Religious hucksters are as old as the hills. From time to time law enforcement officials try to protect the gullible from such predators, only to hit a wall. I am not only referring to the constitutional wall that protects religious expression. They are also hitting a wall in human cognition that makes it impossible to clearly mark the distinction between one person’s religion and another’s superstition.
Sylvia Mitchell is a fortuneteller who used to be a live in advisor for Michael Jackson. The Times has an article today about her legal problems as a result of prosecutors trying to recover money on behalf of unhappy customers.
The complainant spoke by telephone from her home in Asia, on the condition that her name and country be left out of this article, as the embarrassing nature of the case could hurt her professionally. She said she first entered the Zena parlor in 2007 with personal and professional troubles.
A crystal-ball reading and Ms. Mitchell’s pledge to meditate on the matter cost $1,000, but the price tag, she said, implied quality. “A lot of these other psychics, if you walk by their shops, they look ghetto,” she said.
What followed were a series of candles and rituals and a “sculpture” that Ms. Mitchell said she created to absorb the victim’s evil spirits from a past life, the client said. The sculpture, however, needed fancy clothes and shoes, and so the client met Ms. Mitchell at a Gucci store and Bergdorf Goodman and paid for those things, she said.
The client said that once, at Ms. Mitchell’s urging, she wrote a friend’s name on a piece of paper, put it in a jar, spit on it, added water and slept with it under her bed. She then took it, covered with a cloth, to Ms. Mitchell, and when the psychic removed the cloth, the water had turned black.
The client said that the black water made her feel “a little bit troubled and a little bit skeptical,” but that she nonetheless forked over more than $120,000 to Ms. Mitchell over time, and left the country for good at the psychic’s urging. She said Ms. Mitchell promised to repay some of the money and did not. The client approached Mr. Nygaard, and he helped her take her case to detectives.
She said she was college-educated and realized that she should have known better, but she added, “When a person is going through a difficult time, you want to see answers.”
Freedom of religion has been a sacred tenet in this country that has made our nation a refuge for oppressed religious groups, but also a haven for religious predators. It is not uncommon for religious groups to insist that their right to discriminate against other groups is an article of faith.
Understandably, some modern voices call for the end of religion altogether, but “religion” is term that can be impossible to define. When hardcore materialists accuse each other of being “metaphysical” it should be a signal that our task is not so simple as sorting religion into one pile and rational thought into another. The metaphysics of Aquinas are based on the metaphysics of Aristotle, yet we generally call Aquinas a “theologian” and Aristotle a “philosopher.” Few colleges would place Aristotle under the category of “religion,” yet, in many ways, his initial assumptions were articles of faith.
Carl Sagan was an atheist, yet his series “Cosmos” was a reverent hymn to the universe that would satisfy my definition of “religious.” Some of religion’s most strident critics (Freud, Marx, etc.) have themselves been accused of being religious by subsequent generations. It is easy to spot the limits of someone else’s worldview, but they are rare spirits who remember the limits of their own.
I once received a call in the middle of the night that a Navajo man was dying at a nearby hospital. I was asked come receive his confession. The caller said the man’s family believed he would go to hell if he did not give confession. I wiped my eyes and shook my head. We Presbyterians don’t do confessions, and I surely don’t speak Navajo. None the less, I was soon there holding the old man’s hand as he died. His family noding gravely as he spoke words I alone, the surrogate shaman, could not understand.
I just wanted to help the man die in peace, but an observer might have placed me in the huckster category, and who is to say? I have given my life to teach a form of religion that embraces reason and universality, but one thing I have learned in my lifetime of ministry: in times of crisis, some turn to reason and some to magical thinking, and it is not always easy at the time to tell the difference.