The things I can’t believe I once believed…

Here’s an explanation about why some Christians rely on prayer, exorcism, or confession (not the Catholic kind) to fight disease instead of going to the doctor:

A case can be made that human physicians do not have the ability to cure any of us. Instead, physicians diagnose ailiments [sic], cut (surgery), burn (radiation), recommend/prescribe/dispense drugs (including chemotherapies). At best, the drugs attack pathogens or stimulate our bodies’ own curative abilities. Physicians also offer advice, but none of what they do is inherently curative. Successful medical treatments, even via “alternative” medical approaches, rely on our bodies’ natural recuperative powers and/or on supernatural authority. The natural recuperative powers are provided by our Creator. The topic of the supernatural brings us back to our Creator, Who provides Divine healing.

That, in itself, is not a good enough reason to avoid doctors. But with all of the promises of divine healing in the Bible, it can seem that medical treatment is an unnecessary evil in a world that is already too dangerous for the unsuspecting Christian. As I’ve written before, I believed this way when I was in my teens and early twenties.

I know that I used to believe in divine healing, but I’d forgotten the lunacy of some of the teaching I’d heard — and believed — over the years. I’ve recently recalled a lot of interesting and ludicrous things that I once believed, with the help of tapes, books, mp3s, and YouTube.

The research I’ve been doing for my memoir is very different than what I’ve done for any of my previous knitting books. Instead of traveling and learning new things about history and cultures around the world, I am looking back into my own past and dredging up memories that have been buried for a long time. I’ve been reading my old Bibles to see what notes I’d put in the margins, and listening to tapes of sermons I heard in the 1980s.

I attended Kenneth Copeland’s East Coast Believer’s Convention with Ernie and Helene Catalano, the pastors of the church I was attending at the time. It was the first time I heard Norvel Hayes speak, and probably the spark that inspired me to attend New Life Bible School in Cleveland, Tennessee, the following year.

stupid things I believed in the pastThe tapes in this photo are recordings of Kenneth Copeland‘s East Coast Believer’s Convention from 1982 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Bible is the Kenneth Copeland Reference Bible. I found the Bible in my mother’s garage, and the tapes on eBay, although I did own a copy of these tapes in the 1980s.

Looking back, it’s amazing at the ridiculous things I believed in. Norvel, for example, preached that headaches were caused by little devils wrapping themselves around your head, that promiscuity was caused by the demon of lust getting inside of you, and that homosexuality could be cured by exorcism. I believed if you spoke to a disease you could cause it to die. I thought that the Bible was a supernatural book that gave me power over the physical universe. I thought I could “move mountains” with my words.

These types of beliefs caused a lot of pain and harm to the people around me in Tennessee and it’s so sad to see that this garbage is still being preached today. How did I get from diving head first into this doctrine to seeing it for the bogus fantasy that it is? Well, that’s the story I’m telling in my book, and I keep remembering more twists and turns in my own mental development. So you’ll have to wait to read it and find out!

I’ll tell you one secret, I don’t think most of the people involved in this kind of teaching are hypocrites. Some of the preachers — especially the televangelists and mega church pastors — may just be in it for the money. But virtually all of the people I knew well, including preachers and pastors, really believed what they were preaching. They were sincere and loving people who were trying to do good and help people. But they had been deceived into believing nonsense by their own desire to make a difference in the world. It’s very sad.

So, what’s the point of this post? I guess it’s just that we should never write off people because they believe in stupid things. That doesn’t mean they are stupid people, and even the most fanatical or devout believer can be influenced by seeds of doubt and reason that are planted in their minds. The results may not be instant or even as extreme as we like, the person may never become and atheist or a skeptic, but if we can influence just one person to think for themselves a bit more, if we can help one person to escape from fundamentalism and fantasy, then it’s all worthwhile. If I could change my mind and escape the delusional walls I built around myself, I believe that anyone can.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Even as an ex-Catholic, I can’t imagine believing such things.

    My parents are still church-goin’ folks, but my dad once told us about a former co-worker who claimed to have cured his diabetes with prayer. My dad thought it was ridiculous.

    Just yesterday, my mother called to tell me that my aunt had cancer. They’re going to operate, and do radiation treatment, but hopefully they’ll catch it early enough. I don’t think God ever came up in the conversation. Which is unusual for my mom. She talked about how important it was to have a positive attitude, and that she believed it would help in addition to all the medical stuff, but there was no mention of God, or prayer, or miracles, or anything of the kind.

    Maybe I’m just lucky to have grown up in a family that takes faith seriously, but not so seriously as to usurp the secular world. To my family, prayer is that little extra thing that people do after all of the worldly bases have been covered.

  2. I guess it’s just that we should never write off people because they believe in stupid things. That doesn’t mean they are stupid people

    Thanks…yeah, when I look back I wish I hadn’t believed some of the things I believed. I know how it happened: I was convinced God was real so I gave lots of things I was told the benefit of the doubt, thinking “Well, God COULD do that…so maybe he did/does”.

    I don’t think I believed quite as much as you did but…so what. That probably had as much to do with the Christians you were around compared to the ones I was around.

    By the way I liked your post on discussion vs debate even though I didn’t get around to commenting on it.

  3. I was taught when I was young that men had one less rib than women by a preacher that was taught this, but someone must have created that lie sometime and I guess that there is no real blame in the person who accepts the delusion. People like yourself that challenge the basis of these delusions can correct it. The biggest problem is that those who accept these lies also accept a doctrine of rejecting information that is not created by the deceivers. It is definitely a sticky problem.

  4. While my version of belief didn’t get into not trusting doctors, it makes sense to me why some people trapped in the religious mindset choose prayer over medicine. It says right there in the Bible: “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

    I mean, Jesus freaking says it right there in black and white; if your faith is strong enough you can do anything. That must include curing disease right? So the idea that prayer can cure disease must be true. Because if that’s not true, what else in the Bible isn’t true…? So the fault must be with us and if we just pray harder and have more faith god will give us what we ask for.

    Thanks for your openness and honesty about your past writerdd. Even though I’m ex-fundie, I find myself looking down on the “foolishness” of religious types now and again. Your post knocked me right off my pedestal and reminded me how easy it was for me to believe such things not that long ago.

  5. It’s really easy to forget stupid things you bought into in the past and really easy to think that people who are buying into the same things today are stupid. I do it all the time. I have to step back and think, “Wait a minute! I used to believe stuff like that too….”

    That’s really why I’m writing my book — to remember how I got out of that trap. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’m actually the same person.

  6. Well, we’re very glad you got your head straight and came over to this side, because we’d hypothetically miss you with our nonexistant psychic powers if you had never come here.

  7. Thanks so much for this. It’s amazing to see a glimpse of a world of lunacy that even most Christians barely know about.

    Just one note:

    I thought that the Bible was a supernatural book that gave me power over the physical universe.

    Back in the old liberal church I grew up in (though most mainliners probably agree), we used to call that sort of thing “idolatry”.

  8. I was an independent, fundamental, “bible believing”, “King James Only”, fire and brimstone preaching baptist at one point. I am planning on eventually writing my own story, but if you would like to ask me anything for your research, feel free. (b o m b r i a at g m a il.c o m).

    “A drowning man will cling to anything to stay afloat”
    –Unknown (unknown to me anyway. anyone know who said that?)


  9. I was taught when I was young that men had one less rib than women by a preacher that was taught this, but someone must have created that lie sometime and I guess that there is no real blame in the person who accepts the delusion.

    I had a student repeat this to me the other day. I was like, “no….”

  10. It -is- embarrassing to find this out in anatomy class as an adult. I can -really- sympathize with others who have more than that to forget/relearn, I still have hesitation when I think of it. Mostly, I laugh at myself. I won’t fall for that one again :)

  11. Personally, I am not so concerned with WHAT irrational things people believe as WHY they believe those things … I think alot of the “solution” (turning well-meaning people over to the side of rationality) involves more than showing them the “light” of rationality, but addressing the NEEDS behind those beliefs … Doesn’t it?

  12. I would actually put “what they think” third on the list. Delving past the why, I always arrive at “how they think”. Or maybe they are one and the same subject.

  13. involves more than showing them the “light” of rationality, but addressing the NEEDS behind those beliefs … Doesn’t it?

    Most definitely. Which is why I don’t think debates are generally useful.

  14. I had a very similar upbringing. I saw Kenneth Copeland too and those tape sets look just like the ones my parents had.

    My skeptical friends don’t believe me when I tell them that’s the way I believed. They keep getting caught up in the difference between being brought up in it and really believing it. And I really believed it. They can’t grasp my world view now when compared to what I believed then.

    I think a lot of it has to do with the insularity of the Word of Faith movement. You have to separate yourself from the secular world to embrace the faith. To do otherwise would be to open yourself up to all sorts of nasty things (demons, for example). Even exposure to thoughts that challenge the belief is considered demonic thoughts planted in your brain. I still cringe when I see the phrase “seeds of doubt” because it was so ingrained in me that doubt was not just anti-faith, but evil.

    I think that’s why I’m so careful to not be too insular now. I want to see other ideas and viewpoints. I want my world view to be challenged. I don’t want to be caught in the trap of accepting what I’m told on faith ever again.

    I’m really looking forward to your book. Maybe it’ll help me put into perspective many things that I have trouble communicating with others.

  15. ordinarygirl, Yep. I really believed it too. That’s not to say that I didn’t have doubts, but I shoved them down so deep in my unconscious that they were of little trouble to me for many years.

    I used the “seeds of doubt” phrase intentionally to evoke “the sower soweth the word” parable.

    How about “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” or “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”?

    More than other Christians sects, Word of Faith really requires constant brainwashing to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

    I love when I read books and disagree with parts of them. Even when they are books by skeptic and atheist authors. I love being able to think for myself and to be willing to take the time and energy to figure out what I think about something without just assuming an authority figure is correct.

  16. I would actually put “what they think” third on the list. Delving past the why, I always arrive at “how they think”.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I have to admit that, when I remember what drew me to religion and later what drew me to atheism, I see a similar thought process. In both cases I was looking for a coherent truth. I thought I had found it in the Bible but I eventually got fed up with all the contradictions, convoluted justifications and just plain feeling miserable about myself. Science and skepticism turned out to be the coherent system for finding truth that I had been looking for. A system that strives for consistency and can admit when something is unknown.

    The point being, if you’re dealing with someone who is looking for a consistent world view, who’s primary concern is finding out what is true, discussion can be a great help in showing them the power of rationalism. But if you’re dealing with someone who just wants black and white answers spoon fed to them I’m not sure they’ll ever appreciate science.

  17. Howdy writerdd
    We’ve discussed these issues before and it should be said again that religious fundamentalists and those that believe in faith healing and supernatural intervention are much more susceptible to credulous claims of other kinds of healing woo. Conversely I would think the majority of those claiming to be “Christian” would never think of seriously considering not following traditional science based medical treatments. What grinds my gord is when parents make these decisions for their children and refuse to get necessary medical treatment. The trend nationally is to criminally prosecute these parents for negligence or reckless endangerment or even negligent homicide in severe cases. This is a good trend… .

  18. Alan, thanks. I’m mainly researching my own past. I went to a Baptist church (First Baptist, not Southern) for a few years when I was a kid, but it didn’t have a huge impact on me other than that’s where I was born again (at 9, not much to repent of) and that’s where I met Mr. Writerdd.

    I definitely think you should write your own book. The more positive deconversion stories we get out there, the more people will realize that there is life after fundy-ism.

    James Fox, I do agree. It’s only a small minority who go over the edge in believing all kinds of nonsense, but if you can believe in an invisible man in the sky who answers your prayers (which most Christians believe), it doesn’t take too much to push you over that edge.

    I totally agree that it should be illegal to neglect getting medical help for your children based on religious beliefs. For yourself, whatever floats your boat. But not for your kids. Not for individual diseases nor for skipping vaccines. In the former, it’s the rights of the individual child that need to be protected, in the latter, it’s the good of society. On one thing, I agree with Spock: The good of the many outweighs the good of the few (or the one)…

  19. Ahhh…, you “agree with Spock”? Doctor or Vulcan?? Real or fictional???
    (that’s the sound of mock abuse being piled on our good writer) ;-)

  20. one word to counter that crap…antibiotics. I would have died slowly and painfully of some horrible gangrenous ermm stuff (you can tell i’m no doctor) without that just because i got scratched.
    Oh how terrible, we can only stop polio and tuberculosis completely by using our own bodies’ immune system and herd immunity. Hardly impressive at all really. Doctors can’t walk on water? remind me what use that is again…..

  21. It’s only a small minority who go over the edge in believing all kinds of nonsense, but if you can believe in an invisible man in the sky who answers your prayers (which most Christians believe), it doesn’t take too much to push you over that edge.

    I think that’s a caricature of what most non-fundie Christians believe, but that’s another topic.

    However: If you believe that “religion spoils everything”, as Christopher Hitchens argues, and are willing to ignore or twist any pieces of evidence to support that thesis, then it doesn’t take much to push you over the edge into, oh, I dunno, supporting neo-con foreign policy.

    This is why I agree with TheSkepticalMale’s take on it. It’s not what you believe that’s important. Religion, woo-woo, holocaust denialism or whatever the skeptic’s favourite target happens to be are nothing special.

    Anyone, no matter how “rational” or “enlightened” they think they are (or, perhaps more crucially, no matter how “rational” we think they are!), can have a mental block over any issue for any reason.

    Oh, and I’d also like to second what Donna said about books you disagree with. If I ever read a book that I agreed 100% with, I’d be worried that I missed something.

  22. I think that’s a caricature of what most non-fundie Christians believe, but that’s another topic.

    It may be snarky, but I think it’s fairly accurate. Not that it’s everything that they believe…. See my other post on delusions for other ludicrous things that Christians of many different sects believe in.

    I don’t believe think spoils everything, but I do think it has a record of causing more harm than good.

    And yes, I agree, no one, particularly me, is completely rational. (Nor would I want to be, actually.) And I have the added detriment of constantly fighting off the ex-fundy habit of black & white thinking. Like being an alcoholic, one is forever in recovery.

  23. It may be snarky, but I think it’s fairly accurate.

    In the church that I grew up in, the sorts of prayers we did in church were… let’s see, how to put this. OK. Suppose that someone in the community was ill. You’d like to think good thoughts about them, and hope they get better. A prayer for them would, essentially, be an expression of that hope.

    Similarly, if something great happened, the standard human response is to feel thankful (even if, as Atheists believe, there’s really nothing that the thanks can be expressed to). Prayer was an expression of that thanks.

    Nobody would pray for a drought to break or a storm to stop. Instead, people would pray for personal strength to deal with it.

    Now admittedly, this probably isn’t the common case, but that’s the experience that I have.

    My point is that the “moderate” position is probably more nuanced. This may sound like a “Courtier’s Reply”, but I assure you it’s not. I’m not trying to convince anyone here that the Emperor is dressed, merely that a little public display of nudity won’t cause everyone to go crazy.

    I don’t believe think spoils everything, but I do think it has a record of causing more harm than good.

    This is a topic for another time, however, obviously, this is a matter of interpretation. Interpretation is difficult, since in history, we don’t have any controlled experiments to go on. Moreover, the usual “evidence” posited for this thesis has simpler explanations with more explanatory power (e.g. that humans do more harm than good, or that people with absolute power do more harm than good).

  24. I do like that sentiment. Reminds me of CS Lewis (in the movie Shadowlands, anyway) saying, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

  25. Actually, I’m reminded of something I read once. It was in a weekly women’s-interest supermarket-issue tabloid-sized journal, so therefore its journalistic credentials are (you will agree, I’m sure) impeccable.

    It’s one of those periodicals which has some regular pieces by an astrologer, a psychic (always a “psychic to the celebrities” or something), a feng shui expert and so on. The piece in question was from the local Wiccan.

    It was about a spell that you can cast to make up with a friend whom you’ve fallen out with. I can’t remember the full details, but it went something like this:

    1. Take a piece of black-edged parchment and write your friend’s name on it.
    2. Take a stick of cinnamon, wrap it up in the parchment and tie it in a yellow ribbon.
    3. Light a beeswax candle.
    4. Wave the parchment three times over the candle flame, incanting something or other (can’t remember, sorry for those who wanted to try this out).
    5. Light the parchment, watch it burn.
    6. Call your friend and apologise.

    Now I know what you’re all thinking. You were all with me up to step 6, but probably can’t work out why you’d want to do that part, right?

    Now, as part of my job as a science-type R&D person, we do some work with training elite athletes. The relevant institute which handles training for the Olypmics and like events has an army of people known as “sports psychologists”.

    The things that these people do are fascinating. A weightlifter, for example, will spend time just concentrating on visualising the action that they have to do. In addition, a swimmer will abstain from sex and strongly-flavoured foods right before their event.

    What struck me about this is how similar all these things are. Prayer, spell-casting, meditation and psychologist-directed visualisation all seem to be essentially the same thing: mental preparation for a difficult task.

    The thing about abstaining from sensory overload before the event also struck me as being similar to ascetic religious practices.

    As a scientist, this fascinates me, and I kinda wish I’d studied some psychology. Rather than reject religion as not worth my attention, I want to find out what other things religions have discovered empirically that can now be understood scientifically.

    And this, once again, is why I think that what religions do is far, far more important than what they believe.

  26. The swimmers are indulging in superstition. It works because they think it works, not because the act of abstaining itself has any intrinsic ability to make you a better athlete. I’ve read at least one study that showed the whole “no sex before a fight” thing really doesn’t make a lick of difference. I used to be a decathlete, and I chose to go with the opposite superstition. Sure, it was likely an equally psychological effect, but my superstition was a Hell of a lot more fun than the guys who thought not changing their socks would make them run faster.

  27. It works because they think it works […]

    It might (I’m not an expert; can’t really comment), but “it works” is enough for the people I work with, even though they’re also interested in the “because”.

  28. Don’t get me wrong – psychology can have an amazing impact on a person’s physical ability, hence the almost universal attempt to “psych-out” people on opposing teams in sports. Magic Feathers absolutely work, and even when you know something doesn’t really help you run faster, jump higher, or whatever, sometimes just going along with it helps, too.

  29. Donna, I’m writing a book about my de-conversion too – I’d love to have a convo with you about it sometime or at least keep in touch. It would be great to have someone to compare notes with.

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