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Gimme that new-time religion!

by Donald Prothero, Apr 16 2014

A review of

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

by Dr. Karen Stollznow

Pitchstone Publishing, Durham, North Carolina
2013, 256 pp.

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.
—Mark Twain

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 the mythologies and core beliefs that 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 lively book, 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 little 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 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, and focuses 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, their surroundings, and their 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 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 Pentecostalists, and their weird practice of snake handling (often 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 all its celebrity endorsements from Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and the like. She also takes a whack and the weird ideas of New-Age Spirituality, full of terms of “woo” and misuse of quantum physics by their chief practitioners, such as Shirley MacLaine and Deepak Chopra. Finally, in a sharp contrast to all the previous dogmas, she examines the Quakers, 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. I found no typos or mechanical errors, and only one error of fact: 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 the Old World, 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, in a 250-page book, not every fringe belief 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 the follow-up book, so we have something to look forward to.

Except for these minor quibbles, God Bless America is an excellent, lively, well-researched, and fun book to read, 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.

13 Responses to “Gimme that new-time religion!”

  1. Mary Hannah says:

    Religions are MAN MADE. Period.

  2. Jerrold Alpern says:

    The Mormons are a particularly unfortunate and peculiar omission. Everything based on some “plates of gold” discovered by one man, unseen by anyone else, that vanished almost immediately thereafter? And this is the basis for a “mainstream”, “major” religion?

    If no rational, evidence-based proof is demanded, then anything can be a “religion”. And every religion is a meaningless conglomeration of unprovable fairy tales. The adherents of any particular religion may feel comforted by their fantasies but no one else need take them seriously. Until, of course, they begin using their fantasies as justification to kill and destroy unbelievers (in their faith) on a large scale. So far, no one has come up with a workable answer to this perennial, horrific problem.

    • As I pointed out at the end, Karen promises to tackle mainstream Mormonism in the next book. This book focused on the smaller, more extreme cults and bizarre beliefs, such as the polygamous LDS groups.

    • Phea says:

      LDS folks get quite creative when tap dancing around various, “embarrassments”, found in The Book of Mormon, (such is the art of being a skilled apologist for any religion).

      The Scientology folks seem to use a different strategy, their more extreme beliefs are “top secret”, reserved for only the select few who have reached a level, (paid enough hard cash), which qualifies them as ready to receive the secret, sacred knowledge.

      It is no surprise that people, and even entire cultures believe strange and/or absurd dogma when looking at mankind’s track record. Human sacrifice? Yes, if you want the crops to grow. Flagellation? Makes perfect sense if you’re serious about avoiding the plague, and/or believe our primary job here is to suffer. Circumcision, both male and female… makes perfect sense, I guess.

      Witch burning, the Inquisition, stoning, staring at the sun, years of total silence, celibacy, exorcism, genocide, just to name a few, have all been done, and believed to be totally sane, logical, and reasonable acts of faith and worship for one deity or another.

      I understand self-delusion. We all find it difficult to face certain facts about ourselves or others we have an investment in, and often find it makes a lot more sense to just see and hear what we want to. I also understand parents instilling, (let’s go ahead and call it, installing), their particular version of truth into their offspring.

      What remains a mystery is how so many intelligent, educated, reasonable adults can accept the irrational delusions of other people, sometimes strangers, as TRUTH, so readily, completely, and frequently. Is it a pathological need, a type of hidden and not obvious mental illness, sheer desperation from frightened, lonely people, or am I next? Will I naturally be blinded and possessed by some future “truth”. Will the right one come along that fits my wants, needs, and values so well it becomes my new “reason for living, reality”?

  3. Leonhard says:

    Does it mention Catholicism?

  4. Patrick says:

    I read the book and it does tackle Mormonism as a comparison to Fundamentalist Mormonism, and it tackles Catholicism in the chapters about Charismatics and Demonic Possession and Exorcism. It’s a fascinating and funny book that I highly recommend!

  5. Baxter says:

    I guess I don’t understand why people are complaining about their own pet religions not being in a book about minority religions. Catholics, Mormons, and Wiccans are far more widespread with a ton of literature already written on them. This book was designed to dig into the underbelly of less heard of religions. Learning about these smaller ones reveals a whole new perspective on why some people stay and some people leave religion in general. This book had me furious, sad, laughing, and scratching my head. Pick it up and see for yourself.
    Thanks Don, for such a great write up!

  6. Vincent says:

    What I find puzzling is why the US continues to allow use of public religious manifestations such as printing “In God we trust” on bank notes or asking the President to swear on a Bible.

    But then, representatives come from within society, so it makes sense they should hold the same beliefs as most of their supporters.

  7. Ed Graham says:

    “If no rational, evidence-based proof is demanded, then anything can be a “religion.”

    Correct – – I have seen no evidence-based proof to support ANY religion. Look forward to reading the book.

  8. John Nab says:

    To paraphrase Huxley…Science (rational thinking) is proof without certainty. Religion is certainty without proof.
    Give me that New Time Religion!

  9. Ed Graham says:

    Just watched an old A&E program on Netflix. “Jesus Camp”

    The lies these delusional people drill into the little children are child abuse. If you haven’t seen it, and want to ruin your day – – check it out. Then tell me how you feel about that old time religion.

  10. Joel Shearer says:

    Actually, a number of our pit vipers have a combination of hemotoxins and neurotoxins. Most notable is the Mojave rattlesnake, which has some of the most potent snake venom in the U.S., mostly because of the neurotoxic component.