It wasn’t directly the fault of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of Nigeria, but he was the person 150,000 people had traveled to see in Cape Town back in March. He has a reputation as a miraculous faith healer so people who should be going to doctors – or have but don’t like their diagnoses or prognoses – are putting their faith in his ability to heal. One man in the audience during the three day Pentecostal show died, another pastor by the name of Simon Williams. The fifty-six year old
was taken from hospital intensive care to the event by his family. He collapsed and died from renal failure inside the stadium.
Dr Wayne Smith, head of disaster medicine for Cape Town, said he treated about 30 patients in the stadium’s medical centre and sent 16 to hospital.
“Some of them had travelled long distances to get there, they had ongoing medical issues and were in a lot of pain,” he said.
Pastor Chris has a few black marks on him already. In 2008, he was accused of protecting another pastor from his church who might have murdered a girl. He’s been suspected of money laundering to the tune of 35 million dollars and charges exorbitant attendance fees for special events at his Christ Embassy church. He, along with a lot of other evangelicals in the country, preach the prosperity gospel, and the poor are giving him upwards of 30% of their available money in the hopes that God will turn things around for them. Of course, the truth is that only Christ Embassy and the pastors in it get to prosper and enjoy a windfall.
So, back to this faith healing business. It’s understandable why people with little hope of improvement (in health or finances) would try something like this but this shit doesn’t work. James Randi helped expose Peter Popoff as a fraud back in 1987 but he’s still kicking around and still fleecing otherwise intelligent people on a weekly basis. “Desperation changes the balance.”
If you would tell them not to give their money to Peter Popoff, what would you tell them to do instead? Would they be better off giving that $100 to the bank that’s about to foreclose on their house anyway, or to the landlord about to evict them? If we have no alternative solution to offer, then our best arguments may boil down to this: false hope is expensive, and hopelessness is free. That’s not a strong selling point.
People need hope. We have a powerful need to feel like we have some control over our fate, even if it is an illusion. That’s why those with the most serious illnesses spend the most money on quack therapies. And it’s why we can’t save desperate people from the likes of Peter Popoff through debunking alone—we need to offer a positive alternative that meets their needs.
When people really don’t know which way to turn, any wrong direction can feel like the right one. Maybe it seems like there isn’t time to look into alternatives, or it doesn’t occur to them to look for different kind of aid or support, or they think there won’t be anything even remotely close to what they need, save a miracle. I don’t know. I just hope that if I’m ever in dire straits I’ll look for real help rather than put faith in something ultimately useless.