A Seattle scientist and entrepreneur named Johnny Stine proclaimed on Facebook that he had developed a vaccine that made him immune to COVID-19. He offered to sell doses to 100 other people for $400 a pop. The State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent him a cease-and-desist letter, threatening to sue and fine him for “making false or unsupported claims” that might deceive people into thinking that such a vaccine exists.
In recent weeks, the Federal Trade Commission has sent warning letters to other companies making unsubstantiated claims. One recipient touted high doses of Vitamin C or D and stem cells, which they claimed had been “researched and studied in helping in the healing process of COVID-19.” Cannabis companies have been told they cannot claim that their products prevent COVID-19. A Minnesota company was warned about selling soap-shaped pieces of copper that they said would deactivate the virus. A Houston company was told to stop selling a drink they said would fight infection by strengthening the immune system. The director of a California spa is facing charges of fraud because he told clients that hydroxycholoroquine was a “magic bullet” that would cure the novel coronavirus. . . . the list goes on.
The FTC said,
“It is unlawful . . . to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.”
How then do religious leaders get a free pass? “Making false or unsupported claims” in the absence of “competent and reliable scientific evidence” is exactly what they do to earn a living. It’s their whole business model. And what they do is worse than merely promoting a bogus vaccine or immune booster, because they tout their products as cure-alls for all sorts of physical and mental health problems year after year. Sometimes their products actually kill—as when Christian Scientists convince susceptible believers to pray instead of seeking medical care or when fundamentalist parents try to beat the demons out of their behaviorally-disordered children. But mostly, religious leaders and institutions just bilk money out of vulnerable people who yearn for a little more goodness and health in their lives, leaving them alive but lighter in the pocket.
The scammers who advertise bogus preventives or cures for coronavirus are, for the most part, simply making claims based on insufficient evidence (or sometimes based on none at all). But churches do worse, because we have solid evidence that their products don’t work. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to prove that God heals people in response to prayers, and some of these studies have been fairly well-designed by scientific standards. But they have utterly failed to show consistent and significant healing effects from prayer.
Comparing the lifespans of devout vs secular people similarly fails to show a significant difference in favor of religious people or of one religion in particular beyond the positive benefits of social support. This is true despite the fact that many of the devout spend time daily or weekly for years on end praying (or thanking God) for health and healing. At best, in response to these “intercessory” prayers, their god operates at the margins of statistical significance. That’s pretty pathetic for an all-powerful deity; very pathetic when compared to the clear and dramatic difference made by modern antibiotics and vaccines—or even hand-washing.
So why is it then that secular snake-oil merchants and fraudsters are being reprimanded and threatened for trying to exploit a vulnerable public, but religion-vendors selling equally bogus products somehow have gotten themselves declared “essential businesses?” Worse, they are being allowed to apply for financial relief from funds they never contributed to because money going out of churches into insurance programs like FEMA would violate separation of church and state, but money going into churches out of the same public funds somehow doesn’t.
One difference, of course, is that the religion vendors are themselves victims as well as victimizers. Thanks to an ever-evolving family of mind viruses, they actually believe in the miracle cures they are selling, and many have paid the price. Around the world, some conservative religious institutions have prioritized the health of their religious enterprise (namely growing their congregations) over the health of individual members. Their refusal to stop meeting in person has turned their religious gatherings into disease hubs, sometimes with lethal results for leaders as well as members. But that seems all the more reason to set limits on religious claims of immunity and healing.
The Washington State Attorney General spoke in strong terms about scientist Johnny Stine selling an untested vaccine because Stine’s standing as a public figure made his influence particularly problematic. “I would say anytime someone has the veneer of a professional, a trusted source, a doctor, a scientist, that raises my concern that Washingtonians may think this is a solution to the challenge they are facing right now.”
Did you notice the glaring omission from that list of particularly trusted information sources? Yeah, me too.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.