Confirmation Bias and Angelic Meddling in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #130, Ch. 17)

Confirmation Bias and Angelic Meddling in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #130, Ch. 17) February 24, 2020

It’s Monday again! Time for our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! And that means we’re plunging into This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti’s inadvertent 1986 anti-marketing campaign for fundagelicalism. In this installment, we discover how his tribe thinks angels create coincidences–and how they accidentally destroy their entire religion’s credibility with that conceptualization. Oopsie! Let’s dive in!

lourdes grotto
(Kamil Szumotalski.) Lourdes Grotto. A miracle claim can either be a coincidence or a flat-out series of contemptible and obvious lies.

(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)

BRIDE OF… the Overview.

You can find the full chapter overview here. I’ve timestamped it for you.

In this chapter’s first scene, which we covered in full last week, we meet Susan Jacobson. She’s the gothy secretary character working for the fat businessman. Initially, we ran into her in the very first chapter–Bernice the Cute and Brave Young Reporter Lass caught Susan and her boss meeting at the town carnival with Alf Brummel (the corrupt chief of police), Oliver Young (the evil ecumenical pastor of the biggest church in town), and Juleen Langstrat (the weird witchy psychology professor). At the time, Bernice had no idea who the goth and the businessman were, but she knew enough about the meeting’s other participants to get very curious about exactly what they were doing there.

A few chapters later, we ran into Susan again–this time riding in a plush limousine and pretending to make a note to find something for her boss.

Well, Susan turns out to be a major player in the plot. As it turns out, Bernice’s sister (who passed away in her dorm at Ashton’s college a while ago under very suspicious circumstances) was Susan’s roommate at college. So Bernice, who really wants to figure out what happened to her sister, super-wants to get in touch with Susan.

And as it happens, the angels faffing about in Ashton also want Bernice to get in touch with Susan.

Susan’s Great Danger.

See, Susan Jacobson works for this businessman guy. But he’s not just a businessman! He’s actually one of the big leaders of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (Or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW).

OMG! He meditates, y’all! He plays with daggers in his office!

He’s just GOT to be the real-deal evil!

He’s got this huge compound of secretarial workers near Ashton. They’re pulling chocks to move somewhere else; we don’t know why or where. Susan wants to escape from the compound, which is apparently actually a big weird cult, but for some reason she can’t.

(I don’t think Frank Peretti himself even knows why Susan can’t just leave. He just punts to mystery and skips over that subject. He did the same thing regarding how the forensic accountant got his hands on Ashton College’s accounting ledgers.)

So Susan photocopies some stuff from a little book her boss wants. Then she puts the book into its mailing box again and re-tapes it up. The address label’s return address “include[s] the name J. Langstrat” and its intended recipient is one “Alexander M. Kaseph.”

Here’s how bad a writer Frank Peretti is: I thought initially that Kaseph was her boss’ superior. Consequently, I had no idea why the package was even in her possession. Now I think Kaseph is actually Susan’s boss. So Langstrat sent the boss this book. Somehow Susan knew what the package contained and intercepted it. Then, she photocopied a few pages of it before re-wrapping it and presenting it to her boss.

Where the Angels Come In.

Susan is doing some extremely risky stuff here, Frank Peretti assures us.

And the angels want to help her do it. They want to rescue Susan from her horrible ostentatious boss and this horrible cult of secretaries and office machines.

So they’re gonna get her mixed up with Bernice.

Yep! A junior reporter in a tiny town can surely help Susan escape and bust the Cabal wide open!

Somehow.

The Angels’ Plan.

Here’s the angels’ big plan to bust Susan free:

Soon, there’s gonna be a biiiiig Cabal meeting in New York City (the previous hometown of Bernice’s boss, Marshall Hogan). The Cabal’s official name, we learn now, is the Universal Consciousness Society, and the angels discuss how it’s got “many cohorts and members in the United Nations.” Of course. When this book came out in 1986, fundagelicals were only just beginning to develop their complicated conspiracy theories regarding the United Nations, so let’s give some kudos to Peretti for jumping on that bandwagon fairly early.

Anyway, Kaseph can’t attend the meeting because reasons reasons reasons, so he’s sending Susan there to represent him. While she’s there, she plans to escape the cult–since she’ll be too far away for Kaseph’s demonic superpowers to track her. She plans to make contact with her last remaining non-cult friend. They name the friend: Kevin Weed, Susan’s college boyfriend.

The angels think they can then persuade Weed to get in touch with Bernice, who’ll murmurmurmurmurmur in turn and destroy the Cabal!

Hooray Team Jesus!

Stacking the Coincidence Deck.

Okay. So back to the active story.

Bernice and her boss Marshall Hogan are driving back to Ashton after doing something work-related. The last time we ran into these two, they were conducting their big interview with Eldon Strachan, the former dean of Ashton College. He lives an hour away from Ashton, Peretti tells us, so maybe they’re coming back from that interview. Two of the angels glide above the car.

In the middle of the humans’ small talk about their childhood indoctrinations, one of the angels slams his sword down through the car’s hood–killing the engine dead. In fact, the angel does such a good job of calculating the blow that the car manages to coast right into a gas station! Wow!

While Marshall Hogan fusses with the engine, Bernice heads into the next-door bar to go to the bathroom. I’m going to show you how that goes, because it’s so bad (p. 168):

Bernice pushed the door open–the bottom scraped a worn arc across the linoleum–and went inside, twisting her nose a little at the blue cigarette smoke that had replaced the air. Just a few men sat in the establishment, probably the first of the logging crews getting off work. They were talking loudly, swapping stories, cussing it up. Bernice looked directly toward the back of the room, trying to find the little Men and Women signs. Yes, there was Restrooms.

Seriously.

And in that bar, she coincidentally notices Kevin Weed!

Now Let’s Meet Kevin Weed.

Kevin Weed is a drunk, depleted human being. He lives in a two-bit town with no hope for the future and nothing to look forward to except getting plastered at the bar every day. Really, he’s exactly the kind of person fundagelicals imagine when they think of a male sinner.

When Weed’s drinking buddies hassle Bernice in a menacing, rapey way, Weed rescues Bernice from them. He orders his pals to go away, mostly by implying that he himself has already claimed her for his own menacing purposes. They go away with coarse laughter.

Bernice gets out her Reporter Notebook and Pen. Immediately, she begins to grill him about her sister’s death. Almost immediately, she asks if Weed’s heard anything about her sister’s college roommate, Susan. Weed is drunk off his nut, but he tells her that Susan dumped him some time ago for a new guy.

Then, Weed tells Bernice that he last saw Susan at the town carnival. All she’d done was ask him for his phone number.

On a hunch, Bernice asks Weed to describe both Susan and her new boyfriend. He does, and now Bernice knows that these two were the unknowns at the carnival that she’d seen. Apparently Susan wasn’t a goth in college, so Bernice hadn’t recognized her.

She asks Weed to give Susan her contact info if she ever calls him, and to obtain Susan’s phone number to give to Bernice.

As Bernice leaves the bar, the angel who’d killed Marshall’s car retrieves his sword from its hood. The car instantly starts up again. The two reporters drive away from that town, back on their way to Ashton, with the angels flying “behind and above it like two kites on strings.”

So Many Glossed-Over Plot Points.

Look, I’m not one of those people who thinks a story needs to be outlined and mapped out to its nth degree. But holy cow, the amount of major plot points that Frank Peretti just glides across and ignores just disturbs me so much.

In this chapter, for example, why wouldn’t Susan get in touch with a New York Times journalist or the cops in New York? Surely they’re better use to her than a small-town junior reporter like Bernice, who’d be thousands of miles away at that point.

And why did the Cabal allow Susan’s college boyfriend to remain in Ashton? They’ve shown that they don’t consider murder a big deal, but they’ve allowed this guy to remain right where he is. Considering they had to seduce Susan away from Weed in the first place, you’d think they’d get rid of him as quickly as possible. We don’t even know exactly why Kaseph wanted to hire her in the first place–or what Susan brings to his equations that nobody else could.

I don’t think we’ve heard anything about Bernice’s huge pressing need to find Kevin Weed or talk to Susan Jacobson, either. She’s not mentioned this need before in the story, or at least I can’t remember her doing so. It’s like she didn’t even remember wanting to talk to either one of them till she spotted Weed at the bar. (We also haven’t heard why she didn’t talk to these folks right after her sister died. It’s like everyone who knew the sister just vanished immediately afterward.)

In fact, in the interview with Kevin Weed, Bernice either reveals or implies that she doesn’t even remember Susan’s full name.

Man, a whole lot of this story seems to depend completely on a lot of coincidences falling together in exactly the right way and at exactly the right time. 

And Frank Peretti’s fundagelical audience would have fallen right in line with that thinking. They’d have LOVED it. It would have precisely fit into their overall worldview.

The Wild and Wacky World of Fundagelical Coincidences.

When I was fundagelical, we lived for those weird coincidences. We were positive that our god engineered them constantly for us. Indeed, most of our miracle claims centered around coincidences. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I personally encountered a miracle claim that was based entirely around some wacky coincidence.

I mean, everyone encounters coincidences–every single day, probably, to at least some degree. But fundagelicals blow them completely out of proportion if they can even vaguely justify doing it.

And their leaders actively encourage this weak-minded thinking in their flocks.

As one cringey Canadian fundagelical pastor explains it,

There is a word in our English language that has replaced the word “miracle” and it is “coincidence.” Things just seem to happen in our lives and we tend to say, “That was a coincidence.” But take a moment and ask yourself, was it a coincidence or was it a miracle?

I’ve heard stories of cars not starting right away, therefore making someone late for work. Then for no apparent reason 10 minutes later the car starts and as that person is on their way to work they realize if they had been 10 minutes sooner they could have been involved in a car accident. Are those coincidences or are those God’s miracles?

Let’s ignore that this god could prevent all car accidents entirely, thus wrecking nobody’s vehicle or life or day. But forget that poor schmuck who got into the car accident instead of the Christian in this imaginary tale. (The fundagelical telling this story, you can rest assured, already has. Screw alla them; he’s gonna get his.)

Either out of cynicism or ignorance, this pastor is teaching his entire congregation–and anybody else who’ll listen–to fall prey to one of the worst cognitive biases out there.

The Staggering Power of Jesus Confirmation Bias.

If we could collect all the authentic stories all over the world — from all the missionaries and all the saints in the all the countries of the world, all the cultures of the world — if we could collect all the millions of encounters between Christians and demons and Christians and sickness and all the so-called coincidences of the world, we would be stunned. We would think we were living in a world of miracles, which we are.

Rowdy John Piper

 

What Christians are actually doing in claiming these coincidences as real live miracles is demonstrating how enslaved they are to the power of confirmation bias.

Fundagelicals fall prey to confirmation bias so often because they tend to selectively concentrate on and blow up in importance stuff they think confirms their beliefs, while selectively ignoring stuff that contradicts those beliefs. In the case of miracle claims, they tend to look for any tiny details that might support their claims–while ignoring or downplaying details that would make the claim seem less miraculous.

And people all tend to do this to some degree. Humans’ memories aren’t exact–they’re really just accounts of the narratives we’ve built up around those events. We organize our memories along those narrative lines, adding details and omitting others as necessary to make it all fit. That’s normal and natural–and why anybody recounting those memories for a purpose needs to fact-check them whenever possible (I certainly do–in every single way I can).

But fundagelicals use their miracle claims as PROOF YES PROOF that their claims are true. So they’re even more motivated that most people to emphasize those coincidences whenever possible, and to ignore contradictory evidence wherever it appears.

How Coincidences Get Blown Up Into Miracles.

I myself had a couple of coincidences in my past that I thought pointed to divine intervention. One of them was especially powerful. (I wrote about it previously here.)

Basically, in my late teens I was riding home in a van after a really wild church service. The night was dark and full of terrors–well, full of pouring rain at any rate. The driver of the van, a personal friend of mine, briefly lost control of the wheel, making the vehicle hydroplane out of its lane.

As Bebo struggled to regain control of her van, we passed a car that’d also hydroplaned and done a 180 on the highway in front of us. That other car had come to a stop facing the whole wrong direction on the highway. Bebo hadn’t seen it; none of us had. I have this brief flash of memory: the face of the frantic, terrified woman in that other car. I think the only reason we even saw the other car was the driver had turned on her high-beams right before we’d skidded. Everyone survived, as far as I know.

The coincidence here was Bebo losing control of the van at exactly the right moment for us to skid to the side to avoid the car facing the wrong way. A whole bunch of stuff had to happen in exactly the right order for us all to escape harm.

ZOMG IT MUST BE A MEERKUL!

Even the Queen.

For many years, I considered this wild coincidence PROOF YES PROOF that my god existed and meddled in the lives of his human pets. It soon became part of my testimony, which is a prepared speech recounting a Christian’s conversion and post-conversion life. A testimony is meant to help sell the religion to non-believers and to strengthen the beliefs of current believers.

Hell, even other Christians referred to it as a miracle. It’s still probably part of the miracle lexicon of that church, along with the little girl who spoke in tongues in “perfect Aramaic.”

Every Christian seems to have one or two stories like this in their past.

I bet even the Queen does.

Shooting the Messenger.

It was quite painful, years later, to realize that my van story wasn’t actually the big huge convincing miracle I’d always considered it to be. Instead, it was just a series of wild coincidences that anybody could experience. For me to try to shoehorn those coincidences into miracle form painted my then-god as either blitheringly incompetent or a genuine monster.

But Christians get super-shirty when anybody points that out. They’ve been taught for years by their Dear Leaders to consider coincidences to be bona fide miracles. So they genuinely don’t understand why their god comes off as blitheringly incompetent or monstrous in these tales. The emperor has no clothes in these stories, and any child who points that out gets stomped on by the tribe.

In the case of This Present Darkness, the bizarre series of miracles engineered by the angels only highlights how unlikely it is that any supernatural agents exist in our world, much less any omnimax beings who love at least some of us.

A god who needs “prayer cover” to give his angels power is not omnimax by any means. Nor is a god whose miracles look exactly the same as regular everyday coincidences.

Selling Themselves Cheaply.

How Christians have cheapened their faith! How cheaply they’ve sold their souls and their finite lifetimes!

Once they (allegedly) had resurrections, organ regeneration, pillars of fire in the sky, and floating axe heads to reassure themselves that their god was real.

Now they have old cars that conk out on the highway in just the right place to run into an old acquaintance. That’s how low they’ve sunk; that is how hard they must reach to find evidence–even really sucky and inadequate evidence–to support their claims. It’s a testament to their leaders’ powers of persuasion and their own desperation to believe that the tribe could have come to this low a point and still sorta-kinda survive.

The whole thing is just painful to consider. I mean hilarious too, yes, sure, but also ouch, painful.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a story that helped solidify fundagelicals’ over-reliance on coincidences to sell their religion–even to themselves.

NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we learn some interesting news about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) — and spot a new red flag for their potential victims to heed. 

See you then, friends!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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