whyichanged3

This is part three of a series (see Part 1 and Part 2) that recounts my experiences with holding firm to certain beliefs or propositions, and then realizing these were deeply flawed when placed under careful scrutiny. The aim of this series is to encourage us to admit we are fallible, can be wrong, and sometimes, we need to change our beliefs. I genuinely hope that we can learn to ask difficult questions and be unafraid of change.

Preachers know less than science teachers

I sat with my mouth wide open, soaking in wave after wave of fascinating stories and PowerPoint graphics. The speaker was a charismatic man with a bright white smile and nicely slicked hair. He motioned to a picture of a hyperbaric air chamber and began to tell us that dinosaurs are actually lizards, and if one of these small lizards were to be placed in the pictured air chambers, he would grow up to become giant tyrannosaurus rex. With enthusiasm the speaker continued to explain that the air quality had changed as a result of the flood, and therefore, this change in air explained everything, from why lizards no longer grow up to be dinosaurs and why humans no longer livet to be hundreds of years old.

I looked around at my friends, and saw that we were all awed by his great knowledge, and could rest comfortably knowing our views of the Bible were all true. Our eyes stayed glued to the fascinating slideshow for the rest of its duration, this was surely the best and most interesting church service we had ever attended! After the service, I went up to “Dr.Dino” and eagerly shook his hand. I was in awe of his majesty, at that moment I believed that Kent Hovind knew everything, although I would later learn, he didn’t know how to stay out of jail.

A few years later, after watching many of Hovinds video tapes (which were of course bootlegged copies that had become almost grainy and unwatchable because they were VHS copies of copies of copies) I eagerly and triumphantly forayed my way onto the internet, to prove to the world that young earth creationism (YEC) was indubitably true. At the very knowledgeable age of 16 I would be found in a dozen MSN chat rooms arguing with atheists and biologists that evolution was false. I would TYPE IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE BIGGER LETTER ARE MORE EMPHATIC, unaware of the fact that I was essentially shouting at some fairly bright and educated people. I once even tried to convince a PhD in biology on this online chat group that he was utterly wrong in everything he knew, and that I, the great 16 year old genius, had all the answers because I watched a few Kent Hovind videos. Yes, I really was that arrogant.

And yet, a part of me was afraid. I would lay in bed and think “is it possible the evolution is true? What if the facts one day proved it beyond a shadow of doubt, would I be able to accept it?” I shuddered at the frightening thought and tried to reassure myself “no, it can’t happen.”

At the same time, I started building a large creationism website that I aptly called “Darwins Deception.” Obviously I had never really read anything by Darwin, and had no idea who he really was or what prompted him to think the way he did, instead I simply said he was a liar and regurgitated the few things I had heard and read from young earth creationists (YEC’s). My site was to become a giant mega-portal of creationism resources and I spent hundreds of hours meticulously aggregating every article, journal, ebook, video, audio file, and link into one of the largest directories of it’s kind. I dug through every single creationism site that was on the internet at the time (probably fifty to a hundred?), went through all their out-of-context quote lists, and compiled it into one mega list sorted by category. This mega-quote-mining project probably took me a few months, working a few frantic hours every day. I spent about a year creating this site and then a year curating it.

As I continued to read the literature by opponents of evolution, I became aware if the fact that “weaker” creationists were embarrassed by “stronger” creationists. It was as if there was a staircase and each group of creationists was embarrassed by those who were a step lower. At the bottom step you had the iterant preachers like Kent Hovind and Carl Baugh, and virtually everyone was embarrassed by them. One step up you would find the established YEC’s like Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization, along with Henry Morris/ Duane Gish and the Institute of Creation Research, these had published a document shaming Kent Hovind for maligning creationist integrity for using sloppy arguments. One step up, you would find all the Old Earth/Progressive Creationists, including the front-man for the movement, Hugh Ross and his Reasons To Believe Ministry. One more step up on the the staircase of intellectual evolution were the Intelligent Design (ID) Theorists, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, and David Berlinski, many of whom accepted some form of evolution, but argued that “it could not happen without an intelligent designer.” And finally a huge amount of liberal Catholics/Christians who accepted “theistic evolution” were the highest step on this ladder and they rejected all four of the groups below, while yet maintaining Christian views.

As I read immersed myself in books and articles from the bottom four movements, I saw that each group considered those beneath to be using the wrong arguments, and in many cases to be very untrustworthy. For example, Hugh Ross, who himself believed God created all things apart from evolution, frequently criticized YEC’s for using sloppy and erroneous science, because, according to him (and others in his movement) we had an undefeatable case from a dozen independent lines of evidence that the earth is billions of years old. The ID theorists, critized all forms of creationists and tried to distance themselves by arguing that their theory was scientific, not religious, and that all these religious creationists were not using science. And of course, from the bottom the more staunch YEC’s frequently fought back saying that these other movements were horrible compromises who were denying the Bible.

In the midst of this vast theological war, where at least five separate factions fought for control of orthodoxy, I began to “walk up the stairs.” Even though I started off loving Kent Hovind, I was forced to admit along with other creationists as well as atheists that Hovind was simply an uneducated embarrassment. After encountering more texts, lectures, books, I began to slowly agree with the Old Earth Creationists including famous Christian apologist Will Lane Craig that “young earth creationism is an embarrassment.”

I finally gave up any form of creationism and eagerly dived into Intelligent Design. My young earth creationism website quietly disappeared from the web and my internet bookmarks diminished by about 50 young/old earth creationism sites that I visited religiously. I secretly continued to wonder “will my journey stop here? Or will I one day accept evolution?” I shuddered at the frightening thought and tried to reassure myself “no, it can’t happen.”

I spent a couple of years in this intelligent design movement reading all the classic books from Johnsons ‘Darwin on Trial,’ to Behes ‘Darwins Black Box’ to Dentons Evolution – Theory in Crisis to Wells ‘Icons of Evolution’ to Meyers ‘Signature in the Cell.’ I sincerely don’t remember meeting someone my age who had read as voraciously on this topic as I did. I was further energized by the many predictions that ID advocates made, which urged us forward because “Darwinism is collapsing.” I believed the predictions and became convinced, there would be a sudden shift and finally the intelligent design movement would win out against evolution. My heroes wrote these kinds of things in 2004:

In the next five years, molecular Darwinism — the idea that Darwinian processes can produce complex molecular structures at the subcellular level – will be dead. When that happens, evolutionary biology will experience a crisis of confidence because evolutionary biology hinges on the evolution of the right molecules. I therefore foresee a Taliban-style collapse of Darwinism in the next ten years.”  (William Dembski, “The Measure of Design: A conversation about the past, present & future of Darwinism and Design. Touchstone, 17(6), pp. 60-65.p. 64. 2004.)

This never came about.

As of now, the movement is effectively dying if not dead. And the theory of evolution has not only been verified and accepted by virtually all scientists, but is making huge inroads into Christian education. In fact, Ken Ham, the famous YEC wrote in his new book that

“Today, most Bible colleges, seminaries, K-12 Christian schools, and now even parts of the homeschool movement do not accept the first eleven chapters of Genesis as literal history. They try to fit the supposed billions of years into Genesis, and some teach evolution as fact. Our churches are largely following suit.”

Even as all this was happening, I remained in the ID movement. Certainly I became curious as to why scientists were rejecting intelligent design and creationism, and that slight hint of open-mindedness made me ask difficult questions. I read some responses to the years of creationist knowledge I had accumulated, and found the evolutionist answers to be very robust and well attested. Yet, I still resisted accepting evolution. I simply could not entertain a fact that was against my biblical literalism. I could not! I would not! So I decided to stop thinking about the topic, and hid it under a mental rug.

Again, a part of me secretly wondered “why am I scared to deal with this? Will I one day compromise and accept evolution?” I shuddered at the frightening thought and tried to reassure myself “no, it won’t happen.”

I spent my time learning everything I could in the field of biblical studies. All was well, until I came across the fact that most Old Testament biblical scholars say the book of Genesis contains two separate creation stories, both of which do not really say the same thing, and that likely these two stories create a historiography of the Hebrew people in story form, they do not tell literal history. I was shocked and paralyzed by this fact, and spent a few days poring over my bible, drawing charts and graphs, comparing the different elements, reading commentaries and responses. I wanted to contest this fact, I really did, but at the end of these few exhausting days, I begin to see it, plain as day, there were indeed two separate creation stories! Genesis 1-2 was not written as a history, but a story or parable!

When the paralysis subsided, the realization hit me like a Mack Truck. If the creation story is a parable, it is possible that evolution may be right!

I felt as though I was seeing the world for the first time, I finally started to read the “other side” with an open mind, including dozens of articles and a couple of books that gave a great synthesis of scientific inquiry on the topic (Finding Darwin’s God and Saving Darwin were the most memorable). I began to re-watch a few of the former video debates between evolutionists and creationists. I listened to a couple dozen hours of lectures by leading evolutionist speakers. It was as if a floodgate had opened and everything finally made sense! I remember watching my first nature documentary after this upheaval, it spoke of evolution and instead of my usual method of inward chants “this is not true, this is not true, this is not true” my mind screamed “oh my gosh! this actually makes sense!” I was liberated!

Many different elements of our universe were beginning to make sense to me. Many things that I frequently was uncomfortable with, finally made sense. For example, when I was a young 16 year old crusader, I was very fond of “scientist lists” that contained the names of creationists or intelligent design theorists. My pride and joy was found in these, I would eagerly write “look at all these scientists, how could they all be wrong?” and attach a list of a hundred, or even few hundred, scientists. I had never considered the real statistics in the past, my biblical literalism blinded me from dealing with that. About 99.9% of relevant scientists accept the theory of evolution, but I was making arguments based on the fact that a few scientists did not. In retrospect, I realized how silly these lists are. The largest of its kind, called “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” contains over 900 signatures, from scientist in every field (physics, engineering, computers science, biology, etc) that don’t accept evolution. Yet, mostly as a joke, to give witness to the complete lunacy of such lists, evolutionists created Project Steve, a list of scientists, all of whom have the first name Steve and accept evolution. This list contains over 1,300 signatures! As a comparison, the largest Intelligent design/creationism list has a total of 12 people named Steve (a ratio of 12 to 1300, or less than 1%). To add insult to injury, the ID list of Steves only had one biologist, who later joined the evolutionist side and opted for Project Steve instead. And I no longer had to invent conspiracy theories to avoid the cognitive dissonance, I no longer had to pretend I was smarter or holier than 99% of all scientists. If evolution was really true, and the evidence was there, it would explain why virtually all scientists accepted it, without the need of really strange conspiracy theories. If evolution were true it would explain nearly everything about the biodiversity of life on this planet. It would explain why animals closely related to humans have so many anatomical and physiological similarities. It would explain why living beings are spread over their respective environments, it would explain everything!

And so my greatest fear had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But at the end of the day, I’m ashamed to say that it was not the cogent arguments, robust logic, empirical science, or evidence that changed my mind, for my biblical literalism forbid me to honestly review the evidence. It was a new interpretation of the Bible that enabled me to consider the facts. If not for this, I would still vehemently reject the evidence for evolution, no matter how potent, convincing, or accurate it was.

So where does that leave us?  Am I dogmatic about science and evolution now? Have I only changed in one religion for another? Hardly. I only accept the theory of evolution the same way I accept other scientific theories, including the Germ Theory of Disease or Einstein’s Theory of Gravity/General Relativity. These things have oceans of evidence for them, and if we are to reject any of them, we must do so because of good evidence to do so, not because it makes us feel uncomfortable. That said, I will gladly follow the evidence wherever it leads. If all of our scientific evidence points to the fact that the earth is a flat disc suspended on the back of large turtle, I will believe it.

(to be continued)

why i changed part 2

This is a continuation of a series (see part 1) that recounts some of my formative experiences with firmly holding certain beliefs and then realizing these were deeply flawed when placed under careful scrutiny. The aim of blog series is to encourage others to admit that we are fallible, can be wrong, and sometimes, need to change our beliefs. I genuinely hope that we can learn to ask difficult questions and be unafraid of change.

“Signs and Wonders” are Emotionalist Blunders

From the earliest moments I can remember I have always been a Christian who believed in modern day miracles and the frequent incursion of supernatural forces into our realm. I am quite certain that I knew about speaking in tongues and praying for healing miracles before I was aware that there were these people called scientists who invented things like antibiotics and a theory called evolution. If I was sick, I would be more inclined to start praying for healing than to run to the doctors. Once, when I was about 9 or 10, I twisted my back muscles playing with the neighboring kids. As I felt the pangs of pain shoot out from my back, and imagined the horrors of becoming a paraplegic, my first reaction was to start crying and praying for a miracle. As expected, within the next couple of days the pain slowly went away, and I was convinced in my little mind that this was a miracle. I had already experienced confirmation bias but did not know it.

And yet, when I reached my mid-teen years, I began to be somewhat skeptical of many claims put forward by prominent supernaturalists. I remember viewing videos of Benny Hinn purportedly exposing him as a fraudulent charlatan and the wheels of my brain turning; I was agreeing. I was starting to doubt the many proponents of charismatic powers, miracles, signs, and wonders. I even remembered showing some of these videos to my friends some of whom felt equally put off at some of the radically strange things that these televangelists and faith healers did or said, while others tried to defend these “faith healers.”

But this skepticism did not last. Within a few years, I was yet again immensely drawn to the charismatic movement, to its most extreme manifestation (the “Third Wave”), which culminated in me eagerly standing face to face with the great Benny Hinn, to receive an “anointing” from his miraculous touch.

After being a withdrawn and reluctant attendee for a couple of years, I rejoined the Pentecostal church with the eagerness of a new convert experiencing his “first love.” However, very quickly I began to desire an even deeper spiritual experience, I wanted a relationship that manifested the supernatural presence of God through miracles, signs, and wonders. I was not satisfied with only the ritual and emotion, I wanted to see physical results in the real world. I wanted to live out a genuine biblical experience, just like Elijah the prophet, or Paul the apostle, and I was willing to sacrifice everything for it.

Because of my immense “spiritual hunger” I found myself engrossed in a search for “men of God” who operated in the supernatural, and started by reading the biographies of early Pentecostals, often called “Gods Generals” like Smith Wigglesworth, John Alexander Dowie , Jack Coe, William M. Branham, A.A. Allen and Katherine Kuhlman. These people became my heroes, as I read their larger-than-life stories my eyes would gleam with that eager Pentecostal zeal that transcends reason. Whatever these “Generals” had, I wanted it, eagerly, but I was not finding it in the local churches (Slavic or American) that I had visited. I found plenty of amazing Pentecostal stories of immense miracles, but they were always out of grasp, always like a mythical fog, which you think you can see, but when you grasp at it, you discover it is mere air. These tales of genuine supernatural miracles were always found in a different time or a different country, just outside the tangible reality I could touch and feel. They were always just outside my ability to see and verify them. Like the ancient myths of magnificent heroes and faraway lands, these miracles I read and heard about were never palpable.

Inspired by the stories and biographies, I was willing to go outside of the Pentecostal movement, which felt utterly stale and devoid of the memories of miracles, signs, and wonders that were frequently talked about. From 2007 to 2009 my days were spent reading dozens of books/articles and listening to hundreds of hours of sermons by all of the greats in the modern charismatic movement, including: Mike Bickle of the IHOP movement, Rick Joyner of the Morningstar movement, Paul Cain of the Kansas City Prophets, John Wimber of the Vineyard movement, Bill Johnson of the (Bethel Church/Jesus Culture Movement), John Arnott of the Toronto Blessing Movement, Benny HinnReinhard Bonke, and countless others. All the supernatural miracles and wonders I had been dreaming about were purportedly in their midst. Just like that fantastical stories I had been reading, these guys frequently reported such stories. During the day or night, I would be locked in my room, streaming the IHOP prayer rooms and praying for the impartation of spiritual gifts. I devoted innumerable days to watching revival services and purported healing testimonies (though strangely, in the hundreds of hours I did not see even one physical healing, like an amputated limb growing back.) And during church and youth services, I would zealously pray for an explosion of the supernatural. I even received a few prophecies, some from people in the Third Wave Charismatic movement, that spoke of the imminent outpouring. In one the prophet assured me that God was going to blow up my ministry within that year. In another, I was promised the ability to raise the dead. I sincerely expected the radical miracles to come.

And yet, all of my devout prayers amounted to very little. Certainly, there were cases where I rejected sound natural explanations and chose to sincerely believe that I was seeing supernatural “signs & wonders,” and plenty of situations where my faith was so strong that even when I didn’t see a healing or miracle, I genuinely believed it was truly occurring, and soon, very soon, we would finally see it. We just needed to hold out and keep the faith; and I did, for as long as I could.

Slowly my earnest flame began to burn out, this great anticipatory longing for authentic miracles and healings was evolving into a series of questions like “why not? what did we do wrong? why was our genuine faith never enough? Why were we not seeing the miracles God promised and we believed for?” I don’t know about anyone else, but my faith was so strong, I would have jumped off a bridge without thinking twice.

Near the end of 2009 I found myself at large conference led by the famed healer, Benny Hinn. It was an exciting couple of days. One of my friends was called out by Benny Hinn, from hundreds of feet away, and Hinn prophetically told him that he would be a supernaturally empowered pastor within a year. At the time this prophecy was profoundly exciting (though five years later, when the prophecy has been unfulfilled it’s no longer as thrilling).  On the final day, Hinn called up pastors to receive his anointing, and I, being a minister for the youth, I went up to the front. After being herded into a lineup, and physically pushed down by Hinn as he shouted “Touchhhhhhhh,” I later stood back up feeling only the spirit of disillusionment. As I was shuffled to the side, I began to see things in a different light. Hinn was beginning to “heal” perfectly normal looking people who were being raised from shiny new transport wheelchairs. At the same time, I saw security forcing a severely crippled man, in a well-used electric wheelchair to leave the line. A woman with him was screaming and crying, begging them to allow the man on the stage, so God could heal him, but in the case of this genuinely sick man, Hinns staff refused to bring him on stage. As I watched, I began to feel nausea, they were forcing the genuinely sick/crippled people to leave the lineup, Hinn would not even try to heal those that were deformed, broken, and crippled. Later, I found out that it was common practice for the faith healers staff to seat every person who comes in with a cane, into a wheelchair, so it was not a miracle that they could walk, because they had walked into the building in the first place.

I was heartbroken. I stood in the midst of ten thousand people who were hypnotized by the droning music of a two hour worship session, all of whom genuinely believed the sensationalist tall tales they they were being fed. How could they so earnestly believe in something untrue? As I stood there, feeling sick to my stomach, seeing everything as the theater production that I was, I began to learn and experience how easy it was to believe in something simply because we want it to be true.

After this event, I began to study and analyze the facts behind this grand performance.

As I hungrily read anything I could get my hands on, I learned there were large groups of Christians who believed in the miracles of the Bible, but rejected virtually all of the modern day “faith healing” and “miracle workers.” Their arguments were far more persuasive than anything I had seen before. In fact, there were even Christian ministries that would frequently go out to charismatic meetings and debunk everything that went on there.

I read the life story of Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist that traveled all around America performing signs, wonders, and healings in front of cheering audiences of thousands. Except none of it was real, and Gortner was merely using a clever system with his parents to trick people into collecting their money. In his later years, Gortner, filmed a secret documentary in which he led a final series of tent revivals/crusades, spoke in tongues, convinced people they were healed, and knocked them to the ground (“slain in the spirit”) by the power of touch and suggestion, all while being an atheist.

I also discovered other former healers who voluntarily, or inadvertently exposed the reality of the revival movements from the inside. One example was Peter Popoff, who spent years providing very accurate prophecies, until it was discovered he had an earpiece and was receiving radio transmissions, not from Jesus, but from his wife, who supplied him with information from prayer cards submitted earlier in the crusade. After this event, Popoff disappeared into hiding, but as a somber testament to the gullibility of many Christians, Peter Popoff is currently back on Christian television, this time selling debt removal through prayer, and tens of thousands of the faithful are buying it up.

Another former faith healer was Mark Haville who had become enamored with the supernatural and traveled across America purportedly performing supernatural wonders. Today he testifies that because he was so zealous to see miracles, he inadvertently used hypnosis techniques to convince countless masses of people into believing. I also watches documentaries by magicians, like Darren Brown, who was able to train a subject in numerous tricks to fool a church full of people into believing that he was a genuine faith healer. I heard speeches by leading atheists spokespersons like Dan Barker and Jerry Dewitt, who recall many of their experiences using emotion and suggestibility to make people think they were healed (At the time both Barker and Dewitt, genuinely believed in miracles.) There were many more (dozens, if not hundreds) examples of magicians and tricksters like James Randi, who have frequently shown how faith healing tricks can be performed.

I also discovered the psychology of healing. The brain is a fascinating thing, and we can often experience psychosomatic effects where our thinking influences what we feel. For example, people can feel a reduction in headache severity simply because they first think they it is healed. For this reason, clinical trials for a new medication always include a placebo (a sugar pill, for example) in order to discover whether it is actually the new medication that works, or people’s expectations. This explained why most “healings” were indeed of the psychosomatic type, and not physically tangible. I frequently saw elderly women talk about God curing their headaches, blood pressure, or backaches, and yet, those who were genuinely crippled, deformed, or amputated were never healed.

One of the most difficult periods in my life was the result of eagerly and zealously praying for two young men, both my age, who were confined to wheelchairs. I saw half a dozen healing services in which they would propel their wheelchairs to the front while some guest healer would draw eager crowds forward, during these times I desperately prayed until my veins were ready to pop out. God, I wanted them to be healed more than anything! And yet, they never were, nor will be. It seems that even the healers on stage who prayed for these young men, intuitively knew this, for the healers never expended as much energy, emotion, or time, but only prayed short, lackluster “God if its your will” prayers out of politeness. At the same time, people nearby would report “God healed my headache” to the excitement of the crowd. I wondered, what kind of God comes down to supernaturally heal a temporary headache, but completely ignores the excruciating permanent pain and disability of a young man who’s begging for help?

My emotional nausea was not yet over, I finally learned the most somber fact of all, many of the people who reported themselves to be healed, actually got worse, and many died from the same conditions that they were allegedly healed of. These cases are a closely guarded secret, and the massive healing ministries, worth billions of dollars do their best to obscure the truth. For example, Audrey, who suffered epilepsy was told by healer Morris Cerullo that she was healed. She joyfully stopped taking her mediation, only to suffer a deadly epileptic seizure in the bathtub; she drowned because of not taking her medication. Or Natalia who was reportedly healed of bone cancer according to a faith healer, but sadly died a few weeks later. Tragic cases like these are abundant.

A Christian medical doctor, William Nolen conducted research at a 1967 Kathryn Kuhlman fellowship in Philadelphia, with 23 people who claimed to have been cured during her services. Nolen’s long term follow-ups concluded there were no cures in all those those cases. Furthermore, “one woman who was said to have been cured of spinal cancer threw away her brace and ran across the stage at Kuhlman’s command; her spine collapsed the next day and she died four months later.” Some faith healers have even been sued for this, Benny Hinn recently paid 5 million (donated) dollars because he caused the death of an elderly woman. She was knocked down and fractured her hip as a result of Hinn pushing the man in front of her. Then “when one usher offered to seek medical aid… witnesses said Hinn stopped the usher and said, “Leave her alone. God will heal her.  This did not happen, and she died as a result of not receiving medical attention. I also discovered that it was not merely big events where these types of things happened, but dozens of smaller churches and prayer meetings had resulted in the death of eagerly believing children and adults.

These events and many more culminated in me giving up on the charismatic movement. I hesitantly admitted that I had never found a genuine supernatural miracle, only fantastic stories that are always out of our grasp. Every miracle I have investigated has turned out to be (1) a case of genuine placebo by sweet and earnest people, (2) a misdiagnosis by those who are well intentioned, (3) a case of confirmation bias with a disease that has a small change of natural recovery, (4) an unprovable story that has dubious origins, or (5) trickery by charlatans. Unfortunately these are the same kinds of evidence we see for ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies, and alien abductions.

Very reluctantly, against my deepest wishes, I gave up hope for the existence of faith healing, miracles, signs, and wonders. At the time, I sincerely wished I was wrong. Some days, I still hope that I am.

So here I am, I went from convincing others of imminent miracles, to an honest form of skepticism; I am willing to believe any extraordinary claim, as long as it has extraordinary evidence. I no longer think there are genuine supernatural miracles occurring all around us, but I am very open to correction. Knowing how easy it is to believe in a fake, I’m more cautious and skeptical than the average charismatic person. I don’t want hear tall tales or stories of mythical events in different times and impossibly faraway places. I want something real and tangible, here and now. If this is real, I want to experience so closely that I can taste it.

Will something change my mind? Absolutely! I eagerly wish to see an amputated leg growing out, a missing eye fill into it’s socket, or Stephen Hawking rise out of his wheelchair. If this happens, I promise I will be the first person to fall on my knees and admit I was wrong, but not before.

(to be continued)

why_i_changed_part1

Do you ever question what you believe and why you believe it? I grant you that this is a hard thing to do, in fact it’s so hard that most people on this planet live their whole lives without questioning their dogmatic assertions. Billions of people have died holding very strong beliefs that they never questioned. This includes: Greeks who believed in a mythological plethora of gods, the Persians who held to an ancient form of monotheistic Zoroastrianism, the many Near East cultures who worshiped multiple gods such as Baal, Dagon, and Marduk, and the Egyptians who believed their Pharaohs were gods, among many other fictitious deities. As well as the Romans who, like the Greeks, held strong beliefs in a whole pantheon of many gods and many forms of Eastern religion from Buddhism and Confucianism all the way down to Shintoism. Even in our own lifetime, there are billions who believe in all manner of various things. In your lifetime millions of Chinese will have died thinking that their indigenous faiths were the true faith. Millions of Indians will die, fully expecting that they will continue in a vast cycle of reincarnation.  Likewise, millions of Muslims will die, fully confident that the Quran holds the recorded words of Allah, rather than mere human scribbles.

The vast majority of people since the beginning of time have inherited and never questioned their strong beliefs. And yet all of those beliefs contradict one another. They most certainly cannot all be right, but many can definitely can be wrong. And yet, every person who holds these dogmatic beliefs would argue that they are indeed utterly correct. That should tell you that something is wrong. Real truth is not simply a dogmatic and unquestionable assertion, it is a reality that can be confirmed. If truth is indeed truth, no amount of questions, inspections, reviews, and examinations can falsify it. However, false statements, those that rest on ‘hearsay’ or ‘tradition’ cannot stand when under scrutiny.

Now think about those beliefs that you hold dear, are you confident enough to fearlessly and honestly expose them to the most difficult questions available? If your answer is no, why not?

Have you merely inherited your beliefs and without question dogmatically assert yourself to be always true and always right? Does that not cause you to fear? I think it should. I too did exactly that, until a few experiences radically changed my life and caused me to question. They broke the radical closed-mindedness that I once espoused.

And so this blog series will chronicle some of the experiences that led me to admit I was wrong on one thing or another, and therefore I had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance and disillusionment, and forge an updated understanding of the universe. I will be honest, some of these shifts were the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I didn’t want to do admit I was wrong, but I was honest enough to know I had to. It was very difficult, because each time I encountered evidence which forced me to evolve my views, I lost friends, respect, belonging, affirmation, and affection. I didn’t make any of these paradigm shifts because I wanted to, I did it because I wanted truth with integrity, no matter the cost.

I hope that for you too. Here are my stories.

Grandma isn’t possessed, her brain is just stressed 

I grew up believing in demonic possession as the cause of behavioral and mental problems. Of course I didn’t personally know of any people with mental issues at the time, but my firmest convictions were that those “voices” people hear when they’re crazy, were literally demons talking to them. I had heard such stories and sermons of voices telling mothers to kill children and others horrible things, and the implicit and explicit explanation was: demons. I had also knew that the only solution was to cast out those demonic voices by prayer. Slogans that simplified this were very popular, something akin to “you don’t need psychology, you need Jesus!” We believed that a brain disease could never lead to immoral behavior, only a spiritual disease of the soul could do that.

I remember watching a movie in class about epilepsy, and arguing with classmates afterwards that seizures were actually caused by demons, and a medical/surgical cure was impossible. That is because within my inherited worldview  the source of consciousness, decision, memory, and feeling was not a material brain, but an immaterial soul. The questions a physical view of the brain would entail were very strange: if someone could hit their head and lose memories, what if they forgot about Jesus, were they still saved? It just didn’t make sense that a person’s brain disease could make them crazy, because that would mean they may not have a fair chance to accept Jesus!

Then one day my beloved grandmother, who was living with us at the time, started to talk about the voices of “the Jews in the attic.” I think I was around 15 at the time and remember a dreadful fear came over me. The events that unfolded over the next few days were a frightening blur. They were filled with deeply moving Pentecostal prayers to save her, including attempted exorcisms. The first time she spoke of the voices, I tried to convince her, using logic, that there were no voices upstairs. Deep down I was utterly frightened but I really hoped that she would understand my persuasive rhetoric and realize it was all a big mistake. When she refused and became aggravated, we were certain it was demonic. I literally believed there were demons surrounding my grandmother (in my childish ignorance, I even considered the possibility that there were demons living in the attic and she was hearing voices from there.) As the days wore on, the voices kept talking, and the prayers continued to be unanswered, and my grandmother continued being nice and loving, except when I tried to disprove her voices. I began to realize this did not fit into my theology. How could a demon possessed woman be so kind and loving? How could she continue to pray and profess to love Jesus so much? Why did all these pastors and elders praying for her cause no effect? How could those prayers that apparently took seconds in the Gospel narratives, not work on her after weeks and months?

It didn’t make any sense.

Eventually I recalled that epilepsy video in class, and began to admit that diseases like Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and many more were caused by defective brain chemistry, not demonic infestations. My dogmatic worldview about mental health and demonic infestation shattered. I discovered the fields of psychology and neurology, and just how much of an effect they have on human behavior. I learned many facts about mental illness. Later on, I read books that mentioned so-called demoniacs, who were raised in a Catholic culture, acted “possessed” in a specific Catholic way. In fact, they only responded to holy water and Latin prayers, but not to the prayers of  Pentecostal or Baptist preacher. Likewise, so-called demoniacs raised within a Pentecostal culture, acted out in their unique Pentecostal way, and only responded to glossolalic prayer or Pentecostal “in Jesus name” statements, but were not responsive to Catholic Latin rituals. In fact, BuddhistsShamanistsHindus, and Muslims also have their own versions of “demonic possession,” and each religion has their own exorcism rituals, that are equally effective on their own version of the disease, which leads psychologists to assume it is a form of “multiple personality disorder” (today this is D.I.D.) wherein people have an alter ego that plays out a role created in their culture.

Besides the fact that some people have been killed in some cases of so called exorcisms there are psychological treatments that are effective. In addition many modern Christian medical professionals reject demon possession as a supernatural phenomenon, and treat is as a broad holistic issue that involves mental health. Whether it’s a case of dissociative identity disorder or a monomania there are better answers for mental health issues than “you must have been a really bad person, so you let magical creatures into your brain.”

Through this learning process I realized that some dogmatic propositions are not truthful. People that act like they know, don’t always know. Those that are confident they have the truth, don’t always have it. Truth is not defined by what authoritative teachers say, but by what simply is regardless of what people say or teach.

My grandmother is still alive today, and I love her, and there is no shame in her being old and fragile. To this day she doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t understand, but she taught me one of the biggest and most important lessons in my life. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit that you were wrong.

(Continued in Part 2)

rapture

I have written about the end of the world on many occasions but never as a memoir. This tells the short story of me as a mesmerized youth, seeking eschatological fulfillment at the limit between reality and rhapsody. It is the tale of how much my life became shaped and disillusioned by waiting for Jesus at the end of the world. If you want theological views of 666, a history of dozens of failed apocalyptic prophecies, or evidence that the world is not getting worse, you can read some of my older stuff.

MY STORY

I grew up in a wild and frenzied Pentecostal movement. Life within its confines was terrifying. And yet it was so vividly beautiful. My experience was enthralling and gave me immense fulfillment; I sincerely miss many things about it. And yet crippled my psyche to the point where I suffered insomnia due the fear of hell (I was the only one who actually took the idea seriously). I remember people who had the greatest of intentions, some who might have eagerly given their life for yours, or at least would have shared their last crumb of bread. I also remember people who lived in mentally constructed bunkers, walled off by the phantoms of fringe conspiracy theories or stoic religious beliefs. I remember old men who yelled at me, until I cowered in shame. I remember old women who smiled and gently tussled my hair. And most of all, I remember the prophets whose strained voices reminded us that time was short, we were on the cusp of eternity. Jesus was coming, very soon. And we were ready.

I still wonder, was it merely an ephemeral midsummer dream, or did it really happen? Did we really live through the end of the world?

On the last page in the history of the late planet earth, life was very normal. It would seem that with all the eschatological prophecies, fears, and preparations, life would be inundated with extraordinary things; and indeed it was, but still, so much seemed quite normal. The daily patterns of life flowed in unison with the rest of society. As the nonbelievers (this included the “worldly Christians”) conducted their daily routines, so did we; as the nonbelievers lived, ate, slept, dressed, shopped, crafted, sang, laughed, and cried, so did we. Although they also danced, wore worldly fashions, watched television without hiding, and probably laughed a lot more than we did.

And yet, in the normalcy of our behavior there was a transcendental angst, a furious displeasure with the world. It wasn’t the right world, there was something dissimilar, chaotic, and very foreign about it. The disorienting waves of industrial, scientific, philosophical, and technological progress alienated the older Pentecostals, and from them these ideas of social isolation disseminated down to us. In the end, many of the younger Pentecostals adopted this feeling of “not belonging” within contemporaneous society, and we were happy (in theory) to reject the world and all its delicacies. We were willing to dive into the forthcoming eschatological climax and embrace the teleological fulfillment of our lives. The rapture would equalize everything. The last would finally be the first.

We were normal, and we were odd; we were regular children, and apocalyptic warriors of the Most High. Our world was filled with our generations curiosities and experiences, like Pokémon cards and the advent of the internet, but unlike our nonbeliever counterparts, we knew about the spiritual war behind everything in reality. There were demonic movements by the antichrist to prepare the world for the Mark of The Beast and the battle of Armageddon. There were plans being enacted in the halls of the mighty, the New World Order was ready to start the final countdown. Why even the US dollar had the freemason pyramid with its NWO symbology. These powerful forces were getting ready. Satan was lurking behind every stray bar code.

As history was unfolding before our very eyes, we feverishly copied video cassettes from iterant speakers that captivated us with their dire apocalyptic warnings, telling us of secret concentration camps being built all over the world to round up Christians. We heard of NWO trucks and tanks being moved secretly around the nation, and even a secret system of reflective stickers that were being put on the backs of all street signs to create navigational markers for the NWO troopers to the nearest death camps. In the evenings, we eagerly believed it with the very depth of our being. And then in the morning we would casually eat breakfast and play outside.

The upcoming turn of the millennium unknowingly fertilized a great many apocalyptic fears within our movement. One of the greatest “discoveries” in my time, which was shared with my Sunday school brethren, was the realization that 2,000 Anno Domini must be the year of the rapture. I hurriedly told them that Adam had been created in 2000BC, Jesus came in the year 0, splitting history, and the second coming would be at 2,000 AD. This numerological approach fit perfectly with the dozens of ecstatic prophecies we heard in church, which warned us of the imminent Second Coming. Everything made sense, like a puzzle fitting into pieces. It was a beautiful theory, wrong as it were.

And so we waited on the edge of eternity, but there were many false alarms. Moments in which I was convinced that the rapture had occurred, or was in the process of occurring. Each of these marked an instantaneous burst of adrenaline through my body as panic, fear, and desolation tore its way through my naïve brain. One time, during a passionate Pentecostal prayer meeting, the frantic cacophony of voices , all of whom were shouting in glossolalic speech (“tongues”) at the same time, began to do something unexpected. Members of a local family that were considered highly spiritual (and often had their own private Pentecostal prayer meetings) began to shout louder than the rest of the congregation, and their cacophony became a symphony, disorderly shouts became an ordered chant. My pulse stopped and my face paled. This new glossolalic chant stole my breath, I was sure this was a sign of the rapture, and those who chant in this new “speech” were being selected by God for the rapture. I began to weep and repent, asking God to forgive me for my teenage hormones and secret video game habit, I began to try to imitate this new glossolalic chant.  I opened my eyes, slowly regaining my confidence, and quickly glanced at my father, only to find him praying in his own form of tongues, he did not join in the new harmony. I sighed in relief, for I knew my father was a deeply devout spiritual man, and there was no way Jesus would neglect to rapture him. And thus he became my “rapture barometer.” I knew that if he was still remaining, then the rapture could not have happened. And then as abruptly as it began, the prayer dwindled down, and nothing happened. There no rapture.

Alas, my father was not always present (as every sad story goes) and often took long church related trips, before the age of cell phones. Perhaps it was during one of these trips (the exact circumstances have long dissipated from my memory) that the sun began to turn dark. I overheard a frantic telephone call from one of my mother’s friends, and we were rushed outside to see a dark circle forming in the sky above.. I frantically looked for my father, surely God would not leave him when the rapture came? But he was not there! I was petrified! Perhaps the rapture had taken place, and we were all left behind? I wasn’t sure whether my mother was holy enough to be raptured (though she would have probably spanked me if I had told her that back then, so I kept quiet). The sky was turning red and a dark shadow began to loom over the face of the sun. The sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood. The caller had told my mother the end was coming, Jesus was returning on the clouds, and so we waited, in fear and trembling, outside our home. Later I realized this was the total solar eclipse they mentioned in school (though I had never seen one before).

Memories like these were once many, but alas, are now vanishing into the deep abyss of time that has engulfed many eras and epochs. One thing I do remember is that I sincerely did not believe I would have time to grow up, get married, and live a normal life. Some of the friends who grew up with me, would deny this, but that would only be retroactive rationalization. We all expected the rapture to be imminent, we were all inundated with dozens of Pentecostal prophecies where trembling older women, purportedly channeling the Holy Spirit said “be ready, I am coming very soon” in a dire ecstatic voice. We heard the sermons that taught rapture readiness, some of us even read the Left Behind books and watched the 70’s rapture films showcasing the silver guillotines killing backsliding Christians who didn’t get raptured. We devoured apocalyptic predictions and distributed illegal VHS copies of lousy talk shows that told us bar codes and computer chips were the coming mark of the beast. We were ready to be raptured, but not all of us were ready to live.

And then over time, some of us realized the world was not ending,. We had to explain why Jesus did not come, after all. Some of us died, never knowing, like many in the early church who waited and yearned for an imminent second coming that did not happen. Or perhaps like the Montanists who had Pentecostal-like prophecies of the impending apocalypse, but died unfulfilled. Some of us may have been even more disappointed, like the Millerites who were so convinced of the rapture on October 22, 1844, that thousands spent the day on their knees only to experience the great disillusionment of their faith, aptly known as the “Great Disappointment” (though many simply created a new theology to explain away the fact that Jesus did not show up as prophesied.) Regardless of which incarnation of apocalyptic prophets we imitated more, some of us joined the long lineage of hundreds of sincere Christian groups who believed Jesus was returning in their era and were disappointed.

And yet others began to evolve “sophisticated” theological views to account for this missing rapture. Some became academically attracted towards complicated doctrines like partial preterism, saying most of the apocalypse texts refer to events in the past. Others formed simpler answers, like “God can come today or in a thousand years, we shouldn’t speculate.” Certainly such careful thinking was not the popular theory during those frenzied prayer meetings as we listened to prophetic utterances declaring the end is “very soon” or as we read prophecies hand-copied and disseminated to local churches.

Eventually many began to think and say “oh, we didn’t really believe THAT, you’re confused, it was just the general idea, that we should be “ready,” just in case.”  For we as a people have traded in our memories of that frenzied time where eternity hung on the cusp of a divine intervention for something more reasonable. We began to backfill memories with a more normalized version of how things were. Like a modern camera stabilization system, which takes a shaky video recording and creates a smoother image by removing the shake, we too “stabilized” our recollection. We traded in old and embarrassing ideas for updated and revised editions. And it was somewhere during this this transitory period of ideas, as the Slavic Pentecostal movement matured, that I became disillusioned with Pentecostalism and could no longer say “we.”

I have many more efflorescent feelings about that time when we danced with eternity, my memory yet scintillates with beautiful nostalgic imagery from that faint twinkle in time. And even if everyone forgets the rapture which never happened, I will always cherish the deep anticipatory longing we once had. I will always remember those fleeting moments when we lived at the end of the world, on the edge of infinity.