St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Religious Scams and Other Naughty Stuff

I hate religious scams.  My sensitivity over fairness gets involved.

Those who dismiss religion tend to think of it all in one bucket, hogwash to be thrown out.  But as I have written in this column and elsewhere, the Great Tradition of Christianity – my bailiwick – has a definable content and you can argue it as you may any set of principles, theories, and historic events.*  Even if you don’t buy it you can recognize that intelligent and focused people worked hard to shape a Tradition and craft responses to opponents.  That much is evident through even the slightest investigation of the earliest centuries.  Even if you don’t accept the results you can appreciate the efforts.

There’s a lot of snake oil in Christianity partly because there is so little knowledge of the historic decisions and concepts of the faith.  Chalk much of that up to the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, which despite good intentions shrank to partial readings of the Tradition via “private interpretation of scripture.”  That was not the original idea, but it went awry after the early generations.  Matters did not improve in the United States where “rugged individualism” often came to mean that every person’s religion is his or her own, made up as you go along, without any reference to or exploration of the great tradition.

Religious scams are in a different category altogether.  A religious scam overreaches what can be said with honesty, sureness and circumspection about a particular topic.  Heaven and healing usually top the list.

A recent spate of books supposedly unveils heaven for the masses.  Folks who claim to have visited the terrain and brought back news for us uninitiated are the authors.  This means they died and returned to share the news with us.  Gives one pause, doesn’t it?  The latest book is Proof of Heaven, whose author has credentials as a physician and scientist.

Aha!  Now the gods of the age are speaking.  Let’s pay close attention.  Surely the scientist speaks truth, because scientists deal with the hard and solid matter of this life.  We religionists, of course, build castles in the air, stitching clouds together into a predetermined pattern.  Easily dismissed.  But when the papers cite an expert as a scientist – even if the expertise is not religion – we back off, meek as lambs, and accept what he or she says.

Scientism – the deference paid to anything said in the name of science, as if there were no other pathway to truth – is the belief of the age.  Scientism, let us note, is also a scam.  There are other models for truth telling.

My Tradition affirms life after death (through the power of Christ’s Resurrection), but I am as skeptical as anyone when it comes to precise descriptions of its domain.  My own tradition speaks of the quality of life for the saints but demurs when pressed on the attributes of their whereabouts.  We pray that people be in a “place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing and sorrow have fled away,” but that’s not the same thing as providing a map.

Why do people buy claptrap about heaven?  I suspect there is a simple answer: we want an antidote to this vale of tears; we hope for justice for those who die violently or “before their time,” and if people give answers we may be willing to overlook our skepticism and take them for the sake of comfort.  Some folks who write about heaven in poignant and alluring fashion will get rich.  Just don’t look to this column for such stuff.

19 July 2012

*The Great Tradition may be explored on this web site by going to the Deeper Readings on Orthodoxy.  The first five sections outline the Tradition.