When To Address
From: James Mathew
To: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: October 23, 2001 9:09 PM
A lot of people in my church got filled with the "holy spirit" last week. I'm very skeptical about these things, but when the spirit came on them, it didn't seem like they were doing all these things by themselves. Believe me, even some small kids (12-14) got the spirit, and they were all saying that a tremendous power came upon them and they were shouting in some unknown language. I saw all these myself -- and I don't think they were showing off. Cliff, these are people I know really well. I don't think it is actually the holy spirit, but I can't get an alternative answer for explaining this. Please help me with this!
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "James Mathew"
Date: October 23, 2001 12:56 PM
You really don't need an alternate explanation, because it wouldn't really be an alternate explanation at all: Theirs is the alternate explanation and they know it, being entirely opposed to everything we know about how physics works. For them to be right, we would have to topple and abandon every truth that has survived the scrutiny of almost every school of physical science that humankind has carefully constructed over the past 2,600 years or so. It's easier (that is, more likely) that they are wrong than that these schools will topple any time soon. We may not know everything, and it may be that every claim to scientific truth is up for grabs, but certain elements of what we know are all but unshakable.
They would, then, need to define what it is they're doing, and then tell us what it is about what they do that requires something more than a material (physical, scientific) explanation. For gaud sakes don't fall into the trap of thinking it's your burden to explain all phenomena, real or imagined. If they think there is more than matter and energy to what they're doing, then they have the burden of showing why and how this can be.
Mass hysteria is very strange, and what it actually is, is not clear, but it has been documented now for two centuries.
I do know this: many of these evangelists have been caught playing tricks on their own audiences. Faith healer Peter Popoff (that's his real name! honest!) was caught using a miniature receiver while his wife broadcast information to him from a microphone behind a curtain. She would be out in the audience, eavesdropping on people and gathering written "prayer requests" with contact information (and lines on the back so she can jot down what they look like -- what color tie, glasses, weight, height, hair, etc.). And nobody was the wiser that they'd filled out this prayer request and then -- Ga-LOW-riee of Glow-riees! -- the preacher not only knows their name and where they live, he knows what their malady is that they came to get healed!! What marvelous powers the Lord give us to use in His name!
But with hysteria, whatever that particular church's trip is, that's what everybody does. In Toronto, they all laugh. At other places, like on that Crash Test Dummies song, they quake on the floor. Or they speak in strange tongues. Here is your clue that it's hysteria: whatever they're doing, they're all doing the same thing in the same room! At the church down the road, perhaps they're all falling over backwards. But everybody in that room is doing the same thing as one another.
A dear friend a few years ago was telling me how at this one meeting (Benny Hinn?), she could literally see the Spirit of God coming over the balcony like a fog. The stage hand in me thought to myself, "You mean, like a fog machine, don't you? with the lighting just right so you can't really tell that that's real fog -- you see it but you don't but your mind does and blends with the other suggestions" but didn't say this out loud. I later hear from somewhere else that this is what Hinn does! His "Spirit of God" flows across the audience in waves. Does he use a fog machine to send suggestions deep into the minds of the gullible? just one of numerous enhancements that set the setting just so? If he'd bring with him a truckload of wheelchairs to toss onto stage every five or ten minutes, you bet he's not above more sophisticated props -- considering Hinn's got the money to put on a stage extravaganza of Disneyesque proportions. Whatever they can bring into the fray that could trigger a few more people into their hysterical state and trigger this situation is fair game in their eyes.
I once went to a faith healer because a dear friend wanted me to go. (Same dear friend as above, only about twenty years earlier. Certainly my best friends have been devout religionists.) I was ill at the time, so what could I say? I even went on stage because this dear friend wanted me to go on stage. I would have done almost anything for this person and probably still would. I cannot force myself to believe that rubbish is truth, though, not even for this person; I'm just not that clever.
When I went on the stage the preacher was going "Ee-in thuh nay-eem of Jay-EE-zuh-USS!?!" and he'd touch them on the forehead and they'd fall back into the arms of a matronly woman helper who would brace their fall. When it was my turn, I decided to resist falling down. The preacher saw the cocky look on my face: his body shook and his eyes bugged out and his voice, trembling with the indignity of indignation, tore through me like an air-raid siren, "Ee-in-nuh nay-ay-ay-ee-em of Jay-EE-EE-EE-zuh-uh-uh-uss!" His hand snapped forward in almost an animated slow-motion and touched my forehead.
And I felt it!
I FELT the Light! I felt the Spark! It felt just like the Spirit of the Lord charging right through my forehead and filling my conscious awareness like the blinding white flash that was my field of vision. I felt it for just an instant, but I felt it nonetheless.
And then I picked myself off the floor -- dazed -- defeated, to be sure. But I picked myself up only that much more firmly convinced that we had all been taken for a ride -- a big ride! There was no supernatural healing for me -- or anyone in that building, for that matter. It was all a cruel hoax.
How did I know this? How did I come to this conclusion before I had even gathered the sense of balance to stand up and make it off the stage? Was it the acting? the phony hairpiece? the indignant indignity? had I read a James Randi book? No. It was none of that. What was it? Why, it was the blinding flash of white light that was my field of vision, lasting for just an instant -- actually, for just exactly as long as his finger was in contact with my forehead, and not a moment longer! Had I been ready for this one, I might have remained vertical, but I had been thinking it was entirely psychological.
But this was physical. I knew this because it had happened to me before. Not a preacher but the high voltage anode of this huge Curtis Mathes black-and-white television set that I had been fixing earlier that year. I hadn't paid too close attention to the safety rules I had learned, and had removed the safety cover from the high voltage "cage" because it was blocking the circuitry that I was trying to measure. In trying to get a peek at where I was placing my measurement probe, I moved my head a little too close to that open high voltage cage, and -- zappo! My entire field of vision was pure white until my body lurched away and I fell back onto one of those Erector Set-like shelving get-ups where we stored the disassembled turntables that were awaiting parts.
It was this experience -- though not nearly as intense this time -- that I felt again up there on the stage with this preacher. My bet is that he is the anode through a circuit running in his microphone cable. (Conceivably the cable was actually shorted and he instinctively picked up on what a great tool that was, so he never got it fixed! He could get into beaucoup trouble with the law if caught doing this deliberately.) So, he was the anode, and the woman completed the circuit as she held on to you with those gentle, loving arms, ready to catch you as you fell (right onto the floor) from the Grace of God.
What were these people you saw doing? I don't know. It could be any number of things. Twelve and fourteen is not all that young. But if you were to read all the accounts of all the preachers that have been busted for fraud and exposed for trickery, and if you were to look at all the parlor magic that they've pulled, it is more likely, in each case, that they've been pulling stuff like this than it is that there is such a thing as the supernatural. I forgot who said it (during the Middle Ages), but it goes something like this: "It is easier to believe that two men would lie than that a witch would fly through the chimney on her broom."
Similarly, if you had magical powers -- okay -- let's just say you suddenly discovered you had bona fide supernatural powers. Okay? Maybe the fairy mother of gaudy jewelry appeared and gave them to you or something. Now you want to demonstrate to your family that you have these powers. So you call a reunion or a dinner and everybody has eaten and had a few drinks and you're ready to display your wares. You pull a hat off the hat tree, wave your handkerchief over it, mutter a few words such as "alla ka-zam!" Then, just to prove to your family that you have real supernatural powers, what do you do? You pull a rabbit out of the hat!
Right? Does that sound realistic? Is that something you'd do to convince people that your powers were real, and not just parlor magic skills? pull a rabbit out of a hat? do card tricks? I don't think so. So why do these preachers stage these shows so that they all have the look and feel and even the sense of a parlor magic show when what they're supposedly showing off is real power?
Unless it's not real to begin with! If it's parlor magic through and through, they're not only going to want to put as many distractions in, but they're also going to want to squeeze as many people into the hall, as well, because filled chairs fill collection baskets. And that basket is the bottom line. True, they try to entertain, but only because that brings more people in on the recommendation next time around.
So, you do well to familiarize yourself with some of the methods they use. James Randi has books about faith healers and this is pretty good stuff to know, even if the reading gets dry at times. There are also several "thinking about weird things" books, such as The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, and How To Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis Vaughn. And I'm sure there are others that have come out since I was last in the market for this kind of reading. Our "Clues" Index lists several articles you might want to read along the lines of thinking about thinking.
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