An Abundance of Amusing Apocalypticism

I don't know if it's the warm weather here in New York that's bringing out the crazies, but these past two weeks, I've encountered more than the usual number of street preachers handing out loony religious literature. Because I know you wicked, godless atheists need to hear the word of the Lord, I thought I'd share some of the best examples with you.

This first one is my favorite. Last week, I was out on my lunch break when I saw a teenager standing on the street corner handing out fliers. He looked like an average high-schooler - baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, and a perpetual surly scowl - but when I took one of his pamphlets and glanced at the first page, I realized he was far more of a fanatic than I'd guessed:

You may remember that I wrote about Tony Alamo and his bizarre, greedy cult in 2009. When we last checked in with Mr. Alamo, he had just been sentenced to 175 years in prison for taking underage girls across state lines for sex. But apparently, being incarcerated hasn't dampened his high spirits. His ministry is still spewing its ultra-right-wing, frankly racist screeds, mixed in with a generous helping of loony Jack Chick-esque conspiracy theories (read the last column carefully and you'll notice it claims that the Vatican is behind Muslim suicide bombers).

But as you might expect of a man in Alamo's position, it's his current living arrangements that concern him the most. That's why the majority of this pamphlet - eight single-spaced pages - is a rant about how Mr. Alamo is a holy, selfless man whose only thought is of serving the poor, how he's been viciously persecuted by the government for no good reason, and how all his accusers are hateful, wicked people on a vendetta against him. Because, of course, Christians are such an oppressed and powerless minority in the U.S.A. The irony of titling his newsletter "The Alamo Christian Nation" while simultaneously claiming that the government unjustly persecutes Christians clearly hasn't occurred to him. (The awkward subject of Alamo's teaching that God approves of polygamous marriage to preteen girls, which is what he's actually in jail for, is politely ignored.)

Do you need more proof of Tony Alamo's pure and noble spirit? Just look at how the last page of the pamphlet describes him:

So, when I was handed this flier by Alamo's surly teenage follower, I couldn't help myself; I burst into laughter. "Isn't this guy in jail?" I said.

I'm guessing this was a sore point for him. "Yeah, on false charges!" he snapped.

Still laughing, I walked away. "Look into it!" he shouted after me. "I will," I called back jauntily.

And there's your update on Tony Alamo. My next encounter was even more amusing.

I was passing through Penn Station when I saw a stout black gentleman wearing glasses and headphones, leaning against a pillar with two handfuls of pamphlets which he was offering to every passerby. I took one, and noticed that the first page was familiar - it was a pamphlet I'd already gotten and written about once before - but there were others tucked inside of it which were new to me, though they all concerned the same general theme:

This is the handiwork of Family Radio, a network of Christian radio stations run by the evangelist Harold Camping, who's slowly been getting crazier over the decades and who's best known for his certainty that the Rapture will come in May 2011 (after his previous certainty that it would come in 1994). In case you're curious how he arrived at that conclusion, I've scanned one page of the interior. I recommend not operating heavy machinery after reading this brilliant work of exegesis.

The mindset of people who believe this sort of thing genuinely intrigues me, so I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow.

"May 2011," I observed. "That's soon."

"Uh-huh," he said noncommittally, clearly not sure whether I was making fun of him.

"What happens on that day?" I asked.

"The universe will cease to exist," he explained. He said it as calmly as if it was a weather forecast. (I have to admit, I was hoping for something a little more dramatic: boiling oceans, gouts of fire, that sort of thing.)

"What happens if that date comes and you're still here?" I persisted.

"I'll be in big trouble," he said calmly.

I wanted to correspond with him, if for no other reason than to see his reaction on May 22 (and maybe to give him some gentle guidance toward atheism, if he was reconsidering his faith at that point). I asked him for his e-mail address, but he claimed he didn't have one. "This is just the way I live now," he said. I don't know whether that meant he's divested himself of worldly possessions like computers to prepare for the Rapture, or if he just spends 24 hours a day handing out literature in the subways and so doesn't have time for e-mail.

I'm still looking for a devotee of Camping who's willing to speak with me. I think it'd make for an interesting conversation. If I can find one who's willing to go on the record, I'll be sure to let you all know!

July 6, 2010, 5:37 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink12 comments
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No Payment For Prayer: Christian Science and Health Care Reform

With the historic passage of sweeping health insurance reform, Americans have reason to rejoice this week. For the first time, and despite hysterical opposition from the party of conspiracy nuts and theocrats, our government has enshrined in law the idea that every citizen has a right to affordable health care. Even if the law is far from perfect, it's still a huge advance over the alternative of doing nothing - and history shows that most major pieces of progressive social legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, started out flawed and were improved over time. With this bill now signed into law, we have a foundation to build on.

Atheists and freethinkers have another reason to celebrate (in addition to the removal of the noxious, theocratic Stupak language on abortion). Namely, one of the worst provisions of the bill - a clause mandating that health insurance companies pay for prayer - was removed in committee and didn't make it into the final legislation. This clause was originally inserted at the urging of the Christian Science church, the cult which shuns all modern medicine in favor of faith healing delusions and would rather see children suffer agonizingly and die slowly than take them to a doctor.

Or at least, that used to be the party line. In the last few decades, Christian Scientists' numbers have been in steady decline, and there are signs that the church may be giving ground on its absolute stance, as the New York Times reports:

Though officials do not provide membership statistics, scholars estimate that the church's numbers have dropped to under 100,000 from a peak of about twice that at the turn of the 20th century.... In New York City, falling membership forced the Christian Science church on Park Avenue to lease its building part time to a catering service in 2006. Another Manhattan church remains open; a third closed in 2005.

It'd be easy to snark that the reason Christian Scientists' numbers are dwindling is that so many of them tend to die. But I don't think it's sheer attrition that's the cause. In the past few years, there have been more and more cases of parents prosecuted for letting their children die of completely treatable illnesses. I think it's the onslaught of bad publicity and the church's public intransigence that have been turning people off - not to mention the fact that, as scientific medicine gets better and better and its benefits become more and more apparent, there are increasingly few people willing to give it up.

Like most churches in decline, Christian Scientists have turned to the state to prop them up. The healthcare reform bill was a perfect example, where church lobbyists pleaded with the government to force insurers to pay them for praying. Christian Science practitioners charge $25 to $50 per session, but since their "treatment" of the sick consists of nothing more than babbling superstitious gibberish, anything other than zero is far too high a price to pay. And if every sect or cult under the sun could demand payment in exchange for carrying out their own magic rituals, where would it end? Why should the rest of us have to subsidize, through higher insurance premiums, the religious nonsense of modern-day witch doctors?

The American Academy of Pediatrics deserves commendation for their strong stand against treating prayer as the equivalent of medicine:

"Given the complete lack of scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer in treating any illness or disorder in children," academy officials wrote Senate leaders in October, "mandating coverage for these services runs counter to the principles of evidence-based medicine."

But, as I said, there are signs that the Christian Scientists have started to relax their absolutist stance - the pronouncements of their lunatic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, notwithstanding. Though Eddy demanded that believers forsake medicine under all circumstances, some modern members are taking a more tolerant stance and starting to push prayer as an alternative, rather than a replacement, for conventional, evidence-based treatment.

The faith's guiding textbook forbids mixing medical care with Christian Science healing, which is a form of transcendental prayer intended to realign a patient's soul with God.... Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 in Boston, wrote in the church's textbook, "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures," that anyone inviting a doctor to his sickbed "invites defeat."

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church's reputation... Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.

..."In the last year, I can't tell you how many times I've been called to pray at a patient's bedside in a hospital," said Philip Davis, 59, the church's national spokesman, who has been tending to the sick for three decades as a Christian Science practitioner.

This may end up being one of the very rare cases where a religion is forced to change by the sheer weight of the evidence against it. The Christian Science church is still going through a process of smoothing out the rough edges, and as the benefits of modern medicine become increasingly obvious, their leaders may no longer be able to persuade the rest to forsake it. We may wind up with a situation like modern Roman Catholicism, where the bishops and the Pope continue to preach against contraception, but the official teaching is almost universally ignored among educated followers. And the happy fact that payment for prayer was removed from the health care law - a rare triumph of rationality in Washington - can only speed that outcome.

March 29, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments
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Jehovah Died on the Challenger

By Sarah Braasch

In Loving Memory of My Baby Brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I was working on this piece when I received news that my beloved youngest brother, Jacob, had taken his own life by hanging himself in my parents' basement.

I was ten, almost eleven when my mother told me and my brother and sister that she was pregnant again. I didn't speak to her for weeks. I was a good little Jehovah's Witness girl back then, but I'm pretty sure that the present day equivalent of my little ten-year-old interior diatribe would be something like, "You stupid bitch."

Our family was on the verge of cracking open and oozing out onto the ground like a rotten egg. "Was she trying to drive my abusive father to killing us all?" I asked myself. Our financial situation left something to be desired as well. The last thing we needed was the introduction of another stressor, another mouth to feed and another victim. I was so angry that I couldn't find the words to express my rage, so I just stopped speaking.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And, my baby brother was born. If by born you mean torn out of my mother's body as a corpse before being brought back to life by a team of doctors. I remember assembling in the school library to watch the news footage of the Challenger exploding in the sky. I remember feeling numb.

I had been so overexposed to constant violence and the constant of impending catastrophe. My Book of Bible Stories was replete with images of apocalyptic mayhem and destruction. I was in full anticipation of being torn from limb to limb by demons at any moment. And, I lived my life in constant terror of my father's fickle and vindictive temper. I didn't have anything left to give to the Challenger. My entire world was exploding in a ball of fire.

When I was told that the state had taken custody of my baby brother, I thought, "If only I could be so lucky." He had needed an immediate life-saving blood transfusion at the moment he came into this world. Of course, my parents refused. Jehovah's Witnesses view blood as sacred and blood transfusions as a mortal sin against Jehovah God. So, the hospital called a judge in the middle of the night, and my baby brother became a ward of the state.

I blamed my mother. I blamed her for everything. She didn't protect her children from abuse, so it seemed fitting that her body would try to kill my baby brother in the womb rather than try to nourish and protect him.

I decided that all of our woes were the result of the fact that my parents were terrible and sinful Jehovah's Witnesses. They were not strong in the Truth. My father's only interest in Scripture was as justification for his maltreatment of his children. He rarely attended Kingdom Hall meetings, and he never went out in service, i.e. going door-to-door, witnessing the Good News. My mother was not the Jehovah's Witness she should have been. But, I would be.

My martyr/savior complex reared its ugly head. I decided to show them up. I would be the best Jehovah's Witness ever. I would keep our house together. I would take care of my siblings. I would be such a good little Jehovah's Witness girl that Jehovah would not only protect me from demons, he would protect me from my own parents.

I enjoyed the feeling of spiritual superiority. I couldn't smite my parents, but God could and would. One day. And, I would save my siblings too. And, we would make new lives for ourselves in an earthly paradise in the new system of things after judgment day, free from our parents' abuse.

While my mother and my baby brother remained in the hospital, I became the mistress of the house. I cooked and I cleaned and I washed clothes. I made sure that my other siblings got to school in the morning. I took care of and fed all of the pets. I worked and I scrubbed and I toiled. And, I imagined that Jehovah was looking down on me from heaven, utterly enamored by my righteousness.

One day, my father said something cruel to me. He said something cruel, but of no great or particular import. He said something about the condition of his eggs. He said something about my obligation to serve him. I don't know why exactly, but, in that moment, I lost my faith. Or, I started to lose my faith. But, not just my faith in God, not just my faith in Jehovah, not just my faith in the Jehovah's Witnesses or the tenets of their religion or their governing organization, but in humanity.

I turned off the stovetop, and I slammed the iron skillet down hard. I realized in that moment that no one loved me. I realized that my father viewed me as something of a dispensable and replaceable slave, as divinely sanctioned by Jehovah. I realized that my mother viewed me as the property of her husband. I realized that I was storing up spiritual riches in an imaginary heaven for a just future that would never come.

I screamed in anguish at my father without regard to the consequences. I wasn't really upset by my father's thoughtlessness. I was heartbroken. I had lost my God. Jehovah had abandoned me.

I screamed at my father to cook his own eggs, wash his own clothes and clean his own house. I expected to be backhanded, but nothing happened. I think he was in shock at the force of my rage. I stormed off to my bedroom, threw myself on my bed and sobbed into my pillow. I had never felt so alone. No one was going to save me.

I sunk into a deep depression. My insides were turning into poisonous, black lead. My limbs felt heavy. It was difficult to move. I was less than enthused when my father announced that we were all going to visit my mother and baby brother in the hospital.

I sat in my mother's hospital room. I gazed out the window at the inky black night. I wondered if I would be able to break the glass, if I threw the full weight of my tiny form against the window. I imagined myself crashing through the window and plummeting to the sidewalk below.

I glowered at my mother. She felt the full force of my rage. The sight of her disgusted me. I wanted to hit her. At first she looked at me with incredulity, but her expression quickly morphed into disdain, then irritation and, finally, anger. I wanted to provoke her. I wanted to anger her. I wanted to impose my presence upon her consciousness. I wanted to force her to react to me, to recognize my existence, my humanity.

My father looked at me with more love in that moment than he ever had, either before or since. He looked at me as a kindred spirit, a pained and tortured soul. I understood him as no one else ever had or ever could. I understood everything he had endured during his childhood. I understood his feelings of desperate helplessness. I understood both his longing and disgust for human affection and connection and intimacy. He had made me in his image. I was his baby Frankenstein, an emotional aggregate of all of his childhood traumas and hurts. And, he loved me for it. I was his little girl with rosy cheeks engorged with the blood of impotent fury.

My mother kept harassing him and tugging at his sleeve. "Get her out of here," she said. "I can't take this. I can't stand her right now. Get her out of here. I can't even look at her."

I just kept glowering at her underneath a furrowed brow with my chin tucked into my chest. I felt nothing but the purest, most unadulterated hatred for her.

The more hatred that oozed from my pores, the more love I felt radiating from my father's form.

He responded to my mother, "She's fine. Just leave her alone. She's fine."

My mother kept clutching at my father's sleeve and nagging him to remove me. But, he refused. He was kind to her, but unrelenting. My mother shot me a look of absolute hatred. My father had betrayed her. He had taken my side. The only time he had ever done so. He had protected me from her.

I finally understood why my mother allowed my father to abuse her children. She didn't care. She didn't love us at all. And, worse than that, not only did she not love us, she saw us as a threat, as competition for our father's affections. In that moment, I think my mother would have enjoyed watching my father strangle me.

I wasn't concerned about antagonizing my mother. She had dabbled in physical abuse when we were little, but that was no longer her modus operandi. And, at the moment at least, I had my father in my hip pocket.

Our father finally suggested that we leave my mother to sleep while we visited our new baby brother in the ICU.

When I was little, I loved hospitals. I loved staying in the hospital when I had my tonsils removed. I loved being doted upon and cared for by the doctors and nurses. I loved being away from my parents. I envied Jacob.

He was bloated and his skin was a putrid shade of yellow. He looked like a little corpse, as if he had drowned and been plucked from the water a couple days later. He was encased in a tomb-like, clear plastic incubator. He was covered with tubing – in his little arms and legs, in his mouth. Every one of his breaths seemed to require a monumental effort on the part of his tiny body.

We took turns putting our gloved hands through the holes in the side of the incubator, so that we could gently stroke his little bloated body. He grabbed my finger with his little hand.

I tried to communicate with him telepathically. I tried to tell him not to fight quite so hard to live. I tried to tell him not to be in such a hurry to get out of this place. I tried to tell him that the world is cruel and loveless and might not be worth the trouble.

In my mind, I said to him, "I would trade places with you, if I could, you poor, stupid baby. You poor, stupid baby." But, I could see that he was fixed upon surviving.

And, then I decided to save him. And, I fell in love with him. I focused my attention on his little fingers clasped around my index finger, and I thought, "I will protect you. I will love you. I will take care of you. I promise. Everything is going to be ok, baby."

I had a reason to live again.

February 23, 2010, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: Chabad Messianism

You get all kinds of weird and amusing religious literature on the New York subways, and here's the latest proof:



Click to enlarge. Also see interior and back cover.

If you've attended a college with a significant Jewish population, you're probably familiar with Chabad House, an organization that runs community centers and programs for observant Jews. What you may not know is who runs these centers - or one of this group's stranger and more curious offshoots, the subject of today's post.

The Chabad Lubavitch movement was founded in the 18th century by Shneur Zalman, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, in Russia. Zalman was an adherent of Hasidism, the offshoot of Judaism that emphasizes ecstatic and mystical worship (i.e., Kabbalah), and is known for its followers' distinctive dress and use of the Yiddish language. Hasidic Jews are organized into dynastic communities each under the leadership of a single sage, a Rebbe, who's believed to enjoy God's special favor and, often, to possess miraculous powers and semi-divine insight into the workings of the world.

Including its founder, Shneur Zalman, the Chabad Lubavitch sect has had seven Rebbes. The seventh and most recent, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, took office in 1950. The Chabad Houses on college campuses and elsewhere were mainly his creation, the result of an outreach program intended to educate Americans about Hasidic Judaism and - more importantly - to urge all Jews to obey Orthodox religious law. (He also ran a secondary campaign to encourage non-Jews to obey the seven "Noahide Laws" for gentiles - probably the closest thing Judaism has ever had to explicit evangelism.)

Schneerson died in 1994 without naming a successor, and the Chabad movement has been without a Rebbe ever since. As you might have expected, this has led to fragmentation and power struggles, though the movement as a whole appears to be thriving - it has over 200,000 adherents, making it one of the single largest Hasidic groups. But it may be that the lack of clear earthly leadership has inspired some of its followers to start thinking in new directions. As you can see from my subway pamphlet, there's a small but vocal and growing faction of Lubavitchers who believe their last, deceased Rebbe was the Moshiach - i.e., the Messiah, the prophesied hero of the Bible who will unite and rule over the Jews and usher in God's kingdom on Earth.

As this article explains, when Schneerson was alive, Lubavitcher belief in his messianic status was fairly strong. Schneerson never explicitly proclaimed himself the messiah, but he never denied it either; he repeatedly made wink-and-nudge references to the imminence of the messianic age and did little to quell the growing messianic enthusiasm of his followers. In one video from later in his life, he accepts a petition signed by thousands of Lubavitchers declaring him the messiah; in another, he smiles as a group of his followers sing a song called the Yechi - the Yiddish lyrics of which translate to, "May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever."

Being deceased would seem to be an obvious disqualifier for messianic status - and indeed, there are non-messianic Lubavitchers who consider their messianic brethren an embarrassment and try to squelch them. Yet Schneerson's devotees, commonly referred to as "mesichists", don't see this as an obstacle. Exactly how they deal with the fact of his death varies: some insist that he's not actually dead but is merely hidden, biding his time to return. Others claim that his messiahship persists in some spiritual realm beyond the physical world. Still others believe that he'll be resurrected when the time is right. All, however, share the belief that the Rebbe will return and the messianic age will arrive when a sufficient fraction of the world's population learns about him and is convinced of his messiahhood - hence, my pamphlet from the subway.

I looked on Chabad World, the website set up by Schneerson's followers, for an explanation of how they reconcile the fact of his death with their belief in him as Moshiach. I didn't find one - it's a subject the website tends to skate around, for example by repeatedly referring to Schneerson in the present tense ("the Rebbe teaches..."), such that someone who didn't already know he was dead probably wouldn't realize it. However, I did find lots of entertaining supplementary material, such as these miracle claims attributed to Schneerson, or this highly amusing page which argues not just for creationism, but apparently for geocentrism. Also not to be missed from that page is the comical explanation of how the Rebbe knew there is no intelligent life in the universe other than humans, which I can't possibly do justice to by trying to summarize it here.

Aside from the clear documentation of Schneerson's life, it's hard not to notice the similarities between Chabad-Lubavitch messianism and early Christianity. As time passes and the Rebbe fails to return, it's inevitable that historical memory of him will grow vaguer, the stories of his life and miracles will become further exaggerated, and his absence will almost certainly be worked into apologetic arguments which claim it was the plan all along for him to bide his time. Like Christianity, this new faith may flourish and grow; or like the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi, another would-be Jewish messiah, it may lose its ardor and fade away. There seems to be a perennial tendency in Judaism to latch onto some earthly figure as the messiah, which may be because the lack of a clearly defined afterlife has led them to continually look for this-worldly deliverance.

Other posts in this series:

February 1, 2010, 6:56 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments
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Stigmata Scars

By Sarah Braasch

I'm scared to expose myself like this. But, I'm tired of the shame and the guilt and the fear. I have something important to say. And, I want to comfort other victims of religious abuse who feel alone and afraid.

I grew up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home. When people ask me what my childhood was like, I usually describe it, in all seriousness, as something like growing up in a war zone. I don't mean to belittle or demean the experiences of children who actually grow up in literal war zones, but I struggle to find a more apt description.

The sky was always falling. We were constantly under threat of demonic attack. We expected Armageddon to befall us at any moment. As children, these threats of annihilation all around us were all too real. Demons could murder you, rape you and torture you, psychologically or physically or sexually. The desire for the death and destruction of mankind permeated the doctrine. Of course, this theater of horrors was exacerbated and intensified by my father's abuse and my mother's deranged denial.

I cried through my entire high school graduation ceremony. It became a joke amongst my classmates. It was the strangest thing. I just couldn't stop crying. I think I just couldn't believe that I had made it, that I was free. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion.

My father's parting words to me were to tell me that I would amount to nothing without him. He told me that I would come crawling back to him on hands and knees, begging him to take me in. I told him to wait for me. And to hold his breath.

It was a battle to finish my undergraduate education. If I hadn't gone to family court at sixteen to get a restraining order against my father, I wouldn't have been able to secure the financial aid necessary to continue my studies. I had to present a copy of the order to the university to establish myself as financially independent from my parents.

Also, I was in a tremendously fragile emotional and psychological condition. I had severed all ties with my family. I was socially retarded. I was completely alone. I felt totally disconnected from the university community. Interpersonal interactions were difficult and uncomfortable for me. I had trouble making eye contact. And, I thought demons were stalking me.

Being alone in the university dormitory during school breaks was the hardest. I would sit up all night in the lobby watching TV and chatting with the overnight security guards, and I would sleep all day. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening to me, and my childhood had been nothing if not a study in secrecy. But, I willed myself to keep it together, to go to class, to work, to do research. I presented as normal a face as possible to the outside world. I gravitated towards other outsiders and social pariahs. The goth transvestite with pet snakes. The bisexual Jamaican dancer.

So, at 22 years old, I had spent five years at the University of Minnesota. I had two summa cum laude engineering degrees, in aerospace and mechanical engineering. I had a French minor. Somehow, some way, I made it through. The world was, seemingly, my oyster.

I decided to continue my education. It just seemed like a good idea. If education was good, then more education was even better. I was racking up prizes and awards and scholarships and fellowships and internships and whatever other honors I could get my hands on. I wanted medals and certificates and esteem. Mostly esteem.

I was fueled by rage and hatred. Hatred and rage. It was driving me forward, relentlessly. But no amount of accomplishments or successes could sate me. I was on a mission for revenge and retribution and justice. But, it was not to be found. I was playing a chess game against my parents, except that I was playing a chess game against no one, because my parents weren't playing, because they didn't care.

That was the cruelest lesson of my twenties. I realized that my parents were not sitting up nights worrying about my wellbeing or lack thereof. My parents were not racked with guilt over their mistreatment of me. My mother and my father were continuing their lives as if they didn't have a care in the world, as if they'd never had a little girl named Sarah.

I couldn't even hurt them. They didn't care. My success was not the best revenge or any revenge at all. My success was meaningless to them. They didn't care. I had to let it go. Their gas-lit alternate reality didn't include me, or even a notion of me or even the idea of me. My anger and bitterness was going to destroy me and no one would care.

I headed off to grad school at UC Berkeley. The moment I landed, everything came crashing down. Something inside of me snapped. It surprised me. I wouldn't have thought it would have occurred then. I was further removed from all of my torments, both geographically and temporally. But, all of my demons were still with me — in my head.

I couldn't sleep. I was terrified of the dark. I spent my nights sitting in the bathtub, searching out the corners of the well-lit bathroom for demons. I would pray to Jehovah throughout the night, in an almost chant-like fashion. I did this to ward off the demons, to call upon Jehovah for protection, and to stop the bad thoughts. If I cursed Jehovah God in my head or asked for Satan, I would scream and cry out to Jehovah to save me. Then, I would begin chanting again. Sometimes, a part of my brain knew that what I was doing was crazy, but I couldn't stop. And, sometimes, I didn't know. Sometimes, I knew that there was a demon there, torturing me, trying to hurt me, trying to get me to kill myself.

I stopped going to class. I stopped going to the lab. I stopped bathing. I spent my days either sleeping or writing out rambling tales of demons and demonic possession. I had a complete nervous breakdown.

In a rare moment of lucidity, I realized that I was either going to drive myself totally and irrevocably insane, or that I was going to drive myself to suicide. I knew it. I had to choose.

There was something alluring about letting the insane parts of my mind just take me, just pull me out to sea and drown me in darkness. I wanted to completely disassociate from reality. Insanity would obviate the need for suicide. Suicide was scary. I had no fear of hell. (Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in hell.) But, I had grown weary of violence. I didn't really want to inflict more violence upon my poor, tired body. But, I decided that my insanity wouldn't be a happy or peaceful place. My insanity would be hell, full of pain and anguish. If I had thought that my insane mind would have taken me to a dreamy heaven, full of cotton candy and angels and down-filled cushions, I would have gone.

I wasn't sure if I could still extract joy from life. I wasn't sure if I could find meaning in life. I wasn't sure if I could determine a purpose for my life. But, I decided to try. I decided I needed drugs.

I headed to the student health center on campus. I told the staff psychiatrist how I was feeling about my tenuous grasp on reality, my views on demons and my thoughts of suicide, and he gave me drugs. Lots of drugs.

The drugs worked. I was walking through life in a hazy fog, but I liked it. I could sleep at night. I didn't think about demons all of the time, but they never left me completely. I went to class. I went to the lab. My productivity left something to be desired. I had been drained of any semblance of a personality. I even spoke really slowly. I gained a lot of weight. I was kind of like the walking dead. But, I was alive. Sort of. And, I could function. Kind of.

I got it in my head that I needed to leave Berkeley. I grew tired of living like a zombie. As often happens, I decided that I didn't need the drugs anymore. I decided that I just needed a new environment, a change of pace. So, I left. I took the first job offer I could find, and I moved to Los Angeles. Things were going ok for a while. Then, I decided to save my siblings. With tragic consequences.

I basically strong-armed my older sister and my younger brother into moving out to Los Angeles and into moving in with me. I had grandiose visions of bestowing new lives upon them, of blessing them with new horizons, of freeing them from the shackles of our hellish family and childhoods. I would be their savior. (And, I hoped it would irk my parents to no end.)

This ill-formed plan, of course, quickly turned catastrophic. Three emotionally damaged and traumatized adult siblings living in close quarters and grappling with reconstructing their lives and identities is a recipe for disaster. Trust me on this one. Things quickly spiraled out of control.

My sister was the first to abandon ship. She saw the light before I did. When my sister left so did any hope we had of building a functional family out of the shards of our broken lives and psyches. She was the sane one. My brother and I descended into a co-dependent psychodrama hell of childhood trauma revisited.

I became cruel to him. He embodied all of my worst fears. He couldn't get out of bed. He imploded in on himself. I couldn't allow that to happen. I forced him to get a job. I forced him to pay rent. I forced him to clean. I was all about the tough love.

He became more and more detached from reality. He would stay out all night, wandering the streets of LA. He would tell me that he had broken into people's homes. He brought home swords, which I quickly re-gifted. He would tell me that he saw a girl, whom he knew from back home, at the restaurant where he worked. He thought he might have raped her during a drug binge. He told me that she sat at the bar and stared at him without saying a word. He told me that she had come to LA to tell him that she was pregnant. He told me that he could hear the thoughts of the customers at work. He could hear them thinking about him, laughing at him. He told me that the patrons in the restaurant were always talking about him, making fun of him. He told me that he often met and saw demons as he wandered LA in the middle of the night. He told me that he challenged Satan to a fight.

I knew he was schizophrenic, but I thought I could talk him out of it. I know it sounds ridiculous. He would have moments of lucidity. I would try to reason with him, to get him to see the distinction between reality and psychosis, to teach him how to recognize the difference.

Then, one night, my brother snapped. He was asking me pointed questions about whether or not my sister and I had been sexually abused by our father. And, I was giving him pointed answers. He responded violently. I had to call the police. I was never afraid of him until that point. I probably should have been, but I wasn't. Even when he told me he was hearing voices and seeing demons, even when he brought home swords.

The next day, I kicked him out. I gathered up all of his belongings after he left for work, and I dropped them off at the restaurant. And, I've never forgiven myself. But, I was scared. I panicked. I was afraid that he would kill or rape or hurt me if I let him stay. Eventually, he made his way back to the Midwest.

My brother is currently being heavily medicated, so that he does not pose a danger either to himself or to anyone else. I tried to save him, but I drowned him instead.

When I think about my brother, I think about how he held me as I cried out my testimony against my father in family court, about how my words became sobs, about how he put his arm around me. And, I hate myself for abandoning him.

Religious abuse exists. Religious abuse is real. Who knows how many unacknowledged walking wounded limp through early adult life, struggling to put themselves back together again. Of course, there are varying degrees and types of religious abuse, just as there are varying degrees and types of sexual and physical abuse. Religious abuse is a form of psychological abuse. As a society, we are loath to acknowledge this fact. We are loath to acknowledge that raising children in religion is abusive.

We are sending millions of young persons out into the world handicapped by religious childhood traumas and indoctrination and social retardation, including religious idiocy, delusion and hatred. For the greater part, these psychological and emotional pains remain unaddressed by our mental health profession. Religion is not addressed as the prime mover.

I am not an aberration. I am your high school friend. I am your co-worker. I am your law school classmate.

I am not unintelligent. I am not crazy. I have two engineering degrees and a law degree. I have traveled the world. I am well educated and well read. I am a human rights activist. I am a writer.

I am an adult survivor of childhood religious abuse. And, so are you.

January 4, 2010, 6:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments
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Jehovah's Witnesses Hate the Smurfs

By Sarah Braasch

In the early 80's, the primary preoccupations of the Jehovah's Witnesses were Armageddon, Smurfs, Michael Jackson and demonic attack, but not necessarily in that order. As a young Jehovah's Witness girl, my worldview was what you might describe as surreal. Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem, and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Jehovah's Witness home. Armageddon was regarded with frenzied anticipation. We couldn't wait for the bloodletting of the wicked to begin. Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the Devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one's mind and body. And Michael Jackson was the subject of many rancorous sermons at the Kingdom Hall. Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom replaced the Smurfs as the most blatant signs of the end times, the last days of this system of things.

I didn't know whom Michael Jackson was when I began to hear his name breathlessly bandied about with great agitation and interspersed amongst the cautionary tales of Smurfs and demon-possessed antiques. I knew I didn't have any of his tapes or records. I felt much relieved. When news of the Smurfs' demonic nature had come to light, I had to rid my bedroom of Smurfs, and I wasn't able to sleep for months thereafter. I was convinced I had inadvertently invited demons into my life.

Apparently there was something quite different about this Michael Jackson. He had been one of us. He had been a Jehovah's Witness. This information blew my little mind. What?!? How could a Jehovah's Witness do the horrible things the elders accused Michael Jackson of having done? How could someone abandon Jehovah God after having learned the truth? Was he demon possessed?

We were given explicit instructions in how to handle the Michael Jackson situation. He was definitely NOT a Jehovah's Witness. We were told to deny him. A Jehovah's Witness would not do the things he did. A Jehovah's Witness is not merely someone who claims the identity. A Jehovah's Witness must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. A Jehovah's Witness demonstrates his identity via his behavior. Michael Jackson might have attended a few meetings. His mother might be a Jehovah's Witness, but that did not make Michael Jackson a Jehovah's Witness. Deny, deny, deny. We were read an official letter from the governing body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

All of this commotion was very exciting and titillating. We had a betrayer in our midst. He was the purveyor of worldly sex and sin and demonic imagery. We secretly relished the notoriety and the attention his fame brought us. What good was it to be God's chosen people, the only ones with the truth, to be better than everyone else, unless everyone else knew of our superiority? Battle lines were drawn. There was a fight to be had, in the public eye, in the center of a scandalous controversy. It was so delicious.

It was also a matter of life and death and demons. JWs love to whip themselves up into a veritable frenzy. They love to terrorize themselves and their children. Everything is a cosmic battle to the death between the forces of good and evil. Even Smurfs and Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones.

One day I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah's Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah's Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah's Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You're so lucky, because you're a Jehovah's Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.

I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization's instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible. That was the other thing. We were told to take advantage of this situation to spread the good news to people who were now open to hearing it.

While I was able to withstand the siren charms of MJ, I knew another little JW girl who was not. My sister and I often played with a little Jehovah's Witness girl named Sandy whose mother was also named Sandy. I found that so strange. I found that to be the height of arrogance for a mother to name her daughter after herself. It seemed almost like self-idolatry. I was both intrigued and aghast.

Their family was particularly devout. They sold their home. They moved into a mobile home to simplify their lives, so that they could devote more of their time to the preaching effort. They gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name – only in Minnesota). They didn't want to spend time taking care of a pet that they could spend out witnessing the good news. Sandy and her little brother were not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio without adult supervision. Their every move was monitored.

But, Sandy's and her little brother's parents had both previously been married and divorced. To other people. I was scandalized by this information. Sandy had led a pre-Jehovah's Witness life. Her family's righteousness was newfound. Sandy had a hard time conforming to her newly strict and ascetic lifestyle. She had a secret life in which she indulged in wicked worldliness. But, just a little bit. I was both repelled with fear and disgust and wholly enthralled by more than a little fear and disgust.

Sandy and I bonded over this shared attraction to the dark side. My mother had not been a JW until she married my father. As such, she was far more lenient than most Jehovah's Witness mothers regarding our daily activities. I was probably worse the wear for it. It almost made me Catholic, the extreme guilt that I felt. But, it was even worse, because my guilt was coupled with sheer terror, because I was certain that I was deserving of demonic attack.

One day at Sandy's house, she led my sister and I into her bedroom to exchange confidences and demon attack horror stories. Then, she revealed her deep and abiding love for, of all things, Michael Jackson. I think I might have shrieked. Then, she opened up the top drawer of her dresser and flung her undergarments onto her bed, revealing a huge stash of Michael Jackson pictures that she had cut from the pages of magazines and whatnot. How she had escaped her mother's watchful eye long enough to do so was beyond me. Pictures of Michael Jackson in concert. Pictures of Michael Jackson in his videos. Pictures of Michael Jackson posing for photo shoots. She handed some of the images to my sister and I.

I didn't want to touch the photos. I was literally terrified. It was as if she had pulled voodoo dolls or a Ouija board out from her dresser. Nothing is more terrifying to Jehovah's Witnesses than the Satanic Ouija board. I thought demons were going to appear at any moment. I thought I was being possessed at that moment. I almost fainted. I started to cry. My sister looked scared too. I begged her to put the pictures away. Scaring one another with tales of bad Jehovah's Witnesses who had been rightfully tormented by demons was one thing. But, actually inviting demons into our lives was something else entirely. And that's what those pictures were. They were portals to the spiritual world, the evil spiritual world. They were doorways, and demons were waiting on the other side, itching to get in through my fingertips.

It's truly amazing and horrifying how brainwashing and inculcation as a child stays with you throughout your life. I am an adult. I am well educated. I have not been a Jehovah's Witness for many, many years. I am an atheist. Most of the time. But, sometimes, especially when I'm stressed out and tired, I'll start to feel that old sense of panic and anxiety. I'm sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I will still call out to Jehovah to protect me from demons, but only every once in a blue moon. And, I feel the need less and less. These moments of psychosis become more and more rare. I'm really looking forward to the time when they will cease altogether, if that ever happens.

I became addicted to the drama. It was such a rush, such a high. A constant battle with demons. The ever-incipient apocalypse. The community wide martyr complex. I sometimes wonder if maybe it permanently damaged my brain. I was constantly pumped full of adrenaline, high on terror, living on a knife's edge, waiting for the next demonic attack.

That lifestyle has maintained its grasp on me in myriad ways. I overreact. I am hyper-emotional. Everything's a matter of life and death. The problem is two-fold. I'm addicted to the rush of chemicals in my body, and I never learned how to distinguish between the real emergency and the fake one. When pictures of Michael Jackson might contain demons, something about your life is slightly skewed.

I fell into something of a depression when Michael Jackson died. I was unbelievably sad. I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I had enjoyed his music, but I had never been a huge fan. I had never purchased any of his albums. I had never seen him in concert. I had never met him, of course. But, his death opened up a lot of childhood wounds. I felt like I knew a part of him. Like I understood in a way that few others would.

I knew the pain of growing up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home with a subservient and submissive mother and a domineering father. I knew the pain of loving a mother who will not protect you, because she believes that God will condemn her for doing so. The pain of loving a mother who will not leave the man who believes it is within his God-given authority to beat you. The pain of loving a mother who would rather watch you suffer in misery than expose Jehovah God or his organization to public scorn and shame.

Growing up, I loved my mother more than anything, but she didn't love me more than anything. She loved her religion more. It still makes me cry. So when Michael Jackson died, I cried. I cried for the little girl who was terrified that demons were going to rape her in the middle of the night. I cried for the little girl who begged her mother to leave her father. I cried for the little girl who begged Jehovah God to kill her, so that the pain would stop. And, I cried for the little Jehovah's Witness boy that Michael Jackson had been.

I worry about Michael's kids. I know that sounds silly, but I think about them. I hope they are safe and well. I worry that they are being inculcated in that apocalyptic cult of demonology and terror that is the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is not a healthy environment for children. Not to mention the fact that that cult once denounced and disowned their father as wicked and sinful.

I worry about Paris. The Jehovah's Witnesses espouse the subjugation of women and girls as part of Jehovah's divinely ordained plan. Raising children as Jehovah's Witnesses is abusive, especially for girl children. It is also dangerous. The Jehovah's Witnesses provide a safe haven for pedophiles, abusers and molesters. I imagine that Michael Jackson suffered greatly as a result of having been raised as a Jehovah's Witness.

I worry about Katherine Jackson raising those kids as Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't know her. I've never met her. But, I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint for remaining with her tyrannical husband all of these years. I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint because she's religious, because she's a woman of faith, because she's spiritual.

My mother was spiritual. My mother was a woman of faith. My mother was religious. My mother is still married to my father. They still live together. I haven't spoken to either of them in nearly twenty years.

My mother chose her husband and her religion and her God over her children. She stood by and did nothing as her children suffered at the hands of her husband. She stood by and did nothing as her cult terrorized and tortured her children. She sacrificed us for her faith. She sacrificed us for her loveless marriage.

I got down on my hands and knees and begged my mother to protect me. I begged her to choose me. I begged her to love me. And she said no.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I don't think women should be canonized for holding their faith in higher regard than the protection of their own children. And, I'm not sure they should be rewarded with even more children to neglect in this way.

I don't want Michael's kids to have to beg.

November 11, 2009, 1:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink128 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: Asatru

I once wrote an essay for Ebon Musings, "Parting the Parthenon", that was a semi-serious debunking of the ancient Greek gods. I wrote this as a reply to Christian apologists who accuse atheists of singling out Christianity for criticism, but also to show how many similarities there are between these ancient myths and the modern religions still believed by millions, and to implicitly ask what makes one more worthy of belief than another.

So far, I haven't received any outraged letters from believers in Zeus or Poseidon. If there are any still around, I haven't heard of them. But surprisingly, even in the 21st century, not all the ancient paganisms are dead and gone. One of them that's made a fairly respectable comeback is Asatru - the worship of the Germanic deities, such as Odin and Thor.

Asatru in its modern form began in the 1970s, principally in Iceland (as one might have expected), although there were significant early advocates in the U.S., Australia and England. It's still a small fringe movement, even in Iceland and the Scandinavian countries where it's officially recognized - few estimates would put the number of followers even as high as 50,000 worldwide, although the number is larger if Asatru followers are grouped with other self-identified pagans in surveys of religious affiliation.

Asatru beliefs are polytheist, even close to animist. In addition to the traditional Norse gods and goddesses - the primary ones are Odin, Thor, Freyr, Frigga, Freyja, Skadi, Ostara, and Loki, although there are many others - it also includes a whole pantheon (see also) of lesser supernatural beings from myth and folklore, including nature spirits (Landvaettir) and elves (Alfr).

Whether followers of Asatru literally believe in these beings seems to be a point of some contention. As one devotee's FAQ explains:

Yes, [the gods] are real. However, just as most Christians do not think their God is really an old bearded figure sitting on a golden chair in heaven, we do not believe Thor (for example) is actually a muscular, man-shaped entity carrying a big hammer. There is a real Thor, but we approach an understanding of him through this particular mental picture.

But a different site says:

There are those of us who nearly atheists, believing the Gods and Goddesses to be manifestations of pure Nature, and preferring to trust in their own might and judgment entirely. For these folks, Asatru provides a context for their culture and it's continuity. Others are literalists, believing the Eddas and Sagas to be divinely inspired, and believing the gods and goddesses to be literal physical entities.

Aside from Norse gods, Asatru, like many modern paganisms, includes a grab-bag of other beliefs and principles. Belief in magic, supposedly accomplished through runes, is a recurring element. The Asatru afterlife is less clearly defined than in most religions, although there seems to be a general consensus that everyone will be in some way punished or rewarded as their deeds merit (and this FAQ reassures us that it's not necessary to die in battle to get to Valhalla, so you can take comfort in that). They also have their own holidays and traditions, some of which - like the blót - sound genuinely fun. How could you not enjoy an outdoor barbeque with home-brewed mead?

But even cheerful pagan religions have their darker side, and in Asatru's case, it's that the religion has also been adopted by some prominent neo-Nazis and other white supremacists (this strain is often called "Odinism" or "Wotanism"). These tend to be people for whom racist movements like Christian Identity aren't radical enough; for the most part, they view Christianity as hopelessly tainted by Judaism, and consider their version of Asatru to be a more pure, more "Aryan" faith. White supremacists associated with these groups have even been convicted of attempted domestic terrorism.

Unfortunately, none of the websites I consulted, whether racist or egalitarian, answered the question I was most curious about: What persuades one of the truth of Asatru? How do you genuinely become convinced that Odin and Thor are real?

I suspect the answer has to do with the demonstrable antiquity of these beliefs. It does seem to be true that in religion, it helps to be old and venerable; it lends the beliefs a gloss of respectability (Judaism was tolerated in the Roman Empire for just that reason). The allure of reconnecting with the past, carrying on heritage and tradition, is an attractive prospect that few cultures can ignore. That this tendency leads to renewed belief in Odin and Thor is one of the stranger contingencies of human society.

Other posts in this series:

November 4, 2009, 7:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink49 comments
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Exposing Scientology

I've written about the ludicrous "space opera" beliefs of Scientology (the Plan 9 from Outer Space of modern religions). In the future, I want to tell the story of my personal encounter with Scientology proselytizers, but today I have another subject: some recent news exposés that reveal the secrets and the machinations of the cult.

First and foremost, the St. Petersburg Times deserves credit for its truly superb investigative reporting on the inner workings of Scientology. In their 2009 special report, The Truth Rundown, they interview numerous defectors from the church, some very high-ranking. The stories they tell don't paint an appealing picture, including multiple sources who allege that David Miscavige, the ruler of the church, would use violence against underlings who displeased him:

The next evening, early in 2004, Miscavige gathered the group and out of nowhere slapped a manager named Tom De Vocht, threw him to the ground and delivered more blows. De Vocht took the beating and the humiliation in silence — the way other executives always took the leader's attacks.

...Ray Mithoff: Rathbun said Miscavige "would regularly hit this guy open-handed upside the head real hard and jar him. Or grab him by the neck and throw him on the floor."

...Norman Starkey: "Right in the parking lot, (Miscavige) just beat the living f--- out of him, got him on the ground and then started kicking him when he was down," Rathbun said.

..."He lifted Mike Rinder nearly off of his feet and smashed his head into the wall, and he banged his head into the wall three times, just BANG, BANG, BANG!"

Other forms of confinement and physical abuse have also been reported by ex-members:

As a form of punishment, Sea Org members had to run around a circular dirt track with a pole at the center for hours on end in the desert heat.

"You would be on it anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day," Morehead said. "For every hundred people that were out there doing the running program, one of them was there because it was part of their actual (spiritual) progress."

To answer these charges, Scientology resorted to one of the ugliest tactics I've ever seen in any religion: they disclosed the contents of the defectors' "ethics files" - confessions of past wrongdoing that the church extracts from its members as part of the "auditing" process. The records of these confessions are kept so that the church can use them to punish and humiliate those who get out of line, as reported in this excerpt:

Jackie Wolff wept as she recalled the chaotic night she was ordered to stand at a microphone in the mess hall and confess her "crimes" in front of 300 fellow workers, many jeering and heckling her.

This is an excellent example of why you should never trust any religion with personal secrets. But Miscavige practices what he preaches - according to an article from Xenu TV, his own family was broken up by his adherence to Scientology teachings.

On a different note, you can also read the contract that all Scientologists must sign. A few interesting clauses include 2(e)(ii), in which the member agrees that the church makes no claim that "the application of any Scientology or Dianetics technology or practice will have any particular effect on me" (in layman's terms: the church doesn't promise that Scientology auditing does anything!); 4(g), which states that the applicant agrees that "all mental problems are spiritual in nature"; and especially 6(a), in which the applicant waives all future rights to sue the church for any reason (here's a tip: don't join any church that wants you to sign something like that!).

Happily, not all of Scientology's members are hopelessly brainwashed. There are many who've come to their senses enough to see its phony claims for what they are, such as actor Jason Beghe:

"I started explaining to him about Xenu and the loyal officers" — a basic story from L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction. "I couldn't get a third of the way through the story, and we had our faces on the floor. We were laughing so hard. I mean you couldn't even talk. It's so retarded."

Finally, if you want to know more about the "Anonymous" movement that's been fighting Scientology, you can read about the history of the movement at The Frame Problem.

August 10, 2009, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink22 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: Raelism

As humanity's understanding of the universe evolves, our religious beliefs change along with it, and the result is that every new religion bears the stamp of the time and place in which it first arose. Mormonism is an example - Joseph Smith used "seer stones" to translate the Book of Mormon, and claimed that the Native Americans were descendants of ancient Hebrew tribes, at a time in American history when both those ideas were in vogue. Today's post concerns a more recent, yet equally strange sect that even more obviously exemplifies this characteristic.

Claude Vorilhon was a French race-car driver and former pop star. But in December 1973, according to his publication The Book That Tells the Truth, he witnessed a flying saucer landing in the Auvergne region of France. An extraterrestrial being emerged from the craft and spoke to Vorilhon. This being gave its name as Yahweh, and identified itself as a member of a race called the Elohim. If you're interested, here's what it looked like:

The extra-terrestrial human being was a little over four feet tall, had long dark hair, almond shaped eyes, olive skin, and exuded harmony and humor.

"Yahweh" claimed that the Elohim had created all life on Earth through genetic engineering, and that this event was misremembered by cultures throughout the world whose sacred texts speak of creator-gods that came from the sky. The Elohim, it explained, had been watching humanity and guiding our progress through specially-chosen prophets whom they educated, including Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus (who was a human-Elohim hybrid, and whose miracles were accomplished through alien technology). Now that humanity has reached a high enough level of scientific development to understand this, the Elohim intend to reveal their existence, and they've chosen Vorilhon (who later renamed himself Rael) as their messenger.

Raelism was an early hit, most likely due to people who were already UFO devotees. Rael's first public conference, by his own account, attracted about 2,000 people. Today the religion claims 70,000 members in 97 countries, including notable followings in South Korea and Japan.

The Raelian religion is most noted for its enthusiasm for genetic engineering and human cloning, the better to follow in the footsteps of our alien creators. A Raelian front group, Clonaid, made a sensation with their claim in 2002 to have successfully cloned a human being. No evidence for this was ever presented, and the claim is widely considered to be a publicity hoax. According to Rael's book Intelligent Design: Message from the Designers, the Elohim have also proven scientifically that our universe is just one atom of an infinitely larger cosmos, and that each atom in our universe contains a smaller universe in turn, and so on ad infinitum.

Interestingly, Raelism officially describes itself as an atheist religion, in the sense that it does not demand belief in supernatural beings. That said, in every other respect, it exactly resembles traditional religion, right down to miracles (done with advanced alien technology - for instance, Raelians believe that a "repulsion beam" parted the sea so that the Israelites could cross it), prayer (which is explained to put one in telepathic communication with the Elohim), and life after death (Rael claims the Elohim can recreate an entire person, including personality and memory, from a single cell of their body, and that they have already done so for several thousand people who were taken to their home planet - they also plan to recreate the wicked, so that they can be punished as they deserve). And just like all other religions, Raelism's gods are systematically immune to disproof: they refuse to reveal themselves to humanity until we obey Rael's wishes to build an "embassy" for them.

The Raelians are also enthusiastic about intelligent design, for obvious reasons, and denounce evolution as "a myth". Rael himself repeats many standard creationist cants, like this one:

The evolutionists are also false prophets, false informers, people who lead the majority of the population away from the truth about our creators, the Elohim. This population, which easily swallows and dumbly believes in everything said by these narrow-minded high priests in white coats... is purposely kept ignorant and so inevitably believes that which officialdom says is true. Can you begin to imagine what the Elohim feel when they see that humans attribute their masterpiece to random chance?

As I've noted before, alien-abduction enthusiasts often sound just like medieval believers in succubi and incubi, the only difference being that they've dressed up their claims in pseudoscientific terminology. But Raelism, like its ideological cousin Scientology, goes one step further by turning belief in aliens into a bona fide religion. When more religions are founded in the future, as they inevitably will be, I expect more than one will follow Rael's lead and package their delusions in language reminiscient of the fashionable science of the day.

Other posts in this series:

July 29, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink32 comments
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Another Cult Leader Convicted

I've got to give the government credit: they've been doing an excellent job cracking down on criminals who try to hide behind religion. Between Kent Hovind, Warren Jeffs, and now a new conviction, federal prosecutors have been diligently enforcing the law against creeps, con men, and petty tyrants who claim that the law of God gives them license to break the laws of society.

This month's creep is Tony Alamo, former head of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. On Friday, Alamo was convicted on ten counts of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex between 1994 and 2005.

If you're not familiar with Tony Alamo, this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center gives plenty of sordid details. The high points include intense hatred for Catholics (including Jack Chick-esque pamphlets denouncing the Vatican as a demonic conspiracy), a past conviction and prison sentence for tax evasion, and daily radio broadcasts by Alamo defending polygamy and underage marriage. Based on the SPLC report, the Alamo compound was run with the vicious, authoritarian attitude standard for all cults:

The following year, the Alamos purchased the property in Saugus and built sex-segregated dormitories for their California followers, who today number in the hundreds. Members collected spoiled food from supermarkets and Dumpsters to prepare communal meals. Living conditions were squalid. Punishment for stepping out of line ranged from fasting to beatings to being kicked out of the group and losing your spouse and children, many ex-members say.

And what would a good cult be without a heaping helping of hypocrisy and greed among the leadership?

...[Members] toiled as field hands on farms in nearby Bakersfield, turning their entire paychecks over to their cult leaders. The Alamos directed their followers to build them a large, lavish home on a nearby hilltop and drove a fleet of black Cadillac sedans (today, Tony Alamo favors a black Escalade). Ex-members report that Susan Alamo spent thousands of dollars on fur coats, fake eyelashes, plastic surgery and wigs. Tony wore turtle-leather platform boots, diamond pinky rings and a bearskin coat with bear claw epaulettes.

At its peak, Alamo's ministry was taking in millions of dollars per year. But his career took a bizarre turn when his first wife, Susan, died in April 1982. For months, he kept her embalmed body and ordered his followers to pray around the clock for her resurrection. The failure of this effort may have been what snapped Alamo's already tenuous grip on reality, and soon afterward, according to ex-members, he began taking multiple wives, some barely into their teens, some even younger. Repeated complaints to the police by former members who'd escaped finally spurred prosecutors to take action.

Just in case you had any residual sympathy for Alamo, permit me to wipe it out with this report of his behavior at trial:

He blurted out a reference to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep even while alleged victims were testifying.

..."I'm just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel," Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal's vehicle.

Why do I bring this up? It's not just to exult in Alamo's downfall (although there's more than enough reason to do that). It's because this case is another object lesson on two important, interrelated points.

First: Being religious does not make you a good person. If anything, it worked in the opposite direction. Alamo's extreme religiosity allowed him to justify, to his followers and himself, why he should wield unlimited power over them, and their faith in him is what permitted this sex abuse to go on as long as it did. And, it must be said, the Bible does support polygamy, and says nothing about age of consent. A morality based on reason, not on blind faith and obedience, would not have led to this.

Second: This is why atheists criticize religion. Too many people who should know better persist in believing that religion is beneficial and harmless - even when confronted with stories like this one. We speak out because we want to tear down this facade, tear down the societal illusion that anything with "faith" in the name automatically deserves respect. That's the belief that allowed Alamo's cult to flourish. We want to instill the attitude that claims require evidence, that it's worth being skeptical when a two-bit hustler claims to be a prophet of the one true God. If more people thought this way, there's a much better chance that future Tony Alamos might be prevented.

July 25, 2009, 9:30 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 comments
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