John Oliver ran a fantastic segment last week on The Prosperity Gospel. You should watch it. We discussed it on The Non-Prophets a bit too.
Adam Lee wrote a post about this segment asking, “Should We Pity the Victims of the Prosperity Gospel?”
Adam’s an excellent writer; I agree with most of what he says most of the time. He points out:
It’s amazing to me that so many people fall for it. Clearly, this shell game doesn’t work just because of a nice suit or a slick sales pitch. They’re tapping into something that’s hungry for hope and willing to follow anyone who promises it. The people they’re fleecing are eager to be deceived.
And for that reason, as much as I’m outraged by the brazenness of the preachers’ con, I have difficulty feeling sympathy for those who are taken in by it.
Here are a few things to consider on the other side. Poverty correlates strongly with low education, and religion has a long history of preying on the desperate. People who are under-educated and lack critical thinking skills, often wind up in that state in for reasons that are not entirely within their control. It’s very easy for me as an educated and comfortably middle class individual to make fun of people who give away their own money in the vain hope that it will fix their terrible living conditions — and yes, I enjoy making fun of stupidity. But at the same time, scams like this work best on people who don’t understand scams; and those people tend to be the ones who can least afford to lose their money.
It’s not just religion. Think about another topic that John Oliver has discussed: predatory high interest payday loans. Yeah, watch that video too.
Accepting such loans is STUPID, on some level. But who takes those loans? In many cases it is also poor, uneducated people. Scam artists count on people not being savvy enough to defend themselves, and to a poor person who can’t see beyond surviving the week without quick cash, it seems like a good deal.
People who were raised on religion often have a hard time distinguishing promises that “God will give you money” from an ironclad guarantee. Has a Christian ever told you that they could no more doubt God exists than they could doubt that their own mother exists? That’s the state that many people find themselves in after a lifetime of indoctrination.
So if you’re poor, you haven’t had competent education, aren’t particularly skeptical, and someone you trust tells you that God — who is as real as your own mother — has promised to give you money if you meet certain conditions… a few people will wind up doing that. Are they greedy? Sure. But it’s not the Robert Tiltons and the Creflo Dollars of the world who lose their money to these scams; they’re the ones who take advantage of it. The real greedy ones are those who are perpetrate the scams.
W.C. Fields [edit: or perhaps it was Canada Bill Jones] once said “It’s morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money.” At the end of the day I agree that you can’t protect people from their own stupidity. Better education and inoculation against gullibility is the solution. Criticize religious scams openly, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to talking about harmful beliefs. But at the same time, I don’t feel so much schadenfreude towards the victims of scams that I don’t think we should go after Tiltons and Dollars and other con artists. They’re still thieves and crooks, even if you’re not likely to ever be their victims.