Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going bonkers over Bonnke: Our lack of skepticism continues to plague us

Bonnke preaching in Barbados (photo-
It was utterly disturbing but at the same time completely predictable. German tele evangelist Reinhard Bonnke came to Barbados and the throngs came out from all corners of the island. It's by no means the first time that a famous preacher has brought out numbers like this. Back in the 1980s I remember Jimmy Swaggart filling the national stadium, with Barbadians from all walks of life swearing that he was God's special anointed without the moral failings of ordinary men. Days later they saw that same preacher in tears in a well publicized television interview, confessing to an illicit affair with a young girl he was meeting up with regularly in motels.

Other evangelists from foreign shores have come since, offering up prophecies of pending national disasters and deliverance through their words that they claim have power to remove tumors and balance financial statements. People touting magic olive oil and bath soap have also made their way to Bajan shores. So Bonnke's visit was not the first and you don't need prophetic powers to tell you that it won't be the last.

As was the case with many of the big preacher names that went before him, talk about Bonnke dominated the local discussions on the call-in programs both prior to his arrival and in the aftermath of his visit. Views on his participation were mixed, with discussions surrounding his caucasian pigmentation as much as the veracity of his miracle claims. Much has been made of Bonnke's not particularly modest claim of raising a man from the dead. People have suggested that there are many local preachers capable of delivering any message of salvation that Bonnke could bring and that it is sad that Bajans in 2013 still believe that a white man with a foreign accent preaching the word has more authenticity than anything local. Some joked that the government needed a Bonnke like miracle to bring themselves back to life after what is seen in some corners as a lacklustre performance. With elections in the country just called, it is left to see if the lingering Bonnke effect will make its supernatural presence felt at the polls.

Those supporting Bonnke have given the 'at least he is bringing the word of God to the masses' argument and one preacher repeatedly argued that the bible states that 'many will do greater miracles than me in my name,' suggesting that the idea that Bonnke brought back a dead man is not as absurd as many Christians may think.

What added to the intrigue of the whole thing, is that Bonnke's visit was a government sanctioned event. His involvement was eventually the headline act in a service for 'National Blessing and Spiritual Renewal.' This week on Episode 11 of Freethinking Island, Joy and I explored this topic quite a bit, especially from the perspective of race which always comes to the fore when one analyses phenomena such as these.  I certainly encourage you to follow the link and listen to that exchange.

However, notwithstanding the race element, there are other aspects of a visit like this that merit discussion. There was definitely doubt about Bonnke by many people of faith in Barbados. Just as Joy and I ridiculed Bonnke's 'miracle', so too did many in the island. Indeed, I was hearing that there were women who brought their ageing husbands to see if  Bonnke really had the power to raise the dead in truth. The problem that I have with these scoffers in the fold of faith is similar to the issue I had with those rapture ready Christians who were rolling on the floor laughing and pointing fingers at people like Harold Camping and the Mayan apocalypse believers. I looked at some of that irony when I wrote about the irrational 'Amayists'.

Christian fundamentalists dismiss end times prophecies that come up today by quoting the bible passage that says ' no one knows the time or the hour.' Statements like this  boil down to ' right rapture, wrong day.' Those people who are rolling their eyes at the idea of a man raising the dead today, believe that sometime ago exactly that happened, it certainly happened and you are a fool or simply evil to not accept that obvious fact. So with Bonnke it's a case of  right miracle, wrong man and wrong millennium.

Why not Bonnke?

But is it really? After all, as was noted earlier, Jesus himself said others would perform even greater miracles than he in later years. So, I ask the same question of the Bonnke skeptics as I did for those who dismissed Camping. How do you know that Bonnke is not the real thing? What method are you using to determine who God will give healing power to? If God is the one who has total charge, one who can call whosoever he wants for delivering messages and miracles, why not a white man, why not a German? It is curious to bring in these personal cultural preferences of yours and impose them on a God. Once you believe that God can do anything you have to be open to really ANYTHING. But typically Christians only want the windows of our minds to open up on their side of the avenue. When it comes to other believers selling equally untestable products they prefer to put blinds over their minds and close their windows tight, tight, tight.

Well, we on the atheist side can congratulate our theist colleagues for their personal skepticism to all faith claims other than their own, but they push themselves into a corner in trying to tell these others that they shouldn't sell their unjustified stories. They have to stop short of calling them frauds because deep down they know that their own glass houses are every bit as fragile as their neighbour's. They have to admit that if they want to keep faith their way, they have to let others have their way however absurd that way is, how ever conniving that way is, how ever money grabbing that way is, however abusive to the vulnerable and gullible that way is.

Why? Because it's  God we are talking about and he can do what he chooses. That's the argument they always give to us atheists and if they want to be consistent that's what they have to accept when others bring their faith arguments to them. The result of this? A 'live and let live' attitude to religion that many believers and even some atheists consider ideal. I won't throw stones at your glass house, if you don't interfere with mine. When this happens neither 'house' gets exposed  to the level of skepticism that it should have and we get more and more structures that are filled with eager tenants but are far too brittle to justify anybody putting trust in them.  It is rarely recognised, but nobody ultimately benefits from this ever expanding neighbourhood of flimsy dwellings.

Believers by contrast, see the mutual respect for religions as a move towards fairness, a levelling of the playing field for all who claim belief in a God. But this levelling of the playing field means that all religions get to be in the game. ALL religions, the best and the worst, the liberal and the fundamentalist, the racist and the righteous. They all get the same rights and once that happens, those with the least admirable moral principles will win and win handsomely, feeding off of all the rest.

Tele-evangelists like Bonnke know that the best places to sell their fraud is in places where religion is strong, where belief in the God they are promoting is already widespread even if there is no clear definition of who or what that God is. All they have to do is tap into that entrenched supernatural belief and the money will flow like water. Our Caribbean Christian populations will go bonkers over people like Bonnke, those who believe in him will quote from the bible just like he does and even the supposed skeptics will often hold at least a little feeling that Bonnke might be the man. However you look at it, pockets will be filled with funds gained from people of modest means in recession hit countries that can obviously ill afford it. Those who will say 'no' to Bonnke will say 'yes' to the next televangelist that visits or 'yes' to the one after that.

Reason the only way out

The only way I see out of the cycle is to promote the values of reason, evidence, logic and critical thinking. That's why I continue to blog and that's why I continue to do podcasts. I want people to be able to apply the tools of reason to all that come to our shores and all that live within our shores. Whether black or white, foreign or local, young or old, smooth talking or rough and crude around the edges all must be submitted to the same level of skepticism. We must learn how to investigate people's claims, understand what are the tell tale signs of deception so we can learn to avoid the wolves whatever the colour, design or patterns in their sheep costumes.

When the tools of reason are not available or are left unused, people will simply jump on to their bandwagon of choice. We'll see that over the next three weeks in Barbados as the BLP 'Bees' and DLP 'Dems' battle it out for supremacy and the right to govern the country for the next five years.  For most people loyalty to the party tribe will  feature far above any rational, reasonable debate on the issues. It is unfortunate, but so long as the country remains susceptible to phenomena like Bonnkemania and pushes aside critical thinking in favour of charismatic talking, things aren't going to change very much.

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