Do psychic powers exist? Subjectively you will find a lot of people with personal experience of psychics and mediumship, it is a big trade – the exact number of practicing mediums is unknown – with the more famous getting television shows and 2000 seater theatre venues. It is a common argument that these people are not really psychic and are just fleecing people, these accusations have existed for as long as mediumship has and cheating has even been accepted by believers in these abilities as something that does occasionally happen- prominent Spiritualist publications of yesteryear happily acknowledged that sometimes psychics cheated but that it was done to ensure a demonstration was given when they weren’t feeling an otherwise genuine connection. The get out clause was that the psychic was really gifted but it wasn’t a skill you could turn on and off and if it wasn’t being felt that session then something had to happen.
We might never know for certain if psychic abilities exist, I am doubtful but I’d also be excited if we suddenly discovered tomorrow that it really is possible to communicate with the dead. Of course, that wouldn’t mean Helen Duncan wasn’t cheating and defrauding people with fake ectoplasm, nor would it mean all those times where psychics have been prosecuted for fraud aren’t still acts of fraud. If psychic powers are shown to exist, the con artists still existed and still do exist – even if it does then come to light others are genuine. Which is one reason why it is still important to tackle bogus claims. Peter Popoff was famously brought down in the 1980s for deceiving his audiences via technology in a skeptical sting, and skeptics are carrying on a tradition that dates back at least to the Edwardian era of providing pamphlets exposing common psychic tricks.
I do a lot of public performances around the history of psychic trickery, my main interest is from a performance point of view rather than a science one though there is of course overlap. Though the Q&A sessions are rarely as in-depth as they would be were I discussing something like Alternative Medicine, there are still a few good questions that almost always crop up. They tend to start with asking if I have ever experienced anything that I couldn’t explain, what might convince me and should psychics be licensed/ have to pass a test. It is the latter I am focusing on here, due to the appearance of this petition on the Government website.
The petition calls on the Government to require all psychics pass a test to prove their abilities before they can practice. I sympathise with the desire to do something to curb frauds and a couple of years ago I might even have signed it. But as I delve further and further into the world and history of spiritualism I find it harder to support the petition. Don’t mistake me here, I don’t think psychics should get a free pass entirely, but there are major issues that come along with this petition.
Firstly it is unlikely to ever pass, mainly because there is already legislation to tackle frauds – the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading which replaced the Fraudulent Mediums Act in 2008. Second, psychic and medium aren’t a protected title or occupation. Also, people who believe in psychic phenomena are not automatically going to stop believing it, if anything it could bolster their belief there is a skeptical vendetta against their practices and make them dig in their heels deeper. Then there is the issue that even if they fail the test it doesn’t refute entirely their claim to psychic ability- it is very common for psychics to insist that because their abilities are supernatural in origin, they can not be tested by any naturalistic method. There are exceptions, but few. And remember my first paragraph- psychics have historically claimed that they might not be strong that night, or the spirits might not be with them at that moment. Some might see that as a cop out, but if psychic phenomena does exist how are we to know such weaknesses wouldn’t occur? Some of these points have already been raised in this piece by Hayley Stevens, so pop over and have a read in a bit more detail.
But one thing that also is worth remembering is just what psychics are, what they are a part of and why insisting they pass a test is inconsistent with our attitude to other religions. Yes, religion.
When we think of mediums we can be forgiven if we leap to the names like Derek Acorah or Sally Morgandoing TV and arena tours, but they are simply the celebrity medium, the majority of them though you have never even heard of. Mediumship is not a New Age fad that sprung up in recent decades and is just another branch of the New Age tree. In fact, although there is overlap, mediums and psychics aren’t New Age at all. The New Age movement started around the 60s/70s at a time when mediumship was already well over a century old, and has been a legitimate religion more or less since its birth.
Spiritualism is commonly accepted to have begun in the United States in the 1840s, by the young Fox sisters who began communicating with the deceased through “spirit rappings”. They would ask a question to spirits and through the knocks determine an answer. The life of the Fox sisters is messy and at times deeply sad- the two younger sisters Kate and Margaret died penniless alcoholics, their reputations pretty much in tatters. There were accusations of fraud almost immediately with the common explanation for their acts being controlled clicking of bones and muscle, something that when tested demonstrated their ability to be non existent with Margaret publicly confessing the fraud in 1888 (she later recanted the confession, though I doubt many people believed her- least of all herself). But whether the Fox sisters were frauds or not, they kick started a religious movement that exists today.
During the Golden Age of magic, magicians were quick to replicate the abilities of mediums, mainly because they at the time relied almost entirely on physical demonstrations. Hands would reach out of tables, mediums would levitate, ectoplasm would flow and all of these could be easily replicated by magicians of the day. Over the years mediumship became more streamlined until we reach the modern age where physical demonstrations are rare and usually restricted to things like table tipping, which can be performed without any intentional deception.
Modern mediumship is almost exclusively restricted to one person on stage relaying messages from the dead. And it is this type of mediumship that fills small rooms and community centres across the country. Every town will have several spiritualist churches where believers gather and might pray, or sing and then greet a guest medium who will take to the stage and give a demonstration. For lack of a better analogy, mediums are the priests of Spiritualism and this is where the important religious angle comes in.
People who attend spiritualist churches aren’t going there to be entertained like many who might go to Psychic Sally – having seen her audiences waiting to go in I’d describe them more like groupies at a rock concert than people attending a religious ceremony. People go to these churches because it is part of their religious identity.
Spiritualism is a religion, and the psychic medium their priest (again, for lack of a better word). Although just what spiritualists believe can vary from believer to believer- with some taking the more traditional spiritualist view that “God” is more of a spirit energy or entity or intelligence– which is maybe why some mistake it for New Age. Others, such as Christian Spiritualists, do still hold on to some elements of mainstream mono theism. There is usually some type of God at the centre, but its not greatly defined and leaves room for personal interpretation. There are even ministers within Spiritualist churches just like within mainstream Christianity.
But however we cut it, Spiritualism and the mediums that speak at the churches are part of a religious group. And this is where the petition above gets tricky. As much as we like to see mediumship as separate from religion, it is not, it is an integral part of a religious group and as such if we are going to demand those practitioners prove their abilities and beliefs why are we singling them out and not saying priests have to pass a government sanctioned test to prove they can talk to God before becoming priests? This is at the heart of my own issue with the petition, but also with the wider attitude toward psychics. Whether we think it is bunk or not, many people believe in psychics and many people believe they are psychic. There are no figures to state the ratio of really believes it : fake : mix for us to say one way or the other how many are swindling and what net effect that has. When you meet mediums who give demonstrations at Spiritualist churches they are usually only getting expenses, or maybe a donation which in such small groups is not a lot, though they may also get a fee for their time- as does anyone doing a job. They will likely provide personal one on one services but not usually for an extortionate fee. These aren’t your end of the pier fortune tellers. We look at Psychic Sally selling 2000 tickets at £30 a pop but she is one of the exceptions and doesn’t represent the day to day medium working within their church.
The stereotype of the deceitful and advantage taking psychic is maybe not representative of the majority of practicing mediums who travel from church to church to give readings. The readings they give may be more personalised, but are not entirely dissimilar to a priest saying Christ is with a person, helping them and caring for them. Within Spiritualism it is the existence of spirit that is key, as within Christianity it is the existence of a divine Christ. If we insist mediums must pass a test then we must also demand the same for priests and Imams else we are being inconsistent. Because they are all practitioners within their religion.
What I would much rather see is the Spiritualist community taking a more direct role in weeding out cheaters, which many groups are by listing accredited mediums who have to go above and beyond the usual “it starts with a J” and demonstrate an understanding of the religion first – as with any religion. The only drawback is there isn’t a united Spiritualist group at the head of all these smaller groups to do that, and although there is a Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, they are not a regulating body. Some other groups offer accreditation through their own programmes which is a positive step but unless Spiritualism gets a central church like Catholicism has, it is unlikely we are going to get to a stage where all mediums are accredited. But does this mean the petitions alternative is the right way? No, I don’t think it is for all the reasons above- the important one being to remember that mediums are legitimate representatives of a religious movement.
As much as I understand the reasoning behind the petition, I don’t think it will work nor do I want it to until we also start demanding priests prove God to the rest of us before they can practice – and to be honest I would be uncomfortable in such extreme religious restriction. The majority of mediums practice within the confines of the church, maybe also doing readings to earn an income- but that is all part of the service the religion has historically offered. As soon as we realise that mediums are not lone wolves but part of a religious church (or churches to be more accurate) then this petition becomes troubling in the precedent it could set were it to not only go to debate but become law.