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)


Ahab said...

I'm glad you're bring attention to this. You might also be interested in Apostolics, which have some overlap with Pentecostals (i.e., glossolalia, prophesy) and are the driving force behind the New Apostolic Reformation and its political machinations. Lou Engle (TheCall), Mike Bickle (IHOP), and Cindy Jacobs (Generals International) are all Apostolic figures with unsettling messages.

LadyAtheist said...

I considered divvying up the Pentecostal subgroups but they're all dangerous. I had heard of IHOP but I'll look into the others. Very disturbing all of them.

L.Long said...

Like they say nothing does stupid or evil like religion.