Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Faith, exorcism, and fraud

Following right on the heels of yesterday's post about sex with demons, today we have a story out of Ontario that a man has been charged with "pretending to practice witchcraft."  [Source]

The online Globe and Mail tells the story of a Mississauga man, Gustavo Valencia Gomez,  who self-publishes a Spanish language newspaper called El Negocia Redondo, wherein he advertised his services as a "healer."  He claimed to have three offices (in Toronto, London [Ontario], and Montreal) where he practiced his healing arts, and he would be happy to help you out... for a fee, of course.

Apparently, one woman came in complaining of various illnesses, and Gomez told her that she and her family were "cursed" and that he would perform rituals that would lift the curse if she would pay him $14,000.  Which she did.

But then the Canadian law enforcement got involved, and the next thing you know, Gomez was under arrest for fraud, false pretenses, and "pretending to practice witchcraft."

All right, so far, so good.  But my question is: what is the difference in the eyes of the law between "pretending" to practice a belief, and actually practicing a belief?

So, here we have Gomez, saying he'll perform rituals for you if you'll pay him.  The rituals are almost certainly useless, and have no basis in fact.  Gomez is arrested for fraud.  On the other hand, check your pharmacy shelves for homeopathic remedies, which are also useless and have no basis in fact.  On yet another hand (I have three hands), consider churches who claim that "god requires you to tithe" and strongly hints that you will be Naughty In God's Sight, and that god might well Smite You With His Mighty Fist, if you don't, yet another nonsensical claim that has no basis in fact.

Consider also sites like this one, wherein Reverend Cotton Marcus of the Church of St. Mark's has provided a handy questionnaire which will tell you what (if any demon) is possessing you.  Naturally, I had to take the test, and I know you will be as eager to find out my results as I was, so here they are:
You may be afflicted with a demon known as MIITAKK.
Miitakk is the demon of complacence and slothfulness – many initially afflicted with this demon stop making an effort in any aspect of their lives. Without exorcism or care of any kind those possessed by Miitakk will suffer from bedsores, atrophy of the limbs and other ailments of the immobile. Signs: often those possessed by Miitakk take on a nearly catatonic state, and it is difficult to get them to respond. However, if the afflicted is prodded too much, they can suddenly become violent. Touching cool water causes those possessed by this demon to feel a burning sensation.
I do get fairly annoyed when I'm prodded, and although I love to swim I hate cold water, which is why I don't tend to go swimming except during summer (next year summer in upstate New York is scheduled from July 21 through August 3, in case you want to plan ahead).  So that much is accurate.  However, I don't have bedsores, my limbs are not atrophied, I have never been catatonic, and I'm actually quite an active person.  So apparently "Miitakk" isn't doing his job very well, and should probably go back to hell and leave me in the hands of a different demon, preferably one that I could sell my soul to in exchange for perpetual youth, good looks, lots of money, and a Jaguar.

This questionnaire also brings up another important question, namely: who the hell names their son "Cotton?"  Did Mr. and Mrs. Marcus look at their newborn baby boy, and say, "I know!  Let's name him after the guy who was responsible for hanging the witches in Salem, Massachusetts!  That'd be an awesome name!"

However, all of that is not why I included the Church of St. Mark's website in this post.  The reason that I bring up this site is that alongside the questionnaire, there are other links you can follow, including "How to avoid demon possession," "A brief history of exorcism," and "Exorcism application form" -- and there is also one called, "Exorcism supplies: BUY NOW.  PROTECT YOURSELF and others from demons."  So, naturally, I had to click it, and I found that the "exorcism supplies" were mainly crucifixes in various sizes and materials, and ran from the economy model ($24) to the deluxe, all the bells-and-whistles model ($106).  So, here's my question:

How is this any different from what Gustavo Gomez was doing?  How can poor Gomez be guilty of fraud, and Reverend Cotton Marcus isn't?  Nor, apparently, are the homeopaths, or mediums, or astrologers, or crystal-energy-chakra people, or any of a hundred other practitioners of woo-woo who make goofy claims, legally.  What, pray, distinguishes between them?  Because of course, all of these people, just like Gomez, swear that their cures will work, if only you'll open your heart and your pocketbook simultaneously -- and none of them have the least basis in fact.

Now, don't misunderstand me; I'm quite sure that the Canadian police are correct, and that Gomez is a fraud.  But once you start calling faith-based, evidence-free claims "fraud," where do you stop? 

Well, I know where I stop, or more accurately, where I don't stop.  But I just wonder if the Canadian law enforcement realizes what a can of worms it's opened.


  1. Even in the absence of faith as a variable the law has difficulty establishing a clear definition of consumer fraud. At what point does the governments obligation to protect the consumer from what is essentially his or her own stupidity become excessive?

    I think the $14,000 number is what tips the scales here. The government can't step in every time someone tries to sell some idiot a $100 flower remedy, but $14k is enough money that they take notice.

  2. Individuals possessed by Miitakk will also hack their local phone company, and government offices, without recollection.

    Oh, wait, that was Mitnick.

    Miitakk?! Who comes up with this miicrap?

  3. MIITAKK! Thanks! Now I know who to blame for my laziness and lack of interest! All this this time I thought it was lack of sleep and poor lifestyle choices! Think of the money I could have blown visiting some quack psychologist!

    But seriously, it is interesting what society deems believable or not in the absence of evidence. My guess is that it's based more on who's making the claim and the potential benefits for the believers than actual fact.