Grifts, Spiritual Grifts, and Widespread BS

Recently I discovered the delightful videocaster Tom Nicholas. A charming man who covers economics, politics, and culture, he has a witty but laid-back style that helps him cover some pretty serious subjects. My introduction to his work was a YouTube episode on why everything is so grifty these days, which I recommend seeing. Well, after you finish reading this.

It’s hard to sum up, but the short form is work and the economy aren’t so hot, business gurus sold advice on how to make money (while their business was guruhood), and eventually you end up with grifts everywhere. I’m not doing it justice, but, you get the idea – looking to have grifts is sort of normalized now.

While rewatching this episode because I’m some kind of masochist, I began wondering what this meant for the spiritual grifts that I often analyze. Which is where this column comes from, so here’s my thoughts.

Spiritual grifts have always been with humanity as long as there have been humans. It doesn’t take much historical reading to find such things, from failed cults to faked miracles. But there’s something about today’s spiritual grifts where they seem to be varied, ominpresent, and a lot of people are in on them.

Which seems sort of weird. Are there this many chosen ones, like can someone choose among the chosen ones to narrow it down? Why can’t all the messages from the Space Brothers, you know, line up? How come the Ascended Masters only now care about vaccination? I mean, how did we get here?

When I stepped back thanks to Mr. Nicholas, the answer seemed depressingly obvious.

First, grifts always take advantage of existing technology. The printing press changed every country that created it or adopted it – and also meant people could more easily print and spread bullshit. History is replete with opportunity pamphleteers and scam artists and people who lied fast and wrote just as fast on spiritual “issues.” The internet just makes it faster than we were used to a few decades ago – and easier to start a spiritual grift.

Secondly, many of us exist in a culture that contains what I might call “Capitalist Idolatry.” We are told to make money all the time, to turn everything to a profit, to look for the next thing. We’ve had years of business gurus pitching side hustles and passive income. We’ve internalized this, and for many people this seems to be instinctual.

Third, the economy hasn’t gone great for a lot of people. How many layoffs, restructurings, firings, our recessions have you been through? How many people lost their economic progress, or never even got a chance to start any progress? People have been let down by the economy, and they’re looking to make money, and that culture of hustle is there waiting to tell us we can do it – and beat the system!

Fourth, American culture has normalized the spiritual grift. We have the so-called mainstream Christian grift, a historical lineage of tent revivalists, pass-the-plate evangelists, megachurches, and of course the televangelists and their empires. If people aren’t interested in that – or are rebelling against it – you can provide “alternative” spirituality and get your own grift going by doing something different while keeping the same old moneymaking routines.

Fifth, spiritual grift doesn’t require you to make anything unusual. Sure you can sell crystals and whatever, but it’s really easy to sell content which you can just make up and spew into the format of your choice. If you do want to sell merch you can get things manufactured or slap your brand name on some pre-made herbal medication or whatever. But for the most part, spiritual grift is no different than the various life coach and business guru scams.

Toss all that together and of course we’re awash in Spiritual grifts. They’be been around for awhile, we exist in a grifty culture, and the internet turned it up to eleven. When someone is flooded with TikTok, YouTube, and Podcast gurus, they might get ideas. They might even have some authentic spiritual insights, but that’s a seed for something neither spiritual or insightful.

What we face today in the world of spiritual grift is something more widespread and faster-moving than grifts of say a century ago. But nothing is actually unusual – we’ve all seen it before, throughout history and throughout our lives.