Friday, June 24, 2011

Charismatic Experiences, Part 1

For those readers who are not familiar with the term, charismatic experiences are seemingly super-natural events that may involve strong emotions, and/or hypnotic states. For example, receiving prophetic messages, being “possessed” by some sort of spirit, speaking in tongues, loss of emotional/physical control in worship, etc., would all be charismatic experiences.

I was brought up in a Christian tradition which, for the most part, rejects charismatic experiences. But when I was in my early twenties I had two friends that were members of the same church as me who visited a Pentecostal church and came back reporting that they themselves entered into a state of consciousness by which they could speak in tongues. Both of them were convinced that it was the authentic work of the Holy Spirit. I was curious about these experiences and so I visited that same church and tried to be as open minded as possible. Nothing happened to me. It was a bit disappointing really. I would have honestly loved to have experienced something miraculous.

On a few other occasions, I have been invited by Pentecostal friends to visit their churches. Some Pentecostal churches are fairly subdued, just a few people privately muttering in tongues, or maybe a testimony or two about a healing. Others are just wild. I once visited a church where halfway into the song service the worship leader jumped off the stage and started running around the perimeter aisles of the auditorium screaming like a crazy man, and the pastor started shouting, “That man’s possessed by the Holy Spirit!” A few seconds later, a wave of emotion swept over the crowd and people started falling down on the floor and rolling around laughing or crying, or sometimes both. For the people of that church that may have just been like any other Sunday, but for me it was an incredibly bizarre experience. My friends assured me that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, but I had my doubts.

I confess that I am skeptical that there is anything supernatural involved in these experiences. I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. For one, as I mentioned before, I grew up in a Christian tradition that is skeptical about charismatic experiences. My father, especially, instilled in me a skepticism towards these events. He often pointed out, I think correctly, the role of emotion in charismatic churches. I am also skeptical about such experiences because I know how easily people can be manipulated. P.T. Barnum famously said, "There's a sucker born every minute." A crass way to put it, but a truer word has never been spoken.

To illustrate this, I’d like to point to the work of Derren Brown. Derren Brown is a British entertainer who specializes in a type of performance known as mentalism. Mentalists use a combination of hypnotism, subliminal messaging, and other forms of subconscious suggestion to manipulate people’s thoughts and emotions. A good mentalist can convince an audience that they have supernatural psychic abilities. And Derren is one of the best in the world. Derren openly admits what he does is strictly showmanship. Even so, after his shows some people are still convinced that he has supernatural powers. You can find all sorts of funny clips on Youtube of Derren doing things like paying for expensive jewelry with plane pieces of paper, or convincing a man who wants a leather jacket that he actually wants a BMX bike - all through the art of suggestion. He always uses real people for his shows, not actors. And he is able to do this for the simple fact that he is very well practiced at manipulating people.

So what does this have to do with charismatic experiences? Well, believe it or not, these same techniques are used by some charismatic church leaders to bring their parishioners into the state of mind in which they have their "spiritual" experiences. It's also the same techniques that psychics and other new age miracle workers use. Derren himself often felt frustrated seeing these people on TV claiming to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, or having psychic powers, when in fact he knew that they were using the same tricks that he uses. He felt that these people were praying on the naivety of others for financial gain. So he decided to do a little experiment to see if he could convince, not just random people, but the experts themselves, that he too has these abilities. He recorded this as a television special in hopes of opening people’s eyes to how easily such “powers” can be faked. He takes aim at several different groups: psychics, people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, people who claim that they can talk to the dead, and, most interestingly, evangelical Christians.

It is both fascinating and disturbing to see how easily such experiences can be produced by someone who knows what they are doing. You can watch the entire special by following the links below. If you are just interested in the Christian portion, watch the first few minutes of clip 1 and then skip to clip 3. It is well worth your time to watch them. If any of my readers are of charismatic leanings, I'd love to hear what you think when you watch this video. I’ll post some further reflections of the value, or nonvalue, of these experiences in a later post. Here's a question for reflection: Do you think charismatic experiences are necessary for faith?

Derren Brown special part 1

Derren Brown special part 2

Derren Brown special part 3

Derren Brown special part 4

Derren Brown special part 5

Derren Brown special part 6

Derren Brown special part 7

Derren Brown special part 8

Monday, June 13, 2011

Just Do It

I hope I can use that title sentence without incurring the wrath of Nike.

Here's an axiom for you: an imperfect course of action is better than no action at all. A friend on Facebook shared the following quote from the blog :

I used to excuse my lack of doing with the comfort that I wanted to do something. Passionate sincere wanting without performance is, however, cheap, easy, and self-deluding.

Wanting to do something doesn’t mean much. I’d rather want less and do more.

Talking enhances the delusion of doing. When talking, if I’m not careful, I believe I’ve done something. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talking isn’t doing.

Perfecting things before doing them, in addition, is overrated. It’s better to perfect things while you do them. Most activities don’t require perfection. In the end, it’s the doing that matters.

When I do more and talk less, I want less too. Doing quiets empty wanting.
Jettison your empty dreams of making a difference. Toss out cheap self-delusions and go perform an imperfect act of service. Lift someone. Find a small way to put your dream into action.

Do something; stand on it and do something again. What you do makes a difference not what you want to do.

Can you relate to this? I know I can. I've seen this in workplaces, schools, churches, families, and of course, myself. There is always a temptation to put something off until you are better at it, or have more time, or the stars are properly aligned, or something. It seems we always are able to find some reason why we can't do something right now. And yes, I've heard plenty of self-delusional talking. I've been in churches that talked about being outreach oriented even though they had not made a significant attempt at engaging their community in twenty years. I think they sincerely liked the idea of being outreach oriented, but actual community involvement would have taken a more proactive effort.

Imagine how our personal lives and the institutions we are involved with would change if we adopted this attitude.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New Theory on Reason

I came across a link to this article on another blog. I haven't read the article yet, just the abstract (summary), so I have no idea what evidence the authors present in support of their argument. But what the abstract suggests is that the evidence points towards reason having an effect, not so much on a person's ability to think wisely, but on a person's ability to win arguments. I thought this was interesting in light of my post a few weeks ago on the limits of reason in decision making situations. I suggested that, from personal experience, intuition is usually a better guide. If this "Argumentative theory" is correct, then that would support my hypothesis. Here's the abstract:

Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory

Hugo Mercier 

University of Pennsylvania

Dan Sperber 

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011 

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.