Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

The Devil’s-Heart Experiment

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on February 4, 2009

I don’t have to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I don’t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me.

-Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored.”

When I was in junior high and high school, it used to stress me out to no end to think that the Devil had similar powers to God and could observe me even when I was alone. There were the general privacy issues related to using the toilet that I had to worry about, but there were also “alone time” issues. In fact, I’m convinced that Viagra is nothing more than an anti-supernatural-entity drug, since it’s clear to me that the greatest cause of male flaccidity is the thought that God and Satan are watching when the pink oboe gets played.

In high school I attended the International Christian Academy (ICA), a Conservative Baptist boarding school in Côte d’Ivoire created for the children of evangelical missionaries, and my anxiety concerning Satan grew even worse. This was partially due to the non-stop reminders from faculty and staff members about the need to be vigilant in order to avoid the temptations of the Devil.

William Blake's <i>Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils</i>

William Blake's Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils

Apparently, Satan and his demonic minions were constantly on the lurk, and their goal was to craft temptations specifically designed for the particular weaknesses of each human. Aside from those constant reminders in prayer meetings, devotions, chapel services, etc., I was especially disturbed by a particular conversation I had about the nature of Satan. I had asked a staff member if Satan could read my mind. I had always just assumed that he did not have access to my innermost thoughts. The staff member responded by saying that he wasn’t sure, since the Bible didn’t seem to specify just how much Satan saw and knew. The possibility of the Devil reading my thoughts utterly terrified me. If my thoughts were private (except to God, of course), I reasoned, then it seemed like I had a fighting chance; Satan and his demons wouldn’t be able to design temptations that catered to my deepest and darkest sinful desires. Christianity is not a good religion for the marginally neurotic. Or is it that it causes neurosis? Regardless, I now found myself constantly monitoring my thoughts. Since teenage boys have sinful thoughts as often as they breathe, I found myself in an impossible situation. I couldn’t ask for forgiveness as fast as my brain produced “sinthought,” and this, combined with the thought that Satan was receiving my sinthought transmissions–well, let’s just say that I recognized the necessity of religious devoutness.

I began to immerse myself in my faith. I had been a rather lazy Christian up to this point, but this immediately changed. I joined a prayer group with a few of my friends, we studied the Bible together regularly (with the guidance of a staff member), and we even fasted together for an entire week. Still, God provided no relief, and sinthought always beat devoutness and prayers for forgiveness in quantity and frequency. Of course, there was a very obvious reason for this. Many of the things Christianity labels as sin (jealous, lust, covetousness, etc.) are not sins at all. They are inextricably a part of all humans not because of some magical, glowy-soul thing and some guy and gal who ate a magic fruit 10,000 years ago, but because they are hardwired in our bodies and brains. They ARE us. This doesn’t make those traits positive, but it does provide a good reason to stop groveling.

Of course, I was not yet at the point where I recognized this. From where I was standing, despite the fact that I was a good kid with no desire or intention to harm others, I was in a boat filling with sin and no buckets could be found; I was a despicable sinner, deserving of nothing but eternal agony for all of eternity, who was responsible for the gory torture of God himself on an execution device used by the Romans. Now, perhaps some of my Christian friends were capable of convincing themselves that they were making headway with their buckets, but that’s only because they lacked my skill at self-analysis. As I look back at my life as a Christian, it is hard to make sense of it. How could I have possibly believed those preposterous things about reality? In my defense, I was a kid; kids trust and believe their elders, regardless of whether they are right or dead wrong.

Flashing forward to my early 20s, and, although I had for a long time stopped believing in most of the stories compiled in that book they call the Bible, I would still occasionally engage in superstitious thinking and behavior. As bizarre as it sounds, I was still afraid of pitch-black darkness (who knows what evil supernatural things could be lurking in the darkness?). Also, coincidences that my mind imbued with meaning would occasionally make me feel the neck-tingle of fear–almost as if I had been witness to the supernatural.

Fast forward to my late 20s, and I was much more educated than I used to be. Education is the antidote to the disease of superstition. I read works and studies in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, literature and many others. A clear pattern about how the world is structured and how it functions began to emerge. I realized that my superstitions were a direct result of the fact that I had had only one paradigm for understanding the world. Since I was unaware of the concepts of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, I had been automatically attributing phenomena to supernatural explanations. I stopped fearing truth. I knew that it was important to live genuinely; to cut through the lies I had been telling myself. I decided to fully examine myself: my beliefs, my fears, my loves and the way I existed within the world; basically, I borrowed Foucault’s method and commenced to perform an archeology of me. During the course of my normal days, I started to pay attention to my thoughts concerning reality. If I saw something that confirmed a belief of mine, such as the fact that Black females are horrible drivers, I placed it under the microscope. I forced myself to notice who was driving every time someone did something crazy, and discovered that my belief was utterly false. There appeared to be no truth to my assumption that Black females were worse drivers than others. (The way my belief had been maintained is explained by the concept of confirmation bias.) I focused this microscope on the rest of my life and saw that the miracles I had previously attributed to God and the supernatural were not supernatural at all. In fact, I was the one responsible for those miracles, since I was the one attributing significance and meaning to events that occur to everyone! On the flip side, I hadn’t been attributing supernatural meaning to other events and coincidences that I could have if my mind had found them significant. In other words, a miracle was simply an event given a supernatural meaning due to its rarity, just as diamonds are given value for their rarity (although they aren’t as rare as all that–DeBeers near monopoly on diamond production keeps the prices artificially high).

By this point in my life, I had not only stopped believing in the supernatural, I also had a deeper understanding of how language functions; I saw that the Bible was simply a text like any other, with all of the flaws inherent in a symbolic system. One day, as I was thinking about the fact that there surely is no God, I thought about how to truly test that theory. It seemed to me that there must be some way to determine the existence or non-existence of the Judeo-Christian God. It would be impossible to do this by using the scientific method, since one cannot study, examine or test for what is not there (just as I cannot bring the scientific method to bear on the existence of an invisible pink unicorn or Bertrand Russell’s famous invisible teapot). However, wouldn’t it be possible to use an experiment based upon the “facts” found in the Bible? The details of the experiment I am going to tell you about will only frighten the superstitious. If you are a Christian, I won’t be surprised if the hairs on your head stand straight up.

I formulated my experiment in the car one day. As I was driving around, I thought about the Christian ritual tied to the act of receiving salvation. A person converting to Christianity must be “born-again” by inviting Jesus into his or her heart. Christians pray silently all of the time, but this ritual is usually performed aloud for some reason. As I reflected on this, I remembered an event that occurred at my Christian boarding school. One of the students was discovered in his dorm room, shredding his mattress, and, according to my dorm father, “gnawing on the wooden bed frame.” Since the faculty and staff had only their Christian paradigms to fall back on, they automatically assumed that this boy was possessed by a demon. Several of the C&MA missionaries performed an exorcism on him. Obviously, this didn’t work and the boy had an “episode” in one of his classes the next day. Fortunately, the boy’s parents had been called, and they took him down to the main city of Abidjan for medical treatment. Sadly, the fact that they did this was presented to us kids as an example of their lack of faith in God. Those of you who are not Christians are probably shocked by what I have just told you. You are probably thinking, “Are these Christians living in the Dark Ages? People are still performing exorcisms in this age of science, psychology and medical technology?” To quote Sarah Palin, someone who was “blessed” by an African pastor responsible for chasing a “witch” out of his town, “You betcha.”

My memories of these times at my boarding school gave me a flash of inspiration: since Christians think that people can be inhabited by God or demons, why not reverse the conversion experience? As I prepared to conduct my experiment, I thought that a silent experiment would not be enough. Just in case Satan could not read my thoughts, I would need to say my prayer aloud. With my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road, I prayed, “Dear Satan, please come into my heart or send some of your demons to possess me.” I waited. Suddenly, I felt a strange energy…NOT! Nothing happened. No demons took up residence, and my heart and brain continued to be physiological human organs instead of forms of supernatural energy (what Christians refer to as the “soul”).

I know it’s a bit disappointing and a huge let down. I wish I had something more interesting to report. So what does this prove? Not a heck of a lot. After all, I was using Christian theory about the nature of reality to conduct my experiment. Since Christianity and the Bible present a false understanding of reality, it makes complete sense that the Christian paradigm is useless for understanding our world. When I think about the boy who had an exorcism performed on him, I can’t help but feel bad. I saw him appear on Facebook awhile back, and he had listed himself as a Christian. I imagine that he is on some kind of anti-psychotic medicine to control the symptoms of his mental disorder. I wonder how he makes that mesh with his Christian faith. In an earlier time, he would not have had the benefits of drugs designed thanks to a non-superstitious understanding of the human brain. He would have been branded as a demon-possessed man and would have spent his life living in misery on the streets. Or worse, he would have been burned at the stake. So, in solidarity with this poor boy, who was left in the hands of abusive, demon-excising C&MA missionaries, please join me in a prayer to Satan: “Dear Satan, you’re not real, just like that God the Israelites constructed out of composites of the deities their Middle Eastern neighbors worshiped. But, just to help release me from the ancient superstitions my parents taught me to believe in, could you enter my heart and turn me into a raving lunatic? I’m waiting…does it take awhile or something?”

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2 Responses to “The Devil’s-Heart Experiment”

  1. Paulo said

    It’s funny how the missionaries I grew up with in Africa dismissed the Africans’ animist beliefs as superstition but didn’t consider their own beliefs about Satan and demons to be superstition at all.

    A missionary would say, “Believing in Satan and demons is not superstition. We believe in these things because they are in accordance with the Word of God, so they are real. The Africans’ beliefs in spirits are not in accordance with the Word of God, so it’s superstition and false.”

    From the perspective of someone who grounds their beliefs in science rather than religious faith, both the Christian and the animist’s beliefs amount to nothing more than superstition. It is baffling to me that someone from a modern civilization, educated in science, can still seriously justify belief in fairy tales from the Ancient Middle East.

  2. Ann said

    It seems like the determination to live a life of faith catches people in an endless cycle of self-recrimination. With sinthought moment to moment sin is inevitable. You will fall into sin. If a person is willing to practice nothought there is some freedom from sinthought.

    Demons, angels, gods, and supernatural occurences are reality for practitioners of nothought (or for some, “limitedthought”). The natural world becomes the mysterious domain of an unknowable higher power. Even mysticism seems to have a form of nothought at its core. It’s interesting that people of learning, of modern minds and education, allow themselves to think thoroughly about everything else, but stop at the door of faith and religion. This room is locked tight.

    Maybe it’s too frightening to enter a dark place where the natural world is all there is, where we are alone, where science continues to shine its tiny flashlight, albeit a bit wildly and sporadically, into some of the dark corners where the mysterious higher power still exists for most people. A higher power that has given humans, supposedly, an innate knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong.

    It seems like it’s left for a few to wrestle away the right to make moral determinations over the nature of what is good, what is bad. Without belief in a higher power, people remain able to live noble, courageous, honest, and kind lives. Taking credit for the good and bad decisions they make, for moments of weakness, for moments of strength. I’m personally willing to own my mistakes. I like to think of myself as a mostly good person who sometimes makes bad choices.

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