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 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.
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.
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.