Sunday, April 19, 2015

Most Dangerous Christian Denominations, #2: Pentecostalism

"Slain in the Spirit"
The Pentecostal movement derives from the Holiness movement of the 19th century.  This movement stresses not just salvation by the proxy (temporary) death of Jesus, but by behavior during life.  Of course, the Catholic Church stressed acting right as well, but Protestantism muddied the issue by bringing back adult baptism to symbolize being saved.  (As an aside, if Jesus was perfect and was God, why did he need to be baptized? Just wondering....)

Pentecostalism dates to the Azusa Street (California) revival of 1906-1915, making it one of the younger protestant denominations.  Being possessed by the Holy Spirit is the main distinction for Pentecostals and the wider designation "Charismatic."  People work themselves up to the point of fainting (being "slain in the spirit"), speak in tongues, and experience miraculous "healing."

According to Pew Research, the various forms of Pentecostalism make up almost 14% of the world's Christians.  This makes it a powerful movement, but it's the theology plus the numbers that make it dangerous.  Charismatic Christianity, which includes the main tenets of Pentecostal "spirit-filled" worship, is equally large and dangerous.  There are many branches of Pentecostalism, including Assemblies of God and the cultish Church of God (TN) and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  Their reach extends beyond smaller denominations through religious television, megachurches, and politics.  This alone would make them worth watching, but consider also that they are among the least educated Americans.

Pentecostals take the Bible literally, including passages about spiritual "gifts."  Talking in tongues, is the most famous, and supposedly first happened on the day of the Pentecost.  In the Bible, Jesus's followers began speaking in foreign languages, which enabled them to spread the word throughout the diverse Roman Empire.  This would be a handy skill indeed.  But current Pentecostals don't speak in actual languages.  Otherwise known as glossolalia, they let go of self-control, letting the "spirit" control them.  They babble some gibberish that the Spirit speaks through them, and they claim it is a prayer in another language.  So it doesn't matter to them if it sounds like nonsense.  It doesn't even matter to them that they don't know what they're saying in their gibberish language.

Another "gift" is the ability to interpret this gibberish.  This is of course a very handy gift if you want to get your sister-in-law kicked out of the congregation.  Who would dispute the Holy Ghost's interpretation?   Apparently, it's not as clear-cut when more than one person present has this gift.  Despite having the Holy Ghost on their side, they often disagree on their interpretation.

There are many youtube videos of the "praise break," a musical extravaganza with dancing at the altar and in the aisles.  From what I've seen on youtube, the Holy Spirit is a really bad dancer, so the congregants are only too happy to place the blame on old the H.S.  If a person has a "gift" the spirit may take over their body to the point that they fall down in what looks like an epileptic fit from being "slain by the spirit."  There are deacons on hand who are immune to the music, at least for the day, who can catch them when they fall... usually.

Biblical literalism, fake epileptic seizures, and nonsense syllables are weird but quaint features of Pentecostalism.  If they stopped with that, they wouldn't make my list, but they go waaaaay beyond what other religious fundamentalists do.

Direct access to the Holy Spirit by anyone is what makes this theology so dangerous.  Anyone who has the "spirit" can become a pastor.  God can tell a pastor or congregant almost anything, and who's to argue?

Snake Handling
The result of their careless attitude toward education is the snake-handling cult of Appalachia. This comes from a discredited passage in the Gospel of Mark about "signs" of the Holy Spirit: "they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" This passage dates from a late manuscript, added by a sociopathic scribe to see if his overseer was paying attention (my best guess as to how the passage got added)  The pastor who spread this noxious practice was himself illiterate.  If he could have read scholarly books about theology, he might have learned that the King James Bible is not a reliable translation (in the sense of accurately translating the Greek originals), or that the snake-handling passage was a fraud.  Predictably, he died from a snake bite, as many subsequent snake handlers have.  The most recent victim was Jamie Coots, who had appeared in a reality show about snake handlers.  He didn't qualify for a Darwin Award, however, because he has a son, who is now handling snakes himself (and has been bitten)

If injured during snake handling or other death-defying feats, they will refuse treatment because they believe in spiritual healing.  If they only refused treatment for themselves I would consider them quaint, but suicidal.  Unfortunately their children suffer because of this.  That alone earns them a place on this list.

Child Abuse Disguised as Religion
Like Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, each congregation makes up its own rules and pastors have absolute authority.  In Pentecostalism, even children can be preachers.    They think this is great, but it makes you wonder just how thoughtful the adult pastors are if children can put on just as good a show.  In most denominations, children are not of age to be full members until about 13, i.e. puberty.  In Pentecostalism, the spirit takes over all ages equally.  Turning a child into a pastor has to be bad for the child's development.  Unlike a child actor or singer, a child pastor has enormous pressure to deliver God's word.  This can create a narcissism in the child if he believes in this stuff, but can create enormous conflicted feelings if he ever grows to realize what nonsense it is.

Unfortunately, Satan can take over the bodies of people just as God can, and he doesn't let go readily.  Pentecostals (and charismatics) are soldiers in "Spiritual Warfare" against Satan.  They practice "deliverance," otherwise known as exorcism, to drive away the evil spirits that make people act wrong (by their standards).

Gays who have the misfortune to have been born into a Pentecostal family may be tempted to sign up for exorcism to rid themselves of the evil spirit that makes them think gay thoughts.  (Interesting but disturbing blog posts here and here)  Any church that equates homosexuality with evil spirit possession is dangerous to gays personally and to society generally.

Unfortunately, exorcisms involve physical restraint and other dangerous practices that can kill.  "What's the Harm" lists exorcism deaths over the years over the world.  Many religions practice this, and all of them deserve a place on the Most Dangerous list.  The latest exorcism death in the news was a Mexican toddler who was starved to death in by a Pentecostal exorcism, which was followed by an attempt to resurrect the toddler.  The outcome is questionable, since Texas has already ruled that exorcism of a teenager is protected by the First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal.  That church was an Assemblies of God church, a spin-off from Pentecostalism.  Toddlers and teens are annoying, but not demonic.  Any church that performs this barbaric practice should be shut down.

Fortunately, it may be that public exorcisms may be merely shows put on to scare the faithful, if this hilarious video is typical:

Accusations of Witchcraft
Pentecostalism experienced a parallel growth in Africa over the past 100 years.  One sad result is that people are being killed or tortured as witches, especially in Nigeria.  While we worry about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, we should also worry about the lives of children who are Christians remaining at home there.  Babies, young children, and albinos can be accused of witchcraft and "exorcised" for a hefty fee.  Remember that Pentecostals basically answer to nobody, theologically, so it's the one denomination most ripe for con men.  The people are gullible and the leaders have nobody looking over their shoulders.  It's a recipe for disaster, as The Guardian documented in 2007.

Faith Healing Child Medical Neglect

You may have heard of the Shaibles, a Pennsylvania couple who were on probation for the neglect death of one child when they allowed another to die.  Oops, when God took the child.  They belong to the First Century Gospel Church, which believes in faith-healing only.  The name of the church suggests Pentecostalism, which believes itself to be closer to original Christianity than other denominations.

Some of the most famous crooks in the faith-healing business have profited from Pentecostal zeal:  Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff, who have been repeatedly debunked by skeptics.  More recently, the Followers of Christ, a Pentecostal offshoot, have been in the news for numerous child deaths in Oregon (which enacted laws to enable prosecution of parents) and Idaho.

C.H.I.L.D., or Children's Health Is a Legal Duty, documents the child deaths due to religiously inspired neglect.  Sadly, in many states there is a religious exemption for medical care (thanks to politically active Christian Scientists).

Prosperity Theology
Many of the proponents of prosperity theology are "non-denominational" but if you examine their beliefs, they are in either the Pentecostal or IFB traditions.  The main idea is the same as faith healing - prayer alone should be sufficient for success if one is right with God.  Letting a bit of gold cross the palm of the healer or pastor isn't theologically necessary but it couldn't hurt, right?  And when you give to the Church you get back tenfold, if you are right with God, of course.   If people could really afford to believe that faith could cure their finances, it would be a quaint practice. like playing the lotto on payday.  But unlike the lotto, there's no proof that it works except for the pastor who gets extremely wealthy.

Many Christians consider Pentecostalism unbiblical and cultish, so ex-Pentecostals are welcome to the fold when they decide Pentecostalism is for the birds.  But because of the extreme rigidity of Pentecostal fundamentalism, once there is a crack in the wall around their beliefs, it could all come falling down.  This happened to Jerry DeWitt, the first ex-pastor to come out after participation in the Clergy Project.  He now "preaches" at secular gatherings.  He's a very talented speaker.

Some Famous and Infamous Pentecostals (including spin-offs & Charismatics)

  • Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker (Assemblies of God)
  • Kenneth Copeland, televangelist (Pentecostalish)
  • Jan & Paul Crouch, founders of Trinity Broadcasting Network (Assemblies of God)
  • Megan Fox
  • Jon & Kate Gosselin (who refused to reduce a multiple pregnancy and wound up with sextuplets, a TV show, and a divorce)
  • Benny Hinn, faith-healing televangelist (Assemblies of God)
  • T.D. Jakes
  • Sarah Palin (Assemblies of God)
  • Peter Popoff
  • Oral Roberts, televangelist & founder of university
  • Jimmy Swaggart (Assemblies of God)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Most Dangerous Christian Denominations: #1 Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB)

One of the frequent complaints about "New Atheism" is that the movement is too harsh toward religion.  The subtitle for Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great is "How Religion Poisons Everything."  I think using the word "everything" is a bit of a stretch.  There are certainly some things that religion doesn't touch.  Wallpaper, for one.  You can go to a wallpaper store and have your choice of designs, and religion hasn't poisoned many of them at all.

There's a dichotomy between "good" Christianity and "bad" Christianity, a.k.a. the "they're not true Christians" according to the nicer Christians.  It's clear that some of the "bad" Christians seem to belong to the same few denominations.

What is a "bad" Christian?  In my view it's someone, or a group of someones, who use religion to justify hurting other people.  When they hurt their own children, that multiplies my disgust.

Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church (IFB)
These are the most extreme of the Baptists.  They have their own colleges, (including Bob Jones "University") but because they are independent, a pastor can make up his or her own interpretation of scripture.  Bruce Gerenscer, now an atheist blogger, used to be an IFB pastor.  (See his guide to IFB-speak and his personal story)

I started with the IFB movement because it's timely: this Arizona pastor argued that gay men should be stoned to death, and went on a rant against a fellow IFB pastor who disagreed with him.  If you aren't willing to kill gays, you are weak in his opinion.  How long until his congregation starts killing people?  (or one like him)  How many other IFB pastors are preaching the same doctrine?

The IFB pastors have absolute theological power over their congregations, and they only answer to Gawd.  Even though there are IFB colleges, there is no theological structure to rein in the pastors.  The ministry often passes from father to son, risking a cult of personality and dynasty.  There is also a culture of secrecy, like the Roman Catholic priesthood.  Pastors find new jobs easily because their sex crimes are kept covered up.

Between the pastor's divine inspiration, the cult of personality, and the extremism of the theology, they are the one Protestant denomination to watch.  Some megachurches are IFB, making their cultish influence even more sinister.

Some of their illustrious sexual predators & one evil enabler:
Jack Schaap in Indiana:  a sexual predator who pastored in a church that had a long history of permitting sex abuse.  He's now in prison, but his influence lives on in the sex abuse of other IFB jerks.

Bill Gothard, best known as a leader of the homeschooling movement... at least until his organization suffered financially and he was outed as a sexual predator.  Although never married, he is an expert in marriage and his teachings form part of the Duggar family "values."  This "quiverfull" movement victimized Andrea Yates

Chuck Phelps is best known for forcing a teenaged girl and her rapist to publicly confess in front of their IFB congregation.  After that he found a temporary home for her out of state for her to have her baby and then give it up for adoption.  After the sordid story became known (and widely known, thanks to a 20/20 episode), he was forced out of his position at Bob Jones University.  You'd think he'd be out of the pastor business after that but no.  He's the head pastor of a megachurch in Indianapolis.  Perhaps God had the last word, though.  His son & daughter-in-law died in a church bus crash.  The driver was not charged despite excess speed being the cause of the crash.  Who needs Heaven & Hell when there's Karma on the highway?

They are also physically abusive to children:
Not far from Jack Schaap's church, Fairhaven Baptist Academy in Indiana uses physical abuse to humiliate children:  A CNN exposé on this school didn't seem to affect the pastor.  He still works at the church and he is the chancellor of the associated (unaccredited) college.

This was one of many reform schools for girls, thanks to an evil genius named Lester Roloff.  Mother Jones's exposé of a Missouri "school" reveals just as much abuse.

Bruce Gerenscer writes about New Bethany school in Louisiana (with lots of links).

There are many blogs and websites run by ex-members, both Christian & atheist.  This site has a list of articles for further reading, if you have the stomach for it. I vote them as the #1 most dangerous denomination because of their actual abuses and the potential for much much worse.  Let's hope they don't start stoning gays to death, but could you put it past them?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Links for 3/21/2015

I can't call this a link round-up for the week because some are just not news, but they're interesting.

Not religious per se but a blog about coming back from the cultish naturalism fad:  Back from Nature.  Extremist naturalism is as cultish and dangerous as extremist religion, at least in the family.  Some of the posts are really disturbing, and read like the posts from faith-healing cult survivors.

Our minds can be fooled, as can our senses:  Five Mind-blowing Ways our Senses can Lie to You Every Day.  Things like that remind me that even if every story of the Bible were true, we'd still be relying on the fallible senses of people who claimed to have seen and heard magical things.

Muslims are mocking ISIS in scathing parodies.  Considering ISIS's penchant for video propaganda, this has to hurt.

The principal of the White Oak, TX, high school will no longer be reading daily Bible passages over the P.A. system.  After a student recorded this and sent the sound files to Hemant Mehta, FFRF sent a letter.   These people aren't just clueless about the First Amendment, they apparently are clueless about the nature of the age they live in. Every kid has a cell phone that can record audio and video.  They can't keep their secrets within school walls anymore.
The Onion explains the greatest mystery of all.  Apparently prayers aren't answered because most of God's Gifts burn up in the atmosphere!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Some random links and stuff

Why is/was Farmville so addicitve?  It's the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

James Randi has a moral duty to debunk.  His biopic, An Honest Liar, is reviewed by the New York Times.

Letters to the Guardian newspaper argue against John Gray's What Scares the New Atheists (which is not worth reading but I link it anyway -  apparently every bad thing an atheist movement ever did taints the current movement)

...or it could be that angry atheists get more press.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Sharia Law in the U.S. -- in 1923!

An Ohio teachers' union posted this to their Facebook page recently.  It's a contract for teachers in 1923.  Note that they have to travel only with a male family member - no neighbors, dates, or friends.  Does this sound familiar?

I wonder what went on in downtown ice-cream stores.  And how did the school verify the number of petticoats?  Did they lift up the teachers' skirts to see what was underneath every morning?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Just Babies, by Paul Bloom

Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom

This is one of many books on morality published recently, but it's not specifically written to fight the canard that religion is the foundation of morality.  Nor does it claim that morality is totally innate and the result of evolution.  Rather, Bloom presents an interesting and nuanced view of human morality.... which just happens not to rely on religion.  I plan to read some of the other new books on the topic, especially Michael Shermer's new book, The Moral Arc but I thought I'd start with Bloom's book.

Bloom cites several studies of babies in this book, hence the title.  The studies are fascinating, showing that it may be instinctual to show compassion.  It may also be instinctual to be "evil," so the answer to the question of whether people are good or evil is:  Neither.  The answer to the question of whether religion promotes morality is: Possibly.

Before we get to baby humans, there are primate studies that show instinctual behaviors previously thought to be human traits.  Bloom cites a Frans de Waal's study of capuchin monkeys.  The TED talk showing video of this became rather viral:

Elephants have the intelligence to figure out how to cooperate for a task:

Bloom does spend quite a bit of time on studies with babies and toddlers.  Lacking language, the challenge for baby studies is to find a way to ethically study their brains.  One method is to train a camera on the baby's eyes.  This shows the amount of time the baby spends on one image vs. another.   This is called eye tracking.  Studies have shown that a young baby will focus longer on an image that doesn't make sense.  They also favor pro-social images.

Babies who viewed a puppet show in which one puppet was cooperative and one was anti-social prefer the cooperative one.  Paul Bloom discussed this in the New York Times. and 60 Minutes visited the Baby Lab at Yale, where he and his wife do the studies:

Check out Paul Bloom's Video Presentation:

He expands from here to cover racism and the expanding circles of community.  Babies relate first to their mother, then their family, then their small community, etc.  Until recently we never encountered people from other communities, much less people of different races or from different continents.

The book is worth a read, but the videos above are also great.

The idea that humans are born evil, because of Adam & Eve or because of our "sinful nature," is baloney.  Babies are just babies, capable of learning how to get along in society where selfishness and cooperation are both necessary for survival of both the individual and the species.

Christian child-rearing books love to quote this passage, which they don't attribute correctly if at all (it comes from a 1958 study of delinquency that determined delinquency comes from an unloving household, not from evil)
Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother's attention, his playmate's toys, his uncle's watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He's dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.
When you google that passage you come up with dozens of articles, sermons, and books.  Well-meaning parents are hearing this message from books and pastors, and not hearing that their babies are good and even sometimes noble.

If they could be disabused of that idea they'd see that their kids don't need to be "saved."  They just need to be nurtured.