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John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (watch this show!) had a cutting episode this past weekend about the wealth and arrogance of Christian televangelists:

YouTube video

Like other preachers of the prosperity gospel, these shiny-suited hypocrites proclaim that God wants to make you rich, and that by “planting a seed”, or in other words giving money to the televangelist, you’ll reap a manyfold return. Obviously, the only people who get rich from this theology are the ones who preach it, and Oliver doesn’t stint when it comes to describing the multimillion-dollar mansions, private jets, and other ludicrous wealth they accumulate from the gullible. And because of the special privileges granted to churches, they can do this virtually free of taxes or any kind of oversight.

Oliver tried sending money to one of them, Robert Tilton, just to see what would happen. The televangelists’ scheme, it turns out, follows the same script as a Nigerian 419 scam. Every donation you send leads only to more letters pouring in, asking for yet more money, promising blessings and miracles just over the horizon. To prove how lax and permissive the laws are, Oliver went so far as to set up his own church, “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption“, a ruthless satire which only slightly exaggerates the preachers’ bottomless greed (unlike the preachers, he says he’ll give all donated money to Doctors Without Borders).

As an atheist and a skeptic, I’m not the target demographic for these preachers, but even so I’m dumbfounded by how transparent and shallow a scam they’re running. It’s amazing to me that so many people fall for it. Clearly, this shell game doesn’t work just because of a nice suit or a slick sales pitch. They’re tapping into something that’s hungry for hope and willing to follow anyone who promises it. The people they’re fleecing are eager to be deceived.

And for that reason, as much as I’m outraged by the brazenness of the preachers’ con, I have difficulty feeling sympathy for those who are taken in by it. There’s no shortage of prosperity-gospel victims with heartbreaking stories – poor people who impoverish or indebt themselves even further; even cases, like one that Oliver mentions, of cancer sufferers who’ve died after forsaking medical treatment and choosing to believe the televangelists’ promises of magical healings for the faithful. No one with a conscience would be in favor of that.

Even so, there’s a difference between this and, say, victims of the blessing scam who are duped into giving up something they didn’t intend to, or Ponzi-scam affinity frauds where the con artist is making specific promises in the full knowledge he can’t keep them. The televangelists, by contrast, always say that it’s God who does the miracles, and their followers mail checks in full awareness of this. If it’s a fraud on them, it’s a fraud they willingly participate in. (It’s not as if there are no debunkings of these people, for anyone who cares to seek them out.) I’m all in favor of prosecuting criminal con artists, but there’s a limit to how far we can or should go. We can’t protect people from every poor decision they choose to make.

In a perfect world, people would be skeptical enough not to fall for such flimsy scams, and the televangelists would go out of business and their empires would crumble, as they so richly deserve. I also maintain that we should tax the churches the same as any other organization, with special attention to the ones whose preachers who lead lavish lifestyles. But other than that, I’d rather reserve my empathy for people who are suffering through no fault of their own, not those who willingly impoverish themselves.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...