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Nov 7, 2012

The Prayer Experiment

Two years ago a septuagenarian woman named “thea” (a nickname) living in the US southwest announced in an online religious debate group that she would begin praying for me. By doing so she provided an opportunity by which to test the effectiveness of prayer. I’ve been posting monthly updates on the progress of her prayers ever since. We just passed our second anniversary. This is the story of my forced march from atheism to theism. If you don’t read any further, for the record I’m still marching.

Thea’s specific prayer was for God to “make himself known to me.” When asked, she was not exactly forthcoming about what “making himself known to me” entails (thea doesn’t do straight answers), so I was left to interpret it to mean that she was praying for God to introduce himself to me in some unmistakable manner. If an omniscient God exists then he must know that nothing less than a direct meeting with him or one of his supernatural representatives would convince me to stop being an atheist. Of course meeting God would not necessarily mean I would worship God; it would only mean I would cease being an atheist. Thea is welcome to try to convince me God is worthy of worship after her prayer succeeds.
Thea “guaranteed” that her prayers for me would come true. My first to fifteenth response was to plead (politely!) for her not to pray for me:
“I'll say it again (for about the sixth time) why I don't want to be on your ikky prayer list, or any other kind of prayer list:
I consider your religious belief to be a delusion. I think it is bad for people to be delusional. If I say it's okay for you to put me on your prayer list then I would be participating in your delusion in a supportive way. I think it is immoral to support delusions. I don't want to be an immoral person. That is why I want you to take me off your prayer list.”
Even if I’m not particularly crazy about my phrasing, and even if I find prayer wonderfully absurd, I was quite sincere in the passage above. I really do want thea (and everyone else, for that matter) to enjoy good mental health, for all our sake.

The primary reason (which was lost on thea) for not wanting to be prayed upon was that I didn’t want to enable a belief I consider to be psychopathic: if God exists he is responsible for the eternal torture a billions of people if he exists, and (mass) torture is a (very) psychopathic act. From my perspective approving thea’s prayers would be like buying heroin for a junkie. It didn’t seem right for thea to force me to commit what I consider to be an immoral act - conspiring with a psychopathic regime, even if it only exists in her psyche. In the larger moral picture, wouldn’t a society that worships a psychopath be more prone to committing psychopathic acts? It sure would if history and current events are any indicator.

So thea thought it would be better to force me to compromise my morals than grant me my wish. Here is one of thea’s typical refusals (all quotes are copied and pasted verbatim, with spelling and grammar errors intact):
“You believe that there isn't a God but you still don't want to be on my ikky prayer list -- doesn't make sense to me -- you don't believe HE Exists - but you are adamant about me not praying for you. What gives - something is wrong with this view - and for some reason it's not me. I believe and you don't. It's the story of the tavern owner who believes the Christian's God burned his tavern down - and the church people who say they had nothing to do with it. Turn it around - a Christian believes that to pray for someone is the best thing they can be doing - and someone who doesn't believe that there is a God wants you to quit praying????”
Not quite, thea - someone (me) who doesn’t believe that there is a God wants you to quit praying for them.

Thea never would explain what an “ikky prayer list” is (again, thea doesn’t do straight answers). I assume it either means she was praying for God to do something “ikky” to me (like emerging from a crowd and punching me in the head), or she was praying for God to make me less “ikky” (if that’s the case her prayers have failed miserably). Beyond that, I’m stumped.

Thea refused all fifteen (I often keep informal count – it increases the pressure to respond) of my (polite!) requests for her to stop. Okay, by the fifteenth time I was typing in capital letters and using enough exclamation points to get Elaine Benes to break up with me ($10 to the first person to spot the other two Seinfeld references in this post). Isn’t it okay to try shouting when diplomacy fails? Isn’t shouting better than threatening her with eternal torture?
Punctuation Expert

Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Not that Einstein was a psychologist, but I agree with him here, even if it took fifteen rounds of doing things over and over again while getting the same result for me to realize Thea would never, ever agree to stop praying for me. I also suspect her refusals were a form of trash talk. She seemed a little too sanctimoniously giddy whenever she said “no” to me. She said I was on her “ikky prayer list.” I smelled shadenfreude. I may be paranoid (I’m not usually), but she even seemed to take perverse pleasure in refusing my requests, like she was squirting a demon with holy water.


I sometimes feel like I am clubbing a baby seal when debating with thea; she’s in her 70’s and possibly not the most cuspidated threshold mechanical operation facilitator in the mechanical operation facilitator rectangular metal receptacle (use a thesaurus, dammit – I certainly did!), forgive me for saying so. I don’t want to club baby seals, I don’t want to beat dead horses, and I really don’t want to browbeat thea. I also didn’t want to drop the subject – it didn’t sit well with me. I reminded myself that thea is voluntarily participating in a debate group, she is strong-willed, feisty, resolute, and dishes it out at ten times the rate that she takes it. She may even like feeling like she’s being persecuted like some of the other Christians do, I guess it makes them feel closer to Jesus, or appear more like him. Whenever I think I should take it easy on poor old thea I remind myself that she regularly says stuff like this:
“I will take this a step further and say -- that all men who do not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who sent His Son, Jesus ---- ARE HOMOSEXUAL IN THE BIBLICAL SENSE”
This is magnificently offensive! Is it right to remain silent, whatever excuses someone may have, whatever sympathy you may feel towards them, when they spew venom like this? Not for me, it turns out. However fond I may be of thea I still want to vaporize her antisocial religious beliefs. I don’t think challenging thea’s charming religious beliefs is quite in the same league as threatening others with eternal torture, but it’s the most my conscience allows me.

In her missive above thea simultaneously manages to imply that all atheists are homosexuals, non-homosexual homosexuals are atheists, not all homosexuals are homosexual, condemns homosexuals for being atheist, and condemns all non-homosexual homosexuals for being atheist. The best thing is that from getting to know thea I’m pretty sure she was trying her best here to be tolerant towards gays. I would love to know what “in the Biblical sense” means in this context, but as I said before, thea doesn’t do straight answers.

Speaking of sex, thea regularly commands her audience to go forth and multiply (I really, really wish she had her own reality show):

·       “Hump!  and here I thought that the *angel of light* as the Bible says not only was Satan”
·       “Hump!  And here I agree with a lot of what you are saying”
·       “Hump!  Very interesting times we live in”
·       “Hump!  and you didn't even smile when you said it?”
·       “Hump!  and that's why we get hit by meteorites huh!”
·       “Hump, and mental illness used to be treated as *Satanic*.”
·       “Hump!  and the Catholics have more chance of making heaven than the rest of Christianity religion all together.”
·       “Hump!  the way the cell phones didn't work this weekend, and the fact that everyone is yelping about their phones being messed up - I don't think the phone have much to do with the miracle of selling a car that has needed to be sold” (note her role as triumphant heroine – she miraculously sold a car. She’s also miraculously sold houses and miraculously found jobs. Funny, when I do those same things I’m still an atheist; I guess it’s the way in which you do it that counts. Maybe I need to hold my right elbow higher.
· And my personal favourite: “Hump, half of Christian denominations believe that putting a cross around ones neck is wrong - and you are worshipping an idol when you do it. The other half say they do it because it helps them remember? So - pardon me - your hump hump if you do and your hump hump if you don't.”

“Hump!” is of course thea’s superb substitute for the word “fuck.” In her efforts to avoid swearing she ironically manages to conjure the image of sex even more than “fuck” does. Maybe I’m just numb from watching too many HBO shows.

Here’s another one of thea’s astounding offensive remarks. I’m not easily shocked (I was shocked by Jonestown and I was shocked by 9/11, and that’s about all I can remember). Thea, however, has psychically electrocuted me several times with some of the things she says. This is thea greeting a new Christian to our debate group:
“We are glad to have another voice for correct reasoning ability in the power of the Holy Spirit. Praise be to God the Father for joining us. Put an Iron Shield around you -- and make sure your feelings are not ever on your sleeve - because this is a gang of thieves!”
Are you kidding? More trash talk? This is a religious version of “your momma wears army boots.” That it was uttered by a representative of an organization who proudly and loudly claims to be torturing my beloved (atheist) half Italian momma for all eternity made it even more offensive! She was calling the group of perfectly nice, reasonable, and hilarious people (my fellow atheists) a gang of “criminals.” I know they (the other atheists) hardly need my help, but I’m sorry, I just wanted to kick thea’s religious ass. The problem was that while asking thea not to pray for me was fun(ny), it had ultimately failed. I needed a new strategy, one in which I didn’t have to rely on thea’s co-operation

The Hypothesis

At the time when thea began praying for me I happened to be reading the seminal psychology book called “When Prophecy Fails” by the psychologist Leon Festinger. As I was reading I realized it had certain parallels to my situation with thea: she had made a prophecy that could be tested, and thea exhibited cognitive dissonance as whenever her beliefs were disconfirmed. “When Prophecy” Fails is the book that really introduced the concept of “cognitive dissonance” into the public awareness:

Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the state of holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.
An example of this would be the conflict between wanting to smoke and knowing that smoking is unhealthy; a person may try to change their feelings about the odds that they will actually suffer the consequences, or they might add the consonant element that the short term benefits of smoking outweigh the long term harm. The need to avoid cognitive dissonance may bias one towards a certain decision even though other factors favour an alternative.
In his book, Festinger and some colleagues infiltrated a UFO cult (with Christian and occult overtones) in the American Midwest. The cultists had had predicted the world would end in a flood on a specific date (December 21st, 1954) and Festinger wanted to see how they would behave when their prophesised Armageddon came and went. Festinger’s team posed as fellow cult members. The believers consisted of a motley crew of a dozen or so members (housewives, a psychologically distressed college professor, naive students, garden-variety narcissists), and they believed that aliens were coming to rescue a chosen few (shockingly, them) and take them away on spaceships. Their cognitive dissonance (simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs: the prophecies came from telepathic and vastly superior beings and the vastly superior beings were wrong) was triggered when their apocalyptic prophecy failed to come true on the predicted date. The believers needed to reduce their dissonance one way or the other – either justify their failed UFO belief or abandon it. They justified it with a vengeance. Festinger surprisingly found that disconfirmation caused increased belief – the UFO cultists actually increased their proselytizing when their prophecy failed, and made a deeper commitment to their faith. In fact, they then made new prophecies (and got national media attention), which also failed. Festinger found that the length of time that they clung to their falsified belief depended on how much of themselves they had committed to the belief: how much time and thought and reputation they had invested, how much access to like-minded individuals they had, etc. Most of the believers in the book lasted through several failed prophecies before the group finally disintegrated. If thea’s prayers for me fail then she should she should show signs of cognitive dissonance like increased proselytizing, revised prophecies, new prophecies, etc.

Leon Festinger


The Experiment



Like the UFO cultists in When Prophecy Fails, thea had (unwittingly, I’m certain) made a concrete, falsifiable prophecy – that God would “make himself known to me.” Even though she had not provided a specific date, there remained by inference a finite, quantifiable range of dates by which to test her prayers – our remaining lifespans (hers and mine). If I should die before thea without meeting God that I’m aware of then her prayers will have failed and I will have died an unrepentant disbeliever. If thea dies before me and I haven’t met God in some way that I’m aware of then her prayers will have failed because she can’t possibly pray for me any longer (post-mortem prayers don’t count). The only fair way that her prayers could be said to have succeeded is if God reveals himself to me in a way that I’m aware of while thea and I are both still alive. I have added the rider “that I’m aware of” because I know from painful experience that some (i.e. most) Christians will inevitably argue that God has already made himself known to me, except I just don’t know it (of course this means thea is right whether I’m aware of God or not, which wasn’t the deal). This is a shifting of the burden of proof from thea on to me (we have to keep reminding theist debaters that logical fallacies are supposed to be avoided entirely, not trotted out as often as possible). It is not my responsibility to make thea’s prayers come true. I do not have to pray, I do not have to confess, I don’t have to watch Joel Ostein (what a relief), I don’t have to lift a finger. In fact, like a Jew on the Sabbath I should not do any work whatsoever to help out thea. If I did it would influence the experiment: there would be no way of telling whether God was answering me or thea. No, it is up to God to answer thea’s prayers as per the conditions set forth by thea.

The experiment consists me observing whether or not God has made himself known to me, and me making regular (monthly) updates on the status of my atheism. If God (or any other supernatural representative from his so-called monotheistic pantheon) should identify themselves to me during the course of a month I will report it. If they don’t, I will report it. I will provide objective, verifiable, and falsifiable evidence if and when I meet God; if I can’t produce scientifically acceptable evidence and I still insist I have met God then I will submit to psychological examinations and a drug test in case I’m hallucinating. In summary, I am using thea’s prophetic prayers to falsify Festinger’s experiment on cognitive dissonance in a casual, non-academic, and pseudo-humourous way.

Cognitive dissonance aside, the experiment raises other interesting theological issues. Why, if thea’s prayers fail and God exists, would God ignore her? I see three possibilities:
  • He doesn’t particularly like thea. 
  • He doesn’t particularly like me.
  • He doesn’t exist, which makes it difficult for him to answer thea’s prayers.

Thea really has a lot riding on the success of her prayers. We’ll have to wait for the results of the test for an answer.

The Subject

Fun septuagenarian woman
As I said, thea is a Christian woman in her 70’s living in the southwest US. I picture Granny Clampett from old The Beverly Hillbillies TV show when I think of thea; she seems way more fun than the woman portrayed in American Gothic. A fellow atheist imagines as an aged “biker chick.” I’m not so sure. She’s married but doesn’t say much about her husband; I’m not sure if they had children. Thea is not shy about revealing personal information online – in fact, she quite likely enjoys it – nothing I say here is what she doesn’t share internationally, and I’m limiting my description relative to her religious beliefs.
Boring septuagenarian woman

The vast majority of thea’s frequent autobiographical anecdotes cast her as the triumphant heroine, conquering conspirators (religious, psychologists, medical, government, males) and righteously confronting idiots. She is the daughter of a preacher. She talks about her father a lot (I can’t remember if he was strict or liberal with her); he obviously has had a deep influence on her. I have never heard her talk about her mother. I have a feeling thea desperately wanted to preach but couldn’t because she’s female (a male conspiracy, probably a real one), but ultimately it would be because she is often nearly incoherent (this has nothing to do with her age). I believe thea eventually left her father’s Christian sect for one she could call her own. She is now a Dispensationalist; I’m not sure what denomination she was when she was a child.

Thea says she went to college, and if I recall correctly left school after one year. Her dropping out may have had something to do with a lesson she learned from her philosophy professor, a lesson she’s recited to us at least a dozen times: “you can’t really know anything.” Maybe she figured if that’s the case then why bother with college? Besides religion, and probably because of religion, and certainly from a lack of education, thea believes pre-scientific such things as the earth is “hung in space” like coat on a coat hanger:
“Since heaven according to my calculation is out beyond the North Pole (since the earth was hung in space - Job) it will be most interesting to see how God did it all. When the Atom is split -- how much of the earth is going to vaporize? Yes, I know, scientist say it ain't gonna happen - but, scientist are just learning - they don't know for sure. So - when are we gonna vaporize?”

She also doesn’t seem to realize that the atom was split decades ago (and that only a bit of the earth was vaporized) even though she lived through Hiroshima and the Cold War).
Speaking of Hiroshima, thea believes that God caused the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago because the Japanese are not Christian (“most of the Japanese people do not believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”). Charming, huh? She also joyfully regaled us with how her prayers caused a tree to fall on a neighbour’s property instead of hers during a windstorm. It didn’t occur to her that her prayers may cause property damage next door. Better their yard than hers, praise Jesus!

As I said earlier, thea is a Dispensationalist, which according to her entails the belief that the Earth was created three times, and that there used to be a race of giants who lived on a previous incarnation of our planet (which conveniently explains why there’s no fossils). Here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on Dispensationalism:

As a system, dispensationalism is rooted in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and the Brethren Movement. The theology of dispensationalism consists of a distinctive eschatological "end times" perspective, as all dispensationalists hold to premillennialism and most hold to a pretribulation rapture. Dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israel (not necessarily the same as the state of Israel) is distinct from the Christian Church, and that God has yet to fulfill his promises to national Israel. These promises include the land promises, which in the future world to come result in a millennial kingdom and Third Temple where Christ, upon his return, will rule the world from Jerusalem for a thousand years. In other areas of theology, dispensationalists hold to a wide range of beliefs within the evangelical and fundamentalist spectrum.

Here’s another:

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.
I must interject here, if I may interject upon myself (yes, I may). After years of sweating through various books and online lectures (my policy is three times each), I fantasize that I finally have a passable (layman’s) understanding of particle physics, which is commonly reputed to be a difficult subject. Dispensationalism, however, is several dozen magnitudes more complicated and opaque than any quantum physics I’ve seen. If you’re not convinced, consider the Dispensationalist diagram below and compare it to the Feynman diagram beneath it. I weep to think of all the great minds that might have been poring over reality rather than fantasy. We might all be immortal and own flying robots by now if it weren’t for religion. Bastards. Diatribe over.


Uncomplicated Dispensationalist Diagram
Complicated Particle Physics Diagram


  

When seriously challenged, thea’s arguments tend to collapse in four ordered, predictable emotional phases, starting with giddy joy (“tra-la-la, Jesus gives me everything I want and not you, praise Jesus”), to righteous confusion as she regales us with a torrent of unrelated doctrine and irrelevant autobiographical anecdotes, next into a homicidal rage (expressed as threats of Hell) when irrevocably cornered, and finally into a religious fervor as she rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of her incoherent arguments (expressed as chants and incantations meant to drown out the devil’s whisperings - the religious equivalent of putting your fingers in your ear while repeating “I can’t hear you”). I half expect her to start typing in tongues.

For the sake of reference, thea’s punishment fantasies for the unbeliever consists of them spending an “eternity of regret” floating around alone in a dark void, where they shall spend their time “gnashing their teeth.” She often reminds me of this when I send her into an advanced state of stage three homicidal rage. She’s too non-violent to fantasize the standard stuff about sinners being burned in a fiery lake of sulfur; that would be sadistic I guess. Here is thea as she descends from stage three punishment fantasies into classic stage four fire and brimstone prophet mode, replete with archaic Biblical phrasing (“dieth,” “thee”) as she gets wound up:

“Oh, the fact that hell is going to appear for all of us to see in about 1200 years is really going to make things interesting. It will be the truly mad day that people know for sure that they were so stupid that they didn't accept the Free Gift of God's Grace for their salvation from it. And to think that they will be in *outer darkness* forever, weeping and gnashing their teeth because they were stupid. The *black hole* is coming - the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate of speed. The sun is acting up and didn't start it's sun spot cycle on time like it usually does. Look at what science is teaching about the universe, and then tell me that all will be well with thee. The *worm* within us of the Spirit that God gives us with the first breath of air we take, dieth not but lives forever. Which way do you plan on going -- to heaven or hell?”
While I am not a psychologist, I am a fascinated and reasonably well-read layman. I think we are all laymen when it comes to psychology; we all constantly analyze each other. Aren’t most of our conversations about why we do what we do? This is such basic behaviour that it must be genetically hardwired. Among other things, psychology is a defense against predators, including predators of the human variety. I mention this because I am about to discuss briefly some of my amateur observations about the psychology of belief as manifested by online theist debaters. The next few paragraphs briefly profile a few of the different theist psychologies I’ve encountered (including thea’s). It is my conviction that religious belief is rationally explained by psychology. For the vast majority of believers their religiosity is simply the psychology of childhood indoctrination – they believe because they were taught as children to believe. Many online debaters require more explanation than that, however. Some things they say are just too disturbed to have been a result of indoctrination. Most theists are quiet about their beliefs so I can’t know for sure, but I doubt the online debaters are typical theists. I sure hope they’re not typical, because if they are I’m moving to Antarctica. Considering some of the quotes you’ll see below - and I have lots more - you might want to move there too.

There seems to be a concentration (more so than with any other random group I’ve ever been part of) of schizophrenics – diagnosed and undiagnosed. I speak as someone with a lot of experience (again, not as a psychologist) with clinical schizophrenics. For whatever that’s worth, I can think of no explanation for the following post besides schizophrenia. This passage was typical for this writer. We haven’t heard from him for a year or two:

“I am A son of God and to boot a chosen friend to Jesus and i am also the lowest of all the kingdom that you are even lower and not part of it. i offer you the truth beyond all religions and all faiths and all of it is in the laws of science and proved in the scriptures and historical sites... I am beyond all of you and I judge you all. I prove jesus 100% and you dummies can't even see the ARK or the lands of JOB to prove you are so blind you can't even see shapes! if you are so blind and narrow minded fools...how can you learn of writing and words and how important they were to the people that did not know them and were offered them to live past death in them...we have all the proof in the world and you have hate and hate alone..I will eat you all! you will all pass in history as fools for others to spit on and say you were not of God and not of humanity but the beast against life and too dumb to know better. We of God offer your race long term existence...you choose extinction. All is exactly as written and you still are too dumb to see it. Things like the number of the beast and the number of man are exact same and in the exact time the ANTI CHrist GWBush that did exactly the 100% opposite of what ever jesus would of done and did the SATANIC 911 and sacrificed the lot of people to the monster Best and then sold right out in a done deads the whole population of the USA... you were sold like cattle and too dumb to know you were reduced to cattle and sold for 4 trillion dollars. and now owe 6 back plus the debt of SATAN made before... the USA now has a 100 year long debt to pay and it can't even make the minimum payment so poor it is in the evil addiction to the riches of others. We have won...you have lost and now we take the planet and you shall pass in history as a failure. Your hate is what blinded you and your hate is what we will spit on for all times to come to till your very name is worn away and nothing of you ios left to remember... we only keep the good and the best examples... we are of our own kind... you refused glory and eternal place...we don't care why you prefer to die and be nothing but it is granted! In a million years my name will exist but you will not have a name to exist under...that is the justice of God on you.”
Disturbing. Disturbed. Thea, however, is not schizophrenic.

Some comments may not be psychotic but they are red alert psychopathic in their utter lack of empathy. Tell me that psychology isn’t an appropriate tool for interpreting the following rant (and no, this person is not trolling):

“Well, since God really hates sin, he's going to seem like a psychopathic monster to you when he unleashes his full wrath and anger, without holding anything back, on you, as if you were the only one in Hell, the only object of his wrath and anger, day and night, forever and ever. You're going to wish
you'd never been born. It will seem like torture to you. Extreme torture. But you will deserve every second of it, so it won't really be torture. It will be horrific torment and anguish and pain, for ever and ever. And you'll somehow know that you deserve it.

I strongly suggest you get used to the idea.

For me, he's my merciful redeemer, for having chosen me to spend eternity in unspeakable joy and happiness and bliss, without end, in a new earth, the way it was originally meant to be. I can't wait.”

Torture is apparently acceptable when performed by God. Didn’t we all ski down this slippery slope during the Dark Ages? The problem is that non-psychopathic Christians (again, the vast majority) can’t argue convincingly that he’s wrong.

These authoritarian posters eagerly or icily (it varies with personality) defend God’s use of torture. In contrast, most Christians show guilt and shame when this uncomfortable subject is raised, or they just stop participating in the conversation altogether (denial is still a sign of a conscience). I’m not saying all of these debaters are psychopaths; I attribute the pervasive use of psychopathic language mostly to the effects that worshiping a mass torturer has on non-psychopaths. In other words, Christians sometimes talk like psychopaths because they worship one. I doubt the debate group is not much different from the general population; slightly less than 1% of the population are clinical psychopaths. Same thing for sociopaths (1 in 25, according to The Sociopath Next Door). The ratio is probably not much different online than it is offline, but it is also possible that religion attracts these sorts of psychologies. Either way, thea is not one of the sociopathic/psychopathic types with no conscience. She may have to be reminded she has one every now and then, but it’s certainly there.
Moses relaxing with his friends
I think thea is a self-appointed prophet whose defining trait is a relentless narcissism. The quotes above may be prophetic, but while all psychopaths are narcissists, not all narcissists are psychopaths – see the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. The difference may be that while narcissists desire to be admired via God, psychopaths desire to be feared via God. These grandiose prophets range in intensity from fiery (“you will all pass in history as fools for others to spit on”) to mild (“God will make himself known to you”). Note the narcissism in the passage by the intense prophet a couple of quotes above (“I am beyond all of you,” or “I prove jesus 100%”). Note the milder narcissism of thea’s triumphant heroine stories (“He didn't last long after that” – see below). And it must require a generous dose of narcissism to feel qualified to make pronouncements about the daily agenda of the allegedly incomprehensible (their word, not mine) Creator of the Universe. If God is “incomprehensible,” how can theists like thea presume to speak for God? Easy. They’re special. They have supernatural powers that the rest of us mundane saps don’t have; they have a personal relationship with God that others can’t begin to comprehend. Assuming these people aren’t really prophets then a rational explanation is that they wish to be worshiped vicariously through Christ. There have been some online prophets I’ve talked to who can’t wiggle their fingers on a keyboard without showing one or another of the following traits (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders it takes chronically displaying at least five of nine of the following traits to be diagnosed with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder):



1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)


2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love


3. Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)


4. Requires excessive admiration


5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations


6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends


7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others


8. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her


9. Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.

Is there a better platform for a narcissist than religion? By anointing yourself a prophet you can instantly be an expert on something without having to invest time or money in any college; you’re immediately as qualified as the Pope to speak on behalf of an incomprehensible God. The only obstacle to being “recognized as superior with commensurate achievements” comes from the religious marketplace – can you compete with the other prophets? Can you get your share of the profitable Christian demographic? It’s like football; there is the NFL and there are beer leagues. Internet debate groups must be the equivalent to a non-alcoholic beer league for a Christian. I’m guessing the more incoherent prophets eventually find themselves arguing with atheists while the competent ones enter the religious mainstream. Online prophets seem to carry a certain resentment towards their fellow believers.

Thea, for example, often protects atheist debaters from Christian debaters. She scolds Christians about doctrine. She regularly rails against organized Christianity, particularly as a male conspiracy to dominate women. She is incensed that women can’t be pastors in some of the churches she’s belonged to. Is this apparent feminism really an expression of narcissistic rage for not being accepted as a female prophet? If not, why not be direct and express her outrage at sexism in direct political terms rather than couch it in religious terms? And how feminist can you really be when you are an evangelical Christian? You’d have to abandon the Bible entirely to make that work.

Here is a typical example of thea’s typical autobiographical episodes:
“I attended a church service one Wednesday night with a girl friend who wanted to see what this one fellow was like since he was on the radio. He had a service where he used the name of *god* and pushed people into the arms of the men standing behind them. I told him that *god* had not been present in the service – and he kicked me out!! Never happened since - since I learned right then that he didn't have anything I wanted. And, my girl friend still laughs at me getting *kicked out*. He didn't last long after that.”
Note her role as triumphant heroine. She also possesses supernatural powers – she can detect God’s presence while others can’t. Here’s another example (addressed to me):
“Every once in a while you name will come up across my memory, and I immediately start praying for you, because apparently something might be happening, that the only way you are kept safe, is for me to be praying for you.”
Note the grandiosity: I am only alive because of her ability to get God to do what she wants, as if God were her trained monkey. Thea may not be a pathological narcissist as defined above, but I suspect it was a strong narcissistic streak that landed her in a “den of thieves” rather than in a peaceful countryside church congregation.
The Results
It’s been two years and I’m still an atheist, but thea and I are both still alive so the results aren't in. I hope the experiment lasts another fifty years. Hell, I hope it lasts forever; I’d love for us both to be immortal (you too!) as long as no gets tortured as part of the process. So with my deepest apologies to Leon Festinger I am next going to post a series of retrospectives (in chronological order) of my monthly reports and the various conversations and debates they generated.

4 comments:

Shripathi Kamath said...

Finally read the whole thing. Man, that's funny!

Shripathi Kamath said...

I still can't get over that chart of the dispensational ages or whatever the heck that is.

WTF is it, Neil?

Neil Kelsey said...

You tell me - please! I found it on Wikipedia.

Ron Brunk said...