William Dembski on Faith Healers

Most of you have probably heard the name of William Dembski, one of the prominent advocates of intelligent-design creationism. Like all ID advocates, Dembski claims vehemently that his work is scientific and not in any way motivated by his religious beliefs, which is why he’s currently a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But never mind that; today, somewhat surprisingly, I come to praise Dembski rather than bury him. That’s because I’ve come across this very interesting essay of his about his family’s experience visiting a faith healer.

You may not have known that Dembski has a severely autistic son – as he describes it, “largely nonverbal, still not fully toilet trained, serious developmental delays” – who was 7 years old at the time he wrote this essay. This, of course, is not a fate I would wish on anyone, regardless of their political or religious views. And while most cases of autism can be treated to an extent with intensive therapy, the paucity of good options and the daily struggles would be enough to drive any parent to despair and frustration. Thus, it’s probably not surprising that Dembski felt he had little to lose when his fellow evangelical Christians recommended he attend an “impartation service” held in July 2008 by the faith healer Todd Bentley.

As Dembski tells it, the hyping and manipulation started early. Though the service began at 7 PM (in a basketball arena north of Dallas), the organizers urged them to arrive by 3 PM to be sure of getting a seat, citing expected overflow crowds:

At 6:30, after sitting for two hours, the arena was about three-quarters full. One of the organizers then announced that traffic was backed up for miles around Denton and that several thousand were trying to get into the meeting, most of whom would have to be turned away. This was sheer hype. A significant block of seats (at least 20 percent) were cordoned off and never used throughout the whole night. We could have arrived anytime and still gotten seats.

The service began at 7 with two hours (!) of “music ministry” (terrible, repetitive music, according to Dembski). Bentley himself finally took the stage at 9 PM, and spent most of the time talking about the astonishing miracles he claims to have performed. Dembski shows a welcome measure of skepticism toward these extraordinary claims in a passage that made me laugh:

Bentley told stories of remarkable healings. In fact, he claims that in his ministry 30 people have now been raised from the dead. Are these stories credible? A common pattern in his accounts of healing was an absence of specificity. Bentley claims that one man, unembalmed, had been dead for 48 hours and was in a coffin. When the family gathered around at a funeral home, the man knocked from inside the coffin to be let out.

But what are the specifics? Who was this man? What’s his name? Where’s the death certificate? And why not parade the man at Bentley’s meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone’s ministry, you can be sure I’ll put in a guest appearance.

Bentley claimed that he would “soon go public with the evidence” of these dramatic healings. This, presumably, is the same sense of “soon” used by Christian evangelicals who claim that Jesus’ 2000-year-overdue second coming is sure to happen any day now.

When the “healings” finally began, I’m sure it will surprise no one to hear that Bentley’s focus was mainly on milking the gullible and the desperate for as much money as possible.

After preaching, Bentley took the offering. During the offering he asked “How much anointing do you want to receive?” Thus he linked the blessing we should receive with the amount of money we gave.

After a “general prayer for mass healing”, Bentley then indicated that people who needed the most help should come forward to receive special prayer. Dembski’s wife attempted to take their autistic son down to the altar, but was repeatedly prevented by the ushers:

Over an hour later my son with autism was still not able to get to the main floor for prayer. Ushers twice prevented that from happening. They noted that he was not in a wheelchair. Wheelchair cases clearly had priority — presumably they provided better opportunities for the cameras, which filmed everything.

…Our son was refused prayer twice because he didn’t look the part, and he was told to wait still longer for a prayer that would never have been offered. And even those who looked the part seemed to look no better after Bentley’s prayer — the exodus from the arena of people bound in wheelchairs was poignant.

My son’s situation was not unique — a man with bone cancer and his wife traveled a long distance, were likewise refused prayer, and left in tears.

After waiting for over an hour, the Dembski family gave up and left. He describes the experience as “an education… about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family” – a welcome conclusion from a person who’s spent so much of his career encouraging belief in superstition and religious pseudoscience.

Todd Bentley isn’t the only faith-healing charlatan out there. There are plenty of others working this highly profitable circuit – I recall my brush in 2006 with Jaerock Lee, a Korean evangelist whose fliers made similarly grandiose, but detail-free, claims about curing blindness, cancer, paralysis and even raising the dead. Interestingly, as I noted in my post at the time, William Dembski endorsed that con man. One wonders if this experience has done anything to disillusion him about faith healers in general.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    And yet, unless Dembski is terribly stupid, he has to realize that he’s basically doing the same thing as Bentley. He’s using arguments with vague details and lack of specificity to try and claim that he’s scientifically proving that god created us and evolution is bunk. He preys on the ignorance of others in order to sell books and enjoy his place in the creationist movement. How is he not using religion in order to exploit others for his own personal gain?

  • Ric

    I’m echoing OMGF, who beat me to the punch. I won’t praise Dembski, who also uses religion to exploit people. He must not have gotten much of “an education… about how easily religion can be abused,” or else he only cares about when it’s used to exploit his own family, as opposed to the educational system of the U.S.

  • KShep

    Yeah, count me among the unimpressed. I used to think Dembski was smarter than the average creationist, but the fact that he’s apparently not going to learn the correct lesson from his faith “healing” experience just cements it for me.

    I do feel bad for his son, however. The boy needs a good dad, not some bible thumping charlatan.

  • http://pennofpaine.blogspot.com/ penn

    It’s good to know that William Dembski can be convinced to change his mind when new evidence arises. I still doubt that this will transfer to his professional life of lying for Jesus though.

    I don’t really understand why people take any of these obvious huckster healers seriously. If anyone with a semblance of morality had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead they wouldn’t hold revivals and ask for donations. They would drive from hospital to hospital curing people and immense fame and wealth would then be absolutely unavoidable. No one with the powers claimed by these people would ever have to beg for money.

  • Rick M

    After reading Dembski’s article, I immediately thought of Sarah Braasch’s recent post here, Stigmata Scars, on religious indoctrination abuse.

    Dembski and his wife brought another son, also 7, and a daughter, age unstated, to the healing service. They were in the arena for over seven hours. They were subjected to classic brainwashing techniques -

    After prompting the audience to perform ritualistic acts of worship (stand up, raise your hands, say after me …), he passed the baton to a young woman singer and her backup band. The sound system was terrible — sounds were loud and distorted. The music was repetitive in the extreme. In almost two hours of this “music ministry,” only a handful of songs were sung, and many of them seemed to consist of only one or two phrases.

    How were these children prepared for the healing service? Were they made to feel responsible for the success of their brother’s healing? After seven hours of hype, prayer, chanting, etc., did they feel like they failed their brother? Dembski has no idea –

    Neither my wife nor I regret going. It was an education. Our kids are resilient. But the ride home raised a question. We found ourselves avoiding talking about the event until the children fell asleep. Then, as they drifted off in the early morning, we talked in hushed tones about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family. What do we tell our children? I’m still working on that one.

    “We found ourselves avoiding talking about the event until the children fell asleep.” Sure, subject your kids to this travesty and then deny them an explanation, leaving them to fill in the blanks! What an asshole parent!

    Perhaps we can hope they weren’t asleep (resiliently terrified?) in the back of the van and heard their parent’s concern over religious abuse and exploitation.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    OMGF & Ric, you’re surely aware that it will be easier for Dembski to see the specks in his neighbor’s eyes, no matter the log in his own. A step in the right direction, no matter how small, is still a step in the right direction. I’m sure that the Dembskis love their kids, they just don’t know what to do because the fairy tale has so thoroughly infiltrated their minds that they can’t see past it. This could still go either way, though: it could be the first of many small steps on the road to recovery for Bill, or it could be a precursor to a backslide for a man who is too far gone to back out of the investment he’s already made.

    It’s not a deconversion story, true; but it could be the start of one.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    D,
    Considering how long ago this happened and the fact that Dembski is still fleecing his flock…

  • Rick M

    From Dembski’s article –

    As faith healers go, Bentley is unconventional. Exhibiting black shirt, baggy jeans, tattoos and piercings, he prefers grunge to Gucci. But his appearance wasn’t a problem for my wife or me. God in the Bible used many unconventional people.

    Unconventional indeed! According to wikipedia-

    He engaged in criminal gang activities which resulted in a 1991 conviction for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old British Columbia boy.

  • gistgrant

    I am a freelance camerman in South Africa, where these faith healing circuses are huge in the poor town ships. Over the years I have covered many of them for television.

    The formula is pretty much the same as described by Dembski. I was never convinced once by any of it! People shaking and falling down and puking, bah! All I saw was mass hysteria.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ OMGF (#7): Look, I still think Dembski is wrong and dumb and bad, so I’m with you if that’s what you’re aiming at. What I’m saying, though, is that Dembski thinks he’s actually right, and the religious mind is very good at compartmentalizing information and rationalizing cognitive dissonance as spiritual warfare. Consider that I might actually think that a salt stain is a real message from a nonexistent deity: sure, while I might be correct that there’s no deity writing me love letters on the pavement, I’d sure as Hell be stupid for thinking that this is convincing proof of it. But anyone who pointed it out to me could say that I’m a fraud while still holding the same basic position (that God doesn’t exist), and what’s more, that person could also have flawed reasoning of her own.

    The thing of it is, for me, that Dembski’s brain is the victim of thousands of years of religious selection and indoctrination. These ideas are old and powerful for reasons independent of the fact that they’re completely unsupported by reality – they’re very attractive and difficult to excise. While snap epiphanies make for great stories, real life is often more complicated than that. Besides, do you really think that the kind of person who could change his life over a snap epiphany is going to be generally rational anyway? Dembski’s still just a garden variety homo sapiens, and these sorts of things take time.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Interestingly, I noted the most recent comment, a little less than a year ago, in the post about Jaerock Lee, is from someone who goes by the name of Elijah who claims that Lee cured a man in Peru of HIV. I wonder if it is the same Elijah who has been commenting in the Rebutting Reasonable Faith post.

  • Quidam

    Dembski parades his gullibility as if it is a virtue, yet the gullible bear some responsibility for the con-artists – of which Dembski is one.

    His complaint is not that faith healing and prayer doesn’t work, just that Bentley isn’t the real deal – he wasn’t Holy enough, didn’t pray hard enough. His woo wasn’t real woo.

    Dembski makes a comfortable living fleecing his own flock of the gullible. It’s ironic that he doesn’t like being on the receiving end but it won’t stop him denouncing and undermining the only knowledge that could understand his son’s condition.

    No doubt when another convincing shaman comes to town, Dembski will trot out his poor child before him and them parade his sad face before us once more, complaining about how his gullibility was once more abused.

    Gullibility is not a virtue and should not be respected, especially in someone who makes a living exploiting the gullibility of others.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    As D mentioned above, one can only hope that this,

    No doubt when another convincing shaman comes to town, Dembski will trot out his poor child before him and them parade his sad face before us once more, complaining about how his gullibility was once more abused.

    repeated often enough, leads to his deprogramming.

  • Caiphen

    Knowing how highly society esteems pastors, priests, etc, it’s no wonder there are so many people who fall for their crap.

    Think about this, if an average John Doe were to molest a child we’d all applaude if that scumbag were to go to gaol. If a minister were to do it, what happens? His congregation would say it never happened and provide him support.

    It seems society is setting itself up to be taken advantage of by these thieves.

  • John Nernoff

    Dembsky: “Bentley told stories of remarkable healings. In fact, he claims that in his ministry 30 people have now been raised from the dead. Are these stories credible? A common pattern in his accounts of healing was an absence of specificity. Bentley claims that one man, unembalmed, had been dead for 48 hours and was in a coffin. When the family gathered around at a funeral home, the man knocked from inside the coffin to be let out.
    But what are the specifics? Who was this man? What’s his name? Where’s the death certificate? And why not parade the man at Bentley’s meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone’s ministry, you can be sure I’ll put in a guest appearance.”

    N: What a coincidence! When I was reading the New Testament years ago I had similar questions about the resurrection of Jesus:

    “What were the specifics?” Yes, we have some, but what a mass of contradictions and discrepancies in the gospels. And almost nothing from Paul (the tentmaker).

    “Who was this man? What’s his name?” Yes. Was “Jesus” properly identified? Fingerprints, DNA? Where was the tomb located exactly so that we could find it today. Yes, I know technology wasn’t available then, but, hmm, “God” could create a whole universe from scratch, so what’s the excuse? Faith was it? Why not have faith in Bentley?

    “Where’s the death certificate?” Exactly. Where’s the medical report and the physical findings that diagnosed an actual death? Lack of pulse, breathing, reflexes? Rigor mortis? Early decomposition? I find nothing in the accounts.

    “And why not parade the man at Bentley’s meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone’s ministry, you can be sure I’ll put in a guest appearance.” Yes, Jesus was allegedly paraded around and ascended to a permanent vacation. How do we know he was “Jesus”? Somebody thought he was the gardener! Not very convincing. And he DID say he would return in the lifetime of his audience, didn’t he?

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/introducing-one-year-skeptic.html Erika

    I just have add to the general shock at the fact that these faith healers have any legitimacy.

  • Siamang

    My question is, why would Dembski write this?

    He hides this weakness of religion from his children, but why not his readers?

    But anyway, I don’t expect this to change his mind about his line of work.

    Millions of religious believers around the world know that there are con artists working the faith healing scam.

    It doesn’t cause them to look at their own beliefs one whit.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I see this as an effort to establish legitimacy. He’s saying, “See, I recognize and deride and decry the scam artists and the charlatans, even the ones plying my same trade. Since I am calling them out, I am distinguishing myself from them. I am the real deal. They are not.”

    I wish it had given him more pause for thought than it seems to have done.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It doesn’t cause them to look at their own beliefs one whit.

    I beg to differ. Being forced to watch Oral Roberts as a child ["There's a sweet little lady in Pascagoula with astigmatism. Open your eyes, Mother, you can see!"]
    did wonders for raising the questions inside until several years later, when they flooded full-spate into atheism.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I agree that we shouldn’t hold out hope for Dembski to deconvert as a result of this experience, even if he acquired some minor cognitive dissonance from it. For someone who’s as deeply invested in the evangelical movement as he is, it would be almost inconceivable to give up his identity and life’s work, and far too easy to rationalize away one minor failure.

    If there’s anything he deserves credit for, however, it’s that he’s exposed his readers to a dash of critical thinking in a place where they’re not otherwise likely to encounter it. It’s exceedingly rare that a Christian news site provides any skepticism whatsoever about the claims of a faith healer or other preacher, regardless of how obvious a charlatan they are. More often, their reaction is to circle the wagons whenever one of their own is challenged. If this essay gets anyone thinking about how similar the claims of all faith healers are and how little evidence there is to support any of them, so much the better.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Oh, I’m not holding my breath. But I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy. =]

  • Joffan

    I don’t expect any change of heart in Dembski – but I hope he will leave this article available for future use. That would allow us a great resource for future discussions of faith healing with Christians – look, Dembski thinks it’s a con!

  • KShep

    I see this as an effort to establish legitimacy. He’s saying, “See, I recognize and deride and decry the scam artists and the charlatans, even the ones plying my same trade. Since I am calling them out, I am distinguishing myself from them. I am the real deal. They are not.”

    Good point, Sarah. I’m going to assume you are saying that he’s trying to differentiate himself from faith healers so he can legitimize himself among his own followers. But do you think he’s really that diabolical? I mean, that puts him in Pat Robertson company. Perhaps he’s trying to legitimize himself to himself, which would just add him to the list of self-deluded morons.

    So maybe there’s hope for him. A reformed con artists’ last victim is usually himself, right?

    I’m not holding my breath, though.

  • http://www.alanwaldron.com Hrd2Imagin

    You’d think that the people who realize they’ve been duped would band together to take down these frauds. But as Sam Harris likes to say, it’s the moderates who enable the radicals within religious groups.

    Believers don’t like negative press about their beliefs, so they’ll tolerate any kind of radicals (from faith healers to child molesting priests) who abuse their beliefs just so the public image stays good.

    I doubt Dembski will learn anything from this, pot odds suggest that he won’t fold. He’s too invested in religion to get out now. He’ll rationalize it any way possible to not have to face the ugly truth.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X