Religious Claims Should be Held to the Same Standard as Other Advertising

Whatsoever ye ask

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.

 

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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16 Responses to Religious Claims Should be Held to the Same Standard as Other Advertising

  1. Perry says:

    Wow, what a coincidence! At the precise moment this article popped into my email just now I was writing about truth claims in the epilogue of my memoir on my life in a religious cult. I’m giving my 16-year-old self advice I wish a mentor had given me before I dropped out of school, left home and surrendered my life and future to Christian fundamentalists. Here’s what I just finished writing when I received your article: “Perhaps the most important advice is to always be skeptical when presented with a truth claim of any kind. Don’t just accept it without questioning the reliability of the source and examining the evidence for the claim.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carl Hoffman says:

    I hope it does not post my entry twice like it did last time. Great article as usual. In my non-scientific opinion I believe people prefer a good story over the truth. The Bible provides many stories that demonstrate this phenomenon. In Genesis, we have one man and his family survive a natural catastrophe by building an ark. In Exodus, we have a group of enslaved people gain freedom. In 1 Samuel we have the story of David and Goliath. When I exposed what happened in the David and Goliath story the public reaction was ho-hum. The traditional interpretation of these stories has been maintained more than a thousand years.

    When I had a successful fund-raising career, I communicated by telling good stories. I ultimately failed when I started exposing the truth. In many cases, the truth is simply boring. Winning politicians tell stories that excite people while many simply ignore the truth. Could it be that the plot of a good story gives us more encouragement than the truth?

    Look at what is happening in the world. We have an epidemic that is killing hundreds of thousands and we are getting tired of this story. Many want to return to what we had before the outbreak. The big question is how will this story end? A hundred years ago we experienced something that produced similar news stories and it lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time.

    I was repeatedly told that my paternal grandfather was a victim of that pandemic since he died around that time. I actually looked at his death certificate and he died of Tuberculosis. I informed his survivors who responded, “That is not what we were told.” They continued to believe the original story.

    I ask the question why we believe stories and deny the truth? I think it is an issue of control because we have control over a story, but we do not have control over the truth.

    Like

  3. Martha Carey says:

    Valerie, I don’t know how to respond to you directly but will leave this information here: are you aware of “The Open Tabernacle–Here Comes Everybody” site? (Author Betty Clermont’)? Her last blog is about the Catholic Church’s push (and promise by Trump) to receive ‘small business’ federal monies for Covid-19 needs–as other ‘non-religious secular businesses’ are pushed aside.

    Trump is desperate for the rabidly conservative Catholic vote now, so he’ll send them some Covid-19 money! As Leonard Cohen’s song, Everybody Knows, The Roman Church is no small business or even a large business. It is a multi-centuries old, monolithic, autocratic, non-democratic and non-disclosing corporation–with little accountability and caters to political parishioner shareholders like Betsy DeVoss, Koch Bros, and Pompeo, the rabid pseudo-Catholics in Trump’s inner circle list is too long.

    Somehow, I feel that you and Betty Clermont might join up with mutual support solidarity in voicing this shameless scorning lack of moral compass–each speaking and reporting from your own niches. The former and current Roman church has much in common with your evangelical fundamentalists and, funny thing, these two continue to make up the bulk of Trump’/Republican’s key advisors, along with the above named and obscenely monied reptilian corporations of greed and power. For both of you, continuing to name and expose the fake religious cloak–has to go.

    Like

    • Amy Anderson says:

      But they always have an out-it wasn’t God’s will. Because, you see, God rules all, and if He wants 100,000 dead, then that is to be accepted because God ‘works in mysterious ways’ and it is not for us to question it. See? There is an answer for everything in this life.
      ‘Heavy Sigh’

      Like

    • Thank you, Martha. I’ll keep my eyes open about this. It’s utterly corrupt. I feel like the only power we have is to keep exposing the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church, as a significant part of their power comes from the perception that they are moral guides when in many ways the opposite is true.

      Like

  4. David Philip Miller says:

    Lock ’em all up!

    Like

  5. tildeb says:

    And not just in advertising but the legal exemptions in the criminal code as well as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where the same disturbed behaviour but under the label ‘religious’ gets a special medical exemption. Privilege for religious belief is rampant and widespread and completely unjustified by the evidence.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Methinks the Constitutional “scholars” at Prager U. may want to discuss this with you…😜

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Lynch says:

    I think that this may have something to do with it:

    Amendment I
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Like

    • Yes, alas. We do set some limits. People don’t get to behead people here in the name of God; men can’t beat their wives or sell their daughters or stone their defiant sons just because these actions are biblical. But the line is drawn well past the harm boundary, in part because religious actors have pushed so hard for the right to exploit these protections.

      Like

  8. Dustcircle says:

    Exactly! There is no reason they should get a pass card just because religion is a deeply-held viewpoint. Claims need to show they can be backed up. If it costs people’s safety, then false claims should be criminal.

    Like

  9. Steve Ruis says:

    It seems that ignorance, undirected and willful both, has its own system of rewards and punishments. The rewards are imaginary and the punishments are, well in the case of some of the ministers defying COVID-119 “in the name of Jesus,” terminal.

    I also hear the “blood of Jesus” thrown around as a curative. Don’t they know that Jesus was crucified, not decapitated (or wounded in such a manner that he would bleed out and die for lack of blood)? And, do they realize they are invoking blood magic, which is larded into the Holy Bible? You know, magic, what they are against … supposedly.

    Great post!

    Like

  10. Jim Claunch says:

    Valorie, of course you are right with the law but political power so often determines the meaning of the law. You may find Chris Hedges book interesting which addresses Christian fundamentalism and its influence on politics interesting if you have not read it. Political power influences law in many ways as you know. Hedges worked for the New York Times and was a Pulitzer Prize winner and his father was a Liberal Presbyterian minister. He is brilliant and he is an atheist. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America https://www.amazon.com/American-Fascists-Christian-Right-America/dp/0743284461

    Like

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