woman with brain cancer was healed, another was saved from a hysterectomy and a man came out of a seemingly permanent coma … a little deaf boy regained his hearing; … her prayers replaced a blind eye in a woman’s socket with a healthy, perfectly matched green eyeball. And then, in Engle-wood, the au pair came back from the dead…. Today that woman’s alive and well in Germany. Say, “Amen!” (Chafets 2006, 21).
Dan Stratton testifies: “She’s a prayer warrior. That woman in Englewood was gone, she was dead weight; I picked her up myself. But Annie refused to give up on her until she came back to life. That happened. I saw it. Not figuratively. Literally” (Chafets 2006, 21). Despite much effort, the Faith Exchange Fellowship has had trouble finding a suitable permanent home in lower Manhattan, which proves that raising the dead can be easier than negotiating the New York City real estate market.
Foundational and Confirmatory Revelations
Mythologies, written or orally transmitted, tell us about the creation of the cosmic order and the centrality of humans in that order. This, of course, is miraculous, and so is the revelation of the cosmic plan. All revelations, that is, the transmission of messages from the spirit world to humans, are miracles. Some miraculous events that have led to the founding of religions were individual illuminations such as Buddha’s celebrated recognition of human suffering and mortality (Beit-Hallahmi 2006-2007). In addition, all mythologies offer us the stories of those saved miraculously from death through divine intervention at the right moment: Perseus, Krishna, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, Moses, and the baby Jesus, to name a few.
While all religions report foundational revelations, events that led to their founding, many traditions have room for confirmatory revelations, which reinforce and sustain long-held beliefs. These are apparitions in which specific messages from the spirit world are conveyed, or the presence of spirits and gods is directly felt. Most are made public, while a few remain private. One of the best-known confirmatory revelations in modern history was reported by the great mathematician Blaise Pascal. On Monday, November 23, 1654, Pascal had a vision in which he saw, in his own words: “Fire. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.” Pascal chose not to make the revelation public during his lifetime (Cole 1996).
In some religious traditions, we find congregations and individuals practicing faith healing, the origin of many reported miracles (Rose 1971; Harrell 1985; Randi 1989). There have been some follow-up studies of some of those treated. Glik (1986) interviewed 176 individuals who had attended charismatic and other healing groups, and compared them with 137 who had received regular primary care. Those who had been to healing groups reported better health and subjective well-being, though their actual physical state was no different. Pattison, Lapins, and Doerr (1973) analyzed 71 cases of healings at healing services; 62 “recoveries” took place during the service, half of them suddenly; 50 had been suffering from serious illnesses.
Again there was no actual change in physical condition or life-style; what had changed was their subjective condition. They believed that they had been healed by the casting out of sin. Their MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) profiles showed that these “recovered” individuals engaged in denial. In both of these studies the changes were improved in subjective health, and not in actual physical condition. Miettinen (1990, in Holm, 1991) studied extensively 611 cases of healings in Finland. The findings were that there was no evidence of any physical improvement, but the clients, 450 women and 161 men, of limited education and social status, experienced a subjective change, attributed to suggestibility and personal instability.
Sometimes it is claimed that in death, saintly bodies show no evidence of decay, believed to be incorruptible, thanks to the saintly qualities of the souls formerly residing in them. Testimonies about the imperishable bodies of saints are found in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism (e.g., Lenhoff 1993). In some cases the naturally mummified bodies of religious teachers became the objects of worship and pilgrimage. The mummified, well-preserved body of the Buryat Lama Itigelov, who died in 1927, can be seen at www.neplaneta.ru . His disciples claim that before dying, he asked to be exhumed. Since 2002 the body has been on display for venerating pilgrims. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the notion of the Odor of Sanctity refers to the specific scent, often compared to that of flowers, that emanates from the dead bodies of saints. St. Frances Cabrini, whose body is on display in upper Manhattan, is said to be incorruptible. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a saintly monk’s body is expected to remain fresh after death, and its normal, mortal decomposition creates a scandal and a crisis of faith.
Establishing Plausibility and Authority
The first goal for every group is survival, which necessitates the creation of a common worldview. Group cohesion, created by common loyalties to imaginary beings, has great survival value. Miracle narratives, whether foundational or confirmatory, buttress and provide evidence for the validity of particular religious assertions. “These narratives are decisive proof of the truth of the group’s particular religious message. The authority of Jesus was established for the early church by the resurrection, the virgin birth, and one other important group of phenomena, the miracles he performed in the course of his ministry” (Anderson and Fischer 1966, 179).
A new tradition has to establish its authority, power, and uniqueness. This leads to a valued identity, for individuals and for the whole group. The community of believers is united in accepting a particular authority, but it is naturally challenged, and this sometimes takes the form of doubting specific narratives tied to foundational beliefs.
“If Christ be preached, that he rose again from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again. And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor 15:12-14). This is a relatively modern formulation of the basic problem of all supernaturalist belief systems.
Impossible and improbable narratives are simply vital to faith. They constitute proof that those who speak for the world of the spirits are indeed in direct contact with it, and that the great spirits do intervene in mundane reality to reward those of faith and devotion. Moreover, they serve to persuade us, not about the reality of the world of the spirits in general, but about one particular belief system and one particular claim to authority. The narratives demonstrate that a particular tradition, inspired by “our” great spirits, is better and stronger than traditions based on spirits worshipped by other collectivities. “Our” miracles are clearly superior to theirs. Superiority and self-esteem are vital psychological supplies, provided by religions, and often, with less of an impact, by other ideologies.
The process of establishing religious plausibility through miracle narratives can be closely observed in the case of newly formed religions. The history of Mormonism is a case in point. This is a U.S. Christian-polytheistic millenarian group, founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-44) in 1830 in northern New York State. At age 14 Smith declared he had spoken with God. Later he had other visions, during some of which he claimed an ancient book, written on four tablets, was given to him. He claimed to have transcribed this text, which has become known as The Book of Mormon and has given its name to the Mormon church. The Book of Mormon is believed to be an ancient revelation to the inhabitants of America, written in Egyptian. This book is the movement’s main scripture (Taves 1984).
The case of theosophy is similar. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 at 46 Irving Place, New York City, by Helena Pterovna Blavatsky (1831-91), who first attracted public attention as a spirit medium. Madame Blavtasky claimed to have spent about 40 years traveling in the East, especially Tibet, and meeting the Masters of Ancient Wisdom, or the Adepts. Actually, she was born in Russia, married General Blavatsky at 17, and a year later ran away. There is no proof of any early travels to India or anywhere else in Asia, but she is known to have founded a spiritualist group in Cairo around 1870. In 1874 she came to the United States and gained some attention as a defender of Spiritualism.
Madame Blavatsky claimed that she had been chosen by a Buddha incarnation named Tsongkha-pa to be guided by two secret masters in the Himalayas, known as the Mahatma Morya and the Mahatma Koot Hoomi, in order to save the world. The Mahatmas are one rung in the hierarchy of perfected beings (the White Brotherhood, the Adepts, the Masters, the Mahatmas), who really supervise the evolution of this world. Blavatsky’s followers reported many cases of communications from the Adepts, including written messages (Williams 1946).
Both Joseph Smith, Jr., and Madame Blavatsky took unnecessary risks by claiming physical evidence for their revelations in the form of golden tablets or written letters. This laid them open to ridicule and criticism. Some of Blavatsky’s claims for supernatural powers and contacts were investigated in India in 1884 by Richard Hodgson of the London Society for Psychical Research, who denounced them as a fraudulent trickery. This was the first in a series of such denunciations.
What about exceptions to the rule that miracle narratives are vital to faith? We can think about mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States, whose austere traditions do not celebrate miracle cures or institute public displays of deserted crutches. But followers of these traditions, if they proclaim any faith, still believe in some foundational miracle narratives.
Prophecies and Promises: Apocalyptic Narratives
All miracle stories are but minor variations on the great theme of victory over death. Miracles are reminders that indeed nature could be overcome by the power of the spirits. Those who can negotiate with the spirits in the right way will enjoy these minor victories. They will also remember that bigger ones are in store for each one of them individually, when they join the world of the spirits, as well as collectively, for those believers who will survive to see the coming of the eschaton, the end of the world.
Prophecies are promises of miracles to come, and prominent among them are apocalyptic narratives that appear in many religions. The essential ingredients of such ideas are first a total destruction of the world as we know it at present, and then a birth of a “new heaven and a new earth,” for the elect, who are only a remnant of humanity. In addition to the well-known end-of-times historical traditions, there are many cases of new religious movements in which apocalyptic dreams are prominent. Even before our eventual death, we all frequently experience suffering, frustration, and failure. The eschatological vision is about eliminating both death and injustice. The promise is of overcoming the limitations and presses of the body in life and in death, as well as a victory of justice over evil. The dream is of the resurrection, Judgment Day, and the abolition of death. The profane world of the body and its demands has to be destroyed. Who can resist the wishes for a victory of justice and life over evil and death?
The eschaton is the time when human history ends and what we know intuitively as the laws of nature are abolished. In the apocalyptic worldview, only the true believers, a segment of humanity, have been chosen to share in the secret of total redemption and to bring it about. Eschatological dreams promise us an end to the cycle of birth and death. In addition to our cosmic victory over nature, whose laws are to be abolished, there will be a human victory of our own group of the elect over all others. With the coming eschaton, believers may be in ecstasy, because they are living at the center of history and at the heart of the cosmos. This is the climax of the universal religious drama, played out on the cosmic stage. Following rebirth through blood and fire, birth and death will disappear. There will be no body, no aggression, and no sex.
Modern religions loudly proclaiming the coming eschaton include not only Jehovah’s Witnesses and ISKCON (Hare Krishna), but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) that promises upheavals and catastrophes that would leave only the Mormons unharmed, the Baha’i movement that promises a global catastrophe, and Osho Meditation (formerly known as Rajneesh Foundation International) that offered many proclamations of catastrophes. Only Rajneesh followers may survive. Rajneesh and his followers often discussed an expected cataclysm that would end life on earth. In 1983 Rajneesh predicted an earthquake that would devastate much of the West Coast. In 1984 he announced that AIDS was the scourge predicted by Nostradamus, and billions would die from it within the next decade, and in 1985 he predicted floods, earthquakes, and nuclear war within the next decade.
A recent version of the end-of-times fantasy is the idea of the true believers being saved by a spaceship and moved to another galaxy, following the total destruction of all life on planet earth. These ideas have been circulating for many decades and have been made famous by the often-cited, but rarely read, book by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter (1956). This was an observational study of a religious group, founded by a “Mrs. Keech” in the early 1950s in a major U.S. metropolis. The founder claimed to have had information from a source, Sananda, that was both extraterrestrial and divine about the coming end of the world. Sananda was the Jesus of Christian mythology. She announced to the world that on a specified date, December 24, 1953, all of humanity would perish, except group members, who would be taken away in a spaceship.
A similar fantasy led to the tragedies of Heaven’s Gate and the Solar Temple, in which cases the collective death ritual was intended to lead members to a rebirth on another planet (Beit-Hallahmi 2001). Heaven’s Gate, first known as Bo and Peep, or the Higher Source, was a Christian-UFO group started in 1975 in Los Angeles by a former music professor, Marshall Herff Applewhite (1932-97), and a registered nurse, Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles (1928-85), who met in the early 1970s in Texas. The couple called themselves Bo and Peep, and were also known as Winnie and Pooh, Chip and Dale, Do and Ti, “The Him and the Her,” or “The Two,” in reference to a New Testament prophecy about two witnesses. The group’s doctrine was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM), aiming at the liberation of humans from the endless cycle of reincarnation.
The leaders claimed that they would fulfill an ancient prophecy by being assassinated and then coming back to life three and a half days later. Following the resurrection, they would be lifted up by a UFO to the divine kingdom in outer space. Members traveled around the United States recruiting new followers and proclaiming their prophecies. They were promised immortality, androgyneity, and perfection, provided they followed the group rules. Members agreed, in preparation for the outer space journey, to get rid of most material possessions and worldly attachments, including family and work. They wore uniform clothing and identical haircuts. Marriage and sexual relations were also forbidden.
Bonnie Nettles died in 1985 of cancer, and then the group started operating in complete secrecy. Applewhite told his followers that Bonnie Nettles was actually his divine father. In late March 1997, 39 group members, including Applewhite, committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, by ingesting barbiturates and alcohol. They were found lying on bunk beds, wearing cotton pants, black shirts, and sneakers. Most of them were covered with purple shrouds. They all carried on them passports and driver’s licenses, as well as small change. The victims ranged in age from 26 to 72, but 21 were in their forties. There were 21 females and 18 males. In videotaped statements read before committing suicide, members stated that they were taking this step in preparation for an expected encounter with extraterrestrials, arriving in a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet. It was discovered after their deaths that some of the male group members had been castrated several years before.
Making a prophecy that specifies the date of the coming apocalypse leads to unnecessary problems, because it always leads to what nonbelievers would regard as a public disconfirmation. This has not stopped scores of group leaders in modern times from making such prophecies. These prophecy failures have sometimes led to visible crisis or collapse. In other cases the prophecies have been reinterpreted or reformulated, as religious and secular belief systems are typically flexible enough to accommodate such failures (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997).
Believing In Miracles
Two international surveys conducted during 1991 and 1993 by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) looked at religious beliefs in 17 countries, including data on the belief in miracles. These were the questions:
- God: I know God exists and I have no doubts about it.
- Afterlife: I definitely believe in life after death.
- Bible: The Bible is the actual word of God, to be taken literally, word for word.
- Devil: I definitely believe in the Devil.
- Hell: I definitely believe in Hell.
- Heaven: I definitely believe in Heaven.
- Miracle: I definitely believe in religious miracles.
These findings show that belief in miracles is in most cases correlated with other religious beliefs, as it should be. The United States leads the 17 nations studied in terms of the level of beliefs in miracles, heaven, afterlife, and hell. This is consistent with what we have known for a long time about religiosity in the United States.
Religious beliefs in general, including the belief in miracles, dologya universal human optimism about existence and the cosmos, the material world. The experience of the past few centuries has shown that an extremely optimistic worldview is possible within an atheistic framework, but historically, religion has been the cultural institution embodying and expressing the propensity to be hopeful. This is selected by evolutionary pressures (Greeley 1981). It is a classic adaptive response to the challenges of life. It should be noted that secular optimism, as exemplified by Condorcet or Marx, is historical, rather than cosmic. It hopes for a change in the social order, but not in any laws of nature. It does not expect to conquer death, but assumes human progress in this world only (cf. Fromm 1947).
The survival value of optimism is clear (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997). In the face of death and of life’s many difficulties, humanity must come up with a basic optimism, a persistent hope, that has essential survival value (Tiger 1979). This evolutionary optimism is reinforced by the experiences of infancy. Early human experience, starting with any individual conception, may be viewed as a series of miracles. An invisible hand seems to protect those of us who have survived infancy. This survival was in itself highly uncertain until recent times. We can understand why mythology and fairy tales express the idea of children under threat of desertion and extinction, and why dangers are squarely projected on parents, whose power makes them into the witches, fairies, gods, or angels of fantasy. As we grow up, we realize that powerful gods have been on our side so far, and we assume that our luck will not run out.
Hebb (1955) hypothesized that higher mammals are more vulnerable to emotional breakdown, because with greater development of intelligence, the susceptibility to imagined dangers and unreasoning suspicion is greater. Humans are protected by the protective cocoon of culture. Illusory beliefs, rituals, and art seem to have no survival value, but on reflection we realize that they play an important role in relieving anxiety and allowing culture to survive (cf. Becker 1973; Greenberg et al. 1995; Pyszczyns et al. 2004).
The content of religious beliefs may be related to a basic optimistic gullibility, displayed by humans on many occasions (mostly secular). The human tendency towards magical thinking, errors in judgment, and distortion of reality has been documented often enough. Observations of children’s thinking (Piaget 1962, 1967) have noted its domination by magical notions, false causality, egocentricity, and animism. Studies of adult reasoning show it to be frequently deficient, with basic rules of evidence and logic ignored or selectively followed. Both Psychoanalysis and modern cognitive psychology agree on the basic human difficulty in paying reality its due.
The Question of Reality Testing
Is it possible that the belief in miracles is the result of some deficiency in the ego’s capacity for reality testing? The content of many religious narratives invokes an oneiric mode of experiencing, presenting events that defy logic, and that are not just improbable but impossible and absurd. When we hear religious narratives, we often know that we are in a fairy tale mode. One may ask whether a conscious commitment to religious ideation would not undermine reality testing in general. When we listen to stories about disembodied voices coming from heaven and to fantasies about miracles and promised triumphs, we have to ask to what extent accepting such ideas affects one’s negotiations with social and physical reality, and whether it does not betray a real character flaw in the believer.
The question of explaining religion within the psychopathology framework has been clearly posed: “There is no doubt that hallucinations and delusions of any sort, religious or not, are abnormal phenomena … Must we accept the idea that in some of its beliefs religion is a form of collective schizophrenia, and in some of its practices a form of obsessive-compulsive psychoneurosis, different from the psychiatric syndromes because it is socially acceptable?” (Arieti 1976, 252).
Indeed, the first fact to consider in this context is that religious individuals have not invented their religion. Religious beliefs are usually acquired through social learning (Argyle 1958; Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi 1975; Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997). These ideas are not private creations. The social learning of religion presents religious ideas, which may be crazy, as part of social reality.
There is no religious behavior without a prior exposure to specific religious ideas. We know that the content of mystical visions, the most intense and personal of religious acts, is wholly predictable from exposure to certain ideas, which are always learned. Visions of the Holy Virgin occur exclusively among Catholics or those exposed to Catholic ideas. It has never occurred among orthodox Muslims, and we understand why. If social learning is indeed the more important variable in creating religiosity, then social variables, rather than personality variables, should be more successful in predicting it. The question to be answered in the study of individual religiosity becomes the individual’s reaction to cultural traditions.
The received social consensus may have little to do with individual dynamics. “[T]he most significant difference between a religion, as held by a person, and a state of systematized delusion resides in the element of social participation. Some people necessary to the particular person have incorporated in their several personalities approximately the same structure of transcendental beliefs and rituals … there is a community of assumptions … It is not necessary to set up a special teaching situation in order to inculcate in the young the most consistent and constantly manifested traits of the family culture complex. Very special educative situations indeed are needed if one is to eradicate the effects of this most facile sort of acculturation. It is safe to assume that the nucleus of one’s personal religion has been acquired in this automatic way” (Sullivan 1964, 81).
Social learning may imbue certain prelogical or paleological ideas with apparent immunity to critical thinking. Arieti (1956, 1976) has referred to paleologic thinking as “the foundation of many societal or collective manifestations: rituals, magic, customs, and beliefs that are transmitted from generation to generation and accepted without questions being raised as to their validity.”
La Barre (1970) suggested that not only was religion the expression of impaired reality testing, but that its practices were likely to lead to greater problems. There are certainly numerous examples of catastrophes caused by religious ideas, but our observations of religious individuals and communities show that their adjustment to reality is, in most cases, quite good. One explanation is that religious beliefs are used selectively and kept marginal or compartmentalized in everyday life, and that believers know well the limits of acting on faith. It is possible to conceive of them as illustrating the mechanism of “regression in the service of the ego” (Beit-Hallahmi 1989). Psychoanalytic ego psychology has suggested that there is a natural limit to rational reality testing, and the tension of rationality is relieved by opportunities for controlled and limited regression from reality. It is this mechanism, which is not only normal but productive, that creates both art and religion.
Miracles and Metamorphosis
Most miracle stories relate unlikely physical events, but the domain of religious discourse includes narratives of psychological miracles, which are rare and dramatic transformations that have turned miserable humans into purposeful, happy beings. Some individuals report solitary events of experiences leading to religious conversion, which often make up a significant part of religious discourse. Beyond the dramatic, subjective “experience” we can find evidence for true changes in behavior and functioning, a true miracle cure, putting previously uncontrollable drives under control.
What characterizes the convert is an intensity of commitment, emotion, and activity. The testimonials follow a narrative formula, as the convert’s autobiography is divided into Before and After. Life until the moment of epiphany is described as wasted, a total mistake, or as a providential sequence leading up to the epiphany. Every sin must be confessed so that the power of redemption is magnified (Arendt 1979).
A conscious self-transformation is openly proclaimed, as the convert relates how a past of doubt and error has been transformed into wholeness in one great moment of insight, order, and certainty. What was once fragmented and decentered is made coherent, at least in its conscious center. The new self is not just triumphant but triumphalist, expecting us to follow its example. The convert’s emotional state reminds us of romantic love, which brings about exhilaration, euphoria, self-confidence, and intense energy (cf. Fisher 2004).
Offering the conversion testimonial is a real test for the new self, first because it is a public confession, exposing sins and weaknesses, and then because it is a public, self-enforcing act of commitment (bridge burning). Religious conversion has been a classical topic in the psychology of religion, starting with William James and Edwin D. Starbuck in the late nineteenth century. But both James and Starbuck were looking at converts from the outside, with fascination, amazement, and curiosity, rather than identification. We admire converts, and some of them, especially talented or charismatic ones, become culture heroes, such as Thomas Merton (1948), but we reject, with James and Starbuck, their accounts of divine intervention.
The ability to really change is considered a major achievement and an ideal in modern culture, which promotes an imaginary triumph of an uncovered, authentic self. The common theme of reorganizing the self around a new center is modern, together with the (mostly imagined) freedom to choose or reconstruct one’s identity. More recently, the search for a social utopia is being replaced by the private utopia of the reinvented self. If we cannot change the world, we are told that we can change ourselves.
The Miracle of Max Jacob (1879-1944)
Max Jacob’s story is an enigmatic story, full of contradictions, tragedies, and secrets. Fhima (2002) described Jacob’s “symbiosis of paradoxical identities”: Jew, avant-garde artist, homosexual, convert, Catholic writer, and Jewish martyr. Jacob is remembered as a minor painter and a remarkable poet. A member of an explosively talented group, among whom were Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Amadeo Modigliani, he is immortalized in portraits by Picasso and Modigliani, and in hundreds of photographs and film clips in which he always appears next to Picasso.
In 1934 Jacob gave extended interviews (Guiette 1934) that provide us with the best source for the way in which he wanted his life to be remembered. What Jacob tells us about his childhood is heartrending. He was physically abused by his parents and siblings, and tried to commit suicide three times. At age 13 he was taken to Paris for treatment by the great neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Jacob was a brilliant student, and his artistic talents were noted early. At age 19 he came to Paris with 29 francs, stolen from his mother. Trying his hand at various jobs and careers to survive, he graduated from law school, but chose painting as a career. In 1901 he met Pablo Picasso, and the two became inseparable. In 1905, the two met Guillaume Apollinaire, and made a threesome that stayed together till Apollinaire’s death in 1918.
In the 1934 interview Jacob denied his homosexuality and improbably reported a love affair with a married woman, using her real name. He states that the only moments in his life he would like to relive were the first night with his lover, and the “sacred moment of God’s first appearance to him, six years later” (p. 18). He reveals that he arranged to have a painting exhibited at the Salon des Independants so that his lover, Mme. Germaine Pfeipfer, would show up, only to be rebuffed by him. When she did, he was in the company of Picasso and Braque, who found her very pretty. He found her grotesque.
In 1909, in his rented room at 7 rue Ravignan, came the revelation, whose text is somewhat reminiscent of Pascal’s 1654 testimonial:
There was somebody on the wall, “Truth, truth, tears of truth, joy of truth, unforgettable truth, the Divine Body is on the wall of this poor room…. What beauty, elegance, and delicacy! His shoulders, his bearing! He wears a yellow silk robe with blue cuffs. He turns and I see his peaceful and shining face. Six monks bring a cadaver into the room. A woman with snakes around her arms and hair is next to me.
The angel: “Innocent, you have seen God. You don’t understand your happiness.”
Me: “Cry, Cry I am a poor human beast.”
The angel: “The Devil has departed, He will come back.”
Me: “The Devil, yes.” (Guiette 1934, 254-55)
While this happened in 1909, Jacob was baptized on February 18, 1915, through the order of Notre Dame de Sion, founded by the Ratisbonne brothers (cf. James 1902). In 1921 Jacob escaped the temptations of the big city for the deserted monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, and spent much of his time there, continuing his literary activities. He also became a supporter of L’Action Francaise, a fascist, monarchist, anti-Semitic movement. This did not help when the Nazis came, and he had to wear the yellow star. Arrested in February 1944, Jacob died the following month in the Drancy concentration camp, near Paris, on the way to Auschwitz, where most of his family died.
Jacob’s conversion was not externally rewarded in any way. It was not only a negation of his family, but of his social network as well. Some of his friends thought the whole thing was a joke, another game played by a surrealistic clown. What we realize is that in the midst of all the Bohemian gaiety, Jacob was the sad clown, feeling as unloved and lonely as he did in childhood. His eyes had “all the sadness of the Jews,” according to Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, the Jewish art dealer and another member of his circle (Warnod 1975, 106). The conversion created center and balance, but Jacob, by his own admission, still had all the character traits found in him before 1909. They were only differently colored.
Explaining Personal Transformations: Internal Strife and Internal Peace
Conversions seem like real miracles, unplanned initiations into certainty in old or newly found beliefs. But both religious experiences and conversions are ultimately social in their sources and consequences. Sharing infrequent private revelations and conversions with the majority of believers becomes a major ritual and a source of confidence for both converts and their audiences. The dream of metamorphosis for individuals and collectivities is nourished by the example of individual, miraculous transformations.
While we are ready to believe in dramatic change, we offer secular, psychological explanations for such occurrences. When it comes to psychological miracles, we feel that we can figure out the causal processes with some (speculative) precision. The psychodynamic assumption is that both positive and negative changes mean an internal change in an unconscious system of representations (Beit-Hallahmi 1996). The source of self-reported rebirth is the resolution of conscious and unconscious conflicts, worked through a series of conscious and unconscious fantasies, to produce an attachment to a set of delusional beliefs. Every successful case of individual rebirth is the result of an internal truce among opposing personality elements.
The psychodynamic view of conversion (Freud 1928) delineates an unconscious conflict, resolved through a sudden reorganization of impulses and attachments. The ego is invested in a new love object, and this leads to higher self-esteem and a better performance of life’s tasks. This internalized object may serve as a new superego, supplying the ego with an impulse control system, which has been missing.
The specific content of religious beliefs and commitments is irrelevant, and conscious religious certainty reflects the internal state of the ego. The outer peace and happiness observed in many converts is the result of an inner truce between ego and superego. What is achieved through superego victory is reconciliation with one’s father and with all paternal authorities, gods included. While, on the surface, distance from the parents may be growing, the convert experiences an internal, imaginary reconciliation.
Antecedents To Metamorphosis
In both individuals and societies, religious awakening is tied to crises and anxieties. Millennial movements, Cargo Cults, and Ghost Dances have always followed catastrophes (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997); and conversion is most often preceded by personal crisis, stress, and demoralization (Beit-Hallahmi 1992; Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997; Paloutzian, Richardson, and Rambo 1999; Starbuck 1899).
Parental loss is common in the early lives of converts and leaders. Muhammad, George Fox, and Ann Lee are just a few of the religious founders who were orphaned early in life. The historical founders of religions might have experienced a conversion through “creative illness,” “Spontaneous and rapid recovery accompanied by a feeling of elation … the conviction of having discovered a grandiose truth that must be proclaimed to mankind” (Ellenberger 1970, 449-50). In a study of modern United States televangelists, an absent father, and admiration for one’s mother, were uniformly reported in autobiographies. Well-controlled studies found that converts’ relations with their parents are in most cases problematic.
Any desire for change must stem from dissatisfaction with the present, and a desire for radical change must stem from a radical dissatisfaction. Strozier (1994), in a study based on extensive interviews with members of apocalyptic communities, suggested that the transformation to fundamentalism, shared by millions of Americans, is a reaction to insecurity, fear, and rage. This is how the inner motivation of converts seems to be shaped. Those likely to report dramatic conversions are also likely to be socially isolated (Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi 1975; Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997).
Psychological readiness, vulnerability, or individual psychopathology may be called upon to explain why particular individuals, and not others in similar social situations, have chosen, or have grown into, conversion experiences. The minority of individuals who report experiencing conversion may be regarded as being more vulnerable and more disturbed in terms of psychopathology (Olsson 1983).
Conversion has been an adolescent phenomenon, and according to Anna Freud (1966), adolescent preoccupation with religious ideas is one way of coping with instincts. The ego finds many ways of controlling them, including the neurotic, regressive solution of religious conversion (cf. Blos 1979). The vocabulary of psychopathology does not lack terms to describe those more likely to find their salvation in religion or in secular miracles: dependent and inadequate personalities, borderline personalities, hysterical tendencies leading to dissociative states, or outright psychosis. There is a parallel, noted by James (1902), between the psychological state of despair, preceding the experience of conversion or salvation, and the elation and happiness following it. One might suggest that the intensity of any salvation experience is going to be matched by the despair that preceded it. It is those disturbed individuals, often quite seriously, who are more likely to experience such sudden transformations that, in themselves, are evidence of severe pathology. The enthusiastic believers who tell us about their conversion may be covering up a deep depression.
Pruyser (1968) suggested that sudden religious conversion is an indication of a severe psychological crisis, and, at the same time, a way of warding off a total breakdown. He recommended that “sudden conversions in people whose religious traditions do not demand them … must be carefully evaluated in the religio-cultural background of the person” (Malony and Spilka 1991, 128). Similarly, Erikson (1968) described severe identity confusion as a serious form of pathology, from which some recover successfully and creatively (instancing William James), while others do not, sinking further into psychosis. Boisen stated that both religious experiences and psychosis are capable of producing a dramatic change in the self, whether salvation or disintegration, and described cases where a religious conversion is closely followed by a psychotic breakdown (Boisen 1945).
Preschizophrenic adolescents show a preoccupation with philosophical, religious, and metaphysical ideas (Moller and Husby 2000). In most cases, this leads to a full-blown psychosis, sometimes combined with a self-defined conversion: “The initial ineffable self-transformation is being progressively infused with content, reflected by new interests in the Buddhist thought and motivated by charismatic and eschatological concerns” (Parnas and Handest 2003, 131).
The Consequences of Metamorphosis
Converts want us to believe they have profoundly changed; this is part of what defines them. One change we must take seriously is self-reports about elevated self-esteem and mood. Even if what happens is a change in self-presentation, such a change is highly significant. After all, spontaneous self-presentation is what we use in diagnosing depression or schizophrenia. James (1902) and Starbuck (1899) reported a period of elation in the wake of conversion that led to higher self-esteem, and this is supported by more recent research (Zinnbauer and Pargament 1998). Ho-Yee Ng (2002) studied individuals treated for drug addiction and found that conversion led to significant positive changes in self-esteem and self-perception.
Joining a new and supportive community of believers may be therapeutic, but in many cases this cannot prevent another breakdown (Witztum, Greenberg, and Dasberg 1990). One modern observer claimed that it was easy “to discern in all the ties with mysticoreligious or philosophico-religious sects and communities the manifestations of distorted cures of all kinds of neuroses” (Freud 1921, 132). In a study using converts and controls, Paloutzian (1981) found that Purpose in Life scores were significantly higher following conversion. Relief from distress has been reported in many studies (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997). On specific measures of mental health, results are more ambiguous, but conversion is helpful as a treatment for drug abuse. Despite the evidence for higher self-esteem, better impulse control, and reduction in anomie, basic personality structures do not change (Paloutzian, Richardson, and Rambo 1999), and that is what Max Jacob already told us in 1934.
One problem with psychological rebirth is its inherent instability. Individual conversion (as well as its effects) is rather precarious and susceptible to reversals. Following the dramatic events surrounding conversion, there is decline in excitement and gratification. The individual is always in danger of reverting to the old self, because of internal psychological or external reasons.
We all suffer existential anxieties, but vulnerability and deprivation, together with an openness to religious ideas, are what cause individuals to reach high levels of ego-involvement in religion (cf. Merton 1948). The painful histories and psychological triumphs of the twice-born virtuosi have made them the leaders, models, and creators of religious traditions. We in the Western world are ready to take seriously the possibility of radical transformation and renewal in the context of religious fantasies, but since the beginning of the psychology of religion in the nineteenth century, we have thought that we can offer cogent psychological, nonreligious explanations for their occurrence. We do not believe in physical miracles, but we are ready to accept claims about psychological transformations and dramatic reductions in self-destructive behaviors. We are eager to believe in the possibility of psychological change for the better, even though we are skeptical about similar physical changes in the absence of biomedical intervention.
We can observe miraculous transformations in the absence of any religious faith or rhetoric, and we can assume that the internal dynamics are just as described above: the powerful attachment to a new/old love object. Love can transform an accursed life into a blessed one. Abraham (1925) described the case of an impostor, a young man with a criminal record, who joined the German Army in World War I, and continued his criminal career in the military, always charming, always on the run, always finding willing victims. After the war he was still a criminal telling tall tales, always being believed. Then came the great transformation in the form of real love, and the impostor became a decent human being. There was no talk of enlightenment or satori, but a true rebirth.
The remarkable story of Jane Edna Hunter (1940) is another case of a secular, private metamorphosis through an emotional experience of reliving her dead mother’s love, which imbued a young woman in crisis with the power to become a leader. Coming from a background of great poverty, and with the help of significant personal talents, this African-American woman became a major organizer, a benefactor, and a model to others.
In secular psychotherapy we can observe a few cases of real transformation, despite the lack of evidence for its overall efficacy, and the exaggerated claims offered by advocates, which sound much like religious testimonials. What can be called psychotherapy conversions occur, first, thanks to the attachment to the psychotherapist, a powerful love object (Freud 1940), who may supersede earlier ones, and cause a new ego-ideal to be formed. In some kinds of psychotherapy the client develops a new identity, through the discovery of recovered trauma memories or even multiple personalities. The life of such clients is divided into Before and After, as they celebrate their new identity as victims of long-hidden trauma. The diagnostic label (e.g., dissociative personality disorder, PTSD) and the recovered memories of childhood events provide an identity and a meaning system: I have been victimized by monsters, and now I can take my revenge by exposing evil deeds and gaining respect in this world.
Interpretation: Shadow and Substance
Religion has been the dominant meaning system in human history, because it puts human existence into a framework of design, intention, and purpose. Human life is viewed not only as an integral part of a cosmic plan, but as being at the center of this plan. Clearly, this is one of the most gratifying illusion humans can ever create, and it is inextricably tied to some other gratifying illusions. Every religion in its turn brings us the good news of a great miracle, which is that humans possess an eternal soul, and thus can overcome the reality of death. Humans have been enjoying this miracle, which is the essence of religion, for countless generations.
The promise of everlasting life is to be grasped and held on to, for nothing could be more pleasing and reassuring. All supernaturalism is predicated on the notion of suspending the limitations that we all are sadly subject to in everyday life. If you start with the denial of death, other aspects of reality are likely to be ignored, and thus, in religious discourse, we are used to improbable or impossible things. Moreover, many religions tell us not only that each of us will live eternally through our souls, but that we can expect death to be eventually abolished when the end of this world comes, and those who deserve it live in a reality of bliss, justice, and eternal life right here on earth. So the good news of all religions is not the solution to individual death anxiety, but a triumph of good over evil, and all life over death. Religious assertions quite explicitly aim at going above and beyond nature, which necessarily means moving to the realm of human fantasy, guided by desire. The religious imagination is a great human triumph over nature, most directly expressed in the denial of death.
All supernaturalist beliefs are really about miracles, and all discussions of supernaturalist beliefs deal with assuming the miraculous. Victory over nature and over our natural limitations is the fantasy with which religious discourse starts. Once you accept the supernaturalist premise and the denial of death, then all reality limitations are swept away, and “all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23). After being able to deny death, what other challenges could we have?
Supernaturalist assertions are about events, states, and prospects that are implausible, improbable, and impossible. Every religious claim is miraculous, as it denies reality and defies everything we normally experience. If we start with the supreme promise of immortality, all miracles are but small installments on the road to blissful eternity. Religion provides us fictions we are eager to embrace. A wishful, ideal solution to the human condition, religion itself is a miracle: a breakthrough in the darkness, confusion, and frustration often surrounding life. Religion in all its manifestations reflects wishes we all share, as it promises a total victory over the trials and tribulation of living and over the finality of death.
There is an obvious continuity and consistency in religious discourse uniting foundational miracle narratives and claims that may be regarded as less central and less important. Following the great denial and the great promise contained in immortality, all other denials follow, and miracles are just many small denials of pain and misery. Common miracle narratives are part of the great plot, a texture of compensations and consolations leading up to the promise of an absolute triumph. The believers can be sustained by narratives of past glories and promises of future triumphs. Miracle narratives assure us that even if the universe is not totally benign, benevolent forces are active on our side and will intervene on our behalf, if we only obey their commands. Religious devotion means pleasing the spirits, which in many cultures may mean pleasing our ancestors.
Miracles are always naturalistic claims (Beit-Hallahmi 2002) presented as evidence for the power of spirits and the power of those connected or obedient to them. Humans are subject to clear rules of reward and punishment, administered meticulously by the great spirits. Divine punishments are as vital to the religious worldview as miracles. Disasters and miracles are both part of divine plan, and the cosmic calculus is evident in both. Disasters used to play a much bigger role in religious discourse (Kelly 2005), but the discussion of natural catastrophes as evidence of a cosmic justice has become rare since the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, showing the clear impact of secularization.
Secularization means that religious discourse loses its authority and its salience in any given culture. Miracle narratives lose their status as reverence for past traditions weakens and recedes. Doubts about the veracity of miracle narratives and about the need to take them seriously have always been around, even in the Middle Ages. “It ain’t necessarily so,” the Gershwin brothers’ 1935 song rhythmically declares. That is a modern expression of an ancient sentiment, which did not often gain public expression.
With growing secularization, which meant primarily that religious institutions were losing their political power, meaning the power to command respect and obedience, miracle stories were treated with skepticism and ridicule. Educated religionists regarded miracle narratives as an embarrassment. We can see the consequences of such embarrassment in the contemporary Roman Catholic definition of miracles, which bows to the authority of secular biomedicine and ask for its imprimatur. On the Protestant side, there have been the celebrated attempts to interpret miracle narratives, which are the essence of the New Testament, as demythologized, or existential parables, thus mocking and denying the experiences of untold millions of believers and readers, who have read these narratives and had no trouble deciphering their message (Anderson and Fischer 1966). Fortunately for those concerned about the survival of miracle narratives, no amount of demythologized or “existential” interpretations will affect the billions of believers eager for excitement and consolation, to relieve their quiet desperation.
Well-educated religionists will prefer their gods to remain transcendent, avoiding any entanglements with humans in ICUs. Most believers, however, still prefer extending the range of divine intervention, which means that the great spirits need to get their hands dirty, so to speak, chasing ambulances.
A fascinating religious reaction to the triumph of biomedicine can be observed in recent years in the United States, with millions of dollars being spent on studying the efficacy of prayer in helping with various medical problems. What we have here is the last and desperate stand of the sincere believers in miracles, who happen to have medical degrees and research budgets to spend. The results are expectedly pitiful (Carey 2006; Sloan and Ramakrishnan 2006). What these researchers obviously don’t know is that the last word on the subject was said already in 1872 by one of the founders of academic psychology, Francis Galton (Galton 1872).
A continuing process of socialization and resocialization is essential for the maintenance of committed members and the group’s survival, and this is referred to in Christianity as apologetics. A religious group can survive only when the implausible is embraced, and this must happen because without it there is no hope for immortality and cosmic salvation. Nagging doubts are always likely to come up, and confirmatory narratives and revelations allow for rejuvenation and renewed certainty.
Reik (1951) suggested that the preoccupation with dogma is a reflection of unconscious doubts. Historical struggles over the minutiae of Christian beliefs were a displacement of recurring doubts, ambivalence, and anxiety. What should be added to Reik’s Psychoanalytic interpretation is that doubts and anxiety about religious beliefs are not always unconscious. The same may be said of the preoccupation with miracle narratives.