Do you ever question what you believe and why you believe it? I grant you that this is a hard thing to do, in fact it’s so hard that most people on this planet live their whole lives without questioning their dogmatic assertions. Billions of people have died holding very strong beliefs that they never questioned. This includes: Greeks who believed in a mythological plethora of gods, the Persians who held to an ancient form of monotheistic Zoroastrianism, the many Near East cultures who worshiped multiple gods such as Baal, Dagon, and Marduk, and the Egyptians who believed their Pharaohs were gods, among many other fictitious deities. As well as the Romans who, like the Greeks, held strong beliefs in a whole pantheon of many gods and many forms of Eastern religion from Buddhism and Confucianism all the way down to Shintoism. Even in our own lifetime, there are billions who believe in all manner of various things. In your lifetime millions of Chinese will have died thinking that their indigenous faiths were the true faith. Millions of Indians will die, fully expecting that they will continue in a vast cycle of reincarnation. Likewise, millions of Muslims will die, fully confident that the Quran holds the recorded words of Allah, rather than mere human scribbles.
The vast majority of people since the beginning of time have inherited and never questioned their strong beliefs. And yet all of those beliefs contradict one another. They most certainly cannot all be right, but many can definitely can be wrong. And yet, every person who holds these dogmatic beliefs would argue that they are indeed utterly correct. That should tell you that something is wrong. Real truth is not simply a dogmatic and unquestionable assertion, it is a reality that can be confirmed. If truth is indeed truth, no amount of questions, inspections, reviews, and examinations can falsify it. However, false statements, those that rest on ‘hearsay’ or ‘tradition’ cannot stand when under scrutiny.
Now think about those beliefs that you hold dear, are you confident enough to fearlessly and honestly expose them to the most difficult questions available? If your answer is no, why not?
Have you merely inherited your beliefs and without question dogmatically assert yourself to be always true and always right? Does that not cause you to fear? I think it should. I too did exactly that, until a few experiences radically changed my life and caused me to question. They broke the radical closed-mindedness that I once espoused.
And so this blog series will chronicle some of the experiences that led me to admit I was wrong on one thing or another, and therefore I had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance and disillusionment, and forge an updated understanding of the universe. I will be honest, some of these shifts were the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I didn’t want to do admit I was wrong, but I was honest enough to know I had to. It was very difficult, because each time I encountered evidence which forced me to evolve my views, I lost friends, respect, belonging, affirmation, and affection. I didn’t make any of these paradigm shifts because I wanted to, I did it because I wanted truth with integrity, no matter the cost.
I hope that for you too. Here are my stories.
Grandma isn’t possessed, her brain is just stressed
I grew up believing in demonic possession as the cause of behavioral and mental problems. Of course I didn’t personally know of any people with mental issues at the time, but my firmest convictions were that those “voices” people hear when they’re crazy, were literally demons talking to them. I had heard such stories and sermons of voices telling mothers to kill children and others horrible things, and the implicit and explicit explanation was: demons. I had also knew that the only solution was to cast out those demonic voices by prayer. Slogans that simplified this were very popular, something akin to “you don’t need psychology, you need Jesus!” We believed that a brain disease could never lead to immoral behavior, only a spiritual disease of the soul could do that.
I remember watching a movie in class about epilepsy, and arguing with classmates afterwards that seizures were actually caused by demons, and a medical/surgical cure was impossible. That is because within my inherited worldview the source of consciousness, decision, memory, and feeling was not a material brain, but an immaterial soul. The questions a physical view of the brain would entail were very strange: if someone could hit their head and lose memories, what if they forgot about Jesus, were they still saved? It just didn’t make sense that a person’s brain disease could make them crazy, because that would mean they may not have a fair chance to accept Jesus!
Then one day my beloved grandmother, who was living with us at the time, started to talk about the voices of “the Jews in the attic.” I think I was around 15 at the time and remember a dreadful fear came over me. The events that unfolded over the next few days were a frightening blur. They were filled with deeply moving Pentecostal prayers to save her, including attempted exorcisms. The first time she spoke of the voices, I tried to convince her, using logic, that there were no voices upstairs. Deep down I was utterly frightened but I really hoped that she would understand my persuasive rhetoric and realize it was all a big mistake. When she refused and became aggravated, we were certain it was demonic. I literally believed there were demons surrounding my grandmother (in my childish ignorance, I even considered the possibility that there were demons living in the attic and she was hearing voices from there.) As the days wore on, the voices kept talking, and the prayers continued to be unanswered, and my grandmother continued being nice and loving, except when I tried to disprove her voices. I began to realize this did not fit into my theology. How could a demon possessed woman be so kind and loving? How could she continue to pray and profess to love Jesus so much? Why did all these pastors and elders praying for her cause no effect? How could those prayers that apparently took seconds in the Gospel narratives, not work on her after weeks and months?
It didn’t make any sense.
Eventually I recalled that epilepsy video in class, and began to admit that diseases like Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and many more were caused by defective brain chemistry, not demonic infestations. My dogmatic worldview about mental health and demonic infestation shattered. I discovered the fields of psychology and neurology, and just how much of an effect they have on human behavior. I learned many facts about mental illness. Later on, I read books that mentioned so-called demoniacs, who were raised in a Catholic culture, acted “possessed” in a specific Catholic way. In fact, they only responded to holy water and Latin prayers, but not to the prayers of Pentecostal or Baptist preacher. Likewise, so-called demoniacs raised within a Pentecostal culture, acted out in their unique Pentecostal way, and only responded to glossolalic prayer or Pentecostal “in Jesus name” statements, but were not responsive to Catholic Latin rituals. In fact, Buddhists, Shamanists, Hindus, and Muslims also have their own versions of “demonic possession,” and each religion has their own exorcism rituals, that are equally effective on their own version of the disease, which leads psychologists to assume it is a form of “multiple personality disorder” (today this is D.I.D.) wherein people have an alter ego that plays out a role created in their culture.
Besides the fact that some people have been killed in some cases of so called exorcisms there are psychological treatments that are effective. In addition many modern Christian medical professionals reject demon possession as a supernatural phenomenon, and treat is as a broad holistic issue that involves mental health. Whether it’s a case of dissociative identity disorder or a monomania there are better answers for mental health issues than “you must have been a really bad person, so you let magical creatures into your brain.”
Through this learning process I realized that some dogmatic propositions are not truthful. People that act like they know, don’t always know. Those that are confident they have the truth, don’t always have it. Truth is not defined by what authoritative teachers say, but by what simply is regardless of what people say or teach.
My grandmother is still alive today, and I love her, and there is no shame in her being old and fragile. To this day she doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t understand, but she taught me one of the biggest and most important lessons in my life. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit that you were wrong.