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Miracle Workers: Preying on Sheep

Anyone who has ever bumped into a theist has probably heard of the supposed miracles that come about through prayer, faith, and devotion to a particular deity. Miracles are important to the believer because they, in the theist’s mind, help to prove the reality of the supernatural. That is, if miracles can occur today then they certainly could have happened in the 1st century. Christopher Hitchens once proposed that he could grant Christians all of Jesus’ miracles and it still would not prove that Jesus was divine or that anything he said was true or moral[1] Still, this belief in the magical, as a method to justify faith in a deity which cannot be proved to exist, has and does persist in our culture. To be fair, not all Christians believe miracles happen today, but many, many still do.[2]

Miracle claims can come in a variety of forms. Before the advent of social media, when chain-emails were still a thing, one might have expected to be spammed with miracle stories about persecuted Christians driving otherwise inoperable cars after praying, Jesus saving people buried alive, or villainous atheist professors who drop chalk to prove God does not exist (because that’s a thing atheists do).[3] Beyond chain-email and Facebook spam stories lie the ever revered anecdotal accounts of miraculous occurrences in the everyday believer’s life[4] There is also the phenomena of miracle photographs, supposedly depicting angels or light from heaven.[5] Statues, too, can be miraculous when they allegedly weep or bleed.[6] There is even miracle food, such as the “Virgin Mary” grilled cheese which sold for $28K in an eBay auction in 2004.[7]

While poorly written fictional stories, overexposed photos, porous sculptures, and burnt food are all fairly benign, that some people genuinely believe such things are evidence of miracles has not gone unnoticed. And so enters the miracle worker. Generally speaking there are two different types of miracle workers. Faith healers claim to channel God’s power or the Holy Spirit through themselves to heal the sick or cure diseases. The second type is exorcists (no, I’m not joking), who claim to be able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, even though these “demons” are likely legitimate psychological issues which a professional should address. Unlike the other mentioned occurrences of miracles, usually mundane and publicly fawned-over events, these healers and exorcists set themselves apart in that their miracles cost money–lots and lots of money.

In the exorcism department, miracle workers range from the Pope to your average pastor. Perhaps you remember the viral video of Pope Francis supposedly exorcising a young man in a wheelchair in 2013.[8] Although the Vatican denied this was an exorcism, this did not stop people from believing otherwise. Regardless, it certainly could not have hurt the Vatican’s “donation” income to have had a Pope who was rumored to be exorcising demons.[9]

On the smaller, but perhaps more reprehensible scale, are those such as Pastor Wayne Marlon Jones. Pastor Jones, just last year, was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman while providing “spiritual guidance” which included his performing exorcisms.[10] He had also convinced the victim to give him money and property during the sessions totaling over $5,000.[11] What’s more, there are three other victims who have come forward… so far.

Then, of course, there is the infamous “Skype Exorcist,” Reverend Bob Larson. Thanks to the wonderful technological advances of the 21st century, Reverend Bob is able to exorcise demons via webcam. That’s a nice, charitable thing for him to do now isn’t it? Except it’s not charity. Larson charges a $295 “suggested donation” per one-hour Skype session to rid you of your demons.[12] By his own count Larson claims to have performed over 20,000 exorcisms. If you really want protection from demons, you can even buy a replica of Larson’s “Cross of Deliverance,” which he uses to cast out evil spirits, for a cheap $100.[13] This con-man’s game is so transparent that even other theists have called him out.[14] But, of course, his charade continues.[15]

Thankfully, belief in possession and exorcism is low compared to belief in general miracles.[16] Faith healing, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Miracle workers who claim the ability to heal the sick and decrepit are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars each year from people who likely need genuine medical attention. If you have never seen a faith healing, think of it like visiting a witch doctor where someone says some magic words and your ailment stays the same or gets worse.[17] All that is required to be healed is for you to “sow your seed,” which is Bible-talk for “pay up.”

This is exactly what megachurch faith healer Benny Hinn has been doing since the 80s. According to Pastor Hinn’s website, he has preached to over one billion people so far in his decades of ministry.[18] Not surprisingly, this size of audience, be it through TV or in Hinn’s “Miracle Crusade” rallies, comes with a lot of donations. According to a Dateline investigation, Hinn collects more than $200 million per year.[19] Were you to attend one of Hinn’s Miracle Crusades, you would likely witness people being knocked down by the Holy Spirit and healed onstage. Not surprisingly, Hinn’s security carefully vets audience members so the truly sick are kept away.[20] Perhaps even sadder than this scheme is that some Christians, who recognize Hinn is only in it for the money, still think it might be a good way for people to connect with Jesus.[21]

Another man who has made millions connecting people with Jesus, and connecting himself to these people’s pocketbooks, is Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff’s faith healing campaigns were raking in about $4 million per year. Popoff’s supposed ability to know his audience member’s names, medical conditions, and personal information drew investigator James Randi into the mix. Of course, Popoff was debunked as a fraud who was using pre-collected prayer cards and prompts from his wife through an ear piece in order to appear omniscient.[22] Sadly, but perhaps not shockingly, Popoff has been relentless in coming up with new scams, boasting over $25 million in income in 2005.[23] Currently, Popoff works to erase people’s debt through the miracle of, well, sending him their money.

Miracle workers such as Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff have, unfortunately, helped inspire similar frauds in more destitute and less-educated parts of the world. In Kenya, for example, Pastor Popoff was actually requiring that people pay him up front to receive healing or other miracles.[24] Kanyari, among other things, claimed to heal those affected with AIDS, using fake blood to pretend the evil spirits had been drained away.[25] Although he was exposed in a documentary, Kanyari’s scheme has paid off as he is apparently a millionaire and has declared his plans are to return to preaching.[26] Other countries, too, including Brazil (which even has children who are faith healers), Nigeria, Morocco, Russia, and Mexico, to name a few, are plagued with these charlatans.[27]

Miracles are often explained in such a way that they are unfalsifiable. Those that can be examined with evidence and science are almost always debunked.[28] Still, people desperately cling to these claims and willingly hand over their money in support of them even when exorcisms and faith healings directly cause people’s death.[29] One can only hope that someday, hopefully in the near future, the belief in such dangerous and costly superstition will dwindle to the point that we can collectively look back as a species and shudder.

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Mentioned in the text, in order of appearance:

[1] Christopher Hitchen’s proposition that granting all Jesus’ miracles would not prove Jesus was divine or a god.

[2] This article presents Christian skepticism of miracles in “this age.” Many Christians however, including most Americans, do believe in miracles, as evidenced in this Pew survey and Huffington Post article.

[3] A chain-email example of two women whose car only worked once they prayed. Another example of an inoperable vehicle being powered by faith is seen in this “true” military story. In this story, Jesus manifests to save some Muslim girls who were buried alive (this story is likely meant to show the “truth” in Christianity over other faiths, Islam in this case). And, of course, there is the villainous educated atheist antagonist story.

[4] Anecdotes are often the life source of many people’s faith, since real and repeatable evidence is lacking.

[5] Miracle photographs examined in this great article.

[6] Weeping and bleeding statues refuted on this webpage.

[7] Yes, a grilled cheese sandwich really did sell for almost $30K.

[8] If you haven’t yet seen this video of the Pope “exorcising” a wheelchair-bound man, prepare to be underwhelmed.

[9] The Vatican is loaded, and regularly enjoys free money from millions of subscribers.

[10] Pastor Wayne Marlon Jones, arrested for sexual assault he committed while “exorcising demons” from victim.

[11] Pastor Jones, more details regarding his $5K+ fraud.

[12] Got demons? For just $295 you can get them exorcised via webcam.

[13] Cross of Deliverance, sold here.

[14] Reverend Motal called out Larson on the Anderson Cooper show.

[15] You would think Larson would be out of business and in hiding by now. He’s not. Check out his active YouTube channel, which boasts nearly 20K subscribers.

[16] Pew Research shows than just over 10% of Americans believe they have seen or experienced an exorcism.

[17] This YouTube video investigates just how easy it is to appear to “heal” sick people.

[18] Benny Hinn’s website claims he has preached to over one billion people. (Do a find on “billion.”)

[19] Watch the Dateline investigation on Benny Hinn.

[20] This link takes you to the specific point in the above mentioned investigation which shows Hinn’s security vetting people.

[21] This article, by a Christian author, reviles Benny Hinn’s tactics but strangely still argues that it might help some people come to Jesus, which is ultimately good.

[22] James Randi exposes Peter Popoff in this video.

[23] Popoff’s more recent scams.

[24] NTV Kenya takes a closer look at Pastor Kanyari.

[25] Healing of AIDS exposed.

[26] An article detailing Kanyari’s statements about returning to preaching, despite his scandal.

[27] Check out these news articles regarding faith healers from various global locations: Brazil (which even has children who are faith healers), Nigeria, Morocco, Russia, and Mexico among others.

[28] Miracles debunked by prominent American skeptic Joe Nickell.

[29] The website “What’s the harm?” tallies figures for exorcism-related deaths. The Huffington Post records a similar list for faith-healing deaths.

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