The Cult of “Before” Stories: From Witchcraft to Christ.

The Cult of “Before” Stories: From Witchcraft to Christ. November 20, 2013

Way back in the 1970s, a British Christian named Doreen Irvine wrote From Witchcraft to Christ. It was supposedly her “sensational true story of a woman rescued from Satan’s grasp by the power of God,” according to its tagline. And I’m sure you are already thinking about how accurate that tagline is.

Read the reviews of the book on Amazon. Yes, I do know that sometimes these reviews aren’t totally honest, but still. Take a look at how many 5-star reviews there are of it from Christians who think her story is “powerful” and inspirational, and who insist it changed their lives and gave them a lot of useful information about witchcraft. The book’s been in print for a while and got reprinted a few years ago, giving millions of Christians the opportunity to see this shocking and inspiring story of a woman who was possessed by 47 demons and how she converted from Satanic witchcraft and prostitution to become a minister and public speaker.

In many ways, her story–which I think slightly predates disgraced liar-for-Jesus Mike Warnke’s eerily similar one–is considered one of the bases for the Satanic Panic which gripped the world in the 80s and 90s–that time when everybody was convinced that there was this worldwide conspiracy of Satanist witches out to destroy children and kill people. And her story was a doozy. It hits all the points I’ve outlined in the past that should (but strangely doesn’t) raise red flags among audiences: after a requisite really horrific childhood, our helpless naïf is led into some sort of sexual excess and then from there into a hybrid Satanism/Wicca religion. Once there, there are numerous references to actual, honest-to-goodness spells and supernatural occurrences. There’ll be some atrocities committed, sure. Then there’s an incredible conversion, after which the ex-Satanic Witch is now ready to spread the word about what happened.

Naturally, no corroboration for this story appears to exist, but that doesn’t stop our new Christian convert from taking to airwaves, internet venues, and churches to spread the word about how horrific and scary Satanic Wicca (or is it Wiccan Satanism?) really is.

Too bad Ms. Irvine’s tale totally wasn’t true, and the information she gives is total balderdash. I know the Amazon reviewers and her many supporters really want this stuff to be true, but it just isn’t. It’s also too bad Christians have no way of being able to detect the bullshit being shoveled onto their plates.

"Magic Circle" by John William Water...
“Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: any of this actually being true.

Wild stories like the one Ms. Irvine tells feed into the Satanic scare that pervaded–and still pervades–the Christian world. It is a scare that shows few signs of slowing down. As I’ve noted in the past, I can easily see why Christians so eagerly lap up the vomit she and her cronies have spewed–and are still spewing–for them; these stories seem like proof positive that there really is a supernatural realm and that beings from it are trying to reach out to us somehow. And if demons exist, then that obviously means that angels–and a loving god–must as well. Demonic possession, especially, implies that Christianity simply must be real, or else how in the world could it happen at all? And so every Halloween, there are somber, wide-eyed, earnest warnings from Christians about the evils and dangers of witchcraft and Satanism–I heard some myself last month.

No matter how many times Wiccans and Satanists alike try to tell people that no, actually, the two faith systems don’t have a thing in common, Christians just don’t want to believe it. Nor do Christians tend to like hearing that there’s as little evidence of supernatural movement within those other religions as there are within their own. The truth would totally invalidate a lot of their urban legends, after all, and make a lot of their evangelists and speakers into liars. Also, there’s the matter of who they’ll listen to, isn’t it? Do they listen to GCBs like Ms. Irvine and her cohorts, who insist on these stories being true? Or do they listen to people actually involved in those faiths and those who actually do know something about it? Bear in mind that one of the myths going around in Christian-land is that even if Wiccans don’t realize they’re worshiping Satan, they really are–and there are plenty of supposed Christians claiming to have once been Wiccans spouting shameless lies and running around saying that yes, actually, they do all kinds of Satanic stuff (bonus: the second link describes a “psychic war” that just doubly confirms that the author of that tripe doesn’t know what he’s talking about). Christians all too easily can be made to see dissenters as liars and believe their own preposterous stories over the more down-to-earth accounts of those outside their religion–remember, most of them think that non-Christians can’t possibly know what morality is anyway, so they’re primed to believe that we all lie at the drop of a hat. Christians need these stories to be true. They need there to be demons. They need there to be Wiccans who actually worship Satan without realizing it (or perhaps fully realizing it, depending on which “ex-Wiccan” you talk to).

That there is no standard definition of a demon or how to recognize one, much less how to evict one from a human it is supposedly inhabiting, doesn’t matter. There are all sorts of charlatans out there who earn a living pretending to exorcise folks. And if I were a charlatan, I couldn’t even imagine a better scam to run than one in which a sufferer cannot identify or even see the object of the scam, nor one in which all effects–from initial symptoms of sickness to final act of the charade–are entirely subjective and placebo-oriented. Really, demons are a pretty safe bet for a scammer, aren’t they? And they’re also a totally safe bet for the person pretending to have them. Ms. Irvine may well believe she really, truly was inhabited by precisely and exactly 47 demons, of course, but one cannot deny that her claim has certainly garnered her not only a good living off the backs of gullible people, but also a fair amount of attention over the years.

There’s a much more human side to the Cult of “Before” Stories, too, though, and it is our simple human love of 180-degree turnarounds. Christians especially adore a dramatic conversion story. It may just be human nature to root for the underdog. And a prostitute tortured by dozens and dozens of demons seems like a real underdog, all right. Remember, the lower the sinner, the greater the grace, so the more impressive the conversion. It wouldn’t do any good if Ms. Irvine had told what’s probably a lot closer to the truth: “I grew up really poor and got into sex work and drugs and then converted.” That’s not the kind of rock-star story that gets a Christian to a public speaking career, any more than “I was lucky to be born the son of a super-uber-rich corporate bigwig and inherited everything I have today” sounds good coming from politicians wanting to stress their common-man roots. Such a commonplace conversion story also doesn’t get its teller a lot of attention, as I can tell y’all from personal experience; I remember–as do many other ex-Christians–how left out I felt when my churches concentrated only on the ultra-dramatic converts and ignored all the rest of us who weren’t willing to exaggerate and say anything to get attention and elite treatment.

But debunking the claims is only part of the solution. It’s not like dissenters don’t debunk claims. Skeptics do it all the time. The problem is that these debunks literally filter right out of the minds of the people who need to remember them the most. There is a reason why Christians tend to forget all the times someone turned out to be a liar or a claim turned out to be wrong. On that note, I still remember the first time I told a Christian on Facebook that something he was claiming was flat-out wrong. He was wrong. This wasn’t a difference of opinion. The claim was simply factually incorrect. It’d been debunked many years previously. I don’t remember what the claim was–some miracle he was convinced had happened–but I gave him ample sources and citations to back up what I was saying. You know me. I don’t assert something if I don’t feel like I’m on solid ground. But a couple of days later, he was right back on Facebook in another community page making the exact same claim. The same one! Not even a different but related claim! I was shocked. And in the same way, people have tried to set Ray Comfort, one of evangelicalism’s premier charlatans and liars, straight on science and biology; he nods and seems like he understands, and then is right back out there making the exact same claims that were debunked. There was a time when I’d be angry and hurt that all that effort went out the window, but by now I’ve gotten used to it and I understand why it happens. This tendency to forget contradictory information is a cognitive bias, part of confirmation bias–that tendency we have to remember stuff that fits in with our worldview, and maybe not remember stuff that doesn’t. And let’s face it: Christians run into a lot of stuff that doesn’t confirm their worldview.

That’s one reason, incidentally, why I think it’s instructive to keep a journal–a real, paper-and-pencil journal. Christians can keep track of prayer requests and make notes of religious claims and results in them, and see just how many of these requests got the desired answer or the religious claims were true versus the Christian’s memory. (I suggest this to Christians fairly often; one guy on a Facebook community actually claimed he’d kept one and that almost all of his prayers consistently were answered the way he had asked, but he later admitted, when I pressed him to reveal statistics from it, that he had been bald-faced lying to the group to make his religious claims sound more credible.) Our memories are terribly untrustworthy to begin with, but a journal makes it a lot harder to fool ourselves.

Put it all together and you get an environment that, like a warm damp bathroom floor, breeds deception and lies. The things that raise red flags for me and others out of the religion just prick Christians’ ears forward. And when we disprove the allegations of their latest guru, they’ll just ignore and forget the debunking and rush off to the next guru saying the same basic stuff because it confirms their vague ideas about Wicca and Satanism and what non-Christians are like, and these deceptions make their religion feel more real and credible than the truth ever could.

Because of the uniquely Christian need for validation for their supernatural claims and their love of huge dramatic turnaround stories, and because Christians are uniquely inculcated not to ask a lot of questions or demand proof of their people’s tall tales, though, they were primed and ready to accept Ms. Irvine’s story without questioning it like they should have.

If they had questioned it, they would have very rapidly run into one major issue with her tale: her conflation of Satanism and Wicca. That alone is a simple, straightforward fact that can easily be seen to be untrue. For a woman who claimed she was involved at the highest levels of Wicca–er, Satanism–er, whatever it was, Ms. Irvine certainly doesn’t seem to know much about either Wicca or Satanism, and she has some really strong claims about her abilities while she was involved with whatever it was. Here is one reviewer’s summary of what went down:

She could levitate several feet off the ground, read minds, render herself invisible, manifest apports, and kill birds in midflight just by looking at them.

At some point, the chief Satanist told her she would be a contender to become Queen of the Black Witches. She would compete against six other witches at a midnight ceremony held on the moor at Dartmoor.

As always, the witches were naked. Just before the ceremony commenced, a local pastor showed up with two reporters, having somehow caught wind that witches would be convening that night. The witches, having nowhere to hide, went into a panic until Doreen assured them she could make everyone invisible. They joined hands, and were enveloped in a swirling green mist that obscured them from the three men.

So… levitation, killing birds in mid-flight, turning folks invisible with a swirling green mist? Yeah, most real Wiccans would love to be able to do some of that (most wouldn’t want to kill birds for no reason though–what harm you do returns to you threefold and all that). Most Wiccans would be similarly astonished that there is such a thing as a “Queen of the Black Witches.” Must be all that Satanism they’re not channeling. But do you see what I mean here about how Christians just accept these accounts for what they “prove” about the supernatural? If Ms. Irvine can manifest a swirling green mist that makes people invisible, then surely their god can do miracles too! And so it goes on and on my friends, like a song that never ends. (And where is the testimony of this minister who found out there’d be witches at Dartmoor having a nakie-nakie witch-test? Have we ever heard from him or the reporters he talked into accompanying him? Why didn’t he also bring some police, considering what he thought he was going into? And do we have any photos or evidence of her abilities to kill birds or make people invisible? Maybe I’m just being demanding here.)

Another reviewer takes apart Ms. Irvine’s silly list of “rules” that Satanists supposedly must follow–which sound to me exactly like a list that a sheltered evangelical Christian wanting to impress people would make up to sound like what she thinks Satanists must be like, the same as Ms. Irvine did with Wicca. How terribly unsurprising. We could go over it ourselves here, but why re-invent the wheel when it’s already been done so beautifully? Suffice to say that her “before” story has captured the imaginations of many people, as it was designed to do, and as so many other Christians’ dramatic “testimonies” are designed to do.

Also equally unsurprising that with dreck like this under her belt, she’s managed to eke out a living telling these fish stories to Christians. She’s been published and re-printed. She goes around to churches and has some sort of ministry. Somehow she’s managed to keep this all together when anybody with sense could look at her story and know that it is almost entirely fabricated by an imaginative and desperately needy and unstable person.

So let us remember Ms. Irvine today for her contributions to toxic Christian culture. Let us remember her for scaring the pants off people to get attention and money from the gullible. Let us remember her for helping spark the Satanic Panic that unnecessarily tortured so many people and caused so many false accusations.

But one thing we will not remember her for is for telling the truth about her past life before she became a Christian.

By the way, speaking of people getting rich off of Christian gullibility, Joyce Meyer’s going to be sitting in the agony seat next time around. She pinged my radar again–what can I say? Obviously it was a sign. Join me next time for how you can tell if someone’s just using you to line the pockets of her sensible slacks.

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