Why do we trust these people?

My friend Brian once used an argument that has stuck with me ever since I heard it (it’s super effective!). Imagine yourself at the deathbed of a loved one – say a spouse or a child. You are approached by someone who tells you that if you give him your life savings, he will be able to secure YahwAlladdha’s personal intercession to save the ailing party. Would you do it, even if you knew the chance of success was remote? If your answer is ‘yes’, then that is an argument in favour of atheism. Faith healers are a dime a dozen (actually, far more expensive than that), and none of them do what they claim to do. Someone who knows that intercessory prayer does not work, no matter how devout the petitioner, is forever protected against this specific type of huckster.

The fact is that this is not, for many, a hypothetical question.

‘Miracle Babies’ pastor to be extradited

An evangelist who claimed to have created miraculous pregnancies through prayer is to be sent back to Kenya to face child abduction charges. Gilbert Deya, who has held services in Peckham, south London, has fought a legal battle to stay in the UK since 2007, arguing anything else would breach his human rights.

(snip)

Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended his church in Peckham, South London were told they would be having “miracle” babies. But the babies were always “delivered” in backstreet clinics in Nairobi. The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, had a husband and wife turn up at his constituency surgery who had been through it. “The couple went to Africa, came back into the country with a child that the authorities found out was not theirs through a DNA test.

(snip)

When asked how he explained the births of children with DNA different to that of their alleged parents, he said: “The miracle babies which are happening in our ministry are beyond human imagination. It is not something I can say I can explain because they are of God and things of God cannot be explained by a human being.”

I can’t read this story without being absolutely disgusted by how low members of our species are willing to stoop. This is evil, pure and simple. I don’t think anyone would look at what this man has done to his parishioners and say ‘well his heart was in the right place’. He engaged in a scheme that was equal parts fraud and child trafficking – no amount of justification can possibly excuse this, except in his own mind. I can only sympathize with the heartbroken people who were lied to, and the others who were desperate enough to need to part with their newborn children (for reasons I can only guess at).

Buddhist monk charged with raping girl in 1970s

A Buddhist monk has been charged with raping an underage girl in the 1970s, the Metropolitan police has said. Pahalagama Somaratana Thera, chief incumbent of Thames Buddhist Vihara, Croydon, has been charged with four counts of sexual abuse, police said. The alleged rape and three counts of indecent assault occurred in Chiswick, west London, in 1977 and 1978.

I don’t think I have to provide a sophisticated argument or compelling statistics to have you agree that rape is horrible. While we collectively have this myth that rapists are leering perverts hiding in dark alleys and jumping on unsuspecting women (who are dressed too slutty, donchaknow), the truth is that the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim. Oftentimes they are family members or close, trusted authority figures. The sense of betrayal can only serve to turn the physical violence into a full-blown existential crisis. To be raped by a religious teacher – a person who commands absolute trust – must be horrible beyond imagining.

So these are the stories. They’re both about awful people who did awful things. There are awful people who do awful things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. A NYPD supervisor pepper-sprayed a peaceful protester point blank in the face, then laughed it off while checking his text messages. I doubt he did so with the Psalm of David on his lips. This isn’t the point. The question that popped immediately into my mind when I read both of these pieces was why on Earth did people trust them in the first place? An unbelievable level of faith (wording intentional) was placed in these men – far more than an adult places in their employer or their elected representative or doctor or college professor – people who arguably can demonstrate the reason why you should trust them.

Even if you are a theist (and would you please de-lurk so I know you’re out there?), I think we can build a consensus around the merits placing absolute trust in individual people. There is no shortage of examples of religious leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to lie and distort theological claims to dupe unwitting followers. Those examples include violence against self and others, betrayal of family, complete inversion of ethical principles – any thing that one might describe as ‘sin’. Even if you do believe that some kind of god exists, surely we can get together on the premise that trust should not be given to those that claim its favour.

But this is my main gripe with religion: I don’t really have to speculate what the mechanism is for these kinds of slime to gain the unquestioning trust of their followers. Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion – without faith, religion is simply philosophy (and pretty lazy philosophy to boot). Part of this trust has always been directed at those god-men who claim special insight into the whims of the almighty. A layperson who claims to have had direct communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence is rightly seen as a bit of a nutcase. A politician who claims to have divine direction rockets to the top of the polls. We cannot ignore the encouragement of faith as a major explanatory mechanism for this disparity.

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