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I remember seeing Heaven is For Real at the checkout stand somewhere a while ago and just groaning inwardly at yet another attempt by Christians to cash in on humanity’s ignorance of whatever lies beyond death (if anything–which we’ll talk about in just a mo’). But now we have a (really awful) movie, study materials for Christian groups, and the gods only know what else, and I think it’s time we talked about this book/movie/whatever and why the claims it makes should be rejected by anybody with a brain, much less by Christians themselves.

Let’s start with the packaging. Like every other apologetics material, this movie/book/guide is very slickly packaged. It is a part of the Evangelical PR Machine for reasons I cannot fathom to save my life because it is so obviously made-up–even more so than most of these sorts of accounts. Very clearly, some executives somewhere with some Christian publishing house saw this story and began seeing dollar signs flying like little Tweety birds around their heads. Publishing a “discussion guide” itself implies that a discussion is necessary about this boy’s story, and of course this guide costs money. Ah, WWJD? Charge admission, obviously.

It’s important to note that every single one of the materials I’ve seen about this thing have plastered across their fronts the image of a small boy in poorly-fitting, too-big-for-him clothes making a big coached grin with lopsided head and baby teeth all showing, making him look much younger than he is (which is plenty young as it is). Colton Burpo is actually approaching his teenaged years now, and his story’s gotten more and more elaborate over time, much like the Gospels themselves did. The sort of Christians who lose their minds over glurge forwards on Facebook will find their heartstrings tugged by the image of this trying-so-hard little boy, which is obviously why the image is there. Call me cynical, but yes, I’m deeply cynical about Christian apologetics books; almost every single one of ’em is a load of emotionally-manipulative codswallop.

See, it doesn’t really matter what this little boy thinks he saw. Little children see all kinds of crazy things. What matters is whether or not the things this child thinks he saw are really true. And nobody seems to care about that!

It’s nice to see Christians themselves doing the distancing dance with regard to these silly and whackadoodle claims. Of course the claims are nonsense. Of course the story is a complete fabrication. Not a single shred of hard evidence is provided for it, any more than you’ll see provided with any other Christian fairy tale. But it conflicts mightily with Christians’ own nonsense and fabrications, so obviously there’s a problem here.

Here’s what happened: the boy had a ruptured appendix, and his parents rushed him to the hospital for an operation. He got the operation and survived. His parents ascribe his survival to prayer; apparently their god decided to save their boy because he’s just sooooo sooooooper speshul and let some other children die that day instead. The boy was not ever dead; his brain never stopped working and while the situation was dire, he didn’t pass away and get brought back. He woke up from the operation, seemed fairly perky, and a long time later as the family was driving near the hospital where he’d been treated, he let slip that he’d had visions of angels during his operation because that’s what kids do as they’re testing out new ideas in their heads; they say things that seem kind of weird because they don’t know social context quite yet. His parents freaked out because I guess they’d never been around small children ever in their lives (?) and thus began a long odyssey of questioning and unwittingly coaching their son in an increasingly-elaborate story of what’d happened to him while he was out cold.

You can see an interesting interview here, if you can stomach watching a preteen boy regurgitate lies for long enough, wherein he performs on command for a CBN host–spitting out the lies he’s been coached to believe. I’ve got to say this: if I had had no idea who this boy was, I’d still think he was telling a story he’d been coached to tell. This just doesn’t seem like a kid who really experienced what he’s saying he did. None of it sounds even remotely compelling or plausible–or, more importantly, testable. Notice the shifting eyes, the stumbling words, and the weird little smirks he gives from time to time after saying something particularly unbelievable, like this one around 4:15 where he’s checking out the host to see if he bought it:

Dupers1Are we seeing Duper’s Delight here?

I’ve watched a couple of interviews this kid’s given and not a single word he says really sounds plausible or convincing because of the signals he’s giving off.

But the fault, I think, lies not with him–he’s still just a kid, for goodness’ sakes–but with the adults around him who fell down in their responsibility to teach him the difference between reality and childish fantasy.

It’s useful to remember that, also like the Gospels, a significant lag time emerged between the span of time the boy had his not-really near-death experience (NDE) and the time his parents wrote his stories down. The years between his fake-NDE and his story getting publicized and written means a lot of years for his childish memory to warp and mold according to what his parents were (hopefully innocently) coaching him to say. The boy didn’t mention a word about the afterlife when he awoke from his operation drugs; he wanted to go pet spiders or something. It wasn’t till much later that he hinted that he’d seen angels and stuff, if his parents’ account is to be believed at all, and much, much later that most of the story emerged from his young lips. From the sounds of it, that story is still evolving to some extent. And it’s evolving because of his parents’ desperate need for it to evolve, and because society’s all but demanding more from him. All he had originally was a short, cute little story, but now it’s turned into this huge epic because of what he perceived the adults around him wanted to hear. (We more often hear the flipside, kids saying super-duper-creepy things. Don’t click that link if you’re alone at night. I mean it. You’ve been warned.)

What I hear from Christians about this story are tons of rationalizations for how this boy could have really seen Heaven–one where a blue-eyed Jesus rides rainbow-furred ponies and where he asks halo’d, sword-wearing angels to sing “We Will Rock You” for him and gets dejected when Jesus won’t let him have a sword because it’d be “too dangerous.” I can tell these folks really want this boy to have seen Heaven–one that might not look like the one in their Bibles, but one that really truly exists despite what critics and skeptics think in their lofty ivory towers. Maybe he got totally taken up in the spirit to Heaven despite not being really dead, they say; maybe their god froze time so all this could happen in the short span he was on the operating table. Maybe he was just so young when it all happened that he couldn’t make sense of the memories until much later (no, really). These explanations share a very common logical fallacy, described by a psychologist as “ad hoc fallacies”:

But ad hoc excuses are classic mistakes of critical thinking and are indicative of irrationality. Ad hoc excuses can be constructed in an attempt to save any theory from counter evidence, but doing so doesn’t actually rescue the hypothesis. It prevents it from being 100 percent disproven, sure; but it also reveals that the theory is merely hanging on by a thread. If you have to make excuses that are immune to evidence to save your theory from the evidence, that’s likely because your theory is false. When making a claim about what has occurred in the world, the first thing a rational hypothesis needs to be is testable. But ad hoc excuses make hypotheses un-testable.

“Well, it might have happened” is not really a compelling explanation and not one we should give any kind of consideration. Yes, and he might have been abducted by aliens under the same exact logic.

At its core, the message of the Evangelical PR Machine is not materially different from any other slight hint of a wisp of a hope of “proof” that their religion is really true, for realsies, guize, rilly! It’s not any different from all the junk science they peddle in the form of creationism/intelligent design; it’s not even slightly different from the fake and misinterpreted relics their apologists are always “finding” in the Middle East (thereby destroying real artifacts and annoying the hell out of real historians and archaeologists). A boy’s father coached his son into believing–at least for a time–that he’d really been to Heaven, and a number of adults around that boy behaved irresponsibly by encouraging him in that delusion.

And that’s the real crime here. Any one person in that chain from desperately-broke father to eager publishing-house executive to jaded film producer could have stopped and said “Hey, this isn’t right, what we’re doing to this kid.” But none of them did. That would mean admitting that the boy’s stated experience was not true, which would call doubt upon every other experience of that type. This boy is going to grow up being “that kid who went to Heaven,” the boy who said he had the vision. He’s already embarrassed by it, if the interviews I’ve seen of him are anything to go by. He’s already trying to wriggle out of being “that kid,” admitting in interviews that his visions now just aren’t quite as clear as they were when he first had them–is he hoping that his fading “clarity” will make people quit bothering him so much for new and exciting details?

I really hope that the adults around Colton will leave him alone, though that seems unlikely at this point. He’s just a kid, and his childhood is being ripped away from him by adults who ought to know better. Like the crowd that surrounded Charlie in Willy Wonka when he found the last golden ticket, they are grabbing and grasping for his little mind and heart. It seems clear to me that he’d rather just be a kid, and to me, seeing this interview of his and others, he seems by turns both just a little embarrassed that his childish stories have gotten him to the point they have, and thrilled that his stories affect people the way they do.

And I really wish that Christians would quit pointing to stories like his as “proof” that their religious hogwash is really objectively true. I get that they want to believe that it is objectively true; I once wanted it to be so myself. But it is not true. And stories that are very obviously fanciful lies told by an eager-to-please child for his obviously-biased parents and a public lapping up whatever it can get are not going to satisfy our hunger for real information.

See, the more of these stories we debunk as being false, the more people are going to wonder–rightly and correctly–what other similar stories are also waiting to be debunked. Every single miracle claim that gets disproven makes every other miracle claim suspect. Every single NDE that we demonstrate is just the fizzing-out of a brain’s activity makes every other NDE look like the same. So far, every one of these supernatural-sounding stories that are even possible to test (many of them simply are not) has turned out to have a perfectly rational and understandable explanation behind it. Why should we imagine that this boy’s account of Heaven is any different?

In the end, I am left with the renewed realization that we really don’t know what lies at the end of our lives. Chances are really good that we’ll just fall into the dirt and be gone forever, except in our loved ones’ memories and through whatever deeds can immortalize us in our species’ estimation. Stories of obviously-fake afterlife accounts make me realize anew that people are incredibly frightened of what happens to us after that great transition. Some of us are so frightened of it that in absence of any information at all, we’ll just start making shit up and we’ll say anything that sounds comforting and nice.

Ironically, I’m finding that the more of these afterlife fakeries I hear about, the more comfortable I’m getting with the existential horror of not-being. I bet I’m not the only one, either. Whatever is coming next, it can’t be as bad as lying to ourselves like with fake stories and wasting our precious years propagating and perpetuating lies like Colton and his parents are doing. So at least humanity is coming out of this newest fraud the wiser. And I think we will clamber bit by bit over the rubble of these claims and false stories to a place where we can walk on our own two feet in the light.

I just really wish we weren’t doing it on the back of this boy. I don’t think he deserves what’s coming his way and I wish his parents and those around him would quit using and victimizing him to make themselves feel better about–I think I can safely say–their own looming deaths.

We will be talking next about what happens when two different people come out of a situation convinced of two different and conflicting stories. That is what is happening with Colton Burpo and his tales of the afterlife, and it happens today with just about every Christian idea there is as well as a number of non-Christian-specific situations (like vaccinations). And it happened to me all the time when I was a Christian. What happens when two people can’t possibly both be right? We’ll see next.

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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,...