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Dr. Leonard Mlodinow — Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

From the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking) and War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra) comes a fascinating, illuminating examination of the profound ways in which the unconscious mind shapes our lives. Every aspect of our mental lives plays out in two versions: one conscious, which we are constantly aware of, and the other unconscious, which remains hidden from us. Over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the unconscious, or subliminal, workings of the mind. This explosion of research has led to a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. As a result, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that how we experience the world—our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment—is largely driven by the mind’s subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed.

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Colliding Worlds

This week on Skepticality, Derek chats with Arthur I. Miller, a PhD particle physicist who has spent his life fascinated with the nature of creative thinking and the intersection between creativity and science. Arthur’s latest book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art is a look at this world from the 1960s until today.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Dustin White reveals the inside story, detailing his personal experience faith healing, performing exorcisms, and doing psychic surgeries. White recounts the deception, lies, theatrics, motivations, and justifications involved. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 19.1 (2014).

Dustin White focused on religious studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, and is now pursuing a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies. He is also a professional magician who uses his knowledge to lecture on topics such as psychics and other con artists.

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Becoming a Faith Healer:
An Insider’s Look at the Business
of Revealed Religion

by Dustin White

In 1996, when I was just eight years old, I got involved in faith healing. My family had been attending a non-denominational church called Faith Family Church in Minot, ND. Non-denominational was really a code word for evangelical. In fact, we were a spirit-filled branch of evangelical Protestantism called Pentecostalism, which believes in the inerrancy of scripture, the acceptance of Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, and especially the belief in the baptism of the Holy Spirit that grants people the power of such spiritual gifts as speaking in tongues and divine healing. For the next decade, I was deeply involved with this movement and then became a young faith healer myself. Shortly after I left the church at the age of 18 in 2006, the church told me that they were rejecting my ordination with them, and disavowing any association with me. After I left, the church discovered that my theological ideas had changed to the point that in fact I had became an atheist. I had also become considerably more liberal in my social attitudes in that I didn’t condemn anyone who had different ideas, as one is apt to do when deeply involved in religion. Shortly thereafter, because of the decreasing number of members and dwindling resources, the minister suddenly “had a calling to a new church,” and our Faith Family Church shut its doors for good. But in that decade I learned a lot about human psychology and the power of belief.

Becoming a Faith Healer

Faith healing began for me not long after I became a member of this Pentecostal church where “healings” were almost a weekly occurrence. Being young and easily influenced, I was amazed by such feats. There was no way I could have questioned them because my church encouraged blind faith. When I eventually got the chance to become a faith healer myself, I was ecstatic.

Becoming a faith healer was like becoming a superhero. It was not just that it meant that one would have “power” over the natural world, and especially over sickness and disease, but that one was actually chosen by God. The sense of power was overwhelming, at least at first. Power over others can be intoxicating, but stronger still was the belief— the “fact” in my mind—that what I was doing was God’s work.

Initially, the act of faith healing began as a group experience. The children in the church would be brought up to the front at the end of the service so that they could lay their hands on the “sick.” These people, however, were never the severely ill. We never attempted to “heal” anyone who had a serious disorder or problem. We were told that our faith was not yet strong enough to heal the truly sick, so instead we were instructed to lay our hands on individuals who would have gotten better anyway, such as people who had a common cold, or who were grieving. Yet, we believed—as did the people we laid hands on—that it was through faith that they were “miraculously” healed.

Illustration copyright 2014 by Pat Linse

Illustration by Pat Linse

Shortly after these group healings began, the minister approached my father and step-mother. I recall my parents telling me that the minister had been impressed with me, and that he thought that the spirit was working through me especially strongly. This confused me because the things that the minister had allegedly said he witnessed (such as me prophesying) were things I did not remember doing. Being unable to recall the actual incidents that were mentioned, I was sure that what the minister described did not happen. However, who was I to disagree with him? At that age, who disagrees with adults? There was no reason I could think of why the minister would lie about something like this, so I questioned myself instead.

It was after this that the minister took me under his wing and began teaching me more about faith healing. My initial impression that this was a gift given by God soon began to erode. I was told that sometimes we had “to help God.” It was sometimes necessary to fake miracles in order to help inspire faith in others. This deception, I was told, should “not be seen as lying” because it was bringing people to the faith. It went further than this though. I was encouraged not to see using information given to me freely as being unethical. Instead, I was told to see it as the information being delivered to me by God. God supposedly worked through the process of having me purposely learn all I could about the congregants so that I could feed it back to them later. I was learning how to do the “hot” version of cold readings!

This manipulation, however, did not stop at just learning about the congregants. It was also important to know how to create an environment that lent itself to creating emotional ecstasy. An effective tool to this end was music, which we used to create the “right state of mind.” Through the use of music, we were able to create the impression that God had entered into fellowship with the congregation. Combining this with the “heartfelt” words of a charismatic minister, the potential to create an ecstatic uproar in the church was almost guaranteed. I later discovered that it was also a surefire way to get the congregants to open up their wallets.

Faith healings were only part of our job description. We also performed exorcisms on both people and their homes. They believed that many illnesses and/or disorders were caused by demonic influence, so the primary way to deal with such problems was to exorcize the demons. And believe me, these exorcisms were great performance pieces, especially when some creativity was thrown into the mix.

Seeing demons was something that I was encouraged to do from a young age. Growing up, I was taught that being able to see demons was a “gift.” For me, I was convinced that the shadows I saw at night were in fact demons. It was truly terrifying. Having an overactive imagination did not help matters when I began seeing demons everywhere, which made me terrified of the dark. At any moment I felt as if I could be attacked by these nearly invisible beings whose only intentions were to cause harm. Making mad dashes to the restroom at night became frequent occurrences—but only when I could muster the courage to do so as I was often curled up in my bed, frozen in fear.

However, once I began exorcising demons that fear evaporated. When I eventually came to the conclusion that demons were just fictional creations, that made exorcisms all the more interesting, as it turned the act of an exorcism into a theatrical piece. It became my duty to convince the participants that either they or their house were possessed by demons, and this made them commit more fully to the performance. It didn’t take much of a push, but adding some creative trickery allowed for a mediocre performance to become a great show.

There were a number of methods used to fake a demonic possession of a house. The simplest trick was having a pocket full of pebbles and occasionally throwing one at a random object. There was little chance of getting caught because there were plenty of distractions taking place, especially since everyone was kept busy praying. After we were done exorcising a room, we devised a great excuse for one of us to hang back for a while so we could clean up the pebbles. We did this under the guise of anointing the room with oil, supposedly in order to keep demons from reentering the room. The oil itself was nothing special—just regular vegetable oil with vanilla and lavender mixed in to give it a more appealing scent.

But it was also an ideal chance to do a little investigation. While the minister moved the exorcism to the next room, I had a chance to search through the room to see what could be found out. There was always a good deal of information to be gathered, from sources such as photo albums, greeting cards (especially sympathy or get well cards), as well as open mail lying on a table, desk, or computer screen. It rarely took much searching to find useful information such as illness in the family, money issues, or love problems. Such difficulties are common in every family, so it was just a matter of getting the details for each particular case, privacy be damned.

Staying behind in a house also gave me time to rig up some of the larger deceptions that we would later pull off. This often consisted of causing some havoc in a room that we had not yet exorcized of demons. Papers, books, pillows, or clothes would be scattered throughout the room. Pictures that were hanging on the wall would be either placed on the ground, or tilted off center on their hooks. If a room had a crucifix or cross we would move it outside of the room, or turn it upside down. When I did the latter, I would attach a piece of thread to the crucifix and at the climax of the exorcism I could tug on the thread and have the cross swing around to its right-side up position, thereby confirming that the demons were gone. The thread trick also worked well to create evidence of realtime demonic activity: I would attach a piece of thread to a picture frame sitting on a table or ledge, then give it a pull at a propitious moment to send it crashing to the floor. While this was a frightening ordeal for the participants it also encouraged them to pray harder—it was a sign that they were winning, that the demons were becoming frightened and that they would be expelled from the house.

Our tricks were not always harmless—often they caused physical damage. One time I used hooks in order to create the appearance of claw marks climbing up the sheet rock in a bedroom closet. It was extremely effective in creating the impression that our exorcism was real since it was done in the one room that we had not yet blessed, giving the illusion that a frightened demon had no other way out besides struggling to crawl up the walls in order to escape. Another time I used those same hooks to create the impression that a demon had shredded pillows and curtains. We justified such vandalism by believing we were giving people hope—the rationalization for many cons.

My favorite trick was faking a demonic attack. These were always directed at either myself or the minister and had the effect of strengthening the participants’ faith in us. If the demons were physically attacking us, it meant that they were afraid of us— and for good reason because we had God on our side. A common method we used was to shred a sleeve of our shirt with a razor beforehand, and then hide the damage under a coat. During an intense moment of the exorcism, the minister or I would initiate the fake attack by suddenly appearing to be pulled from behind, which was accomplished by just lunging backwards. After falling to the ground, which we orchestrated in a place that would obscure the participants’ view of us, we would simply slip off the coat, revealing our shredded shirt as evidence of the demonic attack. The effectiveness of the trick was intensified by continuing on with the exorcism as if nothing happened, as if this was just part of the expected battle with Satan we had to endure. It kept everyone from noticing the fact that there were no apparent scratches on our skin, and it extended the climax of the exorcism. Before leaving the room, however, we always made sure to put our coat back on to prevent anyone from inspecting our arms for scratch marks.

These house exorcisms also proved to be a valuable source of information that we could use during subsequent sermons. The word of mouth that spread after a house exorcism generated a phenomenal turnout for our sermons the next Sunday, and this of course drove up revenue through greater donations. We would have the individuals whose house we had exorcised come up for a public healing and/or additional exorcism. We first had to be sure that the individual believed they were possessed. This was not that hard to establish since most people who came to us asking for such an exorcism already believed that demonic forces caused their problems. However, in order to really sell an exorcism, there was some coaching and prepping we needed to do. For example, through numerous “counseling” sessions, we would reinforce the person’s belief that a demon was dwelling within them. This was done by asking them leading questions and getting them to admit that they were sinners who were unable to control their weaknesses—such as lying or drinking. It was easy to attribute such actions to a demon, and our marks were only too happy to shunt the blame to supernatural forces beyond their control. The main purpose of these sessions, though, was to let people know how they should act during the exorcism. We told each individual what they should expect from the ordeal. We suggested that demons do not want to let go of their hosts, and that this would cause the spirits to become violent. This violence would manifest itself in the form of outbursts and threats. The individual would have to be restrained, as the demon would attack the poeple casting it out of its vessel. We also informed them that the tools we would be using—such as holy water and crosses—would make the demons writhe in pain. Explaining all this helped insure that our marks would fully commit to the performance and become willing participants in it. If they truly wanted this demon to be gone, they were going to have to act like it.

This was the key to the entire faith healing, and exorcism performance: letting the participants know how they were expected to act. If they were to be healed, they better follow this ritualistic performance. It was an unspoken agreement, and was so ingrained in the congregation that it was not questioned. As an additional bonus, such acts demonstrated their faith, and if they did not act in such a manner, then it was their fault for not having faith. It was never the faith healer’s fault if the healing or exorcism failed.

It also did not matter if people said they were not ill. As with demon possession, it is very easy to convince a person that they have some sort of illness, especially if you know their family history, which we always did. If heart disease or some other health issues ran in a family, they could be made to believe they also had the same problem, even if it had not manifested itself yet. Often, such issues were attributed to some sort of negative spirit that we, of course, would have to exorcise from them. Knowing the family history also allowed us to avoid “healing” them from a disease they really had and that we knew we could not cure. For example, if I were to diagnose someone with breast cancer and they actually had it (and more importantly knew about it), there was a risk that they would believe it truly was healed and not then go in for treatment. To be responsible for someone’s death would be too much, and even though crossing ethical lines is something that I did, there was still a limit. It was also the reason that there is a refusal to “heal” someone with a terminal disease. To do so is crossing an ethical line that was far past the limit. Instead, it was much better to console the family by saying that it was in God’s plan that their loved one would pass on. This also often meant a large payout to the church.

There were additional methods we used to increase the benefits we got from the faith healing performances. The addition of a few extra details sold the performance to the entire congregation. The main one, as I mentioned before, was hot reading the audience by gathering information about individuals ahead of time. Besides snooping around while performing house exorcisms, we also gathered intel during routine house calls. There was always a time for either myself or the minister to walk off and take down a few notes while the mark was being distracted. Counseling sessions also proved to be a jackpot for obtaining information. People in distress will give away many personal and intimate details that can be fed back to them later on. Even easier were the prayer cards we passed out before each sermon, filled out ahead of time by the people in attendance. After collecting them we would have all of the information we could ever want to use during the service. We would go to the office after the offering was collected (when the prayer cards would also be handed in) and take note of a handful of easier ones, or we would simply take the prayer cards, slip them into a Bible and read from them. The Bible method was especially effective, as it guaranteed an accurate reading of each card, free from error, and at the same time gave the performance a little more authority as the Bible was being evoked.

There were also times when we would plant individuals in the audience in order to give the illusion of greater miracles. This was not a practice that was used often—it was reserved for special occasions. It allowed for great performance pieces, such as healing a person who was blind, and having them throw their glasses and cane down while naming everything they could now see. We also were able to give the appearance of individuals being able to walk again, and have them dance on stage. In some cases, to make a greater impact, we would even purposely dress these individuals up to look older than they were. Finding such stooges was very simple—money is a great motivator. We actively sought out different local actors who were struggling. If nothing else, we would pick up a homeless person off the street and give them a crash course in acting. It really did not take much, and the money we paid out was always recouped by the church in the donation sessions.

During my stint as a faith healer, I was also taught how to do psychic surgeries. These were rare and always reserved for near the end of a performance. The method was simple. We would select an individual and convince them that they had a tumor that needed to be removed, and have them lie on a table at the front of the church. A little bowl filled with fake blood and chicken gizzards was hidden on a shelf attached to the bottom of the table. Lifting up the individual’s shirt to expose their stomach, we would take a wet towel and “clean” the area where the surgery incision was supposedly going to be made. The wet towel served several purposes. Wetting the subject’s skin made the fake blood flow faster and spread more dramatically. The towel itself could be positioned on the subject’s stomach to block the audience’s view and hide material taken from the bowl. And it could be moved around under the guise of wiping up blood, allowing the hidden chicken parts to be transfered under the hand which was positioned over the supposed surgery site. Reaching under the hand that was now concealing the bloody gizzards, we would fake a struggle when extracting the pieces as if we had seized a tumor that didn’t want to come out. This would be repeated a few times, until all of the tumors were removed. All the while we would wipe around the wound which allowed us to squeeze more water into the fake blood to get it to run more. After the gizzards were removed, we would lay our hand on the “patient’s” stomach, say a prayer, and then clean them up until they were whole again.

When performing a psychic surgery, we always made sure to choose our patients carefully. They were people who, as far as we could tell, didn’t really have anything wrong with them but who could be manipulated into thinking they were sick. We convinced them that they had kidney stones, or some sort of tumor that God had revealed to us. And since we had a personal line of communication with God, who could doubt us? Often these people felt lucky that God had revealed their condition before it got to the point they were aware of it.

A final technique that we used was to give the appearance of people falling over after being touched by the spirit. There were many ways to create this effect. In some cases, we simply pushed the person over. It was quite easy, as they never saw it coming, and when they did fall backwards, they were conditioned to think that it was the spirit touching them. This was often masked by delivering an energetic prayer for the individual—and then suddenly we would push them. A more subtle means of toppling a believer was by placing a hand on their lower back, and then while praying for them (with our hands on their forehead), slowly push their head back until they lost their balance and fell backwards. Other times, the people just fell over willfully, as that was the role they were expected to play. Undoubtedly, some of these people faked it, but we did not mind as we were faking the whole ordeal as well.

Finally, in case you’re wondering about our motivation, it’s not complicated. For my minister, it was for the money. After he drained church coffers, he was gone. For me, I felt as if I was helping people. Yes, of course, I knew that I was manipulating them and in many cases flat out lying to them; however, I also knew that many people gained hope from these experiences. It gave them the sense that someone cared, and that someone was looking out for them. In turn, I believed that this brought them happiness, at least for a short while. Even though it was not God’s work, I figured it was still good work.

After the minister left, people continued coming to me. They wanted to believe that what I did was real, so I allowed it. For many, they did not know what else to do, so they approached me, hoping that maybe something could change. Others came because it gave them a sense of being part of the congregation. For others, it was a way out, an excuse—it is easier to blame a demon for one’s actions rather than admitting to one’s own faults.

After the church closed, I figured I was done with the whole ordeal. They had broken all association with me, and I had no desire to remember that time in my life. I was no longer living in Minot, so there was little chance that I would run into someone who had belonged to the church. For around seven years I put it all behind me and kept silent. Now, being 25 years old, I have begun thinking about that time of my life again. Initially, I tried to find my old minister, but nothing turned up. The church he was supposedly called to either never existed, or it also has closed its doors. So instead, I decided that I needed to come clean about the con that I had participated in. This seemed especially necessary because for the last several years I have been lecturing on the methods of psychics. It felt dishonest for me to be exposing the methods of another group of cons, when I was guilty of having been involved with similar dishonesty. This has not been easy. It meant that I had to admit exactly what I did and at the same time relive those experiences. This article is a step toward reconciliation with myself, and also with those I conned. I hope in the process that by exposing the techniques we employed it can also serve to ward off others from being so deceived. END

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