Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why do strict churches prosper?

I've been reading up on rational choice theory as applied to religion (two things you won't think go together), and I was reminded of this research.

Rational choice theory assumes that all else being equal, we try to reduce costs and increase benefits. Applied to religion, how would this explain why liberal, mainline churches are losing members when more conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist churches are gaining? This is a puzzle because the latter make more demands on their members than the former, which wouldn't seem to fit with a rational choice perspective.

The answer? According to Laurence Iannoccone, the answer lies with free-riders. Free-riders are people who enjoy the benefits of something without paying their share of the costs. As a church makes more demands of its members, it loses the half-hearted leaving behind a more vibrant group.

Also, conservative churches tend to forbid some outside activities, and if these activities are fun, and church-goers can't do them, then what goes on in church--the remaining alternatives for them--seems that much better.

Now... if one assumes the existence of a spiritual reality, which I do, there would be other answers as well, but I thought this was an interest exercise in bringing a theory not rooted in religion to religion and getting an interesting answer.


J. R. Miller said...

I have often wondered why myself. We live near a cultish church that demands its women wear dresses, no makeup, stay at home to make babies, etc...

Their facilities are inside a gated compound. Every Sunday the place fills up with hundreds of people and the gates are locked. No one is allowed to enter or leave during the service.

I don't have any great answers... just speculation.

Scot McKnight said...


I thought Greeley's book made a good point that liberal churches aren't growing because they don't have enough kids; and conservative churches have families with more babies.

Brad Wright said...

JR--wow, that sounds like a very restrictive church!

Scot, that seems like it would play into it. I wonder if it maps on to SES levels, with conservative groups attracting lower SES people who in turn have more children.

Brad Wright said...

Hm-m-m-m, that's a good point David. Thanks for posting.

J. R. Miller said...

I cannot verify this statistically, but I think it is in human nature to seek out exclusivity.

Strict groups, like cults, are attractive because:
- they make us feel "better" than the others who are not able to remain faithful.
- they give us a sense of community based on a common / shared value system.

Granted, I phrased these in a more negative sense, but they could be phrased in a more positive light depending on the type of group we are speaking of.

Sid said...

It seems also that as many things become more complex and full of choices in life some people want space / faith that is defined within clear boundries.
So if I have 238 TV channels to choose from give me only one way to interpret a scripture.

Brad Wright said...

Interesting point Sid, that too much freedom/cultural guides in some areas prompts us to seek them out in other areas.

John Williams said...

If you look at things from a social-cognitive perspective, people who have to give up a lot to be in a group will value it more highly to reduce cognitive dissonance. This is why cults are so powerful and why fraternities use hazing.

Edward T. Babinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward T. Babinski said...


Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. that "many among you are sick and some have fallen asleep [died]" because they celebrated the Lord's supper in an unworthy fashion.

So Paul believed God was making churchgoers sick or even killing them if their actions during the celebration of the Lord's Supper displeased Him.

There was also a Christian couple mentioned in Acts, members of the early church, whom Peter scolded for lying about "giving all they had to the church." According to the story the couple dies instantly via some supernatural judgment.

In a similarly harsh fashion Paul commands certain people in certain churhes to be cursed, called "anathema," and cast out of the church (and probably shunned in public as well by their former brethren), so that such people's "flesh may be destroyed by Satan."

All harsh sounding stuff, and not the way most preachers today interpret illnesses or deaths in their congregations, and not the kinds of curses they lay on people.

Something similar can be said of the O.T. laws which were even harsher. The O.T. commands, "He who does not obey the priest shall die [be put to death]," and, "Anyone who entices you to follow after other gods shall die [be put to death]."

I guess we've come a long way.

And the fact that these sorts of groups prosper (along with the preaching of eternal hell for "unbelievers") is a disturbing commentary on the weaknesses, foibles and follies of human nature.

Or as others have pointed out...

The faith in which I was brought up assured me that I was better than other people; I was saved, they were damned--we were in a state of grace and the rest were heathens. Our hymns were loaded with arrogance--self-congratulation on how cozy we were with the Almighty, and what hell everybody else would catch come Judgment Day.

Robert A. Heinlein, (Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land)

Look at the songs of Fundamentalism: “That will be glory for me… I shall see Him face to face… My sins are gone… I’m so happy… I’m saved, saved, saved… Love lifted me… He holds my hand… Now I belong to Jesus… Safe am I… My Lord is real, yea, real to me…”

I was even taught as a child to sing that shameless chorus, “For me, for me, for me, for me.”

It’s like someone decided to set “original sin” to music.

Daniel Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism

After a church service on Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a minister when I grow up.”

“That’s okay with us, but what made you decide that?”

“Well,” said the little boy, “I have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell, than to sit and listen.”

After the christening of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I want to stay with you guys!”

WHAT THE PRIEST OR MINISTER SAYS (And what they really mean)

a) “I DON’T FEEL LED.” (“Can’t make me.”)

b) “IF IT BE GOD’S WILL.” (“I don’t believe God will answer this one.”)

c) “THE LORD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS.” (“I am clueless.”)

Sandra Allen, “Sounding Spiritual 101,” The Door, #146, March/April 1996


A minister wrote in the margin of his sermon notes, “Weak argument here. Shout louder.”

A boy was watching his father, a pastor, write a sermon.

“How do you know what to say?” he asked.

“Why, God tells me.”

“Oh, then why do you keep crossing things out?”

I never got into religion much; too many middle men.

Chris Rock, Rock This!

Why the whole “priest” and “prophet” routine? If God is God, He can talk to everyone immediately, directly. He doesn’t need to employ “middle-men” like books, priests, prophets, ministers of a million different sects, denominations and religions--which makes Him look like a confused devil whenever He wants to “tell us” something.

And what’s that verse in the Old Testament, “The man who does not heed and obey the priest shall die?” (Deut. 17:12) Tell me some priest didn’t write that!


The Southern Baptists… report[ed] in 1988 a peak of roughly 1,400 “forced terminations”--or firings--of pastors in one year. Subsequent surveys, conducted out of pastoral concerns for clergy themselves, found the number settling to under one thousand in 2000. It was found that fired pastors had served, on average, for just three months… While some worry that a third of all Baptist clergy will experience “termination” in their ministry… The LifeWay study also found that 45 percent of the recently fired pastors left Baptist ministry... A survey by Leadership magazine, which caters to evangelicals, revealed that the trend extended well beyond Southern Baptist churches. A quarter (23 percent) of the clergy respondents had been fired or forced to resign… “Clergy firings are very high compared with the national labor force, where 1.2 percent of all employees are involuntarily terminated,” said sociologist Kevin Leicht, author of Professional Work. The ministers’ firing rate “is even higher than coaches in the NFL, a notoriously unstable profession.”

An outside scholar notes wryly that “Since the relationship between pastor and congregation is said to be God’s will, there is much (deeply ambivalent) laughter about God changing his mind so often.”

Larry A. Witham, Who Shall Lead Them? The Future of Ministry in America

This is not piety, this oft-respected bowing of one’s head; this bustling to temples/churches; this kow-towing and tear-jerking, this deluging of affirmations and re-affirmations, vow on vow. True piety lies rather in the power to contemplate the universe with a quiet mind.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

I think you can rely on your friends from church about as well as a drinking man can depend on his drinking neighbors or buddies from work or the bar. Or maybe a bit less, as I’ve noticed that drinkers are often pretty good at showing up and getting things done.

Saint Vilis at the Yahoo Group, ExitFundyism

Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man... living in the sky... who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever ´til the end of time... but he loves you.

...And he needs money! He’s all powerful, but he can’t handle money!

George Carlin

A little girl became restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?”

Like we don’t have enough jobs to do in our lives, we gotta get dressed up, go to church and baby-sit some preacher’s EGO for an hour each week.

Edward T. Babinski

A distinguished bishop, a priest, and a mere peasant are in a great cathedral. In turn the priest and bishop approach the altar rail, beat their chests and declare, “I am nothing. I am nothing.” The humble peasant, moved to imitate, shuffles to the altar and says the same thing. The bishop turns furiously and hisses in the priest’s ear, “Who the hell does he think he is?”

Christopher Insole, “Kant for Christmas,” Times Literary Supplement, Dec. 17, 2004

As I came away from the Evening Service, walking home from that Sabbath adventure, some neighbors of mine met and passed me in their car, laughing. Were they laughing at me? I wondered uneasily; and as I sauntered across the fields I vaguely cursed those misbelievers. Yes, yes, their eyes should be darkened, and their mocking lips put to silence. They should be smitten with the botch of Egypt, and with the scab, and with the itch, and with hemorrhoids (Deut. 28:27). All the teeth should be broken in the mouths of those bloody men and daughters of backsliding; their faces should become as flames, and their heads be made utterly bald. Their little ones should be dashed to pieces before their eyes (Ps. 137:9), and brimstone scattered upon their habitations. They should be led away with their buttocks uncovered…

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia

Always remember, organized religion killed Jesus.

Edward T. Babinski

Edward T. Babinski said...



by Edward T. Babinski

Sixty residents of the Seminole Health Club nudist camp near Miami
comprise a Christian mission that worships twice a week in the nude. According to leader Elijah Jackson, “We’re not trying to start a cult here, but I think nudity adds something to Christianity.”
--News of the Weird, “Weird Clergy”

In the past there was another group of Christians who worshiped in the nude called 'Adamites.' They believed that Jesus's grace allowed them to draw closer to God in their nakedness, unlike Adam and Eve who were ashamed and withdrew from God in the garden because of their nakedness.

They also cited the verse in which Job reminded his listeners that we all entered and exited life naked, and used that to argue that we will all face God naked. While King David apparently lost his robe in a religious dancing frenzy and danced naked for the Lord. The only trouble I can see with worshiping naked in church is having to set the temperature neither too hot nor too cold for everyone, must be tricky--and the seats a bit

Those Christians who worship naked, and the Bible verses they focus upon, are not to be confused with Russian Skoptzie Christians who focused on different verses, namely, Jesus's words, 'Some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 19:12) The Skoptzie ensured that they might obtain the kingdom and avoid the 'lust of the eyes' and 'of the flesh,' via the use of a knife. All for the kingdom. (Another example of a Christian who made himself a eunich for the kingdom of heaven was the early church father, Origin.)

So in heaven will we behold naked dancing genital-less men (made eunichs either on earth by their own hand, or transformed into genital-less angel-like beings after death by God)?

The author of Revelation mentions
'144,000 men...not defiled with women; for they are virgins,' who are granted a prominent place in front of God's throne to play their harps. That's what God likes most I guess. (Revelation 14: 2-4)

Moses seems to concur since he taught Israelite men “NOT to come at your wives” before you “meet the Lord.” (Exodus 19:15,17)

Even Paul preached, 'It is good for a man NOT to touch a woman… For I would that all men were even as I myself... I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I... But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn... I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be… Are you loosed from a wife? seek not a wife... The time is short: it remains that they that have wives be as though they had none... He that is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your
own profit... that you may attend upon the Lord WITHOUT DISTRACTION.' (1
Corinthians 7:1,7,8-9,26-27,29,32-35)

While St. Augustine taught the whole Christian world for centuries in his illustrious commentary on Paul's verses, 'In the first times, it was the duty to use marriage... chiefly for the propagation of the human race. But
now, in order to enter upon holy and pure fellowship... they who wish to contract marriage for the sake of children, are to be admonished, that they use rather the larger good of continence. But I am aware of some that murmur, 'What if all men should abstain from all sexual intercourse, whence will the human race exist?' Would that all would… Much more speedily would the City of God be filled, and the end of the world hastened. For what else does the Apostle Paul exhort to, when he says, 'I would that all were as myself;' or in that passage, 'But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remains that both they who have wives, be as though not having: and they who weep, as though not weeping: and they who rejoice, as though not rejoicing: and they who buy, as though not buying: and they who use this world as though they use it not. For the form of this world is passing away.'' (Saint Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, Sections 9-10)



Christian Nudist Convocation, Planning their Summer 2008 conference:

The periodic Christian Nudist Convocation took place in July at the Cherokee Lodge nudist camp in Tennessee, and according to a dispatch in Nashville Scene, the group evokes skepticism not only from most Christians (who dislike the flaunting of naked bodies, even if innocently done) but from most Cherokee Lodge members, who see them as too intense for naturism's laid-back attitude. One CNC attendee acknowledged that many Christians would not approve of Cherokee Lodge, but to him '(I)t's Jerusalem.' Another compared his work at nudist camps to missionary work: '(S)ome people get sent to Africa, some people get sent to South America and the Lord was like, 'I want you to go to nudist resorts.' And I'm like, 'Wow, what an assignment.''
SOURCE: News of the Weird

Christian nudists to build village in Florida by Phil Barnoti Wahba
(Columbia News Service Dec. 6, 2005)


'Naked Before God,' cover story in Nashville Scene. Christian nudists hit the church—and the hot tub—for three days of wet and wild worship in the backwoods of Tennessee by Elizabeth Ulrich


The compatibility of Christianity and nudism is detailed in 'Nakedness and the Bible,' a self-published book by Canadian author Paul Bowman. The book cites key biblical events, including God's order to the prophet Isaiah to go naked for three years, and states that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus was naked when he washed the feet of his disciples, when he was baptized and when he was crucified and resurrected. 'Nakedness and the Bible' states that nothing forbids nonsexual nudity and that misinterpretations of the Bible stem from faulty translations of ancient Hebrew words for nudity. For example, Jim T., Natura's spiritual adviser, and his wife, Shirley, believe the apostle Paul's call for modesty targeted ostentation, not nudity. Besides, said Shirley, 55, women in church wearing 'designer clothes and $90
haircuts' are the immodest ones.

Christian nudists have long organized their own services and prayer groups. Carolyn Hawkins of the American Association for Nude Recreation, which was founded in 1931, said most of its 270-member clubs offer Sunday services, including one in North Carolina where they are led by a member who is a Baptist minister. Nathan Powers, a 50-year-old Texan, begins his day praying naked in his backyard. Nakedness intensifies his dialogue with God, he said. 'I feel closer to God. It's an act of humility. It is absolutely spiritual.'

Jonathan Palmiter was enjoying a recent Sunday morning stroll through a lush yard full of trees and Spanish moss--naked as was Adam in the Garden of Eden. A 59-year-old born-again Christian, Palmiter was visiting Natura, a development 40 miles north of Tampa, Fla., that, when it opens up next summer, will become the first nudist community for devout Christians in North America.


Transgender Televangelist: Sister Paula Nielsen the world's first and only transgender televangelist. Unfortunately, Sister Paula's show is only available on the cable system of --you guessed it -- West Hollywood.


AND FROM 2004...

Nude Bike Rally in Netherland's Bible Belt

AMSTERDAM, June 3, 2004 (Reuters) -A planned nudist bicycle tour in the Netherlands' so called bible-belt has upset local churchmen who are holding their own youth charity bike ride the same day.

They have tried in vain to get local authorities to ban the nudists to stop them clashing with the youth chapter of the Reformed Church when they both take to the road in the eastern town of Apeldoorn on June 12.

The nudist tour is part of the World Naked Bike Ride which also takes place in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto and Pforzheim in Germany.

The organiser of the church bike tour told the ANP news agency on Thursday he had tried to coordinate the routes with the nudist tour to avoid any embarrassing meeting but had obtained no reply.

He is now asking the 300 or so cyclists on his youth tour to call the police if they see any nudists.

'Nudity in public is provocative and illegal,' he said.

Edward T. Babinski said...


Speaking of churches, Christians are in a state of splintering freefall, including conservative congregations splitting over one reason or another with half the congregation leaving to set up their own church; and enormous denominations suffering endless internal controversies, even splitting (the Anglicans are near a split over the issue of biblical authority and gay priests).

There are now over 45,000 known separate Christian churches and missionary organizations round the world.


From silent Trappist monks and quiet Quakers -- to hell raisers and serpent-handlers;

From those who believe nearly everyone (excepting themselves and their church) will be damned -- to those who believe everyone may eventually be saved ("Universalist" Christians);

From those who argue that they are predestined to argue in favor of predestination -- to those who argue for free will of their own free will;

From those who argue God is a "Trinity"-- to "Unitarian" Christians (which include not only the "Arian" churches of early Christianity, but also modern day Unitarian-Universalist churches, some modern day Messianic Jewish groups, some primitive Baptist groups, some "cults," and all of Judaism, since God's chosen people in the earliest "testament" where taught, "The Lord Your God is One God");

From those who "hear the Lord" telling them to run for president, seek diamonds and gold (via liaisons with bloody African dictators), or sell "Lake of Galilee" beauty products -- to those who have visions of Mary, the saints, or experience bleeding stigmata;

From those who believe the communion bread and wine remain just that -- to those who believe the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into "invisible" flesh and blood (and can vouch for it with miraculous tales of communion wafers turning into human flesh and wine curdling into blood cells during Mass);

From those who believed that priests who delivered communion should never have ever denied their faith in the past even under threat of persecution -- to those who believed it did not matter whether or not priests forsook their faith when threatened with presecution (I am speaking of a major controversy in early Christianity between "Donatist" and "Catholic" Christiians, both of whom presumed they were the true church on the basis of the division cited above, a division that was never healed, and which ceased only after the North African region where most Donatist churches were located was overrun first by Vandals then later by Muslims.);

From the many Christians that once taught (or teach today as Reconstructionist Christians do) that heretics and apostates ought to be executed -- to Albigensian and Cathar Christians who outlawed violence and taught that the shedding of blood and the killing of any living thing, even the slaughtering of a chicken or ensnaring a squirrel, was a mortal sin (a belief they based on the spirituality and metaphors of Christ's meekness and forgiveness in the Gospel of John). [See The YellowCross: The Story of the Last Cathars' Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329 by René Weis];

From Christians who believe in damning their enemies by calling down God's wrath on them (as in certain imprecatory psalms) and who cite the verse, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" -- to Amish Christians (among others) who believe in helping the families of those who have offended them. (Case in point, in 2006 a man entered an Amish schoolhouse, gunned down several young female students then shot himself. The Amish later asked what they could do to help the family of the shooter. They planned a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts's family with offers of food and condolences.);

From Christians who view Eastern religious ideas and practices as "Satanic"-- to Christian monks and priests who have gained insights into their own faith after dialoging with Buddhist monks and Hindu priests;

From castrati (boys in Catholic choirs who underwent castration to retain their high voices) -- to Protestant hymns and Gospel quartets--all the way to "Christian rap;"

From Christians who reject any behavior that even mimics "what homosexuals do" (including a rejection of fellatio and cunnilingus between a husband and wife) -- to Christians who accept committed, loving, homosexual relationships (including gay evangelical Church groups like the nationwide Metropolitan Baptist Church);

From Catholic nuns and Amish women who dress to cover their bodies -- to Christian nudists (viz., there was a sect known as the "Adamites," not to mention modern day Christians in Florida with their own nude Christian churches, campgrounds and even an amusement park), and let's not forget born-again strippers;

From those who believe that a husband and wife can have sex for pleasure -- to those who believe that sex should be primarily for procreation -- to those who believe celibacy is superior to marriage (i.e., Catholic priests, monks, nuns, and some Protestant groups like the Shakers who denied themselves sexual pleasure and only maintained their membership by adopting abandoned children until the last Shaker finally died out in the late 1900s)--all the way to those who cut off their genitals for the kingdom of God (the Skoptze, a Russian Christian sect);

From those who believe sending out missionaries to persuade others to become Christians is essential -- to the Anti-Mission Baptists who believe that sending out missionaries and trying to persuade others constitutes a lack of faith and the sin of pride, and that the founding of "extra-congregational missionary organizations" is not Biblical;

From those who believe that the King James Bible is the only inspired translation -- to those who believe that no translation is totally inspired, only the original "autographs" were perfect -- to those who believe that "perfection" only lay in the "spirit" that inspired the writing of the Bible's books, not in the "letter" of the books themselves;

From those who believe Easter should be celebrated on one date (Roman Catholics) -- to those who believe Easter should be celebrated on another date (Eastern Orthodox). And, from those who believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Roman Catholics) -- to those who believe it proceeds from the Father alone (Eastern Orthodox view as taught by the early Church Fathers). Those disagreements, as well as others, sparked the greatest schism of church history (the Schism of 1054) when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and the envoys of the uncompromising Pope Leo IX, excommunicated each other;

From those who worship God on Sunday -- to those who worship God on Saturday (Saturday being the Hebrew "sabbath" that God said to "keep holy" according to one of the Ten Commandments) -- all the way to those who believe their daily walk with God and love of their fellow man is more important than church attendance;

From those who stress "God's commands" -- to those who stress "God's love;"

From those who believe that you need only accept Jesus as your "personal savior" to be saved -- to those who believe you must accept Jesus as both savior and "Lord" of your life in order to be saved. (Two major Evangelical Christian seminaries debated this question in the 1970s, and still disagree);

From those who teach that being "baptized with water as an adult believer" is an essential sign of salvation -- to those who deny it is;

From those who believe that unbaptized infants who die go straight to hell -- to those who deny the (once popular) church doctrine known as "infant damnation."

From those who teach that "baptism in the Holy Spirit" along with "speaking in tongues" are important signs of salvation -- to those who deny they are (some of whom see mental and Satanic delusions in modern day "Spirit baptism" and "tongue-speaking");

From those who believe that avoiding alcohol, smoking, gambling, dancing, contemporary Christian music, movies, television, long hair (on men), etc., are all important signs of being saved -- to those who believe you need only trust in Jesus as your personal savior to be saved;

From Christians who disagree whether the age of the cosmos should be measured in billions or only thousands of year -- whether God pops new creatures into existence or subtly alters old ones -- even some who disagree whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa;

From pro-slavery Christians (there are some today who still remind us that the Bible never said slavery was a "sin") -- to anti-slavery Christians;

From Christians who defend the Biblical idea of having a king (and who oppose democracy as "the meanest and worst of all forms of government" to quote John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with whom some Popes agreed, as well as some of today's Protestant Reconstructionist Christians)--to Christians who oppose kingships and support democracies;

From "social Gospel" Christians -- to "uncompromised Gospel" Christians;

From Christians who do not believe in sticking their noses in politics -- to coup d'etat Christians;

From "stop the bomb" Christians -- to "drop the bomb" Christians;

From Christians who strongly suspect that the world will end tomorrow -- to those who are equally certain it won't.

All in all, Christianity gives Hinduism with its infinite variety of sects and practices a run for its money.

Edward T. Babinski

The Christian God -- or gods? For out of Paraguayan Catholics, Vermont Congregationalists, Utah Mormons, and New Zealand Anglicans, sprout as many gods as are carved on a Jain temple wall.

John Updike

In practice, Christianity, like Hinduism or Buddhism, is not one religion, but several religions, adapted to the needs of different types of human beings. A Christian church in Southern Spain, or Mexico, or Sicily is singularly like a Hindu temple. The eye is delighted by the same gaudy colors, the same tripe-like decorations, the same gesticulating statues; the nose inhales the same intoxicating smells; the ear and, along with it, the understanding, are lulled by the drone of the same incomprehensible incantations [in the old Catholic Latin mass tradition], roused by the same loud, impressive music.

At the other end of the scale, consider the chapel of a Cistercian monastery and the meditation hall of a community of Zen Buddhists. They are equally bare; aids to devotion (in other words fetters holding back the soul from enlightenment) are conspicuously absent from either building. Here are two distinct religions for two distinct kinds of human beings.

In Christianity bhakti [or, loving devotion] towards a personal being has always been the most popular form of religious practice. Up to the time of the [Catholic] Counter-Reformation, however, the way of knowledge ("mystical knowledge" as it is called in Chrstian language) was accorded an honorable place beside the way of devotion. From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards the way of knowledge came to be neglected and even condemned. We are told by Dom John Chapman that "Mercurian, who was general of the society (of Jesus) from 1573 to 1580, forbade the use of the works of Tauler, Ruysbroek, Suso, Harphius, St. Gertrude, and St. Mechtilde." Every effort was made by the [Catholic] Counter-Reformers to heighten the worshipper's devotion to a personal divinity. The literary content of Baroque art is hysterical, almost epileptic, in the violence of its emotionality. It even becomes necessary to call in physiology as an aid to feeling. The ecstasies of the saints are represented by seventeenth-century artists as being frankly sexual. Seventeenth-century drapery writhes like so much tripe. In the equivocal personage of Margaret Mary Alacocque, seventeenth-century piety pours over a bleeding and palpitating heart. From this orgy of emotionalism and sensationalism Catholic Christianity seems never completely to have recovered.

The ideal of non-attachment has been formulated and systematically preached again and again in the course of the last three thousand years. We find it (along with everything else) in Hinduism. It is at the very heart of the teachings of the Buddha. For Chinese readers the doctrine is formulated by Lao Tsu. A little later, in Greece, the ideal of non-attachment is proclaimed, albeit with a certain, pharisaic priggishness, by the Stoics. The Gospel of Jesus is essentially a gospel of non-attachment to "the things of this world," and of attachment to God. Whatever may have been the aberrations of organized Christianity--and they range from extravagant asceticism to the most brutally cynical forms of realpolitik--there has been no lack of Christian philosophers to reaffirm the ideal of non-attachment. Here is John Tauler, for example, telling us that "freedom is complete purity and detachment which seeketh the Eternal..." Here is the author of "The Imitation of Christ," who bids us "pass through many cares as though without care; not after the manner of a sluggard, but by a certain prerogative of a free mind, which does not cleave with inordinate affection to any creature."

Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization

Live long enough and you'll encounter a lot of folks who say you are not really a Christian for a host of reasons. I've found the "no-true-Christian-would-do-or-believe-XYZ" game one of the more popular among, well, Christians.

Jonathan ( jge642000) at the yahoo group ExitFundyism

People have an amazing ability to fool themselves. Even Christian theology teaches that there are those who think they are believers but aren't. But just watching, as I have, an Islamic music group from Malaysia makes one realize how similar their actions are to those of a Christian music group. To see a man standing in deep meditation outside of a Shinto temple in Japan makes one wonder how belief comes about. To see a woman with great concern on her face burning a huge number of incense sticks at a temple in Hangzhou, China (one of my very favorite pictures) tells one that fervent prayer (and belief in the efficacy of prayer) is not the sole province of the Christian. To see how devoted Tibetan Buddhists are to their beliefs when compared with levels of devotion shown by many western Christians to theirs, makes one wonder why so many of us are less committed than them; same with the Islamacists who are willing to die for their beliefs while much of the West is not interested in self-sacrifice.

Glenn Morton [Evangelical Christian], American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) Email Discussion Group (June 16, 2006)

In my journeys in Christianity both in America and abroad I've run across a myriad of believers, a mosaic of Christianity:

I remember a converted Christian who used to be a "Satanist ," saying, "What's the big deal about smoking marijuana?"

A Pentecostal pastor in Holland sat crying at a street side cafe worried that one of his woman parishioners was going to hell since she had stopped coming to church and was now wearing make-up.And as he cried, his tears rolled off his cheeks into his beer. (Many Pentecostal Christians in the U.S. ascribe to an ethic of absolute abstinence from alcohol.)

I've known Christians who won't own a TV; others who won't allow playing cards in their house, and others who drink alcohol liberally and have every material possession imaginable. Others attempt to memorize the Bible to such an extent that it blocks most of their own personal original thoughts about anything; others who are social activists who take up causes like opposing abortion or picketing a Marilyn Manson concert; others who are simple and humble and feed the poor and house the homeless; others who are missionaries in third world countries suffering hardship for the "cause of Christ." There was a sub group, however, in my institute who were King James Only--they believed the KJV was the only true inspired Bible for today and that all other versions were corrupted. As a group, they were radically enthusiastic and were proud to be KJV ONLY, and often fueled arguments over alternate translations. Heaven forbid they should catch anyone reading or enjoying The Living Bible (a modern English paraphrased translation of the ancient Hebrew) which they viewed as "the Devil's work."

Karl Arendale (mauikarl) at the Yahoo Group, ExitFundyism

Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is his only Son.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Theology is a comprehensive, rigorous, and systematic attempt to conceal the beam in the scriptures and traditions of one's own denomination while minutely measuring the mote in the heritages of ones' brothers.

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic

Every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, "It is a matter of faith, and above reason."

John Locke

Edward T. Babinski said...


And he [Jesus] said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing [poison], it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
- Mark 16:15-20 (KJV)

[Scholars doubt the authenticity of the above verses since they are not found in the earliest known manuscripts of Mark. Indeed, three different added endings to Mark have been found in later manuscripts, so perhaps early Christians were trying to make up for the lack of a proper ending in the original? But none of these textual questions discourage serpent-handling Christians who believe that their faith and practice demonstrates the authenticity of Mark 16:15-20.--E.T.B.]


[In His Own Words, Joe Robert Elkins] “Lot of people think all we do is handle serpents. We pray for the sick. They’s some sick people that’s healed here. We drink the strychnine [poison]. We don’t deny none of the five Signs. We do our best to put all five in action, because He said “these” Signs. We don’t just pick out praying for the sick or speaking in tongues, but all five Signs is going to be made manifest in God’s church. You are either a believer or an unbeliever, and the unbeliever is going to hell. I believe they are going to burn…

The Bible says to pray without ceasing. See, you go with a prayer in your mind all the time, lest you enter in the temptations. Prayer is what keeps the temptation away. When you are approached by the devil, you pray. God moves that thing. He said to resist the devil, and he would flee from you… God talks to people, if they would just slow down and listen. God talks. I hear Him. He speaks to you through the heart. It is a small, still voice. It is real quiet. It speaks within you. You hear it… But it ain’t every spirit that talks to you that is God… People think we are crazy, but it is a wise man who fears the Lord and keeps His Commandments.”

[Introduction to the book, The serpent handlers practice their religion daily in though, word, and deed. When they fail, they suffer, pray, and try harder the next day. Their religion demands a price too high for most of us to pay. Imagine having enough faith to pick up a deadly reptile to confirm God’s Word, knowing that a bite could be crippling or even fatal. What about the miracles? How can they be explained? We have seen people hold flame in their hands and dance on fire without being burned. We have witnessed believers drinking strychnine with no ill effects and handling poisonous snakes without being bitten. Other miracles are related in this book--healings, casting out devils, baptism by an unseen spirit. Even these stories seem plausible because we believe in the veracity of the people who witnessed such events firsthand.]

[In Her Own Words, Cynthia Church] “This religion is not David Copperfield. It’s not smoke and mirrors and magic. … It makes me angry when people think serpent handlers are ignorant rednecks from Appalachia. The way people talk here is cultural. Just because some of them are uneducated doesn’t mean they are ignorant, but that is the way they are portrayed by most of the press… Mamaw had the gift of fire. She would pour kerosene on a little white handkerchief--you know, the kind ladies used to carry--and she would set it on fire and burn it in her hand. The hankie would burn with fire and smoke, and Mamaw held that fire in her hand for about fifteen minutes while she danced [in the spirit]. Finally, she closed her other hand down over it and put the fire out, and her hand was not even burned, and the handkerchief was not even burned or scorched.”

[In Her Own Words, Linda Turner Coots] “They were handling serpents. My brother-in-law was handling fire. And Joyce leaps up shouting, speaking in tongues, and Greg’s dad, he held up his hand and wanted everybody to listen. And he said, ‘There’s something that just don’t sound right.’ Joyce was speaking in tongues, but it wasn’t God. And when he pointed a finger at her, she just fell on the floor. And then he begin to pray for her, and that devil was talking, and it was saying that Jesus was the devil. And he cast the devil off her. Joyce repented of her sins, but somewhere, that devil took over, and she didn’t know how to resist him…Hayden, Greg’s dad, prayed for him one night at my mom’s and cast the devil out of him. He told the devil to go into the dog that was outside. And when he done that, the dog howled, made the awfulest, pitiful sound. It went mad a few days after that, and my uncle had to kill it. He had to destroy the dog…Yeah, I been to a lot of baptizings. I’ve seen the Lord baptize Greg’s dad one Sunday: They was about fifteen people being baptized that Sunday, and he baptized every one of ‘em, and then he was just standing in the water after everybody else walked out, and it was just like something just laid him down in the water and brought him back up.It was beautiful. He never said anything [about that experience]. We watched it. It was amazing…I just know that the Word of God is the truth. They say that speaking in tongues is evidence of the Holy Ghost, but I believe the real gift of God is eternal life. I wish everybody could see heaven, but they can’t. It’s not for everybody. It’s only for a chosen few. Everybody’s not going to see Him. I have friends who say they’re Christians, but the way I feel about it, they don’t believe in the full Gospel, and they’re not gonna make it. They’re not gonna go where Jesus is… I just want to make it [to heaven]. Love. That’s the most important thing, to have that love.”

[In His Own Words, Charles Church] “Miracles are performed every day in the church. Ceil’s mother, Barbara, had the gift of fire. She had a great anointing to handle it. She used to dip her hands into a coal stove and carry out hot coals with her hands, and she was never burned. Ceil has that gift too. She says the fire feels cool. Barbara would actually pour kerosene on the floor and set it on fire and dance barefooted in the fire and never be burned. Once, I saw her hold out a sinner man’s tie and put that torch under it, keep it there for five minutes, and it didn’t ever burn… And when Brother Raford Dunn was bitten in Brother Carl Porter’s church, we took him downstairs, and he was laying on a bed. Lydia was sitting next to him and praying for him, and she said she could actually feel his heart beating. And then she felt it quit beating. We prayed for him down there, and he came back to life.”

[In His Own Words, Dewey Chafin, born 1933] “The first time I ever handled a serpent, the anointing felt just like it does now. It starts in my stomach, the feeling does. It works different in different people, but I get a little feeling right here [in the pit of my stomach], and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and from there on up through my chest and my shoulders. It is a good feeling, a warm feeling. You can feel it… Over the years I have been bitten 133 times… Some people don’t understand our religion, but it determines everything I do in life. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t chew gum. I don’t smoke cigarettes, argue, fight, cuss. If you start an argument with me, just start, and I’ll be out of your way in less than a minute. Cussing is definitely a no-no. People take cussing being just one thing, like using God’s name in vain. But cussing is a lot more than that. There are a lot of ways you can cuss without using God’s name in vain.”

The rules of the church hang above the pulpit, their supporting Bible verses listed in parentheses. They read, “Women are not allowed to wear short sleeves, jewelry and makeup (I C 3; I Tim. 2:9); No gossiping (James 1:26); No tale-bearing (Prov. 18:8); No lying (Col. 3:9, Rev. 21:8); no backbiting (Rom. 1:30); No bad language (Col. 3:8); No tobacco users (II Cor. 7:1, I Cor. 3:17). Men are not allowed to have long hair, mustaches or beards (I Cor. 11:14); Men are not allowed to wear short sleeves; Women not allowed to cut hair (I Cor. 11:15); and wear dresses above the knees (Tim. 2:9).” At the bottom of the sign, in parentheses, it says, “Members only,” meaning that visitors are excluded from adhering to these mandates…

Since his evangelist brother, Punkin, died from snakebite in 1998, Mark Brown is the lone surviving child of one of the best known serpent-handling families in the Southeast. Now Mark is more wary, but not afraid… He believes that he has a personal mandate from God, told through a prophecy related to him by family friend Cameron Short. “The Lord told me that my hands would do the work of the Signs.”

Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John E. Blair Publisher, 2000)

The Church of the Lord Jesus , a Pentecostal serpent-handling, or “signs-following” church deep in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, is one of the most eminent churches of its kind…

Almost all of the men and some of the women in the church of the Lord Jesus, exhibit some sort of deformity on their hands and fingers from a past serpent bite. An atrophied finger, the loss of movement in part of a hand, or simple scars from a serpent’s fangs, are proudly exhibited by these church members when they are asked about their “battle scars.” According to Brother Bob, Pastor of the church, the serpents “are the visible sign of the devil,” and when one has power over these serpents through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he or she is, in effect, exerting control over the devil. None of the church members seeks medical attention when bitten by a poisonous snake; in fact, Brother Bob’s stepdaughter was killed by a serpent bite in the 60s.

Brother Ray was eighty-two years old and had been with the church almost since its beginning in the late 40s…Ray’s right hand was bitten over twenty years ago by a diamondback rattlesnake and became extremely atrophied. His index and middle fingers were completely unusable, and both of his hands had a swollen appearance. Ray had been bitten 89 times throughout the almost fifty years that he had been with the church. During that Sunday morning, while holding a handful of copperheads, Ray was bitten five more times on both of his hands…At the end of the service, Ray’s hands had swollen a great deal, but he wasn’t feeling sick, nor did he exhibit any effects other than being a little “itchy.” He stood up to testify and said, I’d like to praise God for being here… thank Him for the Spirit. I’d like to thank him for the bites I got today, all five of them. I praise Him for it because they’re not hurtin’--they’re itchin’, but they’re not hurtin.’ They’re swellin’…” Ray felt that there was a reason for what, to an outsider, would appear to be a “breakdown” in the power of the Spirit. His getting bitten was not a breakdown at all but was God’s way of showing Ray that He would still take care of him, even though Ray was an “old man.” According to the members of the Church of the Lord Jesus, God has a reason for everything that He does, and they as His children must simply trust that will, even if they do not understand it.

Brother Dewey came out from behind the pulpit and took three serpents and began to preach, asserting that the Bible “didn’t say these snakes wouldn’t bite you or wouldn’t hurt you.” He continued, “[The Lord] said, ‘these signs shall follow them that believe.’ These are the signs nobody wants to follow.” In other words, because the Word says those who believe in the Lord “shall follow” the signs in Mark, the Jolo church members feel that it is a command that they handle serpents. In an interview with Brother Bob, he added to this point: “If we’re led by the Spirit and it [the serpent] bites us, then it was God’s will.” Furthermore, if it bites you and you’re under the anointing, and you die, you’ve just done God’s will. That was your way to go. That was just your way to go. Because there’s going to be something that takes everybody out of this world. To me, it’s fulfillment of the Word… the Bible says, “happy are you if you die in the Lord.” What better way would you find to die than doing what God said to do?

Shannon Bell, “Brother Ray’s Serpent Bites” & “A Changing Approach,” copyright, 2000

Rattler-handling Rev. Dwayne Long of Rose Hill, Va., died in mid-April, 2004, after being bitten by a snake during an Easter Pentecostal church service and refusing medical treatment.

Linda Long, 48, of London was bitten by a snake during a church service at the East London Holiness Church she attended. Neighbors of the church told the newspaper the church practices serpent handling. Handling reptiles as part of religious services is illegal in Kentucky. Snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $100 fine. Police said they had not received any prior reports about snake handling at the church. Lt. Ed Sizemore of the Laurel County Sheriff's Office said friends went with Ms. Long to the University of Kentucky Medical Center. She died about four hours after the bite was reported, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Church officials could not be reached for comment. The funeral was scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Arthur's
Chapel Church in Rosehill, Va., according to the Rosehill Funeral

E.T.B. [rewritten but based on an AP news report dated Nov. 7, 2006, London, Kentucky]

I saw in McDowell County, (where the Jolo church is located) that the unemployment rate is 260.8% of the national average, and the 1990 Census reported a poverty rate at 287.5% of the national average…Though the Jolo people may not have as much money as a great deal of Americans, one of the women in the church pointed out to me, “There are no homeless people here.” This simple statement made me re-think my definition of poverty and oppression because it was true, I had not ever seen a homeless person anywhere in McDowell County. “You want to know why?” she asked me, “it’s because we take care of each other. We make sure that everyone has a roof over their head.” From her comment, I kind of got the feeling that it was I that was the deprived one, living in a world of assumptions and stereotypes.

Shannon Bell, “A Changing Approach,” copyright, 2000

After I wrote news accounts of the serpent-handling churches, sociologists visited and studied the congregations. One administered a psychological test to the Scrabble Creek flock, and gave the same test to a nearby Methodist congregation as a control group. The serpent-handlers came out mentally healthier.

James A. Haught, “Adventures in the Bible Belt” (1997), adapted from a Gazette column, Dec. 7, 1993

One of the authors of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism,Williamson, is also a former minister in the Church of God (of Prophecy) from which the serpent-handling sects split; he conducted extensive interviews with 16 serpent handlers and commented on personal experiences with scores of others. One common thread through these interviews was the interpretation of snake bites during handling. Every instance of a bite was interpreted in one of three ways. First, it could be a sign to unbelievers that the serpent was indeed poisonous, proving that there were no tricks involved. Second, it could be divine retribution for disobedience and sin, as well as a reminder to keep your life in order because you never know when it will be your time to go. And finally, if neither of these interpretations seemed appropriate, the third interpretation was used, namely that the snake bite was simply the unknown will of God. This worldview leaves no room for the interpretation that maybe serpent handling is not a good idea.

In fact, serpent handlers are fully cognizant of the dangers of their practice, and they do not claim to have any special powers to ward off or survive snake bites. All the participants Williamson interviewed had witnessed a fatal snake bite, and eleven of them had been bitten themselves, some disfigured as a result. The interviewees were quick to point out that Mark 16:18 commanded them to handle serpents as a sign of true belief, but that it did not promise them no harm would come to them.

The advantage snake-handling Christians and other fundamentalist Christians have is that “They lay claim to absolute values with clear-cut answers to what others may find problematic” or questionable. (Though of course different fundamentalisms can and do propose different beliefs and clear-cut answers.)

David Ludden, “In the Beginning was the Word,” a book review of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism by Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson (Guilford Press, 2005). (Final paragraph edited by E.T.B.)

Read Luke 10:19, “Behold I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions… and nothing shall… hurt you.” Funny, they don’t seem too keen on treading on scorpions.

David Windhorst, “God May Kill You For Reading This… And I’m A Little
Nervous Myself”