This caught my skeptical eye: an article about police efforts to fight the “blessing scam” in Asian neighborhoods in New York City. The scam involves a con artist who approaches the mark, usually an elderly person, to convince them that their cash and valuables are tainted by bad luck that can be removed by a special blessing ritual. The victim is persuaded to put their valuables in a bag and hand them over, but during the ceremony, sleight-of-hand is used to switch the bag for an identical one filled with junk. By the time the victim gets home and discovers the theft, the criminal is long gone.
I wrote on Twitter that this was an example of how superstitious beliefs cause harm to people, to which Jamelle Bouie objected:
@DaylightAtheism The superstition didn’t “create” anything. If someone robs me, I didn’t “create an avenue” by having stuff.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) June 28, 2013
Since the brevity of Twitter tramples on nuance, let’s be clear about this: I’m not saying that the people who are scammed like this deserve what they get, or that their superstitious beliefs make them culpable for the harm done to them. The moral responsibility for crime always rests on the criminal, and no one else.
However, I don’t think it’s blaming the victim to say that certain superstitious beliefs create an avenue for criminals to exploit that wouldn’t otherwise exist. If I belong to a religion that commands me to leave my front door unlocked on Thursdays, then a burglar who knows that might seize on the chance to rob me blind. That doesn’t make him less guilty of burglary, but it does mean that my beliefs left me defenseless against a crime I might otherwise have been able to protect myself from. (A less fanciful example would be real-life affinity frauds where hucksters sell Ponzi schemes to church groups by persuading their victims to pray for guidance about the deal. Since prayer doesn’t work, the gullible hear only what they want to hear from this.)
This same principle applies to quack doctors and sham therapies. If I have cancer and I go to a crackpot who claims he can cure me by faith healing and prayer, or watching funny movies, or dancing under a full moon in a ring of quartz pebbles, and I die as a result of forsaking real medicine, who’s to blame? Morally, the responsibility should lie with the crackpot who deceitfully promised a cure he couldn’t deliver. But if I’d educated myself in critical thinking and basic biology, I’d have known this was pure quackery, and could have secured a better outcome for myself by pursuing a different course of treatment.
Con artists who prey on and victimize others should undoubtedly be punished, but we should also encourage people to educate themselves so as to make these kinds of crimes less profitable and enforcement less necessary. This is a both/and strategy, not an either/or: blame the criminal, educate the victim. And I’m firmly against any attempt to shame people who fall victim to these crimes – I imagine being ripped off like this is shame and deterrent enough. But I am in favor of using these stories as cautionary examples, to demonstrate to others why superstitious beliefs should be discarded, because they contribute to real harm in the real world.