Scariest Paragraph I Read Today

From The Economist‘s very worthwhile 18-page special report on religion and public life:

In global terms the most remarkable religious success story of the past century has been the least intellectual (and most emotive) religion of all. Pentecostalism was founded only 100 years ago in a scruffy part of Los Angeles by a one-eyed black preacher, convinced that God would send a new Pentecost if only people would pray hard enough. There are now at least 400 million revivalists around the world. Their beliefs are not for the faint-hearted. According to a study of ten countries by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, most adherents have witnessed divine healing, received a “direct revelation from God” or seen exorcisms.

19 comments on “Scariest Paragraph I Read Today
  • I’m not sure why you found it scary, either. I attended a Pentecostal Sunday school for a year. It was taught by a doctoral candidate in theology. He was articulate and an excellent teacher. But I avoided attending an actual church service until the last service before I graduated from grad school. He called my friend and I up before the congregation and invited anyone who knew us to pray for us. Thus I stood encircled by a group of people who were speaking in tongues. These people were no better or worse than anyone else I’ve encountered in organized religions, but I did find their theology peculiarly un-American since they divided Christians into categories–those who’d received the gift of tongues and those who hadn’t. One man who hadn’t said he’d prayed about it and didn’t understand why and I wanted to tell him, “Perhaps it’s because you’re more rational than the others.” Those who spoke in tongues seemed to me like the Emperor who wore no clothes.

  • It concerns me that an otherwise bright young man like yourself would dismiss the beliefs of a very large segment of the population as madness.

    I have attended a pentecostal church for 15 years that is located in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Congregants include CEO’s of technology and other large companies, professionals of all types, several college professors, and a myriad of other occupations.

    It is also the most ethnically diverse church in the area. It is about 50% white and 50% black/hispanic/east indian/asian.

    It is hard to believe that this diverse group of very successful people are all “mad”.

    What’s wrong with actually believing and witnessing what the Bible says?

    A secular person may have cancer go into remission and that’s great. But in a pentecostal community that’s a miracle from God and it sure seems to happen a lot to people I know and pray with.

  • In other words, save all medical research $$ and divert them to the church…

    The condition of $$ is worsening and is making life difficult for US importers, especially Oil. (it’s inching close to $$100 a barrel)

    What do you think? Dial a prayer?

  • Ben– having read the report I understand the context for which you think it is scary.
    Outside the paragraph you point out, this is a remarkable piece of work and would urge everyone to read it. It scares me to know how much how much our government endorses a single religion. I mean I’m OK with the President’s prayer session before his cabinet meetings, but do I really need to pray at a government ran economic convention?

    also read:,schanberg,52828,6.html

  • > And why is this scary?

    If Pentecostalism is wrong, 400m people are constantly acting under false impressions. Some of the consequences are harmless, but some are not.

    Can you see why non-believers find that scary?

  • Rather than living in fear of 400 million people based on what you read about them, visit a pentecostal church and see the people and hear about their beliefs first hand.

    In Southern California, you might try Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside (, Wikipedia says it is the 8th largest church in America and I’ve seen the pastor, Greg Laurie, on TV and I thing it is fair to say he is in the mainstream among pentecostals.

    Ted: What are the harmful consequences if 400m people are acting under false impressions? And how is that any different from the other 6 billion people who also have false impressions of other things?

    Jesse: I agree that Jesus Camp is an entertaining movie but characterizing pentecostal practice and culture by it would be like characterizing American teen culture by just focusing on Britney Spears.

    Krishna: I don’t know of any pentecostals who don’t use doctors. Prayer is in addition to medical care, not instead of medical care. And we’re taught to use the best doctor we can find, regardless of faith. For instance, my doctor is a Hindu.

    Everyone: There are great churches just about everywhere. When I was young and focused primarily on myself, I felt no need for God or the church. If you have reached the point where you realize this life is a lot bigger than you and what you can do, look for God and you will find Him. Email me at tkelly1478(at) if you need help.

  • Tom,

    The pentecoastal culture I guess has its own interpretations amongst its practitioners. The one I’ve come across abhor modern medicine (they may be accessing it in private, I don’t know) and preach elaborately on miracle cures.

    I am not against faith in its pure form, to assuage distress -physiological or psychological. There is a cult that believes music has curative properties. But the fact remains, on the periphery, there are enough gullible public that might rely on abstractions and jeopardize their health.

    I respect your sentiments and my intention was not to hurt.

  • A secular person may have cancer go into remission and that’s great. But in a pentecostal community that’s a miracle from God and it sure seems to happen a lot to people I know and pray with.

    How come prayer never restores amputated body parts? And what about those that do die of cancer – are they just not praying hard enough?

  • I don’t find the irrationality of Pentecostal belief any MORE frightening than the irrationality of Roman Catholic dogma, e.g., belief in transubstantiation (Church-sanctioned cannibalism), or the monstrous violence of Jehovah God in the Bible.

    I find it frightening that people of any religious temperament interpret religious texts literally.

    As any atheist (I’m not one) can tell you, most of the world’s religions are based on beliefs that are indefensible rationally.

  • Derek: My 14 year old son died of cancer despite the prayers of thousands a few years ago. But he did live three years beyond the statistical average for his diagnosis.

    Do you have any proof that prayer never restores body parts? I have not witnessed it personally but have heard numerous testimonies of it happening.

    Vince: The reason that spiritual beliefs appear irrational to non-believers is that they require faith. We live in a world where God allows us to choose between belief and non-belief. When you choose to believe, interpreting the Bible literally is possible, because you realize that God can, has, and will do anything He pleases, whether it obeys our narrow conception of ultimate reality or not.

    We are like two dimensional figures drawn on a blackboard. It is impossible for us to comprehend what God is doing in the rest of the n dimensions. He communicates with us through words, people, and situations that are within our limited understanding.

  • I don’t understand why this is “scarier” than any other random religious belief or tradition. If you don’t believe it, then of course it’ll be scary to think that millions of others do. But that goes for anything, not just religion.

  • Hey, this past summer I led a Pentecostal group and talked to alot of the younger girls about their faith. Remind me later, we’ll chat.

  • Tom Kelly,

    I find it very strange and presumptuous that you should tell me, or anyone, what God allows us to choose.

    I’m not sure which alternative universe you’re coming from, but it sounds like a frightening place to me.

  • I, too, fear an administration that endorses anti-intellectual, apocalyptic faith.

    The more so because I’ve never believed that George W. Bush’s vaunted conversion to evangelical Christianity was sincere, unless it were a very warped one.

    I don’t believe a person who has truly embraced the principles Bush avows would so single-mindedly devote himself to the destruction of our economy and allow the depredations being made on it by corporations such as Halliburton.

    I don’t believe a sincere Christian of any stripe would launch such vicious assaults on the Constitution and human rights.

    If anything, I find the fact that this corrupt Bush/Cheney junta has hijacked the White House even more ominous than Putin’s machinations in Moscow.

  • Tom, my condolences to you for what must have been a heartbreaking loss.

    Statistical averages are just that – averages. By definition, a substantial percentage will live longer than the average. Was it all because of prayer? What about Muslims, Buddhists and atheists who live longer than average? My grandmother lived to be 93 despite being surrounded by atheists and agnostics.

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