Joe Nickell – The New Idolatry

September 28, 2007

The world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell is a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Looking for a Miracle, Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, and most recently The Relics of the Christ.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Joe Nickell explores what he calls the “new idolatry,” the term he uses to refer to weeping religious icons and statues that stream tears of blood, become animated, and weep human tears, among other supernatural claims. He recounts his investigation of a number of such cases, and defends his investigative approach. He also talks about why such investigation is important, even in a society where everyone is entitled to believe as he or she chooses.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 28, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to one of our favorite guests this week, Joe Nickell, to talk about weeping icons and living statues, religious statues that bleed and weep and perambulate. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m happy to have back in the studio the world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell. He’s used his really diverse background to become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, hoaxes. He’s been called the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and also the Real-Life Scully after that character in the X Files. He’s investigated scores of paranormal occurrences, including haunted houses, so many other kinds of paranormal instances. He’s a veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances and the author of over 20 books, including Secrets of the Supernatural. Looking for a Miracle Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real-Life X Files, the UFO Invasion and on and on. He’s on point of inquiry today to talk with me about what he calls the new idolatry. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Joe Niccol, thanks. 

Well, with that enthusiastic appearance on The Hill, it’s it’s good to be here, you know. But, of course, as as George Burns once said, when you get older, it’s good to be anywhere. But seriously, it’s good to be here. I wouldn’t be anyplace else, Joe. 

I remember a few years ago I tagged along with you on an investigation of a weeping icon or something like that at an Orthodox church outside of Cleveland. That’s what I want to talk about today. Weeping statues, animated statues, you know, statues of the Virgin Mary that, you know, they weep blood or blood comes out of the hands of a statue of Jesus, something like that. I want to talk about all of those issues today with you. 

Yes. And it so happens that I’ll be speaking on this on Hannity’s America Sunday night. 

One of my favorite broadcasters, Sean Hannity, your you’re on his show to offer the skeptical take when it comes to this. I am. You’ve called this in an article and elsewhere you’ve called belief in these weeping icons and statues, the new idolatry. Before we get into specifics and let’s talk about that kind of redefining of it, you’re calling it idolatry. That seems to me that’s going a little too far. It’s kind of insulting the religious. 

Those are strong terms. I realize, however, I’m in good company when I when I do that in including, of course. My view is really sanctioned by the Catholic Bible. So what do we mean by idolatry? Well, we venerate perhaps an image of someone or something. And religious people venerate statues of Jesus. And Mary, when you suggest that they’re not just representations. But actually, I guess to use a phrase out of the Frankenstein movie, they’re alive. Then you crossed a theological line from veneration to worship. You’re actually saying not just that this is representing the God, but that the D.A. is somehow inside or appears to be inside. We have cases of statues, for example, that not only opened or close their eyes or swayed like one it balance spittle Ireland, but at Thornton, California, walked around the church. Now we need some term that distinguishes that idea. 

From an ordinary statue, from just venerating the figure of our lord or something like that. 

Yes. And and this there’s a story in Catholic Bibles in the 14th chapter of Daniel. That’s just a wonderful story about this in the reign of King Cyrus. Daniel was daring to sort of question what was going on. Cyrus believed that the idol of Bell was alive and living God. And so he and the priests would put offerings in front of it. Food and wine and close the temple and the next day would be gone. And Daniel says, really interesting. He says, but but statues are only clay and wood and things like that, that they eat or drink nothing. And Daniel was almost put to death for this. But Cyrus agrees to. Try to sort of an experiment and they go and they put food and offerings before the idol one more time. Daniel Swift’s ashes on the floor and then they close and seal the temple the next day. The SEALs intact. They go in King Cyrus’s see the food and wine are gone. And Daniel says. But look OKing. Look at these footsteps of men, women and children. And Oh, look, look where they’re leading. 

Why they’re leading to this secret door skeptical investigation in the Catholic Bible. 

And it’s one of the earliest historical accounts that I know of us of skeptical investigation. This is like using di tracer powder to catch somebody a poltergeist tricks. This is and this is really early. So I think that’s that’s a very clear, clear statement that idols don’t do anything. 

Let’s get back to this notion of idolatry, though. Seems to me that a lot of these sweet old Catholic widows who are, you know, going to a religious shrine where there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary who’s weeping, they don’t believe the statue is alive. They believe there’s a miracle and it kind of increases their faith. Aren’t you just kind of going at these faith claims to stick it to the people who were trying to shore up their faith by looking at these miracles? 

Well, I’m not. I mean, I. I see that there are different possible interpretations. I have a friend who’s a Catholic priest who says, well, I think you go a little far with calling this idolatry. This is maybe an excess of some kind. And of course, it it depends on what the person thinks of the person thinks. No, I don’t think the statue is really alive. It’s just being somehow supernaturally made to simulate that. But this is too fine a point for a practical person like me. This is something a philosopher would do a seminar on and write a master’s thesis. 

But but I think I’m a practical man. And it seems to me that if you say that the icon is bleeding or crying real tears and oftentimes we’re told older, salty, they’re real tears, then then I think you’re saying this somehow this this effigy is alive. 

And therefore, by a reasonable definition. And I didn’t you know, I’m not writing the dictionary definitions. Look, look it up. Look up idolatry. And I think it’s pretty clear. 

You’re not saying don’t be an idol because there’s a one true God that you should worship instead of the eyes. 

I distinguish myself from Daniel in that sense. Daniel, of course, was was selling the one true God your way. And and I’m not the one true God hypothesis. Yes. Yes. He was selling that. I’m not. But I do think it is really it’s an area where even religious people could join with skeptics to stop in excess. I wish they could because I have many religious friends and I respect the fact that people have religious beliefs, even though I think, you know, they’re wrong. I would rather they be wrong than very, very, very wrong and then ridiculously wrong. And so, you know, I’m right now working on writing introduction for a book on John Calvin. Now, that is I mean, because I’m endorsing sort of Calvin’s view on relics and he considers relic worship idolatry as well. And it’s just a scathing attack on such relics as need I say, the Shroud of Turin. 

But that doesn’t mean I’m a Calvinist or a supporter of his other views. But but I could with Calvin and and others say, yes, good common sense here, as you did in your recent book, Relics of the Christ. Absolutely. I think we can we can, you know, join with people even though we differ with them. We can at least say, come on, use some common sense here and reach some accord. 

I do want to talk about specific cases of weeping icons and statues and things that you’ve investigated. But if you don’t mind me exploring this one point a little bit more, I want to talk to you about your motivations, whether or not this whole enterprise of yours, of investigating weeping statues is itself an anti religious enterprise. In other words, I’m asking, are you trying to debunk all this stuff just because you’re trying to take away from people things that make them strengthen their faith? 

I have no such motives. I think it’s a terrible thing for someone to start with the answer and work backwards to the evidence. I don’t know how many times I can say this in my books, in my articles, and but I’m happy to say it. You know, nearly every talk I give don’t start with the answer. Actually care about investigating. Start with the evidence. Never get ahead of the evidence. Don’t actually care where the evidence leads. As long as it is truly leading where it needs. Go. So I’m I’m asked this all the time. And because I investigate now, it would be possible to be someone who is anti religious and who used debunking techniques to simply foster his his agenda. I come by this by being an actual having been an actual detective. And I have an avocation, rather serious avocation of investigating question documents. And you absolutely cannot have an opinion whether this next alleged Abraham Lincoln document is real or fake. You cannot have any opinion whatsoever. You you free up your your biases so that you can just deal with the matter at hand. This is genuine or it isn’t. Would be wonderful if the Shroud of Turin were the burial cloth of Jesus. You know, it need not even be a supernatural relic. 

It could be an actual document, as it were, proving the historical Jesus. I would be delighted if there was a burial cloth. I honestly be delighted. It wouldn’t prove certain other things, but it would be nice to know that it just is not. And and I didn’t start with the idea that it was not. And then look for evidence to support it. That’s what the believers do. 

So every time you’re called into one of these cases to investigate a weeping icon or a statue that’s bleeding, you’re not going into it saying, I know there’s fraud involved. This I have there. I’m I’m going into a bank that’s not in your head. 

That’s not it. I am capable of a suspension of disbelief at a certain level. Now, does that mean I think it’s 50/50 that when I go back on maybe genuine or not? No, of course I don’t. Obviously, I know that not a single icon in the history of the world has been absolutely authenticated. Not one science is not authenticated. One. So I know that that it’s not 50/50 right there. I have my own experience. If I didn’t learn anything from my previous cases, I would be a fool. But what a what. What I’m able to do is I am able to free up right now for this particular case to free up that issue. I just put it aside and you just look at the evidence. I’m interested in the evidence because I want us to know what the truth is. And only by following the evidence, not getting ahead of it. Can we do that. And I am confident that if we actually investigate actually, yes, there is a shocking concept in some quarters actually investigate. Then any needed debunking will just take care of itself. 

So let’s talk about some of the specific cases. There was one in Georgia that received widespread media attention because this statue of the Virgin Mary, it was reported to give off heartbeats. And you actually went down to Georgia and you investigated. 

I did. Atlanta Channel five invited me down. And there is a picture I’m showing you now of which I when I put this on the screen at my talks, sometimes A people just burst out laughing because it shows me, you know, with a stethoscope examining a statue of the Virgin Mary to see if it has heartbeats. It just looks funny on the face of it. But it but in fact, I’m I’m doing something very serious. When I was with some fellow skeptics, they thought I was maybe just clowning around or something. And I said, no, we are here to determine whether, in fact, the statues here have heartbeat’s I. I absolutely am going to check that out because that was the clients, the issue. 

That’s the issue. And so I brought a stethoscope nano. There is a level at which that seems comic. But but I actually did it. And I know there are people wondering right this moment. But but did they have heartbeats? And sadly, they did not. So then the question is, OK, we have all these reports, but what is actually happening? And what I found was that the people who were reporting this. And we talked to different pilgrims who come there. They were not using a stethoscope. They were not climbing up as I did, in violation of a sign that said not to do that. I was able to do this kind of in secret. I try not to offend people. So I do something if I can. I’ll do it out of the view of people and night, not try to insult them and try to be very respectful at religious places. But I found that people were not doing this. They were simply reaching up with their hands and feeling the statue. I suspect they were feeling the pulse in their own thumb and that could created that illusion. You know, when you’re asked to take people’s pulse, when nurses do it, they’re told not to use the thumb. If that’s not the explanation, then apparently they were having runaway imagination, which always happens at religious places. And, you know, there were lots of other miracles at this site. All of them pretty much comparable. Most of them rosaries turning to gold. People taking photographs that showed the golden door of heaven and so forth were not, in fact, faith. Folks, that is, they were not pious frauds of any kind, they were not hoaxes, they were misperceptions, they were something happening, something actually happening and people misperceiving. 

And in interpreting it as a miraculous phenomenon, they were looking for a miracle and found miracles where there weren’t any. 

Exactly. So if you have a predisposition to see something, you may very well see it. And I urge skeptics to try not to be a mirror image of that same impulse, not to be as as close minded as as the other side is ridiculously open minded. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Joe Nichols book Looking for a Miracle through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Joe, tell me about the weeping icon you investigated in Toronto. 

Well, it was a case of deja vu. When I got there and I was there because of the the Toronto Sun newspaper, I went up and we’d been told that if we came late at night, we would be permitted access to examine this weeping icon. When I got there with reporters, the people were lined up, as far as you could see, into the night. I mean, it was just it was clear that they weren’t going to stop this and close the doors and let the skeptic in with his stereo microscope. This was not going to happen. So I put aside most of my kit, put a few things in my pocket and bounded up the stairs, followed by a reporter who was assigned to a photographer assigned to whatever that guy has photographed. And I went in and I was at first ignored. And then the priest finally came over and he allowed me to look at the image. And I thought, this guy looks familiar. It turned out that he was the same priest who had another weeping icon in Queens, New York, that I had investigated a few years before. Further investigation revealed that he had been defrocked for working in a brothel in Athens. Wow. 

Well, that certainly doesn’t mean that the icons weren’t weeping. 

No, but it makes you wonder if you want to buy a used weeping icon from this guy. And so then I but I could say several things for the newspaper. I mean, I wasn’t allowed any kind of real test or investigation as as you know, is often you’re not permitted anything very meaningful. 

And in fact, even if you are, you may not be able to say very much as I’ll explain. I was able to see that the trickles of oil were not actually flowing, that they were static. They looked like oil. They looked like consistent with the non-driving oil. One of the tricks, as you put it, non-driving oil like olive oil and the statue. And it stays fresh for days, weeks, months. And in fact, as it turned out, sometime later, the parent church, the Greek Orthodox Church of North America, an attorney called and asked if I would come back up and if I would, I would be given complete carte blanche, complete access. A shrine had been built around this. I would be able I would have a carpenter there at my disposal. We could dismantle it, examine it. When I got there, there were police constables outside to keep any because it became a controversy in the neighborhood. A member of the fraud squad of the Ontario Provincial Police was there in his trench coat. The request was for me to take samples. And I said, well, you want these on cotton swabs or do you want these on microscope slides or what? He said, our people think you’ll know what to do. So I gave him a little of whatever the best samples I could get. We we sat down and I signed custody of these transferred custody to him in his police notebook. And these were then tested. And the report I got back just a verbal report that I got in a forensic conference. I found out later. Yes. Just a non-driving oil. 

Were any charges brought against. No, because. 

Because you can’t you nobody saw anybody put this oil on. So. Okay, it’s it. There’s oil on it. So what. But the point was of course it was under suspicious circumstances. No miracle was happening. The oil was not flowing in any way. That was Supernatural’s just statically on there. Everything was consistent with somebody just putting it on there and then leaving it. 

In any case, the church itself proclaimed this a hoax. 

Throughout your investigation of weeping icons in these statues. Has there ever been any blow back to the churches where these things were promoted and, you know, masses of people came. No money was raised, et cetera. If you investigate and show that it’s oil or, you know, maybe fraud or something like that. Why? Why doesn’t the organized religion backing such a supernatural claim ever get any black guy out of the thing? 

There’s there’s a long history of this sort of stuff and very mixed results. Sometimes these are in a private home, as in a case in Montreal, and the guy was putting his own blood mixed with pork fat on statues. And when people got in the room, this actually happened in the back as a well-known case. He finally confessed. He confessed, though, only after the media got one of the statues and said, hey, can we take this to studios where we can light it better and so forth. And of course, they immediately had it tested and found it was fake. And he confessed. But this was in a private home. And other times, these are in churches in which you have a maverick priest like in this case. And in this case, the church did fine. Other cases, I think they didn’t. The church is not 100 percent skeptical of weeping statues, just this particular one they found beyond the pale. 

So in this instance, the Greek Orthodox Church brought you in and they they were on the right side of the evidence. Right. In this case. But so many times you see the reports on TV. I mean, CNN is even recently covering this weeping icon or that statue or something. And you never hear anything after that. You never hear. Oh, yeah. It was proven to be a fraud or if it were right. There’s a misinterpretation. It seems to me there are never really any net negative repercussions for the church. 

Very few. Because when something is is proven, even then, a lot of the parishioners won’t accept it. It’s really a commentary on belief because it take the case at Thornton, California, for example, when you had statues that did various things, wept and supposedly moved and moved the angle of the head and so forth, and ultimately were the statue was supposedly walking around the church at night. 

Of course, no one ever saw I do this. And it was totally possible that someone was just living into the church where the key hit, moving the statue. The church appointed a commission. The Catholic Church wanted to commission clerics and they did investigate. And they said, you know, that the head turning was probably just a confusion of camera angles, just a mistake. They looked further and they said that some of the other phenomena, like the perambulations, were were clearly not credible and they suggested a probable hoax. What happened to them? Some of the local believers called the clerics, quote, a bunch of devils. This is the thanks. The church gets when it’s been very skeptical and put a stop to some of these practices. But to its credit, the church quite often has done this. But, you know, in other cases at Conyer’s, for example, this was a freelance operation. People like Nancy Fowler, who is running that, you know, are sort of outside the church. These these freelancers make the church nervous. They keep an eye on him. And if they get too far out of hand. An example, you know, not too long ago, Audrey Santo died, that little comatose girl from Wooster, Massachusetts, whose parents made a big moneymaking enterprise out of her healing powers. There certainly was money collected and there were oil soaked cotton swabs that were not, quote unquote, maybe sold, but given away in return for her donations. 

And so were the church. The Catholic Church put a stop to some of those excesses. And again, to their credit, where I think the problem that I’ve had the church, generally, it’s free. Lancers or a maverick priest or somebody. The problem I have is sometimes the church, which is I can give you examples of the bishop, the priest, whatever, being just as skeptical as I am. But then maybe saying this is this is the line we draw a sort of saying, therefore, this ought to be just rooted out. Sometimes they’ll say, well, we don’t say this is authentic. Maybe it’s not. 

But if it brings people to a truer understanding of how Christ suffered for us or something, then it’s that it’s OK. Well, no, I think it’s not OK. So they’re not OK. 

They turn a blind eye. And not only because of that in a very base way, it benefits the church because more people are believing, but because it strengthens the faith of the parishioners that they, you know, the parishioners, their love. And, you know, they say, I might not believe it, but I’m not going to tell them it’s it’s false because I don’t want to harm their faith. I don’t want to weaken their faith. 

But it’s, you know, believers, they have their own agenda. When I went to Campbell, Ohio, and that was in 2003, I heard of glowing statues and I thought, no, I’ve never I’ve never heard of glowing statues. I better get down there. So I went and it was pretty clear to me right away that the statues weren’t going at all, that that gold leaf on areas of the statue like the Halo in the Sacred Heart. That’s reflective. Yeah. They were simply shining in the sun. And then when the clouds would cover the sun, you know, I remember hearing this guy say, well, you know, look, Martha, it’s not glowing so much now. You think, right. You see, the sun is not not out now. It’s but I expressed this to somebody and they sort of bristled and they said, well, you know, sort of Mr. Skeptic, you know, come back tonight because you’ll see that even when the sun is gone, that they still glow. OK. See, I’m an investigator. Something’s going on or allegedly going on. I have to go investigate. So I immediately booked a hotel room, motel room for the night, went out and got a spotlight. 

A few other things I thought I would need because I wasn’t really prepared. These statues were up on a bell tower up high and I got some binoculars. So I was better prepared. And sure enough, sure enough, they were shining. This time, of course, from parking lot lights and and other ambient lights. And I would take a spotlight and shine it up at the church tower. And rake the beam across the sacred heart of the statue of the statue. And it would flash. Well, this is this is reflective. It was not the light was not emanating from within. It was reflecting from without as very clear. Anyway, the bishop and the priest that I personally talked to, the priest, a charming young fellow. Absolutely in agreement with me. No disagreement whatsoever. But I didn’t press him really on the matter, like, why don’t you stop this? But I think he had a view very similar to mine as certainly as far as this was not a miracle sober, but he tolerated what was going on. And, you know, that’s that’s a matter, I guess, for the church to decide. But the next day, I was at this church. And this sweet lady came up to me, a church lady, and she said, well, what have you found? And I began to explain to her what I what I’d found. And she listened carefully and she looked at me and smiled sweetly and said, well, I prefer not to believe that. That kind of sums up the attitude. And that’s it. 

So when I when I first started this business back and basically my first big investigation, 1972 at McKinsey House, and we’ve talked about that before, the ghost at McKinsey has a I thought if I just go onsite to these places and tissues, common sense and simple things occasionally, maybe some scientific tests or involve a scientist or something. But but just just do what’s needed to get to the bottom of things. 

I’ll find the truth. And then people will believe me and they will love me for it. And of course, I’ve been very disappointed. 

There’s not a lot of payoff sometimes, at least to the people you’re being skeptical to when they’re believing. This isn’t just something that happens within Roman Catholicism or Greek orthodoxy. Right. In Hinduism, there’s widespread belief in living statues as well. Statues of the God Ganesh that seem to drink milk when when the supplicants are when the when the religious come in and bring it milk. And this is all around the world. The belief in living statues. 

Well, you never you never hear of such things among the Methodists or among the Baptists or among any of a number of other sects and religions because they either have rebelled. I mean, the Reformation came about in part because of such excesses. Calvin and and other Protestants were Antine statute, as you see so far. And that was a new iconic LESBIAN’S statues. Right. It was sort of a new iconoclasm. And so where you where you find this phenomenon is. Yes. You find it where there are statues and icons and where those are prevalent and where they are heavily venerated from time to time that impulse lapses over into idolatry, some body decides. 

I mean, it’s a simple step. Calvin talks about this. He says, you know, you can’t just have relics. If you just had relics that were meant to respect the fact that this was some venerable holy person. That would be one they baeza. You never can. It’s soon. Soon. What happens is, is it’s somehow specially powerful and then it’s gonna be healing or something, and it’s going to do some and some. There’s an impulse then to to sell these to the credulous and people want to buy them or have them and possess them. They’d been a weeping statues and the like. Weeping icons have been stolen for for various reasons. So I think it’s it’s a problem with with those cultures. Now, the Indian one, of course, a friend of mine from India, because Gore came here to the Center for Inquiry and and in my little lab, we decided to get a statue of Ganesh and he was going to teach me and we got some milk and so forth. And he showed me how to make statues weep. And we found, though, that you could make statues of aliens or Elba’s or any any any statue you wanted. Because what you’re basically doing I mean, it’s funny to watch this because it it can be quite a striking illusion. You have this effigy. You put a spoonful of milk to it and it just sips it right out of the spoon. 

And masses of people are awed by this. They’ve seen it. Yeah. Yeah. So throughout India. 

Right. And if you if you saw this and then other churches began to try this and of course, that happened there and they were saying, I remember this phenomenon well and getting media calls about it and people saying, you know, this can’t be a hoax. You can’t imagine that all these Indian churches are perpetrating hoaxes simultaneously and so forth. Well, the answer was they weren’t. But this phenomenon, which is a little piece of neat piece of physics, will happen anytime you you meet the right conditions. And it was found by some scientists who went and observed. Yes. OK. It does appear to be drinking the milk out of the spoon. 

And they wondered where it was going. And so they put some red dye in the milk and then it was pretty clear it was just dribbling down the chin and covering spreading over the effigy itself. 

Some of these are particularly if these statues, light colored marble or something like that, you won’t notice that the milk is so thin you must prime the statue by ritual washing to really get it to work properly. You need a damp statue. And then, of course, it stays where it has person after person comes up. And what’s happening is, is the same physical principle that when you have two drops that they will be breaking surface tension, they will run together. When you have two drops on a surface that they’ll connect. Yeah. And everybody smellier with that. And so it’s just a. 

Little a little trick of physics, but it looks like a miracle under under the right conditions. 

Joe, before we finish up, I want to touch on two things, each of which could be whole long discussions, but just in our discussion would be incomplete unless we touched on a couple more things. One is the role of fraud and the kinds of fraud involved in all of this, because as you’ve described it, we’ve mostly been talking about the well-meaning kind of innocent believers who look at this and their faith is strengthened and it’s it’s working for them on some level. We haven’t talked about, you know, where the phenomenas coming from. Is it is it some dastardly evil priest who doesn’t believe a hill of beans or what he says and he’s just doing it for the money or. Well, you’ve drawn distinctions between pious fraud and crass fraud. 

Exactly. I think at one level, of course, the Myatt, maybe the mildest of all. Is when people are simply fooled by their own, perhaps their own actions. They just misperceive something. A good case of that would be a balance. Bittle, Ireland, where people were going and it was said that this statue was swaying and people would go and they would see the statue swaying and some newsmen had had cameras and they also saw its way. And then they looked at their film and the camera was on it, locked on a tripod. And it was not swaying. They were swaying subconsciously. They were swaying and they were fooling themselves. Also, we know if you stare at something long enough, it appears to move. It’s a well-known political optical effect. So nobody was perpetrating any kind of fraud, pious or otherwise. Is just this just a phenomenon? 

I’ve seen this many times to Will to believe the capacity we have for self-deception. 

Same thing, the heartbeats that Conyers, Georgia and so forth. Many of these start that way. The next level is probably what I call the pious fraud. 

That is, somebody is willing to do a little, tell a little lie, make a little trick for Jesus and tell a little lie for the greater truth. 

It’s not that they don’t believe the God stuff, but they’re they’re lying to increase other people’s faith. 

They believe that. And this is rather prevalent. Nobody believes enough people are turning away from God. They’re not doing what they should. Things are bad. Society’s going to the to ruin. And so, you know, it’s a bad motive if we do a little trick here to help things along. I think that’s not okay. 

But many of the people who do this, some of the statements, for example, wounding themselves, suffering somewhat stigmatize these people whose palms bleed just as Jesus’s palms were said to. Yes. 

When they hear sense and some quite apparently are wounding themselves. A little nick here in there, too, to make them bleed. They’re suffering. And I’ve known cases where I’m pretty convinced that the person was not personally profiting. They were actually sort of sacrificing themselves. 

They were hurt. Maybe maybe their ego was getting something. But. But but basically, these are these are what are called pious frauds. These are these are well-intentioned deceptions. Wrong on the list. And then you have maybe the really crass frauds. And and those are not very common shyster priests here. The one in Toronto is borderline. I think the church needed some money. So maybe it was a pious fraud. That first Ikon that he had in Queens was was stolen and it had a lot of jewels and stuff around it. And there are a lot of suspicions about that. So who knows? 

But if you were making against the majority of the fraud, when its fraud is kind of well-meaning, pious, it’s a pious fraud or self-deception. 

And and but but for those of us who care. 

I know of in all my investigations that I’ve done this now for more than 30 years. I have I have been up close and personal to many of these. I have sought them out. 

I have traveled whenever possible and gone to them over and over and over. And I’ve looked earnestly to see when I could. What was what was causing this? I have never found one that gave me pause. I have I have one right here that you’re holding it up. 

I see a little an actual icon. 

This is one that came from a church in Syria and was brought to me by a BBC producer. It had weathered Virgilia mother and mother and child holding it. And this this, I am told, absolutely had had wept oil in Syria. BBC brought it to me for program they were doing. I had it in my custody for weeks. 

And I had finally when they did the final editing, I reported to them that it never wept once for me. I’ve now headed for several years, pretty much tried everything, slicing onions in front of it, insulting it, telling sad stories. It will. This is the icon that will not weep for me. And and this is this this is the story. I’ve never found one. You know, I mentioned the Audrey Santo case. They would not let me in the house and under control conditions. 

But I promise anyone, let me have let me have custody and I will either explain the phenomenon or I’ll bet it stops when it’s in my custody. 

And if it doesn’t, you’re perfectly willing to become a believer. 

I would absolutely be in a very credible position to say what was happening and if something was happening of a scientifically inexplicable nature. But that has not happened. And in fact, as so often my investigations do, I am convinced more and more as time goes on that I live in a real and a natural world. 

So last question, Joe, you began what you just said by saying for those of us who care and that’s what I want to finish up asking you about, why does any of this matter? Why does the fact that people believe that statue weeps when you and I don’t believe it weeps? Why does it matter? I mean, people are always going to believe what we hunches nonsense. I guess what I’m getting at is why bother investigating this at all? You’re a skeptic. You think there’s no evidence to support these claims. Everybody’s not going around worrying about people thinking critically about this stuff. You know, people believe what they believe. Why not just let them have it? 

The truth matters. And we see that some of the illusions are very deceptive and some of the tricks are very persuasive to people. We’re not going to stop the claims at all, but we will from time to time, we will make sense to a certain spectrum of people. There are people who are not absolute closed minded debunkers. They don’t know everything yet. And they’re also they’re not gaga believers who just accept anything. There are people who are not on either either extreme and they are amenable to evidence. And if you can I mean, I’ve had I’ve had people come up to me and say, I read your book Looking for Miracle. It changed my life. I haven’t had many people do that, but I have, you know, and I’ll get other letters that are not so kind. My Catholic priest friends said that that book was a wonderful gift. Well, I you know, if that’s somebody who’s not offended by my attempt, me might think I’m wrong here or there or something. Fine. 

Let’s talk about it or wrong on the bigger questions like God’s existence. 

Right. But but let’s talk about those things. And I think that the truth must matter. And if the truth doesn’t matter, then where we’re giving armament to to demagogs and and authoritarian types and in we’re standing in the way of the plain and simple truth, I hear people all the time talk about higher truths and alternate truths and so forth. I just want the simple truth and it’s hard to find. It’s not always easy to find. But if you look for it and you use the right means and science is the best way. This is wonderful empirical ways. Let’s go in and let’s let’s rule out trickery and let’s just observe and let’s formulate some hypotheses and let’s see what’s going on. And it serves us so well. And then we can know what the truth is. I’m one of those. I think there are different views towards mysteries. Some people want to have mysteries. Some people don’t want to be bothered by mysteries. And I’m one of those that I like mysteries. But I believe they’re intended to be solved. And that’s what I’m trying to do. 

Thanks so much for joining me again on point of Inquiry, Joe Nicole. Thanks for having. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kirk’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Frailing. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.