About this week’s eSkeptic
In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald Prothero reviews Karen Stollznow’s book, God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013, ISBN: 978-1939578006).
Dr. Donald R. Prothero was Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 32 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Check out Donald Prothero’s page at Shop Skeptic.
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Gimme That New-Time Religion!
by Donald Prothero
Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.
When I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, we were given a slim little paperback book about the various religious cults and what they believed. We had all heard about the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and Christian Science, but as naïve high school kids, we knew nothing about them. It was truly an eye-opener to read all about their strange beliefs, as the book preached why they were wrong and why the Presbyterians were right. At no point did the book turn the mirror on itself, and examine the weird ideas espoused by the Presbyterians and other mainstream Christians.
Then, when I began to study comparative religions in college, I encountered a totally different perspective: the detailed (and often dry) scholarly dissection of world religions. These books were often massive, and included huge detailed sections on their mythologies and core beliefs which soon became overwhelming. It was eye-opening to see what other religions reveal about the religion you grew up with, but it was also a lot of hard work.
Between these two approaches is Karen Stollznow’s slim but lively little paperback, God Bless America. It strikes the perfect tone between these extremes. It takes an outsider’s view of American religions, as do most religious scholars, without hundreds of pages of tedious details to read through. Yet it also critiques these religions, and comments on the more absurd parts of their theology and belief systems, something that my Sunday School book also did— but without the commitment to Presbyterianism. It is written in a wry, lively style, often poking gentle fun at the sublime silliness of some beliefs (and the fact that their practitioners see no irony or absurdity in their beliefs). The tone is humorous but very tongue in cheek, letting the irony and bizarre aspects of the belief system speak for themselves.
Each short chapter begins with a little “hook” about some strange aspect of the belief system. Stollznow then gives a very brief but well-organized introduction to the history and essential worldview of each belief system. She closely examines how the religious ideas were first established and how they have changed, focusing on those aspects that are of greatest interest to American society. In the final part of most chapters, she practices a bit of “embedded journalism,” attending services or meetings of each group (if they let her), giving her vivid impressions of the believers’ behavior, surroundings, and approach to outsiders.
And the range of religious ideas is impressive! First, she covers the bizarre and illegal practices of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, the extreme Mormons who openly practice polygamy, but use it as an excuse for the disgusting old men who run their cult to acquire lots of underage brides. As Stollznow reports from the recent stories about the FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs, this religion has essentially become an official excuse for child molestation. From there, she covers the many splinters of the Anabaptist revolt, especially the Amish and Mennonites, and show how they negotiate the delicate balance between their traditional ways and the modern world. She devotes a full chapter to the Pentecostals, and their weird practice of snake handling (sometimes fatal to the believers) and “speaking in tongues.” (As a professional linguist, Stollznow is better trained than most to recognize that they are speaking gibberish, not “unknown foreign languages.”) There are three chapters on voodoo, demonic possession and exorcisms, and the prank by Anton La Vey called “Satanism” (not really a religion, but more of a performance art piece to mock Christianity).
Then she tackles one of the scariest of cults: Scientology. Thanks to many recent revelations from apostate individuals, and due to the Internet spreading their secrets, Stollznow can now document what a bizarre, nasty, paranoid, litigious, dangerous predatory organization that Scientology has become, despite its celebrity endorsements from Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and the like. She also takes a whack at the weird claims of New- Age Spirituality with its pseudoscientific jargon and misuse of quantum physics that has practitioners as diverse as Shirley MacLaine and Deepak Chopra. Finally she examines the Quakers—a sharp contrast to all the previous dogmas, with their simple beliefs and emphasis on personal relationships to God and peaceful living.
Even though the book is very brief, her research is excellent and well referenced, and I have only one very minor correction: in the section on snake handlers (p. 83), she says that the snakes kill their victims with neurotoxins. This is true of the snakes in her native Australia, and in most of Africa and Eurasia, but most of the venomous snakes of the New World (primarily rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths in this case) are pit vipers (family Crotalidae), which use hemotoxin to poison the blood, not neurotoxins.
Naturally, for such a slim book, not every fringe belief system can be mentioned. Notably absent were the Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh- Day Adventists, the Wiccans, and even the mainstream Mormons. Each of them has suitably bizarre religious notions. The author tells me that she had word limits, and that these larger cults are the subject of a follow-up book, so we have something to look forward to.
God Bless America is a lively, well-researched and fun book which will surprise and amaze (and maybe disgust) the reader on every page. If you want a quick introduction to some of America’s most bizarre belief systems, this is the book to get.