For most of high school and early college, I considered myself Pagan. There were a lot of fuzzy, vaguely supernatural ideas and practices that were a part of my life. Even after becoming an atheist and a skeptic, these ideas still had some influence over how I thought and behaved. This created cognitive dissonance, which I have been trying to explore and resolve through writing (see Meditation, Herbal Medicine and Astrology for the rest).
I saved the most complicated one for last. I have been reading tarot cards for at least 12 years. When I moved to Gainesville for college, some of the first friends I made were through the Hoggetowne Tarot Guild. I am still a member of the guild, and I'm hosting next months meeting. I like doing tarot readings. I like talking about the symbolism and the psychology of it and using it as an opportunity to help people with their problems. My friends enjoy it too and often request readings from me.
I am not psychic. I treat the tarot as a psychological tool that contains universal symbols that people relate to their problems. I have often given a reading and overheard a discussion of its contents a few minutes later. Generally, it sounds nothing like what I actually said. People hear what they need or want to hear, but the fact that it is coming from a neutral source helps give things a different perspective. A lot of the time it's just an opportunity for them to talk to someone.
But! The more involved I get with the skeptical community, the more aware I am that there are people out there who lie. Who pretend to be psychic or to be able to communicate with the dead or to know the future. Who take advantage of people who are confused or grieving to make money. That is wrong, and I don't want to be a part of it.
There are also people that have very real and serious problems who believe in the supernatural. Instead of seeing a professional or getting medical assistance, they are consulting with a psychic. Not only are they not getting the help they need because of this, they feel as if they are doing something about their problem when in fact they are not. That is wrong, and I do not want to perpetuate it.
How is what I am doing any different? How am I not part of the problem as long as I'm doing tarot readings? You'd think the easy answer would be to simply stop doing them, but our group doesn't make money from doing readings. We use a lot of it to buy Christmas presents for children through the Guardian ad Litem program. It is also hard to let go of the idea that I am helping people. Helping people is good, right?
These problems have been bothering me for a while, and I wasn't sure how to resolve them. They really crystallized for me at this year's Medieval Fair. I avoided doing readings as much as I could because of my uncertainty, but the other readers need to take breaks occasionally. I had two very troubling customers that really helped me out...so to speak.
The first was an older lady who sat down and right away began complaining about how she had wanted to set up at the fair as a reader, but the fair organizers had denied her request. She interrupted me repeatedly, and as soon as I finished her reading insisted on performing one for me. She wanted to demonstrate how to 'get more details' from a reading. She then proceeded to tell me about my alcoholic father whom I was taking care of and how he was preventing me from having a real relationship with anyone else (hint - this is not true). As rude and annoying as this lady was, she was also the perfect example of someone who was eager to take someone's money in exchange for her bullshit. Interacting with her really solidified the fact that I am no longer comfortable charging people for a tarot reading. I don't want to even tacitly approve of what she is doing.
The second was a middle-aged man who explained that he hadn't been able to sleep normally for weeks because there were spirits in his house. He had already gotten a reading from another booth at the fair, but felt like he needed more advice on how to deal with the situation. I told him he should go see a doctor and maybe think about taking sleep aids. It was clear he was looking for something specific from me, and I simply could not give it to him. The fact that he was coming to me...not a doctor or sleep specialist or a psychiatrist...for help with this problem made me sick to my stomach. I do not want to encourage that in any way. Putting myself in a position where I can be used as a surrogate by someone who genuinely needs help is not acceptable. From now on, I will only give readings to people I know, who I can trust to act responsibly.
Just a few years ago the tarot was a much bigger part of my life. I don't think that I would have been able to be this objective about it then. Now, aside from the Medieval Fair, it's mostly something I pull out for fun at parties. It gives people an outlet and a different perspective on things, and in that sense I think it is still a useful tool. But as long as there are charlatans and gullible people who are more comfortable with the supernatural than facing their problems, it is irresponsible of me to encourage or tacitly endorse their behavior in this way.