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Saint … or Insane?

Joan of Arc thought she saw visions of God telling her to lead French troops against the English during the Hundred Years War. She became a saint. But Brian Mitchell was convicted in 2010 of kidnapping and raping Elizabeth Smart. He said God gave him license to do.

Abraham was ready to kill his own son Isaac because he thought that God told him to. He is seen as a Jewish patriarch and a prophet of Islam. But Charles Manson was convicted of conspiracy in the killings of three people though he thought he was the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of Mary in Lourdes, France. She also became a saint. But Andrea Yates drowned her five children (aged six months to seven years) one by one because she was trying to save them from Satan.

Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days to bear the sins of Israel and then 40 days for the sins of Judah because God told him to. He is a prophet. But Jim Jones, another supposed incarnation of Jesus Christ, ordered over 900 people to kill themselves in Jonestown, Guyana.

How do you tell the saints from the insane? One source (“Drawing The Line Between Religious Inspiration And Insanity”) quotes a researcher who concludes that the difference between a prophet and a psychopath is “whether or not [they] can get followers.”

So we know prophets based on the number of their followers, not whether what they say is true or not?!

(Contrast this with the scientific consensus. Issues like plate tectonics, evolution, the Big Bang, and so on become the consensus in a similar way but with two massive differences: the consensus is built on and destroyed by evidence, and the consensus comes only from those competent enough to evaluate this evidence.)

What if Charles Manson had gotten a million followers? Would that turn him into a prophet? Conversely, what if Joseph Smith had gotten only 20 followers? Would that turn him into a nut?

The other factor separating saint from insane is harm, but it’s not that the saints did nice things and the insane did bad things. We have no more evidence that God spoke to military leader Joan of Arc than to convicted rapist Brian Mitchell, but we do know that Joan of Arc participated in more killing. The military leaders in the Bible (Joshua, Saul, David, Gideon, Samson, and so on) killed many more people than Jim Jones. But saints can’t kill good people. They can kill “them,” but not “us.”

Let me propose a rule. A saint (or prophet or patriarch):

  • (1) can’t hurt people that you can identify with, and
  • (2) must have sufficient followers.

Try this out on some well-known names. John Hagee and Hal Lindsey preach the coming end, and they may have enough followers to be called prophets (using a generous definition of “prophet”). But Harold Camping, though he had the guts to make specific predictions, fails on requirement 2 (I wrote about Camping here).

Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science), Ellen White (Seventh-day Adventism), and Aimee McPherson (Four Square) were prophets, but David Koresh (Branch Davidian) and Charles Manson fail on 1 and 2.

Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba was a prophet, but Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the supposed Buddhist bodhisattva who is said to fast continuously for months while meditating, fails on 2.

The pope can say that he’s the Vicar of Christ, but if I say it, that fails on 2.

Though “saint” has a formal definition, colloquial forms of the labels “saint” and “prophet” are bestowed by popular acclaim. In short, you’re a prophet when people say you are. Popularity doesn’t mean that what you say is true, and there’s no requirement that it be true anyway.

This flabby definition of “prophet” is obvious for the other guy’s religion, but maybe all of us should reconsider what it means for those that we think are prophets.

If you talk to God, you are praying;
if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia
— Thomas Szasz

Photo credit: Univ. of Missouri

About Bob Seidensticker
  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    Saints do miracles. St Joan of Arc convinced the King of France she was legit by telling him things she could not know. Same with St Bernadette and her bishop. You need to read the whole stories.

    Now we are politically correct. So we can’t just say Joesph Smith and Charles Manson are both nuts. The truth is I don’t know of any difference between the two other than Smith’s followers continued after he does and Manson’s followers did not.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Randy: And are the stories about Joan of Arc and Bernadette legit? The stories of Merlin the wizard are also pretty remarkable, but we dismiss those. Why are the stories about the saints credible?

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        You don’t have to believe anything. There are holocaust deniers. Some say the moon landing was fake. If you think Joan of Arc and Merlin are just as credible then I would guess you are highly biased or you have not looked at the evidence.

        How does a girl go from nowhere to commanding an army in such a short time? Nobody is going to give her that job unless they believe what she is saying. Nobody is going to believe something so incredible without some miraculous corroboration they see with their eyes.

        I am not sure what you think happened. A gullible king and a bold liar? Is that rational?

        As far as St Bernadette goes, there are so many Lourdes miracles. The only rational reason to deny them is because your dogma does not let you accept them. That is your faith in your anti-supernatural ideology forces you to dismiss good evidence without cause.

        St Bernadette is less than 200 years ago. Well into the modern age. You really think people just believed her story without scrutiny? I don’t think this age of gullible people ever existed. If it did it was certainly over by 1850.

        The bishop talked about not buying it until she said the woman called herself the immaculate conception. He knew an uneducated girl from such a remote area would have no way to know this phrase referred to Mary. That was convincing for him.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Randy:

          Nobody is going to believe something so incredible without some miraculous corroboration they see with their eyes.

          That was a pretty credulous time.

          As far as St Bernadette goes, there are so many Lourdes miracles.

          Oh? How many?

          The only rational reason to deny them is because your dogma does not let you accept them.

          I wouldn’t call it dogma. How about “reason”? And I suspect that my reason and yours are pretty well aligned for all the miracle claims outside your religion.

          You really think people just believed her story without scrutiny?

          You seem to imagine that we’re all like Mr. Spock. No–people are pretty gullible. Consider my post on the Angels of Mons.

    • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

      The legitimacy of the miracles surrounding the hagiography of many saints (I’m referring specifically to Catholic saints) is highly questionable, so much so that even the Catholic Church recognizes that you do not need to believe in any particular miracle or saint to be an orthodox Catholic. For example, it’s pretty much universally accepted that St. George never slayed a dragon. Sometimes the Catholic Church even de-cononizes people, Simon of Trent and Philomena come to mind. As evidence is collected, even the existence of certain saints is called into question–St. Brigid, even St. Felicity and Perpetua

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        The church does not declare any one miracle to be authentic. It does declare that miracles have always been a part of the life of the church. It does recognize that the gathering and evaluation of evidence is not perfect so knowing a particular event is a miracle is hard.

        I am not away of any de-cannonizations. Formal papal canonization only started around 1200, not sure. Before that there was just popular canonization. That is the faithful just began venerating holy martyrs. The church has removed some saints from the liturgical calendar but they would remain saints. They just would not be recognized in the mass on their day.

        People really question the existence of St Brigid? Female saints are going to show up less in official records just because their work was not valued as much. Would it make a difference if she never existed? Not really. I might take down the St Brigid’s cross I have over my door at home. The truth is that Catholic tradition is quite reliable. We believe people live on after they die. We don’t believe we can make people up. So praying to someone who never lived would be strange.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The truth is that Catholic tradition is quite reliable. We believe people live on after they die.

          Wow–those two sentences sure don’t go together very well!

      • Ted Seeber

        Highly questionable is not equal to not true.

        Global Warming is highly questionable. Doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

        • Jason

          Ted,

          You are confusing the burden of proof and this odd concept of highly questionable with probable and possible. Something that is highly questionable is still possible but NOT probable. At best the miracles of saints are possible, but not probable. Global warming is also probable. Very little in this world is equal to true. Things that are possible are highly questionable (an invisible man in the room, that I might win the lottery today, that string theory is true, etc). Things that are only somewhat questionable are not definite but probable (it’s going to rain tonight because the weatherman said there is a 75% chance, there’s a knock on the door at 7pm so it is probably my friend who said he would come over about 7, the DNA evidence puts him at the crime at the right time, so he probably did it, etc). If you believe in miracles, it is your responsibility to prove probability. Otherwise you shouldn’t expect anyone to agree. So don’t compare possible miracles with probably scientific claims. Neither are definite, but there is still a big difference in likelihood between the two.

        • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

          In this context “highly questionable” simply means that one would not tend to believe them without an prior believe that miracles are happening in the life of the church. Some of the stories are almost impossible and quite frankly I don’t believe them all. But many are just what you would expect if miracles happened. You need to start with some miracles you can investigate today and convince yourself they are real. Once you are there then look at the stories Catholics have been passing down in a new light. I Googled a couple of stories from Lourdes for anyone interested.
          http://olrl.org/stories/lourdes.shtml
          There are just a ton of these. If you are a real skeptic you can pick a few and dig into all the documentation. I heard a testimony once about a guy who traveled all the way to Fatima to investigate the miracle of the sun. At the time there were still eye witness alive. He has to hear them for himself.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Randy: OK, there are a ton of these. So what? There are lots of nutty stories. Some people lie, and others’ minds play tricks on them. You’re quite skeptical of miracle claims from other religions, right? Shouldn’t you be at least as skeptical as that about your own religion’s miracles to ensure that you’re believing the right thing?

  • smrnda

    I’ve actually run into Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, and I sometimes feel that I’m running into people with borderline mental health issues. “Speaking in tongues” and “prophecy” are common, and though I think some people are faking it, I think some people really believe that they are having some kind of supernatural experience.

    Take the whole “prophecy” thing – a preacher will say “Someone in this room… lost their job.” I took statistics and probability – get a bunch of people together, and chances are, once the group is big enough, someone will have lost their job, but it’s amazing how convinced people can be. Do you think it’s just some predisposition to magical thinking?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      When you go to a magic show and someone does cold readings, people are amazed, but no one thinks it’s supernatural. Why then does anyone (besides wish fulfillment) think that it’s for real when the preacher does it?

  • DrewL

    Here’s are two arguments, tell me what you think:

    No divinely-inspired saint would do something terrible like kidnap, rape, or kill children. Those people weren’t divinely-inspired.

    No well-educated atheist would convert for intellectual reasons. Those people weren’t well-educated.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I think that you refuse to treat my arguments at face value.

      • DrewL

        Ok treat this argument at “face value”:

        No divinely-inspired saint would do something terrible like kidnap, rape, or kill children. Those people weren’t divinely-inspired.

        If you accept it, your entire post looks pretty foolish.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          But divinely inspired saints can kill adults? I fear that the direction you’re going in looks pretty foolish. As for children, the OT is full of divinely ordered genocide. I’ll bet lots of children were kidnapped, raped, and killed.

        • DrewL

          Let me handle your counterexamples the same way you “test” your hypotheses:

          I see no evidence that he was a thoughtful atheist, aware of the apologetics on both sides. (October 8th comment)

          Equivalent Statement: I see no evidence the OT divinely ordered genocides took place. I’m not a biblical literalist after all–are you? So I reject these counter-examples.

          You could be right, but I’m afraid I need much more evidence than this. (October 11th comment)

          Equivalent Statement: Burden’s on you to meet my criteria of proof of divinely-inspired killings. I probably won’t define these criteria for you, however, but should you ever get close, I’ll fall back on…

          I simply can’t conceive of what you’re suggesting. Someone is a well-informed atheist like me, and then he converts for intellectual reasons. (October 11th comment)

          Equivalent statement: I simply can’t conceive of what you’re suggesting. Someone divinely-inspired like me would just never commit genocide!

          This logic hurts my brain just typing it out. Can we all just admit Bob’s three-part “No TRUE atheist..” series was a complete insult to our collective intelligence, now that we can see what it looks like arguing for something we don’t like?

        • Ted Seeber

          In self-defense, yes. After all, your example of Joan of Arc led armies.

    • Jason

      DrewL,

      The analogy you are drawing between the arguments is compelling at first sight. Here’s why I think it doesn’t work. In the previous posts about conversion, no one was ever able to give an example of someone who converted away from Atheism to religion for intellectual reasons. The only examples that ever came up were examples of well-educated people who were atheists for reasons based on argument and evidence but then for some reason decided that wasn’t their criteria anymore. I don’t think the point was ever that they weren’t actually well educated. If it was, then that’s a poorly stated claim. The point is that they changed their epistemological methods (exchanging rationality for revelation).

      • ctcss

        “The only examples that ever came up were examples of well-educated people who were atheists for reasons based on argument and evidence but then for some reason decided that wasn’t their criteria anymore. … The point is that they changed their epistemological methods (exchanging rationality for revelation).”

        If God is material, or based on matter, then matter-based reasoning (matter-based rationality) might serve to lead one to God. But of God is not material, nor based on matter, then it would make perfect sense to drop matter-based reasoning when contemplating or encountering the divine. At some point, a choice will need to be made as to where God and God’s kingdom exists. It does not appear (at least to me) that one can find God through material reasoning. Thus revelation and spiritual reasoning (reasoning based on God and God’s kingdom) will likely be required.

        • Jason

          Ctcss,

          You are 100% right. In order to claim that God exists or that typical religious claims are true, you must abandon modern methods of rationality and evidence. The problem is that there are many religious people who would like to argue that they can have their cake and eat it to, so to speak. They want to insist that there is real evidence that can be used for God and that this “evidence” is strong enough to prove God. I honestly think we would all be better off if people who want to believe in religious superstition would simply admit that they choose not to use evidence. The problem of course if you abandon evidence is that you have no way of choosing between different faith systems other than if you feel you have some personal revelation, which in most cases I guess people do (e.g. “God led me to the Methodist faith and showed me the truth!”).

          Above, Randy said:
          “How does a girl go from nowhere to commanding an army in such a short time? Nobody is going to give her that job unless they believe what she is saying. Nobody is going to believe something so incredible without some miraculous corroboration they see with their eyes.
          I am not sure what you think happened. A gullible king and a bold liar? Is that rational?”

          Randy,
          Can you honestly say that this argument proves that Joan of Arc did miracles? Do you really think that history has never known gullible kings and bold liars? If you think that no one can ever be fooled by a “fake”, then you have to admit that many, many, many non-Judeo-Christian claims for miracles are also true. Do you believe in those? Please join Ctcss above in admitting that you prefer simply to trust revelation and church tradition rather than engage in a legitimate discussion about evidence and probability. At best all you can argue is that it is possible that someone did a miracle. Rationality and evidence can’t take you farther than that on this question. Thus you have to make up the rest of the distance with faith.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          ctcss:

          It does not appear (at least to me) that one can find God through material reasoning.

          So conclude that God doesn’t exist.

        • ctcss

          People who look to matter to discern what exists materially will only find chance, limitation, ignorance, indifference, and injustice as governing principles. I have no interest whatsoever in either worshiping at the alters of chance, limitation, ignorance, indifference, and injustice, nor to be governed by them.

          So pardon me if I decide to seek out something better, and base my life on (and place my trust in) higher principles than simply what seems to exist materially as a default. I would much rather put my effort there than to conclude that if I don’t see higher principles in matter, then they must not exist.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          ctcss:

          I have no interest whatsoever in either worshiping at the alters of chance, limitation, ignorance, indifference, and injustice, nor to be governed by them.

          Well, you could not worship at any alters at all.

          You sound like an atheist–they seek higher principles like courage, justice, honor, love, and so on. Join the club!

        • ctcss

          “You sound like an atheist–they seek higher principles like courage, justice, honor, love, and so on. Join the club!”

          Interestingly enough,a rather devout Jew over on Beliefnet once noted (borrowing your words) that atheists that value and seek out “higher principles like courage, justice, honor, love, and so on” are already worshiping God. They just don’t realize it yet.

          So it rather sounds like you may have already joined our club.

    • Matthew

      DrewL,

      1. John of Capistrano (as pointed out by Kacy). Clearly, the Catholic church found him to be a saint. So, did horrible things plus acknowledgement of divine inspiration from the relevant authority? Check.

      2. ? You’ve rewritten Bob’s argument a bit, but we’ll allow that. Now show us where Bob actually employed your fallacy to disregard an atheist being converted by reason.

      Evidence Drew. Examples. These things are important to making an argument.

      By the way, are you ever going to get around to stating your own beliefs? Or are they still super secret?

  • jose
  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I’m currently working on a project to catalog some of the more disturbing saints recognized by the RCC. Some of these saints, are indeed blood-thirsty murdering bigots and sainted because they furthered the Catholic Church by killing others. Modern Catholics let it slide for some of the same reasons that fundamentalists ignore the murdering tendencies of Yahweh. They just do not know about it or they come up with an ad hoc excuse for it. It’s as if killing sprees do not count because they happened in the Bronze Age or the Middle Ages. For an example, check out John of Capistrano–a blood thirsty killer of Jews and heretics who became a saint because he killed the bad guys (1) and had a large following (2):

    http://exconvert.blogspot.com/2012/10/disturbing-saints-4-john-of-capistrano.html

    • Ted Seeber

      One could also point out that the Crusades were self-defense, and thus, not nearly as blood thirsty as some imagine having been raised on textbooks written by Protestants.

    • Ted Seeber

      Oh, and if you want disturbing Saints- check out the Mystics and the Hermits. That a man who specifically avoids human contact by sitting on a pole could ever gain enough of a following to have a cause opened to investigate his life, just tells me that the utter lack of entertainment potential in the late Roman Empire was pretty dim:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites

  • Ted Seeber

    Not number. Quality.

    I once did a yearlong study of the Saints much like my current yearlong study of the Catechism. My early form was a saint-of-the-day website, way back at the beginning of the web, 1998 or so.

    Large numbers of followers just becomes a cult of personality, forgotten at the death of the leader. But for most Saints canonized in the last 1000 years, they didn’t just build a cult of personality, they built a COMMUNITY. One that lived on after their death long enough to put some power and popularity behind their cause for canonization. One that insured people would be asking them for intercession with God after their death.

    A community that would produce problems (as all communities do) that require miraculous solutions.

    That is why I’m pretty sure, though only Venerable at the moment, both Fr. Michael J. McGivney and Archbishop Sheen will become Saints- because they left a community of followers behind. Fr. McGivney in the Knights of Columbus, Archbishop Sheen in the still showing reruns of Life Is Worth Living.

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