God Bless America, by Karen Stollznow

god-bless-america

Karen Stollznow is an Australian who immigrated to the U.S. as an adult. She has an academic background and writes about culture and such, especially fringe elements.

God Bless America is her account of various non-mainstream religious practices in America. Many are comical, some are scary and evil, and a few are arguably admirable. Stollznow’s attitude toward them is more skeptical than not, but she is open to both their positive and negative aspects.

Her writing style tends to be of a straight recitation of facts manner. I wouldn’t say it’s as dry and dull as one could imagine a jargon-enamored anthropologist writing on this topic for an academic audience, but it has somewhat less personality and flair than I would have anticipated. Still, it does contain some good deadpan humor, such as when she remarks on God’s frequent indecisiveness in revealing to various Mormon leaders whether polygamy is obligatory, optional, or forbidden.

Fundamentalist Mormons are in fact the first of the nine types of religious folks she describes.

Mormons who practice polygamy like these fundamentalists are nowadays a very small minority of Mormons. In fact, mainstream Mormon churches don’t recognize them as Mormons at all and sometimes excommunicate them. (The fundamentalist Mormons then return the favor.)

Regular Mormons are goofy enough, but, yes, the fundamentalists are worse. They often live in very insulated communities out in the middle of nowhere in the desert, sometimes constituting all or most of the population of a small town and therefore running its government, police department, etc. Really no different from a cult operating a commune.

They are run in patriarchal fashion, with men in charge of the community and men in charge of each individual family with their multiple wives and dozens of children. In some such groups child wives are common, as is incest. The latter indeed is encouraged, as they believe in breeding within the group to maintain purity rather than mixing with outsiders or even trying to bring them into the group. The predictable result is a much higher rate of various genetic diseases than you’ll find in the general population.

They don’t seek converts, but they do want to increase their membership as rapidly as possible, so women try to give birth once a year or so throughout their fertile years, like the creepy Quiverfull Christians.

The government (beyond the local government that they run) is the enemy, and members are encouraged to exploit it. For instance, typically all but one wife in the polygamist families obtain welfare and other government benefits as unwed single mothers.

On the other hand, sometimes they pretend that they run the federal government too and so it is not the enemy. For instance, in some groups, children (home-schooled of course) are taught that the leader of their group is also the president of the United States. You’d think there would be plenty of available counterevidence to such an absurd claim, but not so much when access to things like television, the Internet, and newspapers is limited or cut off entirely, and any interaction with non-members of the group is rare or non-existent.

Women and children are kept in a state of semi-slavery, but insofar as the propaganda works they embrace their status.

The most notorious of these sects was run by dangerous kook Rulon Jeffs, who died at 92 (contrary to his prophesy that he’d live to 350), leaving the group under the control of his son, the considerably more dangerous and more kooky Warren Jeffs.

Warren Jeffs was eventually caught and thrown in prison, but during the time of his tyrannical rule he raped women and children as young as 5, ruined countless lives with his capricious edicts about who was in or out of favor, required, allowed, or forbidden to do this or that, etc. Some members were likely murdered at his command. He had one of his closest followers working on some kind of crematorium that was believed to have been intended to dispose of bodies after mass executions, and there is some evidence he was planning some sort of Jonestown-style mass suicide, but he was caught before he could carry out either of these plans.

Next up are the Amish and related groups. As Stollznow notes, they tend to be more favorably regarded than most other cults or non-mainstream religions by Americans. Many openly admire what they perceive as their simple, natural, non-materialistic lifestyles, and most people at least tolerate their quaint customs as harmless.

Indeed, overall they’re surely less evil than some of these fundamentalist Mormon outfits or some of the other groups discussed in this book. But at the same time there are plenty of disturbing things about them.

Like so many groups that feel persecuted or at least outnumbered, one way they deal with this is by isolating themselves, and especially their children, so as to minimize the influence of the outside world and create a kind of brainwashing environment.

As Stollznow describes, the Amish groups (again, I’m using “Amish” as the most common term, but Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc. are all under roughly the same umbrella) tend to see almost everything in religious terms. So how to dress, what items of technology to use or shun, what reading material to allow in the home, etc., etc. are not matters for individual choice or even matters of common practice or tradition within the group, but matters governed by explicit religious rules. And because these rules cover so much of the minutiae of life, and because it’s almost impossible to achieve total agreement on any and all of so many details, the Amish are even more apt than most religious groups to splinter and multiply out of control.

One of the less appealing aspects of the Amish seems to be a penchant for cruelty to animals, as they have been disproportionately implicated in “puppy mill” scandals.

Like the fundamentalist Mormons, though not to the same extreme degree, the Amish believe in increasing their numbers through aggressive breeding rather than seeking converts.

This too is a highly paternalistic religion (which of course all such religions defend by insisting that their rules require different but equal gender roles rather than unequal gender roles, which is always bullshit), with all the usual baggage that that carries with it, like high rates of domestic abuse.

Some of the Amish stuff I can respect, or at least I would if it were freely chosen by critical thinking adults who had come to certain negative conclusions about mainstream society. But when it’s artificially imposed on people from birth, and everything is done to prevent them from critically examining it and all the other available choices, then I have a problem with it.

But leaving that aside, there are Tolstoyan/Gandhian elements to their beliefs and lifestyle that I admire, but I still prefer Gandhi.

I don’t know if they go as far in their adherence to nonviolence as Gandhi, but they’re solid in their rejection of state violence, which extremely few moral philosophies are. That is, not only are they pacifists and thus refuse to partake in the violence of war, but they recognize that cops, prisons, law courts, etc. are also manifestations of state violence, and therefore they minimize if not avoid entirely cooperating with these.

When you are wronged and you go to the law about it—whether the criminal justice system, or the civil law, the edicts of which ultimately are also enforced by state violence—then you are striking back with violence the same as if you did so with your own hands.

The thing about Gandhi, though, is he was at least as opposed to cowardice and helplessness as he was to violence.

Think of it this way: Broadly speaking, he saw three possible responses to evil and violence. First (ranking them in order from best to worst) is to actively use whatever methods of love and nonviolence you can to oppose the evil, even being willing to be martyred in the effort. Second is to oppose the evil with violence. Third is to not oppose the evil, to be largely or entirely passive in the face of it.

I suspect he would say the Amish attitude too often falls into the third category.

Certainly Gandhi would agree with the bulk of Amish practices when it comes to living a simple, non-materialistic life, declining to use many modern inventions, avoiding the passions and pleasures of alcohol, sex, etc. But for Gandhi the point of avoiding temptations and keeping your focus away from these superficial, addictive things is to free up your attention, time, and resources to enable you to more effectively live a life of service. Avoiding them is not an end in itself; if you avoid them by shunning interaction with others as much as possible—like the ascetic who goes off into the wilderness to live a life of privation in isolation—that kind of misses the point.

Plus I’m confident he would see the Amish as way too caught up in the minutiae of their rules. Avoiding ostentation in the way you dress and such is great, but having to memorize and abide by—and enforce on others—the most detailed rules of what order you button the buttons on your shirt and such is counterproductive in freeing you to focus on love and service to others.

Perhaps as important as any difference is that Gandhi incessantly preached the virtues of critical thinking, of not following any leader or book, of questioning and thinking things through for yourself, of seeing the moral life as a series of experiments that can move you closer and closer to the truth, and so on. He often sounded like nothing so much as the ideal scientist. Whereas the Amish have very rigid, concrete rules, not up for debate, typically justified by no more than a random Bible quote.

Next up Stollznow discusses some of the more extreme fundamentalist Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.

These are the folks who speak in “tongues,” play with poisonous snakes, dance around in ecstasy, etc. The most sympathetic explanation of their behavior is that they purposely put themselves in group environments where mass hysteria of an exhilarating nature is most likely to occur, and then give it an erroneous supernatural explanation when it does. And I’m sure that’s true of the vast majority of the rank and file of such sects.

But it’s striking how much of it is an out-and-out scam. Much of this section consists of example after example of televangelists and other hucksters conning people out of their money, exploiting their uncritical faith. Fortune telling, faith healing, etc.—blatantly phony of course—routinely turn out to be crass moneymaking schemes. (See James Randi’s memorable takedown of Peter Popoff, for instance.)

Next up is voodoo, which is sort of a religion (in the extended sense that, say, New Age spirituality counts as a religion). It’s a mishmash of various different belief systems and traditions. I mean, all religions are to some extent—it’s not like a religion develops in a vacuum completely uninfluenced by anything that came before or anything going on contemporaneously, and then never changes—but it’s much more the case with voodoo than with most.

It originated in the Caribbean as mostly a mix of African tribal beliefs and Catholicism, but it has incorporated various other elements since then. The hoodoo version, for instance, has a lot of Jewish stuff in it.

It is estimated that there are about a million voodoo adherents in the United States, and 30-100 million in the world, which is quite a bit higher than I would have guessed. On the other hand, that includes all the people who call themselves Catholic or some other variety of Christian but also have at least some voodoo beliefs or engage in at least some voodoo practices, as well as, say, a teenager who finds a voodoo site through Google and follows the instructions for a spell or two, so maybe it’s not so surprisingly high after all.

Mostly voodoo is a system of magic, more like witchcraft than like the typical religion. It has various spells and rituals that cause good things to happen to you and the people you favor or bad things to happen to your enemies.

What stands out to me is that if people really were able to do what the folks who practice voodoo say they’re able to do, wouldn’t they be, like, way ahead of everyone else in life? I mean, there are spells that make the person you want to be with fall in love with you, cause you to win at gambling or otherwise bring riches to yourself, cure any ailments that might afflict you, eliminate your enemies from your life, and so on. Yet somehow the world isn’t full of fabulously wealthy voodoo adherents who never get sick living happily ever after with the love of their life. Casinos aren’t going bankrupt because people who cast the right spell before entering them are consistently winning big.

Some religions—and other psychic or supernatural services—have ways of sidestepping this evidence. They say, for instance, that the powers are not effective for selfish purposes like getting rich, or that the boosts they give you in life tend to be subtle, unidentifiable things rather than that you will win the lottery this week or that Jane Doe that you have a crush on will now suddenly find you sexually irresistible and go to bed with you. Or they may have a concept of prayer that isn’t about getting stuff and changing the future at all, but more just declaring your acceptance that God’s in charge. Not, “God, make this, this, and this happen instead of what otherwise would have happened,” but, “God, I realize that whatever happens will be according to Your will and in the end will be for the best.”

But voodoo apparently isn’t like that. You’re supposed to be able to bring about specific desired outcomes by putting the right brand of whiskey in the right graveyard accompanied by the right ritual, or by slitting a chicken’s throat while uttering the right magic words.

Stollznow seeks to find out whether voodoo folks believe in voodoo dolls and/or zombies. Since voodoo is not an organized religion with some recognized hierarchy and set of rules, but is really just an umbrella term for a loosely connected bunch of beliefs and practices that vary greatly from place to place and individual to individual, the answer to any question like this is pretty much always going to be “Some do; some don’t.”

Voodoo tends to be pretty big into sympathetic magic—where you use objects that are taken from, that resemble, or that are symbolically associated with who or what you are trying to influence—and sometimes dolls are what’s used, though typically not of the cloth, pincushion variety used in old Hollywood voodoo movies.

The belief that (evil) voodoo practitioners are able to turn people into zombies is probably even more widely held amongst voodoo adherents than a belief in voodoo dolls specifically, though of course with no more justification. There have been speculative efforts to figure out some non-supernatural way that something vaguely like zombies could be real so as to save such voodoo beliefs from dismissal as complete nonsense, but none are plausible.

Typically the suggestion is that the bad guy drugs a person so as to temporarily slow their bodily functions down so much that they are mistaken for dead and are buried, and then he digs them up and lets them regain just enough of their functionality to work as slaves for him but not enough to think for themselves or rebel or escape. But unfortunately (well, unfortunately for the theory, but fortunately for potential zombies), even if you could somehow put someone into some kind of deep coma like that that is indistinguishable from death, and could somehow later rejuvenate them out of it, there’s no way that what you end up with would be hard working slaves trapped in some permanent trance state who unquestioningly obey you.

As in the chapter on the Pentecostals and Charismatics, Stollznow relates many anecdotes of (people who claim to be) voodoo practitioners bilking gullible and mentally deficient people out of their life savings and engaging in blatantly dishonest practices in general, but my impression is that the percentage who are insincere crooks like that is probably considerably less than the percentage of, say, televangelists who are. I’d guess it’s probably closer to the percentage of blatantly crooked New Age practitioners. Yeah, there will always be people willing and eager to pounce on weak-minded people of faith and separate them from their money, but probably the vast majority of even commercial voodoo folks—or New Agers, or alternative medicine people—genuinely believe in the magic they’re selling.

Next up is a discussion of not so much a specific religion as a type of practice that exists in one form or another in various different religions: Exorcism. Stollznow mostly talks about the practice in Catholicism, but then addresses some other versions, most notably that practiced by con man televangelist Bob Larson.

I remember reading back in the ’70s, at the time the movie The Exorcist was being much talked about, that exorcism was a Catholic practice that the Church was embarrassed about and avoided talking about, and that while it hadn’t formally eliminated it or forbidden it, it had reduced it to extreme rarity. So I was surprised to find out from this book that there are hundreds of officially recognized Catholic exorcists in the U.S., and that around the world there are priests who claim to do hundreds of exorcisms a day, and one who claims to have done over 70,000 in his life.

When you then add in all the Christian fundamentalist and New Age exorcisms, and especially all the exorcisms performed in Africa—one of the few places in the world that rivals the U.S. in terms of its religious primitiveness—evidently exorcism is not a rare practice at all.

Like most such goofy practices based on beliefs of no justification, exorcism has its share of good and bad consequences, such as placebo-based improvements in the emotional states of the “possessed” people, or the serious injuries and sometimes deaths suffered by them—often children—when frenzied parents or mobs attempt to beat the demons out of them.

I will say that while Larson is surely an exceedingly odious fellow, it did pique my interest to read that he trained his young daughter and two of her friends as “The Teenage Exorcists” to verbally abuse and beat afflicted people to rid them of their demons. As I expected and hoped, a quick Google image search revealed that they are indeed hot. Ever since, I have been feeling strangely possessed and in desperate need of a session with them.

According to the Satanism chapter, almost no Satanists believe in and worship a literal version of the Satan of Christian mythology. A few fringe folks who call themselves Satanists do, but the actual organized Satanism religion (insofar as there even is one) is more like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—a half-serious, half-joking mockery of organized religion, especially Christianity, by atheists and agnostics. They sound more like Nietzscheans than anything—people who criticize Christians for their hypocrisy, their sexual prudery, their glorification of weakness and submission, etc.

Though a lot of it sounds tongue-in-cheek, some adherents do indeed gather together for bizarre rituals. They don’t kill and drink the blood of infants or anything like that, but they routinely do things like tie a naked or scantily clad (willing) female spread-eagled to an “altar,” dance around in costumes uttering ominous chants, and so on, with the proceedings generally culminating in some sort of orgy.

The chapter includes a brief discussion of the Satanic child molestation panic and related “recovered” memories phenomenon, correctly treating it all as utterly ridiculous, pernicious nonsense that damaged or destroyed many lives.

I did find one claim in the chapter to be dubious however. Stollznow states that “Fortunately, in most contemporary Western societies, Satan is rarely considered real, but is instead a metaphor for wickedness in the world.” I suppose the inclusion of the word “most” saves the claim, but I don’t think it would be true at all for the United States. Based on the anecdotal evidence of the religious folks I’ve known in my life, and more importantly the polls I’ve seen, a belief in a literal Satan is extremely common. I would say nearly as many Americans think Satan is a real being rather than some sort of metaphor or symbol as think God or Jesus is.

Having recently read and written about two book-length exposures of the dangerous idiocy that is Scientology, there wasn’t much if anything that was new to me in Stollznow’s discussion of the cult. But I think she provides a solid introduction to it for those who have not yet read much about it. These are genuinely creepy folks, and the whole enterprise is primarily a crude scam to further increase the wealth and power of the cult leaders.

Next up is a chapter on New Age spirituality, not a religion per se, but more a set of very loosely connected beliefs and practices, some of which are religious or pseudo-religious.

Most of this New Age stuff is quite silly, but what I found myself reflecting on most while reading about it is how common it is for people to choose their beliefs with little or no consideration for their truth.

I think religion is one of the areas of life where you see this the most, but what strikes me about this New Age spirituality material is that this phenomenon is taken to a greater—or at least more self-conscious—extreme.

That is, almost all religious people cherry pick whatever aspects of their particular religious tradition they find most appealing and ignore or deny the rest. Think about it. People who desperately need the comfort of a big brother figure looking out for them and guaranteeing things will work out for the best for them—in the next life if not in this one—rarely if ever are going to put some kind of deist spin on their religion and convince themselves that insofar as there is anything vaguely godlike at all it’s just some kind of impersonal force that put the universe in motion initially and doesn’t care a whit about them or anyone or anything else. No, they’re going to believe in a very personal God who loves and cares about them as individuals.

People who find a warrior code of ethics most persuasive—or at least most emotionally satisfying—are highly unlikely to think the key to Christian ethics is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and to try to force themselves out of a sense of duty to live in a pacifist manner utterly at odds with their character and beliefs.

How often do you come across people who are perfectly at ease with homosexuals and homosexuality, and yet believe they are morally obligated to take an extreme anti-homosexual position because their reading of the Koran or Bible compels it?

No, typically people mold their religious beliefs and attitudes to fit who they are, what they believe, and what they value. But the thing is, for most conventional religions most of the time, you kind of have to pretend you’re not doing that. You have to believe that you’re putting the spin you are on your religion because that’s the correct and only correct interpretation of it.

If it’s most personally satisfying to you to believe that the only people who go to Heaven are those who, like you, have accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, then almost certainly you won’t think someone who believes the opposite is somehow just as accurate in their beliefs (whatever that even means). I’m not saying you will necessarily be a fanatic who thinks anyone who disagrees with you must be forced to change their mind for their own good—though certainly some believers are that fanatic—but you will likely regard those who have not come to the same conclusion as you as at the very least being mistaken on this important point.

Whereas I think these New Age folks tend to be more openly relativistic. They select whatever (mostly nonsense) they choose from the smorgasbord of possible spiritual beliefs, and are perfectly content with other people making other, contradictory, choices.

As Stollznow says, “New Age Spirituality is a…personalized theology, and people pick and choose to believe whatever makes them happy…With no fixed theology, people can afford to go spirituality shopping for beliefs that suit their individual wants and needs.” As I say, I think there’s a large element of this in religion in general, but rarely is it as explicitly acknowledged and even embraced as in New Age spirituality.

In keeping with a common theme in the book, there are plenty of people preying on the weak-minded New Agers for pecuniary gain. Despicable hucksters from Sylvia Browne on down have discovered that there’s much money to be made from astrology, the quackery of alternative medicine, hawking crystals on the Internet and all the rest. Though as I noted earlier I’m sure there are also plenty of sellers of such stuff who are as sincerely deluded as their buyers.

The final chapter of God Bless America is about Quakers. They are one of the least “weird” of any of the groups in the book, and almost surely the one I find least objectionable on the whole, though then again it’s hard to say because Quakers are quite an amorphous, ill-defined group ranging from folks who are basically mainline Protestants to folks who are Unitarian-like in how close they are to agnosticism or even atheism.

I’m sure there are many I would like just fine (pacifists and social justice activists with little in the way of conventional religious beliefs) and many I wouldn’t (conventional religious believers who do not think Richard Nixon ever did anything to exclude himself from the list of Quakers in good standing).

I didn’t realize how radical the early Quakers were in their egalitarianism, and what oppression that brought down upon them. Much of it has been watered down since then obviously, but it sounds like there are still some strains of the religion that are willing to sacrifice and take risks to promote brotherhood and peace and work for a better world. Not to mention there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much in the way of crooked moneymaking opportunities with Quakerism as with some of the other movements discussed in this book.

It’s kind of nice to end on a more positive note after mostly a lot of evidence of just how stupid, gullible, and corrupt people are, especially where religion is involved.

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