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?

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. So he began to search for a genuine medium - and never found one.

He was an extraordinarily thorough - and ruthless - Grand Inquisitor. For the posher his mediums got, the more he discovered skills like his own put to use to carry fakery to a high art form. And it was Houdini's capacity to replicate these tricks that made him such an effective exposer of fraud. But it was his own belief that made him so sadly persuasive.

Houdini's triumph appeared decisive. His opponents were simple frauds, using incredibly complex tricks. But his ruthless disposal of credulity is now forgotten, and nobody now combines his talent and conviction as an exposer of deception.

So much for fraud. Now for inhumanity. Another story. My Scottish apostate Catholic mother died when I was young. My stepfather moved me to England and I became a young Christian convert while in the Air Force. I told my stepfather the Good News when I came home on leave. This really easy- going chap became angrier than I ever saw him. "Does that mean you think your mother's in Hell?", he asked sharply. I had acquired an English view of religion; nothing to spoil your Sunday morning for, but probably harmless. So his perception of the exclusive nature of orthodox Christianity naturally shocked me.

So now I'm a Methodist, albeit in the Weslo-Catholic tradition. John Wesley, a firm if eccentric orthodox Anglican, realised that the conflicting, incompatible claims of the Christian sects made a mockery of orthodoxy, in which God was not about to pronounce in favour of one sect over all the others. In a sermon of 1794 he recognised the teeming irreconcilables within the faith and said: "If thy heart is as my heart, if thou lovest God and all mankind give me thy hand".

That tradition finds its fullest expression in the idea of "Christ crucified from before the foundation of the earth" - an insight which transcends the tribes and sects of humanity, but which finds its concrete expression in every time and place. This is an idea that liberates orthodoxy. Let people believe what they like, subject to the tests for gross fraud (like Houdini) and inhumanity (like my stepfather).

So the Methodists are the ones, folks! Our books are open to inspection, our transcendent claims certified humane by - sorry, is that an advertisement? What's that light outside - God, the Editor's shopped me to the Belief Police! "You'll never take me alive, copper! Aaargh . . . !"

John Kennedy is Secretary for Political Affairs of the Methodist Church

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital