11/21/2009                                                                                       View Comments

Taking the "super" out of "supernatural"

by Nathan

I no longer consider myself a Christian and told my wife, her parents and my parents earlier this year. However, I still go to church with my wife (a “non-denominational, a cappella” congregation with about 10-12 members) because we have three little ones and it doesn't seem right to make her drag all three out the door and drive 25 miles alone.

So I have been sitting in church every Sunday listening to a particularly conservative, literal message and it has driven me nuts. Sunday's sermon was particularly egregious and so I thought I'd write something just to get things off my chest.

The guy bringing the message started by saying science is a religion in and of itself, then moved on to saying that god is like wind and gravity; you can't see wind or gravity, but can prove they exist by the effects around you. He moved on to say that the defining characteristic for Christians is the resurrection of Jesus and if you can prove there was no resurrection then there would be no reason to believe in Christianity. The reasons cited for believing the resurrection include writing that people saw Christ afterward (up to 500 people at once) and also because the disciples turned from fearful introverts to outgoing preachers of the gospel. The speaker even cited Pinchas Lapide, author of The Resurrection of Jesus: a Jewish Perspective, as writing that the disciples' change is a very powerful argument for the historicity of the resurrection.

I rolled my eyes as I sat listening to this. I took a course called Persuasive Communication and one of the textbooks assigned was Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. In the book, Cialdini cites the study by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (written in 1956 titled When Prophecy Fails) of a UFO doomsday cult that went from an inclusive sect to open and disciple-seeking when the end of the world didn't happen as predicted. So is the resurrection the only explanation for why the disciples started preaching after Jesus' crucifixion? And it wasn't just the UFO doomsday cult.

From Cialdini's book:
So it was with the Montanists of second-century Turkey, with the Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Holland, with the Sabbataists of seventeenth-century Izmir, and with the Millerites of nineteenth-century America.
The preacher then asked why would people suffer for their faith if it was a lie? I find that question to be equally answerable without the supernatural. There are innumerable instances of people who suffer for some group. Cialdini's book cited research showing that people feel a greater attachment to a group if there has been some personal price to pay. So the idea that a person wouldn't waver even if they were incorrect is perfectly reasonable. From the chapter on Commitment and Consistency, talking about hazing and initiation rites:
There is another striking similarity between the initiation rites of tribal and fraternal societies: They simply will not die. Resisting all attempts to eliminate or suppress them, such hazing practices have been phenomenally resilient. Authorities, in the form of colonial governments or university administrations, have tried threats, social pressures, legal actions, banishments, bribes, and bans to persuade groups to remove the hazards and humiliations from their initiation ceremonies. None has been successful.
And later in the chapter:
A pair of young researchers, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, decided to test their observation that "persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort." The real stroke of inspiration came in their choice of the initiation ceremony as the best place to examine this possibility. They found that college women who had to endure a severely embarrassing initiation ceremony in order to gain access to a sex discussion group convinced themselves that their new group and its discussions were extremely valuable, even though Aronson and Mills had rehearsed the other group members to be as "worthless and uninteresting" as possible. Different coeds who went through a much milder initiation ceremony or went through no initiation at all, were decidedly less positive about the "worthless" new group they had joined. Additional research showed the same results when coeds were required to endure pain rather than embarrassment to get into a group (Gerard & Mathewson, 1966). The more electric shock a woman received as part of the initiation ceremony, the more she later persuaded herself that her new group and its activities were interesting, intelligent, and desirable.
So my view of the “resurrection” is the following: It's made up because that's what people do and people believed it because that's what people do.

Thank god not everyone believes...

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