Miracles for sale

I just watched “Derren Brown: Miracles for Sale“, a documentary in which the illusionist Derren Brown exposes the tricks used by faith healers to convince people they are healed and get them to part with their cash. Well worth a watch. (Outside the UK you will need to use a UK proxy server.)

The healing business is extremely dodgy and quite dangerous as the programme shows very well. People are conned into believing that God wants them to donate significant sums of money and will reward this with prosperity (I’ve heard that one myself), healing and other benefits. If this doesn’t work they are told the problem is “secret sin” or a lack of faith, thereby being made to feel that they themselves are the problem. Additionally they may be persuaded to throw away medications or forgo treatment, believing that by demonstrating faith in this way, God will give them their miracle. It is enough to make anyone sick.

The style of these church services is very familiar to me from many years ago. I understand very well how the pattern of music manipulates the emotions, whipping them up into a highly aroused state in which we become open to suggestion. I had occasional profound experiences; most of the time, though, I was frustratedly “not getting it”. I had lots of questions but I was very credulous and trusted those who seemed so full of faith. My inability to “get it” made me feel almost schizophrenic at times. Before I buckled under the weight of my doubts, and long before I learnt to think critically, I fumbled around in the darkness and it was not a good place to be.

And the question this programme raises for me is: how can you tell the sincere pastors apart from the charlatans? Is there even a clear distinction? I can recognise the dramatic and almost aggressive way that these speakers use their voices and gesticulate, and that it gets people’s adrenaline racing and triggers these effects: being slain in the spirit, or experiencing relief of pain. I can recognise the hypnotic repetition in the musical and lyrical phrases. But I hardly think there is some grand conspiracy whereby aspiring superstar fake pastors learn these tricks. These religious rituals are widespread. It seems much more likely that they evolved more organically and that people unconsciously converged on what worked, believing they were following the voice of God. Worship leaders take the music “in the direction the Spirit leads” – it just so happens that the Spirit leads down these now well-worn pathways. 😉

I personally think that there is a whole messy mixture of sincerity and fakery in these faith healers. I suspect that deep down, just like I did, they feel schizophrenic. There are some pastors who admit openly to promulgating things they don’t believe. Others perhaps are less honest with themselves. I think there must be sincerity there to some degree. How else could they be so successful at it? Perhaps the deception starts small… failing to cover up the person’s good ear properly so that they can still hear even though you haven’t really healed their deaf ear; you could do that without really being conscious of it. At the point where you’re having people’s personal details read into your earpiece so you can “prophetically” tell them these details as if God is revealing them to you… at this point, you surely know it is fake, but you probably have developed some sophisticated way of justifying it to yourself.

It reminds me of discussions we’ve had about Joseph Smith, and Muhammad. It is the same phenomenon. I think Muhammad must have known that the verse justifying his marriage to his adopted son’s ex – on grounds of adopted sons not being real sons – was pushing it. Especially as the new stance on adoption created all sorts of complicated family dilemmas when combined with the rules on veiling and segregation. But I guess if you reach a certain level of success and power and multitudes put their faith in you, it becomes almost impossible to doubt yourself. It just snowballs out of control.

It is ordinary, honest, trusting people who lose out while the conmen build their empires and trust no-one, employing top security to imprison themselves in their secrets. Critical thinking will not solve all the world’s problems, but boy, do we need it!

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16 Responses to Miracles for sale

  1. sanil says:

    I’m sort of a fan of some types of “faith healing”…or at least spiritual healing. When my jaw was still causing severe pain months after having my wisdom teeth taken out and the doctors couldn’t do anything for me, I asked the healers’ guild of a pagan group to try something, and the pain was gone within a few days. I also have several friends who practice reiki. But I think there’s a major and important difference between this and the faith healing talked about here. They don’t guarantee results and they also don’t blame my lack of faith if it doesn’t work – they will admit up front that it just doesn’t always work and we don’t necessarily know why it works when it does. Was I healed by gods or by energy being moved? Or did I sort of hypnotize myself and get better because I believed I would? Or was it just a coincidence? I have no idea, I wouldn’t claim to, and neither would the people I asked for help. All that matters is that something worked. If it hadn’t, I would have tried something else rather than trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong that prayer didn’t magically make everything better.

    There’s room for faith and supernatural methods in healing. But people need to be reasonable and honest about it, like everything else. It drives me crazy seeing people made to feel guilty or manipulated into spending money they don’t have on something that isn’t working (or even if it did work but was still being used to take advantage of people and keep them hooked).

    Moving away from the healing issue, though…the music. Ugh. My youth group always went on these trips to concerts that were actually conversion tools…I remember all these teenagers getting all psyched up because of the music and saying they could feel the Spirit, and then getting depressed because in the weeks afterwards, when they didn’t have the music and the crowd, the “Spirit” had apparently abandoned them. So messed up. I got so furious when I realized that was what they were doing and that the concerts were basically designed to cause those emotions so they could trick people into it. I’m willing to believe their intentions were good and that they honestly thought the most important thing was that they “save” these kids regardless of method, but it’s still sickening to me…especially since there’s no attempt to stay in touch with the kids and help them once the music-high faded and show them what it means to live as a Christian when the happy-feelings aren’t there.

    I remember reading in my “controversy in music” class back in college that years ago some conservative churches hated rock and roll because they said the music caused a “demonic trance” or something. At the least, they might have left out the “demonic” and just said that the music caused an altered mental state and was as bad as drugs. I can’t help but think some of them finally embraced that and turned the trick to their side, deciding altered states were ok as long as they were used to convert people to Christianity.

    …See, this is what happens when I come back to blogging after a long-ish hiatus. You get incredibly long comments! Hope it wasn’t too annoying or boring. You just gave me a lot to think and talk about!

    • Sarah says:

      Long comments are great! I found it really interesting too. 🙂

      I went to events like that as a teenager too. Not concerts exactly but church services, although very like a concert or a show. And yes, it was quite amazing what a profound high you can get from it and of course I attributed that to the Holy Spirit. I wonder if the people that run these events consciously try to produce that effect in people, or if they genuinely believe that they are just worshipping in the Spirit or whatever? I’m sure they use music that they think will appeal to youngsters, to make it fun and cool and get them interested… but do they try to trick people into believing or are they also falling for the same trick themselves? Do they think it’s God that makes people feel that high, or do they understand it’s just the music? I am not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if they really believe it’s God, even though clearly God needs the music to make it happen!!

      Interesting point about musical highs being considered demonic. It’s funny how it all depends on the context. 🙂

      Re healing… mental states and beliefs do have powerful effects on physical health, so yes, I guess there are pros and cons to faith healing as a concept and some types are probably much better/safer than others.

      • sanil says:

        Thanks for pointing out that I was a little biased there. 😀 (Even though that’s not actually what you were saying.) I don’t think most of them are doing it on purpose, and going by what I’ve heard from my friend who’s active in Vineyard churches (if you’re not familiar with them, it sounds like it’s similar to the services you mentioned), it’s more that they’re taking advantage of the music-high to reach God. They’ll talk excitedly about how their music gets people in the mood for worship, and describe the music itself as Spirit-filled, so it seems more like they believe that God uses the music to touch people. It sort of reminds me of the use of peyote or other drugs used in various religions to get in a trance-mode and be receptive to God/gods/spirits/whatever. So there’s an understanding that it’s chemical or otherwise physical, but that God can act through that…like maybe we’re normally too closed off to God and need to be altered to pay attention.

        • Sarah says:

          Haha, no, I am genuinely unsure! 😀
          When I was into this type of thing, the philosophy seemed to be as you describe – taking advantage of the way music can manipulate your emotions in order to get into a worship frame of mind, and believing that you would come close to God that way. After a lively worship song or two, people would start speaking in tongues and prophesying, and I’m sure they believed that that was God and not themselves or the music. Of course this never happened to me, much to my disappointment! It seemed like others were more favoured by God or had more faith perhaps, and it caused me much grief actually. Especially when the people having these wonderful encounters with God are not even very nice people (in some cases), people in serious denial about how much hurt they cause others, sweeping their issues and faults under the carpet of “God loves me”… and I was expected just to forgive of course. It made me feel angry at God and very confused and unhappy. For me now, all I see are dangers in attributing profound subjective experiences to God, whether this is believed sincerely or not. Understanding it in natural terms has been so freeing and yes, I feel furious too about how these experiences are provoked and framed in doctrines at these Christian events. I find it very worrying. Part of what drew me to Islam was the absence of all that subjective fluff… it seemed so much calmer and more grounded!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Are you at all familiar with certain pentocostal groups that engage in snake handling and drink strycknine and go into seizure like trances? I was reading a fiction novel recently in which one of the characters came from such a community so I did a bit of research. Absolutely fascinating. My first instinct is to laugh (there are some priceless youtube videos out there), but really, these people must truly believe on some level, or at least work themselves up to a type of trance, as you mentioned. More than likely, many of the leaders of these communities are believers themselves, although others, I’m sure are purely swindlers. Like you said, it’s hard to tell.

    • Sarah says:

      Hmm… snake-handling vaguely rings a bell! It seems there is all kinds of wacky stuff out there. It is hard to tell who is sincere and who isn’t, and maybe belief is not a black-and-white thing. It might be possible to believe on an emotional and automatic-thinking level but not completely believe on a rational level, I guess.

  3. I just managed to watch this programme but was a little disappointed by the ending. I suspect these charlatans learn their skills from each other either in apprenticeship or by watching. Have just watched the Signs and Wonders Movement Exposed, produced by an ex-faith healer who’s still a Christian. It’s perhaps more hard hitting than Derren’s.

    For snake handling check out the old documentary Holy Ghost People that’s public domain. In terms of music did you know that the augmented fourth, or tritone, is also known as diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”)?

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for the suggestions! Yes, the devil’s fourth… I remember that one from music lessons.

      I felt the ending of Derren’s show was a bit of an anticlimax too. It seemed to be more about entertainment/pulling off a hoax than achieving anything constructive, but the things that were exposed in the programme certainly got me riled up.

  4. Valerie says:

    I found this post really interesting. I haven’t seen the documentary but will have to watch it. I have a friend who had cancer and about a year and a half ago she was told she had 12-15 months to live – she is still alive and healthy. She went for prayer and it worked for her. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t particularly matter to me whether there is a supernatural explanation or not for her being well, I’m just glad to have my friend still around. I have experienced the other side of things as well, when a friend of mine didn’t get better and it made me really question my faith. It makes me really angry when people say things like ‘If you don’t get well you don’t have enough faith’ (which is ridiculous) or having people think that God will bless them if they give away lots of money.
    I remember last year when I was coming to the end of my Pentecostal phase, I was standing in church one Sunday morning and everyone was singing and as I looked around most of them had their eyes closed and their arms in the air and as I watched that I felt incredibly sad. I wondered what was wrong with me. Was I in the same service as these people? A few years before that I would probably have been one of the people with their arms in the air, but as I stood there I felt incredibly empty. I wondered if I had lost my faith, then I got out more and realised I hadn’t. I think some of these types of churches and faith movements can come across as really arrogant, I know that sounds harsh but that’s the impression I get. I hope I haven’t offended anyone and sorry for the long comment but I do tend to go on a little bit sometimes!

    • Sarah says:

      “most of them had their eyes closed and their arms in the air and as I watched that I felt incredibly sad. I wondered what was wrong with me. Was I in the same service as these people?”

      Oh Valerie, I have been there too!! I used to feel very down about myself and think I must be far from God. Now I’m just amazed that some people can maintain a level of enthusiasm like that. I find it terribly shallow. (Now that’s harsh! 😉 )

      The times when I’ve had the most “spiritual” experiences – the kind of experiences I used to associate with God – those times have not been when I’ve been into religion. Funny eh? So yes, I can relate to your feeling more sure of your faith after coming out of it.

  5. For those that haven’t seen it, you can find it here:

    My link for the Signs And Wonders Exposed didn’t come out so here is it:

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for that. Will definitely watch that one when I get a chance!

    • Sarah says:

      I watched the “Signs and Wonders Movement Exposed” film, and it was quite interesting, especially in part 2 where they discuss the effects of the music, and also how these ministers are trained in much the same way stage hypnotists are trained! It was interesting because it was a Christian film, too. I found it odd to hear them being so reasonable and sceptical in one breath and then talking about the “real” miracles of the Bible in the next!

      • Yes I was also fascinated by those things. It was strange the constant switching from skepticism to belief in the occult and miracles. They were never really able to illuminate the difference between a fake miracle and a real one.

  6. susanne430 says:

    Thanks for sharing these honest thoughts. Many people here speak against these kinds of faith healers. If you truly believe you are doing God’s work, you don’t charge people for it and build your own empire!! >>:-[ As He freely gave to us, we freely give. Or we should!

    I have some Pentecostal friends I’ve met online, but I’ve never been to any of their services so I know what the speaking in tongues is, but only from reading about it. The few Pentecostal/charismatic friends I have seem genuine…actually very much so so I don’t have a bad impression of it. However I can see – based on the personal experiences you described – why you would.

    • Sarah says:

      I’m glad to hear that many people speak out against it over there!

      I wonder what the differences are between your kind of church and the pentecostals. I think theologically it is very similar, maybe the emphasis on “spiritual gifts” and miracles and the exuberant worship style are the only major differences? Not sure.

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