Signed, healed and delivered

STREET CREDULITY An A to Z In the fourth in our series on modern beliefs, Andrew Brown and Paul Vallely journey from Lourdes to Armageddon
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iracles

A faith in miracles is the one thing that distinguishes the spiritual revival today from the earlier half of the century. The First World War and the Holocaust between them rendered a belief in miracles unfashionable among moral theologians, who were unable to defend a god who might have stopped these things from happening but chose not to. At the same time, the triumphs of science appeared to suggest that there was no room in the world for the impossible.

But all the successful modern Western religions, from evangelical Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous, have stressed the role of miracles. Among some forms of charismatic Christianity, they are absolutely essential: in fact, it is no longer necessary for a miracle to effect the impossible. It is enough that it should have happened, however banal it might seem to unbelievers.

ainstream churches continue to exercise caution on the subject. At Lourdes, the traditional site of healing miracles, none has passed the stringent official conditions of the Roman Catholic authorities for past 20 years. Which explains a current Italian joke: Railway porter watching stretchers and wheelchairs being unloaded from a train returning to Naples: "Where have this lot been?"

"Lourdes."

"Was it closed?"

But if healing, where no observable cure is necessary, has replaced miracles in many church circles, the secular world has not been slow to pick up the miraculous challenge. Nowhere is this more evident than on the field of sport, where miracles are to be expected every time a British athlete performs.

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NDEs

Near-death experiences offer something the world longs for at the moment: evidence that something of us survives death. Classically, the experience involves travelling up a long tunnel into the presence of a great beneficent light, and looking down on the world or the operating theatre from a great height before being sent back to the earthly plane.

All the popular accounts of near-death experiences stress their positive aspects. You get few people turned back from the gates of hell and told they still have work to do up here; although one American cardiologist did become a Christian after watching the death-struggles of bankers and the like who seemed to be going somewhere they would rather not.

There is a scientific explanation for all these experiences, based on the physiological effects of oxygen starvation. This does not disturb sophisticated religious believers, who may, however, be more upset by an experiment conducted by Dr Peter Fenwick, of the Institute of Psychiatry, who hid various messages and optical illusions in an intensive care unit where they could only be read from above. None of the people who reported rising through the ceiling of the room and looking down on all of it while they died noticed his devices.

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Opiates

The religion of the people: the heart of a heartless world, said arx. Well, actually arx said that about religion, but drugs have outlasted both him and it.

In our times, De Quincey's Iliad of woes has become an odyssey of experimentation. And the only incurably addictive one is television. Drugs in their various forms are something that almost everyone believes in; and the people who don't believe in drugs make a religion of their lack of faith and call it sobriety.

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Pre-millennial tension

A condition identified by the sociologist and professor of missionary studies Andrew Walker that afflicts charismatic Christians especially. But a sense of imminent apocalypse (even if it is not spelt out quite what this apocalypse will be) is a common feature in almost all modern spiritualities that are in the least bit concerned with the outside world.

Old communist predictions of the end to capitalism blend with scenarios of ecological disaster to produce a sense of secular urgency among green campaigners. Among evangelical Christians, the condition is chronic, and occasionally breaks out uncontrollably. The end of the world usually loomed as dates approached that were perceived as having numerological significance, the advent of a new century being a regular favourite.

Few in this country share the enthusiasm of American fundamentalists for the end of the world; but the underlying sense of urgency is an important part of the new spirituality. At the end of a century in which the pace of change has accelerated to previously unimaginable speed, plenty of people expect apocalyptic change. Some even hope for the end of Tory government.

Tomorrow: Quantum Electrodynamics, Rabbis, Sexual Identity, the Toronto Blessing and UFOs.

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