A Pandemic of Delusional Thinking

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.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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