Those of us who have read extensively in the field of comparative religion are pretty familiar with many of the bizarre beliefs and practices of religions and cultures all over the world. But most Americans are alarmingly insular and unaware of other cultures and religions, especially if they’ve been raised in a small rural town and taught to think only one way by their church. Even in the relatively liberal Presbyterian church where I was raised, serious discussions of other religions were taboo. It was not until high school church groups that I heard about other “cult” religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Scientologists, and that exposure was simply to mock and condemn their belief systems, without any close examination of the absurdities we were expected to believe. Most Americans continue to grow up without thinking very deeply about other religions (other than mocking them on a superficial basis), and never question the assumptions of their own faith.
Seth Andrews came from such a background. Raised in a strict fundamentalist church and sheltered from exposure to any ideas about religion or science that might shake his faith, he went through life without questioning any of it until he was an adult. As he recounts in his previous autobiographical book Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason (which I reviewed), Andrews was making a living as a DJ on a Christian rock station, still deeply in the faith and insulated from doubt, until a series of events (deaths of beloved Christian rock musicians, 9/11, and switching to a secular radio station) opened his eyes and changed his perspective. Now he runs the very successful Thinking Atheist podcast and produces a number of outstanding videos for YouTube. Thus, Andrews comes to the study of comparative religions and cultures as a layman, rather than a scholar, with a background much like the rest of the fundamentalists in this country who are so vocal about pushing creationism in our schools and affecting our political process.
But it doesn’t require a scholarly background to see how bizarre and often dangerous or destructive many religious beliefs can be. Taking a gently incredulous tone, Andrews reviews a long litany of the strange things people believe and do. In most cases, he tries to be sympathetic and understanding. He always tries to keep things in perspective and remind his readers that he once accepted beliefs that seem odd to him now. But in other cases, it’s impossible not to adopt a note of sarcasm and mockery at beliefs that are clearly bonkers. Who among us is willing to defend the snake-handling cults, who routinely get bitten and die from their belief that faith will stop snake bites and their deadly consequences? Similarly, it’s hard to talk about many other belief systems and keep a straight face, from the weird contortions that Orthodox Jews go through to prevent themselves from doing anything on the Sabbath; the cargo cults that are still waiting for Americans who left after World War II to return to their South Pacific islands and bring their bounty of goods; the Hindus and their actual sacred cows; the weird world of Mormons and their magic underwear; Scientologists and their science fiction founder; Satanic cults and phallic religions; and of course, there’s the Catholic Church. Andrews also dissects many other non-religious belief systems, from fortune tellers and psychics to astrologers and tarot card readers, and even telemarketers, all of whom exploit weaknesses in the human psychological makeup to con people and take their money. He describes some of the truly sickening and destructive practices of some religions, from animal sacrifice to the Bulgarian villages that spin dogs on ropes over a river until they fall and drown, and even cults that break coconuts over their heads, and the Philippine villagers who routinely crucify themselves year after year at Easter time.
Andrews reserves special scorn in his discussion of the people who he used to follow, especially the faith healers and ministers who fleece their flocks for millions while their followers suffer. He discusses their cheap tricks like cold reading, or in the case of Peter Popoff (who is still in business despite being exposed by James Randi) hot reading using a tiny earpiece to hear his wife prompt him with the information gathered before the service. Andrews also spends a lot of time examining the apocalyptic preachers who manage to get rich predicting the End of the World again and again; no matter how many times they are wrong, they still get plenty of believers who follow them and fork over their hard-earned money for books and videos.
Throughout the book, Andrews maintains a gently incredulous tone, lampooning the truly ridiculous without being too harsh or sarcastic—except in the extreme cases, which clearly merit it. As someone who once was in an extreme religious sect himself, Andrews knows that anyone can fall for belief systems if they are raised that way by their family and culture, and are never exposed to any other culture or belief system. But clearly he feels that being culturally bound to certain traditions doesn’t excuse such extreme and destructive things such as self-crucifixion or snake handling. It’s one thing to try to understand and think about a cultural belief in its own context, and maybe have sympathy for people who don’t know any better. But like many of us, Andrews doesn’t think we should respect or treat with reverence those belief systems that lead to bad consequences, from selling false notions to actual torture and death.
Even though the book was done by a small independent publisher, it is free of any typos or errors. All throughout it is enlivened by the hilarious cartoons of Vincent Deporter, which add to the humor. In short, if you want a quick, fun read about the weird things people believe, and delivered without too much scholarly pretension or false attempts to maintain respect of other destructive beliefs and cultures, this book is a worthwhile investment.
About the Author
Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 37 years, at Caltech, Columbia, Cal Poly Pomona, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He is the author of over 37 books (including 7 leading geology textbooks, and several trade books), and over 300 scientific papers. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, the Paleontological Society, and the Geological Society of America, and also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation. In 1991, he received the Charles Schuchert Award for outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. In 2013, he received the James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing the geosciences. In 2015, he received the Joseph T. Gregory award for service to vertebrate paleontology. He has been featured on numerous TV documentaries, including Paleoworld, Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, Prehistoric Monsters Revealed, Monsterquest, Prehistoric Predators: Entelodon and Hyaenodon, Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism, as well as Jeopardy! and Win Ben Stein’s Money.