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Empathizing With Delusional Christians

September 16, 2011

You don’t have to hang around this site very long to arrive at the conclusion that I probably have a bit of an unhealthy fascination with the dark underbelly of Christianity. People who imagine themselves influencing events on the world stage, people acting nonsensical and foolish, people pretending they can do magic, people being willfully and stubbornly ignorant… unfortunately the list goes on, and after several years of writing articles, highlighting errors, and posting crazy videos, it seems there is no end in sight of the delusional circus.

However, today I would like to take a minute and tell you that I do empathize with some of these people. Technically I would say their social and cognitive development occurred in such an environment that they lack good categories for interpreting natural phenomena and different social communities. But more simply put: in many cases it’s not their fault.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Pentacostals in Jolo, W. Va., handle serpents, speak in tongues

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Robey Harrison (R), a member of the ‘Signs’ Pentecostal denomination, an amalgam of Christianity and folk beliefs unique to Appalachia, anoint Betty Payne (C) with oil during an evening service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, September 3.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Pastor Mack Wolford, a member of the ‘Signs’ Pentecostal denomination, handles a highly venomous timber rattlesnake during an evening service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, September 3. The church hosts one of the last Signs denominations in the country, which encourages worshipers to speak in tongues and to handle serpents. Popular throughout Appalachia in the 1920s, the practice is rooted in a Biblical passage from the Book of Mark.

Found via Christian Nightmares.

There’s a lot of different directions we could go with this one but I’ll merely note that the community’s “beliefs” are influenced by their geographical and social location and are an extreme minority with Christian circles, i.e., it’s possible to have incorrect “beliefs”. (and please remember what I believe to be an extremely important distinction: beliefs and knowledge are not the same things!)

Second, I would like to share a quick story with you: I have  a twin sister. For years she has suffered from epilepsy experiencing hundreds, if not thousands, of seizures that have inflicted serious physical damage. During the last 20 years, Lee-Ann has also been prayed for countless times by different faith-healers, church persons, and volunteers in prayer rooms. Over, and over, and over, and over.

Long story short: regardless of the cacophony of prayer Lee-Ann’s condition worsened. However, last year Doctors decided to open her skull and separate the hemispheres of her brain. Most shockingly to my medically uneducated brain: cracking her skull open and cutting her brain in half improved her condition!

I tell you this because of something that happened a few weeks after the surgery. One lady from my sister’s church, who had probably prayed for Lee-Ann umpteen times, when told of my sister’s improving condition said, “Praise God. It’s a miracle. Our prayers have finally been answered.”

The initial comments that went through my brain towards this person may have included some vulgarity and derogatory remarks! However, as I reflected on the situation more and more it occurred to me that this poor lady simply lacked any categories by which to understand a medical procedure–apart from prayer and the supernatural–improving a person’s health.

I believe that it is important to recognize–for the sake of empathy and better conversation– that “Cognitive development is a process of socialization…” and how “intellectual development is organized and directed by the social world over the course of childhood. Although a single instance of thinking may be a solitary activity, cognitive development as a process cannot be meaningfully separated from the social context in which it occurs.” Socialization then is the “primary system through which children learn about the world and develop cognitive skills.” (M. Gauvain and S. M. Perez “The Socialization of Cognition” in Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, 588.)

This is exactly where I empathize with many delusional religious persons: they were socialized in a delusional setting; that setting and the categories of intellectual non-complexity they were saddled with are not their fault in many ways. Frankly, it would be impossible for them to have any other interpretive categories entering adulthood outside of some different socializing settings of their youth, say school and friends, though this is mitigated in some religious settings by insulating against outside influences.

Furthermore, an important ingredient for any further or disagreeing development in adulthood is to take many of the epistemological and interpretive categories they are given as children and youths on ‘faith’ or trust. Combine this with the suggestion quite often that one should not ever, under any circumstances question these categories and you have a pretty lethal socialization context.

But, when I was a child I thought as a child… I grew up in a charismatic church setting. I ‘knew’ a lot of things about supernatural power and how to access the unseen force. I ‘knew’ the earth was young (the Bible, my parents, and the pastor told me: what more do you need!). I ‘knew’ the dead were raised and God regenerated limbs. These were simply unexamined self-evident facts.

But you do not have to remain ignorant forever. It is possible to gain better categories for interpreting the phenomena that occur around you. So while you can remain a product of your socialization context–and that I will empathize with, my question is: what are you going to do about it?

As an aside: think how scary it would be if the NRA and seven mountain dominionists were ever able to “take over culture” and socialize everyone into their ignorance… we could be back in the Middle-Ages in no time!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2011 11:52 am

    nice job

  2. September 16, 2011 11:55 am

    “People who imagine themselves influencing events on the world stage, people acting nonsensical and foolish, people pretending they can do magic, people being willfully and stubbornly ignorant…”

    *Glad he’s not talking about me* 🙂

  3. 4xi0m permalink
    September 16, 2011 1:38 pm

    Bravo; excellent post. ^_^ I was socialized into a similar church setting growing up, except mine was a Calvinistic fundamentalist denomination, rather than charismatic. You make an especially good point on the role of ‘faith’ in maintaining the indoctrinated categories, and I’d like to add that the persecution complex inherent in them (i.e. “‘the world’ is out to destroy our faith”) is probably the reason it took longer than it should have for me to take a step back and think about all this. The ideas that intellectual belief in something = faith, good = well-behaved, and morality = arbitrary power didn’t help either. So, yeah, I can relate to people who haven’t done that yet.

    I have a real problem, though, with people who exploit those who possess these inadequate categories for easy financial or political gain. There are innumerable examples, of course, but since I’m still mad about recent statements regarding an HPV vaccine, I’ll look in Michele Bachmann’s direction for the moment.

  4. September 16, 2011 5:42 pm

    I consider myself blessed that I was saved through the fellowship of a Charistmatic Anglican Church. Within that framework I was spared most of the weird and whacky – though I did see and experience enough.

    Within that framework I can still expectantly pray for healing’s and miracles without being guilty if God doesn’t. I continue to pray in my natural and spiritual language. I will continue to be involved in the deliverance ministry when its needed and likewise engage with the prophetic.

    At the same time I will continue to engage deeply with the word of God and how that speaks to us today, through understanding how it first spoke to those it was written to.

    The issue of socialisation has many interesting aspects…many sociologists cry out that they operate out of a purity of science and observation and that society can be understood on a purely natural level…where in reality all social sciences operate on some level of prior faith based presupposition.

    • September 17, 2011 12:11 am

      “Within that framework I can still expectantly pray for healing’s and miracles without being guilty if God doesn’t.”

      Or you could, you know, just go to a doctor, and experience equal or even superior benefits to the doctor + prayer tactic. Prayer being, based on every reliable study ever done on the topic, entire superfluous to the process.

      • September 17, 2011 7:58 am

        Sure you can go to a doctor and its something I highly recommend – after all I have experienced being paralysed on the right side and hospitalised for 2 months, experienced what it is like to have to be in a wheel chair and walk with a walking stick for a number of years……And so I have a high regard for the medical profession.

        I also have a high regard for our Lord and will also pray for people to be healed, that the Lord will give doctors and surgeons wisdom and inspiration…Just because there may be some bad bathwater in the Charismatic camp…it doesn’t mean you have to throw out the baby.

  5. September 16, 2011 6:56 pm

    Craig, you seem a nice enough chap so I’ll go easy, but when you write, “where in reality all social sciences operate on some level of prior faith based presupposition” it’s like you’re saying, “I don’t really know what I am talking about.”

    While rhetorically it may seem like a good argument to confuse philosophical naturalism with what actually occurs in the social sciences the truth is that a) that is an old argument and b) it does not hold any actual water. In seeking to answer the sort of questions that social scientists do they do not begin at ‘faith’ positions. It’s just a complete misunderstanding of the field and the methodology.

    • September 17, 2011 7:55 am

      Every person has a position of faith in which they operate. This position of ‘faith’ whether it be a religious or agnostic belief system is still a foundation in which the individual will operate and that foundation will form a basis in which they see the worlds lens….

      Even a scientist operates from a faith based position in that they believe what they believe to be a set of factual facts will create a set response and its from that position that they will delve deeper into their research.

      • September 17, 2011 10:11 am


        I have a suspicion that you have been reading apologetics, as it is a usual argumentative apologetic trick to try and make all scientific conclusions based on some sort of a priori ‘worldview’.

        However, ‘science’ in its may iterations is not a ‘worldview’ but rather a method that when employed ideally attempts to work outside biases and worldviews. Therefore, ideally, an atheist or a fundamentalist could both work on the exact same question within social sciences as long as they operated with good methodology and their a posteriori conclusions and theories accounted for the data in a reasonable manner. In fact, I would think the usefulness of the scientific method is that it can negate some of these biases.

        There is a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, and I am interested in the question of when a person moves from one to the other, but if you assert that everyone begins at some sort of philosophical naturalism I will disagree with you. That assertion may hold water within the deductive shield of protecting ‘faith’ but it holds little explanatory power for me over the broad range of human experiences and scientific methodology.

        I think this conversation might be more profitable if we agreed on the difference between belief and knowledge, methodological and philosophical naturalism, hypotheses and theories, etc…

      • dan permalink
        September 17, 2011 12:58 pm

        What i think is the real sad thing, in all this, is that people seem to think on both sides that one disproves the other. “Science proves religion is false. The bible proves science is false”. Rather neither disproves the other. an old universe doesn’t disprove genesis. In fact Genesis doesn’t really say much about the creation of the universe other than it was created and created with an order. And science has shown that “yes the universe has an order”. One of the frustrations I have with the current christian zeitgeist is the lack of scientific study of the bible. And in many cases the no study of the bible because my hired priest tells me what I need to know. Now be sure this is also something that happens with science as it flows out into the realm of the public. People presume upon “facts” with out much consideration of them. IE: “I heard on the news that aspirin can cause ulcers so i don’t ever take aspirin.” Now scientifically the correct response would be “maybe i should only take aspirin when I really need it like for my heart condition.”

        • September 18, 2011 3:11 am

          Actually, science is quite useful for disproving factual claims made by religion. Which, despite their cries to the contrary, religions make all the time. Did land and water precede light? No. Did the human race begin with two fully formed humans? No. Was there ever a Roman census that forced Joseph and Mary to return to their home city? No.

          See? Any time the bible, or any other religious text, makes a factual claim, science can and does have the ability to critique the validity of those claims. You are correct that science can’t ‘disprove’ religion. But it can and does disprove specific claims of religion all the time.

          • September 18, 2011 6:00 am

            Hi Ty…But does the Bible claim to make a factual scientific claim about how the earth was made…or was the authors intention to state that God created.

            • September 18, 2011 2:26 pm

              And that, Craig, is last defense of mysticism. Just say that any claims the religious text makes that don’t hold up aren’t factual claims. It is one way to protect the beliefs from criticism, but I think the price you pay is that it makes it much easier to simply dismiss everything the text says. After all, most religious texts don’t come with a users manual letting you know which things are just metaphor, and which are totally real and serious. At that point, everyone’s just making up the story they like, and hanging it on the text for credibility.

          • 4xi0m permalink
            September 18, 2011 9:40 am

            ROFL, the skinny column strikes back!

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy permalink
    September 18, 2011 3:26 pm

    I grew up in a charismatic church setting. I ‘knew’ a lot of things about supernatural power and how to access the unseen force.

    Question: How does that differ from Magick?

    As an aside: think how scary it would be if the NRA and seven mountain dominionists were ever able to “take over culture” and socialize everyone into their ignorance… we could be back in the Middle-Ages in no time!

    Especially if they “socialize everyone” the way the Ayatollahs and Talibani did — under pain of Death. “GOD SAITH! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

  7. September 18, 2011 5:18 pm

    Ty..I’ll reply here….its getting way to hard to read the small column.

    Your last statement is a load of bull dust and I’m sure you know it is too. The Bible is a books that contains history, poetry, prophecy, dreams, and was written over the course of a very long time, within a different historical framework and life perspective then what we have today.

    Therefore, to understand the Bible and know how to apply its truths for us today, we first need to understand the genre it was written in, why and to whom it was written… The first couple of chapters of Genesis wasn’t written as scientific fact or history – it was written within the genre of what is called Ancient Literary Myth…. ATL has a far different nuance to what we might understand a Myth to mean….. Within their framework it is a story that explains their origin and within that framework its not meant to be understood as a scientific recipe of what happened…rather it says… in the beginning there is and was a God – this God created all the stuff around us and created us to walk in relationship with him.

    The power of this story within the historical framework is immense. The surrounding nations had their sun, fish, tree, animal, star and moon gods and what ever other god you can call for… But within the Hebrew narrative of the origin they say…No..there is only one God who created all this stuff!

    As I said before…within the ancient historical fabric – it was and still is a huge statement.

    Getting back to my statement about sociological presuppositions – I find it very interesting how many will try and read Genesis within a scientific framework and dismiss its story – without actually engaging in the story through a historical sociological frame work of understanding in which it all makes sense.

  8. Lamont Goodling permalink
    September 18, 2011 6:48 pm


    1) In what way does the story ‘all make sense’ for you?
    2) How does the story make sense from a scientific method perspective?
    3) How is your perspective that ‘makes sense’ different from scientific method?
    4) How is your perspective that ‘makes sense’ superior to scientific method?


    • September 18, 2011 7:04 pm

      Lamont. The genesis story of creation makes sense to me in understanding that the story is simply saying that God was the creator / that God was behind the creation process.

      It’s a falsehood to say that scientific fact proves the Biblical witness was wrong and therefore it is a lie. Science may prove or not prove a form of big bang theory. (Which is still a theory) But it cannot prove or disprove that God was or wasn’t the cause of the big bang.

      The genesis story wasn’t written in a scientific factual manner…rather its a story from ancient times that formed its identity within the framework of existence and origin. They look up and say- yeup..God made the sky, the moons, stars etc…. And within that framework Genesis is a literary story of a faith based nature.

      Within this framework – it allows freedom for scientific discovery to continue its work of discovery of how the universe ticks along and also allows freedom to have a faith based system of belief in that God was behind the creation process…

  9. September 18, 2011 10:28 pm


    Buy a science text book written by actual scientists doing real science. Learn what the word ‘theory’ actually means, and where it comes in the scientific method. Stop learning a bastardized view and misrepresentation of so-called science second-hand from apologetic books and websites. When you write, “Which is still a theory” a giant red-flag is waving for everybody.

    Also: when was Genesis written/redacted? By who? Have you actually read any of the creation myths from the cultures that surrounded ancient Israelite/Hebrew cultures? What are the competing claims for the polemics of the priestly creation account? What is its relation to the Yahwist account?

    • September 18, 2011 10:57 pm

      The Genesis story has many similarities with other ancient cultural stories that share a commonality of creation, flood etc. Some of the ancient stories have been found which suggest they are much older than the Hebrew Genesis story…at least within a written context. Sumerian, Babylonian, and even the Australian Aboriginee’s have their own creation account and flood story… Within the Australian context there is ample scientific evidence that shows much of the Australian desert was at one time covered in water.

      Within the literary evidence of the Pentateuch there is evidence of two edited stories within Genesis 1 and 2. The Hebrew words for Lord and God for instance are different…in the second account they use words which came into usage at a much later date – which strongly suggests they were edited into their current format within the post exiic period.

      However, within a Christian framework, our faith isn’t based on the creation account…rather its based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

      • September 18, 2011 11:16 pm

        Why does “theory” have a different set of meaning within a scientific framework than it does in any other framework of meaning – simply put “Theory is an understanding of how something works.,…”

        Within the theological spectrum for example there are many theories of the Atonement…

        I don’t don’t see it as a red flag…unless your coming under other presuppositions as to how you see the world as being black and white. (and no this saying is not a racist comment.)

        • September 19, 2011 8:39 am

          Yes, but in science ‘theory’ does not mean guess or hypothesis, which is how you used it above. Words are commonly used differently and incorrectly because words have polysemy, connotative meanings and denotative meanings. In science ‘theory’ is used denotatively as part of a process (the end!) that explains observable or testable data.

          You don’t see it as a red flag, because once again, you have shown that you understand very little about actual science.

          Yes I know there are other creation cycles and flood narratives such as the Baal Cycle and Enuma Elish, because I have actually read them. Have you?

          • September 19, 2011 2:23 pm

            OH! who is putting words in my mouth? Did I say that the scientific usage of theory was a guess? Within a theological setting theory still comes under the same meaning as it does as a scientific theory…certainly within a scientific framework ‘Theory’ has room for a ‘Hypothesis’ basis….for its the basis of all research, which may or may not reach a dead end.

            You see it as a red flag because in many ways you don’t like being challenged…after reading through the ways you engage with many commentators on your blog…you have a heavy hand against any who disagree with you.

            Yes I have read other flood stories…it was required class reading and hence it supports again my stance that the Genesis story to the flood is a literary societal polemic about God being in charge and not meant to be read as a scientific methodology as to the order in which the earth was made.

  10. Another Dan permalink
    September 19, 2011 11:07 am

    You do have a very positive view on science Scott. But how do you like the scientific theory of multiple universes? Can this be called “scientific” as clearly you can not collect any data outside this universe? And it would be really interesting if you could write a post about your doctrine on prayer. I really do like to read your blog as it challenges my views and my thinking as a member of the more or less charismatic movement.

  11. September 19, 2011 12:31 pm

    Another Dan,

    I might have to write a few posts to answer your questions, but briefly: I am positive towards things that work, but this does not mean that I am positive to science in some sort of blind sense. “Advances” in technology have led to the current climate issues; somebody figured out how to drill 12 miles into the earth’s core and screw up a large body of water; currently the rate of animal population extinctions is ridiculously high.

    Furthermore, “science” is not really a useful descriptor anymore with so many different branches that use different methodologies to investigate different aspects of the natural realm.

    As to multiple universes, I am NO quantum physicist, but is that one on the theory list or hypothesis list?

    • September 19, 2011 6:14 pm

      I think the Multiple Worlds Interpretation started life as a model rather than a theory or a hypothesis. It was a way of thinking and talking about some of the problems resulting from quantum theory. It wasn’t intended to be a description of reality.

      Of course, nothing ever stays simple. It got incorporated into later versions of string theory. Now there are people hinting that we can detect evidence of multiple words in the cosmic background radiation.

  12. Scott permalink
    September 19, 2011 5:29 pm


    We are running into the issue of the WordPress too skinny reply thread again, so I’ll answer here. Yes, I can be blunt and straight-forward: this does not mean I “don’t like being challenged.” In fact I am being significantly challenged right now in writing my MA thesis which begins with Genesis 6:1-4 and tries to understand it as cohering with Gen 1-11 as a consistent unit. Furthermore I am also working on a literary reading of Gen 12-36 located within the social conflicts of Persian era Yehud. I love the challenge!

    However, when I am being lectured as to the meaning of science by someone who significantly misrepresents a scientific study at their site, as if it is science vs. the gamers (where – exceptionally in scientific publishing – both gamers and researchers are honoured as co-authors.Read more: and opines (as if scientists were not part of the process), “I think this has ramifications into what constitutes the validity and limitations of science as a discipline in understanding and making known the workings of the universe and creation” I am yet left again to wonder: what science textbooks or studies has this person read? What do they know about scientific theories of the universe? As tildeb says at your site : “They didn’t crack any code; they successfully recreated a 3D chain from a 2D model because of their spatial abilities. Computers are notoriously bad at duplicating this spatial ability through computations and permutations but you go way off the tracks to suggest that this is somehow evidence for a limitation of science as a discipline.”

    It seems to me that regardless of what rhetorical attitude I take with you, you will always argue that ‘science can’t really know’ because you haven’t read any actual science regarding the development of the universe. Where do the elements on earth come from? What process best explains the data? How are planets, stars, and galaxies formed? Are these things “a mystery”?

    Now I’m guessing based on the fact that you have avoided the question, but it seems to me that ideologically you wish to avoid the actual science so that you can hold to a pastoral theology. Which is OK if that’s what you want to do, but does not require lecturing people on what science is if you don’t really know yourself.

    As to “literary value”, I believe that the authorship or redaction of a story has to be located within a specific social or historical location to understand its polemical value, because societies and languages change, therefore, stories do not carry a “timeless” message. To understand this you have to have some familiarity with hot memory, and social and cultural memory. Stories are told in relation to present concerns, even if they supposedly “represent the past”.

    If the flood narrative is just “literary” (here’s a good article showing why it can’t be taken literally by Dr. Robert Cargill ), is its truth value because God told the story, even though the story is physically impossible and historically never happened? What then is the difference from the Brothers Grimm?

    Finally, it seems to me because you haven’t read any science books, you don’t understand the movement from methodological naturalism to philosophical naturalism. When a scientist has studied the mechanisms of the universe, and has reasonable working theories for the beginning of the universe, creation of planets, stars, galaxies, etc., and comes to the conclusion that all of these processes could have taken place without the necessity of a god, and then postulates from there, because God isn’t necessary for any of this to exist built on methodological observations: then we are at philosophical naturalism.

    It is an effective rhetorical trick to begin an argument as if a priori some persons demand there is no god regardless of the evidence; but what about the scientist or layperson that has examined a great amount of evidence and come to the same conclusion because it is intellectually honest? Is it not intellectually and spiritually dishonest to have not read the science and declare them wrong based on ideology?

    I’m guessing that regardless of what I write, or how, there is little that will convince you to examine real science. That’s OK. But because I refuse to allow you to move the conversation to theological speculations or a misrepresentation of methodological naturalism does not mean I am ‘heavy-handed’.

    Be well. Cheers. Have a good life. Much love. All the best. Many blessings. Happy face 🙂 . LOL!

  13. dan permalink
    September 19, 2011 8:27 pm

    so out of curiosity what is your interpretation of Gen. 6 1-4? Such as what are “the sons of God.” and “daughters of men”. How do you explain the 120 year limit to the age of men? Im quite interested in what you have to say in your paper.

    • WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
      September 20, 2011 1:07 am

      As am I but maybe if we don’t all regale him with questions he’ll have more time to write it. 😉

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