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!