See below for a brief report on the 2011 ICEC.
Report on the 2011 ICEC: Christianity and the Paranormal
The 2011 ICEC Christianity and the Paranormal was a great success. Eighty gathered to hear about and discuss a topic normally avoided in church settings. Meeting on the Queen Mary provided a great background for considering the biblical, theological, psychological and experiential basis for belief in phenomena such as ghosts, witchcraft, necromancy, occult practices, demons and demon possession and many more. The conference included a very entertaining (but not all that scary for such skeptics as we are) Ghosts and Legends tour through the supposedly haunted sites on the ship.
The Friday evening program was a series of testimonials. All of the testimonials of experiences with the paranormal were given by men and women who have been Christians for many years. Most were from people who have worked many years for churches. We heard testimonials of demonic possession and magical/occult practices in Indonesia, as well as persuasive anecdotes of interaction with what we would have to describe as ghosts or at least a phenomenon we are used to calling ghosts. Those providing these rather convincing stories did not attempt to interpret what they observed, but simply reported their experiences.
Perhaps the most interesting testimonial was from Denice McKenzie. She has been a practicing counselor for well over twenty years and has begun to minister to those who have given some level of authority to Satan’s influence, as well as describing a number of successful interventions with patients who have suffered for many years using Splankna (Greek for the deepest part of a person) therapy. She described simple methodologies using prayers and confessions to renounce footholds we have given to Satan in our lives as well as denouncing vows, lies and agreements we have made with ourselves. We are hoping to post an outline by Denice as well as a video of her testimonial on YouTube soon.
Following the testimonials there was an extensive late-night tour of "the most haunted sites" on the ship with a professional parapsychologist who is an "expert" on studying and detecting ghosts. Two and a half hours of using our expert’s methods of detecting disembodied spirits turned up nothing–to the surprise of no one on the research expedition!
The Saturday program included four classes and a forum. Dr. Douglas Jacoby did a class on the biblical basis for thinking about things which can be described as the paranormal. Doug warned us that if we establish as a definition of the paranormal effects which are not measured by or acknowledged by scientific study, then we must acknowledge that Christians, by definition, believe in the paranormal. The work of the Holy Spirit, the existence of God, the power of prayer, by this definition, are paranormal effects. Doug did an absolutely masterful job of describing nine different areas which can be described as the paranormal for which we have varying amounts of biblical and theological basis for discussing these things. These include necromancy (talking to the dead), near-death experiences, prophecy, divination, demons, exorcism, witchcraft/occult, aliens, apparitions/ghosts and more. His discussed where the dead are, biblically and suggested that it is unbiblical to conclude that they are wandering around on the earth,. However, he did not dismiss the possibility that they could be communicated with from Hades (I Sam 28). He talked about the biblical evidence for Satan and for demonic beings, pointing out that exorcisms done today, if they are real at all, are nothing like what was done by Jesus. Douglas was very careful not to dismiss anyone’s experiences. He expressed a strong skepticism with regard to near-death experiences, but did not totally dismiss these experiences. The emphasis throughout the talk was on the biblical basis for any conclusions on these questions, which was a great point of departure for the rest of the presentations.
Next, John Clayton gave a presentation on Science and the Paranormal. John has extensive experience debunking questionable claims of the paranormal. He gave rational explanations for a wide variety of common claims, including an insightful analysis of the tricks played on the visitors the the Ghosts and Legends tour! John emphasized that Satan and demons are very real. He pointed us to at least twenty passages in the Old Testament which strictly prohibited the people from any involvement whatsoever in activities such as divination, seances, witchcraft, astrology and so forth. We were also reminded from the New Testament that God will not tempt us beyond what we can bear and that we have spiritual weapons to destroy the work of the devil. We need not fear Satan, but we also should not get involved in the works of Satan, even if they are in fact only shams. John helped us to see through the schemes of false claims of psychics, UFO believers, ghost hunters and more. He also gave us a number of examples of optical illusions and means that deceptive people have at their exposure to make us believe we have seen something which is in fact not real. His talk was very entertaining, encouraging and inspiring.
The third presentation was a joint one by Coco and Foster Stanback. Both have Masters degrees in counseling. Coco has studied neuropsychology extensively. She gave us a brief introduction to brain function and the physical/neurological basis for things such as visions, hallucinations, psychotic episodes and other phenomenon which would certainly have been interpreted in the past as paranormal phenomena. She suggested that a significant proportion of what is thought of, even today, as demon-possession is well understood from current knowledge of brain abnormalities. In fact, scientists can use certain kind of electromagnetic stimulation of particular parts of the brain to create simulated psychotic experience. The purpose of Coco’s talk was not to explain away all claims of the paranormal, but to give us a basis for deciding what kinds of observations have a rational, non-supernatural explanation. Foster Stanback followed up Coco’s presentation with the suggestion that all or nearly all experiences of the paranormal, including ghosts and demon-possessions are in fact explainable as the work of charlatans or can be explained as psychological phenomena. He asked us to consider the possibility that demon possession today is not real at all and that in many cases when demons are mentioned in the Bible the "demons" can be interpreted as metaphorical. This was the most controversial aspect of what was presented at the conference and many were not prepared to accept this conclusion.
The final presentation was given by Dr. John Oakes (full disclosure: he is the one writing this review!). John discussed a methodology for inquiring about the truth of paranormal claims. He suggested that as Christians we can learn what is real and what is true using three methodologies: Empiricism, Rationalism and Biblicism. Empirical knowledge is gained by experience, by our senses, by measurement. It the kind of knowledge acquired by science. Testimonials are not as reproducible as science experiments, but such experiences can also be described as empirical. Rationalism is an approach which asks whether a claim is reasonable. Does it make sense? Is it logical. Biblicism (a word which has negative connotations for some which John disavowed) is deciding what is real and true using the Bible as a source. John claimed that we can and ought to use all three to decide what is real. He suggested the somewhat awkward term "eclectic, skeptical, no-particular-ism" as a means to decide questions about the paranormal. He proposed that philosophy can be quite helpful here, but any particualar philosophy should not be committed to, but instead an eclectic approach. He suggested examples where a pure empirical or a pure or even a pure biblical approach (assuming that false premises are being used) is not sufficient for answering every question. Sometimes our senses can fool us. There are biblical truths, such as the relationship between Father and Son, which are not strictly rational. There are incorrect interpretations of the Bible which, if used to trump empirical and rational thought, can cause us problems. He proposed that biblical evidence is most reliable, but this should not be the only tool. Getting specific, he proposed that the biblical basis for believe in Satan and in demons is sufficient to conclude that these things are real. The rational argument (if evil is real, then spiritual beings can be evil) and the empirical arguments (testimonials, but no science) are weak but supportive, but in this case the biblical evidence is decisive. As for ghosts, he argued the biblical support is very weak, the rational support is non-existent and empirical evidence is weak. Given that there are other possible explanations of these experiences, he concluded it is very likely they are not real.
Last was an open question and answer forum which included Dr. Erik Greenburg, John Clayton, Douglas Jacoby and John Oakes.
The next ICEC to be put on by ARS is planned for 2013. The topic is social and cultural apologetics. See you then.