A Pandemic of Delusional Thinking

A Pandemic of Delusional Thinking March 26, 2020

Editor’s Note: Will ravages of the Covid-19 virus convince more people to give up on god and become atheists? Maybe, but I bet it will bring some people closer to the big guy too, because so often people like to think that being in good with power will help them steer clear of trouble.  It can happen in real life, so why not in religion? /Linda LaScola, Editor

By David Madison

Christianity’s debt to magical imagination

When did belief in God begin to lose its footing? Realities on Planet Earth can deliver devastating blows—perhaps none greater that the Black Plague that killed one-quarter to one-third of the population between India and England; each death was grotesque, horrific. Barbara Tuchman made this observation—one of her ringing classic statements—in her 1978 book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God, or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.

“Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in the fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.” (p. 129, emphasis added)

Note the essence of two sentences in italics:

  • Minds open to admit questions
  • The possibility of change in the fixed order

The church has always specialized in keeping minds closed: “Here’s our dogma, just believe it.” Elaborate creeds evolved, to be recited every Sunday: “This is what to believe.” And the church championed the fixed order: “God’s in his heaven, with humanity yearning to be reconciled with him.”

But plagues and wars, earthquakes and hurricanes haven’t gone away, and, we can be sure, each new occurrence tests the faith: “I believe, help my unbelief”—because the latter is so tempting. Christians have been coached forever to humbly accept disasters: God is Mysterious. Anything, any ploy, to keep God intact. Even if God is mysterious and terrible, that’s better than being stuck in an impersonal, indifferent universe, with no hope of eternal life.

That’s at the core of the enormous emotional investment in Christianity. Just this week, one parishioner was alarmed that Mass had been cancelled at her local church, and posted this on social media:

“Please reopen Mass! Please at least allow those who want it the opportunity to receive Holy Communion! I’d rather die of a virus having just received the flesh of our Lord than stay home in fear. Have faith and trust in the Lord! The church has never closed Mass, not even during terrible plagues of the past! Please, please let us be able to receive His Holy Flesh!”

What better example that miracles are a lifeline for the faithful? If belief in God begins to lose its footing, miracles provide evidence that God is still there after all, even with viruses swirling around us. The Miracle of the Mass—ordinary wafers becoming His Holy Flesh—is a good example of a Catholic-manufactured miracle. And the list goes on forever.

How to account for this aspect of belief? An in-depth look is provided by Dr. Valerie Tarico in her essay, “Why Do Christians Believe in Miracles?” in the new Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles.
If you’re looking for something to binge on during these days of self-isolation, this new anthology should be at the top of your list. Peter Boghossian called it “…exceptional. It will be THE book on the subject for decades to come.” Of course, then move on to the previous four anthologies.

Also check out Dr. Tarico’s website, to see her extraordinary collection of essays. Her two books are Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth

Wondrous deeds performed by gods have been a stock motif in religions forever, as Tarico points out:

“Christian belief in miracles is a subset of Christianity’s magical worldview, which is part of humanity’s broader tendency to believe in magic.” (p. 203)

Tarico notes that this deeply embedded mindset has deep roots:

“Handed-down religious beliefs are remarkably powerful and change-resistant, and the Christian belief in miracles dates all the way back to the beginnings of Jesus worship.” (p. 202)

“What would have been truly miraculous would have been the emergence of Christian texts and traditions that didn’t include magical thinking. That would have been a real wonder.” (p. 203)

Though we lament the common failure of Christians to read the Bible—say, spend as much time studying God’s Word as they do watching movies—it has had an impact nonetheless on how believers size up the world. It’s damn hard for scientific thinking to get a foothold when the revered holy book preserves so much superstition; Tarico provides a list:

“Divination, astrology and fortunetelling, potions, conjuring, numerology, transmutation or alchemy, spellcasting and incantations, curses, healings, charms and talismans…each of these can be found in the Bible—including in stories about people and events that have God’s approval.” (p. 205)

In a quick three-page survey at the outset of the essay, she provides examples of some of these, e.g., potions that cause abortions (Numbers 5:12-31); King Saul’s visit to a witch to conjure the spirit of the dead Samuel (I Samuel 28:11-15); the killer curses uttered by Peter in Acts 5. But then Tarico zeroes in on cherished gospel fables, the miracle healings done by Jesus:

“Like many other kinds of magic in the Bible, these would have fit patterns familiar at the time. From the standpoint of modern trinitarian theology in which Jesus is an avatar of God almighty, he could have eradicated an entire category of malaise like leprosy or blindness. Instead, the Jesus of the gospel writers performs healings on people in front of him. Often, he cures with words or touch.” (p. 207)

And the devout Catholic mentioned earlier, desperate for His Holy Flesh, illustrates the fascination with alchemy: “Turning one substance into another is another common form of magic, which Jesus performs by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). The Roman Catholic Church will later claim that the ritual of Eucharist turns wine and bread into flesh and blood.” (pp. 207-208)

But there’s more to this than the percolation of Bible stories into our thinking.

“What are the habits of mind,” Tarico wonders, “that make us so prone not only to create magical stories but to believe the ones that have been handed down by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them all the way back into the shadowy mists of pre-history?” (p. 209)

For insights on this, I recommend paying close attention especially to two sections of the Tarico essay, “The Human Mind Is Wired for Magical Thinking,” and “Seven Kinds of Magical Thinking That Even Skeptics Can’t Escape.” (pp. 212-220)

We got here through natural selection, but there were downsides: the hardwiring wasn’t all good:

“Because kinds of thinking that help us survive and thrive—like pattern matching, seeking cause-and-effect relationships, and attending to unusual events—also incline us to specific glitches in rationality. Understanding human information processing makes it easier to understand why so many people see miracles and other kinds of magic in the world around us.” (pp. 212-213, emphasis added)

Specific glitches in rationality. And Christianity has exploited this factor, enabling it to fool people with the idea that a piece of bread—centuries after Jesus died—can be transformed into His Holy Flesh. That requires a glitch, as does believing that God has engineered the face of Jesus on a piece of toast—or the survival of a Bible in a deadly house fire. “See, God is real!”

The glitches in rationality include the disinclination to reason critically and adopt scientific thinking. Tarico includes in these failings “poor statistical intuition and reasoning.”

“We humans are terrible at predicting the likelihood of rare events, which make common occurrences seem miraculous. Most events that people experience as ‘miraculous’ are predictably common given real-world base rates and population sizes, but that is not how they seem…glitches like these lay the foundation for seemingly supernatural and paranormal experiences.” (p. 215)

I once encountered a Christian woman who assured me that a certain prayer was especially powerful. So a certain combination of words can grab God’s attention? He can be so easily manipulated by humans? Just how could we test that? I wondered. But she comes from a religion in which a god created the universe by speaking… “God said…”

“Word magic is big in Christianity,” Tarico points out. “…throughout the Bible words affect the physical world, calling down fire and food from heaven, bringing healing, pregnancy, wealth and death.” (p. 218)

But curious people—attuned to the scientific method instead of ancient superstition—know better. But it is tough to penetrate Christian confidence, as Tarico notes:

“Disappointing research on prayer has done little to shake Christian belief in the power of words to invoke or channel supernatural power. The largest prayer study to date spanned three years, six medical centers and thousands of prayers at a cost of 2.5 million dollars, only to find that heart attack patients who were prayed for did no better than control subjects. God, it would appear, operates at the margins of statistical significance if at all.” (p. 218)

Although the study was published in the Los Angeles Times, Christians don’t go hunting on the Internet for research that disconfirms cherished beliefs. Why not settle for assurances offered by Adam Houge in his book, The 7 Most Powerful Prayers That Will Change Your Life Forever? Again, how could we test that—but do the faithful even care?

Christianity owes a great debt to magical imagination, and Tarico identifies the source of its success:

“ …our brains are remarkably good at getting us to suspend disbelief. Even when we watch or read fantasy, we merely go along with the story, only occasionally being triggered by something that reminds us the whole thing is impossible. Unless we are actively erecting barriers against magical thinking—as when researchers apply the scientific method—magic win.” (p. 220)

Christianity wouldn’t last long if people turned their backs on the rubbish peddled by Adam Houge; if they developed skills at erecting barriers against magical thinking. Which is unlikely to happen:

“People who believe in miracles often say that the events in question are so unlikely that the only possible explanation must be that something supernatural happened. Improbability serves as evidence that miraculous events—miraculous in the sense of surprisingly and wonderful—must be miracles—meaning cosmic wizardry of some sort. They are wrong.” (p. 224)

“…in the hazy realm of possibility and probability, believers continue to mistake probable for improbable, and improbable for miraculous, and miraculous for evidence of the biblical God.” (p. 225)

But again, what is the fundamental motivation? The routine disasters that humans face—plagues and wars, earthquakes and hurricanes—erode confidence that God is paying attention. Miracles are a way of keeping God on duty:

“We desperately want to believe that our lives have some transcendent meaning. We want to believe that every coincidence hints at some current of supernatural power rippling just beneath the surface of space-time and that this power occasionally—miraculously—breaks through.” (p. 226)

Miracle mind-games remain a primary prop for Christian belief—and for keeping God alive. But his absence has been confirmed: National Day of Prayer failed to stop the Coronavirus Pandemic. Why did the Prayer Enthusiasts do it if they didn’t expect it to work? The pandemic of religious delusion continues as well.

**Editor’s Question to non-believing former clergy** How do you think you would have explained the coronavirus to yourself or others when you were a believer?


David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.  This post is reprinted with permission from the Debunking Christianity Blog.

>>>>>Photo Credits:  By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58664618 ; By Brams – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60404604

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  • Carstonio

    Attributing the virus reaction to a human tendency toward magical thinking is too simplistic. Within Christianity there’s a fairly clear division, where the groups that are politically conservative are taking the pandemic far less seriously. That probably comes mostly from loyalty to Trump specifically and authoritarian thinking generally. Their emotional reaction is to tell the government “you can’t make me.”

  • mason lane

    }Editor’s Question to non-believing former clergy** How do you think you would have explained the coronavirus to yourself or others when you were a believer?”

    Oh, definitely punishment for so many Americans not accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior (both titles are necessary) and so many Christians being “back sliders”. Clearly another sign of the End Times and coming Apocalypse. God is calling us to another great revival. Repent and save our souls and the nation.


  • Keo Capestany

    It is true that during medieval pandemics the church never quit celebrating masses which were better attended than ever and, of course, propagated the diseases more.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Good reflection which I appreciate. I have one question which I’ve wanted to ask on this site for some time and this may be it, although it is somewhat unrelated to your main thesis (with which I agree). It has to do with this sentence:
    “The church has always specialized in keeping minds closed: “Here’s our dogma, just believe it.” I would agree with this if you would just change one word, to read “some churches.” I guess it is your (and many on this site) over-generalize from some churches to the church. I’m not sure there is anything such as “THE church.” There are many churches which do and many which don’t at least in my experience. I was raised in a local moderate/liberal church which didn’t try to keep my mind closed or compel me to believe any dogma. Unfortunately many people are. Maybe I was lucky, but if so I think I’ve got lots of company. May a little less generalization would generate as much good conversation as we already have here. (an afterthought: wonder if the word “always” might be an over-generalization as well. Onward!

  • 24601Ind

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • ctcss

    Thank you! I am more than willing to accept that some churches or religions do this, but there is no way that all do! (Mine certainly doesn’t work along those lines.)

    And in the 14th century, ignorance was everywhere, not just in religious circles. And sadly, one of the problems in Christendom for quite some time then (and even later) was the sad fact that religion had been joined to the government, and was part of the power structure of the time. And those who hold the tillers of power are not quick to give it up, but rather, make sure that they continue to hold onto it tightly. So, yeah, people were told what to think and how to behave. Not exactly a surprise for such a societal structure.

    Look, there are deeper thinkers in every era, but far, far too many in every era who do not think deeply about the pathway that they follow at all, religious or therwise. One of my pet observations about religious thought is that in the Bible, there are far more instances of “so and so begat so and so”, as contrasted with the very few instances of “so and so walked with God”. Religion, like any pursuit to be approached in a non-trivial manner, requires a lot of thought. And when I read the gospels, I do not see Jesus asking his followers to accept things blindly. Rather, he appeared to be demanding that they think about what they currently thought about God, as opposed to the ideas about God that he was trying to present to them. He wanted them to reason through things. Repent, after all, means to re-think, to reconsider.

    Personally, I think such a request is well worth giving consideration to.

    Just my thoughts.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Good ideas. Glad you are a student of the historical Jesus.

  • mason lane

    how about “most” churches … other than UU what examples among the denominations can be cited?

  • Bob Robinson

    Thanks for your insights here. Perhaps its not so much an empty dogma that moves people to believe, but rather simply love. The first epidemics were moments where Christians showed that love through sacrificial care. And it saved people’s lives, both physically and spiritually! https://www.patheos.com/blogs/reintegrate/2020/03/14/what-christians-should-and-should-not-do-during-covid-19/

  • In response to Linda LaScola’s question, as a former Adventist my church would have viewed the corona virus as a sign of prophecy that Jesus was returning soon. (Indeed, recent posts in social media by current Adventists indicate that many members are quite thrilled about this pandemic.) I find this kind of thinking to be disturbingly fascinating. Whether it’s a belief in miracles or the fulfillment of prophecy one core reason for this thinking seems is that believers are seeking validation for their beliefs. So, despite that many of the faithful have for perhaps decades as Christians, the validation that Christianity is actually effective in real life is non-existent. Hence, believers need to experience supernatural interventions in order to keep the faith. The disturbing component is that religion causes people (such as in these horrifying times) to feel giddy that they are in the midst of a pandemic, or vindicated that sinners are experiencing God’s wrath because they’ve been preaching about it for 2000+ years. And I’m not sure if anyone has noticed, but given the current administrations’ interest in promoting fake news, us skeptics can be optimistic that mainstream media has been harping on the points that only facts, data, reason, and rational thought is going to get us through this.

  • I’m inspired as well that so many people with differing beliefs are sacrificing to help those in need. This is happening not only in America, but in other countries as well.

  • rationalobservations?

    When did the power of religIonism
    begin its sharp and accelerating decline across all the developed world?
    Probably in the 1950’s with the advent of improved education and the explosion in scientific and technical discoveries that have seen the sum total of all human knowledge grow by more than the total if all knowledge up to that time.

    Fewer than 6% of Europeans and fewer than 18% of Americans can be found in a church on any given Sunday and empty redundant churches litter the villages, towns and city streets of the now predominantly secular, free, peaceful, well educated democracies of the developed western world.

    The world appears to be rapidly applying education and free secular democracy as the antidote to the poison of religion. We shall surely more rapidly find the antidote to the less pernicious poison of the CoVid-19 virus.

  • alwayspuzzled

    It is clear that a lot of people are dictated to by the needs of their psychological comfort level rather than by reason. Interestingly, this is true for both Christian fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists.

    An aside – My grocery store has had toilet paper two days in a row. This is proof that God does perform miracles.

  • Linda LaScola

    I notice that my groceries stores DON’T have toilet paper – but there is plenty of fresh fruit on sale.

  • Linda LaScola

    Sorry, but not surprised to hear about adventist’s reactions. After all, this would be validating for them.

  • alwayspuzzled

    “fresh fruit on sale”

    Does a strange looking guy offer the fruit along with big promises?

  • mason lane

    Surely the Corona 19 virus will cause millions to see just how impotent their pathetic fairy tale prayers are to a non-existent God and that the idea of a benevolent God is an ancient political hoax devised for and still used as a manipulative hoax. If there was a God, based on what happens every day on planet Earth, it is αυτοφανής that God has to be a sadistic psychopath.


  • Mark Rutledge

    Well…I have lots of friends both men and women who are now or have pastored many “mainline” (or now perhaps old line) congregations; and do not fit into the keeping minds closed and just believe our dogma description. I think those churches have a great mix of how they approach these things. That description does not fit all.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    Wearing a lizard skin suit?

  • alwayspuzzled

    That is him. If LaScola ignored him and moved on, she has saved humanity from a terrible fate.