Rather than answer that question directly, let me tell you two stories. (Sources: The Orlando Sentinel and JREF)
Priti Mahalanobis is a college-educated mother of two who managed her father's business, Shiv Shakti Enterprises, LLC of Orlando, Florida. Due to the economic downturn, the business had not been doing very well for about two years. Add this to the fact that Mahalanobis had been experiencing some health problems, and her brother, to whom she was very close, was having marital problems. Mahalanobis was understandably depressed, anxious, and stressed.
It would not be out of the ordinary for someone in this situation to seek out counseling, and Mahalanobis went to the Meditation and Healing Center in Windermere when she received a coupon for a $20 introductory session with a "spiritual guide."
The guide she met called herself Mrs. Starr, but her real name is Peaches Stevens. Stevens, after a brief "psychic reading," told Mahalanobis that there was a curse on her family, which could only be lifted with her assistance. Over the next few months, Mahalanobis went to Stevens repeatedly, purchased a variety of items from her including seven "tabernacles" that were intended to help lift the curse, and performed a variety of rituals under Stevens' direction. Stevens reportedly told Mahalanobis that the cure for the curse would be costly, but that the price of leaving it in place would be a dreadful toll on herself and her family.
Mahalanobis opened several new credit cards, sold as many personal items as she could manage without her husband knowing (including a reported $65,000 worth of jewelry), and all told ended up giving over $135,000 to Stevens for her curse-removal services. By this time, she had put herself into hock up to her eyeballs, her father's business had folded, and she had to find work part time in a school cafeteria to make enough to live on.
She did, however, finally recognize that something was amiss, and hired a private investigator to look into Stevens. With the information from the investigation, police were finally able to arrest Stevens for fraud last week.
"I learned a lot," said Mahalanobis. "Not to let fear or guilt control you or your actions. Also, listen to your gut, your instinct, that little voice in the back of your head. Because your mind can fool you."
Someone should have given that same advice to Chantale Lavigne, a Québecois woman who followed a self-help guru named Gabrielle Frechette. Frechette runs seminars and gives advice on life, health, and spirituality, and claims to be able to channel the biblical figure Melchisedek. According to sources, Frechette has quite a commanding presence and an "air of authority."
Last week, Frechette was running a session called "Dying in Consciousness," and Chantale Lavigne was one of her "students." As part of the session, the participants were supposed to allow themselves to be covered with mud, wrapped in plastic, and have their heads placed inside cardboard boxes with instructions to hyperventilate. They were told that they had to remain motionless in this situation...
... for nine hours.
When Lavigne was removed from her mud and plastic cocoon, she was unconscious, and only at that point did Frechette call 911. When paramedics arrived, her body temperature was 40.5 C (105 F). She died soon afterwards at a hospital in Drummondville. Frechette has "denied all responsibility for Lavigne's death."
This is not the first such death from hyperthermia during a quack cure or woo-woo ritual. Sweat lodges, and overheating to "remove toxins," have become commonplace, and just last year James Arthur Ray was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in his New Age "spiritual warrior" retreat, in which he had encouraged dozens of people (who had paid Ray big bucks for the privilege) to spend hours in an overheated, smoky room in the Arizona desert without drinking any water. So despite Frechette's denial of responsibility, there is precedent for "gurus" to be found culpable for their followers' deaths -- in the US, at least, and it's to be hoped that Canada will follow suit.
It's easy to say that in both the case of Mahalanobis and Lavigne, they "should have known better." And in one sense, that's true. But we live in a culture that celebrates, even encourages, ridiculous beliefs, and in many cases turns them into big business. Skeptics like James Randi and Michael Shermer are accused of being "narrow-minded" when they call these beliefs what they are -- unscientific, irrational, bogus, potentially dangerous nonsense.
The question is, why should we handle such beliefs with kid gloves? Why should we look the other way when psychics are allowed to bilk the public for millions of dollars annually? Why should homeopathic "cures" be allowed on pharmacy shelves? Why should the so-called mediums and channelers of the spirits of the dead be on television, raking in money from people made vulnerable by their grief?
Except in a few cases -- such as Ray's case, where deaths occurred and were directly attributable to the influence of a "guru" -- our government has been reluctant to step in. The only answer that remains, then, is education -- teaching people how to think, giving them a sound backing in the principles of scientific rationality and skepticism. I'll end with a quote from Carl Sagan, from his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (which should be required reading in every high school in the world):
If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.