A Plea for Christian Common Sense and Healthy Skepticism: An Antidote to Gullibility and Hysteria

A Plea for Christian Common Sense and Healthy Skepticism: An Antidote to Gullibility and Hysteria July 17, 2012

A Plea for Christian Common Sense and Healthy Skepticism: An Antidote to Gullibility and Hysteria

Some things just seem obvious to me. I know that in our postmodern age it’s no longer considered appropriate to appeal to common sense and what should be “obvious to all.” But I can’t help it. I’ve always thought some things should just be givens, beyond doubt or question. One fairly obvious one (to me, anyway) is that other minds exist. Philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have used this “given” to defend Reformed epistemology—that some beliefs are basic and do not need justification (even if they can be justified).

I’ve always thought some things I’ve heard about simply can’t be true or at least shouldn’t be believed. If there’s some truth to them, it’s not apparent in the claims themselves and, lacking more evidence than the claims, they seem, at least on their faces, absurd.

It’s about time I gave an example, isn’t it? I have always doubted, do not believe, stories of alien abduction. I don’t doubt that some people see things “in the sky” (or occasionally on the ground) that have no known explanation. But that people get abducted by aliens (often more than once!) and taken into their UFOs and experimented on (etc.) just doesn’t seem possible to me. And yet, there are apparently thousands of people in the world who make such claims—often under hypnosis.

Here’s another one from my own experience growing up in and being part of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement with its emphasis on healing. When I was a child there were Pentecostal evangelists going around praying for people’s teeth to be filled with gold. There were people in our church who claimed their teeth had been filled with gold by God when an evangelist prayed for them. I remember thinking as a child “Why would God heal a tooth with gold? Why wouldn’t God simply heal the tooth by restoring its enamel (or other natural materials found in healthy teeth)?”

Then, when I was a young adult, certain charismatic healing evangelists began specializing in “leg lengthening.” I immediately doubted it. Suddenly there were thousands of people going to these evangelists’ healing revivals and having one of their legs lengthened to match the other one. I attended one such healing “service” and observed a man’s leg allegedly being lengthened by God in answer to the evangelists’ prayers. (I say “evangelists” plural because two of the most famous leg-lengthening charismatic healing evangelists were a husband and wife team from Houston, Texas.) I watched and saw nothing happen. But the man, the evangelists and people around loudly proclaimed that the man’s short leg actually “grew out” longer than the other leg! It’s a miracle! Then they had to pray for God to shorten it to match the normal leg.

I never believed in “leg lengthening ministry.” Can God heal a short leg to make it normal? I don’t doubt it. Does he give that gift to certain healing evangelists? Are there thousands of people being healed in that manner in charismatic healing revivals? I don’t believe it. Never have.

This is one of the reasons I left the Pentecostal-charismatic branch of Christianity: For daring to express doubts about such things I was labeled a skeptic and therefore unspiritual and ostracized. Not physically ostracized, but labeled and ridiculed and told I needed to get right with God. I felt I had no choice but to find a saner spiritual home even though I still believed and believe in God’s healing power. (I believe I was healed of rheumatic fever as a child. Although I had serious carditis and an “impressive heart murmur” and the doctors predicted I would have to have heart valve surgery because of it, I have no symptoms of that. The elders of our church anointed me with oil and prayed for my healing and within a week I was released from bed rest. My heart murmur was gone.)

So, I somewhat reluctantly left the spiritual milieu of my childhood and youth and entered a more “mainstream” form of Christianity. But without ever ceasing to believe in the present reality of divine healing and the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I have long been of the opinion that Christians need to be led by their spiritual leaders into a default attitude of healthy skepticism regarding wild claims of supernatural occurrences. I think non-Christians also need to be educated to exercise a certain amount of common sense skepticism about things that seem blatantly doubtful such as alien abductions.

So, having left behind that spiritual context (with a brief return to it while teaching at a major charismatic university where my belief in the need for healthy skepticism was reinforced), I thought I was free of being labeled something just for expressing skepticism about claims that seemed obviously doubtful—against all common sense.

I was wrong.

Soon after beginning to teach my annual course on America’s Cults and New Religions (“Unsafe Sects”) at a leading evangelical liberal arts college I was called on by the local press and churches to comment on and speak about “cults.” This was the era of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple and the explosion of cults and new religions. For about a decade (1980s into the 1990s) Christians (and others) seemed obsessed with the issue of “cults among us.” Suddenly people were seeing cults everywhere. “Deprogramming” became a respectable treatment for relatives and friends allegedly caught up in cults. I fought against that and was put down by advocates of deprogramming as a dupe of the cultists.

A part of this explosion of interest in cults (and, by the way, I don’t deny the reality of cults) was hysteria about Satanism. Suddenly Satanism was everywhere. I heard students and others say things like “Pumpkin Center, Wisconsin is the center of Satanism in America!” (I made up “Pumpkin Center, Wisconsin” as a cipher for small towns across middle America many of which were being labeled that.) I never denied the reality of Satanism but I did believe it was not as prevalent as many people thought. My own research led me to believe that there was no huge, intergenerational Satanic conspiracy that had infiltrated small town U.S.A. and the U.S. government. The claims being made about Satanism were simply unbelievable from the start. And no one could come up with evidence for it.

There was a very popular book about Satanism by an evangelical Christian who claimed he had become a high priest of a Satanic cult and that Satanism was rampant in America. My students were reading the book and passing it around. When I taught my course the subject of that book always came up. When I spoke in churches about cults I was constantly being pressed to comment on it. I read the book and didn’t believe a word of it. Never did. It had the “ring” of untruth. My internal nonsense detector rang loudly as I read it. I told people about my disbelief in the man and his story and his claims and was called a skeptic (in a bad sense) and unspiritual. It was, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again. Fortunately for me, the book was exposed as false later. But not one of those people who called me unspiritual for disbelieving it ever came back to tell me “You were right and I was wrong.”

One day a major daily newspaper in our city called me and wanted me to comment on the hysteria about Satanism. I told them (and this was quoted in their article a few days later) that, for the most part, Satanism is teenagers reading paperback books on the occult and making up “Satanism” as a form of protest against conformity and mainstream society. It was a phase they would grow out of. I admitted, of course, that Satanist “churches” existed, but they were small and widely scattered and no real threat to society.

Within days after that article appeared with my comment, I received an anonymous letter. It was from a woman, using a fake name and with no return address, telling me I was wrong. She claimed to know firsthand about intergenerational Satanism. Her claims were simply unbelievable, but her letter nevertheless piqued my curiosity. I wanted to talk to her, but there was no way to make contact with her.

You have to realize, and some of you will remember this, that this was a time when thousands of people were claiming to have been raised in Satanic homes and cults. I actually had a colleague (not a professor but a staff person of the college) who told me he was raised in such a Satanic cult. He called it “The Power” and claimed his parents and their friends kidnapped children and sacrificed them. He had broken all contact with his family. At first I was inclined to believe his story without expanding it to be a significant phenomenon. But then he claimed members of this international, intergenerational cult were invading his home when he was at work and leaving signals that he and his family were in danger (because he was telling people about it). Several of us (his colleagues) interviewed him and listened very attentively and openly to what he had to say. But gradually his story began to fray at the edges and we began to believe he was deluded. He seemed really to believe his story, but it didn’t add up. At one point he told us his family, who were at the center of this cult, lived next door to the author of major Christian best sellers about the occult—a person whose name everyone would know. The implication was that this Christian author was also somehow involved. We began to lose interest in the man and his stories and he gradually faded away. I don’t know whatever became of him. I never did deny his story; I simply chose to suspend belief or disbelief and wait for further evidence. I have never found evidence for the existence of that group.

Now, lest anyone misunderstand me: I am not denying the existence of Satanism or the occult. I am questioning (and always did question) the extent of it and some of the most outlandish claims being made. If you didn’t live through that “Satanism hysteria” among evangelicals (and actually society at large) during the 1980s you can’t understand what it was like. Keep reading.

The woman who wrote that letter to me used the name “Meredith.” She said it was not her real name because she didn’t want me to be able to trace her. Her letter claimed that she was raised in an evangelical Christian church in a small town not far away (I knew the town) that was really a cover for a Satanic cult and that she had been ritually abused by people in the church during their frequent Satanic ceremonies. I set the letter aside and, for the most part, forgot about it. (Not totally, of course, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I ignored it.)

One day, a few months later, I wrote a check at the grocery store and the cashier looked at my check and then up at me and said “I’m Meredith.” She was a somewhat overweight, not very attractive woman in her mid-thirties. She had that look about her of a troubled person. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. I immediately asked if we could meet and talk. She said yes, with her counselor’s permission. She said she’d contact me.

A few days later she invited me to meet her at a restaurant. For some reason she wanted to meet in a very public place. So I met her at a Perkins restaurant near my home and the grocery store. I got there first and then she arrived with her fiftyish male counselor. To make a long story short: She revealed to me that under counseling she had recovered memories of being ritually abused as a child—by members of her church. I tried to suspend disbelief which is clearly what she wanted. But then she continued to tell me how, until recently, she had no memories of any of these events. Only under intense counseling by this man (an unlicensed, independent “pastoral counselor”) had she “recovered” these memories.

My skepticism began to kick in (which I did not show) as she continued her story. Gradually, over several months, she “remembered” more and more about the events. By the end, she had come to “remember” that the pastor and his wife, all the deacons and their wives, and even her parents were present at these Satanic ceremonies and participated in sexually, ritually abusing her and other children. Then she dropped the bomb. The whole town, including the mayor and every civic leader and business owner—hundreds of people—were involved in this intergenerational Satanic cult that encompassed the whole town and even the whole county.

“Meredith” and her counselor admitted that there is no evidence for any of her story. And they went so far as to claim that lack of evidence is evidence when it comes to Satanism. Read that again—I heard it from others, too—lack of evidence is evidence when it comes to Satanism. I felt like I was in a bizarro world.

Then the “counselor” began to tell me that the United States is controlled by a secret Satanic cult that was brought to America by “pilgrims” on the Mayflower. According to him (told with a perfectly straight face and in all seriousness) many members of congress are members of this secret Satanic organization.

Now you might be thinking these people were unique and absolutely insane. Well, let me tell you, I recognized these claims. They were published in articles and books by numerous “experts” on the occult and Satanism.

At some point during “Meredith’s” story (I think when she mentioned the mayor) and certainly when the “counselor” mentioned the Mayflower, my skepticism overcame me. I simply stopped believing the whole thing. However, I went away thinking that “Meredith” did believe it. I didn’t know what to make of the “counselor” and he never did tell me his name.

Around the same time, hysteria about child sexual abuse broke out in a suburb on the opposite side of the metropolitan area. It had nothing geographically to do with “Meredith’s” story. Nor was it connected to a church. The newspapers were full of it almost daily for months and it stretched into years. It made national news. A local district attorney was claiming that numerous parents in a small town were involved in a child sex abuse ring. I’ll skip the details and just say that eventually the vast majority of the claims she made were found false. Children were being pressured by social workers to tell on their parents with the promise they could go home once they told. The district attorney was eventually discredited as was her entire case with the exception of a very small number of people.

I never for a moment believed the extent or depth of the abuse as it was being reported. It was simply beyond belief. There was never any evidence of it other than the reports of the children. I knew children invented stories. But we were reading in the newspaper that “children don’t make things like this up.” As it turned out, they sometimes do—especially when coached.

After the “Meredith” incident, and in the context of mass hysteria about Satanic ritual abuse and sexual abuse of children by their parents and day care workers, a woman student came to my office to talk with me about her academic problems. She blamed them on panic attacks and anxiety. I was very sympathetic and willing to work with her, but suggested she see a psychologist or at least one of the school’s counselors. She said she was under a therapist’s care. Then she opened up (not at my prompting) and began to pour out a story about childhood sexual abuse.

According to this nice but deeply troubled young student, she was sexually abused by her grandfather when she was just a toddler. And the abuse was coming back to haunt her. I had begun to hear of the phenomenon of “recovered memories,” so I gently asked her if she remembered the abuse. Surprisingly, she said no. She had no actual memories of it. I asked her how she knew about it. She said “My body tells me.” That was the first time I heard that. I asked her when she first started to know about the abuse and how and she said “in therapy.” Again, to make a long story short, her therapist had led her to believe she was sexually abused as a child even though she had no memory of it. It was the “only explanation” for certain symptoms she was experiencing. What symptoms? She never told me, but certainly at least her anxiety and panic attacks. Why her grandfather? She said she felt something when she was around him, but she couldn’t be more specific. I didn’t push the subject very far.

I did not believe her story. I believed she believed it. That’s all. But I was not convinced her grandfather sexually abused her. And I began to get really worried about this whole phenomenon of “recovered memories”—especially when they weren’t memories at all but just “feelings.”

So I did what any academic should do. I went to a colleague who had a Ph.D. in psychology and taught psychology. I happened to know he had done some research in this area of sexual abuse and recovered memories. I asked him about it and expressed some skepticism. My colleague berated me for doubting any woman’s story of sexual abuse. “Women don’t make these things up.” He told me at least half of all women were sexually abused as children and that it accounted for most of women’s problems with depression and anxiety. He even suggested that my being male accounted for my skepticism.

I asked my colleague about recovered memories and he adamantly affirmed them. It was possible, he insisted, to repress memories entirely and then recover them. And it was possible, he said, to “know” about being sexually abused as a child just from what your body was telling you (with no actual memories).

This kind of thing was rampant then. All over the country therapists and counselors and “experts” in “healing of the memories” were holding workshops and seminars and doing one-on-one and group counseling with the result that thousands upon thousands of women came to believe they had been sexually abused by their parents (usually fathers but sometimes grandfathers or uncles) without having any abiding memory of it. In many cases the sexual abuse allegedly happened when they were infants.

I never believed any of this—in terms of the extent of the problem or the reliability of “recovered memories.” And for that I was punished by colleagues and others who bought into it lock, stock and barrel. It went against all common sense.

Note that I am not denying the reality of sex abuse of children. What I am denying is that recovered memories of it, especially under intense therapy with encouragement to “remember it” as the only possible cause of anxiety and depression, are reliable. A whole industry of this popped up. It had a secular branch (rooted largely in extreme feminism) and a religious branch. Skeptics such as I were told we were simply ignorant if not unspiritual for questioning any of it.

We had close friends whose one year old daughter was experiencing blood in her urine. Naturally, they took her immediately to their pediatrician. She was out of the office, so her male colleague examined the child. Upon the briefest examination of her genital area he pronounced that she was being sexually abused by someone. She had, he declared, lacerations that could only come from intentional abuse. No evidence of rape, but evidence of some kind of abuse. The parents told him their child scratched at her genitals with her fingers whenever the diapers came off. He said this was not something she could have done to herself.

Needless to say, our friends were frightened out of their minds. The husband called their attorney who immediately suggested that one of them was, indeed, sexually abusing the daughter because “it’s such a common occurrence.” He told them to talk about it, admit it, and get help. They both knew this was wrong. So they called a doctor who belonged to their church and asked if he would see the child at his home. (It was after office hours.) He agreed. They took her to him and he sat with her in a room where the parents could watch from another room. He took off her diaper. She immediately reached down and began vigorously scratching her genital area. The doctor observed her for about thirty minutes. Finally he examined her genital area and said it was “obvious” she had a rash there caused by soap in her bathwater. It was, he said, a very common malady and would be cleared up by changing to a less harsh soap and using a cream. That’s what happened. The second doctor’s report was that the “lacerations” were obviously caused by the child’s fingernails.

The parents went through a hellish month or two waiting for the Child Protective Services people to show up and take their daughter away. Such was happening frequently then, on the slightest grounds if any. But, almost miraculously, nothing happened. But they were quite angry at the pediatrician. He was clearly caught up in the hysteria about child sexual abuse.

I suspect many innocent people lost their children and even went to prison during that long, intense hysteria about rampant sexual abuse of children. I know many families were destroyed over it—based on “recovered memories”—always by daughters, never by sons.

That’s one of the reasons I doubted the phenomenon from the beginning. Boys experience sexual abuse, too. But one never heard about men experiencing “recovered memories” of childhood sexual abuse. I have talked to numerous young men (mostly students) who were sexually abused and have always remembered it. True, they repressed the memories for years, but they didn’t forget the abuse. They simply chose to try not to think about it or act on it. Why would only females have “lost” and “recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse? And are “recovered memories” reliable at all?

The other day I received my copy of the current issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (a scholarly journal I edited during the 1990s) (XLI:4, Summer, 2012). I have an article in it about Pietism and Postmodernism. But what caught my eye on the cover table of contents was an article entitled “Christian Communities and ‘Recovered Memories’ of Abuse” by Robert J. Priest and Esther E. Cordill. Priest is Professor of Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Cordill practices clinical psychology.

We all say “I hate to say ‘I told you so,” but, in fact, we all love it when we can say that. After reading that article I wanted to shout to my critics “I told you so!” (Back then, in the 1980s and 1990s I expressed my doubts about “recovered memories” of childhood sexual abuse to many people most of whom told me I was wrong to have my doubts.)

Priest and Cordill report on social scientific research they and others have conducted with specific cases of alleged lost and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse in Christian communities (e.g., a missionary agency). The claims made by the women are horrendous and they are made against specific men whose lives were largely destroyed by the accusations. As it turns out, however, in some of the cases the claimed sexual abuse could not have happened when and where the women claim. In other cases the men volunteered to take polygraph tests administered by neutral, well-recognized expert polygraph examiners. Three men accused of sexually abusing three women when they were little children all denied the claims and were exonerated (so far as that is possible) by their polygraph examinations. The chances of three people accused of the same thing by three accusers testing innocent by polygraph is less than five percent. Normally, at least one of them would be detected as deceptive. None were.

The upshot of the article is that in many cases women have simply been seduced into “remembering” childhood sexual abuse under extreme but subtle pressure by therapists, many of whom specialize in this. The article gives detailed accounts of how this is done.

I realize this article is not widely available. It probably won’t be posted on the internet for some time. But the journal is provided to every faculty member at each of approximately fifty Christian liberal arts colleges and universities. So there are plenty of them floating around. And you can purchase an individual copy by e-mailing the managing editor Todd Steen at steen@hope.edu. Individual copies are $8. I suspect that perhaps Priest’s and Cordill’s research can be found elsewhere as well. But I’m not aware of it.

I started out here talking about how I was criticized by fellow Pentecostal and charismatic Christians for expressing doubts about divine healing of teeth with gold fillings and divine leg lengthening. I thought I had escaped such nonsense by moving (for other reasons as well) to a more mainstream evangelical context. I was wrong. It seems there are always incredible beliefs of some kind swirling around in our evangelical Christian subculture. The Satanism hysteria of the 1980s is a good example. Another example is from the 1990s. A “scientist” reported finding hell by drilling down below the earth’s crust and hearing screams and sensing smoke. Many Christians of my acquaintance jumped to believe this hoax. It was exposed as a complete and conscious hoax, but some people persisted in believing it even after the perpetrator admitted it was a hoax created to expose the gullibility of conservative Christians.

What made doubting the claims of Satanic ritual abuse of children and “recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse by women so difficult and distressing was that I appeared to many people to be denying the victimization of victims. And yet, those people did not stop to think that the falsely accused are also victims. To be accused of sexual abuse of children can easily destroy a person’s life and in many cases to be accused is to be guilty. An accused person usually cannot prove his or her innocence, so, out of fear of further wounding the victims, people jump to believe them not realizing they are contributing to the destruction of a possibly innocent person’s life.

It has always seemed to me that “lost and recovered memories” ought to be doubted. I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m just saying without other evidence accusations made based on such claims (especially given how the memories are “recovered”) ought to be set aside until something more concrete comes to light. People shouldn’t be “exposed,” fired, ostracized, shamed and their families destroyed based solely on “recovered memories.”

In almost every decade there’s some hysteria sweeping through the evangelical Christian subculture of America. Pastors and teachers need to teach people to be critical thinkers and discerning, exercising healthy skepticism about things that seem absurd even from within a Christian worldview (like God filling teeth with gold!).

What’s our current hysteria? How should it be handled?

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