Mass Hysteria in Religion – Two Case Studies

IMG_0205Mass Hysteria in Religion: Two Case Studies

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Toronto Blessing, it is a religious craze that swept the world about fifteen years ago. During the ‘blessing’ people would inexplicably be reduced to hysterical rambling, ‘speaking in tongues,’ behaving like wild animals, and often collapse in a heap on the floor as if suddenly having some sort of epileptic seizure. So just like Friday night in Newcastle town centre.

Nonetheless, the phenomena so closely resembled mass hysteria that most observers – scientists and laymen alike – deduced that it was indeed a text book case of mass hysteria. Those who took part in it were all emotionally very suggestible and there is no doubt that expectancy and wish fulfillment played a major part in the experience.

I would like to examine two testimonies from people who received the Toronto Blessing. The first is a man called Mick Brown. He went to Toronto and attended a meeting led by John Arnott, pastor of the Toronto Airport Vineyard. Here is Mick Brown’s testimony:

“A body came falling towards me. I rested it on the ground and moved on. I found myself beside John Arnott, who was moving through the crowd, blessing people, who fell like ninepins. I didn’t even see his hand coming as it arched through the air and touched me gently – hardly at all – on the forehead. “And bless this one, Lord….” I could feel a palpable shock running through me, then I was falling backwards, as if my legs had been kicked away from underneath me. I hit the floor – I swear this is the truth – laughing like a drain.”

The interesting thing about that testimony is that Mick Brown is not a Christian. He is an unconverted Daily Telegraph journalist who went to Toronto to write a report on the Toronto Blessing for the Daily Telegraph magazine, from which the above quotation is taken. Yet when Pastor Arnott touched him, Mick Brown experiences exactly the same phenomena as all the professing believers. He becomes “slain in the Spirit” and laughs hysterically. Later he told a Christian newspaper that his experience had made no difference to his unbelief in Christianity. He was and still is a non-believer. So we are left with the same physical and emotional experience, the same Toronto Blessing, the same hysterical reaction but without the religiosity.

This forces us to ask two very important and searching questions:

First, how can this be the Holy Spirit at work? and second, does the Holy Spirit bestow the same emotional and physical experience on believer and non-believer alike – ‘slaying in the Spirit,’ uncontrollable laughter, a state of euphoria?

If these things had no spiritual or religious meaning or significance in the life of atheist Mick Brown, how can precisely the same things have any authentic spiritual meaning or significance in the lives of professing Christians? Clearly we are dealing with an experience that is not truly spiritual in nature, but can be happily shared by believers and non-believers alike. Obviously it must be up to the individual to interpret the associated emotions and find meaning… or not.

Another obvious question is, what is the power that John Arnott has to induce this experience in a non-Christian who has absolutely no belief that the Toronto Blessing is a work of God, since he does not even believe in God? Is it possible that this is nothing more that hypnotism working on a suggestible mind? Mick Brown had not participated in any of the warm-up techniques of the worship, and had no expectation that anything would happen to him. Yet when John Arnott touched him, quite by accident, down he goes, gibbering away and laughing hysterically. This seems to point us in the direction of John Arnott and others like him actually possessing or at least channeling some kind of supernatural power. Or not…

Stage hypnosis employs the same mental sleight of hand, as do the industrial scale antics of American TV evangelists, such as the market leader, Benny Hinn. Once a participant has seen other volunteers collapsing and falling into what appears to be a trance-like state, that participant also becomes suggestible. This happens quite unconsciously and is as reliable as clockwork. One does not have to take part in the warm up tests and exercises to be affected by it – merely watching it work with others is enough to increase suggestibility.

The second testimony I want to look at is that of Glenda Waddell, a member of staff at Holy Trinity Brompton, the Anglican church in London which acts as the British headquarters of the Toronto Blessing. Here is Ms Waddell’s testimony of how she first received the Toronto Blessing:

“To my absolute horror I just knew beyond any shadow of doubt my hands were doing strange things and I was going to roar. I said, “Oh Lord, I’d do anything but please, please, don’t make me roar. Only the men roar and the women don’t roar.” But it came and I did roar quite loudly and I made a lot of awful noise and I was crawling around the floor doing terrible things and half of me was thinking, ‘This cannot be me.’ But another part of me knew that it was.”

The disturbing thing about Ms Waddell’s testimony is that it presents us with a picture of the Holy Spirit supposedly at work. And yet her experience makes it painfully obvious it was not the Holy Spirit at work.

By her own account, Ms Waddell was invaded and possessed by a power which reduced her to bestial behaviour, crawling around and roaring like a wild animal – all against her conscious will. She was simply taken over, physically and spiritually, by a controlling force. That is not how the Holy Spirit operates in a believer’s life. He does not sanctify individuals by possessing them like a demon and forcing them to do weird, sub-human things. He is supposed to work through the Word of God, bringing truth to bear upon our minds, enlightening our understanding. Anyone with any spiritual discernment must see that this darker force was not the Holy Spirit.

An important thing to understand about mass hysteria is that it can creep up even on those who are on their guard against it. From the accounts of the two people in the extract above, it seems to me this is what happened.

I once found myself caught up in a group of people Las Vegas who were running away from a man who was brandishing a gun. The compulsion to get away was all consuming and I ran with the rest of them as fast as I could. My heart was pounding, I was in fear, and yet I had no idea why I was running until we got round a corner and someone told me a man had a gun. The feelings and emotions were absolutely overpowering and I felt slightly ashamed afterwards – not out of cowardice (America is full of crazed gunmen and so running is a sensible course of action) but because I had been drawn into this behaviour. I thought about my own reactions a lot in the following days. I had been surprised by my total and sudden inability to retain my individuality. I had been instantaneously and against my will submerged in the larger organism of the group.

As with the Toronto Blessing, throwing people down on the floor, even by just touching them, is an old stage hypnotist’s trick. In this case, social compliance comes into play. Social compliance is extremely powerful and sometimes all-consuming. I know this to be true – not just because of the experience described above, but because I have witnessed it thousands of times in my stage shows.

Social compliance has its roots in the evolutionary survival strategy. Humans have to work together to survive and anyone who ‘rocks the boat’ is deemed to be ‘anti-social’ and quickly ostracised from the rest of the group. To not behave as one is expected to behave is a serious social impropriety. People are often extremely surprised that they comply in stage hypnosis and I can see the clear connection here.

I have also seen on stage, one volunteer suddenly become convulsed with uncontrollable giggling, so much so that she was for some time unable to talk. What happened next was that all the volunteers became likewise, and this happened within in a matter of a few seconds!

Allowing oneself to be touched (having one’s personal space invaded by another, even someone you may not like or trust) is one very powerful way in which the perpetrator gains superiority. Again, even if warned beforehand, or on your guard, when the moment comes, it is to most, irresistible. In the case of the preacher and the two cases described above, the loss of self-control and self determination happens at an unconscious level, even though the person is still conscious.

Therefore, even though conscious, they are unaware of the changes happening in their own brain and this goes a long way toward explaining the puzzlement of the two people in the report.

As for roaring like a lion (another old stage hypnosis trick) it is akin to trying to stop oneself yawning. The more you think about trying not to yawn, the more difficult it becomes not to yawn. Or sneeze. Or fall to the ground.

It is not unknown for charismatic preachers to use trickery in these circumstances either. A mild electric shock is enough to convince even the most hardened skeptic that something unusual has actually happened. Sometimes the apparatus delivering the amps is hidden in a decorated wooden cross or such like. The shock is delivered not to the head, but to the lower body. This sort of misdirection is something well understood by magicians. The eyes of the spectators follow the hand that touches the head, unaware that the preacher is delivering the electric shock to another part of the body lower down. To the recipient, the sensation is so quick that it is indistinguishable.

I never cease to be amazed at how easily some people are fooled – especially by those who use religion as a tool to hijack spirituality for their own nefarious purposes.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2015. All rights reserved.