Snake Oil in the 21st Century
by Gregory Tinkler
Special to Positive Atheism
May, 2001 satan
Prostitution has been called the oldest profession. If so, faith healing must run a close second. While the techniques of faith healing have been well-documented elsewhere (like James Randi's book The Faith Healers), people still fail to see through the same old veil of deception that has existed in one form or another since humanity first created the gods.
On Good Friday the 13th, my friend and I went to Charlotte, North Carolina, to see faith healer Benny Hinn in action. By volunteering as ushers, we obtained free entrance plus the ability to give ourselves backstage tours. In this article I will give a brief rundown on the methods employed by Benny Hinn and his cronies. Then I will reveal something that surprised me, even though I'd hope this is something every atheist already takes for granted.
If you have read The Faith Healers, then you won't hear anything new except Hinn's name. The curious thing is that he doesn't need to employ many of the standard techniques, such as cold readings: his show has reached the point where he can count on the crowd to whip themselves into a frenzy of belief. Any remaining doubt will quickly be removed by the slickness of the stage show. This was hands-down the most professionally run stage performance I've ever seen, considering that the lighting, camera work, and sound were manipulated right in front of the crowd. None of this detracts from the event; there are no hitches in the performance. If your "soul" isn't convinced by the glitz and glam, then this is where the music comes in. While I abhor Christian music, I was amazed at the quality of the singers' voices. These people could probably step right into the opera scene. Backed by a very large choir and excellent sound crew, one could easily be swept away on an aural tsunami.
Bright Lights, Big Jesus
The healing event is preceded by the conversion run. Those wishing to find Jesus may do so by coming up to the stage for a mass salvation. As any good Christian evangelist ought, Benny maintains that this is the most important part of the evening. No big surprise. Other religions are false, etc., and atheism apparently doesn't even deserve a mention.
Later comes the healing event. Unlike the call to salvation, the healing event brought on more cheering from the audience and was the most heavily stoked by the performers as well. Hmmm. This does not surprise me, since I'd guess that most people there were already converts. True, a substantial number accepted Jesus, but I'll wager they would have done this anyway (or did the last time they were there). The real goal of the performers seemed mostly to provide the faithful with reason to keep giving -- hence the term "revival."
Benny uses the "Anointing" method of healing, where the "Holy Spirit" flows forth throughout the entire arena (not unlike the fog machine pouring out smoke onto a dance-hall floor). This saves Benny the trouble of having to go through about 40,000 people individually. It also frees him from the shackles of annoyances such as crib sheets, audience plants, concealed radio equipment, and other tricks of the trade; techniques that are now relegated to the sideshow tent-revival freaks who can't afford a sophisticated lighting crew. The success of these stage tricks is fortunate, I guess, because Benny can count on the audience members to delude themselves -- eliminating pesky issues such as "evidence of fraud."
The Fifth Column
By pretending to have an injury myself (a very prominent knee brace), I was able to procure much sympathy from audience and stage crew alike. People did not question my presence, so with "Usher" badge in hand, I took it upon myself to park backstage to "rest." What I witnessed next was straight out of James Randi's exposé of this industry. Immediately after each wave of healing, a bunch of Benny's goons run up and dramatically hurl about ten wheelchairs onto stage -- as "proof" of Hinn's power. Trouble is, these wheelchairs had been sitting there -- unoccupied and in plain view, just out of camera range -- since I had arrived, four hours before the show started. Practically brand new, there is no way these chairs could ever have been used. No stranger to mingling with those who have disabilities, I can tell you that these chairs are of the type used for temporary transport, such as from one hospital department to another. They were not the kind meant for long-term use. Not to mention they were all the same model, one of two colors, and had no nicks or scratches. Disabled people often customize their wheelchairs. Benny's idea of customizing is to throw a pillow on the chair.
A woman in a red dress was responsible for bringing people down stage-side after the anointing so they could deliver their testimonials. Some of them arrived before the anointing. The implications here are rather obvious; however, I was astonished to note that the majority of testimonials were delivered by people in Benny's employment. In the rest, the adrenaline rush triggered in the faithful (not to mention from being in the spotlight) is more than adequate to generate a sense of euphoria that could easily blunt one's pain. My companion interviewed an elderly woman who had been on stage, telling the audience that her arthritis was cured. The interview took place after the show, in the parking lot, and the poor woman could barely walk to her car.
An interesting aside about the power of self-deception: I unwittingly performed an experiment upon myself! Yes, people at the show were guilty of self-deception, believing themselves healed. Could I, an atheist, be guilty of any similar behavior? Just how strong is the power of suggestion? After wearing my knee brace and acting in pain for about four hours, I noticed that my body started to respond to expected stresses in a very peculiar manner. Specifically, I would respond with apprehension after overextending, bumping, or jarring my leg as if I expected to feel pain in my knee. At no time did any pain ever manifest itself, but as the night wore on my expectations for feeling pain increased. This sort of hypochondriasis is what I would expect in a situation such as I was in.
The Flip Side
I could double the size of this article by continuing on with examples of Hinn's deception, but it's time to switch gears a bit. I want to consider the other half of the show: the audience. There is a very touching, more heartfelt side to the evening.
What, you ask, could be heartfelt about a bunch of smooth-talking singers with Christian hair swindling innocents out of their life savings? I answer: the very innocents who are being deceived. It is easy to brush off the crowd as fundamentalist looney tunes, a hodge-podge of extremist oddballs who contradict themselves, who speak in platitudes and in tongues, and who lob Bibles at unbelievers like hand grenades. Or so I thought before I saw the other side of the picture.
In my role as a volunteer usher I quickly learned that the well-oiled stage show portrayed on television does not extend to the seats in the arena where the event is taking place. The volunteer usher is the first and often the only line of crowd control. Anyone can be an usher and, like me, you could miss the "mandatory" training session and nobody would even bat an eye. (After all, you're not cutting into the performer's donated and tax-free profits by collecting wages!) Unfortunately, few if any in the general audience know this. With the arena quickly filling to capacity, people needing assistance will turn to anyone who appears to be part of the operation -- but there are never enough ushers to meet everyone's needs.
Just Innocent Victims? or, You Get What You Pay For
We need to keep in mind that these people are desperate. Faith healers attract people with nowhere left to turn. Thousands of disabled people turn up hoping to be cured of their ailments, many more than there are seats available for them -- even with the extra effort to reserve spaces for them (the one accommodation for which a decent effort was made). But the vast majority of people in attendance are stricken with a chronic condition or terminal illness promising them many years -- or too few days -- of pain. They have reached the limits of modern medicine and often will try anything to avoid the inevitable outcome. After hearing their stories, I cannot fault them for being less than rational. The promise to save one's dying child or avoid prolonged, intense pain could lead many an ardent atheist to experiment with the power of faith.
No, this is not a situation involving "kooks who deserve to be taken for every penny."
The victims turn to the ushers for everything from simple seating problems to asking for advice on the best way to see Benny, to outright pleas to be taken backstage. The struggle for seats is astounding in an arena packed beyond capacity. People who should not be exerting themselves venture out with their families. They put their precarious health in further jeopardy as they inevitably have to walk what literally amounts to miles, climb stairs, and face a crush of people. I was witness to three paramedic calls (why did they not simply call Benny himself?) for the sick or elderly who put too much stress on their bodies. One woman I followed up on insisted on staying for the performance anyway.
And helping just one person would alert others of your willingness to go out of your way, and often led to chaos. Most ushers wisely stuck to the bare essentials of their duties. Appalled at the sight before me, I could not resist going out of my way to help anyone in any way that I could. I felt awful, knowing they were going to be robbed of both their cash and their hope. Sometimes I found myself playing along just to alleviate a moment of apprehension for these poor people, leaving my section and finding seats as close to the floor as possible for those least able to walk -- even if it meant feeding into their delusion.
None of the tripe espoused by Benny helps either. By maintaining that the most important reason for being there was salvation of the soul, he led people on a journey of third-grade theology that denigrated most other beliefs -- as to be expected. As I stated above, atheism wasn't even worthy of mention. (Why should this surprise me?) Any such diatribe is designed to increase loyalty to the group. People's convictions are only strengthened whenever their wallets are emptied during the sporadic "offerings." To quote one of Hinn's fellow paragons of virtue, "Faith moves the heavens, money moves the world." They had the audacity to announce this at the beginning of one of the offerings!
Between Ayn Rand's arch-villainous Ellsworth Toohey character and a faith healer, I'd pick Ellsworth. He may take your soul, but at least you won't be broke.
The Take-Home Message
Chances are that for most of these people, much of the experience will be left at the revival. They probably work in places where they exhibit a degree of restraint regarding their beliefs. So if coworkers or colleagues share their experiences with you, don't be degrading or negative. As my friend said, most of these people's hearts are in the right place, they are just overwhelmed by the immensity of their problems. Hinn's slick production only feeds on this very human frailty.
Regardless of world view, the common experience of illness and suffering can serve as a link for understanding, exchange, and enlightenment. Ultimately this will help these desperate ones. This way they can know that compassionate treatment of others is a human trait -- not a religious one (as they are often told by the fear-mongers who feed them tales of a degenerate world). We already have to face an uphill battle when fighting the "no one can be moral without religion" stereotype. So I suggest that we lead by example: few can deny the direct evidence of an act of human kindness.
Perhaps that is why, no matter how many times I was casually blessed at the Benny Hinn revival or told "Jesus loves you brother," I was not once blessed, prayed for or with, or otherwise smacked with casual religion after helping someone find a seat. A simple, sincere, very human "thank you" was all I ever received, and that was worth infinitely more.
Gregory Tinkler is a long-time contributor of material to PAM.
Copyright copy;2001 by Gregory Tinkler, administered by Positive Atheism Magazine
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