The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Doubt: A History

Dr. Jennifer Michael Hecht

Sunday, July 10th, 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech, Pasadena, CA

In a sweeping history, Jennifer Michael Hecht celebrates doubt as an engine of creativity and as an alternative to the political and intellectual dangers of certainty. Just as belief has its own history featuring people whose unique expressions of faith have forever changed the world, doubt has a vibrant story and tradition with its own saints, martyrs, and sages. Hecht blends her wide-ranging historical expertise, passionate admiration of the great doubters, and poet’s sensibility to tell a stimulating story that is part intellectual history and part showcase of ordinary people asking themselves the difficult questions that confront us all. Hecht views the history of doubt as not only a tradition of challenging accepted religious beliefs, including the existence of God, but also as a progression of attempts to make sense of life, the natural world, and the self, each on their own terms.

Dr. Jennifer Michael Hecht is an assistant professor of history at Nassau Community College. She is the author of The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France and The Next Ancient World, her book of poetry, which won the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Norma Farber First Book Award for 2002, the Tupelo Prize, and ForeWord’s Poetry Book of the Year. Her book Doubt: A History is published by HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

photo of Dr.
Jennifer Michael Hecht

Dr. Jennifer Michael Hecht

Intelligent Faith:
A Skeptic Goes to an Exorcism

by Lee Traynor

“From a religious point of view we did the right thing.”

— Daniel Corogeanu, abbot of the Holy Trinity monastery, Tanacu, Romania, after an apparently possessed 23-year old nun died after being crucified during an exorcism (Die Zeit, 23.06.05, p. 2).

The day after the Skeptics Society Caltech conference on “Brain, Mind, and Consciousness” on Saturday, May 14, I took them up on their suggestion to attend the open house of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to see the facilities where most of the unmanned space craft have been built over the past half century. The bus driver I asked on Colorado Boulevard said he would drop me off nearby, so I stepped into his vehicle, paid my fare, and kept an eye out for a JPL sign. “I’ll bring you closer, sir,” was what the driver had said. I really had no idea where I was going but I thought, Americans are good at signposting. After about 40 minutes the bus changed drivers and I realized that the first bus driver must have forgotten me along the way. Somewhere in the north of L.A., roughly between Pasadena and Hollywood, I realized that the afternoon at JPL was retreating from possibility. I resigned myself to Hollywood instead.

It was hot and the sun was burning relentlessly. After a brief stroll I decided that I would hop on the next bus heading for Pasadena (who knows when the buses run?), flagged a bus, paid the fare, and took a seat next to a woman, whom I supposed was in her twenties. We had barely gone one stop down Hollywood Blvd. when she asked me whether I thought the summer had finally arrived. Not being from those parts (I live in Germany) I couldn’t give much of an answer, but I attempted a civil reply. She guessed my accent fairly soon and wanted to know why I was in L.A. I told her about the conference at Caltech and in the ensuing conversation during the ride across town we exchanged all kinds of information. I found her to be thoughtful, intelligent, articulate and curious. Although she was a college dropout without a job, still she knew some things I didn’t, like Antony Flew’s conversion to theism. As we neared Eagle Rock I started thinking about how to move the conversation off the bus. Where was she going, what was she doing? Well, she said, it sounded perhaps a bit strange — something she’d seen on an infomercial and they seemed like really nice people — she was going to an exorcism. Would I like to come?

Well, it’s not every day that you get invited to an exorcism — this was not a chance to be missed. This woman’s intellectual curiosity — her background seemed to be atheist-Jewish — had led her to a strange place indeed, I thought. As my companion attempted to explain what might be in store for us, we arrived at the bus stop she said was our destination. She asked, “Are you with me?” We exited the bus together. I was committed.

print depicting
Christ driving a demon out of mute man

print depicting Christ driving a demon out of mute man, ca. 17th century

By now we were in a city called Eagle Rock (there is a big boulder on the side of a hill overlooking the 134 freeway that supposedly looks like an eagle), and we were heading towards a theatre on the corner of Yosemite where the exorcism was to take place. I was thinking (hell, was I thinking!): “If I don’t do this story, the Skeptic office staff won’t let me come visit tomorrow.” (Actually, I recalled an investigation of a haunted house in Germany, and I remembered the spookiest thing was actually getting past the crowd of onlookers gathered in front of the house. The investigation itself was then pretty straightforward.) My companion noticed my silence and commented. I apologized. She suggested that we get some water to drink from a store on the way, which we did. At some point I mentioned that I sometimes write for a magazine, and just as we were crossing the road to the theatre she asked me which magazine it was. “Tell you later,” I replied.

There were few people standing in the lobby, who politely greeted us, although they seemed to know my companion. We moved without delay into the theatre, up to the third row: she indicated that she liked to sit up front. There were about 25 people present, roughly half Hispanic, the majority female, one or two couples. On stage left hung a hollow cross more than two meters high, over which a piece of purple cloth was draped; on the right thee was a menorah on which one candle had been completely burned down. Then an elegantly dressed man (fortyish, in a freshly ironed shirt and tie) identifying himself only as a “Christian pastor” announced we would begin.

The service, the first of a series of seven prayer meetings entitled “Seven Spiritual Mysteries,” consisted of cycles of alternating sitting and approaching the altar with eyes closed and hands on hearts to hear a prayer. Apart from this, there was little apparent structure to the ceremony, although the process did intensify in dramatic tension towards a climax, after which there was a certain denouement that led to the profane matter of a collection at the end.

The pastor commenced by handing out some envelopes instructing us not to open them yet. Before we had much time to wonder about the contents — the envelopes were not sealed — he rebuked an acolyte (of which there were three or four), “Next time we hand out the envelopes when the people come in.” And then apparently to the same person, “Next time we seal the envelopes otherwise people are going to open them and look inside.” (This was hardly evidence of much forethought, and I thought he might be wanting to try the magician’s billet reading routine, but no such luck.)

Not much suspense and not much time later we were told to take the sheet of paper out of the envelope and read what was on it. It was the first spiritual mystery: “All spirits are looking for a body to live in.” From this and the accompanying sermon we learned that there are only two kinds of spirits: gods and evil ones. We could also determine when an (evil) spirit has taken possession of a person, how they enter a body, and what makes people susceptible to spirit possession. In a monologue characterized by idiosyncratic grammar (“D’you understand?”) interrupted by occasional loss of continuity (but in a voice that revealed some practice at speaking without the aid of an amplifier) the pastor proceeded to expand on these topics, indicating that we could make notes on the sheet of paper if we wished.

At around 40 minutes into the service, and by now well versed in what to expect from the evil spirits, we were given another altar call. This time things took a more dramatic turn compared to the introductory payer. I heard some other voices from behind us. I peeked around (we were meant to be praying with eyes closed) and saw the acolytes, or “pray-ers,” were standing next to members of the congregation whispering prayers into their ears. I certainly found this to be both uncomfortable and unsettling, and I can imagine it could freak some people out. This effect is probably based on a number of factors. First you cannot really understand the whispered prayers but you can hear that multiple whispering is going on from different spatial sources which, with your eyes closed, leads to an eerie effect. Second, the pray-ers move about randomly and pick out individual members of the congregation.

I also had the feeling that the pray-ers were trying to move things along in the service. While a pray-er was praying into someone’s ear, he would hold the forehead of that person with his right hand, with fingers and thumbs on opposite temples. The left hand was placed on the person’s back below the neck. I got the treatment as well. The grip was quite firm, if not menacing, and I realized that they were “body-reading” any reactions, such as teeth grinding or shoulder tensing, that might indicate that a person was reacting to the prayers being recited. I just relaxed and did my best to keep the situation under control. The prayer invoked evil spirits, demanding that if they were present they were to give a sign. Suddenly a woman screamed.

Now my eyes were wide open. A young Hispanic woman (I’ll call her Y) was bending over. Or was she being bent over? With the grip that the pray-ers employed, they could easily force a person to take up any posture they wanted. Screaming at the top of her lungs, vomiting two or three times, it appeared that the evil spirit had manifested itself in this woman. She screamed several times more, apparently in great anguish. Looking around, I now saw several other people bending forward, and it looked like they too would be emotionally overcome.

actors Max von
Syndow and Linda Blair in The Exorcist

actors Max von Syndow and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

At that moment the pastor asked us to take our seats, leaving him and Y in front of the stage. One acolyte proceeded to mop up the vomit with paper towels, another procured a steady cam from backstage. Y stood there with her face down, her medium length dark hair covering her features. The pastor stood alongside, holding her in the pray-ers’ “brace” with a microphone in the other hand. “In the name of God, I command the evil spirit to speak!”

Well, the lord God may be almighty (for he was repeatedly thus invoked over the next half hour) but he must have encountered some unforeseen difficulties with this particular spirit. “Are you the greatest one?” the pastor asked Y, addressing the spirit possessing her. Y was silently sobbing and sweating profusely.

What was obviously intended at this point was that Y — speaking with the voice of the evil spirit — would answer a number of questions that would enable the pastor to identify and then banish the spirit. But let’s be clear on one point: Y wouldn’t actually have to say anything except to affirm the pastor’s questions. Of course she would have to lose control over herself, “hit me or pull my tie” (the pastor’s words), scream and stamp her feet, and generally misbehave, but all she was required to answer repeatedly was, “Yes.”

Alas, it did not come to pass. Despite repeated invocation of the Almighty, Y managed to calm herself down and the pastor’s futile attempts at getting the spirit to speak up turned increasingly pathetic. However, it was possible to glean an inkling or two from the pastor’s comments and his other questions directed to Y.

Y is married and has a child. Her problem is — in her own words — that she has “fallen out of love” with her husband. We were told that her husband is a “good man,” the presumption being that there is no reason to leave him. That, in turn, suggests that Y has considered leaving or intends to leave her husband, but since he does not deserve such treatment something else must be provoking Y to take such irrational action. Evil spirits?

A more likely explanation is that Y has fallen in love with someone else. Since she is Hispanic and probably therefore Catholic, her environment probably opposes divorce and remarriage. She is probably feeling guilty about her love affair, which is why she has rejected taking marriage counselling with her husband, where she would have to admit her indiscretion. But what to do? Trying to extract herself from one nightmare, she plunges into the next.

During his cajoling of the evil spirit we learnt from the pastor that Y had also given a “manifestation” — a far more energetic one — the previous week. The current manifestation had come and gone without much ado — although Y was repeatedly warned by the minister that her only salvation was to manifest the evil spirit.

Finally, it dawned on the pastor that he wasn’t getting anywhere. But he had no exit strategy! Invoke as he might, nary an evil spirit was willing to appear. Then it occurred to him to send Y out of the room with his wife for “counselling.” Whatever went on in that woman-to-woman chat is anyone’s guess. The pastor’s next homily was a little more revealing. Over the two hours of intermittent prayer and homily, I managed to glean the following theology of the first of these seven spiritual mysteries.

The world contains evil spirits and the spirit of God. The evil spirits are not disembodied spirits (souls) of deceased human beings, because souls pass to either heaven or hell. And that was where any semblance with mainstream Christianity ended. The rest was a bizarre mixture of pop theology, psychology, and urban legend pressed into the service of demonization. Evil spirits want to take possession of human bodies. Evil spirits often pass from one generation to the next in a family. Evil spirits have the appearance of an angel of light. Evil spirits enter you when you are addicted to something, such as shopping or eating. (You bought shoes because they looked new and nice and exciting; but after a few days the shoes were ordinary and so you had to go out and buy a new pair to sustain the thrill.) Evil spirits enter you when you follow your heart rather than your mind. This was probably a comment on Y’s predicament. Perhaps an evil spirit had entered her when she had become bored with her husband or had fallen in love with another man. Apart from addiction, evil spirits can enter a person when they are angry, hateful, tempted, or unforgiving.

We must be strong and ignore the yearnings of our heart, the pastor continued. We have to be logical. A human being consists of a body, a soul, and a spirit which, in the best case, would be the spirit of God. There is no room for a weakness of the heart, which allows in evil spirits. This, according to the pastor, is Intelligent Faith.

“Another five minutes,” he muttered. That not only sounded like, but in fact was the commencement of the sting. “What is it that feeds us? What principle feeds us? It is multiplication! You take a seed and grow it into a plant with fifty seeds.” What in the world was he talking about? “And so now brothers and sisters. I am opening a Bible, which I will leave open for you to plant your seed that it may grow into a healthy plant and yield a harvest!” My companion indicated to me to remain seated while she made our “contribution.” I had been in a bit of a quandry because I needed the last dollar bill I had for the bus ride home. Saved again.

With the money in the bag it was time for leave-taking. But no, there were two more points. Everyone would come up and receive a red ribbon, which the pastor would tie around their right wrist as a sign that we had received the first mystery. And then, we were told, God would perform something supernatural this week.

Well, I cannot convey just how thrilling all this was. You go to L.A. for a Skeptics conference and you get the offer to experience a real supernatural event into the bargain! But then — as every now and then in the exposition of his theology — the pastor suddenly mistook the supernatural for the vague and banal. The supernatural event would have something to do with our work — that’s about as detailed as King Lear’s threats.

During the ribbon ceremony I asked the pastor whether I might take his photo, to which he graciously consented. Then my companion and I left for the bus stop. She had not forgotten about her earlier question. “So, what magazine do you write for?” she asked, as soon as we were out on the street.

“Uh, um, er, Skeptic.”

“I think my dad gets that magazine. Are you going to write about this?”

“Well why not? It was public and advertised. Anyone could go. And besides,” I said taking up eye contact with her, “you were recording the whole thing on cassette in any case.” She blushed. During the service she’d had a bit of a coughing fit, during which she left the room, leaving her handbag open on the floor. It hadn’t taken much more than a quick glimpse to reveal a cassette recorder whose red light was blinking as it was recording. That’s why we were in the third row, and why she had left the room during the coughing bout: she hadn’t wanted to ruin the recording. With my companion’s objections safely quashed and her anonymity assured, she headed back down to the theatre to hang out with her friends. And I returned to the bus stop.

Shortly before my bus arrived, I noticed one of the acolytes — perhaps also just going home — on the bus and decided just to keep my thoughts in my head until I reached my hotel, where I filled several pages with notes and kept myself out of any more trouble.

(with thanks to Leif Barbré Knudsen, Mahlon Wagner, and Tom Bishop for their reading the manuscript and suggesting improvements)

Remember Flim-Flam:
How to be a modern skeptic.

an online article by Daniel Engber

Remember Flim-Flam, Daniel Engber’s story about the Skeptics Society’s 2005 conference at Caltech, can be read at the online magazine Slate. It nicely captures the flavor of the conference, as well as accurately reflects the changing focus of the skeptical movement. I am in agreement with his concluding thoughts, as reflected in the fact that in Skeptic, eSkeptic, Junior Skeptic, our website, our Caltech monthly lectures, our annual conference, and in our books, we try to blend traditional debunking of the type made famous by James Randi, and scientific investigation of more mainstream scientific controversies, such as those covered in our recent conference on “Brain, Mind, and Consciousness.” I have always said that Randi is our hero, our fountainhead, and our inspiration, so I am pleased that this came through at the conference.

— Michael Shermer, Executive Director & Publisher

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