Investigating Claims of Religion

July 26, 2018

I have been a “miracle detective” for much of my half-century “paranormal” career. In the 2007 movie, The Reaping, Hilary Swank played such a character based, in part, on my work; she read one of my books, and Warner Bros. even invited me to meet her and watch some of the filming.

Paul Kurtz (1925–2012)—the scientific skeptic, secular humanist, author, and publisher—drew me out of obscurity in 1978 by publishing my first article on the Turin “Shroud.” We kept in touch as I went to graduate school—after brief careers as a stage magician and private investigator (for a world-famous detective agency)–and he encouraged and facilitated my work. He helped me to get television and other media gigs, and published many of my books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1983, 1998), Looking for a Miracle (1993), and The Science of Miracles (2013). In 1995 he invited me to become Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry, where I became the world’s only full-time, science-based paranormal investigator.

Over the years, no one championed my work more than Paul. He dubbed me “the modern Sherlock Holmes,” and told The New Yorker (for my profile in the December 23, 2002, issue), “When the history of the twentieth century is written, I think Joe will emerge as the leading critic of the empirical claims of religion.” He was precisely defining my practice, since empirical methods are those that are based on practical experience—including observation and experiment—rather than theory.

I have consistently taken a hands-on approach, for example going on site to examine “weeping” icons and statues, artifacts like the Emerald Grail in Genoa (it was green glass), and the Loretto staircase in Santa Fe (where I discovered a bracket used to steady the “miraculous” structure). I shook the bloody hand of a stigmatic (whose wounds I had gotten a closer look at when she hugged the woman in front of me), and I have gone undercover and in disguise to study faith healers like Brazil’s “John of God” (which I did for National Geographic Television). I have exposed the tricks of a Spiritualist message diviner, surreptitiously examined “miracle” paintings, enlisted a forensic analyst to examine “spirit precipitations” (séance-produced images around which argon laser light revealed telltale solvent stains), and used a stethoscope to examine statues with reputed heartbeats (concluding that experiencers may have had runaway imaginations or simply felt the pulse in their own thumbs).

I have also rolled up my sleeves to conduct revealing experiments that replicated allegedly miraculous phenomena: for instance the so-called “photo-negativity” of the Shroud of Turin image, the mysterious liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius, and several “miracle photographs” in a 1995 case for the popular TV series Unsolved Mysteries. I have even experimented on myself, using a knife to inflict fake stigmata, and again, hiding faceted little quartz rocks in my lower eyelids to duplicate a Lebanese girl’s “miracle” production of “crystal tears.”

Again, I have carefully analyzed old legends as well as contemporary reports of miraculous occurrences. In one case I personally examined a ca. late-fifteenth-century parchment and translated its Italian calligraphic text to determine that a reported radiant celestial object was likely a parhelion (or “mock sun”), it having been described as “shining, as a second sun.” Several times I have exorcised demons by investigating the true circumstances behind an “outbreak.” And I have looked into the performances of saints like Joseph of Copertino (“the flying friar”) and other wonderworkers.

Robert M. Price—the noted religious critic, author, and member of the prestigious Jesus Seminar—wrote this in his review of my Relics of the Christ (2007):

Joe Nickell, intrepid investigator of all things alleged to be paranormal, has in this beautifully written and produced volume, gone to a good deal of trouble to investigate great numbers of relics housed all over the Christian world. He is thus much like the crowds of pious pilgrims among whom he moves in shrine after shrine. Only, whereas the others come seeking the relic as an answer, Nickell is approaching each relic as a question which he hopes to answer. He knows that there is nothing holier than the truth, and that is always his grail. And, like Perceval, he usually finds it.

I will always remain grateful to Paul Kurtz for encouraging and assisting me in this important work that became something of an otherwise unlikely career.