What Spiritualists, Religionists, and Atheists Share

By Wendy Kaminer

        Atheists and agnostics are typically portrayed as actively hostile to religious belief, with only occasional accuracy  -- some are simply indifferent to its charms.  What tends to unite us is not hostility toward religion but hostility toward theocracy, which makes many of us the most reliable champions of religious freedom.  Unaffiliated with any particular sects, un-seduced by any particular supernaturalisms, we regard all with equal skepticism and so advocate providing all with equal rights.  Our defense of religious freedom is also, in part, an exercise in enlightened self-interest, like most civil liberties advocacy.  Given the overwhelming popularity of religious beliefs, non-theists depend upon freedom of conscience.

        So I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the British Humanist Association (BHA) is endorsing new consumer protection regulations in the U.K. that facilitate the prosecution of “fraudulent” mediums by eliminating the need to prove an “intent to deceive.”   Mediums found in violation of the regulations may be subjected to criminal as well as civil sanctions.   Praising this punative new regime, the BHA declared, “The psychic industry is huge and lucrative and it exploits some very vulnerable, and some very gullible, people with claims for which there is no scientific evidence. 

        What’s wrong with this sentence?  Replace the words “psychic industry” with a reference to any mainstream religious denomination or institution, and you’d have a sentiment with which non-theists would generally agree.  That belief in God exploits the vulnerabilities and gullibilities most of us share, that no scientific evidence supports it, are basic assumptions of non-theism.   If mediums who sincerely believe in their ability to contact the dead are to be prosecuted for fraud, then so should all members of the clergy who sincerely believe in the tenets of their faiths.  Of course, none of these people would or should be prosecuted for expressing or practicing their beliefs or offering spiritual or religious guidance to others, for financial remuneration or for free.  Religious liberty and freedom of conscience generally depend upon the state’s powerlessness to judge the truth or falsity of any faith and to prosecute people for indulging in them.  If spiritualists may be prohibited from charging for their assistance in contacting the dead, then humanists may be prohibited from discussing the impossibility of doing so, in exchange for a speaking fee.

        I’m not suggesting that any of us should have a right to defraud people.  I can imagine a fraud prosecution against someone who advertises herself as a medium, lacking any belief in life after death, much less her own ability to contact those who have “crossed over.”  I can imagine the prosecution of any clergyman who charges for some sort of access to God or a promise of absolution that he knows he cannot provide.  It’s a bit harder to imagine proving actual fraudulent intent (or the absence of a sincere belief) in either case, but that would be a factual question; in theory, neither prosecution seems inherently objectionable.  But the requirement of proving actual fraud is precisely what the new British regulations abolish, demonstrating a paternalistic disdain for civil liberty that humanists should among the first to oppose.  Freedom of thought and religion means that séances enjoy the same constitutional protection as the sacraments.

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