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Cults In Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer

Atheists should be in the pursuit of knowledge through a rational process.  Margaret Singer has used this rational process to examine the world of cults.  In her book, Cults In Our Midst,  she outlines the research and analysis of what a cult is.  She applies the term to groups that are on the edge of socially acceptable organizations.  However, a discerning reader will see how the techniques of the fringe groups, that she outlines, are reflected in established religious denominations and social organizations.

An established organization brainwashes through group conformity and undermines the critical thought of individual members.  For example, a Baptist or Pentecostal (these two groups often appear as non-denominational) control their members in a similar manner to groups identified as cults, e.g., Scientology or Mormon.

Whether a group is a denomination or a cult, they still use fear to keep people within their groups.  Singer identifies six conditions cults need for thought control:

1)      Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person

2)      Control time and physical environment (contacts, information)

3)      Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency

4)      Suppress old behavior and attitudes

5)      Instill new behavior and attitudes

6)      Put forth a closed system of logic

These are applied to adult converts, and if you were to convert as an adult to a denomination the criteria for success is similar:

1)      They do not explicitly state their agenda.  They too want to keep the convert in a state of acceptance to their group.

2)      The mainline denominations use less control of time and environment, but peer pressure compensates for this factor.

3)      The element of fear is disguised as faith.  If you do not strengthen your faith, you will suffer the consequence - a separation from God and eternal hell.

4)      All groups want your behavior to conform to the standards of that group and to leave your old self behind.

5)      All groups create a closed system of logic that works if you do not challenge the core premises' of that group.  For example, Christians start from a premise that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  If that word says there was a virgin birth, it must be true.  God's word does not lie, even in the area of the impossible.

For Singer there are four concerns about what is wrong with cults:

1)      They cause damage to the individual and families - so do denominations, e.g. , the Pentecostals or Baptists in their use of faith healing.

2)      They use sophisticated psychological and social persuasion techniques - so do denominations, e.g., Catholics and Lutherans use these techniques in their sermons to keep parishioners faithful to the church.

3)      They use their wealth to suppress criticism - Catholics and Episcopalians have on occasions used their wealth to suppress bad press by buying off the critics of pedophile priests.

4)      They encroach on our freedoms through authoritarian disguised as moral laws and other legal means - so do denominations, e.g., Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups, led by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have tried to pass an agenda into law that would control the rights of homosexuals and take away abortions rights.

Singers' research and coverage of cult operations, behaviors, and the way to get out of these groups is extensive.  There are organizations and resources listed in the book that will assist a person in shedding the influence of these cults.  However, they support a religious agenda from the mainline denominations in most cases.  These same techniques that help people get out of cults, may be used to get out of mainline churches or organizations.  It is important to develop critical thinking skills that expose the falsity religions and cults.

Although Singer provides extensive research, her style and content could easily be read by the average person.  The fact that she recommends specific steps to counter being ensnared into cult groups does not prevent us from seeing the application of the material to denominations. - Grant Steves

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His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

While reading Philip Pullman's, His Dark Materials, you need to remind yourself that this book was marketed toward children. There are some strong themes, including violent death which are uncharacteristic of children's novels. However, with references to physics, philosophy and theology, it is easily enjoyed by adults. While I won't talk about the plot of each book there were some interesting themes that I thought worth discussing:

Daemons: This is the physical manifestation of one's soul as an animal. What I found interesting is that when a person's daemon dies, the person dies or becomes catatonic. Is there something inside people who make them people? If Terry Schiavo had a physical daemon the decision to starve her to death would have been easier to make. Unfortunately, for her, her family, and her insurance company seeing is believing, at least when it comes to human consciousness.

Dust: This is Dark Matter in our world. Dust is conscious. The church believes it is the manifestation of original sin making it the target for ultimate destruction. One character says, "for all the church's history it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. When it can't control them, it cuts them out. It tries to obliterate every good feeling." Maybe our universes aren't so parallel after all. The church makes a big deal of separating children from their daemons because Dust is less attracted to children. Thus, by cutting the child away they would never know original sin and live their lives as mindless servants to the Magesterium. That would NEVER happen in our world. Finally, we get to the controversy....

If people thought the Golden Compass was controversial than wail until they make a movie about The Amber Spy Glass. First off, this book reveals the Christian Heaven to be a lie. The children visit the land of the dead, only to find out that every one that has ever died lives in a bleak, bland world... kind of like Indiana without the racism. Then there is the criticism of organized religion. Mary Malone, the character I related most to, says of Christianity, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing lie, that's all."

Mary Malone could possibly be my number one literary hero. Her character left the Church and described it in a way every atheist can relate to. It was hard for her because she let down her family. "It felt as if something they all passionately believed in depended on me carrying on with something I didn't." Those atheists out there that have a supportive family, I envy you. For the majority of us, we are made to feel as if we did something horribly wrong, and the only way to right our crime is to lie about the way we feel. However she also describes the relief, the huge weight off her shoulders with my favorite line of the book, "Now I can do something with my whole nature, and not just half of it."

I recommend His Dark Materials not only to atheists, but to people who simply like a good book. The story is suspenseful and there is love, redemption, and all those other good things that make something worth reading. - JeannetteSorensen

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The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos

Professor Avalos has constructed a strongly argued case against the need for biblical studies in his book, The End of Biblical Studies. This attack examines the relevance of continuing studies in areas of: translation, biblical history and archeology, historical Jesus studies, literary criticism, and biblical theology. He maintains that professionals in these areas present an illusion that the Bible is relevant for our lives.

It appears, for Avalos, the religious establishment has created and maintained a profession that is a house built on shifting sand. They have taken the truth about their religious construct and hidden it beneath a web of half-truths and illusion. The paradigm of Judeo-Christian religion is at the point where Newtonian physics was in the 1920s. The accumulation of evidence against the reliability and credibility of the Bible is now at a point where we are able to identify its uninspired nature.

However, even with this acknowledged condemnatory evidence, the religious continue to sell the public on the merit of the Bible – not as literature, but as a source of history, science, and guidance in all affairs of life. In the book of 2 Timothy 3:16, the writer speaks of “all scripture being inspired by God.” Avalos would note that means all the errors and opinions in the many translations. Religionists cannot have it both ways when their own “sacred” source argues that it is “all” scripture and not just what we like.

Once Avalos argues successfully the problems of translating the Bible, he exposes other areas of weakness in biblical scholarship. Through the examination of: 1) textual problems (which text is the “Received Text”), 2) contradictions found in secular history and archeology with the biblical record, and 3) the questionable historicity of the figure of Jesus. These areas should be enough to expose the Bible as just ancient literature. However, Avalos also strikes at the theological conspiracy among theologians to keep resuscitating the Bible as the inspired word of God.

In the final chapters, Avalos examines the business of religion and biblical studies. These chapters are an exposé of how a profession, invested in keeping the Bible as a viable source, struggles to find evidence that they are right and there is an inspired word of God.

“Biblical studies as we know it should end.” – This is Avalos’ concluding comment. He wants, “… liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence.” For the business of Christian theology and religion this sounds extreme. However, from a paradigmatic point of view the Christian god has joined the pantheon of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and other ancient gods. It is now time for the priests and ministers of this failed system to join the priests of Osiris and Zeus. – Grant Steves

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Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus and chair of the religion department at Boston University, believes there is a crisis at hand in America.  The crisis is the lack of religious literacy among America's citizens.  His book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, talks in length of the problem, and offers a solution.  If only Americans knew more about the worlds religions, then society would be better off.  Religion is all around us, and yet, no one talks about it, and no one knows anything about it.  Why, we could have prevented WACO if we only gave Koresh enough time to decode the Seven Seals, rather then helping him fulfill his end times prophesy.  A Sikh was shot by a man at a gas station after 9/11, because the man thought he was a Muslim.  If only he knew the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, this killing wouldn't have happened.  Also post 9/11 problems, such as a lack of Arabic speaking people in the government, and no understanding of Islam (Bush said, "Islam is peace," Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist), could be solved with greater religious literacy.  Another problem, but less severe, is that Americans don't "get" religious references made in books, movies, plays, television, or in politics.  "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side."  George W. Bush quoted the bible in his first inaugural address, but even some members of the media were clueless and didn't know that Bush was referring to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.  "Shouldn't the people whose votes put them in office be able to understand what their elected officials are saying, to evaluate whether they are reading the Bible correctly or abusing it for partisan political purposes?," Prothero questions.

A third of Prothero's book is on the history of religion in America, basically how Protestantism spread, how Catholicism grew after years of oppression, various influxes of smaller religions, like Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism.  This section is really well done.  If you scratch your head and wonder how there are so many people who consider themselves, "Born again," this will explain how.  If you've ever wondered what role religion has played in America's schools, this will tell you all about the heavily Protestant education students received until the years after the Civil War, when the goal of the public schools was to establish moral character, rather then indoctrinating students.  Even then, this education was nonsectarian, but Protestant in practice.  America moves further away from religious literacy by popularizing Jesus after the Civil War, changing sola scriptura to sola Jesus, or the Bible alone, to Jesus alone.  This new American Jesus changes with the times.  Preachers were very successful when "Preaching Christ," rather then preaching the Bible.  This led Christianity in America to be more about raising moral Christians then raising Christians who knew the Bible, memorized commandments, prayers, or Catechism's.  Once Christianity is focused on morals, the unity with Judaism, with similar morals, is easy enough, and before you know it, America is a Judeo-Christian nation, and now a Judeo-Christian-Islamic nation.

The next third deals with the question, "How to solve the problem of religious literacy in America?"  In short, Prothero prescribes two classes as the answer.  Fitting as he is a teacher, and a teacher of religion, no less.  He orders one dose of Biblical study, and one dose of World Religion study, in public high schools.  The Bible must be taught apart from other religions because it is so important to American culture.  He believes you can't be a good citizen without a strong knowledge of the stories in the Bible.  But, because we live in a global society, we need a course on World Religions as well.  This should cover the seven major religions of the world-Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These courses would be repeated in greater depth in secondary courses as well.  In both cases, the courses should be mandatory.  Parents can choose to opt their children out of any course which they find offensive.

If you are afraid this will create an American Theocracy where the Bible is given strong emphasis over the beliefs of minority religions in America, or that Prothero's Proposal is unconstitutional, Prothero has thought of that.  Proper certification and training will be necessary for anyone teaching these courses on religion. The classes aren't unconstitutional, as they don't endorse, or support any one particular religion.  He believes there is a difference between teaching doctrine, and teaching about religion.  He contends that the current philosophy, that religion should not be made a mandatory subject, is unconstitutional, in that it supports a religion of secular humanism above all others.  But, with proper training, teachers will be able to control their inner Sunday school teacher, or their inner atheist, and objectively teach religion.  I think the controversy is understated, even though most Americans support teaching about world religions, and about using the Bible in literature, history, and social studies classes.  While I feel that knowledge of Biblical stories is helpful to keep politicians and the media in check when they use or misuse scripture to suit their own means, the Bible is tricky, because different sects treat the Bible differently, based on their faith.  This could be difficult when testing about certain books or stories.  There is a problem with teaching the Bible objectively, in that no matter how it is taught, the students will be arguing about the interpretations of passages, each arguing from their own sects foundations, and the outsiders will be looking for inaccuracies to criticise the believers.  The teacher can not criticise the Bible, and can't preach either.  That is such a fine line, I don't know if it's possible at this time in American history, to do so widely across the country.  Would a class on the Bible be taught the same in New York as in Alabama?

The last third of the book is a dictionary of religious terms every American should be familiar with.  It contains an emphasis on Christian characters and stories, but you'll also be taught the sacred texts of Hinduism, and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  Here is where Prothero's bias comes out.  He tries to be objective, prefacing certain definitions with, "according to Hinduism," or "according to Islam," however, tends to skip this preface when speaking about Christian subjects.  That may be nitpicking, but highlights how difficult it is to be completely impartial when discussing religion, even when taking care to be objective.

Americans don't know anything about religion, even their own.  The side effects are that those in power can misuse scripture, we don't understand why world cultures do what they do, and we don't understand our own cultural history.  While Prothero's goal is noble, it may be too little, too late for America.  Prothero describes himself as religiously confused, but still attends Lutheran services.  His Protestantism echoes through this book, but that should be understood as his unique background, and explains any bias which may be in his book.  While you may not agree with Prothero's Proposal, this book is valuable in describing the history of religion in America, and why things are the way they are today.  Religious Literacy is published by HarperSanFrancisco and is available in most book stores, and as an audiobook. - Bjorn Watland


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