Was Oral Roberts Sincere? Does It Matter?

December 17, 2009

Oral Roberts died the other day. His death has resulted in a lot of commentary, including some rather sharp commentary from the nonreligious. Many of the nonreligious consider him a money-grubbing charlatan, who would resort to shameless emotional manipulation to get believers to cough up their bucks. Witness his claim that God would "call him home" unless he raised $8 million to support his failing medical center. This is not a bad fundraising technique: give money now or I will die. Of course, it only works if, among other things, enough people do not want you to die. (There will be no further comment from me on why I don’t use this technique.)

But many people did love and admire Oral Roberts. This year the Oklahoma Senate even passed a resolution honoring him. Why not? He claimed to heal the sick and injured, and many believed him. He claimed to bring people back from the dead, and many believed him. He claimed to be in direct communication with God, and many believed him. The medical center itself was the result of Roberts’ notorious claim that a 900-foot-tall Jesus appeared to him and instructed him to build the medical facility. (I have always wondered: how did Roberts know Jesus was exactly 900 feet tall, as opposed to, say, a mere 880 feet tall?)

For skeptics, Roberts’ astonishing claims in combination with his decades-long career of faith-healing and reviving the dead marks him as an unscrupulous con man. But was he? There have been faith healers who have been exposed as outright frauds, but, to my knowledge, Roberts actually believed he could heal people and actually believed he was in direct contact with God. These were false beliefs, but they may well have been sincere beliefs.

But does this make a major difference in how we judge him? The extent to which ignorance excuses a person’s actions has been debated at least since Aristotle. Aristotle himself concluded that ignorance excuses the harm we inflict on others only if we cannot be held responsible for our ignorance. If there’s no way you could have known that the burgers you are preparing for your family are tainted with E. coli, you are not responsible for the serious illnesses that result from their consumption. However, if you were in charge of processing the tainted meat, ignorance may not be an excuse. You should have known about the contamination even if you did not actually know. In other words, there is such a thing as culpable ignorance.

In my opinion, Roberts and other arguably sincere faith healers have a degree of moral responsibility for persuading millions to believe in false claims. Roberts was living in an age when he had access to information that would have shown him that his belief in faith healing was unjustified. He either willfully ignored such information or did not take it seriously, just like a food processor who willfully refuses to inspect his machinery to see if it is contaminated.

Roberts’ insistence that he possessed miraculous powers resulted in harm to millions, whether the harm was a refusal to seek standard medical treatment or merely turning over hard-earned cash to feed the Roberts machine. With respect to the harm caused these individuals, it does not make that much difference whether Roberts knew he was deceiving them or was merely willfully ignorant.

Had Roberts lived a few hundred years ago, he may have had more of an excuse. Critical reasoning was not exactly widely promoted until after the Enlightenment. Nowadays, fortunately, through the efforts of many, including institutions such as CFI, critical reasoning is promoted and it is much less excusable if individuals refuse to subject their beliefs to critical examination.

Of course, it is also incumbent upon us to support critical reasoning and to call attention to the flaws in religious beliefs and pseudoscientific claims. Some in our movement contrast criticism of religion with promotion of ethical values, often calling the former "negative" and the latter "positive." I don’t accept this characterization and I do not think these are mutually exclusive alternatives. To the contrary, criticism of unjustified beliefs is a moral obligation. Ignorance kills, maims, and impoverishes. We skeptics cannot restore the dead to life, but perhaps we can prevent some from being harmed by the willfully obtuse representatives of God.