Preying on the ignorant is a favorite pastime of religious charlatans. Technology made the scam artist’s job easier, but it also made them easier to expose. Such is the fate of “faith healer” and televangelist Peter Popoff, as this video shows. Christening himself a modern prophet, Popoff would travel around the country deceiving audiences for personal gain to the tune of $4 million a year, until James Randi shed light on the ruse.
Popoff embedded an electronic transceiver in his ear, through which leading information was piped from his own wife backstage. Their methods were revealed on Johnny Carson in May 1986. The gig was up. Popoff went bankrupt the following year. PBS NOVA included the story in their “Secrets of the Psychics” program which aired in 1991.
Perhaps not surprisingly, faith healing televangelism is almost exclusively the remit of American evangelicals, where grifters like Popoff can build their ministry on a foundation of charlatanism and simple parlor tricks. They used to be a dime a dozen, but enough of them have been exposed by now that even the most gullible supplicant is inclined to think twice. That hasn’t stopped Popoff, however, who started back up in the late 1990s, this time catering his hijinks to African American congregations.
That he is unable to heal the sick is only the beginning. Nor is it just the monetary loss suffered by those desperate for a cure to their ailments. Numerous studies have been conducted that examine religious communities who prefer faith-based “relief” to proper medical care. It is the children who often bear the consequences of these decisions.
One study found that “[w]hen parents use faith healing in the place of medical care, many children have died that otherwise would have been expected to live.” Similar results have been found in adults, in which preventable deaths occur disproportionately among faith-based communities who spurn medical science.
Popoff’s routine leads naive yet innocent folks to believe that prayer and wealthy TV personalities can do what modern medicine can’t, and to make decisions for themselves and others based on that belief. Yes, they are frauds. But they also contribute indirectly to preventable deaths. As the late Christopher Hitchens once noted, “I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”
If you want more Randi, here’s a clip from the 80s of him debunking on television the spoon-bending “psychic” Uri Geller. Note Barbara Walters’ mien of disappointment. She dearly wanted to believe in magic.
Feature image courtesy of Vice