The Power of Persuasion
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From Abracadabra to Zombies
What's the harm?
These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal. »What's the Harm? archives
11 Dec 2009. Tillmon Webb sat down in his recliner after a leg injury in March and never got up. He weighed 550 pounds then. When his wife finally called an ambulance last week, Tillmon weighed over 800 pounds. He died at the hospital. His wife, Ada, told reporters that her husband "totally believed in God and his healing." He also believed in doctors because he went to one in March but says he had to come up $300 before he could be treated. So he went home and put his fate Jesus' hands.
30 Nov 2009. Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill, sponsored by ruling party MP David Bahati, a member of The Family, calls for a seven-year jail term for anyone who attempts to commit a homosexual act or who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality." The bill seeks the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as a sexual assault committed against a member of the same sex who is under 18 or disabled. An HIV test would be forced upon anyone found guilty of homosexuality. (For more on The Family read Jeff Sharlet's book on these power-hungry Christian libertarian homophobes.)
28 Nov 2009. Silva Kashif, 16, a Sudanese Christian has been lashed 50 times for wearing an "indecent" knee-length skirt. Sharia, an Islamic legal code, is applied to minors, non-Muslims, and visitors in Sudan, despite complaints that these are violations of the law. Last July, journalist Lubna Ahmed Hussein and 12 other women were sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing "indecent trousers." Earlier this month, Stephen Wargu, a Nigerian football player and a Christian was sentenced to 40 lashes for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. He denies the charge and was allowed to drive to the police station after his arrest. Hussein's sentence was reduced to a fine.
27 Nov 2009. Each year, scores of alleged witch doctors, fortunetellers, and black magicians are dragged through the Saudi courts, including Fawza Falih who’s been on death row since 2006 for witchcraft. Lebanese psychic Ali Sibat was very popular until arrested by religious police for sorcery in the holy city of Medina while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia last year. Muhammad Burhan of Eritrea was found guilty of "charlatanry," for which he was lashed 300 times and sentenced to 20 months behind bars. His crime? He carried a phone booklet with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet.
16 Nov 2009. 75-year-old evangelist Tony Alamo was sentenced to 175 years by a federal judge in Arkansas for sex crimes against children. He preyed on followers' young daughters and took child "brides" as young as age 8. Alamo made millions through his ministry; he was ordered to pay $250,000 in fines. Alamo muttered and cursed throughout his two-week trial and told the judge who sentenced him: "I'm glad I'm me and not the deceived people in the world."
update: 31 Jan 2010. Parental rights of six Alamo church members terminated A judge said the parents had failed to comply with orders that they move off of church property and find jobs outside the ministry. Cheryl Barnes, litigation specialist for the parent advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team, called the rulings unnecessarily harsh. She noted that Tony Alamo, the ministry’s leader, is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. She said the parents will appeal the termination of their parental rights.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento a group of former members of Radiant Life Church are suing their pastor, Tony Cunningham. The group accuses Cunningham of psychological manipulation and forcible indoctrination. One couple claims Cunningham used his position as their spiritual adviser to defraud them of more than $221,000. Cunningham and his Radiant Life Church have their own page on the Rick Ross cult site. Former church members say Cunningham manipulated them into giving him lavish gifts, including a first-class vacation in Hawaii and a vintage automobile.
4 November 2009. A piece of pseudoscientific junk is still being used in Iraq to detect bombs. The offspring of other equally delusional products such as the Quadro Tracker, the DKL Lifeguard, and the TKS-2000, the ADE 651 is being used by Iraq's security forces despite warnings from the U.S. government that the devices are useless. The New York Times has the story (Iraq Swears by Bomb Detector U.S. Sees as Useless).
Retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, is skeptical and described the ADE 651 as nothing more than an explosives divining rod. Hal should note, however, that the con men behind these devices have built a defense against such criticisms. Treasure King Systems, the maker of the TKS-2000, warn prospective buyers that the device won't work if used by skeptics, dowsers, or individuals who "cannot respond to this type of equipment."* Fortunately for the makers of the ADE 651, Iraqi officials in charge of national security are true believers. Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, attributes failure of the device to detect explosives to operator error. Operators must be rested, and have a steady pulse and body temperature, for the device to work. As Colonel Bidlack says: "It would be laughable, except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets."
Iraqi officials bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. They paid up to $60,000 apiece for the handheld wands. The Baghdad Operations Command announced yesterday that it had purchased an additional 100 detection devices.
Over a year ago, The James Randi Educational Foundation issued a direct challenge to Cumberland Industries, UK, to have the product tested under controlled conditions. If the product works as advertised, the JREF would pay them $1,000,000. No response. Similar devices have been tested by Sandia Labs and none have ever performed better than random chance.
update: 23 Jan 2010: Jim McCormick, 53, the managing director of a British company that has been selling bomb-detecting equipment to security forces in Iraq was arrested on suspicion of fraud by misrepresentation. A ban has been imposed on the export of the ADE-651 detectors. Iraq has invested more than £50m in buying the devices and training people to use them. Police and military personnel have used them to search vehicles and pedestrians for explosives.
update: 23 Feb 2010. CNN World reports that the Iraqi government plans to sue the company that supplied it with fake bomb detectors. So far so good. However, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that three Iraqi investigations into the devices determined most of the bomb detectors are working, although some are fake and ineffective. No, no, no. Say it isn't so? They're all fakes! How long can this deadly hoax go on?
update: 27 Jan 2011. UK government promoted useless 'bomb detectors' The UK government has admitted that the Army and UK civil servants helped market so-called "bomb detectors", which did not work, around the world. Export of the "magic wand" detectors to Iraq and Afghanistan was banned on 27 January 2010 because of the threat they posed to British and allied troops. The move followed a BBC Newsnight investigation showing they could not detect explosives - or anything else. Now Newsnight has learned that they are still being sold around the globe. [/update]
update: 23 Feb 2011. Iraqi authorities have arrested a high-ranking police official in connection with the purchase of the fake bomb detectors. "Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, the commander of the bomb squad, was arrested five days ago," a senior police official close to the investigation told Reuters. "There are documents and incriminating evidence in the explosives detector case." [/update]
update 11 July 2012. Jim McCormick has been charged with fraud. McCormick will face six charges including producing and supplying bomb-detecting devices, knowing that they were designed or adapted for use in fraud. He sold the device to 20 countries, including Iraq. McCormick has been on bail for two-and-a-half years while police examined the sale of the device.
update 23 April 2013. McCormick is found guilty on three counts of fraud and faces up to eight years in jail when he is sentenced next month. "It is now alleged by an Iraqi whistleblower that McCormick paid millions of pounds in bribes to senior Iraqis to secure the deals. Inspector general Aqil al-Turehi of the Iraqi interior ministry told a BBC Newsnight investigation: 'This gang of Jim McCormick and the Iraqis working with him killed my people in cold blood'....General Jihad al-Jabiri, who ran the Baghdad bomb squad, is in jail on corruption charges relating to the contracts."
update 02 May 2013. McCormick is sentenced to 10 years in prison.
18 October 2009. About a year ago WTH reported on an abominable practice in Nigeria of branding children as witches by Christian evangelists. The children are often tortured and murdered by their own family members. Unfortunately, the practice continues. The instigator and leader of this pack of dangerous religious predators is Helen Ukpabio, but thirteen churches are involved. One group trying to extinguish the practice of exorcisms on children is Stepping Stones Nigeria. The United Nations is aware of the problem.
update: 25 May 2010. A Nigerian Witch-Hunter Defends Herself An exposé of how this wicked Pentecostal preacher works. She has a DVD and a book, Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, where she writes that “if a child under the age of 2 screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” Her evil hunting down of children allegedly possessed by Satan is vividly portrayed in “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” a documentary that made its American debut recently on HBO2.
See also Charismania unrestrained: Africa’s witch children, a 6-part video depicting her pursuit of Satan.
12 October 2009. Two people died in a sweat lodge at a New Age spiritual retreat about six miles south of West Sedona, Arizona. Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died after collapsing inside the Angel Valley sweat lodge. Three other people were airlifted in critical condition to Flagstaff Medical Center. Self-help expert and author James Ray hosted the event.* About 60 people paid $9,000 each to be helped by Mr. Ray.*
At least seven other people have died in ceremonial sweat lodges since 1993 in the United States, England, and Australia, according to Alton Carroll who runs a website called New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans.
update: 18 October 2009. A third person has died more than a week after participating in the James Ray sweat lodge ceremony. The 49-year-old woman suffered multiple organ damage. About two dozen participants in the "spiritual cleansing" event have been hospitalized.
Authorities are treating the three deaths as homicides, but no charges have been filed yet.
update: 22 October 2009. Sweat lodge survivor: Guru pushed too far Within an hour of entering the sweat lodge people began vomiting, gasping for air, and collapsing. Yet ... self-proclaimed guru James Arthur Ray (as seen on Oprah) continuously urged everyone to stay inside.
update: 5 Feb 2010. Sweat lodge guru pleads not guilty to manslaughter Ray's attorney Luis Li said: "This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident, not a criminal act." Where I come from even accidents are sometimes criminal acts.
update 18 Nov 2011 Ray is sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay restitution of $57,514.12 to the victims' families.
The incident cut short Ray's dazzling rise in the personal development industry, peddling a "harmonic wealth" philosophy that promised to "unlock the secret to true wealth and fulfillment" in clients' lives.
Ray's career highpoints included appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN's Larry King Live, according to his website.
11 October 2009. Herbert Schaible, 41, and Catherine Schaible, 40, of Philadelphia have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of their 2-year-old son who died of untreated bacterial pneumonia. They are members of the First Century Gospel Church and believe that the sick can be healed through prayer.
"We prayed to God for victory . . . We were praying that he would be raised up," claimed Herbert Schaible, a teacher at First Century Gospel Church.
Had the Schaibles lived in Los Angeles and sought the treatment from medical doctor Christine Daniel, however, their child might have died anyway. Dr. Daniel, an ordained Pentecostal minister, treats people with prayer and herbs. She was charged with two counts each of wire and mail fraud, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted. She claims she has a 60% success rate at curing cancer with herbs and prayer.
update 23 April 2013. The Schaibles have done it again. They let a second child die rather than call a doctor "Because we believe God wants us to ask him for healing. Our religion tells us not to call a doctor." This time the victim was their 8-month-old son who died after "several days of labored breathing, fitful sleep, crying, and diarrhea," according to the prosecutor.
9 October 2009. Religion in communist Russia did not die, much to the joy of religious folks around the world. A story from Valya Perova (b. 1992), who escaped the "Holy Monastery of Bogolyubovo" where she underwent years of abuse might dampen the enthusiasm of those who think religion is above criticism.
Girls like Valya are placed in the convent by their relatives, perhaps because of social or financial difficulties. Nuns force the girls to do hard work unsuitable for their age, starve them, beat them with belt buckles, lock them up in cold cellars, and do not give them necessary medical treatment.
(The information for this article was sent to me by a Russian who claims "I myself have been to Bogolyubovo, and people whom I met there confirm the story." The only source of information about the abuse in the convent that I could find is in Russian. Google translator produces a barely intelligible account in English, but some of the details come through.)
31 August 2009. Gambia's Green Boys, a private militia, rounded up some 1,300 suspected "witches" and delivered them to secret government detention centers. "The witch-hunts are only a small part of the deadly and bizarre behaviour of Gambia’s president. In a recent speech in Banjul, the capital, he repeated his belief that all journalists should be killed."
13 August 2009. Sometimes religion can drive people to do pointless, wasteful acts that make them look like lunatics. A group of about 50 rabbis and Jewish mystics are flying over Israel in an airplane while praying and blowing shofars (ceremonial trumpets) to ward off swine flu.
11 August 2009. The Somali Islamist group al Shabaab is forcibly removing gold and silver teeth from residents in southern Somalia because it says they contravene strict religious law.
27 July 2009. A 15-month-old girl died of pneumonia as her parents, grandparents, and church members prayed over her and anointed her with olive oil. The state medical examiner said she could easily have been saved with antibiotics.* The parents, Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthington were found not guilty of manslaughter, however, and avoided up to six years in prison. Carl was found guilty of criminal mistreatment, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum sentence of a year in jail. The trial was the first under a 10-year-old Oregon law that bars legal defenses based on religious practices in most abuse cases. The law was a response to previous deaths among young members of the Followers of Christ.
Guy Worthington, the dead child's grandfather, said that calling a doctor shows "a lack of faith." "Jesus Christ almighty can cure anything," Worthington said.
update: 2 Aug 2010. Two more Followers of Christ have been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the faith-healing death of their newborn son. Dale R. Hickman and Shannon M. Hickman, both 25, were arrested and will be formally charged Aug. 30. Nice looking couple.
10 July 2009. Three adults, including a policeman, have been charged with false imprisonment and aggravated assault on a 15-year-old boy. Those criminally charged restrained the boy while performing an exorcism at a Lutheran youth camp in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. Representatives of both the Lutheran Church and the SA police ministry have asserted that the action was an aberration and not representative of policy.* Senior Constable Roger Sketchley has been suspended and Robert Voigt, president of the Lutheran Church in South Australia issued a statement claiming that "The Lutheran Church does not endorse or encourage any actions which are abusive or which results in the limitations or freedoms of any individual."*
* AmeriCares *