Fake Christian health insurance and other big cons

If you have to trick people into hearing your message, you are in a cult.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readJun 7, 2022


A theatrical stage with a red-curtained proscenium. On the stage is a set of theatrical flats painted to resemble a row of shops. The shops bear three neon signs: ‘Health Insurance,’ ‘University,’ ‘Abortion Clinic.’ Hanging from the ceiling on ropes of gold is a glittering cross. Image: Mary S. Farrell (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Masonic_Theatre_and_Stage.jpg CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

The 1973 con-man movie “The Sting,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford is justifiably beloved (seriously, it’s a great movie) but few people know that it was based on an academic nonfiction book: The Big Con, published in 1940 by the linguist David Maurer:


Maurer was fascinated by the argot of the con men who had plied the American railroads and streets for decades, pulling off breathtaking hauls with elaborate schemes. He set out to write a glossary of con jargon, and found that in order to explain the meaning of con artists’ jargon, he had to write full-blown ethnographies of the con.

Much of the book describes “big store” cons, where a sucker is presented with a seemingly legitimate business — a bank, an off-track betting parlor, a telegraph agency — that is, in fact, a set, filled with dozens of bustling actors, each playing a role in an elaborate play.

The big store never went away. Indeed, it became a staple of cults. When I was a kid, I used to walk down Yonge Street in Toronto and pass the Church of Scientology, with its sidewalk sandwich boards promoting its “free personality tests.” One day when I was about 13, a friend and I decided we’d get “tested.”

The test was bullshit, of course. For all the soaring promises the Scientologists who roped us and sat us down made about the scientific basis for the test, it was obvious — even to me at 13 — that it was nonsense. After I filled in the multiple-choice form, the Scientologists took the test away and “analyzed” it and came back with a sceincy-seeming graph showing my results.

The horizontal axis was labeled with things like “happiness” and “self-confidence,” while the vertical axis was marked with a percentile scale going from -100% to +100% (I may be misremembering this part, it’s been a while). A jagged line traversed the long axis, crossing the “happiness” and other markers.

“You see,” my Scientology recruiter said, “you are only 40% happy. If you take this very expensive course…



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr