Authentic Supernatural Experience or Fail? You Be the Judge.

I am presenting this viewer mailer in his own words, unedited, and not even including my own rebuttals in order to avoid biasing any of you in some way to my opinions. I insert one clarification into a response I made that he includes in one of his replies, simply to make more clear what I see as a legitimate misunderstanding that arose at the end of the dialog. It is not offered as any sort of rebuttal to his claims, just a note to explain more precisely the position I was putting forward versus how it was misinterpreted by the correspondent.

His Letter 1:

Became a Christian 25 years ago (now an Atheist/Agnostic), did the whole gig from the born-again accepting Jesus to fully immersed water baptism. Bible studies, prayer, etc… Approx a year into this thing I was on the search for a church. My buddies and I decided to check out a church one night, never been there and this was in the days before they had rock concerts for worship. I’d say they had about 100 people that night.

Pastor was up talking (just a basic sermon) and at some point during the service a group of people at one end of the church (it was kind of U shaped) started laughing out loud, we were sitting in the middle of the church. It was almost like people were doing “the wave” like you see at sporting events, but with laughter. My buddies and I watched as it seemed to be moving closer to us with each set of folks laughing and almost acting drunk. Don’t know what it was, but the next I knew we were all hanging on to the pew in front of us to keep from falling down and laughing. It was wild. Absolutely hands down the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. Pastor said it was the presence of God.

I remember leaving the church and feeling like I was glowing or radiating. Couldn’t quit smiling, it was strange. I asked some friends we ran into shortly after leaving the church if they could see anything radiating or glowing off me. Sounds whacky, but I couldn’t figure it out.

At a high school reunion 10 years after that happened, I ran into one of my buddies that experienced it with me. I asked him if he remembered it and he confirmed that we’d all experienced it.

Not saying this validates anything, I’ve just never been able to reconcile it. I started doing research on these types of experiences and it “appears” others have had similar experiences where it wasn’t manufactured (Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, etc), more like a wind or spontaneous event that you can’t control.

My question is: Do you guys really believe that things like the Toronto Blessing, Kansas IHOP Smithton Outpouring and Lakeland Outpouring in Florida (using their names, not mine) are all manufactured by mind control? In other words, let’s say a person experiences something like I did (I’ve talked with others who’ve had similar experiences without the hype), would you give that any credence to something supernatural?

His Letter 2:



Thanks for getting back to me. Yep, I’ve definitely had those “laughter is contagious” episodes with friends and family. I’d write off my experience below to something like that if the backdrop might have been different (i.e. in a more intimate setting like one on one or with a small group) and if the experience was just about uncontrollable laughter. There really wasn’t a catalyst (e.g. someone eating something bad, pastor saying something funny, strange noise in church, etc.) other than laughter and noise breaking out at one end of the U shaped seating arrangement.

I guess the bigger factor was that the three other people in my group felt the same thing; they also had to hang on to the pew to keep upright when whatever this was appeared to make its way to us. It was like watching “the wave” at a sporting event and when it was our turn, we had no choice in the matter. It all happened very rapidly. It wasn’t like we started laughing and stayed laughing for several seconds causing us to lose our balance. It appeared to reach our section and we immediately felt euphoric while simultaneously having to hang on to something to keep from falling. When we talked about it afterwards, we all confirmed feeling something strong kind of pass through us that resulted in laughter and an incredible feeling.

I don’t buy into the manufactured hype in church services with rhythmic music and yelling. Something like that could easily lead people into a euphoric state of believing they are feeling a supernatural presence. I struggle with the rapidness in which this happened, that it appeared that everyone in the church experienced it, the euphoric feelings all of us confirmed afterwards and just the “strangeness” with which we all labeled the experience.

His Letter 3 (with only the segments of my reply he included in his letter):

>>Unless there was something wildly different about the experience than what you have expressed in your letters, it just seems extremely mundane to me. <<<

Well, let me kick it up a notch then. The validity of this experience has been bugging me for over 25 years; your responses fueled the fire a bit more so I continued my investigation. There were 5 of us (friends from high school – we were in college then) at that particular church service, so last night I jumped on FB and starting digging for names. Found a few people that I thought might know how to contact these guys and sent them private messages. I ended up with a possible phone number for one of the guys and left a message. Keep in mind; I haven’t talked with any of these guys since that event (over 25 yrs ago).

He calls back and after the shock of hearing from me after all these years, I ask if he remembers being in that specific church with me and the other guys 25 + years ago. He confirms it and then I ask if anything strange or unusual happened. He laughed and proceeded to tell a story similar to mine, although he described it more like excitement breaking out at one end of the church and moving around affecting everyone. He also verified a “euphoric feeling” that seemed to hit us all at the same time that made us unstable on our feet. He compared it a wind blowing through the church that seemed to make some people laugh, some people shout with excitement and a personal feeling better than any drug. Apparently, he and the other guys kept going back to the church (I only went once) for that very reason and would bring others to experience it. Said it would happen randomly. I asked if he knew how to get a hold of the other guys, and like me, he hadn’t talked with anyone for 25+ yrs. However, he did have the name of a town for one of them, so I took that.

After some Google searches, I was able to come up with a name and phone number. Called this guy and he was REALLY shocked to hear from me. It was an awkward conversation at first, as he was trying to figure out the motive for my phone call after all these years. I explained I was trying to verify something and asked if he remembered being in that specific church with all of us 25+ years ago. He verified it, so I asked if he remembered anything strange or unusual about that church or the service we were in. Silence. He asked why I wanted to know. Awkward. I told him I remembered something unusual happening, but couldn’t put my finger on it and wanted to know he if remembered anything. Without going into details, he also verified the experience and his version which was similar to both of ours.

In both cases, I allowed the person to tell me their version of the experience instead of telling mine first. I have two more guys to contact; we’ll see what they say. I’m not implying that this proves anything other than the experience appeared to be more than just a case of the “giggles” or “contagious laughter”. Both of the guys I talked with last night alluded to a euphoric or ecstatic feeling more than a laughing fit. They both confirmed it happened quickly and when it appeared to reach our section of the church, it was hard to keep our balance. They both went back to that church and said the same experience happened several times after that. Sorry for the long e-mail, it was just hard to let it go.

His Letter 4:



You bring up a valid point that individual people and groups of people experience laughter, excitement, and euphoria. Especially when at symphonies, ballets, operas, sporting events, movies, etc. You’ve pointed out that people experience uncontrollable laughter. I get all that, promise.

Here’s the dilemma in my mind. No instruments were being played to stir emotions, no one was singing, we weren’t watching a performance, and it happened rapidly (within a matter of seconds). I get laughing and not being able to stop, but this wasn’t about laughing uncontrollably. Laughter was involved, however, it was out of an overwhelming euphoric feeling rather than laughing because someone next to me was laughing.

Two of the guys verified independently that it appeared to be something we couldn’t see that caused those feelings and our momentary imbalance. They verified it happened rapidly, they had trouble keeping their balance, the feelings were indescribable, and nothing special was going on in the church other than the pastor talking up front. I have a meeting set up with another one of the guys who happens to live in the same city. Haven’t seen him for years and I’m curious to hear his recollection of that experience.

Honestly, I don’t have an agenda here. I’d like to think I am critical thinker, an atheist/agnostic and definitely not religious. Not sure where the word “miracle” came from, but the only thing I’m implying is that I couldn’t find a natural cause for this experience. Just seems strange that I thought it was caused by something I couldn’t see and the two other guys I’ve talked with independently verified the same thing without my prompting or leading questions. If it was a natural cause, you’d think at least one of us would bring that up.

You’ve made general sweeping statements that these kinds of things happen all the time to people and groups of people. I’ve never run across anyone in my lifetime who’s had an experience like this, in the setting I described, with independent verification from others who couldn’t figure out why it happened. Maybe I need to get out more often.

His Letter 5 (with the segments of my reply he included in his letter, as well as the clarification I mentioned earlier):

I get your point, you think a group of people got a case of the giggles, the people next to them caught it and so on. People laughed so hard they felt euphoric and some even ROLFed. Got it.

You’re too focused on the laughter, which makes sense, it’s the easiest explanation. The problem is, I mentioned other factors like a euphoric feeling and loss of balance. The euphoric feeling and loss of balance happened first, the laughter followed. The laughter was because of the euphoric feeling, not because someone next to us happened to be laughing. If the laughing came first, I’d concede your point. Besides, I’ve experienced contagious laughter and this wasn’t even close to that. In fact, I’ve never been a part of a contagious laughter situation in a large group that appeared to spread in a matter of seconds. without some type of stimulus (e.g. comedian)

>>>Feelings are NOT caused by external input.<<<

[The clarification I mentioned earlier: Physical response, such as vomiting or loss of balance, is not what people generally are discussing when they say “feelings”; “Feelings” are usually used to represent emotional responses, and that is precisely how I intended it to be used. I interpreted him to be using “euphoria” in the emotional context of feelings of happiness and exhilaration. While such emotional response is caused by physical brain activity, we generally do not conflate physical responses with emotional ones. So, when I say “emotional pain” you do not think of that as burning your had on a hot iron. And when I say “physical pain” you don’t confuse that with grief that accompanies the loss of a child. We generally differentiate the two even though they both require physical response. Emotional response is a function of brain feedback. Physical response can be induced by physical stimuli. I do get this. However, comparing a feeling of “euphoria” at a symphony with a feeling of riding a roller coaster is not, in my view, a reasonable comparison, for these reasons.]

You can’t be serious? I take it you’ve never been on a rollercoaster, jumped out of a plane, been drunk or had sex? Touched a flame? I get that once you touch the flame, you can’t feel the pain sensation until signals are sent from the brain, but c’mon.

Your belief is the laughter (or no external input) was the cause of the euphoric feeling and loss of balance. My story is, the euphoric feeling and loss of balance came first, then the laughter (similar to jumping out a plane, feeling the rush of free falling 200 mph towards the ground and then getting excited). Not much else to say. The two guys I talked with gave the same story, maybe I’m making this into a bigger deal than it really was.

###

That’s the last I’ve received so far. I don’t expect there to be more. But if he writes back I will direct him to this blog post where he can see if it’s the consensus of other skeptical thinkers that I’ve been unreasonable in rejecting his claims as he’s described them, or he’s been gullible for accepting them as anything but mundane.

Teen Challenge Ranch—Pentecostal Rehab

I was contacted awhile ago by Tyler, a young atheist living in a Christian town in a Christian family surrounded by Christian friends. Not an uncommon story. At the time he was struggling with coming out and concerned about potential loss of his social support network and how others would react to his deconversion. Since that time he has come out as a strong atheist and anti-theist, lost friends along the way, but seems happier and more confident these days.

He had shared his history with me when he first contacted me. He was raised in a fairly moderate Christian home and experienced a very average American upbringing, until, at 16, he landed in juvenile detention on drug charges. That’s when things began to change, not just socially but religiously. According to his account, he wasn’t addicted or having trouble due to drugs. Like many young people he was experimenting and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when he was remanded to his mother, she informed him he would be going to the Teen Challenge Ranch in Northwest Arkansas—an all-boy Christian rehabilitation center for troubled youth in the mountains near Fayetteville.

“My parents had a list from Teen Challenge of what to pack and what not to…I needed all of the normal hygiene products, collared shirts and other appropriate clothing, and a NIV Bible. They also wanted me to bring an alarm clock, but it could not have a radio because they said they did not want anything ‘worldly’ interfering with my rehabilitation. The list of things we could not bring was quite a bit larger, though. We could not bring anything that was not Christian with us. No music, literature (not that I read that much back then anyway), no television, and no movies that were not approved by the staff. If it did not praise the Lord, it was not allowed.”

The Ranch itself sounds not unlike other such facilities, but clearly my interest is in the integration of religion into the program. As a Christian facility, it would seem expected that there would be a regular religious study of some sort—weekly or biweekly? But according to Tyler:

“The counselors informed me we would have three-a-day Bible study, which I was not too enthused about. I had been to Sunday school every Sunday for the better part of my life. But studying the Bible three times a day? I did not like studying the Bible for 30 minutes a week, much less three times a day for a total of three hours. That just seemed exhausting. I did not know much of the Bible, either. So, that worried me a little. Would I have to study harder than the rest of the class? I really did not know what to expect. And, somehow, this time spent in Bible study was suppose to be helping with my drug addiction. I did not need help with drugs; I had made my mind up that I was done with them while sitting in jail. But I was curious nonetheless. Also, I was told we would be going to a Pentecostal church twice a week in Fayetteville. We would be attending on Wednesday nights, and Sunday mornings. This was the first time I had heard the rehab center was Pentecostal. I did not really know what Pentecostal was, so none of this bothered me at the time.”

It didn’t take long for Tyler to learn what “Pentecostal” was:

“The chapel was where everyone got together for worship and Bible study. It was a small room painted light blue with a large wooden cross leaning on a bench. When we went into the chapel, the lights were dimmed and the counselors were standing around in a circle waiting for us to enter and join with them. We all joined the circle and the counselors introduced me as the new student. We all were told to tell something about ourselves and what we wanted to accomplish from being at the Ranch. Everyone went through it quickly, and then it was time for Bible study. Everyone grabbed their Bibles and got ready for the lesson. It was just a normal Sunday school lesson which did not differ too much from what I was accustom to. When the lesson was done, it was time for worship. I had no idea what they had meant by ‘worship.’ I thought ‘worship’ was what we had just done by reading the Bible and praying. I was so wrong. The counselors turned on some upbeat Christian music, and everyone started dancing around in a circle. They were praying out loud and holding their hands up. I looked over to the person next to me to see if I could get some sort of confirmation for thinking this was completely nuts, but he had his eyes closed and was jumping up and down. I was just standing in shock. I was a Christian, but all of this stuff was what I had heard about on the news and thought was insane behavior. In my eyes, this was not worship. My version of worship was mouthing the words to hymnals on Sunday morning. Some of the students were crying as they held both hands up and rocked back and forth. Some of the students had their heads bowed praying in the corners of the room with other students’ hands on their shoulders because, apparently, they believed the Holy Spirit worked better if believers touched each other while praying. One of the students looked up at the ceiling and started blurting out incoherent words and other nonsense. I did not know then, but this was called speaking in tongues. Finally, one of the counselors came over to me and said that if I was not comfortable with all of this, I could sit down on some steps in a dark part of the room. I was relieved that this was not a requirement, but that did not ease my dread of the months which would be spent in chapel. I was alone in a place I had never been before, with people I had never met who were doing things which I thought were crazy. I could not talk to my parents and tell them how insane these people were acting. I was completely alone.”

“School” at the Ranch “was taught by Christian home school books, and Jesus was on every page. For example, if you were studying math, the books would give you a Bible story on each side of the page to show how the mathematical problem could be used to glorify the Lord. And, science didn’t exist in these classes. The only science that was taught in these classes was either misleading, incorrect, or muddled with scripture.”

The daily routine consisted of the following: “After breakfast, it was time to get ready for Bible study. Then we were off to school. After school, it was time for another Bible study and then lunch. Everyday after lunch we would have a midday break and free time. We usually stayed in our lobbies or went to the gym. Free time did not last very long after lunch; then it was time for school again. Class lasted for about two hours, and we were released with free time until about 6:30 at night when we would eat supper in the cafeteria. Directly after supper, we would have Chapel until 8:30. Then it was time to get ready for lights out at 9:00. We could stay up as late as we wanted at night as long as we were in our rooms, but we still had to be up 6:00.”

Additionally, “We could only have one phone call home a week, and that was with a counselor. I did not have anyone around me that I knew and could not talk to anyone that I did know. And the people who were around me seemed certifiably insane.”

Eventually Tyler decided he needed to call home and have a conversation with his family away from the counselors’ scrutiny. Although the story of his escape from the facility is intriguing, suffice to say he was eventually able to call home. He explained the religious insanity to his mother, but she held firmly that the rehabilitation was for his own good and that he should stick with it. He sneaked back into the facility that same night and resolved to make more of an effort to work within the program.

“A couple weeks had gone by, and I slowly began to stop distancing myself from the counselors and other students. I did not like some of the things that went on in chapel, but I did not want to be an outsider anymore. I was growing tired of sitting in the corner of the room while everyone else was in a circle worshiping. Even if it was not the sam
e as I was used to, I still wanted to be a part of it.

“One night after Bible study, I stepped into their circle of worship for the first time since the night I arrived at the Ranch. As soon as one of the counselors saw me, he came over and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He told me to just let go and give myself to God. So, I put my hands up toward the ceiling like the other students. I swayed to the music and sang along. Eventually, I stopped feeling embarrassed by what I was doing because everyone else was doing it. I became used to it. Then, a euphoric calm came over me. It felt like God really was there and wanted me to be happy. It was as though I was a child again and had no doubts about god at all—when just the thought of God gave me comfort. I began to cry. I did not know why I was crying, but it actually felt good. The counselor was still behind me. He saw that I was crying and pulled me over to the corner of the room. He told me that I had to ask for forgiveness and that I needed to let God into my heart. I told him that God was already in my heart, but he would not accept that. He said that I needed to ask. I got down on my knees, and I began to pray what he told me to pray. I asked Jesus into my heart and for him to be my personal savior. The other students saw that I was praying and came over to put their hands on me. By the time I had finished praying, everyone in the room was behind me with one hand on my back and the other hand held up toward the ceiling. Most of them had tears in their eyes as I did. I stood up and everyone gave me a hug and, basically, congratulated me. One of the counselors turned the music off, and we started back to the dorms. Just as we were walking in the door, I heard one of the counselors whisper to the other, ‘another soul saved, brother.’”

So, the behavior Tyler had considered crazy had now been normalized, rewarded and reinforced—techniques anyone who has been indoctrinated should recognize, even if you’re not Pentecostal. Tyler went on field trips to religious youth festivals and concerts and began to be more integrated into the Pentecostal movement—meeting more people socially who subscribed to the beliefs and behaviors, which continued to reinforce the doctrines in his own mind.

After a few months, Tyler was allowed a home visit over the Christmas holiday. His new beliefs impacted his reunion with stress and concern that his family was not truly saved, and mistrust of their “worldly” attitudes. This is an issue we hear quite often from openly atheist parents whose children are being indoctrinated by partners/ex-partners or other family members.

“My grandparents had arranged to pick me up…On the way home, I talked to my grandparents about my family; about whether they were really saved. I was worried about my father and mother. I knew they went to church a lot when I was little, but they had stopped going and were not living their lives like the Teen Challenge counselors said we should. I did not want my parents to go to hell. My father concerned me more than anyone else in my family. He believed in god, but besides condemning blasphemous behavior, he never acted like he did. My grandparents were not too welcoming of the fact that I did not believe my father was truly Christian, though. They repeatedly tried to convince me otherwise and made excuses for him.

“Also, I told them about how I had thought about becoming a missionary. My grandfather frowned on the idea, asking me how I would make money and said that it is not a good lifestyle. I did not understand this because I thought he would be happy to hear that I would be living the way Jesus would have wanted me to; I would be saving souls. He was one of the people the counselors had warned us about. He was someone who said they believed but did not really want to give his life to Jesus. And when I thought about it, everyone I knew was not really a believer.”

And so Tyler began to distrust his own family and fear their impact on his own salvation. It’s not uncommon for believers to be “warned” to not become too involved with people outside of their belief system (including family and close friends) who could confound their thinking and undermine their faith. “Worldly” interaction may be necessary, but should not exceed necessary levels. These types of teachings drive huge wedges within families. It’s another concern we hear all the time in our viewer mail.

Eventually Tyler’s time away from the Ranch resulted in a mild breakdown of the indoctrination, due in part to an interest he developed in a girl he met while visiting home. However, in attempting to resolve the doubts and conflicts that had arisen, he turned right back to the techniques he’d been taught by The Ranch:

“The first week back from Christmas break was horrible. I felt more depressed than I had my entire life. I wanted to go home and be with my new girlfriend and the people I knew. I prayed a lot during the first weeks back, but nothing helped. The counselors did not help too much either. They would just say that we cannot expect to be happy all of the time. That our happiness with God comes and goes. I thought that sounded absurd. Why would God not want me to be happy if I loved and believed in him? Was God punishing me for my new girlfriend? Was I on the wrong path? Does he want me to be Baptist or Pentecostal? All of these questions, and many more, were running through my mind at this time.”

So rather than step back to examine the issues objectively, he’d been taught to deal with doubt by diving into the very system he was doubting, even more deeply. This is another common indoctrination technique—teaching a person that the way to resolve doubts about faith is not to question or examine, but to pile on more faith. It makes as much sense as wondering if you’re the victim of a financial scam, and resolving the question by sending in more money, rather than researching the investment.

Eventually Tyler’s stint at the Ranch ended when he was involved with a physical altercation with a counselor. He recounts the ride to the bus station: “They lectured me and preached the whole way there. They condemned me for not wanting to be like those who wanted to spend their entire lives at the Ranch. I did not even try to argue with them. I was too happy to. I was finally going home.”

“It has been 10 years now. I am now a nonbeliever, I have not spoken to anyone at Teen Challenge since I left…

“I feel the Ranch had a lot to do with my disbelief. I came home from there not knowing what to believe. I felt that my beliefs were more Pentecostal, but Baptist churches were pretty much all that surround me in my home town. I went to our regular church on a number of occasions, but it just never felt right. So, I stopped going to church. I was always conflicted about what I actually believed. Was I “once saved always saved” as my Baptist upbringing had taught me? Or, did I have to keep striving to be like Jesus in order to be saved? Was speaking in tongues real? Or, did I just do that because I felt good and wanted to be like everyone else as a Baptist would suggest? All these questions made me want to look into what I actually believed.

“After many years, I finally stopped trying to figure out which Christian belief was right and started to doubt if any of the Christian beliefs I had were right. It was apparent to me that I would never find out whether the Pentecostal or Baptist beliefs were right, and because I could not find that out, I began to question how I knew any of my beliefs were right. It was a chain reaction. It was a long slow process, but after many years of research, and a lot of thinking, I began to think that there was no way for me to distinguish which beliefs were right because none of them were. No beliefs I had ever examined had good reasons to believe them. I still said I believed, though. I deeply wanted to believe in god and somewhat had these habits of belief that were ingrained into my t
hinking. Also, I had a real fear of hell that I could not get past. It all slowly faded away over the years, though. My fear of hell slowly vanished after questioning, just as all of my other beliefs had. I began to realize that I had no reason to believe it, and the only reason I had for so long was because I was scared of the possibility. The need to believe fell away shortly after I stopped fearing hell and the unknown. And I let myself search for the truth instead of what I wanted to see as the truth. I was finally free to think without being afraid of a hell which was built by a loving god. I was free to question whether any god existed. And I saw no reason to think that one did.”

Fear and threats of hell should not be underestimated as indoctrination mechanisms. The sheer number of people who use Pascal’s Wager demonstrates how many believers consider fear of hell a compelling “reason” to maintain belief. Fear of hell cannot reasonably influence an unbeliever, who does not accept hell exists. But for someone who believes in hell already, that fear is often sufficient to convince them that maintaining their belief is paramount, and doubts or questions far too risky. Overcoming that fear can be extremely problematic for people, even after they deconvert. I’ve compared it to an abused dog who cowers when a new, nonabusive owner lifts his hand to pat its head. It takes awhile to overcome childhood terrors that have been so deeply and methodically ingrained.

“I feel I should thank Teen Challenge for making me question the beliefs I held before I arrived at their facility. I feel I should thank them for giving me a place to stay when I needed to get away from drugs and alcohol. But, also, I understand how many troubled children and teenagers have been successfully brainwashed simply because these people manipulated them during a hard time in their lives. I understand that there are students who did not go home for Christmas and never had [anyone] to help them see reality. I understand all of this. So, a ‘Thank You’ will never leave my lips.”