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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