For about a year I’ve been putting my opposition to the many bizarre practices and miraculous claims of the charismatic movement into print for the edification and annoyance of sceptics and charismatics alike. How successful have I been in this endeavour? That depends on how we define success. My main intention has been two-fold: to verbalise exactly what is wrong with many of these charismatic claims and practices, and to try out various ideas which I intend to put into a book on the subject. It was never my primary aim to convince charismatics to see the folly of their ways. With that said, I have had some success doing precisely that. However, I’ve met a fair amount of stubbornness too. For example, one guy on Twitter asked me to tell him what was wrong with the practices of a certain faith-healer. When I wrote an article on the matter and sent it to him, rather than engage with the case I had made he simply blocked me. My exchanges tend to be rather civil, but I’m left frustrated by what I see as a certain thick-headedness in my interlocutor, particularly when they insist miracles happen all the time (when they clearly don’t) or that God wills to physically heal every sick person (which is patent nonsense). So, despite my moderate success, why aren’t more people able to see through the vast array of silliness going on within the charismatic movement? Why is it that a proven fraud like Peter Popoff can still have a successful multi-million dollar business promising supernatural debt relief and peddling “miracle spring water?”
Having once been a part of this movement (for almost 15 years), and having left it upon rational reflection of the many dubious claims and practices, I think I’m in a decent place to at least point in the direction of answers to that question.
I think the best place to start is with the power of desire and of experience. There is a real desperation within many people to experience some greater meaning in their lives. How wonderful it would be if God was actively at work in miraculous ways in our daily lives. For a long time I yearned for and greatly desired to see God working in the world in the sort of supernatural ways charismatics claim he routinely does act. This desire is an incredibly strong one, and once we add it to the phenomenon of charismatic experiences it creates a seduction that’s damn near impossible to break away from. Charismatic experiences are often quite intense, involving powerful emotions. In charismatic worship people will often close their eyes, sway to the music, and end up in a highly suggestible state. Under certain circumstances people will experience a release of endorphins, as a result of which they take on something of a glowing countenance, they may even laugh for no reason or cry tears of joy. Some will even begin to feel and behave as if they’ve had a couple of drinks. In short, charismatic experiences make you feel good, but more importantly they put you into a highly suggestible state – not unlike the sort of state that can be produced in a person using psychological tricks and hypnosis techniques. It’s really little wonder why even highly intelligent people who have spent 30 minutes or even an hour in such a state are far more likely to give credence to the miracle claims that often follow.
Given how intense charismatic experiences can be, it’s not easy to look upon them in the cold light of reason to see them for what they really are. Moreover, it’s very difficult to admit that one was wrong about such matters given how foolish we might feel as a result. Take the charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I used to speak in tongues, and in fact I can still do so at will. I no longer regard it as a supernatural ability to speak in another language (human or angelic), but rather as a learned behaviour picked up through too many years in a Pentecostal church and a strong social pressure to engage in what is at best a meditative practice using free vocalisation. I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit to having been a tongues speaker. When I realized that I wasn’t doing anything remotely supernatural I felt incredibly stupid. It still makes me cringe. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, and it’s a painful realisation. It was tempting to bury my doubts rather than face up to having been so stupidly….stupid. Interestingly, magicians are well aware that this fear of appearing foolish when we find we’ve been duped can lead people to exaggerate their experiences, to deny the evidence before them, or to be highly vulnerable to suggestion from the magician (who of course makes them believe they experienced something more impressive than they really did). Understandably, many choose not to face up to the embarrassing reality.
Of course, when one goes to a charismatic church all these things are routine, and how often do we ever stop to question things that are routine? Everyone is doing it. It’s normal. In fact, it’s sometimes a little competitive and I’ve witnessed all manner of pretence: people vying with each other to see who can give the best performance or display the most intense spiritual experience. And the peer pressure doesn’t stop there. The social lives of many revolve around their church. When all your friends are claiming miracles and speaking in tongues it’s all the more difficult to dissent. Dissent can bring with it social exclusion. I have very few Pentecostal or charismatic friends left; they tend to view me with suspicion these days.
When we consider the social consequences that follow from not being in spiritual affinity with everyone else, it can be tempting to bury doubts or exaggerate one’s experiences. Dissenters run the risk of losing their entire social circle. Of course, you might not be explicitly vilified and actively shunned (as shamefully common as that is); rather, the exclusion might be of a benign, but no less devastating, kind, as one ends up drifting away from what had been a very strong social connection and a fundamental part of one’s identity. Unsurprisingly this is a very painful thing to go through, and it’s easy to see why doubts and dissent aren’t entered into lightly.
Humans are social animals, craving acceptance and friendship. Some of the more questionable charismatic leaders are well aware of this aspect of human psychology and use it to great effect in “personalised” letters that they send “just for you because I’ve been praying for you.” Wow, he’s been praying for ME? I’m blessed to have a friend who sits at the right hand side of God.” Of course, many Charismatic leaders are not charlatans, but they still create a strong impression on their congregations. Some seem to receive a steady stream of prophetic information directly from the throne of the Almighty. Despite being little more than a series of Barnum statements (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/), this creates the illusion of the supernatural, particularly in the minds of those who have been made suggestible by the hypnotic nature of much charismatic worship. Others give the impression that they are regular conduits for the working of divine healing power. Of course, this healing power (when it isn’t downright fraudulent) is clearly one or a combination of the following: placebo, exaggeration, anecdote, natural healing, medical intervention, or what has come to be known as the “shot gun technique,” whereby the leader announces on stage that God is – right at this very moment – healing someone with back pain, another of diabetes, He’s touch a woman with cancer, that asthmatic can breathe more easily – without ever identifying who he’s talking about. Many of these leaders are undoubtedly genuine people who really believe God is indeed working such wonders. But all they are really doing is following the techniques of less scrupulous charismatic celebrities, though in doing so they easily create an illusion that wonders and miracles are happening all over the place. Do you wanna get in with God? Then you gotta get in with the leader!
For other people this social phenomenon helps to insulate their beliefs and practices from criticism. Take Peter Popoff again. How is it that so many people could still fall for the shenanigans of a proven fraud? Well, for some of these people the answer lies in not knowing he’s a proven fraud. How many people who engage in charismatic beliefs and practices will read a book like James Randi’s “The Faith-Healers,” or watch a critical documentary like Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sales.” Instead they are far more likely to read books in defence of their beliefs and practices, and rather than listening to a sceptic’s critique they tend to stick to events where people provide impressive sounding anecdotes of miracles they witnessed in Mozambique. And so, via our old friend Confirmation Bias, their claims get constantly affirmed and rarely subjected to challenge. Note the reaction of the guy I mentioned earlier who blocked me on Twitter simply for sharing a critical article about a faith-healer he liked. Even more recently, when I shared that same article with another person I was instantly labelled as a troll.
Sadly, there are others who are simply desperate. Why do they fall for faith-healing charlatans? Because the charlatan is the only person offering any hope at all. Sure, Popoff was once a crook but maybe he’s changed now. Maybe his miracle spring water will work. What have I got to lose from giving it a try? Such people are easy prey for charismatic faith-healers simply because they want hope and the charismatic faith-healer is the only one offering it (albeit of a false kind).
These factors are powerful, blinding even highly intelligent people. It took me years, but one day the scales finally fell from my eyes and I could see through the web of delusion which had been spun around me. If my writings can help even a few others break free even a bit sooner, they will have been well worth it.
Stephen J. Graham