Hi, y’all! Are you getting ready for my favorite holiday of the entire year? We will be having an open recipe thread on Turkey Day, so feel free to hang out with us and share any recipes you especially love (and if you’re one of those sorts who will take your favorite recipe with you to the grave, don’t take this the wrong way or nothin’, but I can’t help judging you). Today we’re going to talk about the biggest problem there is with supernatural claims: the fact that they are specifically built and structured to be impossible to prove wrong.
Not long ago we talked about a Christian who had a habit of faking serious diseases and injuries over in Australia, and I briefly touched on the fact that various Christians around Mike Guglielmucci had had visions and prophecies that they thought were from their god–telling them privileged information about his rapidly-advancing cancer and foretelling his divine healing from it. Their church culture–like that of most Christian denominations–definitively believed in the idea of divine healing as well as visions and prophecies. That friend I mentioned last time, John, who was a youth group member under “Pastor Mike’s” care, told me that a number of people in that church reported having had these visions all through the two years that the charismatic youth pastor claimed he had cancer. (PS: WTF is it with youth pastors? This is like the umpteenth one we’ve talked about on this blog!)
The problem, of course, is that there was no cancer in the first place, much less a need for divine healing from cancer. So these visions and prophecies were clearly in the wrong. (A “vision” is just an observation about something that hopefully couldn’t be obtained any other way, like watching a supernatural television show; a “prophecy” is a prediction about something that will happen.) Either the divine being providing these supernatural visions and prophecies had been fooled by Mike Guglielmucci, or else the people who claimed to have received them had totally misinterpreted something. (There’s a third option, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.)
But visions and prophecies have been around in Christianity for as long as there’s been Christianity. Most religions provide some method of communicating with the spiritual world and interpreting its words back to this world. The exact mechanism might vary, but the general idea remains the same. Even people who aren’t terribly spiritual otherwise might get into things like reading their horoscope in the paper every morning–an activity so mundane by now that it barely even counts as sinful anymore to most Christians. I suspect there’s just something about us humans that makes us want to think we have some kind of mystic help available to us. I don’t think it even occurs to the people using Ouija boards or watching medium shows that the “spirits” might be lying to or teasing us; their truthfulness is taken as a matter of fact.
Religions that existed when Christianity got rolling weren’t any different in this respect. Here’s a reference to a pagan goddess who never failed to give her adherents mystic visions during sleep. Here’s a bucketload of citations about other gods who gave visions and prophetic dreams to people. When Paul discusses in his letters the vision that converted him, he isn’t talking about anything unusual at all to people of the time.
When I was Christian, one of the things that really jump-started my journey right out of Christianity was the death from brain cancer of my church’s co-pastor. Daniel was in his early 40s and had married the daughter of the older pastor a few years previously, and when the older pastor began getting on in years Daniel was invited to help lead the church to lessen the burden. Not a year later he began having seriously bad migraines and that’s when he–and we–discovered he had that especially awful form of brain cancer that gave him less than a year to live.
Naturally, the Christian Prayer Machine leaped into action. I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our older pastor was one of our denomination’s biggest names; apparently he’d helped found the whole thing. Our church considered itself to be one of the centers of the denomination as well and was one of the largest in terms of membership. So Daniel–being the son-in-law of that pastor and co-pastor of that church–very likely had tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Christians praying very earnestly for him.
Of course, I was one of them. I prayed till I wept many times for his healing at the direction of our older pastor. And in church services, when we had prophecies in tongues, inevitably those prophecies would involve Daniel being healed. We were told repeatedly to expect this healing. We were told to demand it through a process called “claiming,” which means exactly the same thing as claiming your coat from a nice restaurant’s coat-check room, and we were told to live our lives as if it had already happened because in “god’s” time it already had. People repeatedly had visions of seeing Daniel happy and healthy again, too, and shared these visions like Magic: The Gathering collectible cards.
For people who haven’t ever tangled with fundamentalism, here’s what “prophecies in tongues” means. During a lull in an especially rowdy church service, someone stands up and yells very loudly in “tongues”, typically a ROSHANDA-LOSHANDA sort of outburst that is supposed to sound vaguely Arabic or Hebrew (at least as far as a monoglot uneducated middle-aged xenophobic American fundamentalist thinks it’d sound), then sits down again feeling very smug indeed. Then everybody fidgets and wonders who’ll interpret it, because a prophecy always has to have a translation or else it’s just “of the flesh” which is really bad. Finally someone will stand up–in fact several people might, but only one gets to be the Cool Kid of the moment–with the “translation” to the initial outburst. The “translation” is supposed to be the direct words of Jesus, but in actuality it’s usually just generic rah-rah like “My hand is upon you right now” or “Everybody start looking busy because the boss is coming back any day now” or something, and then everybody celebrates having been touched by the supernatural attention of a god.
And these sorts of outbursts, which were always fairly common, suddenly began happening all the danged time in that church. I’m not even kidding. For months we had people talking about having had visions of his healing and we were getting prophecies about how that cancer would be found to be in remission any moment and it’d be this huge, momentous healing and miracle and everybody around the world would hear about it and know the glory of the Lord.
Daniel, of course, died miserably and painfully anyway–and considerably earlier than he’d been told to expect.
That left the whole church just reeling. I was especially struck hard by it. I’d always liked Daniel and his family was pretty nice too. I had very little experience with someone close to me dying–Biff’s mother had died shortly before our wedding, but she hadn’t been a particularly strong Christian whose death had been preceded by months of prophecies about her magic escape from death. It’s not that Daniel had ever been super close to me, but he’d been our pastor, and our churches tended to be really emotionally invested in our leaders. But one of the hardest things about his death really was that I kept remembering all those visions and prophecies and how they had not come true at all.
Typically, when a Christian starts edging too close to the truth, there are legions of rationalizations and apologetics tricks to keep that person from seeing it. Most ex-Christians (and Christians too, if they’re being honest) are very familiar with the “yes/no/maybe” rationalization about prayer but there are many, many others. God had answered–he just hadn’t said yes. Or he had said “not yet.” Or his answer was yes but it wasn’t the yes we’d expected. Or the request hadn’t been his will in the first place. If nothing else, an inventive Christian can blame the person doing the praying for praying “in the flesh” (which means praying with an ulterior motive of some kind, like pride), which would have instantly nullified whatever that Christian might have gotten otherwise. During the months after Daniel’s death I even heard the failure of all these prayers and prophecies blamed on there having been someone having a smidgen of doubt somewhere in our churches somewhere in the world, and that tiny bit of doubt had totally stymied our omnipotent god’s healing power. One person out of hundreds of thousands of Christians who had even one tiny iota of skepticism was enough to do the trick to block his will and might, apparently.
Every one of these rationalizations is meant to soothe Christians who have come face to face with the fact that prayer in the real world does not operate even one little bit like the Bible says it should. The only way to arrive at these rationalizations is to ignore the Bible’s repeated and explicit promises about prayer, which was a little weird for me to realize given that I belonged to a fundamentalist church that said it fully believed that the Bible was 100% right about 100% of its words.
What my church was doing in the wake of Daniel’s death was nothing but rationalization to explain why all those prophecies and visions had been totally wrong.
What we were doing with all of these rationalizations was coming up with ways to make those visions and prophecies totally non-falsifiable.
I didn’t know what falsification was for quite a while, so maybe you don’t either. It’s the process of working out the conditions under which a statement is shown to be false. Pretty simple, right? A claim needs not only the conditions under which it can be shown to be true, but also the conditions under which it could be shown to be false. For example, if I said that it was raining outside my house, then the falsification of that statement would be if someone in my house looked out the window and saw that it was not in fact raining outside the window. Without that way to falsify what I was claiming, there wouldn’t be a way to test that statement at all to know if it was true–no way to “rightly divide the truth,” as the saying goes.
And Christians really don’t like any attempt to create a method of falsifying what they think is from the divine. I sure didn’t, I realized then, and I knew even then why I didn’t: I was pretty sure that any real attempt to to test what I thought was divine communication might well show that it wasn’t divine at all. There really wasn’t anything at all in the religion that could be credibly demonstrated to be false, so that meant there really wasn’t anything in it that could be credibly demonstrated to be true, either.
That’s why most of these visions and prophecies hedged their bets so much. When someone says “Daniel will be healed of brain cancer,” just like “the Rapture will happen on such-and-so date,” that sets up a condition that could be definitively tested. If Daniel died of brain cancer or the Rapture date came and went, then obviously the prophecies about those events were failures. Not a single one of these prophecies I ever heard as a Christian (or for that matter since my deconversion) actually gave knowledge that could not have been gotten otherwise or foretold an event that any fool couldn’t have seen was going to happen anyway. That’s why almost all of these prophecies were just exhortations or general warnings to behave ourselves. The second one got given that could be falsified, well, it got shown to be false.
Indeed there are not many falsifiable claims Christianity makes. The Bible promises huge miracles upon demand, but in the modern day Christians don’t take that very seriously–because time has taught them that miracles don’t really happen at all, much less as a result of prayer. Studies that get done of prayer show that it doesn’t do anything tangible at all–or even hurts the people being prayed for, which I guess is good since most of these prayers aren’t exactly taking advantage of the Red Bat-Phone to God that Christians say they have. Some of the most heartbreaking stories to come out of Christendom involve Christians taking those promises too seriously.
But I don’t even know of any similar studies about visions and prophecies. Wouldn’t you think that Christians–especially the really gung-ho ones that think their religion has reams of proof for itself–would be the first people in line to study whether or not visions and prophecies really happen? Wouldn’t you think that they’d be downright eager to see actual credible peer-reviewed objective evidence that they really are getting word from a supernatural realm?
I’d say “you’d be wrong,” except the question isn’t even being asked. You and I both know that Christians are not in fact lining up or eager to see this claim tested. It’s actually the last thing they want to do, right behind throwing orgies in the sanctuary every Wednesday. Every one of them skirts away from the idea of testing these “divine” visions. Not one of them wants to seriously look at how many of these “divine” prophecies–of the few that really get specific enough to test at all, remember–really turn out as promised.
And I think that this fear of falsification pervades most of Christianity and teaches Christians not to trust their perceptions and observations when it comes to evaluating truth claims. When a Christian claims that he or she is behaving lovingly, then nobody is allowed to assess that person’s behavior or say that what is going on here isn’t loving at all. When a Christian claims that he or she has had some hugely miraculous experience, nobody’s allowed to ask probing questions about whether that experience was really divine or a lie or just a trick of the light. Just asking for that evidence is considered rude and gauche as hell–and the implication is that the person asking for that evidence doesn’t have much faith. Christian culture has become built around never asking questions and never asking for proof of anything–and its members bitterly resist any tests at all of their various and many claims.
As it stands, when a vision or prophecy gets received by a Christian, there are few ways at all to tell if it’s a divine thing or just an over-active imagination–which you might notice is exactly the case as well with anything supernatural. When I was Christian, every single person I knew in church including myself got regular word from what we thought was a god–but which turned out in the end to be just our own over-active imaginations. Biff had been told repeatedly by “God” that we were going to get stinking filthy rich in Japan–and of course we failed even to procure full-time employment; numerous people thought that “God” had told them that Biff and I were meant to be married and would have a great marriage and lots of kids together–and obviously the marriage disintegrated amid huge awful drama and there were no children at all. I’ve had a couple of male friends who thought they’d gotten visions of themselves married to me–which obviously didn’t materialize.
When I look back at it all I get angry at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing a god’s will. Opportunities wasted or mistaken; relationships begun or ended between people who had no business doing either; tons of decisions made on the stupidest grounds imaginable that turned out to be utterly disastrous. This Christian conceptualization of supernatural communication certainly has a lot of collateral damage strewing the ground in its wake, but still the religion’s leaders encourage this nonsensical thinking among their followers. One can see why. Even the most well-meaning of leaders stands to benefit from followers who don’t exactly apply a lot of critical thinking to their decision-making process, and the most evil-meaning of leaders stand to benefit most of all. The only question I’d have is whether it was done deliberately or whether the stripping of critical-thinking skills from Christians was just a happy by-product of the religion’s indoctrination process.
Back then, when I realized that I was scared to test things I thought were divine, of course I began testing them. I didn’t think my faith had anything to fear from an honest examination. Indeed, Christians are told to test things to prove or disprove them, from Doubting Thomas all the way to the Pauline letters–except when it comes to proving or disproving anything, in which case Christians are told to shut up and believe anyway because evidence is for people who don’t have enough faith and Christians shouldn’t care about it anyway. Meanwhile they leap onto any half-shred of semi-maybe-plausible fake “evidence” for this or that super-minor claim like white on rice (as in all of “Biblical Archaeology,” which arrives at half-baked conclusions entirely independently of any actual real archaeological methods to demonstrate preconceived doctrinal points) and ignore the bigger tests they could be making of their claims.
What are we to make of all of these failed visions and prophecies? Do we imagine that all these Christians are just hearing their god’s voice wrong? In the Bible, Jesus is supposed to have said that his followers will always know their master’s voice. But obviously quite often those followers get his voice totally wrong. Are they, therefore, not really his followers? Because if so, then every Christian alive is not really his follower–and if that’s the case then I can’t imagine that this religion is anything but the dickest of all dick moves on the part of its dick of a deity.
Or, of course, we could start skirting and edging closer and closer to the rim of the abyss itself, crane our necks to sneak a frightened peek into its depths, and start thinking that there’s no such thing as a divinely-granted vision or prophecy.
And that’s exactly what I ended up thinking.
It’s almost funny by now how many Christians I’ve run into who’ve thought they’re getting some kind of divine word about me as a person, what happened to make me deconvert, or what it’d take to make me reconvert. I’m serious, it happens all the time; when I was Christian we called this kind of cold reading a divine miracle and thought it was a god spoon-feeding us information to help witness to people. I’m a lot more experienced now, though, and forced to think either they’re egomaniacs or that their god is a twit.
Now when I hear a Christian claim to have had visions or prophecies from their “God,” the first thing I look for is whether or not there’s a fail condition built into the supposedly-divine statement. If there isn’t, I give it about as much credence as I give the horoscope in the newspaper. If there is, then I make a mental note to see whether or not it turns out to be true. It never does though.
I’m open to the idea of visions and prophecies, but it seems strange that in thousands of years, not a single one of these has turned out to be anything but rah-rah, vague could-be-anything announcements, after-the-fact hindsight, stuff anybody could guess, urban legends, or flat-out false. And with every single false prediction and false vision that comes and goes, the chance of any of them being supernatural in origin gets lower and lower. I think it’d be totally neat to be able to talk to another universe. I just don’t think anybody so far has figured out how to do it–if it’s possible at all.
And you know what? I think maybe it’s better that way.
I’d rather we be on our own than think that it’s this damned hard to get a straight answer out of a being who could supposedly help us but just doesn’t. Instead of wasting time trying to talk to this being, we could use our time a lot more constructively. Like learning to make a really good, smooth chocolate ganache. Or playing a video game. Or learning a language. Or looking at kitten pictures on Imgur. Or having sex with someone who likes us. There are literally millions of things we could do that use our limited time on this planet more effectively than wasting time worrying about how to communicate with supernatural entities we don’t even know for sure exist. If we ever do figure that out, I’ll revisit this opinion, but for now it seems like I’m on solid ground!
So this Thanksgiving week, let me kick this thing off by saying this:
I’m thankful that visions and prophecies aren’t really real because that makes humanity responsible for itself and able to use critical thinking to evaluate truth claims.