[Review] God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States, by Karen Stollznow

Ever wanted to find out what’s really going on with the more…unusual religious and spiritual practices in the United States? It seems to me as though the best way to see a set of beliefs and practices is to view it as an outsider — but doing that from the perspective of a rival faith tradition carries its own dangers, hence the need for a book like this in the American discourse on religion, religious belief, religious privilege, and this needs saying as well, the dangers involved in some religious beliefs and practices.

Beliefs are not neutral, as they guide our actions, as we base those on what we hold to be true to better their potential for success. Some beliefs are dangerous to the practitioners, some to those they persecute because of those beliefs, while some belief practices, such as violent exorcisms, can cause injury or death in those alleged to be possessed.

Stollznow’s book, God Bless America,  puts these into focus, with one of the most objective treatments of the subject I’ve seen to date. Compare this with Ravi Zacharias’ “Kingdom of the Cults,” and similar works written by religious apologists currently in print.

The first chapter, Modern-Day Prophets and Polygamists: Fundamentalist Mormons, describes the extreme branches of the Mormon Church, those not considered by the more mainline LDS Church to be true Mormons, but which consider themselves to be that very thing. Some of the early history of Mormonism that gave rise to these breakaway sects, or from which they lay claim to legitimacy, is explained, and their controversial practices and lives revealed with no small amount of scrutiny.

The Not-So Simple Life: The Amish and Mennonites, discusses the little-known history, practices, and origins of the Amish and Mennonites from their Anabaptist (not “Anti-Baptist…) roots in Europe, fleeing to the Americas to escape persecution during the Protestant Reformation, and looking to put down roots during and after their numerous schisms. An eye is turned here to the little known things about their seemingly quaint way of life, and the misconceptions surrounding them as a part of Americana.

In Signs, Wonders, and Miracles: Charismatics and Pentecostals, the third chapter, Stollznow turns her skeptical eye to the religious movements that take their cue from the practice of charisms, or gifts from the Holy Spirit of Pentecost by the Apostles. The alleged origins of the modern Pentecostal movement in Kansas and also the setting of the modern precedent of hypocritical preachers by the movement’s founder, Charles Fox Parham are discussed. Enough said on that, though… The distinctions between Charismatics and their origins from Pentecostals are made clear, as is the debate between Mainstream and Charismatic Christians, and there was much here that was new to me, even living in the Bible Belt.

Chapter four, Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Juju: Afro-Caribbean Religions, Karen explains the religions brought to the Americas and West Indies by those captured as slaves, their differences, histories, and their evolution as they spread rapidly to other parts of the Western hemisphere, from Voodoo, Santeria, Candomblé, and other faiths descended from West African traditions, their beliefs, quirks, histories, subtle and not-so-subtle differences, and their magical practices are discussed, though the process of syncretism of some that led to both their survival and evolution I found kind of neat.

Full of the Devil: Demonic Possession and Exorcism, discusses the widespread and often contradictory beliefs in evil entities such as demons, the Devil, and the equally widespread practices from a variety of mutually inconsistent traditions for ridding people of them. But widespread belief does not make something true, and often the practice of exorcism can delay real and effective treatment of mental illnesses (something I’ll admit having a personal stake in…) and in the case of some exorcisms result in injury or death to the alleged possessed. Karen notes the renewed popularization of belief in demons, possession, and exorcism by Hollywood, and is particularly critical of “real exorcist” Bob Larson.

In Sympathy for the Devil: Satanism, Stollznow describes the Church of Satan, and why it appeals to some without, I might add, their actually having to kill anyone (much less babies…) for their initiation. It’s not surprising to me that Satanists (as opposed to Santa-ists…), are often persecuted, as much by their own choice of branding as by moral panics involving rumors of ritual abuse, like those of the 1980s that resulted in spurious arrests and convictions, some with sentences still being served and lives destroyed for bizarre crimes that never really happened. False memory syndrome will do that. The modern origins of Satanism by Anton LaVey from mere accusation to a reality are discussed, the Church’s belief system (not in a literal supernatural Devil, unless one is a Theistic Satanist…). Note of its magical practices, as much for the psychological effects of ritual as anything else, is made.

Chapter seven, It’s All in Your Head: Dianetics and Scientology, was interesting, and more detailed than I can go into here. It goes beyond the usual criticisms to a well-researched examination of the brainchild of L. Ron Hubbard, from Scientology’s origin as a controversial form of self-help for the mind, to the equally controversial and often ridiculed Church for the spirit it is today.

In Something Old, Something New: New Age Spirituality, the ginormous range of beliefs and practices, taken from both ancient traditions and new paradigms of science, the paranormal, alternative medicine, philosophy, and a hodgepodge of other sources, is brought to light. The New Age is famous for its undefinability, and that leads to its appeal to many disenchanted with organized religion. It is a metaphysical movement with no single beginning or founder, where anything goes, and this chapter makes clear what any good skeptic should know that their own investigations have not revealed.

Finally, Friends in High Places: the Quakers, talks about the Religious Society of Friends, unfortunately known to most only from stereotypes promoted through grade schools and oatmeal marketers, and tells their history from the time of the English Civil War to their persecution both in England and the Americas, to the present time, interestingly pointing out the widespread conflict of opinion among the many sects of Quakers. The colorful Society’s effect on the development of the then-young United States is discussed, it’s ideas, ideals, beliefs and values that greatly influenced the politics of the nascent country, including the principle of the separation of church and state. The Friends’ lack of doctrine and reliance on testimony of values and actions, and even the occasional lack of theistic belief is noted, and this I found interesting.

All in all, I thought that this book was readable, entertaining, and well-worth revisiting.

(Last Update: 2013/12/15, Grammatical Correction in Paragraph 6, Sentence 2)

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