Pious fraud

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Pious fraud is a term applied to describe fraudulent practices used to advance a religious cause or belief. This type of fraud may, by apologists, be explained as a case of the ends justify the means, in that if people are saved from eternal damnation then it's perfectly fine to tell a few fibs and perform some magic tricks. This line of argumentation is prone to outcome bias. To draw a non-religious comparison - pious fraud could be compared to a parent using the threat of Santa withholding presents, or delivering a lump of coal, if Santa should hear that the child in question has been naughty.

It may at times be difficult to differentiate pious fraud, which requires intent to deceive, from delusion and ignorance. Such a decision must be based on a case-by-case evaluation of the claims being made, the persons making the claims, and certainly the intent behind the claims.

Determining intent[edit]

"So, do any of you fisherman and tax collectors know how to write high quality non-contradictory books in Greek? Oh bugger!"

Intent is the primary method of differentiating pious fraud from regular fraud, but is itself murky. Peter Popoff, a televangelist with an astonishing ability to extract money from true believers, had repeatedly been exposed for using decidedly natural approaches to enhance his "miracles". In one notable example, James Randi learned that Popoff was using a hidden earpiece to which his wife was broadcasting information on the stricken people who attended his revivals in the hope of being cured.[1]

If Popoff is a pious fraud, then it appears that he earnestly believes that the basic message of the gospels is that God's decision as to whether or not worshippers enter Heaven is primarily based on how rich they made their preacher. It may however be possible that Popoff simply enjoyed having nice houses and cars, and found a large group of people who were gullible and desperate enough to help make this happen.

Even when there is no financial incentive, pious frauds may gain fame and adoration among believers for being special enough to have been chosen to witness or perform a miracle.

Given that miracles typically come with little evidence to support the temporary suspension of the known laws of the universe, they are a rich source of pious fraud. This not to say that all miracles are by default fraud, since many can be attributed to delusional behavior, ignorance or simple good luck (and, who knows, some may be real, though none have been substantiated thus far), but some stand out as being particularly questionable.

Padre Pio was reputed to have experienced the stigmata - the appearance of wounds on the body that mimic those inflicted upon Jesus during his crucifixion, yet the wounds always appeared in private, and there are suggestions that Pio was using acid to inflict the wounds upon himself.[2]

Modification and misattribution of scripture[edit]

Prior to the advent of Christianity, there are strong suspicions that the entire Book of Deuteronomy was made up by King Josiah (or his supporters) due to its rather convenient discovery as recounted beginning with 2 Kings 22:8 and later from 2 Chronicles 34:14. Similarly, many books of the New Testament are named for what uninformed believers take to be the names of the authors, yet biblical and historical scholarship indicate that the gospels were written by unknown authors and ascribed to disciples and similarly important figures in Christianity. Other books of the New Testament, traditionally ascribed to important figures, are also shown to be later additions or misattributions.[3]

There's an obvious advantage in attributing a work to a famous name, since texts purporting to document the life of Jesus certainly carry more weight if its claimed that they were written by a drinking buddy of Jesus.[4]

Alterations over the years also provide signs of changes being made to deal with scriptural contradictions and to reduce or emphasise points and beliefs important to the writer. Paul strongly emphasised the message that salvation was available to all, including gentiles. While some gospels portray Jesus as being sent solely for the "lost sheep of Israel", such as in Matthew 15:21-28, St. Paul's writings discard Jewish tradition - such as the requirement to effectively become a Jew before becoming a Christian - in favour of offering salvation to gentiles, describing himself as "the apostle of the gentiles" in Romans 1:13. No doubt it was easier to market Christianity when it didn't involve the partial removal of the penis.

It is also notable that the nature of Jesus changes throughout the Bible. Early gospels, such as Mark, portray Jesus more as an anointed man than a being of divine origin - in a similar sense to previous "sons of god" such as King David.[5] In John 1:1-15 Jesus is described as being the embodiment of logos - present with God at the beginning of all things, through whom the world was created. Mark lacks an account of the virgin birth - which other authors included in their gospels. A messiah of human origin, although anointed by God, is more consistent with Jewish tradition, so the divine aspects may have appeared in an attempt to appeal to the demographic that prefers its messiahs to be of divine origin.

See also[edit]


  1. See James Randi's book The Faith Healers, and a YouTube video in which Randi explains how he exposed Popoff.
  2. Padre Pio claimed to have used acid to fake the stigmata
  3. Wikipedia has an article on the Pauline epistlesWikipedia's W.svg in which the disputes concerning authorship are discussed at greater length.
  4. Bart Ehrman explores these origins in his books Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted.
  5. The reference in Mark Romans 1:1 to Jesus being the son of God is disputed and not present in some early manuscripts. See Wikipedia's article on Mark 1Wikipedia's W.svg for additional background. Terms such as messiah and son of God have to be considered in the context of Jewish tradition.