Who are the Grief Vampires?
American mentalist and author Mark Edward coined the phrase “grief vampire” to describe those who use purported communication with the dead to gain power over grieving loved ones. The grief vampire also extorts enormous sums for “readings” from those uniquely vulnerable from loss. It’s a $2 billion per year industry in the US alone, employing about 95,000 psychic readers. And that’s just the on-the-books business. Skeptic Susan Gerbic estimates that the value of underground cash-based psychic readings might be ten times greater. This discussion took place on the March 21, 2023 episode of The Thinking Atheist called “The Grief Vampires” with Seth Andrews.
It’s a great expose of this bloodsucking industry.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Without belief in the afterlife, there could be no psychic grief vampires. And it’s the afterlife that is the driving force behind a vastly larger industry–religion. In the US alone, the afterlife is bigger business than Apple and Google–combined. This includes $378 billion in direct charitable contributions, and an even larger figure of $1.2 trillion per year, if faith-based schools and health-care are considered. A lot of this income is untaxed, and religious institutions aren’t required to report or account for it. It also contributes to anti-democratic political action–right-wing politicking from the pulpit–that is bringing the US closer to becoming a Christian theocracy every year. All of it can be traced back to a single set of beliefs in “god” and the afterlife. It’s a truly staggering phenomenon, which has its origins in that human universal–loss.
We’ve all lost people. To death. To addiction. To fascist beliefs. We’ve all lost dreams of one sort or another. No one’s life turns out exactly the way they want it to. There’s no shortage of things to grieve. It might be even more difficult for the rich and famous, as they find out neither celebrity nor bulging investment accounts provide any guarantee of love, happiness, or longevity. As the Buddhists say, “Life is suffering.” For everyone.
Coming to terms with loss is one of the most difficult things about being human. But I’d argue it is also the essence of it: We will all die, and so we will all lose everything we ever had. Before we die, we will lose many people we love. So acceptance of death and loss are both fundamental to enduring the human condition.
But most of us don’t accept either. Instead, many of us kick against the pricks of life to the bitter end. In so doing, we’ve created fertile ground for the biggest scam since life on this planet began–heaven. Atheists trivially explain away religion as the consequence of “fear of death.” And of course it is. But this buries the epistemic lede: The bait and switch, of truth for comfort.
Most science-minded people dismiss the idea of a personal god, and by extension the organized worship of same. Not only does “god” lack evidentiary support, it’s logically absurd. Not so easily dispatched is the claim that religion is useful to provide order, some pretense of ethics, and comfort to the bereaved.
It may be useful, but it’s a fool’s bargain.
Brought Up To Believe
The song BU2B by Neil Peart alliterates the terrible bargain. It’s brilliant in a way that cuts to the core of the lies of religion, and its close cousin theodicy. Which is the attempt to harmonize evil, with the existence of a loving “god.”
I was brought up to believe, The universe has a plan
We are only human, It’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, All is for the best
Some will be rewarded, And the devil will take the rest
All is for the best, Believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market, Buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told, Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker, Loves us all to death
In a world of cut and thrust, I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail, Heaven’s justice will prevail
The joy and pain that we receive, Each comes with its own cost
The price of what we’re winning, Is the same as what we’ve lost
The song deftly skewers teleology, the just world fallacy, faith over reason, an immortal loving creator who made mortal sinners “he” punishes for acting as “he” designed, the failure of “Heaven’s justice” in a world of evolutionary competition, and the “usefulness” of heaven as a balm for bereavement:
“The price of what we’re winning, is the same as what we’ve lost.”
It’s a lot. And it says a lot that Neil Peart’s crowning lyrical achievements were attained on a 2012 album he surely had some inkling would be his last. How do we know he “knew?” Because the final track “The Garden” was Peart’s graceful concession to the finality of death. Just a few years later in 2015, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and often terminal form of brain cancer. Sadly, he died on January 7, 2020.
I can’t begin to describe the irony I feel when I watch the video of BU2B. Geddy Lee (born Gary Lee Weinrib), is the son of Holocaust survivor Mary Weinrib, who was born in 1927 in Warsaw, Poland. She spent several years in the death camps before being liberated by Allied forces. Now her son is singing all the words we need, to prevent another Holocaust at the hands of uniquely American and explicitly Christian fascism. If we could only listen in time.
Shooting the messenger
We atheists get rhetorically shot. A lot. For things that aren’t our fault. Like the universe existing as matter / energy / space / time. Like mortality. Like the lack of any ultimate purpose or meaning in existence. We’re told that we’re immoral, arrogant, taking away hope, destroying traditional values, promoting a culture of death, promoting evil (because we’re associated with the “devil”), closed-minded, cruel, and anti-family.
And it’s not just our lack of belief in “god” or heaven that generates this calumny. Skeptics who debunk ghosts and astrology and fake cures often face worse vitriol. Believers accuse us of devaluing their “personal experience,” of “disrespecting them” because they “know someone” who claims to have had a supernatural encounter, or who swears by a particular alternative health remedy. They falsely recast our skepticism as personal animosity. As if we’re directly maligning the character of anyone who’s lacking in the capacity to see through frauds. Confirmation bias includes such mental sleights of hand as postdiction, which includes “counting the hits and ignoring the misses.” These cognitive errors represent a powerful influence on the minds of many. In a modern democracy, that’s a serious problem.
Then there’s emotional reasoning (argument from consequence), cultural and social norms (argument from tradition), and sympathy for those with a history of trauma, mental illness, or a poor education. We’re often accused of talking down to people who are less privileged, victim-blaming them for having not been exposed to higher education or critical thinking.
I didn’t make the laws of the universe. And it’s beyond my power to solve the mental health crisis, to ensure universal education, to ameliorate the influence of tradition, or comfort the bereaved. Would that I could.
“It is what it is, and whatever, Time is still the infinite jest. –Neil Peart, The Garden, 2012
May you never know the pain…
Despite the many documented harms caused by false beliefs, from religious and psychic fraud, to antivax, to climate denialism, to the misidentified causes of gun violence, we science-minded folk are always the “bad guys” for telling the truth. And I was reminded of this by a Facebook acquaintance who accused me of being “ugly.” Apparently this person had a recent experience where he claims that someone’s life was spared by their “hope” for an “afterlife.”
My cousin lost his two-year-old daughter in an accident. I’m convinced that his religious faith and community are literally keeping him alive. Without that refuge, he would have killed himself, either abruptly or by spiraling down into alcohol and/or drugs.
I don’t buy into any religious nonsense, and I clearly see the damage it does to society, but would never kick the crutches out from under someone I love.
Maybe you’re an uglier person than I thought?
May you never know the pain…–Facebook commenter, March 25, 2023
Note the naked, unprovoked aggression. From his perspective, I suppose it’s true. In his framing, I would be responsible for his cousin committing suicide. If this were my desired outcome, that would indeed make me “ugly.” This is of course, nonsense. I want nothing of the sort. I think there are better reasons to want to keep on living than being part of a faith community. To be crystal clear, in an ideal world, no one should have to go through the pain of losing a child. But that’s the human condition. Regrettably, millions of parents lose their children each year. For each, it’s an unspeakable tragedy. “May you never know the pain…” Of course I will know the pain!! We’re all going to lose everyone and everything we’ve ever had. I could lose any of my three kids, at any time. That’s life–and death.
“It’s a hell of a thing killing a man, you take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
“Well, I guess he had it coming.”
“We all have it coming, kid.”
Despite the inevitability of death, I don’t think any tragedy, no matter how horrific, justifies compounding it with systematic lying to others. Or lying to yourself. Not to preserve faith communities. Not even to save a life. Although this is a false dichotomy, I’ll roll with it for the sake of argument. It’s probably true that a significant number of people would kill themselves if they lost their belief in heaven, and along with it any hope that they would see their loved ones again. That beguiling canard gives tremendous comfort to billions of believers. But isn’t finding a reason to live your life for its own sake, a higher value? Isn’t it better to want to live because you recognize the fragility and preciousness of your humanity, instead of leaning on the crutch of eternal life?
If we’re going to consider suicides due to inexplicable loss, we also have to consider how many people kill themselves each year because they believe they’re “sinners.” Because they are apostates. Because they dared to question, and were ostracized from their faith communities, and became social pariahs. Suicides of gay and transgender people are off the charts, not to mention suicides of victims of religious trauma.
Withdrawal from religion can indeed induce severe, temporary feelings of loss, grief, identity confusion, social isolation, anxiety, guilt, and existential questioning. It’s like kicking any addiction. Still, exposing people to the truth of existence is a net positive. Let’s say for the sake of the argument that it’s a wash, “The price of what we’re winning, is the same as what we’ve lost.”
That’s a hill I’m happy to “die” on.
Consider that without the twin pillars of “heaven’s justice,” and the promise of “eternal life,” organized religion would already have been replaced by science. It only survives because it offers fraudulent hope. Science may fail at providing comfort, but religion resembles nothing more than a Mafia protection racket. The “loving watchmaker” who demands worship and obedience on pain of eternal punishment. As John Stewart said, “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.”
Compassion for the bereaved, and credulous
So what’s a skeptic to do? We can’t stop people from being gullible. Dawg knows I’ve tried. We can’t stop people from wanting there to be a heaven. We can’t prevent anyone from giving money to a psychic to “talk” to their dead relatives. The preachers and grief vampires will always be with us, and they are assured of a continuous supply of easy prey.
The first thing to remember is that if we want something badly enough, we’re all vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Plenty of science-minded people fall into all sorts of traps, from Ponzi schemes to romance scams. And plenty of science-minded people end up in cults. Want something badly enough? You’ll make it “true.”
One of the problems in the skeptic community is we don’t give enough–we don’t sympathize enough with the people who are in these situations. It’s a very vulnerable situation that you find yourself in at times in your life. And when the medium enters during that moment of time [when] you’re grieving, you’re confused about life, your significant partner has left you, or your job, or your family’s health or whatever it is. When they enter at that moment that’s when you’re vulnerable and your critical thinking skills may not be at the height that they should be. I think we need to be a lot more sympathetic. These are people who are being preyed on and I use that to mean prey p-r-e-y not p-r-a-y. So I think that we if we were to look at ourselves as being vulnerable too–maybe not for the specific con but others like it–we can fall for this. It could be a multi-level marketing scheme…totally completely different from the psychic world but again it’s somebody manipulating somebody else. I would like to see us turn up the empathy factor, you know…[the idea that] “who would be so much of an idiot to fall for this?” And we see this in cults, right? This myth that only dumb people would ever believe…what a cult claims. And then you see people who extricate themselves, and talk about what it was like, and they’re often highly intelligent, thoughtful people who are simply victims.–Susan Gerbic, March 21, 2023, The Thinking Atheist podcast
I think Gerbic is spot-on, as she describes the vulnerability of highly intelligent people. Thinking you’re too smart to fall for a scam, is the easiest way to get sucked in. But my explanation differs slightly. From my perspective, cults are a mutual bargain struck between the credulous, and “leaders” who tailor their message specifically to what the followers want to hear.
It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Without customers, psychic grief vampires would go out of business. Without congregants, preachers would be left standing alone, ranting on a street corner, probably holding a hand-lettered sign “Repent: The End is Near.” Preaching is politics. Only when they gain followers, do these fraudsters wield any real power.
This was my experience growing up in Church Universal and Triumphant, the cult founded by my parents Mark and Elizabeth Prophet. When he began in 1958, my dad held weekly services in a spare bedroom that were attended by fewer than 10 people. By the time I left the cult in 1993, it had tens of thousands of members, worldwide. There were centers in every major American city, and about $50 million in real-estate holdings.
Folks, my parents didn’t build their scam empire on their own. And neither do other psychics or preachers. Never in the history of the world has a fraudster built a movement without a mass following. Grief vampire John Edward only got on TV because his audience was hurting from their losses. In all cases, believers willingly donate their money and time, prop up TV ratings, and lend social credibility to dangerous charlatans.
Which is why I can have as much compassion as I want for gullible followers. And I still know that the only way to fix any of this, is to discredit the belief itself. To starve the con artist’s fire of oxygen.
It must be done.