Ripping people off in the name of God

Many readers on this site may be too young to remember televangelist Peter Popoff. The only reason I know of him is due in no small part to magician and skeptic James Randi. Popoff was a faith healer who achieved fame by making startling predictions about people’s ailments during his church services. He was even able to recite their address, as though God had given him a cosmic phone.

Obviously skeptical of this supposed supernatural ability, Randi decided to investigate. He was able to isolate a radio frequency transmitted by his wife to Popoff via a small earpiece, and Randi recorded it. He then played the tape on an episode of Johnny Carson (who was himself a magician and avid skeptic).Exposed as an obvious fraud, Popoff filed for bankruptcy, and disappeared.

Then, beginning in 2003, he started making a comeback, and opened up a church and employed his usual bag of tricks. A few years ago, Peter got creative; he began offering ‘miracle spring water’ on infomercials for free, claiming that if the participants followed the instructions to the letter, they would be blessed with a miracle. Although the tiny plastic reservoir of water was itself free, the instructions demanded that the water be slept with overnight, drank, and a check for 17 dollars be sent to his church. It also unleashed a flurry of mail, often demanding the recipients pay up to 200 dollars as part of their expected contributions.

To most people, such demands would seem outright ludicrous, but Popoff nevertheless was able to secure 23 million dollars in revenue for 2005 alone, thanks in large part to his clever schemes. Some people, desperate for a miracle, continued to blindly follow Popoff’s instructions; one couple spent over 5000 dollars, and had to stop when they ran out of money to buy food. Why would anyone allow themselves to be manipulated by such obvious schemes? The answer can be found in the way in which the supposed virtue of faith operates: in blindly following the words and advice of people in positions of so-called ‘divine authority’.

The imagery of God as a shepherd is no coincidence; we are deemed, by the 3 great monotheistic religions, to be unable to dictate for ourselves how to live ethical and meaningful lives. As such, we require the tutelage of God’s interpreters, who generally command a far greater understanding of scripture than we do; or so we’re told. If a priest says during mass, wine is literally transubstantiated into Christ’s blood, we are to take him at his word, despite the fact that our natural curiosity and observational powers would seek to refute it. Although the priest may himself be a well meaning human being who attempts to interpret his holy manuscript in the best possible way, the truth is his constituents are quite literally trained to trust whatever he says, and as such are unable to tell the difference between good and fraudulent advice. They must simply take him at his word.

So if a man has similar constituents to our hypothetical priest, and claims a plastic tube of water will cause its imbiber to witness a miracle, how are they to discern his true intentions? Is he merely trying to make money from these poor desperate folks, or is he genuinely offering a sacred libation? Well, therein lies the dilemma; we cannot criticize the victims of this spiritual hoax, because they were systematically trained to be unable to make that distinction. The fact that many of them do is not because of their respective faith’s doctrine; it is in spite of it.

Incidentally, it is this same reason that prevents any major religious organization from speaking out on the issue of fraudulent faith healers; any attempt to discredit them also places them in danger of being discredited. A fresh supply of faithful must always be maintained, even if such inculcation inextricably creates a highly gullible and vulnerable populace.

Popoff’s ministrations continue to defraud many thousands of people out of their hard earned money every year, all of them hoping for a miracle. We cannot blame the victims, and think them foolish for their credulity. We can only continue to harangue those who continually seek to bamboozle and defraud their fellow man, and try to clarify to the faithful why believing what they are told is a villainous trap.

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