The Evangelist’s Funnel

Through some odd stroke of coincidence, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I encountered more than the usual amount of religious nuttiness. I’ve already written about the woman who gets divine communications in God’s actual handwriting. There were also Scientologists handing out pamphlets on a street corner, advertising something called the “Purification Rundown”:

One or two of these questions, like the one about drug flashbacks, would only apply to people with genuine psychological problems. But the rest of them are drawn so broadly, it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t apply to any normal human being. If you’ve ever felt drowsy in the middle of the day or taken an afternoon nap, then you’ve “felt fatigued now and then for no apparent reason”. If you’ve ever been bored at a class, a lecture, a job or a social event, you’d probably have to admit that you sometimes feel “wooden and lifeless”. If you’ve ever been in a peevish mood, you may be “irritable without reason or cause”. If you ever daydream or let your attention wander, you’ll sometimes get a feeling of being “spaced out”.

But even if you’re some kind of emotionless android who never has any changing moods, the Scientologists still have a card to play: if you answered yes to 3 “or less” of these questions – which presumably includes answering zero – you still “could have” some level of unspecified “accumulated toxins”. Which, of course, the Scientologists will be happy to help remove, along with the contents of your wallet.

This is a time-tested strategy of religious evangelists of all kinds: a seemingly open-ended script for conversation which is designed to ensure that you end up in the same place no matter where you begin. I call this tactic “the evangelist’s funnel”.

Evangelical Christianity has used this strategy to great effect by asking people if they’ve ever done anything wrong in their entire lives, and if they answer yes, are told that they’re hellbound unless they convert. And even if you’ve never hurt anyone, lied or stolen, evangelicalism falls back on the old reliable standard of thoughtcrime. Have you ever been angry at a friend? Have you ever experienced even a fleeting moment of lust in your heart? Have you ever coveted something that wasn’t yours? Then you deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, sinner! It’s not clear how we’re supposed to avoid doing these things, since they’re entirely unconscious drives (it would be like getting blamed for yawning or blinking). Nor is it clear why God gave us those drives if he doesn’t like them; nor why he cares what thoughts we have even if we never act on them. You’re not supposed to ask those questions, you’re just supposed to fall on your knees and praise Jesus.

The most effective response to the evangelist’s funnel, rather than engaging with it directly, is to point out the implicit premises that it tries to conceal. Ask up front, “Is there any answer I could give that wouldn’t result in you advising me to join your religion?” If they’re honest, they’ll have to say no, which gives you an opening to highlight the essential dishonesty of the whole exercise. They’re not trying to engage you in a conversation, they’re trying to maneuver you into a trap. Once that’s established, you can ask what independent evidence exists for the effectiveness of their beliefs at curing the problem they claim to be able to solve.

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

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I also like how questions 1, 4, and 7 all essentially ask the same question. If you get one of them you get them all.
    I have also heard that if you take one of their stress tests the result is always that you need Scientology to help you, no matter what the results are. Makes the whole test pretty pointless, though it adds some fake legitimacy to the whole thing.

  • Snoof

    As has been said many, many times before, this is classic snake-oil salesmanship. First you convince people they’re sick, then you sell them the “cure”.

    What does seem unusual is how blatant it is. Most questionnaires of that flavour usually have something like “Checked 0-2 boxes? Congratulations, you’re a healthy, functioning human being/moral upstanding person/stylish and sophisticated!” They also word the questions in such a way that nobody could ever truthfully check that few boxes, but at least it’s slightly more subtle than the above.

  • kagerato

    Describing drug flashbacks as “genuine psychological problems” seems both too strong and somewhat odd, to be honest. What counts as a drug flashback, anyway? If it’s only “psychological” rather than physiological, then even memory recall of former drug use may qualify.

    The loose use of terms bothers me, since I think what drug flashbacks properly refer to is semi-permanent modification of chemical pathways in the brain. It’s certainly not something which should be so casually mixed in with the rest of the items on the list there.

    On another note, the phrase “Evangelist’s Funnel” is interesting. However, I think that it must be regarded as a multi-phase process. Pamphlets like this are just the lure; they’re fishing for suckers to put into the funnel. The true whirlpool happens once they’ve caught you; they start siphoning assets, locking up your time and loyalty to the organization, and ultimately engaging in a brainwashing campaign with selective propaganda. People often exhibit the gambler’s fallacy with regards to religions (and especially cults); it’s really difficult to escape when you believe that all the costs you’ve sunk so far are certainly going to lead to some huge gain in the near future.

  • Jay

    While walking past one of their centers, I was asked if I wanted to see a brief video about how to improve my outlook on life. I told the trainee (while her boss lurked behind her) that yes, I was interested. She was beaming while I then asked her if at the end of the video would they tell me how much it would cost me before they told me about Zenu. She pretended to not know what I meant so I told her that she was either a lying con artist or stupid. She and her boss looked shocked and didn’t know what to say. I just walked away.

  • Brock

    I checked this list against the DSM-IV list of symptoms for depression, and found a marked similarity, allowing for rephrasing some of them. Not to take away from your thesis, which I agree with, I believe that this pamphlet is also markedly directed towards people suffering from depression, whether clinicla or situational, who would be willing to follow the directions of anyone promising them a quick fix. Professsionally I work with addicts, and I see people all the time who are in desperate circumstances fall prey to anyone who can promise them a way out. I can see this pamphlet being very successful with attracting depressed persons, and who cares whether it works, as long as it brings in the converts and their wallets.

  • Keith

    The Evangelist’s Funnel forms the basis of the coercive technique used by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron in “Way of the Master”.

    (See for a Christian blogger’s review of the method.)

  • Michael

    The Scientologists’ and Evangelicals’ methods are rigged to begin with. Although I noted with amusement that when the Scientologists set up a booth at the annual fair where I live, my low-income friend was soon turned away-no money, they don’t want you? I believe Nietzsche said that original sin was the worst idea that anyone came up with (may have been someone else). It is thought crime as you said-even lusting in your heart or feeling anger is the equivalent of adultery and murder. “Be perfect, therefore, as your father is perfect” indeed. They make no bones about having impossible standards-that’s part of the racket. It reminds me of the title of a book, Convicted in the Womb. Original sin is collective guilt, a tribal concept also made clear in the Bible: “The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon his sons unto the seventh generation.” Except it’s even worse than that, since at least here the eighth generation might escape. According to their theology, all humans are forever guilty of their original ancestors’ sin. We inherit that guilt in our blood. Thinking of it makes me utterly repulsed. And they say this is the “God of love.” *Shudder*

  • Kogo

    *Evangelical Christianity has used this strategy to great effect by asking people if they’ve ever done anything wrong in their entire lives…*

    The usual lead-in version of that I’ve heard is “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

    I now prefer to answer, “No, not particularly.”

    And so programmed are they for people to be the exact same kind of Reverse-Turingminds as they are, that they’re usually floored. Or they think I’ve misheard them, “Really?”

    And I very specifically answer, “Yes. I am a very bad person. Probably best you weren’t alone with me for long. There’s no telling what I might do to you.”

    Sort of the same way I answer Lubavitchers’ “Are you Jewish?” with an straightforwardly sphinxian, “Not recently.”

  • kennypo65

    They do the same shit in AA. Their questionnaire implies that if you ever had a drink in your life and enjoyed it, you were an alcoholic. It is a scam. If you have a problem with alcohol, stop drinking, I did, and everything else was, well everything else, but I was sober enough to deal with it.

  • John

    Not that it makes it any better, but I actually did fail the scientology stress test. He gave me a clean bill of health. Maybe I looked too reasonable?

    I am now determined to go back and pass. I’ve been practicing my gullible look!

  • Valhar2000

    John: You will probably have more success if you practice your I-have-a-lot-of-disposable-income look. If you can get the look down, I’ll bet they will tell you that 75% of your body is composed of toxins that must be purged, for a modest fee.