“Nobody ever went broke
    underestimating the intelligence of the public”

There’s a natural human tendency to believe what ain’t so; sometimes it takes religious forms, other times it’s called astrology or motivational lecturing or self-help.

The watered down, gospel-of-wealth Christianity peddled by many TV preachers and some megagchurch entrepreneurs, and by the wildly successful book The Prayer of Jabez, is nothing new, and it isn’t specifically religious. Promises of ways to substitute wishing for effort have always been popular: think of Christian Science, or “Visualize World Peace.” William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, profiled it as “the religion of healthy-mindedness.”

With wealth-fantasy as our culturally endorsed national dream, Americans are perhaps especially susceptible to this rubbish in its specifically acquisitive form.

Laziness and gullibility are always sufficiently widespread to assure a bunco artist of an audience, whether the bunco artist is running a church, sending chain letters, selling EST seminars, or riding the motivational-lecture circuit, or peddling Oprah-endorsed self-help books and tapes.

Some versions of the racket are more destructive than others. It’s worth remembering that there are lots of badly screwed-up people out there, whose lives can be improved by believing the most outrageous nonsense as long as it tunes up their affect. I have no doubt that Scientology, despite its nonsensical doctrines and the racketeering enterprise that peddles them, actually benefits some of the people duped by it.

It’s easy to blame religion for these phenomena when they appear in religious form. But astrology columns started appearing in otherwise respectable newspapers before the “born-again” boom. As G.K. Chesterton (perhaps the wittiest bigot who ever lived) remarked, “God is not mocked. When men cease to believe in Him, He makes them believe in Nostradamus instead.” I wonder if anyone has done a comparative study of superstition in churchgoing America and godless Europe?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com