like a bolt from the blue
Reading Time: 10 minutes (David Rodrigo.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

We’ve been talking lately about how Christians treat the people they’re trying to recruit. Sales-minded Christians often borrow strategies from the Bible, and this one is no exception: cold reading. I’ll show you what it is, why Christians like it, what they think is happening when they do it, and–of course–what’s really happening.

like a bolt from the blue
(David Rodrigo.) Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and a bolt from the blue. Looks like a movie, doesn’t it?

The Conjob’s Mainstay.

Conjobs just adore cold reading. They pick up the skill easily. To do it, they make a series of guesses about their mark based on easily-observable (but sometimes subtle) cues. Marks, for their part, cooperate fairly well with the attempts. Thanks to some powerful cognitive biases that I’ll show you in a minute, marks slide right into lockstep with the person wishing to trick them.

For example, say a cold reader encounters a middle-aged woman who wants a psychic reading. The cold reader observes her physical features, what jewelry and accessories she wears, even how she does her hair. Then the cold reader makes some educated guesses about what the woman wants to hear. Generally speaking, these guesses can range from laughably-off-target to strangely-accurate.

Warm reading and hot reading exist as well. In these variants, the conjob possesses real knowledge of the mark that the mark doesn’t realize the scammer knows. Perhaps the conjob discovered the mark’s home address, or the names of the mark’s family members. The temperature refers to the amount of knowledge and how the conjob acquires it.

In this post, we’ll be looking at cold reading. Just bear in mind that if a Christian can gain solid intel on a target, then yes, that intel will get used–and don’t expect the Christian to reveal the purely earthly origins of the information!

How Cold Reading Works.

Cold reading works because it plays off of a host of cognitive biases. Most folks don’t realize how much information they give off. People may also tend to think that they’re way better at detecting cues about others than others are at detecting theirs. Often, the cold reader asserts something extremely vague or generic.

Consequently, people forgive wrong guesses and forget them–while remembering and holding to the few right or semi-right guesses that the reader makes. Many people downright contort themselves trying to fit themselves into a description they think was tailored to them. The appeal of being told “everything they ever did” can be powerful.

So when a cold reader starts making those guesses, chances are good that an unwary mark will play along. Later, if asked about the proportion of right to wrong guesses, the mark might not even remember how many wrong guesses there were. As far as the mark is concerned, the conjob made amazingly sharp, accurate guesses.

Indeed, Jon Donnis exposes one such conjob in delicious detail over at Bad Psychics. He walks readers through a transcript of a cold reading done by a self-proclaimed psychic. The remarkable part of his post really is that the marks at this meeting all help the psychic out, every step of the way, by giving him snippets of information about their relatives. The psychic completely bombs the reading with repeated bad guesses, and yet people walked out of that meeting convinced that he was the real deal.

Why Conjobs Love Cold Reading.

conjob is someone trying to work a confidence game with a mark. And nothing builds confidence like a cold reading–the more accurate and informed, the better. Best of all, cold reading functions like any other skill. It’s easy to learn to do it, and it pays off grandly when everything lines up.

Ideally, the mark comes out of the experience feeling incredibly close to the cold reader. Hopefully, the mark feels predisposed to give the cold reader money, or subservience, or whatever else is desired.

More even than that, the mark may think that the cold reader has some kind of special spiritual connection to some supernatural authority figure–like angels or gods. How else could the cold reader possibly know all this stuff about the mark? It must be magic! The cold reader, as well, might believe this same thing: that they gain their information through supernatural means.

And that brings us to Christian cold readers, starting with Jesus himself.

could use a well here
(Robert Bye.) Mount of Beatitudes. Weird, how nobody wrote this stuff down for decades!

A Baked-In Con Game.

One of the Gospel stories Christians love most is that of Jesus meeting “the woman at the well.” We find a writeup of the story in John 4.

In this story, Jesus rests near a well in Samaria. An unnamed Samaritan woman comes right then to collect water from the well. Jesus asks her for some water (since he doesn’t have anything to draw with, as the woman notes). In the conversation that ensues, he tells her some facts about herself. She’s been married five times, but is now living with a man who isn’t her husband.

The Samaritan woman expresses great surprise that he sussed out this information. She leaves the well–in fact, she leaves her water jar right there–and heads into town, where she tells everyone, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”

This incident forms a seminal moment in Jesus’ ministry. Because of the woman’s testimony, many people come to hear Jesus’ message–and it sounds like many converted as a result.

Skeptics will immediately perceive some big glaring holes in this story, but I don’t know of any Christians who take it as anything but–forgive the play on words–gospel truth.1

Attack of the Mini-Jesuses.

Evangelism-minded Christians love this story and seek to replicate Jesus’ success by going and doing likewise–as if they were mini-Jesuses themselves. Hell, I remember praying specifically for this exact miracle to occur whenever I went into challenging situations, like when I challenged a professor of mine in class over an assignment from the Bible.

To my astonishment, sometimes I seemed to hit the ball out of the park sometimes.

I had a strong reputation for spouting remarkably-accurate cold readings of people. None of us called it that, of course. We called it prophecy. It was quite confusing for the guys in my church to think that I–a woman, and a very young one at that–seemed to have that particular spiritual gift that we called the word of knowledge.

I truly, sincerely thought that my god had gifted me with the information I seemed to have. Now I know I was simply really good at picking up cues, and cognitive biases on both ends handled the rest. We all desperately ached to think that a god was handing out that information to his cherished favorites. So, remarkably, that’s exactly what we imagined was happening!

Nothing has changed in Christianity since then. If anything, Christian cold readers have gotten bolder and braver in voicing their attempts–and, it seems to me, their guesses fly ever further from their targets.

A Cringeworthy Display.

Here, we see a Christian diagnose a fellow plane passenger as “a lonely man.” Worse, he decides that this passenger, who says he’s an atheist, totally believes in Jesus but doesn’t realize it. It’s possible the passenger feels lonely, yes. But nothing in the post indicates that the passenger secretly totally believes. The story ends with the passenger disembarking and vanishing from the Christian’s life, which tells me that this cold reading didn’t land home. Had the passenger seemed even vaguely amenable to conversion, no way, no how would the Christian not have ridden this opportunity like he’d stolen it. But the Christian counts the encounter as totally a victory.

And this other guy thinks he achieves similar astonishing victories all the time through his ability to channel messages from his god to his evangelism targets.

Sometimes those targets are other Christians. I’ve heard a great many Christians–including myself when I was one of them, of course–talk about how powerfully words of knowledge have affected them. Often during church services or altar calls I saw people go up to each other and offer each other messages that they said were from Jesus. The messengers would start by saying, “God’s laid a word for you on my heart,” and then issue what they clearly thought was a deep and insightful message that only a supernatural being of enormous power could ever possibly have come up with. In turn, the recipient would be blown away by the message and they’d both celebrate having been involved in a ZOMG MEERKUL YAWL.

The Cold Reality.

Ex-Christians and never-Christians see these cold reading attempts constantly. The more openly we express non-belief, the more Christians try to guess why we don’t believe. They rarely ask us that question, of course. They’d rather guess–er, sorry, have “Jesus” tell them.

I’ve completely lost count of how often Christians have tried to cold read me. It’s usually the first tactic they try, after expressing deep sorrow that I deconverted. They find out that I don’t buy into Christianity anymore and immediately begin to diagnose why they think I lost belief in that twaddle.

Usually they hit on “Bad Christians” driving me from Christianity, or accuse me of being “angry at God.” I can deny both to the skies, but they won’t believe me. They’ve already diagnosed me, so they proceed from there. Sometimes they even stress to me that their god has totally told them my problems.

A Mask Over My Face.

To a great extent, these Christians aren’t talking to me. They’re talking instead to a mask they’ve laid over my face. It looks like my face, but it isn’t me.

The construct of me that they’ve created fits all of their cultural tropes about ex-Christians. It responds the way they expect ex-Christians to respond, and plays along with the scripts they’ve developed for interacting with ex-Christians. All of their favorite hucksters–sorry, apologists–tell them that their construct and their scripts are both accurate and one-size-fits-all.

If I tear away the mask and refuse to use the script a Christian pushes at me, then they have a script for dealing with that, too: they cry crocodile tears about how “bitter” I am and tell me that I’m only pretending not to fit the mask. And they proceed with the original script they wanted to use as if nothing happened.

It is downright surreal to see them responding to everything I say as if I’d actually said the lines their script assigned me. I could stand there and go “wah wah waaaah” like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons and I think I’d still get back the exact same responses from these self-styled “prophets.”

Motivations for Mistreatment.

But something else is happening here, when Christians fail so grandly at cold reading.

When we see people acting out, we need to remember that they behave the way they do because it feeds them somehow. Christians get something out of what they’re doing. That’s why they don’t want to listen to us when we set them straight. Accurate relaying of divine messages is not the goal here. We can tell that because Christians are not even remotely interested in receiving any feedback about their accuracy (or lack thereof).

So their real goal must be something else.

And there, it’s very easy to discern that the Christians practicing cold reading are also gleefully enjoying a burst of superiority over their targets. The cold readers are the favored ones of an omnimax god. Their enemies are the ones at the imagined disadvantage here. That’s a hugely lopsided power dynamic, tilted entirely in the cold readers’ favor. Indeed, it’s no accident that the Christians attempting to cold read their enemies are also the ones most concerned with culture wars and other power-grabs. Power is everything to such Christians.

Or worse still and equally easy to discern, Christian cold readers may seek to confirm, through their accusations, that the stereotypes they believe about their enemies are true. They accuse us of being lonely, of living meaningless lives, of being angry, of being rebellious and even childish. No matter how we object to these mischaracterizations, Christians ignore it. They walk away convinced that they totally nailed us.

Taking the Act On the Road.

For people who regularly bandy about phrases like earning the right to speak and creating a dialogue, Christians make extraordinarily poor listeners. (And that’s probably why I see many thousands of websites devoted to teaching Christians how to be better listeners. “Jesus” sure isn’t endowing his followers with the ability!

Little wonder Christians glom so hard onto anybody willing to look them in the eye and tell them that their god pays attention to them and has a special message just for them. That kind of validation, after struggling to be seen and heard in a community full of self-focused narcissists, has got to feel like soft cooling rains in the desert.

Having bought into the idea that magical cold reading is a supernatural gift from their god, they then try to trot the same dog-and-pony trick on someone who isn’t part of the tribe.

Maybe these Christians will get lucky and pick a mark who believes in the general idea of supernatural messages like that. But more often, they run into a person who is well aware of this trick and how it operates. And that person gets a sudden and bracing reminder of a sort that you’d think Christians would never want to provide:

Christians use cold reading precisely because nothing supernatural inhabits them or tells them anything. They mistreat us because their religion doesn’t make them loving people.


(Robert Bye.) Masada National Park, Israel.

NEXT UP: What? Have we seriously never talked about this whole angry at God trope? My goodness, I don’t think we have! Let’s do that next. Then we’ll plunge into another evangelical mainstay: the inevitable evangelism tent at county fairs. See you soon!


1 Here’s why I don’t buy the account of The Woman At The Well.

First: the account appears in the Gospels, which function as sales pitches, and nowhere else. A document cannot be both the claim and the evidence for the claim. Second: IF this exchange occurred, it probably didn’t happen like this–and we don’t know how it went, because nobody thought to write it down for many decades. It does seem clear that way more was said, because the woman says Jesus told her “everything I ever did.” Presumably, she did more with her life than marry or bang six guys. Third: IF this exchange occurred like this, then we don’t know if Jesus had obtained prior knowledge of the woman. Every other time something like this has happened that we’ve been able to investigate, we’ve found it was only hot reading.

Fourth, last, and most devastating: Even today, Christians cannot demonstrate that ANY “spiritual gift,” much less “the word of knowledge,” is a real thing. But we’ve caught quite a few Christians hot reading or cold reading. Thus, it’s very unlikely that THIS was the one time in history that someone really communicated divinely-revealed information to another person. (Back to the post!)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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