A Note on Fortune-Telling and the Law


It should be noted that in many cities, counties and states across the United States, laws, of varying sorts, against "fortune-telling", are on the books. These laws may apply to clairvoyance (psychic readings), astrology, divination by the tarot, rune-stones, tea leaves, palm-reading, and other forms of esoteric practice. While these laws are frequently not enforced, every so often they are, resulting in the surprising arrest of astrologers, clairvoyants, and "readers" of various types, in police busts carried out at psychic fairs, alternative bookstores, and cafes frequented by the New Age crowd.

The existence of these laws which, once again, are generated at the state and local level, are no doubt a result of (1) the abuse of the "esoteric arts" by some practitioners and frauds (in this case, the laws could be viewed as consumer-protection laws); (2) the bias of mainstream Judeo-Christian culture against these arts, and the New Age, in which these arts are presently flourishing; and (3) the scientific-rational-materialist basis of contemporary Western civilization, which cannot comprehend the possibility of mystical dynamics of perception and knowing which are not explained by its model of reality.

Defenders of these arts have convincingly argued that the practice of divination, and the mystical searching for answers which it embodies, ought to be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the right to free speech, and to freedom of religion. They strongly argue that the government ought not to have the right to "limit the marketplace of ideas" by criminalizing alternative views of reality (legislating its skeptical, scientific viewpoint), nor the right to suppress the activities of one religion (the divination practices inherent in, and crucial to, alternative spiritual forms), while tolerating the activities of other religions (mainstream Christianity, for example).

Sometimes, the defenders of the esoteric arts of divination and prophecy seek to gain a little cultural breathing space by pointing out some of the "loopholes" in The Bible, which is often used as a vehicle for condemning these arts. Although The Bible is, of course, filled with prophets and instances of prophecy, this gift of prophecy, it is traditionally argued, comes directly from Divine inspiration, without the use of intermediate objects, devices, magic, omens or rituals. The prophet will either be moved by God to speak, and given words to say, or in cases, he will discern the truth by means of dream interpretation (dreams are seen as a sometimes holy channel by which God sends messages to the earth. Genesis 40, 41, Daniel 2, 4.) The use of "devices" of divination, and ritual, however, is relegated to non-Jewish, non-Christian cultures such as ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome, and generally condemned, sometimes quite fiercely. However, examples of divination do, nonetheless, appear within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as in Genesis 44:5, in which a silver cup is mentioned, by means of which Joseph, the great Hebrew hero living in Egypt, was said to be able to divine - to see into the unknown. (The polished surface, or liquid within the cup, could be stared at, and used to alter consciousness, producing visions.) In Exodus 28:30 and Numbers 27:21, mention is also made of the "Urim" and "Thummim", believed to be a set of marked stones or dice, capable of transmitting the answers of "Yes" or "No", when cast by a priest, as part of a question asked to God.

More than depending upon passages in The Bible, however, to justify their practices, since The Bible also contains many passages which condemn divination, modern-day practitioners of the esoteric arts concentrate their efforts on protecting their practices from politically influential conservative Christian elements, under the shield of "freedom of religion." Likewise, although many interesting challenges to the ruling scientific doctrine have been made by serious paranormal researchers, and advocates of the "new physics", practitioners of the esoteric arts, today, concentrate their defensive efforts against the harassment of civil society, which is infused with a very different worldview, by seeking the protection of the right to "free speech."

In my own opinion, divination, at its best, is a highly valuable and spiritual endeavor, not only bringing useful information to Humanity, but increasing our connection to the Divine (for a sacred state is achieved during the seeking, receiving, and transmission of this material). Much of the traditional bias of our mainstream religions against divination comes, not from its "unholiness", but from the fact that much of the religious and state power of "antagonistic civilizations" was intertwined with it, and symbolized by it. (Reference is frequently made to the magicians, soothsayers, and "wise men" of the alien, "other", or enemy cultures: to the magicians of the Pharaoh - Exodus 7 - or the astrologers and sorcerers of Nebuchadnezzar - Daniel 2. While the Greeks and Romans had their interpreters of signs and omens.) The bias against divination was, as far as I can tell, far more than just an effort to make contact with the Divine more direct, by eliminating the fetish/pseudo-iconic role of divining objects (which properly used, however, do not thwart, but facilitate, communication with the Divine); it was really, in my opinion - at its root - an effort to break free of the shadow of the "oppressors", symbolized by foreign kings and warriors, and state priests and magicians. Bondage in Egypt, the Babylonian Captivity, later the crucifixion of Christ and persecution of Christians by the Romans - who had their own occult power structure, embodied in the college of pontifices, the college of augurs, and a network of "foreign" haruspices - most likely left a very negative impression upon the hearts of the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians. In the early part of the 20th Century, to draw a historical parallel, the oppressed Mexican people rose up against their rulers in a massive revolution (promoted by Francisco Madero, Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa, among others). The fight was for land, respect, social justice, and political rights, and one of the results of the Revolutionís triumph were certain restrictions on the Church, including a new law that forbade priests to wear their habits in public. The attacks upon the Church that came at this time were largely the result of the rebelsí perception that the Church, as an institution, had mainly supported the oppressive hierarchy of landowners and political elites before the Revolution, utilizing its religious authority, privileges, and power, not to help the suffering people of Mexico, but to "keep them down" and "rip them off." In this same way, it is very likely that the oppressed Hebrews and Christians came to resent the way in which the religious institutions of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome collaborated in their repression; and that they came to despise many of the rituals and practices of these institutions as characteristics or tools of the enemy. Divination, so important in these powerful and dominating ancient cultures, may have become as hateful to the Hebrews and the Christians as the Nazi eagle, the Nazi swastika, and the Iron Cross became to the conquered peoples in Europe, during WW II: not things harmful, in and of themselves, but infuriating because of what they were associated with. (In other words, the power and usefulness of these mystical forms of searching and finding - which could be utilized by corrupt as well as by moral people - may have been rejected by our civilizationís spiritual ancestors due to specific cultural and historical associations, and due to prejudices created by negative historical experiences - not due to any inherent fault in the concept of divination. Just the same as a man robbed or beaten by an individual of another race might unjustly develop a racist bias against that entire race, the good along with the bad, so diviners - the priests and advisers of oppressive kings in a crucial formative period of our Western cultural history - may still be suffering from the Ďbad publicityí of days gone by. It is a shame, since divination, outside of our own religious tradition, has been a nearly universal aspect of spirituality across the globe, significant not only to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans, but also to Native Americans and Hawaiians, to African and Asian cultures, and to most European societies before the arrival of Christianity.)

As time went on, this initial bias against divination as "something the bad guys do", may have become exacerbated by the Christian Churchís efforts to crush the competition of rival spiritual belief systems, in an effort to hoard all "spiritual power" (authority) for itself. What was spiritual, and did not come from it - what was spiritual, and could be gained outside of it - was, therefore, not only rejected, but demonized. "If it doesnít come from us (God as we represent Him), then it must come from The Devil." This monstrously polarized view of the Universe, overlooking the simple fact that Spiritual Truth can be found and related to in many different ways, was a terrible blow against human unity. For it made spirituality not a common meeting ground of all people, but a point of division, in which particulars overshadowed essence. In effect, the Christian Church sought to acquire "sole rights" to spirituality on the earth, and to drive every other religion out of town. It was a power grab, pure and simple, and during the Middle Ages it led to massacres and expulsions of Jews (they were "blamed" for the Bubonic Plague, attacked, ghettoized, and also exiled from many lands); the slaughter of Muslims (Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in a blood bath the equal of any war crime); the annihilation of out-of-favor Christian sects (the Cathars of southern France had their towns and castles stormed by force, and the Eastern Orthodox Christians of Byzantium, likewise, saw their city sacked); the torture, imprisonment, and execution of many individuals of all walks of life by the Holy Inquisition, and other councils of religious conformity (Galileo and Bruno stand out); and the burning of pre-Christian loyalists (pagans), who were only attempting to remain true to their old faith. The spiritual wealth of these old religions was brushed aside, and their followers were called "devil-worshippers" - which is rather like calling someone you do not like a "child molester", something terrible that will poison peopleís minds against him, discredit him, and set him up for your attack.

It is interesting to note that this fury which Christian institutions of power turned upon their enemies during the Middle Ages, was duplicated during the period of the "Christian Reformation", in which the Church world, in the West, split into two parts, each part treating the other as a manifestation of the Devil, and attempting to exterminate it. This is what followed Martin Lutherís attempt to be Christian in his own way, the Popeís efforts to crush him, and the rebelsí furious counterattack. During this awful period, characterized by genocide, rape, pillage, and mass starvation, each side portrayed the other side as Evil, doing the bidding of Satan, and itself as Good, championing the cause of God. Unbelievable rumors and tales circulated. For instance, the Pope was said to fornicate with diabolical female spirits, materialized by a magic ring which he wore; while the Protestants were characterized as butchers straight from Hell. Thank God those days are over, now - finally conquered by reason, compassion, or maybe just by exhaustion.

The point, here, is not to turn this website into a version of the History Channel, but to demonstrate that there has been a tendency for religious institutions and belief-systems, in the past, to seek "territorial expansion", acquiring new minds, just as nations acquire new lands. That when these movements of expansion cannot proceed peacefully - resisted, perhaps, by a powerful, alternative belief-system - they have often been pushed forward by means of propaganda, intimidation, violence, and repression. In the process, many spiritual treasures may have been taken away from us, and many vibrant spiritual facets painted black, and placed off-limits, with the goal of reducing the rainbow of our souls to but one color - the color of the winners of the religious war. In my mind, there is no doubt that the fundamentalist Christian bias against divination which is evident today, is the result of exactly one such historical process.

Of course, divination is alive and well in our modern society, in spite of all this, although it is frequently harassed, and misunderstood. Indeed, it is a central component of the New Age, which is, on the whole, very friendly towards original forms and concepts of Christianity, rooted in Christís own teachings and example of love. I have also observed a massive coexistence between divination and other "occult" interests, and the Catholic faith as it is practiced, in reality, by large numbers of very spiritual and sincere Latin Americans. Divination - introduced into the veins of Latin culture by the influence of gypsy, African, and indigenous traditions - is routinely utilized in the Latin community, today, as a complement to other spiritual practices traditionally associated with the Catholic Church. So I think it is fair to say that there is no innate incompatibility between divination and Christianity. Once again, the problem, to my mind, is only the result of cultural and historical processes of development, not one of true spiritual conflict.

What is really generating the most trouble for "fortune-telling", divination, and other esoteric arts, today, is probably the charge of fraud. The bias of conservative elements of Christianity, and the skepticism of secular society, are not really enough to drive "fortune-telling" off the streets, even when they combine their efforts (odd bedfellows that they are), to do so. This is due to the First Amendment protections of the Constitution. However, once the charge of fraud is leveled, then the landscape changes, and the battle seems to shift from being one of ideological/metaphysical confrontation, in which the rights of the diviner "to be different" are constitutionally protected, to one of "consumer protection", in which the rights of the consumer (to be defended from fraud) seem to empower the government to crack down on the "fortune-teller." Of course, the negative image of the fortune-teller, generated by centuries of religious and cultural bias against him, does not provide him with a good starting point to face this new challenge. And then, there is the power of the scientific model of reality, which many secular enforcers of justice have internalized. According to this model of reality, which they accept as absolute truth, the ability claimed by the "fortune-teller" - whether it is to be able to divine the future through the position of the stars, the spread of the tarot cards, or images glimpsed in a crystal ball - is just not possible! Therefore, in claiming to be able to know something of the future in this way, the "fortune-teller" is already guilty of fraud! Like a man who comes up to you and offers to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge for $100, he is charging money for something that he is unable to deliver. In other words, taking your money for nothing. "Ripping off the consumer."

This prejudice, sometimes rooted in powerful places, puts the "fortune-teller" in a bad spot, right away. Just by practicing his art, he may be considered to be a criminal, because his art is off the map of the people who have the power to judge him. In order to defeat this initial threat to their profession, many venues that offer divination services, from astrology, to tarot card readings, to psychic readings, qualify their activities with the protective phrase, "For entertainment purposes only." Which means that you, as a customer, agree to pay them for providing a kind of entertainment, or amusement to you, in the form of a spiritual reading. It might not be true, but then, officially, itís only a game, so it doesnít matter. This helps to shield the "fortune-teller" from the allegation that he is charging money for something that is "scientifically impossible to do", and thereby allows him to get on with his business, with a reduced risk of prosecution.

Besides the initial prejudices in our society, which endanger the work of the modern-day diviner, there is, unfortunately, also a long legacy of abuse and fraud in this "profession", which adds to the negative stereotype the "fortune-teller" must endure, and which fuels the tendency of mainstream society to distrust him, and to imagine the worst about his work.

One of the worse kinds of fraud, in this regard, is that in which a crooked reader "discovers" that the subject of the read is afflicted with a curse, and/or will be harmed by sickness or tragedy in the near future. The reader who, also, happily, claims to be able to remove the curse, or to ward off the threat, agrees to help the alarmed victim for a price. A whole, complicated routine of magical activities, spells, and rituals is then foisted upon the victim, who is told that he must go through with them if he is to pass through the danger, or to overcome the obstacle. Over a period of weeks or even months, the cost adds up; and is further increased by the purchase of special amulets, charms, or potions offered by the adviser. In the end, the corrupt occultist has done nothing more than to invent an affliction that does not exist - or else invent an imaginary cause for one that does - and then "destroy" the imaginary threat, or cause, for a price. Quite a scheme for making money! Of course, this classic scam has left a very bad taste in the mouth of society, and definitely damaged the reputation of the esoteric arts. (Here is not the time or place to get into the subject of curses, and curse-removals. Let it be stated that these practices are consistent with the beliefs of some faiths, and may work on a psychological, or even esoteric level. But, certainly, many practitioners have blatantly and deliberately misused this concept, as a fraudulent money-making scam.)

Then, of course, there is the question of the thriving telephone businesses known as "psychic lines." These businesses, while they may employ genuine and gifted psychics, alongside unskilled and undertrained recruits, are definitely set up to make money in a big-time way. They promise expert readings and advice, but, unfortunately, many of the people at the other end of the phone line lack minimal competence and skill. These so-called lines often use the offer of "free minutes" to lure customers to make the call, then delay the beginning of the reading with preliminary information-gathering questions that eat up some of that free time. The readings, themselves, are then designed to go slow. The caller is to be enticed and baited to stay on longer, as new threats or opportunities are "seen", just as he is about to hang up; or as he is wrapped up, in his moment of loneliness or uncertainty, by the reassuring and concerned personality of the reader. But donít just blame the reader! The system is standing over him (of her) like a whip. If the reader fails to keep the average caller on for a certain number of minutes, he will either be terminated, or relegated to the bottom rung of the organization, receiving too few calls from the central switchboard to survive on. So that, for him, it becomes a matter of economic life and death to keep the caller on for as long as possible. Like a desperate predator, he must not let the prey escape! The effect of all this, of course, is often to keep the caller on beyond his 3-10 "free minutes", whereupon rates that may go as high as $5 per minute (yes, thatís "minute") kick in. That would be $300 for an hour consultation, with perhaps $10 of that going to the reader, and the rest to the company. (Let me, once again, reiterate that some of the readers are truly skilled, and genuinely compassionate, and that it is possible to get accurate and sensitive readings on these lines. On the other hand, it is also very possible to get poor-quality and manipulative readings. In all events, for the caller, the rates are punishing.)

Of course, the practices of these psychic lines, which might be able to be prosecuted on account of false and misleading advertising, and the deliberate deception of consumers, have cast further doubt upon the divining profession and the esoteric arts, in general. But the truth of the matter is, divining has very little to do with the problem. This is, instead, a problem of the modern business ethic, carried too far; a problem of "placing profits before people", which is rampant in our society and world today, from the actions of corporations cutting down our forests and poisoning our environment, to the actions of companies growing rich from the production of weapons used to kill, to the false accounting, lying, and stockholder manipulation committed by giant and respected companies like Enron. It is a problem not generated by the esoteric arts, but by a business mentality which, in this case, has seized upon the "esoteric arts" as just another way to make money.

Whereas there is no doubt that there is, indeed, a time and place for the legal prosecution and restriction of certain unethical practitioners of the esoteric arts, it is equally clear that the esoteric arts, as a whole, should not have to pay the price for what some unethical members, or infiltrators, of the occult/New Age community are doing. Modern medicine has not been illegalized or banned because of the unethical and incompetent actions of some of its doctors. Nor have law enforcement agencies been outlawed, due to the abuses committed by some members of their community. Likewise, priests and ministers have been found guilty of embezzlement, misuse of funds, even rape, yet the religious institutions of which they are a part have not been threatened with illegalization due to these personal transgressions. In this way, the world of the esoteric arts should not be targeted due to the transgressions of some individuals. Those individuals should be targeted.

Today, although esoteric arts such as astrology, tarot card reading, psychic reading, palm reading, rune-stone casting, and spiritualism flourish in America, they often do so in a cramped space of legal ambiguity, harassment, and occasional prosecution. "Anti-fortune-telling" laws remain on the books in many localities, and though they are mostly not enforced, the threat of enforcement limits the space and ways in which the esoteric arts may operate. In theory, laws like this - unenforced laws on the books - ought to provide authorities with a tool for dealing with extreme abuses, while letting everyone else alone: just like vagrancy and loitering laws, which provide a legal "excuse" to prosecute potentially dangerous characters who have committed no serious crime, while leaving everyone else alone. But the truth is, "anti-fortune-telling" laws, which are most always vague and sweeping, place the community of the esoteric arts at the mercy of the local governments, which have the tools they need to prosecute, harass, and prohibit them whenever they wish. It may not be a question of a transgression committed, but of which way the wind is blowing; a matter of local politics, scoring brownie points with conservative cultural elements, overreacting to fear generated by misperceptions and ignorance. Practitioners of the esoteric arts, therefore, desire to see these laws struck from the books. They would like to see their work treated in the same way as any other form of work, held to clear and well-defined standards of responsibility, but not singled out to be especially vulnerable just because of the minority metaphysical orientation which underlies it.

In the effort to address this issue, some practitioners of the esoteric arts have not only sought to lobby government institutions to get "anti-fortune-telling" laws off of the books (and to prevent new laws from being written); for some time, they have also been seeking to generate a case which will make it to the Supreme Court, and solve the problem once and for all, at the national level. However, in most cases where prosecutions have occurred, the charges have been dismissed by local judges, leaving the diviners free, and nullifying the local "anti-fortune-telling" laws, but leaving such laws intact in other cities, counties, and localities. (Only by losing a case at the local level, and working their way up through a series of appeals cases, could the "occultists" get their case to the Supreme Court, where the issue could be dealt with in one blow, from the top. - For more on the campaign to end the legal threats to practitioners of the esoteric arts, visit www.AFAN.org).

As I am sure you know, from the nature of this website, and from what I have just said, I wholeheartedly endorse the liberation of the esoteric arts from the inappropriate legal mechanisms set up to repress them. In a "free society", people must be free to have their own spiritual beliefs, their own view of reality; and if they believe that it is possible to catch glimpses of the future, and to see into the secrets of the human soul, why should they be prevented from using what is within their reach, in a constructive and compassionate way, to help improve the lives of others, and to make this a better world for us all?


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