I started out as an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian minister. I evangelized, conducted exorcisms, preached and prayed for healings. I went to two pentecostal Bible colleges and then to a liberal, protestant seminary which helped me to slowly shed all the crazy, irrational, bull-shit I had allowed myself to believe. I went from being a fundamentalist, to a liberal Christian, to a Deist/Theist and now I would label myself an Agnostic/Freethinker/Humanist. I can't quite bring myself to dogmatically say there is no God, but I can say that if there is a God, He/She/It is most certainly not the one presented in the pages of The Bible, the Koran or any other "holy" scriptures. I can say "I don't know and there does not appear to be any way to know."
In my days as a pentecostal preacher, I learned from my preacher mentors, and by sitting in thousands of hours of services, how to move the congregation towards having an experience with God. My motives were sincere. I was trying to "help" people connect with the Almighty as I believed I truly had. I was trying to help my hurting, lonely and distraught listeners to obtain "spiritual healing" for both their body, mind and soul. I felt good about what I was doing. I felt that the thanks and words of appreciation from my congregants confirmed that God was using me; of course, I would humbly affirm that it wasn't me doing anything to make people change, I was simply a conduit for the power of the Almighty.
Even though I could quote bible verses with rapid-fire confidence, I was not sophisticated enough to understand that what I was actually doing by my preaching was manipulating people. Psychologically speaking, I was putting my listeners into a semi-trance state. I was playing the emotional chords of their lives like a skillful musician would play his instrument. People were coming to hear me because they "expected" to experience God's presence. They usually were not let down.
I look back on those years and now interpret what I was doing differently. From a anthropological and psychological perspective, I was engaging in "shamanistic practices," i.e., I was using rituals, words, symbols and music to work my audiences up into a powerful emotional release. In those days, my bible college experience had only given me an education that would fit within the narrow confines of my own particular sect-church culture. I did not have a broad historical or cross-cultural understanding of how religious faith is expressed around the world and over time. Unbeknownest to me, I was essentially using the same tools that African Witch-doctors, Native-American Medicine Men, the ancient Jewish Prophets or the early Christian Apostles employed to help people to experience warm, relaxing feelings of empowerment. Like these other religious tradesmen, I had sold the belief to myself, and to others, that somehow I was a Point-of-Contact between this world and that to come. I offered myself as a trustworthy, confident guide to those who were afraid of life, feared death and wanted a place of safety and refuge. I was like the Old West "Snake Oil Salesman," I was selling folks a product that was suppose to bring them health, healing and salvation even though there was literally nothing to it. My hearers expectation that they were getting something would often have a positive effect (Years later I learned about the placebo effect). I thought I had all the answers, until the proverbial shit-hit-the-fan-of-life and I started doubting my certainties. After many years I finally left the ministry and started down the slippery sloop of skepticism. . . and I'm glad I did.
Twenty-two years ago, in my final year at my liberal seminary, I dropped all my fundamentalist beliefs. I was still identified as a minister, and performed a few more ministerial functions, but I quickly walked away from that life and pursued a different career by becoming a professional counselor. My studies in psychology helped me to understand myself and also how religious faith has its own psychology. I came to understand how my thoughts and beliefs could affect my emotions; and that having emotional reactions is no evidence of the presence of God or Satan in one's life. This was a big break-through in my decoversion. I had been taught my entire life that "feelings" were always "spiritual" indicators of either "sin," "Satan" or the work of "the Holy Spirit" in one's life. What a terrible bind. If one has any sexual feelings, that's the devil! If one does not feel like trying to "win someone to Christ," then it is evidence that my "heart has grown cold towards the Lord" and The Lord is going to whack me for becoming spiritually cold! If I pray and feel happy and excited, then that shows that God is close to me and I'm doing spiritually well. Feelings are never just feelings. Feelings are the royal road to the world of the spiritual. Keep the happy feelings going so you can stay close to God; ignore the negative feelings for they are evidence of Satan's presence!
As I switched from ministry to psychology, I found my studies helped to further debunk the ignorant interpretations I had learned from my church mentors. Becoming a professional counselor helped me to look for rational and practical ways to solve problems and deal constructively with life. My life, or anyone else's, was not going to be helped by praying for God to come down and magically fix it. No, I had to think about what I was doing and make my choices for resolving difficulties using my own internal and social resources. The results were great. My former mystical and religious based interpretations of life and problem-solving now seemed strange and stupid to me.
I was not sophisticated enough to understand that what I was actually doing by my preaching was manipulating people. Psychologically speaking, I was putting my listeners into a semi-trance state. I was playing the emotional chords of their lives like a skillful musician would play his instrument. People were coming to hear me because they "expected" to experience God's presence. They usually were not let down.I had gone from a world that was highly spiritualized to the world of counseling based on science, research and evidence. My studies in psychology and therapy made me more humanistic in my thinking. However, I was surprised to find that many of my professional psychotherapist peers held to various baseless, irrational spiritual beliefs. I'm not talking about a little lite theism or some kind of mild practice of prayer and church attendance. No, rather, they were into full-blown mysticism of the New Age variety. They were too smart to buy into any kind of Christian irrationality, but they were totally accepting of various esoteric New Age beliefs, such as Tarot Card reading, astrology, dowsing, spiritualist practices, etc. Instead of leaving religion behind, they instead simply rejected one particular set of faith assertions for another. I came to realize that these peers, even though they all had graduate degrees in the secular field of mental health, still had not learned some basic critical thinking skills; skills that I had learned, of all places, at my theological seminary.
So it was, this past Friday night, my friend Alice had invited me to her office to hear a New Age guru friend of hers who was going to "open a portal" into the other world.
"Bob," she excitedly exclaimed, "has learned how to open up portals so that being of light can come in." I listened respectfully. Inwardly I was amazed that she could be so accepting of Bob's baseless assertions and metaphors. I agreed to come and experience the "portal opening" into the spirit realm. Who knows, I might fall in and never have to go back to work again! Cool beans!
I also agreed to go because I like being around Alice. She's pretty, smart (though irrational in areas) and, I must admit, I've had some fantasies that perhaps one day we could go skinny-dipping in a joint gene-pool experiment if she ever breaks up with her current boyfriend. . . but that's another story.
A dozen people showed up for the "portal opening" event. One was a local physician who regularly treats my friend for various ailments; but this doc, though licensed as a physician, actually practices little real medicine. Instead he treats his patients with various herbs, homeopathic concoctions and other "alternative" medicine fads. I consider him a quack and dangerous to my friend's health. She thinks he's so amazing. She's so grateful that she has found a truly "spiritual" physician who does not practice "invasive" modern medicine, but instead treats his patients with "natural" remedies found from Mother-earth.
When the guru showed up, he looked sick. In fact, he looked real sick: thin, gaunt and emaciated. He was 45 minutes late and he informed us that "the enemy attacks me every time I try to bring light to others." He explained, in a rambling style that what he does is "spiritual warfare". He outlined what all this "portal" business is about: "Portals" are spiritual spaces which are connected to "The Source," or what some may call "heaven," where light, truth, love and angels abides.
On an autobiographical level, he shared that he had been opening portals for the past five years. And how did he get a job like this? He explained that he had been engaging in various spiritual practices and "Michael, the Archangel" came to him and told him this was his mission. Of course, when an Archangel calls, you can't really refuse can you???
As he explained his cosmology, it hit me that his belief system was similar to the same dualism that I had beloved and preached for years as a fundamentalist Christian minister. While he didn't talk about "God," he divided the world up into two camps: there were the good forces, the angels, fairies and good energy; on the other hand, there were "demons" and dark energies which love to wreck havoc on people with misfortune, illness and trials. When he tries to open the "portals," the demonic forces fight against him terribly. He vaguely referenced that the reason why he was late for his presentation was due to those dark forces trying to keep him from bringing The Light tonight. He then pointed to a small, but very visible, bump on his left arm; a small welt which looked to me like a large mosquito bite, and he said, "What is this? This just popped up on the way over here tonight." His inference was that this small welt was evidence of the spiritual slings he had suffered already for trying to bring us "light".
After droning on for 45 minutes with all this esoteric, mumbo-jumbo of metaphors, stories and baseless assertions, he started the process of "opening the portal" in the middle of the room.
He first asked us all to relax in our chairs and to let our bodies go limp; he directed us to close our eyes and to let the concerns of the day pass away. In between making references to "Jesus," "Mary," "Shiva," "the angels" to join with us, and with long pauses, he stressed that we all need to allow ourselves to become engulfed with "love" and "compassion." In between these comments, he would sometimes pause for one to three minutes. The group was in total silence. The only sound one could hear was the slight buzz of the central air conditioning unit coming on. I started feeling very relaxed, very calm. He then started playing on his violin strings some very soulful, sweet sounds. I felt myself getting more relaxed. The whole event was turning into a natural high even though it was hard to stomach all the spiritual ideology Bob was spouting. I found myself really liking his violin playing. Several times I almost went into a deep sleep.
I saw the music aspect of his "portal opening" as a reminder how powerful music is for us humans; and how religions have used sound and tone to get their followers in the right, trance-like, state of mind. In my church background, music was always a big part of "worship". Music sets the tone for the message by the pastor. And so here I was in a New Agey meeting, and once again, to get those portals to open, the guru was using music to do the trick.
Finally, after an hour of portal opening, the meeting came to a close. He asked us to open our eyes and to share what we "saw" while he working his magic. Of course, none of us "saw" anything in reality, but the question should have been: "What images, thoughts and reactions did you have to my playing my violin and words?" Several shared that they "felt" some good things (which was evidence that they were connecting with the unseen spiritual forces hovering among us). One person said they "felt" an angel in our midst. Bob affirmed this assertion by very seriously saying that with his angel Michael around, he. draws other angels to him. . . I mean, Michael is the top-dog, so to speak, in the world of angels. . . makes perfect sense. . . NOT!
I wasn't disappointed. I didn't expect to see anything and I didn't. Essentially, the whole Portal Opening was a good example of how we humans are hard-wired for very peaceful, calm, trance-like states. And even though I didn't buy into any of the mumbo-jumbo crazy talk he was peddling, I did experience a very calm, relaxing time. I went home and slept rather well that night. If I had been a true believer in Portal Openings, I would interpret my serenity as evidence that the angels had hovered over me while I slept and the demons of restless sleep had been sent packing!
This whole experience shows me that as humanists and freethinkers, we need to promote rational thought and critical thinking skills. I plan to start pushing Alice on thinking about all this stuff she has bought into. If people don't understand how the mind and body works, they can be taken in by all kinds of delusional gurus, preachers and snake-oil salesmen promoting their quack interpretations of life.
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