Sunday, February 27, 2011

Magic Behind Closed Doors

Yesterday I was privileged to attend a Parenting Beyond Belief workshop presented by Dale McGowan—2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year, executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, and author of secular humanist parenting books (Raising Freethinkers & Parenting Beyond Belief)—and hosted by Center for Inquiry-Michigan (CFI-MI). In addition to making a number of meaningful connections with other secular humanist parents and thinkers, I also left with nearly a dozen inspirations for new blog posts. One such inspiration relates to the following nearly verbatim quote from Dale McGowan:

If you don’t talk about it [to your children], it’s magic…

McGowan’s point was to express the mystery and intrigue that parentally censored or avoided topics can capture and convoke for children. A child growing up in a secular family, not knowing or understanding what happens behind closed church doors, whose parents treat the topic of religion and religious literacy as a taboo, is at a higher risk for “teen epiphany” in her adolescent identity diffusion years. Lacking religious literacy, she is confronted by a peer religionist who presents a message of certainty, teleology, and community centered on a given set of dogmas. Already inclined to differentiate her identity from her parents, she grasps on to this message, thinking, “Surely this is what I have been missing, this is the purpose I was made for…” And, unfortunately, as McGowan points out, “teen epiphany” conversions are the most likely to land a person into fundamentalist and hence dangerous categories of religious identity. This adolescent’s secular parents who may or may not be engaged, principled secularists are suddenly taken aback by their daughter’s fundamentalist conversion and ask, “How can this be? We never encouraged or even discussed religion as a family.”

Example from my Personal Life

During my adolescent years I had a number of “teen epiphanies.” I won’t focus on each one, but one of significance was my introduction to Pentecostalism—the largely Evangelical movement that is notably characterized by glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) and focus on the “sign gifts” (see I Corinthians 12ff). This particular epiphany is noteworthy for me as it marked my first step away from my familial religious identity and was precipitated by a wonderment of the magic behind closed doors.

Before my encounter I knew that Pentecostals “spoke in tongues” and participated in supernaturally-inspired activities, but I never saw these at work, I only knew of them through hearsay. In turn, I sustained a particular fascination with “speaking in tongues” and with what I perceived to be a special connection, a unique closeness to God that fomented one’s being “carried in the Spirit” to perform such supernatural activities as glossolalia, etc. Though I never saw behind the closed doors, I constructed a highly-idealized mental image of what occurred there only I was a spectator and not a participant to the “magic.”

When I was fifteen I was confronted by a religionist whose father was a Pentecostal-Charismatic pastor. We talked about the “baptism by the Spirit” with “speaking in tongues” as its outward sign for nearly two hours. Alone in a cabin in the North Woods of Wisconsin, he prayed over me both with glossolalia and in English. The sound of his glossolalia captivated me. He then told me to “speak out in faith, let the Holy Spirit form your words, let go of your tongue.” I spoke out in faith and with a rush of adrenaline, which I “knew” was the Holy Spirit, I was overwhelmed with a sense of transcendence. The words or sounds I spoke, however, were not English or any language that I knew. I was “speaking in tongues”—the shaman had cast his spell, and I swooned under the influence of his magic.

Years later, though while still a Christian, I learned that glossolalia could be explained without any reference to the supernatural—it was a naturalistic phenomenon. I spent several years in the Pentecostal denomination the Assemblies of God before my doubts about glossalia got the best of me. But, had it not been for the spell of Pentecostalism cast onto a young and empty mind, I would never have succumbed. I do not fault my parents or anyone for this time in my life, but I know that the magic behind closed doors, the doors of Pentecostal churches, made my draw much stronger and my stay much longer.

Religious Literacy for My Children

Religious literacy—awareness of other peoples’ faith systems—is critically important for anyone desiring to understand the world and human cultures. It is also important as a means to fostering independence of thought and autonomy of decision in children raised by freethinking parents while also allowing them to avoid the ignorant pitfalls of “teen epiphany.”

I currently have little control over my oldest three children’s religious literacy (or lack thereof). They are being indoctrinated in a fundamentalist school and in a fundamentalist church. When I see them they ask me questions about evolution, homosexuality and gay marriage, morality, and God. I know their minds are probing beyond the corridors of backwaters fundamentalism into the verdant intellectual waters beyond. With my youngest religious literacy will be little challenge. His parents are well informed in various religious traditions, we discuss religion frequently in the home, and we attend a liberal church (if it can be called this) that intentionally promotes religious literacy in various traditions.


Fizlowski said...

This is exactly what happened to my ex-wife. She was raised by a secular, non-church-going family and, when she was a teenager she found religion at a local fundamentalist church. She described this epiphany as you explained in the article, as a feeling of having found a truth or purpose that she had previously been denied. Her relationship with this church lasted for years, even though it was in conflict with her own sexual orientation.

Lisa said...

My parents didn't necessarily avoid religious discussion, but they definitely weren't involved in church while I was growing up. I think I was drawn to church because I was good friends with some Mormons from school who seemingly had it "all together" and had a good home life. I didn't. I guess I thought if I went to church, I'd have a less traumatic home life.

I got sucked into a fundamentalist church during high school, which introduced me to a more radical fundamentalist "bible school" type group called Master's Commission right after high school. This group turned out to be a very spiritually abusive time in my life that I'm still recovering from, six years after leaving.

I was also involved in an Assemblies of God background. You mentioned "I learned that glossolalia could be explained without any reference to the supernatural—it was a naturalistic phenomenon." I'm curious about this. Could you expand on this? I had some very weird experiences with speaking in tongues, but besides thinking that people were faking it, I haven't really looked into the weirdness of it all.

Peter said...

Hey Lisa,

I am following you now on twitter and will check out your blog soon.

Let me just touch on your question about glossolalia with only one reference to a hard resource: John McArthur's Charismatic Chaos. McArthur, a fundamentalist himself, dissects the charismatic movement rather diplomatically--avoiding the charge that many anti-charismatics make that "speaking in tongues" is a sign of demons or even demon possession. Instead, he documents numerous studies that show glossalalia to be non-linguistic, showing no signs or characteristics of actual languages.

When I first learned this I thought, "Well Paul does say the 'tongues of angels,' so maybe people are speaking in languages used by angels." This fails as well when one realizes that glossalalia is not a distinctively Christian phenomena. Glossalalia could be found among ancient Gnostics and today in Sufis, various Hindu sects, and among ecstatics of nearly any religious tradition. It would take an extreme case of undue bias to assert that Christian glossalalia is linguistically implausible angel tongues when other religions' cases were purely naturalistic.

I can produce more resources in a bit if you'd like. First I need to clean house.

Would you like to share at all about your experiences?

Scriptulicious said...

Hey Fizlowski,

I find it amazing how your ex-wife appears to have maintained worlds in tension: her fundamentalist dogma and her sexual orientation. I’ve met several people who live in such a dichotomous world between their sexual orientation and their fundamentalism. In many ways I wonder if such a dichotomy might be characteristic of all fundmanentalisms. Warning: this might be my IAB (intellectual attribution bias) showing.

Every fundamentalist I know maintains a dichotomy or dualism between their faith systems and reality. This dualism is basically dissonance or holding at bay and hiding from information that would corrode their beliefs.

I know many Evangelicals, my favorite form of fundamentalism (I jest), who would assert that creationism is unfettered by science and that evolution is a theory in crisis, one that its adherents are defending as sacrosanct. Other fundamentalists side-step the moral absurdities of the Bible with a hop, skip, and eisegetic jump of wishful thinking. I find this last form of Evangelical fundamentalism to be especially dishonest and its practitioners to be exercised in rationalization, exoneration, and dishonesty. So, while they laud values like honesty and prudent transparency, they dualistically hide themselves and their sacred cows in obscurity and lies, outright lies

Tess B. said...

All due respect, I find it incredibly hypocritical for you to say that you are "free thinkers" and are doing your best to raise "free thinking" children when, in all actuality, you simply want them to think like you. Personally, I do not attend any church and don't truly believe in any organized religion although I am very spiritual. But that may not be the correct path for my children. In their short lives they have been to Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and even AME churches. When they ask me questions about religion and the Bible, I don't tell them what to think. I ask them what they think. Call me crazy, but that's how I'm raising my "free thinkers".

Peter said...

Hey Tess,

For some reason your comment went to my spam folder. It must be your drawl. Just found it and released it.

Well, yes, I do want my kids to have both the chance to think and decide for themselves, and I want them to eventually think like me. This is a bit paradoxical, I admit it. The point of religious literacy is to allow children to explore world religions and other worldviews with age-appropriate autonomy in order to allow them to decide for themselves.

When my children ask me questions I do exactly what you do. I ask them what they think.

Recently my oldest (10) asked me, “Why do you believe in evolution?” Questions beginning with why tend to put people on the defensive, and, though I could hear his conditioned animosity toward evolution in this question, I did not take his question as incendiary. I asked him to explain what evolution is and if he believed in it. His explanation of evolution was as follows: You see animal footprints in the woods and suddenly they change to a different type of animal. In the end, I agreed with him that if evolution was what he said that I likewise do not agree with him. I can’t say much more about my older children in this forum because there are some pending legal issues and their mom’s attorney is using this blog to gather information on me.

So, I commend you for giving your children a wide range of experiences and exposures. I hope to do the same with just about every area of human existence over which there is debate: politics, religion, philosophy, etc. I would say that you are indeed encouraging free thinking and autonomy in your children.

Peter said...

I stated,

"In the end, I agreed with him that if evolution was what he said that I likewise do not agree with him."

This should be,

"In the end, I agreed with him that if evolution was what he said that I likewise do not agree with it [evolution]."

Tess B. said...

It's very difficult to watch your children choose a path, religious or otherwise, that we, ourselves, do not agree with. But that is the tragedy, and often, the beauty of parenting. Last October both of my oldest two children made the decision to "be saved" and Baptised in the Baptist Church. Although this is the very church that I chose to leave, I respected their decisions and was proud in the fact that they had made them on their own, without stress or pressure from anyone. While they have always been free to attend church with anyone they wished, they have also had the option not to attend at all and no question has ever been off limits. Perhaps someday they will change their minds, but perhaps they won't. They are very open-minded (just like their mother) and only time will tell.

Jamie G. said...

Locked away alone in the woods with a "Reverand"... be glad it was the "Spirit" that you were only imbued with. ;-D

Peter said...

Hey Jamie, I guess I was fortunate. However, this was a pastor's son, not a pastor. I am not sure if that was any safer :-)

Jamie G. said...


Actually, a very similar experience occurred with me when I was "baptized in the spirit".

My wife, when we were dating in HS, lived in town, but had a small apartment behind her folks house. Her step-dad convinced this Methodist boy that I needed the infilling of the Holy Ghost, so we went out to her small apartment, just him and I, and that's when I started speaking in tongues for the next 10 years. He laid hands on me, but that was it... I swear. :-)