whyichanged4

This is part four of a series (see Part 1Part 2, and Part 3) that recounts my experiences with having firm beliefs, 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.

Pentecostalism is as clear as glossolalia

Speaking in tongues, which includes (1) a real behavior called glossolalia – speaking in unintelligible vocalizations, and (2) xenoglossy – a purported ability to spontaneous speak new human languages, can be a very emotional subject. For those who practice this, it is a very sacred practice, and some of my careful personal conversations have led to offence and anger. Because of this I want proceed carefully without insulting anyone who does engage in this practice.

When I was 12 years old I was friends with numerous church kids who were a year or two older than me. This meant that they were able to go to church camps and events that I was too young to attend. This seemingly insignificant fact is the backdrop to my story. I came into church that Sunday and sat in the same front row where all of us boys frequently sat. I looked around at all of my friends who had come back from camp, and everything seemed the same, we were back together and quite happy. We joked and talked before the service begin, and even talked a little bit during the boring sermons. Then, something outrageous happened, as we all got down on our knees, most of my friends started loudly praying in glossolalic speech! I was bewildered for a few seconds, trying to make sense of this predicament. It dawned on me, I was one of the only few young boys who didn’t have the Holy Spirit! A dark terror crept over my body as hundreds of little hairs stood up on my arms and legs. The rapture was coming, and I was not ready! Jesus was coming to take my friends, they had the Holy Spirit, and He would carry them to heaven, but I would be left behind! I joined them in fervent prayer, begging God to save me from hell and not let me be left behind.

Fast forwards a couple of weeks and I had intentionally went to an evangelistic crusade led by a very famous Slavic Pentecostal leader. I sat near the front praying and hoping to “get the Holy Spirit” being utterly afraid that I was not good enough to receive it, nor holy enough to keep it. During an altar call for repentance, I rushed out to the front to join a large crowd, fell on my knees, and began weeping and begging God to “give me the Holy Spirit.” In a deeply meaningful frenzy I continued to repeat this phrase, hoping from the very bottom of my heart that God would listen. I meant it with every fiber of my young and impressionable being. By the time the next altar call – this one actually for the impartation of the Holy Spirit- had started, I was already weeping and speaking in tongues.

The drive home was filled with the greatest fear I had ever experienced in my life. I sat in the very back seat of the minivan and tried desperately to avoid any sinful thoughts. I understood if I committed sin, the Holy Spirit would be lost, and it would be almost impossible to regain it. Because “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven,” I believed in such a case I would be damned to hell. Through that drive I would repeatedly cup my hands in front of my mouth, so I could hear, and try to quietly speak in tongues. Each time I breathed a giant sigh of relief. “Thank God, I still have it, I still haven’t lost it!”

The next year was filled with terrible angst and emotional torture, because I believed simply saying a curse word at the Holy Spirit in my mind would send me to hell with no possibility of repentance. This close possibility brought many night terrors as I lay in bed, crying and fighting my own will “don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it” I would repeat nearly chocking on the paralyzing dread. I felt as though I was on a ledge overlooking hell, and one accident would mean eternal pain. Human behavior is strange, and one night as I was thinking “don’t say it, don’t say it” I “misstepped,” and did it, I blurted out a curse word at the Holy Spirit that I didn’t really mean.  As a result, I felt the agonizing pangs of death grip me. I literally believed I had committed the unpardonable sin and lost hope in life. It didn’t even dawn on me that what I wanted to say mattered more than what I did say. I spent many excruciating and sweaty nights weeping and begging God for forgiveness, knowing that he cannot forgive me for the unforgivable sin. Finally, I decided to take my fears to my dad who kindly convinced me that because I didn’t mean it, I was safe. That night I went to bed and slept blissfully for the first time in weeks.

Skipping forward about twenty years, I was now young preacher, who conducted passionate Pentecostal prayers in front of crowds, and loved to speak in tongues. I felt the deeply moving sensations of connecting with God, and encouraged others to do the same. I sought an even deeper relationship with God, hoping for more than simple glossolalia, but also things like miracles of supernatural healing, xenoglossia, and more. (You can read about that here.) However, this never manifested, and after two years of trying I began to doubt the charismatic movements that had spontaneously erupted in the last century. As I grew disillusioned by these charismatic movement I found solace and refuge with historically older movements like the reformed Baptists and Presbyterians. And this caused many problems.

I experienced a third (or fourth?) conversion experience, even though I was already a zealous Christian who would give his life away. After about a year of immersing myself in the literature and sermons by Christians who belonged to older protestant traditions, I began to realize that all of my favorite preachers did not speak in tongues. Literally, not even one of them did! I had also started listening to a series of seminary lectures on church history, and these further developed the idea that most Christians for all history had never spoken in tongues. This continued to drive more questions and doubts. I didn’t want to give up my tongue speech, but the cognitive dissonance between history and a wide range of Christian experience continued to create tension in my brain. How could the greatest preachers for the last 500 years not have spoken in tongues? According to my theology this meant they were not filled with the Holy Spirit, how could this be?! How could Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, not have spoken in tongues and yet have the Holy Spirit?

As with many of my religious transformations, instead of letting robust logic and careful argumentation to sway me, I went to the Bible, for it was my epistemological foundation. I found every single New Testament passage about speaking in tongues and read them with a fresh set of eyes. Even though I had been reading these passages for years, and quoting them as part of sermons about the necessity of tongues, I had never read them to see what they genuinely said. I had only read them with a set of preconceived notions about what they should be saying. The difference was immense.

My Pentecostal views were literally crushed by the Bible.

I discovered just how little the biblical texts discuss “speaking in tongues” and how vague and ambiguous these texts are. I discovered that Jesus had never spoken about tongues (the only passage in the last chapter of Mark was a later scribal interpolation and is acknowledged by all biblical scholars to be missing from the original text.) I finally realized that the tongues found in Acts, which Pentecostals frequently cite, were not glossolalic speech but rather xenoglossia, or the speaking in other human language, in fact “tongues” in the Greek simply means languages. Glossolalia was certainly not a language anyone could ever figure out.

And yet, everyone I knew spoke in tongues, and they were so sincere, so I decided to avoid thinking about issue and just ignore it for a while. I could not bring myself to reject tongue speech because this meant rejecting people who were close to me, and I loved them. I knew that they were absolutely genuine in their hearts, how could I reject that?!

I found myself at a church camp that was focused primarily on the experience of speaking in tongues. As I tried to participate in this experience, I realized how easy it was for me to control the experience. I could turn it on and off at will. If moved an invisible switch in my head I spoke in tongues and felt the goosebumps, but I could stop halfway and have no problem doing so. I could even say in my head “this is not real” and simultaneously  turn on this experience. In fact, even today, I can do this at any minute, whether I believe in it or not, just like a learned behavior, rather than a supernatural presence that speaks through me. This realization in light of what the biblical texts actually say about glossolalia threw me in disarray, and I remember driving home from this camp, a three hour drive, literally thinking out loud about how this phenomenon could occur. By the time I had driven home, I had crafted and explained my own theory that the act of glossolalia was an act of free vocalization wherein we express our inner emotion through non-linguistic release. I even made the comparison to crying, during which we humans make non-linguistic noises that are laced with deep emotion and meaning. My wife had the unfortunate experience of having me talk for over three hours during that drive without getting a word in.

When I got home I began a search of the literature on this phenomenon to see if my views would be confirmed. Sure enough most of what I hypothesized was already published in academic literature by leading psychologists and linguists who had devoted their lives researching the topic.  The actual style of “speaking in tongues” varied based on the group of people involved, just like natural languages vary between countries. Anthropologist/linguist Felicitas Goodman wrote “the [speakers] utterance mirrors that of the person who guided the glossolalist into the behavior. There is little variation of sound patterns within the group arising around a particular guide.” PsychologistJohn P. Kildahl saidthe style of glossolalia adapted by the group bore a close resemblance to the way in which the leader spoke. . . . It is not uncommon for linguists to be able to tell which prominent [traveling] glossolalist has introduced a congregation to tongue-speaking.” I found research had been done to ascertain whether glossolalia is a learned phenomenon and of those who had been taught in a lab setting, “70% of trained [subjects] spoke fluent glossolalia on the post test.” Other empirical tests had been done that demonstrated the same thing: “glossolalia may be acquired by training…” even if that “does not account for the whole phenomenon…. that may in part involve trance states.”

When it came to history, I had briefly been aware of some Pentecostal history but diving into the deep end of historical Pentecostal studies showed something rather strange. First I learned about the preexistence of glossolalia before the advent of Christianity, thatGlossolalia had been practiced for many years along with other ecstatic phenomena by the prophets of the ancient religions of the Near East. Prophets and mystics of Assyria, Egypt, and Greece reportedly spoke in foreign tongues during states of ecstasy and uttered unintelligible phrases said to be revelations from the gods…The practice was known in ancient India and China, and ethnographies describe glossolalia in almost every area of the world.”

I had heard that there were a few witches who spoke in “demonic tongues” (an idea I though was rather kooky) but later I learned there really is a vast persistence of glossolalia in the religious practice of hundreds of religious groups, sociologists say that, “Glossolalia is practiced among non-Christian religions: the Peyote cult among the North American Indians, the Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest, Shamans in the Sudan, the Shango cult of the West Coast of Africa, the Shago cult in Trinidad, the Voodoo cult in Haiti, the Aborigines of South America and Australia, the Eskimos of the subarctic regions of North America and Asia, the Shamans in Greenland, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Zor cult of Ethiopia, the Siberian shamans, the Chaco Indians of South America, the Curanderos of the Andes, the Kinka in the African Sudan, the Thonga shamans of Africa, and the Tibetan monks”

Finally, far worse than these two details was that the historical record showed very little, if any, glossolalia in the early church (except for the heretic Montanus and his strange apocalyptic cult which died out). Not just in the early period, but most of the history of the church was completely silent about glossolalia. Historians saythere is little evidence of any form of glossolalia during the Middle Ages in either East or West.” Sure enough there were small fringe Christian movements that may have been involved in glossolalia, and some Pentecostal authors argue this, but as Glenn Hinson in “The Significance of Glossolalia in the History of Christianity” says “all the medieval references are so problematic that it is probably best not to try to evaluate them either pro or con.” In fact the absence of glossolalia from mainstream Christianity for just about all of Christian history was affirmed by all Pentecostal historians as well. Tongue speaking Pentecostals have a focal point, an origin place, and it’s admitted that prior to this, Pentecostalism simply did not exist. As the Assembly of God official History states:

  • “Throughout the latter half of the 19th century in the United States, Protestants from various backgrounds began to ask themselves why their churches did not seem to exhibit the same vibrant, faith-filled life as those in the New Testament. Many of these believers joined evangelical or Holiness churches, engaged in ardent prayer and personal sacrifice, and earnestly sought God. It was in this context that people began experiencing biblical spiritual gifts. One of the focal points of the emerging [but not previously existing] Pentecostal movement was known as the Azusa Street revival (1906-09). After students at his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, began speaking in tongues at a prayer meeting on January 1, 1901, Parham, through his Apostolic Faith Movement, had some success in promoting the restoration of the gift of tongues.”

The truth was, I discovered, that the Pentecostal movement was just another restorationist movements. It was just one more step in a long succession of Landmarkists, Puritans, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists,  Campbell Restorationists, Christadelphians Mormons, Millerites, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovahs Witnesses, Plymouth Brethren, Church of God adherents, Sedond/Third wave Charismatics, and many others.  It was just another new movement that attempted to “restore” the church to some glamorous original state, though it offered no good explanation of why God allowed the Holy Spirit to go missing for 1800 years that it had to be restored in the first place. It was very painful to realize I was not a part of the one-true-denomination, practicing the spiritual phenomenon of glossolalia that has a direct lineage from Acts 2. But I had no choice, the evidence before me was indubitable. Finally, I chose to give up the practice, even though I still have the ability, and from time to time, test that to be sure.

It was immensely painful to admit I may have been wrong about something so vital to my spiritual experience. It was even worse to admit this regarding my friends and family. I am sure that a Muslim child who grows up reading the Koran will have just as much emotional difficulty thinking that perhaps his friends and family are wrong regarding Islam.

The psychological and social pressure is very difficult to overcome. The worst part of it is contrasting the evidence against the experience of wonderful people who believe something different. If feels like you are betraying them, but in your mind you know the only two options are: (a) betray what you honestly believe is the truth or (b) betray people who sincerely believe something you think is not true. This emotional torment plagued me with a great anguish: “How can so many people that I know disagree? Does that mean they are wrong? But they are so genuine!” Of course were I born into a Baptist/Presbyterian/Orthodox/Atheist/whatever culture and decided to join a Pentecostal movement, I would have those same doubts about my friends and family, “how could they be wrong?” In essence, we are all biased in favor of the people we care about, and will do anything to ignore the evidence if it means someone we respect and care about is incorrect. I struggled with this emotional angst for a few months though in each case, opening up the Biblical texts and reviewing what they said instantly alleviated this tension. Reading dozens of historical and psychological texts on the topic also continued to give me certainty and counteract the raw emotional and social pressure.

Today  I feel very confident that glossolalia is a learned experience of non-linguistic free vocalization and strictly a natural phenomenon. For those who are interested I made a more thorough case here. So where does this leave me? Do I act in a condescending manner to those who choose to practice glossolalia? Certainly not, I see how it may be valuable to some. Do I think people who do this are crazy or unintelligent? No, not any more than those who release emotion through similar non-linguistic sounds associated with crying. Do I think I will start practicing glossolalia yet again? Not unless an angel from heaven tells me to do so. As with everything I am open to correction, but first the burden of proof has to be met, because an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, not personal testimony or feelings. I’m not trying to be overly skeptical, but the truth is I’m not going to become a Mormon simply because two Mormon missionaries tell me to pray about it and feel it in my heart, so to be fair, the same applies to Pentecostalism and other movements.

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.

(Continued in Part 3)

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)