Mystic Messiahs

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.

Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.

In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.

Expanding Universes

If you’re one of those people who has trouble finding your car keys, it looks like things are only going to get worse. We all knew the universe was expanding, but now that the smoke has cleared from this year’s Nobel Prizes (there was smoke, wasn’t there?) it is now common knowledge that instead of slowing down, the expansion is actually accelerating. Kind of makes you wonder who’s driving. Being somewhat of a science news junkie, I already knew of the increasing rate of expansion, but seeing it in the news again made me ponder the theological implications of it all (despite not being a theologian). Where do we locate Heaven in a rapidly expanding universe that is ripping itself apart? Why didn’t the prophets in the Bible see this coming? What is anybody doing about it?

Physicists have had to postulate a new culprit in this unexpected scenario. Dark energy must be driving the expansion and the universe most be mostly composed of dark matter. Besides apparently being the substance between the ears of Tea Partiers and certain public officials, nobody really knows what dark matter is. The darkness of the name here is to be understood as “unknown.” We can’t see it or sense it, but it can be weighed—at least on a universal scale. Not only are we not the center of God’s universe, we are vastly outnumbered by something that we can’t even see.

Of course, it will only be a matter of time before some religious specialist suggests that God is the dark matter or the dark energy of the universe. Classic god-of-the-gaps thinking. If we can’t explain it, it must be God. That God, however, suffers the embarrassing phenomenon of shrinkage. At one time that Gog (God-o’gaps) was in control of the weather, until NOAA came along. At one time that deity held the nucleus of atoms together, until the strong and weak nuclear forces were discovered. At one time that God knocked off the dinosaurs. Well, maybe the jury’s still out on that one. The danger of conflating God with science is the inevitable effacement of divinity. Our universe has proven unfriendly to deities. Depending on how medieval we’d like to get, we might suggest that dark matter must be all those angels dancing on the heads of pins. While you ponder that one, I’m going to look for my car keys while I still can.

There it goes...

Step in Time

Magical blingdom

Mary Poppins is one of my wife’s favorite childhood movies. I first saw it in college and, being a parent, have seen it many times since then. Now when I walk through Times Square I see it is playing at the New Amsterdam Theater, and if I time it right I can hear bits of the musical on my way to the Port Authority after work. As is normal in the universe according to Disney, nothing is really ever seriously wrong in the London of 1910. Troublesome children are doing nothing more than chasing a kite and attempting to connect with an emotionally distant father. Even when he loses his job, Banks merely suffers an inverted umbrella and a punched hat. Joblessness lasts for only a day. Everybody sings. When we watched the movie again recently I considered how such an escape is healthy for those of us accustomed to a somewhat harsher adult existence. Joblessness is often long-term and desperation reeks as we find ourselves distanced from that which defines our existence.

Mary Poppins represents a divine figure in the Disney universe. She comes down from the heavens during a troubled period of history, judiciously utilizes a bit of magic, and heals the broken-hearted. When things go bad, Mary Poppins is there to make them right again, even on her day off. She shows the cold-hearted world of business that there is a better way. Who would you rather be—George Banks or the Bird Lady? Who is happier?

“All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles,” saintly Mary sings, “look down as she sells her wares. And although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.” Where are the saints and apostles of Wall Street? Instead the optimistic view of humanity plays itself out on Broadway where the intensity of humankind spans from homeless beggar to movie star. Fantasy is underrated. Our minds have evolved the capacity to allow us to escape the realities of suffering, disappointment, and angst. When a week of trouble and turmoil has held us in its grip, we may still escape to the magical kingdom of our choice to find bread and circuses. Mary Poppins does not condemn the greed of Mr. Dawes and the rich die laughing. It is difficult not to like Mary Poppins, the angelic symbol of care that doesn’t disrupt the system. And Disney will see no end to its place among the wealthiest families on earth. It is a small world, after all.

Pay No Attention

I’m not sure whether to feel insulted or flattered: apparently WordPress has deemed this blog worthy of enough hits to place an advertisement on it. The ad feels like a wart. Probably because religion is deemed an “embarrassing” topic, WordPress has not given much promotion to my persistent efforts; I’ve only reached the coveted features page only once. Yet I may be targeted for an ad. Those who actually read my posts will know that I find commercialization banal and trivializing. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it can even be good. I guess in this context, I’d like to find out why my little blog was singled out for such attention.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this. (Do I hear a gasp of astonishment from my readers?) I believe a blog should be a place of ideas and discussion. Of course, I believe the same thing about religions: they should be open to discussion about what they’re trying to do. They should also give truthful responses to those who inquire. Otherwise it is just false advertising. Perhaps I’m only annoyed since yesterday’s post (where the ad first appeared) was heart-felt and serious, while the ads I saw were light-hearted and funny. It is the price you pay for not owning your own server, I guess. I’ve trespassed into the realm of giving my words to a commercial vendor (not for any profit, I should add), and can I begrudge them their attempt to make a buck by my efforts? Only a writer knows how much of her or himself they put into their words.

I’ve just come into the great throne-room and I wish to say to my readers, “Pay no attention to the ads behind the posts.” I do not put them there. I gain nothing from it but a space where I might express my thoughts without having to pay fees for my own domain name. “Get a publisher,” the cynical might say. What publisher would pay for the observations of a highly trained specialist who commands no attention in the academic world? I guess I should be grateful that WordPress even allows me to scribble on their pages. What do I hope to get out of it? Open minds and free thought, and perhaps a small dose of sanity when approaching religion. I’m not selling anything, so please ignore the ads. Now, after this break for “station identification” I guess I can get back to my idealized world where no money is required for ideas changing heads.


I wonder if I’m the only one who feels uncomfortable with the proliferation of armed military guards in public places. I know the rhetoric that “freedom is not free” (what is it then?), but when the coffee hasn’t really kicked in yet and I walk by guys young enough to be my kids holding machine guns in the bus terminals and train stations of New York, I really don’t feel safer. Sometimes I might look like a radical. Sometimes I don’t get my hair cut as often as convention dictates I should. Sometimes I forget to trim my beard. Some days I throw on my denim jacket as I head out the door in the predawn hours. Some days no one sits next to me on the bus. Am I the enemy here? I don’t like the idea of strangers seeing me naked in airports—even if only electronically. I do like the freedom of expression, but it is no longer really free.

I suppose that’s why I’ve noticed the other peacetime occupation going on in New York: Occupy Wall Street. It is time that people say “enough!” The religious leaders with the loudest voices declare this a dangerous thing, “class warfare” they say. The wealth that lines the very upper crust, however, is simply obscene. Was a day when wealth came with a healthy dose of social responsibility. They just don’t make Andrew Carnegies any more. A few Octobers ago my family visited Sleepy Hollow, New York. The cemetery made famous by Washington Irving (who is buried there) also houses William Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. On the top of the most prominent hill is a classical style, opulent mausoleum for the Rockefellers, overlooking all others. Down at the base of the hill, hidden away in a humble, quiet corner is the modest tombstone of Andrew Carnegie. I am certain that Carnegie was no saint, but he did not let his wealth go without doing some good for his fellow citizens.

Freedom is not free, but excessive wealth is tax-free. And Jesus was a venture capitalist, I’m told. We are a nation occupied in peacetime. We are occupied by our own military and their commanding officers in the towers of Wall Street. The GOP can’t support Occupy Wall Street, for it will alienate the moneyed vote it so craves. Call it “class warfare” instead. Those uppity middle and lower class bums! When the select few human beings climb too high in their towers to see the suffering of those down below, images of Babel come to mind. Babel is code for Babylonia in the Bible—the wealthy, powerful oppressor of the poor and displaced. If wealth breeds superiority, we are all in very deep trouble; the battle is already lost. In the meanwhile, I suspect Jesus might secretly be on the side of those camped out in sleeping bags, waiting for the sign of Jonah. And it has nothing to do with being swallowed by a whale.

Or maybe it does.

Cenobic Marvels

Among the most explicitly religious of horror movies, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series exploits biblical themes and tropes to blur distinctions between sacred and sacrilege. Not a fan of gratuitous gore, I began watching the series after reading Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror. Cowan utilizes this particular series to illustrate how deeply the religious mythology may reach, awaiting the fourth installment before finally having an explanation. Curious, I have been making my way through slowly. October seems a good time to consider the unsettling aspects of human nature, so I watched the third installment, Hell on Earth, this weekend.

Funnily, I do not find Pinhead particularly evil. Perhaps that is the intent. His eyes seem too kind to be a true villain. As the leader of the demonic Cenobites, he leads the curious down the path of exploration to ultimate destruction and, appropriately enough, Hell. The Hell presented throughout the films, however, is the true desire of the victims. They stumble upon a puzzle box, but when it is opened the curious find themselves trapped. The very use of monastic ideals as emblematic of Hell is surely a commentary on the futility of self-inflicted means of grace. Does not the flagellant at some level enjoy the pain? Where is the religious value in that? In Hellraiser III, Joanne runs to a Catholic church for help with Pinhead in pursuit. As any horror fan knows, the church is never a haven against evil. Pinhead makes himself a parody of the crucifixion while a helpless priest tries to defend God.

Horror films are a remarkably successful genre. At least one aspect of the appeal is the unabashed use of religion. Conditioned by the old films such as Dracula, the early twentieth century taught us that the church kept us safe—crucifixes always used to work against vampires! By the end of the century that vision had shifted. The church of the early twentieth century was a preserve of male power, a place where men made the rules and abused the rules and no one questioned them. As the century progressed, we became wiser. And more vulnerable. By the dawn of the new millennium, when such movies as Hellraiser III were being filmed, the security of the cloister had itself become a source of fear. October is the season of reflection on the transience of summer and ease. Perhaps it is also the season to reflect on how our perceptions of religion are ever shifting as winter wends its way toward us once again. And Mr. Barker will be standing there to remind us that we each create our own Hell.

Lamp of the Gods

Long venerated as a god, the moon has fallen to such a declination that it scarcely attracts the notice of most people anymore. While some governments are busy making plans to reach the moon—notably those with the largest populations—the rest of the developed world looks to the nighttime sky and lets out a yawn. The poignant little book called Moon: A Brief History, by Bernd Brunner, offers a moving tribute that is part science, part history, and part whimsy. Very few heavenly bodies have undergone the dramatic plummet in interest as our familiar old moon. It remains the proximate cause for werewolves and the occasional harvest-season horror movie, but since the Cold War has ended and we no longer need to prove ourselves to anybody, attention has shifted toward more distant and abstract targets. Maybe Mars, or one of Jupiter’s moons holds the fascination we so long for. The moon, apart from a brief flare of interest when water was discovered there, has died a slow death in the human imagination.

In ancient times, the moon was often considered superior to the sun. Sure, it’s not as warm—downright cold at times—but its light is more gentle, more forgiving. The traveler’s companion, the moon illuminated the way before headlights were invented. The god of the moon (its gender was slippery in parts of the ancient Near East) sometimes topped the pantheon. Even today in Islam, the memory of the high god’s crescent moon can be found atop mosques throughout the world.

What happened to the moon? Famously Carl Sagan, himself an astronomer, wrote about The Demon-Haunted World. In this book he decried the human tendency to look for supernatural causation; the universe is entirely natural. Many have used his reasoning as a nail in the coffin of God. Clearly he was right in many cases, but, as Brunner shows, science can rob even a deity of its shine. Writes Brunner: “Its significance and roles have always varied across cultures and eras—from heavenly god to symbolic guardian or judge, to the scene or stage of spectacular visions and visits, to being ‘just’ and object of scientific investigation.” Once we’ve been to bed with the moon and look at it scientifically, its luster is lost. “Maybe we should try sometimes to un-think our scientific knowledge of the moon,” Brunner opines.

I was one of those thousands planted before the television on 21 June 1969 to watch the first men on the moon. Amid the turmoil of earth, it was a sublime, even a religious moment. In the end a dozen men walked on the moon before it was forgotten. Like the dozen disciples, they alone have been near the truly sublime. With Brunner I too would suggest that we not be too quick to forget our constant companion.

Jots and Tittles

While busy editing during the course of the day, I ran across this line in a Routledge book entitled What is Religion?: “We live in a pluralist, inter-racialist and multi-faith society and the need to understand one another is greater than ever before. Much misunderstanding arises from racialism and nationalism and could be avoided if people knew more about the beliefs and practices of one another.” Amen, Robert Crawford. I would, however, add a caveat to his statement: even more conflict could be avoided if people knew their own religions. I know many people, especially in the United States, who have no idea what their religion’s official teaching is. I know Presbyterians who have no concept of the official doctrines of this organization they’ve joined. Many Catholics, given the more corporate structure of that church, know the teachings but choose to ignore those that just don’t match the realities of life on earth. In such cases, the question of acceptance of religious teaching is a very relevant point. Can you get to heaven without crossing every “t” or, because it sounds more interesting, observing every jot and tittle? (By the way, “jot” is a stand-in for “yod,” the smallest Hebrew letter, “tittle” roughly translates as “serif” or the fancy little calligraphic flourishes typical of Tanak manuscripts.)

Religious membership devolves into self-declaration, often of a self-perceived version of the religion one favors. The vast majority of people are born into their religions, an immediate red flag that absolute truth claims will necessarily lead to conflict. And it won’t help to try to devise some Uber-religion that includes all the others, since apart from the occasional Universalist or Bahai, nobody buys that other religions are quite as good (or right) as theirs. Even the task of defining what religion is remains beyond the reach of mere mortals. I find Bronislaw Malinowski’s observation apt, that religion grows “out of the conflict between human plans and realities.” We can imagine a much better world than the one that exists. In some such fantasy worlds, religion itself ceases to exist.

Religion never existed in any pure form. It did not descend from the sky in a unified whole. Instead, religions have been cobbled together by people since the Paleolithic era, and we simply don’t have the time, resources, or influence to go back and start it all over again. Religion may be defined as conflict. Conflict between what is and what ought to be. Conflict between right and wrong. Conflict between us and those who believe differently than we believe. Religion brings, as one founder stated, a sword. Religion gets passed down the generations just as surely as the family jewels and deeds. To ask anyone to relinquish such valued property, even for the sake of world peace, is too much to ask. Even getting people to understand what they claim to believe is too much effort. It is much easier to praise whatever lord and pass the inhumane ammunition.

Job Well Done

By now the world is well aware that Steve Jobs has died. As an avowed Mac user, an encomium for a man I never knew seems somehow appropriate. In a world where most religious leaders are known for their lack of vision and staunch conservatism (“Where there is no vision, the people parish,” to paraphrase Proverbs 29), Steve Jobs gained high priest status among technocrats for making the computer accessible. Even if you are reading this with a PC—thank your lucky Mac-OS-emulating Windows that you didn’t have to begin with a god-forsaken C-prompt—Jobs’ impact is part of your daily life. Although Mac has always been second fiddle in the computer market, Apple has always taken the lead in the gear: your iPods, iPhones, iPads, perhaps even the letter ”i” itself. We have entered the world of the Matrix, so much so that earlier this year it was reported that Apple fans experience a high like a religious encounter when they behold Apple’s mighty hand.

Nevertheless, a deep uneasiness overtakes me when I consider how helpless I am without my electronic accoutrements. When my laptop crashed last month, I was completely disoriented for about a week. I didn’t know what the weather was supposed to be like, who had tried to email me, and just how few people had decided to read this blog. I had become immaculated, and I was embarrassed. I miss the days of wandering carefree through the forest, concerned only about bears, cougars, and getting lost. Not having to wonder if there is an email I had left unanswered or if some new gadget had been invented, or if I had forgotten the birthday of someone I barely know on Facebook. No, electronic reality has supplanted actual reality. On the bus I’m nearly the only one who passes 90 minutes with a book. The glow of LCD screens peer like huge eyes in the pre-dawn of a New Jersey highway.

If it hadn’t been for Apple, I would not have joined the computer race at all. Back in college, several of my friends and I vowed we would not give in to the computer craze. I made it through my Master’s degree using an honest-to-God typewriter with ribbons, white-out and retypes. Today I can’t image how I ever survived all that. My wife first encouraged me to use a computer. She took me to the computer lab at the University of Michigan one Saturday and sat me in front of an Apple. “See, it’s easy,” she said. She was my Eve, offering me the bite of an Apple I’d never be able to put down.

We dream of building legacies, something to show that we’ve passed through this weary wilderness. Steve Jobs did not live to be an old man, but he has left a legacy. This blog, and countless others like it, would be inconceivable, were it not for his genius.

The apple tree keeps giving.

The Body Apocalyptic

We are all products of our upbringing. Our early assumptions, although sometimes challenged and overcome, are generally with us for life. So it was that my progression of education led me to a small, conservative college to major in religion. Compared to what I learned at Grove City, the historical criticism firmly in place at Boston University sounded downright sinful. Nevertheless, it made sense, so I followed reason. At Edinburgh we were way beyond historical criticism in that wonderful, European way. Somehow in the midst of all the excitement, I missed Post-Modernism. “Po-Mo” has, like most recent movements, been quickly added to the pile of the passé, but I find it refreshing. I just finished reading Tina Pippin’s Apocalyptic Bodies (Routledge, 1999). This may have been one of the first truly Post-Modern biblical critiques I have read, and it was fascinating. Pippin is taking on especially the book of Revelation. If more people had read her book there would have been less panic back around May 21.

I find feminine readings of the Bible enlightening. As a member of the gender largely responsible for a book filled with sex and violence, it is often difficult to see how the other half of the human race might read that same text. Having grown up with a literal understanding of Revelation, I never questioned whether it was a good or a bad thing. The end of the world must be God’s will, therefore, by definition, good. One of the beauties of a Post-Modern interpretation is that everything is thrown open to question. Pippin does just that. Noting the ennui associated with eternity, she asks a question that always lurked in my mind—isn’t too much of anything eventually a problem? Eternity itself becomes problematic. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the most striking comment Pippin makes is in the context of her chapter on the monsters of the apocalypse, “Apocalyptic Horror.” She compares Revelation to horror movies and demonstrates how all the elements are there in the Bible. She notes, “There are many monsters in the Apocalypse, but the real bad ass monster sits on the heavenly throne.” Pippin explains that God, in Revelation, joys in killing off humankind. As many of us have come to learn, people are generally good; at least most people have done nothing to deserve the heinous punishments gleefully doled out in Revelation. That, of course, raises the sticky question of ethics as applied to the divine. Here the book of Job comes to mind where our hapless hero declares that even though he is innocent, God still can count him guilty. It is the human situation. And Job was a good guy. Pippin’s little book challenged many of the assumptions with which I’d grown. Anyone who can read such a book and not worry about being a good parent is more Po-Mo than me.

Always Against Us

In one of the coolest homework assignments ever, my daughter was supposed to watch The Matrix. Her digital electronics class makes constant reference to the movie, so her teacher decided that in order to “get it,” those who hadn’t seen the movie should watch it. I know the film has many nay-sayers and some of the acting may not attain the highest standards, but it remains among my favorite movies. At Nashotah House, early in the dawning millennium, many students watched the film religiously. One student had it on his laptop and a small knot of his classmates would gather around just about every morning to watch before my class began. I was a bit put off by the claims that it was a “New Testament allegory,” but I have come to realize that without resurrection, the film industry in this country would be dead. American audiences (especially) crave the possibility of coming back. And even though I’m as much a sucker for a good love story as the next guy, that resurrection scene isn’t the highlight of the movie. Not by a long shot.

The Matrix has always been one of my favorites because of the basic premise: what if the world is not real? I’ve been plagued by that question for about as long as I can remember. When, in my first philosophy class, I learned about naïve realism, my worldview shifted. Who’s to say what’s real? And if someone decides to shoot me to shut me up, the lights might go out, but will there be anything left behind? Not that I believe I’m a source of energy for evil robot overlords (I get too easily chilled to believe that), but I often think about the tenuousness of it all. Our reality changes when we fall asleep, and each day we assume that a continuity is the same as the essence of our existence. There’s no way to check it, however, and I’m not entirely convinced. That’s why I like The Matrix so much. Someone else understands my deep fear that none of this is real.

The moment when Neo refuses to leave, but turns to fight Agent Smith, Trinity asks Morpheus what is happening. Morpheus responds, “He’s beginning to believe!” That line always gets me. The idea that something out there actually tips the balance on the side of good creates a longing so deep that it hurts. When I wake up the next morning, however, I see the headlines bring more suffering, more status quo ante-Christ. The last thing I want to see on the front page is Chris Christie’s face first thing in the morning. It can be a very cruel world. In one of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole episodes, a scientist suggests that a Matrix-like world may match our reality. God, the scientist suggests, may be a programmer and has coded us to live in a virtual world. The tapping of my fingers is just an algorithm. I’m not yet beginning to believe that. But if I ever do I’ll be forced to conclude that our programming deity has either a wicked sense of humor, or is just plain wicked.

Who’s to Say?

Stereotypes are so easy to fall into. Having been “typecast” myself, early in my career as a “seminary professor” and a “conservative”—neither of which matched my mental outlook at all—I eventually had to abandon higher education as a career option. Why did I take a job that didn’t fit? If you’re asking that question, obviously you missed the 1990s. It was a brutal time to be looking for a job; there was this recession… wait a minute. What decade was I writing about again? In any case, many people will always remember me in the various roles I’ve played as I sought to actualize my ideal career. It is always interesting to see how others break out of their expected roles into new venues. Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller has established a reputation for speaking his mind. To those with limited experience, such as myself, he is stereotyped as a “magician,” more specifically, a “bad boy magician” who gives away the secrets of the guild. To find out that he is a writer was a kind of epiphany.

I read his new memoir/confession, God, No! this past week. I’ve always been cognizant of the strangeness of a world where someone may speak authoritatively on the basis of star status, but Americans love their performers. I’ve enjoyed the Penn & Teller acts I’ve seen on television, and after reading Penn’s book, I think I would like him in person. I can’t agree with him much of the time, but his honesty and good moral sense are very winning. I seriously cannot remember the last time I read a book that made me snort out loud with laughter or try to sink even lower on public transit so the polite person sitting next to me would not be able to see all the profanity on the pages before me. The book itself very loosely follows the Ten Commandments, which, surprisingly, the author largely agrees with in principle. The essays are all over the place, but the libertarian spirit is difficult not to admire. His appreciation of rational explanations for the world is admirable.

Probably the most difficult point of agreement for me, however, is his definition of an atheist as anyone who do not know if God exists. He does have a chapter lambasting agnostics, but as a stickler (as much as anyone in religious studies can be a stickler about anything) for definitions, it is useful to distinguish atheism and agnosticism. Saying one does not know is not the same as declaring one is certain. Since the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven, those who say God does not exist believe that assertion. Those who say God exists also believe their assertion. Objective knowledge, in our current state, is not possible. I had to agree, in the final chapter, that faith causes most of the problems we find associated with religion, but I’m afraid faith is a huge part of the human condition. God, No! is not for everyone. Those who read it will, nevertheless, find an author as convinced as any evangelist that he’s right. And if they are honest, they will have to admit to having laughed along the way.

Buying Salvation

October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.

Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?

It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.

A parable.