Religion, Scamming and Aura Photography
He took a deep breath and focused on the aura photograph in his hand. His finger trailing lightly over the image. A bright red orb filled the frame– my figure barely discernible inside. I wondered what he could possibly learn about me and my future from this picture alone.
My eyes were trained on him– hard and desperate.
Thanks for reading Dilettante.! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
“You have far too much anger inside you. You burn red hot.” He finally said.
I want so badly to believe in fortune tellers. Primarily, because I am drawn to anything magical. I love the surreal and otherworldly, the fantasy-fueled, the unbelievable and romantic.
If I could have it my way, I would live my entire life fully-immersed in some deluded, far-fetched fantasy. Where every moment is a sign, every weird feeling an omen and every decision made is merely a cog in the machine of some large, carefully orchestrated plan.
It can be comforting to believe that the world has a purpose– that there is some kind of predestination in your life– that all suffering will have a final, grand resolution of earned joy.
It’s not rational. It’s not realistic– but it is comforting.
And it is this longing for comfort that has built religions throughout history. Religion, at least in the organized sense, is primarily driven by three innate human needs: (one) to be comforted in the face of insurmountable fear or pain, (two) to have a sense of control over your life and future and (three) to feel that you are supported by a loving person or community.
Our world is uncertain. Many things will happen to you– some awful, some wonderful and most will have little to no relation to the good or bad deeds that you have committed throughout your life. It is entirely random. Suffering can be endless for the virtuous and patient or a career criminal can win the lottery– and there is no amount of prayer or good karma that can predict either outcome.
When I was in high school, I read the book ‘Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion for the first time. It is a famed non-fiction story about the inner workings of Didion’s grief following the sudden death of her husband and the eventually fatal hospitalization of her daughter.
It is an especially powerful book because of the stark intellectualization that Didion uses in her writing to express the profound, complex and often contradictory emotions she experienced while grieving.
The title refers to this idea she has while looking at a closet full of clothes which once belonged to her now-deceased husband. She finds herself unwilling to throw away his belongings because, in some deep part of her heart, she worries that one day he will come back and he won’t have any shoes to wear. She knows this is irrational. She knows this is not realistic. She knows that she saw him dead on their apartment floor– but it is comforting to cling to this idea, this Magical Thinking, that a person can influence the outcome of a scenario by doing something or thinking something or keeping something that has absolutely no material bearing on the circumstances.
I personally find myself very drawn to this idea. Grief or sorrow or pain or rejection or anger– they are all such incredibly unpleasant emotions. Instead of doing the therapeutic work it takes to come to terms with these feelings or to understand the circumstances which brought about these feelings— it can be so much easier to find respite in spiritual hooey.
I was a very late bloomer growing up. I was weird and awkward and insecure and frankly, kind of unpleasant to be around. Most (if not all) of my romantic feelings during adolescence were unrequited. So, I used to find great solace in watching tarot card readings on Youtube. You’ve most likely seen the type of video that I am talking about– the title is something to the effect of “His True Feelings Revealed” or “Aries + Other Horoscope Sign + Love Future.”
The gist of the video is: a camera is framed in an extreme close-up on a pair of hands and some small crystals on a table. The hands deal out (often wonderfully illustrated) tarot cards while a voice-over narrates the supposed significance of these cards to your imagined relationship. The narration is often randomly constructed and full of non-sequiturs.
It is important to understand that these videos are not created in a vacuum. The Youtube Tarot Card Reader is primarily interested in growing their business– and by extension, their audience. So, in order to do that, their tarot readings need to apply to the broadest base possible. And because the viewer is vulnerable and desperate to hear something that confirms their deepest fears or wishes– they will cherry pick the sentiments they want to be true.
There are often disclaimers throughout these types of videos– the creator will have a scripted portion in each one where they assure the viewers that not every message is intended for them. That “rising signs or moon signs can drastically affect a person’s sun sign and therefore render portions of the “Aries Love Future Explained” video unrelatable to certain viewers”.
This encourages the viewer to disregard any information which does not fit into the idealized message that they are personally seeking. It simply fuels a delusional feedback loop wherein a person can convince themselves wholeheartedly that they are secretly loved or secretly hated or destined for some wild, unimaginable future even though all material evidence points to the contrary.
The truth is– It feels good! It can be relieving to hear that you are special and you are loved if your day-to-day feels lonely and boring. Unfortunately, this also places you in a very vulnerable position to be taken advantage of by so-called saviors or gurus or priests or spiritualists.
There is a really good documentary called Marjoe. It was made in the early 70s and follows a man named Marjoe Gortner. Gortner was a child preacher in the American Tent-Revivalist Evangelical movement. He was kind of a gimmick– a five year old who would perform marriage ceremonies, lead people to speak in tongues and “put hands” on the sick and the disabled. Even his own name, Marjoe, is a theatrical portmanteau of Mary and Joseph (the parents of Jesus).
The filmmakers enter Gortner’s life while he’s older– they meet a very disillusioned man who wants to expose the economically predatory side of Evangelism. Through the documentary, they reveal how each of the parishioners who were supposedly “cured” of their physical ailments during a tent revival were actually shills who were accomplices to the deception. The audience learns that the old woman in the wheelchair could actually walk the entire time– Marjoe holding her head and chanting prayer calls into her skull did not affect the strength of her legs in the slightest.
However, her performance as a freshly cured follower of the Lord, definitely affected the amount of donations in the church’s basket and the level of belief in their supposed savior. This deception calls upon the same motivations found within the Youtube Tarot Card Reader’s business model. Whenever there is Business mixed with Religion, there is exploitation of the trusting and vulnerable involved.
To the swindled, what this performance appeals to is the illusion of control. This fantasy that if something traumatic or life altering happens to you, if you are a strong enough believer (and a generous enough supporter), a magical figure can wave their hands over you and reverse all of it. The cancer will be cured, your legs will walk again, your marriage will be reconciled, your life will be perfect.
And this relationship, between the scammer and the swindled, is very commonly found in Evangelical communities. There are plenty of famous examples- Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen– all of which are charismatic leaders who broadly and generally appeal to their faithful base that if they do not receive such-and-such donation by such-and-such time, they will lose the war between the Virtuous and the Sinful and everyone’s lives will descend into chaos.
I want to be clear that my criticism is not of belief– but rather of Capital F: Faith. I take no issue in a person finding solace, a sense of control and a supportive community in Religion. As I mentioned before, I find these needs to be innately human and the want for them to be unavoidable in our development as people. Where I take issue with Religion, is when people in power use it as a tool to exploit those less fortunate for their own financial and social gain.
And even though I know it is statistically impossible for all religious leaders and spiritualists to be deceitful scammers– because of the natural proclivity of people in power to abuse their position, I find that I am constantly skeptical when faced with the idea of spirituality.
That is why, while standing behind the counter at Magic Jewelry watching this man examine an aura photograph of me, I feel desperate for his guidance but disillusioned by his answer. When he tells me that the red color surrounding my body symbolizes anger– I feel swindled (and ironically enough, I do feel angry).
His insight feels superficial. Blue curtains mean sadness, red blob means anger– okay? But what am I to do with this? I became hyper aware of the $40 I had just turned over to him before getting my photo taken and I wonder what material difference I feel after gaining his insight.
I long for a truly spiritual answer. A magical declaration of the true secret of my life- a concrete roadmap to relieve myself from any hardship and to usher in a windfall of success and good fortune in my future. But I don’t think that exists.
The answer to all life’s problems can truthfully, only be ascertained by an honest reckoning with one’s Self and one’s environment (and potentially some talk therapy). But a part of me holds steadfast to this magical thinking that there are things I can do to control the vast, unavoidable and unpredictable nature of being a human being.
That’s the trouble. I want to believe. I want to believe so badly— but I just don’t.
Thanks for reading Dilettante.! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.