Raising the dead: too many questions, but more than enough answers.

South Africa has a “spiritual vampires” problem, to adapt Susan Gerbic and the Guerrilla Skeptic’s term (“grief vampires”) for people like John Edward, who claim to speak to the dead. But then, I suppose you could say that the whole world does, in that religious leaders who make a living off telling people things they themselves don’t actually believe can be found everywhere.

I’ve written about some of South Africa’s exploitative evangelists in the past, including Prophet (Detective) Lethobo and Penuel Mnguni, as well as about the CRL Commission’s investigation into harmful religious practices and whether they should be regulated.

As noted in the piece on the CRL Commission, it’s an error to start from the premise that traditional or typical religious practices should be exempt from being questioned for causing harm, given that they can cause harms in discriminating against gay people, in circumcising non-consenting humans, or simply in taking your money to buy themselves more nice things, as Ray McCauley and other proponents of the prosperity gospel do.

But unfortunately, some harms are commonplace and historically-embedded enough that it seems we no longer care, and only take notice when you claim to exorcise demons with bug spray, or make people eat snakes. Or, when you claim to be able to raise people from the dead.

For that is the trick that our latest charlatan claims to be able to perform, as the nation discovered a couple of days ago when Pastor Alph Lukau published a video of him laying his hands on a human corpse, whereupon the deceased miraculously rediscovered his joie de vivre.

“The incident has raised eyebrows among South Africans, with many expressing doubts about the true sense of religion”, says this article in Eyewitness News, where we also find Ray McCauley suggesting that pastors like this should be arrested.

McCauley doesn’t explain why fake resurrections are a crime, while pretending to be pious while taking parishioners’ money is okay. The rule seems to be something like: “hey, we’ve got a solid script here, that has been running even longer than Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, so don’t jeopardise it with new tricks!”.

Also, given that the religion in question is premised on the resurrection of a dead person, the whole line of reasoning is somewhat suspect. If I were a Christian, I’d think it a more relevant line of criticism to point out that necromancy is repeatedly forbidden in the Bible. But maybe that’s because I’ve read it. Who knows.

Anyway, a couple of quick points: first, let’s not mock those who fall for this stuff. Recently, a 13 year-old diabetic died because instead of taking insulin, he was forced to do what a herbalist told his parents was a good idea: avoid the hospital (which would apparently kill him), and instead apply lavender oil to his spine, while also taking some other herbal “remedy”.

As the parents say, they now recognise that they had been brainwashed, and that the herbalist had become “like a god” to them. I don’t intend to excuse them, because there are ample resources around to educate yourself about quackery, but nevertheless: remember that it’s the fakers that are the primary causes, with others playing the part of being their victims.

Another set of people who should carry some guilt here is the click-chasing idiots at publications like Eyewitness News, who posted this “miracle” with the headline “Too many questions, not enough answers”. They then proceed to ask virtually none of the important questions, preferring to focus on the easiest one of all, namely whether a person was resurrected or not. (Spoiler: no.)

I don’t think Lukau should be arrested, because I don’t see any principled way to separate his deception from the ordinary sort of deception involved from many pulpits, every day, sometimes from preachers who believe, but often not.

Yes, Lukau is an immoral man who is exploiting vulnerable people. If we’re going to write about it, make that the issue. Don’t pretend that there are “questions” that merit thinking about, or responding to, regarding the resurrection of dead people.

Because even though you’re not hosting the resurrection service, Eyewitness News, you’re also profiting from deception in entertaining this idea, just like Lukau is.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.