Gateway Beliefs and Demon Hands

Gateway Beliefs and Demon Hands December 1, 2014

Most of us have, as children, done or said stuff that made our parents drag out their child psychology books and parenting manuals to try to make some sense out of their progeny. Here’s one of those events from my own childhood, why it happened, and how it got resolved–and what it meant for me when I left Christianity.

It all began very innocently. It’s one of my earliest memories: walking home from kindergarten with a classmate frenemy (we didn’t have the term then, but the concept is eternal, let’s face it). I went to school in Honolulu under the watchful eye of Diamond Head, and my mom or my babysitter walked me there and back again every school day. But whoever was walking me home that day was lagging a bit behind, which allowed this paraphrased conversation to occur:

“Yes! It’s a demon hand. It hides under your bed and then it grabs you.” She said this with an air of conspiratorial terror.

“No way. I don’t believe you.” Or rather, I didn’t want to believe her. But I still felt the beginnings of fear spark inside me as I listened.

She painted quite a florid picture: “No, it totally happens. My aunt said it does. So you have to keep everything on the bed and if any part of you hangs off the edge of the bed at all it’ll just reach up and grab whatever’s there.”

“What does it do once it gets you?”

She gave me this significant look. “You don’t want to know.”

In fairness, there’d probably been a horror movie released around that time (the early-to-mid-1970s) about a disembodied, murderous hand. My acquaintance had likely seen it or an advertisement for it and had drawn some startling conclusions from it. But I didn’t know that.

There wasn’t a way for a demon hand to hide anywhere under my pallet at home, but at my babysitter’ house I took naps on a proper bed, and sometimes my mom let me sleep in her bed. It took some time for anybody to notice the quirk that resulted from my discovery of demon hands. Finally, when one of them noticed, someone had to think of a good way to ask a terrified child why she was sleeping on top of the covers on a made-up bed and resisting naps and bedtime with far more vehemence than even was normal for her.

I was far too embarrassed to say why I was so scared of sleeping under covers, but somehow I’d gotten the idea lodged in my head that doing this would let me keep better track of where my arms and legs were and keep me safer.

At that point my mom had a problem. I’d been raised with a certain number of supernatural beliefs. Though my mom wasn’t a very firm churchgoer at this point in my family’s life, she still had allowed me to be taught–and had taught me herself–that supernatural things existed that couldn’t be proven or disproven with observation or facts. So there really wasn’t any good way to tell her frightened child that the demon hand didn’t exist.

I asked my mom how she knew it didn’t exist. She replied that nobody’d ever seen one. That reply went nowhere fast. Nobody’d ever seen Santa, or the Easter Bunny, or Jesus or our very god, so what difference did that make? She said that nobody’d ever had a real encounter with it, which was just as ineffective. Nobody had ever had a real encounter with those other things, either. In my world, saints and demons and angels and gods not only existed but made real pests of themselves with people–so why couldn’t a demon hand do the same thing?

She herself believed in the supernatural and in all those Christian myths, so she didn’t really have a good way to disprove the existence of the demon hand to me. Though she expressed her total mystification about my fear, she lacked the ability to convince me it was a foolish fear to have.

This childish terror was simply going to have to subside on its own, and thankfully it did. After a few months of uncomfortable, way-too-sparse sleep, my problem sorted itself out through sheer exhaustion. After a few nights of accidentally falling asleep in totally “unsafe” positions and coming out of it alive, I began to relax little by little. But the episode left an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life. Over time, I began to see–as I disentangled myself from Christianity–how belief in this supernatural stuff had led me to buy into equally ludicrous ideas because I literally had no idea how to tell if a claim was true or false. Because I bought into religion, which couldn’t be tested or falsified, I had a lot more trouble applying those principles to other claims.

Most Christians–indeed most people–have a way of compartmentalizing their beliefs so they apply those principles of healthy skepticism to some things, but not all things. I didn’t have that ability. I had to learn that skill from scratch in my mid-20s when I deconverted. When I was Christian, and even for a short while after deconverting, I fell for fad diets, financial scams, and I don’t even want to consider how many conspiracy theories (like Whitewater, the ur-Benghazi scandal of that day).

Because I believed in one big thing (Christianity’s various claims) that totally could not be verified, that put me at a huge risk to buy into other things that had to be taken on similar faith, things that were contradicted by direct observation and all available credible evidence, things that could only be supported by fancy arguments and intricate diagrams.

When I began to notice my own tendency to buy into unverified scams and conspiracies, I began noticing that my peers did the same thing. Most of my church’s women were involved in some kind of multi-level direct-marketing scam “business”. Most of my church’s men were way into Rapture predictions or Jack Chick-style anti-Catholic or Satanic conspiracies. When one of these scams or conspiracies got finally debunked to the point that even those who bought into it had to admit it’d been debunked–like a Rapture prediction that failed to materialize on the proper date, or an MLM that finally failed to the point where even the person doing it had to admit it was a failure, the believer would just leap to the next unverified, untestable belief without missing a single beat. Sometimes the people doing this didn’t even notice they were doing it.

I know part of that tendency to go in for conspiracies and scams comes from the Christian tendency to see huge, dark forces working behind the scenes to manipulate politics and world (and small scale) events. When someone is primed to believe that demons are everywhere pulling strings, it can be really easy to start believing in other conspiracies. It can be very flattering to believe that someone is important enough to merit that kind of attention from powerful entities and forces. But without the crippling influence of supernatural belief, it’s a lot harder for one of those ideas to lodge in someone’s head.

That’s one reason why I think that people often deconvert but still immediately end up smack-dab in other unprovable belief systems or heading into conspiracy theories. Without examining how we know what is true and what is false, without arming ourselves with those critical thinking skills, we remain at risk of falling right back into something untrue just because it sounds really impressive. Enlightenment doesn’t come to us automatically just because we reject religion’s overreach. We’ve also got to learn the skills to discern objective truth.

What finally jolted me out of that gullibility was a short time I spent after deconversion as an honest-to-goodness AIDS denier. I’m ashamed to even think I went in for that now, but at the time it just sounded so convincing. I saw a magazine article about an AIDS denier who was raising her HIV-positive kids without drugs. This was almost before the internet, so I had no way to research the story, but it had a doctor in it talking about how we were creating a disease that didn’t even exist. I didn’t know then that sometimes doctors are cranks spewing wacky ideas or that fringe movements like AIDS denial rely heavily on what amounts to quacks and junk-science purveyors.

Thankfully, I slowly did get enough real information from real doctors that I found my way out of that mess after just a few months; because I never got involved with its community or shared my delusion with anybody before it ended, I don’t think I hurt anybody before I figured myself out. But the path I took to get out of that delusion was painful and rocky; it showed me that I really didn’t have the faintest idea how to weigh claims, which was quite a sobering and embarrassing realization. That’s when I began to learn critical thinking skills in earnest and to apply those skills to claims I heard.

It’s a big world, and there’s a lot in it jostling for our attention, belief, and buy-in. There are a lot of folks out there who want to sell us something–to get money out of us, or even just get validation and affirmation from us as fellow believers in whatever they believe. It’s always been important to know how to tell what’s true and what isn’t, but when someone’s escaping from the harm that religion does, that skill becomes doubly important to keep us from falling into some equally-harmful trap of the mind.

English: View of the Waikiki Beach from the ri...
English: View of the Waikiki Beach from the rim of the Diamond Head crater. Picture taken at Diamond Head State Monument, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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