Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Which I Fear the Gods Exceedingly: My Visit to the New York Shamanic Circle

It’s true, it’s true, I ran out on the shamanic circle. But let me explain.

There was a long buildup to this visit – it took forever to find out whether the shamanic circle was even going to meet last weekend. First I heard yes. Then I heard maybe and, then, again, call back later, because, maybe. My contact seemed unsure whether the guest-star shaman was going to show up at all. I called back the very day the shamanic circle was supposed to happen, which was a Friday, and was finally given a confirm, that yes, the shaman was coming, the newbie-friendly Open Circle was going to happen.

I had actually wanted to go to the Saturday session led by this guest shaman, wherein they were going to summon Ipupiara (a fresh-water dolphin) from the Ureu-eu wau-wau (the people of the stars) tribe, who was going to “share with us for the first time the concept and healing methods used in his native Amazon to remove evil spirits, evil eyes and attachment of bad spirits.” However, I was told that this session was not for beginners, and in any case it would cost $120. So I settled for the open circle.

The circle met at an elementary school in Tribeca, in a regular school building. I walked up to the main door, saw there was a receptionist, and thought to myself “Am I really going to ask this harried receptionist where the shaman is at? Is she going to think I’m totally out of my mind?”

I was tempted to just leave the building, but I have committed to my new religion-hunting hobby for better or for worse, so I had no choice but to ask. The woman was juggling three phone lines and a whole lost-looking family standing in front of her, but she immediately nodded and pointed toward the stairs. “Third floor auditorium.”

“Oh, good, an auditorium,” I told the Companionable Atheist. “This means we aren’t going to have to, like, interact.” I imagined the two of us sitting peacefully in the back of a large room, behind a couple of very high backed wooden chairs, as the shaman performed his art for a quiet, appreciative audience.

Instead, the third floor auditorium turned out to be a gymnasium, with fans blasting at all the windows, and mats laid out in a gigantic circle (a square, really) on the floor. About 40 people were already there, sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the mats. In the middle of the circle lay a stretched out sheet with a pile of ritual objects on it: candles, wooden rattles and drums, flowers, sea shells.

Though the room was mostly full, I walked over to the nearest mat, confident that people would scootch over and greet me with open arms, as they had greeted me basically everywhere else I had ever gone.

“Is someone sitting here?” I asked the closest woman. The woman stared up at me blankly. “Yes. See the handkerchief?” She turned away.

I backed away awkwardly and tried another gap on the other side of the room. “Excuse me, is someone sitting here?” Another blank stare. “Yeah.” I couldn’t believe it. I tried my adorable pathetic look. “Do you see anywhere around here I could sit? I’m having a hard time.” She shook her head. “No, I really don’t.” And again, she turned away.

Finally I just decided I was going to sit down whether they liked it or not, and if a spirit needed to move me, I would just move then. The Companionable Atheist and I squeezed onto the corner of a mat and I checked out the crowd, which included people of various ethnicities, in normal garb, with a touch of the hippie (a guy in a button-down shirt with a foot-long ponytail; a woman in a pastel cardigan with big seashell earrings). Some of them were super-hippied out (dreadlocks and batik overalls) but the rest were decidedly normal looking. In other words, it was no stranger looking a crowd than your average subway car contains.

A few minutes after we sat down, people started banging drums and hitting their rattles, in a pretty fast unison beat. I stole two rattles from the center of the circle, and was not yelled at for doing so. The banging went on for about 15 minutes, reminding me a little bit of the construction that is currently underway in my office building. I briefly worried that the entire 90 minute service would just be drumming, but eventually the drumming stopped and we got a “welcome everybody." The guest star, a shaman from Brazil, got a special welcome, and he gave a thoughtful nod of acknowledgment.

We passed a candle around the circle and said our name out loud, and the whole group repeated our names back to us. The shaman, a middle aged Brazilian guy with long hair, decent English, and a little bit of a paunch, told us, “Once a circle like this is created, it exists forever.”

The Companionable Atheist and I looked at each other. We had already resigned ourselves to becoming Mormons in the afterlife (since they believe that people can be converted after their deaths), so the thought that we were already going to be claimed by a shamanic circle for eternity kind of threw us for a loop. “Can I be a Mormon and be in a shamanic circle?” I asked. I don’t know how anyone could find the answer to this deeply modern theological question, but somebody really ought to look into it.

Then four volunteers got up, lit big seashells full of some kind of spruce-smelling incense, and held them in front of each person in the circle. The people waved the incense onto their bodies like they were washing themselves in it, or swimming in it. I studied the gesture as it was passed around the room (maybe there’s a certain number of times you’re supposed to wash your head, and then your body, and then your head again), but I’m not sure I got it right. The volunteers didn’t care. They were nice, and they were patient with everyone’s different needs for incense bathing. I found this energy-clearing to be very enjoyable.

Then we cleared our energies with sound. The same volunteers came around and shook seashell rattles above our heads, in front of us, and in circles around us. This was also pleasant.

Then we faced in each of the four directions and at the request of the Brazilian shaman, repeated the Brazilian name for each direction. He himself was cool as a cucumber, but he got a little bit into the MC shtick here, telling us we weren’t reciting the names loud enough.

Then the drumming started again, and everyone started dancing, skipping or shuffling in a circle around the pile of ritual objects. Kind of a freestyle session, I guess. People were singing, howling, or chanting in monotone whatever they felt like saying. I stood and watched, and got kind of looked over by everyone as they passed me in their circle dance. Most of these looks were much friendlier than the freezing cold reception I’d gotten when I came in. Still, the scrutiny was intimidating, and the circling mob was starting to disorient me.

So I started cracking up. The grin that I always get when somebody starts telling me about energies came and parked itself on my face, and it wouldn’t go away. The harder I tried to restore my solemn Exploring Other Cultures face, the harder the grin came back. And soon, I realized it was hopeless. The freestyling was about to end, the journeys would start, it would get really quiet, and I’d be laughing uncontrollably in the back of the room. This would be embarrassing for me and offensive to the shamanic devotees. My energies would screw everybody up, and the healing dolphin would not arrive.

I got up and basically ran out of the room, with the Companionable Atheist (who had dutifully maintained his own poker face) in pursuit.

And that was the end of Exploring Other Cultures for that evening. I went home and had a couple of drinks, regretting that I’d missed the journeys (guided meditation), but glad that I’d left before anyone had to throw me out.

I don’t know why the shamans got to me so badly. I think it was the change in format – at most religious events I’ve been to, I’ve been able to sit in the back and watch (and pass judgment) on everyone without being watched in return. This won’t fly in a shamanic circle. Everyone watches your face, and I was positive that all the shamanic devotees were reading my thought bubble of “you guys are all crazy.”

Then again, I’m also fighting against the feeling of being part of a group, which is of course a very seductive feeling. If there are 45 of them, and only one of you, and they’re all doing the same thing and feeling the same thing and you’re not, their group behaviors, which would seem lunatic in any other context, create a powerful gravitational pull. But I couldn’t do it, just like I wouldn’t have been able to take communion. Ritual behavior has its own logic. If you do it - if you're part of the circle - that means you are it, and you are helping to create it. And I just couldn’t. I don’t believe in cleansing energies. I don’t believe that a shaman can see a cancer or summon a dolphin or cure an ailment. I couldn’t even stand watching people who did believe these things. The cognitive dissonance was just too great, even though if I met them in any other context, I might like quite a few of them.

It’s funny, I was recently taught about a text where the ancients are arguing this same point. In Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, there’s a passage where the rabbi tries to convince the king of the Khazars that his religion is the only true one. He does so essentially by telling the Khazari king that he isn’t going to try to convince him, because there’s no point. His own people have received God’s revelation, so he believes it. He says:
“If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

The Khazar king retorts,
How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

The rabbi reasons,
But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me.

The Rabbi:
How wouldst thou, then, if asked, describe him?

Al Khazari:
In terms about which I am quite clear, and to these I could add others which were at first rather doubtful, but are no longer so.

The Rabbi:
In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: 'The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,' viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: 'The God of heaven and earth,' nor 'my Creator and thine sent me.' In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: 'I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,' but He did not say: 'I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.' Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

On its face, this passage seems perfectly reasonable. If you experience something – if its truth is proven to you directly – you should believe in it. But there’s a hole here, of course – through most of its history, Israel knew of God’s miracles through tradition rather than direct experience. Uninterrupted tradition, okay, that’s great. But doesn’t “tradition” kind of foul up the notion of proof?

The rabbi feels such a kinship, such a sense of peoplehood and of oneness with his ancestors that he believes whatever they tell him must be true. At first I thought that here was the difference between the ancients and the moderns – there is no group of people with whom I feel such a sense of kinship that I’d take whatever they told me on face value like that.

Then I figured out that wasn’t true. Most of the ludicrously implausible things that I believe have been “proven” (subatomic particles; the solar system) I am actually taking entirely on faith. Dave Barry has this great bit about how subatomic physicists actually spend their gigantic government grants on booze, then lie around, get drunk, point at their multibillion dollar equipment and shriek “There goes another one!!!” I believe whatever those guys tell me. My prophets are Google and the New York Times. Am I really better than the shamanic believers here here?

Then again, they believe that a magical person can heal their bodies by touching them and reciting things and talking to invisible, imperceptible beings. So, yes, I am.

Then again, throughout history, most people have believed in magic, in miraculous healing and in supernatural powers. Today, 73% of Americans believe in miracles, and 68% believe in angels. I look at these numbers and feel the “rational” world kind of dropping away. Robert Orsi recently wrote an essay in the American Scholar that argued that historians needed a new vocabulary to describe human interaction with the supernatural, which is, after all, the norm in human experience rather than the exception.

This is the language I’m groping for, too. “True” and “false” aren’t quite holding up to the challenge. Particularly in an elementary school gym, heated to 90 degrees and scented by incense, staring at two miracle-working shamans and the 45 shuffling, dancing, ululating, perfectly normal-looking New Yorkers who love them.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

In Process

Hi all,

This past weekend I visited a shamanic circle, which made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave in the middle of it. Stay tuned for a full account of this event, which may take me some time to put together.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Witch Class

Last weekend I went to a witchcraft class in the East Village. I was expecting gloomy Goths and unreformed hippies, the kind who still live in the woods around where I grew up in North Carolina.

Instead I found a really great witch, whom I will not name because I do not want to clog up her Google results. I'll call her Moone.

Moone was neither Goth nor scary aging hippie. She was a friendly, cheerful, bustling, buxom lady, maybe in her mid 30s, in a long flowing skirt and a bright green tank top that allowed much of the buxom to flow over the top of it. She'd just moved the class to a community center in the East Village since she'd overflowed her previous space. She was maybe Caribbean by way of Canada. She seemed to enjoy her religion a great deal.

I took an immediate liking to Moone, who waved us all into the pastel-colored community center and sat us down in a circle. There were a couple of earnest young men, one of whom was clearly the teacher's pet and had maybe had some kind of special relationship with Moone, or had at any rate spent a fair amount of time receiving private tutelage. There were a couple of earnest, adorable young women, one couple wo had rode in on a motorcycle, an 18 year old Goth who slept through most of the class (Sunday mornings can be hard on teenagers), a boomer-aged Hispanic guy who said absolutely nothing, and a couple of boomer-aged women who talked a lot. Like the kids in section who think they know as much as the professor. They drove me nuts.

Moone's two hour class (for which she charged the modest sum of $5) discussed some of her favorite spells and where one could find them. Apparently, many great spells can be found on the internet. And just to be clear, these spells require nothing sinister except maybe spending a little too much money at Whole Foods.

I'll provide one sample spell for you free of charge:

To Attract Money:

You'll need a green candle, 5 silver coins, a small jar filled with sea water, your magick wand, Money Drawing Incense, Mmoney Drawing Oil, Charcoal, Matches, and Jasmine< Basil or Marigold herbs or seeds.

On the night of the full moon, go into the woods or by the sea to a spot where four paths cross (if possible, if not, improvise). Here you will inscribe with your wand a large circle with a pentagram in the center. Dig a small hole in the very center and place the jar in it so the top half is exposed to the moonlight. Place the green candle on top of the jar. Light the candle as you chant the following:

My Lady of the Abundant Sea,
Bring me Wealth and Prosperity.

Now take the silver coins and place one on each point of the pentagram as you chant the following:

Silver Coins that Sparkle Bright,
Increase my Wealth Five-Fold This Night.

When the small candle is completely burned out, open the jar. Pick up each of the silver coins one at a time, an dplace them in the jar as you chant the following:

Earth to Sea, Earth to Sea,
Bring me the Money I Now See.
As I will, So Mote It Be!

Sprinkle a drop or two of water on the ground and thank the Goddess for her blessings. Bring the water home with you and anoint yourself with it every day until it is gone. Snuff out the candle and take it home to continue it's work. You can also carry a pouch filled with jasmine, basil and marigold seeds, drops of money oil, candle droppings. Place oil on hands and on all your bills.

During the class, we walked through spells such as these, and people raised their hands if they asked questions. They were mostly how-to questions, like "Where can I find almond oil" and "what if I hate the smell of jasmine." Moone's answers were generally kind versions of "do the best you can."

I actually really enjoyed the haphazard nature of Moone's witchcraft. If your spell doesn't work, maybe it just wasn't meant to happen, or maybe you had a cold, or maybe your prayer was actually answered, just in a different way. I got the feeling she didn't take the whole thing too seriously - unlike some of the "experts" in the room, who got in arguments with each other over whether you can use oil from the supermarket ("there are all kinds of bad energies in the supermarket") and whether you can really raise magical energies by having sex, or whether all those energies will just end up being dissipated because you'll keep getting distracted by the sex.

"I've done it," one of the middle-aged students said smugly. "You just really have to concentrate." She started lecturing the rest of the class about this, to our horror, and to the annoyance of Moone, who turned away towards her other students and mumbled "That's bullshit. Nobody can do that." Mostly, though, Moone took this counter-lecturing with good grace.

A confession: I used to do this. I don't even think my mom knew that. I went to a hippie school, and in the sixth grade, there was a witchcraft fad, the same way there would later be a Converse sneakers fad and a knitting fad. My inspiration was Joyce, a very cool fellow sixth grader, who even had an altar in her room (she kept precious stones there, and we weren't allowed to touch it, because it would disturb the energies). And, okay, I had some precious stones maybe sitting around too, and maybe I read some books from the library about making offerings to the earth and the different energies of different types of herbs. It was just - cool. I gave up more because I was embarassed about it than because I had any spiritual objections to it or because I "realized" it wouldn't work. I don't think I ever really thought it would work. It was just fun. I've always had trouble with the abstract nature of "pure" religion - with thinking about a God who cannot be imagined or described. Rituals you can hold in your hands are very, very appealing sometimes.

Witchcraft is also different from any of the other religions I've researched because it's so anti-authoritarian. You can go to conventions and group bonfires and rites and such if you like, but really, you don't have to. You can just do it on your own, like Starr, and cast a million protection spells on your kids, and find pretty stones, and oils that smell good, and rituals on the internet that feel right, or write your own. You don't have to go to anybody's sermon or donate any money to anyone. You don't have to take orders from anyone. Witchcraft supports eclectic, practical prayer, and you hold things in your hands that help you focus on your prayer, and nobody else really has to know.

At my job, I hear a lot of rhetoric about how great and important community is. But a lot of the time, community is just a group of people who tell you you're doing it wrong and drive you crazy.

Forget those people. Go out into the woods and light yourself some candles. Why not?

Moone is great. You can hire her for private parties. Write me and I'll send you her email address.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soporific Ethics, and a Great Central Park View: The Society for Ethical Culture, Manhattan

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about my experiences at the Society for Ethical Culture this weekend. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that it just wasn’t very interesting. And it was also a little depressing.

The Ethical Culturists own a truly gigantic building right on Central Park West. Their view of the park is fabulous. Their deal is that every Sunday, instead of a worship service, they have a lecture from an academic or somesuch person about an important ethical topic. Their slogan – displayed prominently in their sanctuary – is “Where People Come To Seek The Highest is Holy Ground.” They’d changed it to “People” from “Mankind” 20 years ago, and they were still talking about it. Three different Ethical Culturists referred to this change on three separate occasions over the course of 75 minutes. This gives you some idea of the glacial pace of change at the Society for Ethical Culture.

I walked into the ceremonial hall. Plain, simple, dark brown wood. Chairs instead of pews. Stained glass windows depicting families standing in noble postures of familial concern. (At the front of the room, instead of any kind of altar, they have a mirror…. You get it, right? You yourself are what is holy.)

There were about 35 people there. The demographic breakdown was as follows:

People in their 20s: me and my friend and another member’s young son (3 total)
People in their 30s: 0 total
People in their 40s: maybe 2 total
People in their 50s: maybe 2 total
People in their 60s, 70s, or 80s: maybe 28 total.

That was it.

Last week was the anniversary of the establishment of their Society, so they had an open afternoon lecture where members of the Society gave testimony about why they joined it. “Ooh, testimony!” I thought to myself. “Surely, through testimony, I will learn about the burning heart of this tradition – what draws people to participate in it and what binds them to it.” I thought about the Mormon testimonials I’d seen, where desperately sincere 20somethings stood up and talked about how Jesus and the Mormon Church had changed their entire lives, saved their souls, brought them deep spiritual contentment. I thought that this was going to be great.

Instead, five elderly members of the church got up and told very boring five minute stories about when they were young children on the Upper West Side, they realized that God didn’t exist, so they didn’t know where to go to find people like themselves, and then they found the Society, and everyone was so friendly, and everyone was so ethical, and now they sing in the choir.

That was it.

It’s too bad, really. You couldn’t find a nicer, gentler group of people who were more dedicated to left wing principles and to not doing anybody any harm. According to their literature – though I saw no evidence of this – they have a long tradition of social justice and social action. But what I saw was more like a group of kind elderly friends who agree on the principles of right living, and who gather and discuss these principles now and again. Well, honestly, even more passive than that - they listen to lectures on these principles. I saw no passion, no strength, nothing directed outward to the world.

The “Senior Leader” (pastor) seemed aware that this was an issue. He’d structured the afternoon meeting as an open house, so more people “from the community” would want to walk in and learn about what the Ethical Culturists did (in a gentle, non-judgmental, non-intrusive fashion). But there was nothing to draw us in. And the Senior Leader hardly seemed upset. Coming from the Jewish community, where testimonials about impending demographic catastrophe serve as preambles to just about every single goddamn communal conversation, I was totally startled by the Ethical Culturists’ calm in the face of their certain extinction. Particularly since most of them were Jewish.

Before the boring stories started, I actually asked the one member who seemed aware that newcomers were in the house, “Why is everyone here so old?” (Though I asked it more politely than that). She nodded thoughtfully and said that it was true, that virtually all the children and grandchildren of the Ethical Culturists had either become completely secular, or they had reverted to the religions of their grandparents or great-grandparents. She was not really sure why this was the case.

Are we really such primitive people that ethical behavior without any kind of smells, bells, rituals or supernatural beings holds no appeal for us beyond a single generation? I saw a dying culture last weekend. I saw a group that represented not the start of an enlightened new tradition, but that represented the end, the remnants of a progressive idea that had failed to perpetuate itself.

To tell the truth, I didn’t find it very appealing either. It was a bunch of Jews who’d built for themselves a very gentle, very secular kind of something that gave off a very polite little odor of twice-shampooed Episcopalianism or Methodism. I wish them the best of luck, but I’m never going back.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Order, Disorder, and a Brief Encounter with a Messianic Jew

"It takes a lot more awareness to be a Jewish Catholic than to be an Irish Catholic," the guy with the Jewish mom and the Catholic dad told me earnestly last night at Mary Help of Christians Church, which is closing its doors permanently this coming weekend. (Well, actually, it's going to become a "Church of Convenience," under the auspices of the surviving neighboring parish, but none of the locals seemed to know what that meant. Nor did they much care for the idea.)

The thing was, I kind of got what he was saying.

I can listen to anybody. I ask the right questions, and when I concentrate, I can put myself in anybody's shoes. I am Little Miss Pluralism. When bright-eyed youngsters tell me that the practicing Catholic ("Jewish Catholic") guy is Jewish and I'm not (because his mom was born Jewish and mine wasn't) I can nod thoughtfully and smile. I can nod thoughtfully and smile at anybody.

Except... except the Messianic Jew who I also met last night at Mary Help of Christians, who'd been worshiping with his Catholic fiancee at this East Village church since their college graduation. "Finding Jesus just enhanced my Jewishness," he told me thoughtfully, widening his big, earnest blue eyes for emphasis. "I'd been a Jew all my life, but I always felt like I was never good enough. And now I do."

As I must have mentioned, I'm a little bit of a junkie for uncomfortable religious situations. Every time I go into into a house of worship - whether of my own religion or of someone else's - I get this little tingly feeling of "I really don't belong here. God lives here. Wait, what is God? This is creepy." It took a long time for me to figure out why I'm attracted to this feeling, but I think I finally get it - I''m trying to really get in touch with my own prejudice. Because I was so gently reared. After eight years of Quaker school, six years of politically correct prep school, four years at a global university with students of all different backgrounds, and two years of working at an organization promoting religious pluralism, I really shouldn't have any prejudice left.

But oh, I promise you, I've still got plenty. And a lot of it came to the surface last night talking to the Messianic Jew. The Evil Demon of Prejudging Somebody For Their Religion leapt onto my shoulder, and I froze, and I couldn't think of any more thoughtful questions to ask him, any way to find out more about his religious journey without showing him my profound dismay.

I was raised to despise and fear Messianic Jews. I'm sorry, but I just was. My hometown rabbi was perfectly respectful of Christians, but he always sort of feared that when he sent his young flock off to college, Jesus might get them, and particularly Jesus might get them through the sophisticated wiles of the Jews for Jesus, with whom we could dance a hearty hora and then - lulled by this familiarity - with whom we might show a monumental lapse of good judgment and accept the Lamb of God into our hearts.

Jewish leadership talks about pluralism and openness and cultural exchange constantly - but when they think nobody's looking, they're still counting heads. Who married out? Who married in? How many kids are they having? How many are we gaining? How many are we losing? Why is it taking her so long to finish her Ph. D.? Doesn't she know how fast her eggs go stale after the age of 30?

The Jews for Jesus (they are just one particular organization of Messianic Jews, with a strong brand identity) freak us out because they think they're in - but really, they believe in Jesus, which pretty much makes them Christians.

Oddly, the Jewish community as a whole is far more tolerant of the Chabad-Lubavich, who maintain that the rabbi came and his name was Menachem Mendel Schneerson and he died in the early 90s but maybe he didn't really die and maybe he's actually coming back. According to the Companionable Atheist, whose dictum is that the absurdity of a religion is directly proportional to how recently it claims to have witnessed miraculous acts, this makes the Chabad-Lubavich even crazier than the Scientologists (and way crazier than Christians as a whole). But mainstream Jews tolerate the Jews-Who-Think-Schneerson-Is-Christ in our midst; allow them to hang out at our schools and give us super-kosher matzahs and harass us about performing mitzvot that most of us never even heard of, whereas we really, really, really don't care for the Jews-Who-Think-Jesus-Is-Christ.

I was once taught that Jewish cosmogony and Jewish practice identified the holy as that which is divided from the ordinary, or even the dividing force itself. God divided day from night, men from women, the sabbath from the week day. In our religious practice (which most of us don't practice), we are told to divide milk from meat, menstrual days from child-conceiving days, wool thread from linen thread, men from women. The OCD part of my brain finds these divisions very appealing. Each thing in its place. The world and the calendar take shape, fighting chaos. The mixing of Jewish stuff and Christian stuff? To a, like, profound religious thinker, this creates a truly profound chaos.

Although really, to most people, it's like, what's the big God damn deal if you want to have a Christmas tree. And, of course, I see that point of view too.

If pluralism only flourishes in public spaces - if you can attend Catholic Mass with a messianic Jew and be welcomed with open arms and discover you share many of the same values and you're really just all humans striving to do the best - but if all of this Sharing really just fills you with the uncontrollable urge to run home and share the experience with all the people who are most like you and laugh and tear your hair and laugh some more - does this kind of pluralism really count?

Let me be a poser annoying academic here and answer No and Yes.

No, it doesn't count, because in my heart of hearts, I'm not that comfortable with people who are different than me.

Yes, it does count, because we're not chasing each other with swords, and while pluralism may give you a headache, a guy with a sword would certainly give you a worse one.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Religious Symbols the US Army Will Put On Your Tombstone, Part II

If you scroll down to the bottom of this list, most recently made famous for its inclusion of the Wiccan pentacle, you will see the following "fine print:"

No graphics (logos, symbols, etc.) are permitted on Government-furnished headstones or markers other than the approved emblems of belief, the Civil War Union Shield, the Civil War Confederate Southern Cross of Honor, and the Medal of Honor insignias.

In other words - the US Government will acknowledge your membership in any of the following groups:

1.) Your religious community
4.) Group of soldiers who are very brave in battle.

Obviously, the way we live is more important than what we put on our tombstones. But if you are given the chance to sum it all up - to declare your allegiance to one group, for once and for all, after paying the ultimate price, in the year 2007 - why are you allowed to declare what side you'd have joined in a war that ended in 1865? Is this declaration a statement of equivalent value to a statement of religious faith?

We live in a very strange country.

Joseph Smith and his Times

"Any theory of the origins of the Book of Mormon that spotlights the prophet and blacks out the stage on which he performed is certain to be a distortion. For the book can best be explained, not by Joseph's ignorance nor by his delusions, but by his responsiveness to the provincial opinions ofhis time. He had neither the diligence nor the constancy to master reality. But his mind was open to all intellectual influences, from whatever province they might blow. if his book is monotonous today, it is because the frontier fires are long since dead and the burning questions that the book answered are ashes."

-Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Do You Do With Your Holy Book, and Where Are You Going To Put All Those Icons?: The St. George Greek Orthodox Church on 54th Street

When nobody’s speaking English, how do you make sense of what’s going on in a worship service?

I decided to visit the Greek Orthodox church on 54th Street partly because it was very close to my apartment, and Fear Not The Gods does not love to travel long distances on Sunday mornings to pay tribute to foreign gods. But I also chose to visit the church because it advertised “Worship Service in Greek AND English.” That sounded just about right, I reasoned. Enough Greek to get the flavor of the time-honored tradition, but mostly it would be an English service with the familiar elements I would recognize from the Protestant services I have attended.

Not so. Fear Not The Gods, the Companionable Atheist, and the Grandmother of Fear Not The Gods took ourselves to St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s last Sunday for the morning worship service, which we managed to sit quietly and observe for approximately 70 minutes. Approximately three of these minutes were devoted to prayers or readings in English. The rest of the time, obviously, they spoke Greek.

Why This Church Is Kind Of Jewish

If you could ignore the architecture, you might be able to say that the Greek Orthodox Church is the most, um, Jewish of all the churches out there these days. They spend the first hour or so of the worship service singing a couple songs, listening to the Chanter(aka the chazzan). The “eastern” key and the ornamented single-voice melodies of these songs are very familiar to me. Then there’s some prayer, then somebody walks around and holds up a copy of a silver-covered book, which is second in importance only to the part where you eat Jesus's body and drink his blood (okay, that part is not very Jewish). They read a short excerpt from the book. Then comes the communion, and then it’s over and you can go have lunch.

Why it isn't
However, one cannot ignore the architecture, even in a church like 54th Street, which is in the grand scheme of Orthodox Churches, a very minor and modest single-room establishment. Truth be told, it had a sort of a King Tut’s tomb look about it – a lot of gorgeous, gilded, decorated things all jumbled together. The walls were covered with mural paintings of the Stations of the Cross, and Mary and Jesus and whatnot, and liberally ornamented in gold. The paintings were in that austere Eastern style, with Jesus and Mary very pale and thin and staring at you with wide serious eyes. Orthodox Jesuses and Maries also have very good posture, unlike those Roman Catholic Jesuses and Marys, who collapse against each other and against the crosses, in the dramatic fashion that was clearly very exciting to Italian painters.

This church had layers on top of layers of decoration. Icons and paintings of Jesus and Mary and the saints were propped against the painted walls. We guessed that maybe these were donations from the various parishioners’ families, and how could the church establishment refuse to take them, even if they were cluttering up the place?

The front of the room was just as elaborately decorated as the front of the Hare Krishnas’ sanctuary, and even more cluttered (though no life-sized wax statues). There was a screened off portion in the very back, covered in latticework, where we found out later in the service that some priests had been lurking, and in front of the screened off places were wooden and golden crucifixes of various sizes, wreaths of real flowers and fake flowers, a big Greek flag, a big American flag, something made out of evergreen branches, more paintings, more icons, several carved wooden podiums, a table with chalices and brightly covered cloths and other holy paraphernalia on it, several lecterns, and one incongruous microphone that one of the priests kept having to noisily move as he shifted his position. Other priests kept coming out and doing things on the altar table that we couldn’t quite see because they were facing away from us. We thought this was somewhat inconsiderate.

We Take Our Places
There were only about 20 people there when the service started, mostly older, and mostly women, and we were clearly the only first timers, because we were the only ones looking at the books and the only ones who weren’t crossing ourselves at appropriate moments in the liturgy.

When you can’t figure out what’s going on, first you try looking in the prayer book. The prayer book, in this case, was a three-ring binder with about twenty pages of prayers in it. The entire service in Greek was written on the left hand side of the page, and the entire service in English was written on the right hand page. As I mentioned, 95% of the time, the prayer leader was using the Greek, and when he used the English, he seemed to be using a different translation from the one printed in the book. We tried to keep up.

I know that sounds easy, but this worship service was complicated. The text itself was mostly your standard things about praising God (very little petitioning God, very little talk about peace for all humanity – the Greek Orthodox seem to stay very focused). We kept hitting new sections and losing our places when they started again in Greek. There was some call and response, where it was written in the text that the priest should say one thing and the worshippers should say something in response. In the religious services I’m used to, this is very simple, because the rabbi slows down and makes sure everyone’s on the same page. In this service, the guy who was singing most of the songs took the place of the congregation in reading the response. I mean, there was one old lady I saw who was doing the responses, but mostly everyone was just standing there.

Occasionally they’d stop and one of the priests would swing some bells and incense around (like the altar, the strings of bells were cluttered - there were about 20 bells on his string, of all different shapes and sizes).

The Father Is Going To Walk Through There
We had been sitting quietly for about fifteen minutes, minding our own business, when one of the old ladies got up and came back to our row and shooed us out of it, admonishing us in Greek as she did so. "English?" I asked meekly, and she said "The Father, he is going to walk through there." And soon enough, he did, processing to the back of the room and back.

There was a lot of choreography in the service. There was the chanter in black robes, who stood in one place for basically the whole service, sang all the songs, and read the parts marked "congregation" in the reader. There was the priest with a wrap around his shoulders, who made only guest appearances from his back room to read important prayers from the Greek. Sometimes he prayed out loud in a low voice while the chanter sang loudly over him. This was a very cool effect. There was a third priest in dark brown robes, who seemed to be doing most of the gofer work, and there was a fourth priest who only came out when things were getting very important with the communion.

There was only one guest star – a woman who got up and chanted – in English, but to a Greek melody – an excerpt from the Gospels, about how the Hellenes chastised the Hebrews for spending too much time in the study house and not enough taking care of the women and the poor, and some of the head honcho Hebrews said, you know the Hellenes have a point, and seven of them volunteered to go help out the poor and the women so that the ones in the study house wouldn’t get harassed about this kind of thing anymore and could go back to their studies.

Then the priest carried a big rectangular book around. It was covered with silver decorations. He read another excerpt from the text. Ah, the holy book, the CA and I said to each other wisely. We get this.

We left when it seemed that everyone was gearing up to take communion. We were just too dazed by the language barrier to keep going, plus we would be the only ones sitting in our row and refusing to take it...

As I mentioned, in some ways, I found this service to be the most familiar of any non-Jewish service that I have attended. The structure of the service was incredibly complicated, but it was stabilizing. There were candles and there was a holy book. There was Eastern music. The iconography and the communion, of course, were totally alien to my tradition. Plus, this was the least outwardly friendly service I attended. It was totally frontal, and almost no congregational members participated. The priests were busy! This wasn't about personal testimonial - there just wasn't time. There was stuff to get done. THe service was distinctly of and for people of Greek ethnicity, but not in the generic, schmaltzy way that Americans (as Matthew Jacobson explains in his brilliant book Roots Too) are used to expecting ethnicity to be presented to them. This wasn't about bringing new people in. This was about - they had 2000 years of approved traditional things to do, and they had to get through them. If you wanted to be there, that was great, but it wasn't necessary.

The church did seem to be conscious of how it would come across to outsiders. My three-ring binder contained an entire page of explanation of why non-Orthodox Christians, even those baptized in other churches in good standing, would not be able to take communion at the Greek Orthodox worship service. Basically, it said "our tradition is very old, we've been doing it this way forever, this is the right way to do it, and while we respect you and we're glad you're here, if you're not part of it we're not going to try to act like you're part of it." In a way, I found this extremely comforting. When people greet you at a worship service, whether you accept it or not, they're making you part of their religious experience. These ones said, we're not going to try to bring you in, so let's not pretend we are. Come, and witness, and leave. We'll keep doing our thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

RELIGIONS THE US ARMY WILL PUT ON YOUR TOMB STONE, PART 1: Eckanar: Religion of the Sight and Sound of God

After about three minutes of research, here is what I know about Eckanar, which has a logo officially recognized by the United States Army.

Eckankar is ancient wisdom for today. Its teachings, which resurfaced in 1965, emphasize the value of personal experiences as the most natural way back to God. Whatever your religious background, they show how to look and listen within yourself—to expand your consciousness and enjoy spiritual freedom. See, perhaps for the first time, how to lead a happy, balanced, and productive life and put daily concerns into loving perspective.

This guy is the current leader of Eckanar.

This is the symbol that you can put on your tombstone if you are his follower.

The basic beliefs are the following:

Soul is eternal and is the individual's true identity.
Soul exists because God loves It.
Soul is on a journey of Self- and God-Realization.
Spiritual unfoldment can be accelerated through conscious contact with the ECK, Divine Spirit.
This contact can be made via the Spiritual Exercises of ECK and the guidance of the Living ECK Master.
The Mahanta, the Living ECK Master is the spiritual leader of Eckankar.
Spiritual experience and liberation in this lifetime are available to all.
You can actively explore the spiritual worlds through Soul Travel, dreams, and other spiritual techniques.

Religious Symbols Provided to You On Your Tombstone by the US Military

These symbols now include the Wiccan Pentacle, as you may have recently heard in the news.

A lot of the other symbols are worth looking at too, though. The Christian Scientist symbol and the Muslim symbol that are not depicted "due to copyrights."

The Eckanar? The United Church of Religious Science?

Fear Not The Gods will investigate these religions further.

UPDATED: To me, what's interesting here is that in death, all these beliefs are treated the same. You get to check one box - you have a few square inches of logo space to express what you stood for. Atheism, Christianity, United Methodism, IZUMO TAISHAKYO MISSION OF HAWAII. "Religion," in a sense, is defined by what goes on your tombstone. It's like, in Jackson Mississippi, people ask you what's your name, where are you from, and what Church do you attend here in Jackson. "Temple Beth Israel" is a perfectly acceptable response to this question. Cause, duh, it's the Jewish church.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Long Stories and the Hare Krishnas, Part III

As the lecture began to wind up, people started slipping out to get a good place in line for dinner. The Companionable Atheist and I stayed mostly to the end, and learned that we were supposed to be good to other people for the sake of God. "What about the announcements?" I asked him. This has become sort of a running joke between us - whenever the worshippers get most antsy, that's probably when the announcements are about to take place.

Then we went down to dinner to meet the Sunday school teacher and his wife. As we walked in the dining room, a purposeful local intersected us J(almost a body check, really - they're probably used to some serious moochers) and told us to go up and out and into a different line. "But we're with him!" we announced righteously, and pointed to the Sunday school teacher, whose fraternity sweatshirt made him easy to pick out from the other side of the room.

The Sunday school teacher had a bunch of other things to take care of, which seemed to include herding an unruly bunch of elementary school-aged kids who weren't quite willing to end their previous activity, drumming class. (Musicians know how this is. Drummers are never willing to lay down their weapons). The Sunday school teacher gave us a harassed wave. Somehow he collared one of his charges, and before we could say "no thank you, we'll do it ourselves," the kid had gone and brought us plates of delicious Indian vegetarian food (dairy okay, no meat and no eggs). We said thanks but the kid had already gone. The Sunday school teacher rejoined us and gestured at the kids apologetically. "Earlier this afternoon we were actually teaching them lessons, which was a little..." "but yeah, they really like the music stuff."

Okay, so good to know that the Jewish professionals tearing their hair out about the fact that their kids are bored in Sunday school, at least they're not alone!

Finally he managed to sit down with us, and his wife soon joined him. I noticed that while he assumed we wanted the Indian food (we did) the two of them had both opted for pizza (the pizza also looked good). Another couple was also sitting at our table - a bearded guy and a girl with blue-tipped hair. Ah, maybe these are hippies, I thought to myself. I'd been on the lookout for hippies ever since my pre-Sunday Wikipedia search had revealed that in the 60s "Hare Krishnas became confused with the hippie subculture." See, I don't know why I said I hadn't done any research.

But they were not hippies, really. The guy was a Catholic student theologian (interestingly, he had been raised an evangelical Christian, just like the devoted Episcopalian guy I met in January). He was studying the overlap between the Hindu tradition of illustration/pantheon and the early Christian illustration tradition. I am probably not describing his thesis very well (Jon, if you're reading this, please correct me). He was studying this stuff at a seminary in Belgium, where he had apparently discovered a great number of similarities between the two traditions. He explained this.

The Sunday school teacher responded with many further tales from the Mahabharata. Stories on stories and stories. He told us another story about how Karna's teacher found out that he was a warrior - because a bug bit him on the leg and it bled a lot but he didn't stop doing what he was doing, which was sitting peacefully with his teacher snoozing in his lap. So when his teacher woke up and found Karna sitting peacefully in a pool of his own blood ("Good morning!") he realized that he was a warrior. I asked, kind of to be obnoxious, why Karna's invincible armor didn't stop the bug from biting him. I thought this was a joke, but the Sunday school teacher answered seriously, "Well, there's actually another story about that."

So, inevitably, I had to pull out the "Yeah, and I'm a Jew." And there was a long religious trialogue about Our Various Traditions, And Their Iconography (I didn't have much to contribute here) but it didn't get acrimonious or sappy. It was just cool. We also didn't get very far, because we were coming from totally different places, but that was okay too. Theologians and Hare Krishnas are both very used to having to explain what in the hell it is that they believe in. They are very patient.

And then we went home. I missed the premiere of this episode of the Sopranos because we had been at dinner for so long, but it was totally worth it.

I highly recommend that everybody visit the Hare Krishnas. A bunch of nice people with a lot of good stories. I continue to be disappointed, though, with the underlying message of these religions, which is be good because God wants you to. And then praise God, because God is good. A couple of years ago, I made my peace with this - it just doesn't quite work for me - by solving it like an algebra problem - God was whatever it was that made me feel compelled to do good. But it doesn't quite work anymore. Luckily, I don't feel like I'm on an urgent spiritual quest right now. I like to see myself more as a peaceful, wayfaring anthropologist, not the kind that brings back natives to study and accidentally infects them with deadly smallpox, but the kind that serves as an honest and interested witness to the ways that other people convince themselves and each other to be good. More on this later.

Stay tuned for next week: Can I Get A Ride in a Mitzvah Mobile? Even though I'm a chick and they're all dudes? What if I ask really, really nicely?

Telling Long Stories.... The Hare Krishna Temple, Part II

Just inside the door of the Hare Krishna building, a receptionist was waiting to direct traffic. I gave her my winning smile and said I was here for the worship service. She gestured behind her, where there was a huge room filled with about 150 pairs of shoes, and told me to put my shoes down there and to go on in.

In the central room, about 150 people stood, clapped, and danced in a loosely circular mob that was slowly rotating around a couple of guys singing into a microphone near the back corner of the room. One of these guys was white, a couple were Indian. They were also playing some good drums. The worshippers were probably 85% Indian (or Indian-American or whatnot) and the rest black, white, Asian, whatever. Nobody was wearing the orange robes that I associate in my head with Hare Krishnas (later it was explained to me that these were the monks, who have given over their lives to praying and proselytizing, but that the majority of practicioners don't live this lifestyle). Lots of kids were running around. A lot of the women were wearing saris and a few of the men were wearing traditional white tunics and little cloth bags on strings around their neck. The celebrants had all painted their faces with the same little mark - an elongated gold oval on the nose with two arching branches - like the horns of the Taurus zodiac sign - going up to their hairlines.

The room was big and high ceilinged, and it smelled like incense. Metal chairs ran along the sides. There was a big, shiny altar/creche thingy in the front - with sparkly statues of Krishna and his consort, flowers, colorful painted panels, and baskets full of fruit.

In the back of the room where we came in, facing the altar, was a giant throne, also multicolored and covered with flowers, and seated on the throne was a life sized statue of -- I'm not exactly sure who. Maybe the founder? A big white pillar, which wasn't attached to the ceiling at all, stood behind the founder and to his right, a little bit. Frankly, I found this statue pretty scary - it was a little too realistic. But then I used to get really freaked out by department store mannequins, so maybe I'm just over sensitive.

There were also yellow banners all over the walls, announcing the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Hare Krishna movement (1966-2006). These posters also displayed the official logo and what amounted to a brand name of the Hare Krishna movement, which is ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). There are local ISKCONs all over the country. They are registered nonprofits. There's even one in Hillsborough, NC, for all you Triangle Area readers...

The Companionable Atheist and I had just started to get a read on this fun dancing scene, when we got collared by a cheerful member of what looked to be the unofficial greeting committee. "Have you visited our temple before?" she asked. We said no, and she invited us to go over and sit with her in their temple office to get a crash course on what was going on.

As I mentioned, I hadn't done my homework, so she had to start from the very beginning. The upshot is that the Hare Krishna movement is a subsect of Hinduism, devoted to the particular deity Krishna. Krishna is their particular favorite god, though he also represents all gods.

They are also devoted to a particular worship practice, which is the reciting of their mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

Want to know what this means? Think it's maybe some big secret? I guess maybe I thought so at first, because I kind of laughed at myself when I found out it means "praise god." Hare means praise. Krishna and Rama are two names for God. They just say "Praise God" in more contexts than I say it. You know. To remember that they should be mindful and do everything for God. The usual reasons. At the Hare Krishna temple, they answer the phones "Hare Krishna." They say "Hare Krishna" when they hang up, and also when they greet each other. This is surprisingly contagious. The Companionable Atheist really slapped himself on the forehead when he called for directions, thanked them, they said "Hare Krishna" when they were about to hang up the phone, and he blurted it right back at them. These religions, they just get you sometimes.

The Hare Krishnas trace this religious practice and belief back to 1000 AD, but it really got revived by an older fellow in India who was involved in India's nationalist movement and then started getting religion. He began hanging out with the monks and soon received his calling - to go around the English speaking world to spread the Hare Krishna religion and practice to English speakers. (I bet this is somehow related to his experiences in the nationalist movement, but how he developed this idea in relationship to the nationalists I have absolutely no idea). So in the late 60s this monk, whose name was A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, went to the US. He ended up in New York, preached his beliefs, and served a free vegetarian meal to everyone who showed up for worship services (the practice continues to this day!) Whether due to the beliefs or to the vegetarian dinners, ISKCON has maintained a foothold in the US. Prabhupada continued to travel, set up ISKCON centers, preach, and translate the Vedas into English throughout the rest of his life.

Anyway, nice Geeta our guide took us back into the office, which was beautifully colored and covered with paintings of various Hindu deities in various situations. She was soon joined by her husband, who was the son of one of the local guys in charge so he really knew a lot. While we were talking, the guys in charge wandered in, chit chatted, wished each other Hare Krishna and wandered back out again. It was all a very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere, and where I usually get a little bit of the heebies when someone takes me into an office, I was totally fine with this happening here.

With the help of her husband, she explained everything from her life background (raised Hindu in Texas; only became a Hare Krishna participant within the last five years or so) to the forehead decoration (representing the leaf of a sacred plant connected to the footprint of the god) to this whole religious backstory, and several of the legends of Karna (one of the heroes of the Mahabharata) thrown in for good measure.

By the time they were done, the singing and dancing were done, and the white guy who'd been helping lead the singing was now giving a lecture, as all the participants sat on the chairs against the wall or on cloth mats on the floor. The Companionable Atheist was not so fond of these cloth mats. They had only the thickness of that kind of potholder that is too thin to keep you from burning your hand on the pot. People were wandering in and out with their kids, cell phones were ringing, you know, the typical modern religious experience. I kind of like it - I enjoy the chaos. Keeps everyone from taking themselves too seriously.

This story (of Karna's birth) was hard to follow as the guy was longwinded and soft spoken. It contained elements of the Virgin Birth (Karna's mother summons a God to be her "boyfriend" but then changes her mind; the God, annoyed to be summoned refuses to go away without impregnating her but agrees to do said impregnation by hands-off and Godly means), of Achilles (Karna is born with an impregnable suit of armor that he is tricked into removing, just as the prophets predicted at his birth) and of Moses (Karna's mother sends him down the river in a basket when he's born, and he's fostered by the king's charioteer and his wife). At the end of the lecture, the lecturer tried to cobble together a "The Moral Of This Story Is" but I didn't find it very compelling. It amounted to that Karna was a really good guy. Most of the time. He tried to do his best and not hurt people. So we should do that too.

Why is the story always better than the moral? The Companionable Atheist prefers the firm story arc and the straightforward morals of Aesop to the rambling and overlapping tails of the Mahabharata. I find that I have a preference for the latter - it's hard to draw any life message from these stories, but the characters are certainly compelling. And their messiness echoes the messiness of life.

Stay tuned for Part III: We eat the long-awaited vegetarian dinner and hold an impromptu religious trialogue...

Monday, April 9, 2007

Dancing, Eating, and Listening to Very Long Stories in The New York Hare Krishna Temple: Part 1

The Companionable Atheist and I were wandering through Brooklyn on a cold evening. The sun was setting. We'd walked through Park Slope, across several windswept blocks that didn't seem to be part of any neighborhood at all, as the multimillion dollar brownstones gave way to empty storefronts and garages, and back to brownstones, and back to garages, and we had asked directions at a Holiday Inn Express and also at a Walgreen's.

Finally we found Schermerhorn Street and our destination: The New York Hare Krishna Temple, a handsome, well-maintained building in the middle of a not-so-posh block. I got my usual thirty seconds of "Why am I doing this?" feelings as we walked up to the door. Going into a new house of worship is like walking up to a stranger's home - you think they'll be home, you think you know the right way to behave, but you're never exactly sure.

I was particularly unsure about what to do here because I hadn't done my usual homework, not a bit of it. I know what to do in a church (sit in a pew, don't take Communion), in an conservative Orthodox synagogue (stand up when everyone else does; look both ways before shaking hands), but in a Hare Krishna temple? I knew nothing.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Fear Not The E-Meter: Part the Last

The 'guy in sales' was named Alex. He was a Russian immigrant who lived in Queens and worked in construction. He had a friendly, assertive gaze and wore a nice suit. He described himself as a consultant, and sort of winced when he heard that the technician had referred to him as a salesman. Like all the other staff at the center, he said, he was basically a volunteer. He made enough money from consulting potential Scientologists to afford train fare in from Queens, and for lunch, but that was about
it. He had been a Scientologist for five years, and had found the center by just walking by it, the same way I did. He said I'd done the right thing by trying to find out about Scientology on my own, rather than just taking for granted what other people had said. ("That's what L. Ron Hubbard did, find things out for himself.") He recommended a two-day intro course, which would have cost about $50, as well as the course on communication skills that the evaluator had recommended. He asked me questions about how I was doing in my personal life, the better to recommend the appropriate classes to me.

I was distracted by a chart on the wall behind him, which represented the progress that a Scientologist could make toward becoming a Clear (and then toward the levels beyond that, which were called Operating Thetan I, II, and so on). I asked him what level he was on. He pointed to a level about three from the bottom. (out of about 40, and Clear was at about 12). I said, this all seems very interesting, and I get how it helps people, but that seems discouraging to me. After five years of study and practice, the Scientologist consultant was not even close to becoming a Clear? He smiled and said that different people had different priorities, and he'd been putting his priorities in other places.

I said I'd have to think about it and come back, and he smiled and said that was totally fine. When I went out, I was intercepted by the first guy we'd met, who said that he'd not been able to get our phone numbers. I said, what with all the phone solicitations these days, I didn't want to give out our phone number. "Not even so I can just give you a call, and see how you're doing?" he asked. I said no thanks, the
CA and I would have to talk about the program together on our own. He smiled and said that was totally fine. He said I could go up to the second floor where there was a display about the life of L. Ron Hubbard – his youth as a dashing adventurer in a chapeau, his midlife as Executive Director of Scientology, his later life as a philanthropist. There was also a birthday cake standing on a table against one wall that said "Happy Birthday Ron!" on it. It was
standing below a TV screen. The TV was showing what looked to be a televised concert in honor of L. Ron Hubbard's birthday party. Performers were dancing and singing a pop tune of "Happy Birthday" while confetti came down from the ceiling and lights flashed.

My original contact followed me up the stairs. 'I saw you went up to look at the display," he said. He told me that today was the celebration of L. Ron Hubbard's birthday! The actual birthday had been earlier in March, and all the Scientologists had gone down to their headquarters in Florida for a live party. The regional celebration was occurring that very evening. I wasn't going to be able to go, so I
asked him what they did at the celebration. He said about 150 or 200 people gathered at a nearby hotel conference room, and watched a 3.5 hour video about the life of L. Ron Hubbard, which included interviews with old folks who knew him "way back when." He said I could go if I wanted to, but that I should introduce myself as someone new so that a staff member could help me understand the terminology they used, which
I wouldn't necessarily have been able to understand. These old guys were serving as the apostles of Scientology, I thought. The last eyewitnesses to anything that actually happened back in the day. In this day and age, their testimonies can be recorded on TV…

Finally, on the way out, I bought a copy of Dianetics for $8. I figured that at the very least, I'd gotten an hour and a half of entertainment out of the Scientology Center, so I might as well make a contribution. I'll keep you posted on what I learn.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fear Not The E-Meter, Part III

The first test I took at the Scientology Center was called the Oxford Capacity Analysis. The test evaluator told me that the test was invented by people at Oxford (I assume she meant to imply the University) but a little bit of research shows that it came out of the Church – either written by Hubbard himself or by some associates. We could respond to each question on the test in one of three ways: "Agree," "Sometimes Agree," "Disagree," or something like that. The test had two hundred questions, and we were supposed to take as long as we wanted to answer. The questions were generally standard questions about one's mood and personality, like: "I sometimes feel depressed for no reason at all" or "I have no trouble acting decisively."

There were a few more peculiar questions thrown in, though, like: "My muscles sometimes twitch for no reason," "my voice is monotonous rather than varied in pitch," or, "Children sometimes irritate me." A very few were quite peculiar, like, "I would be able to kill an animal to put it out of its misery" or "I believe in class distinctions and the color bar."

While we were taking this test, the promotional videos were blaring and two staff members had a loud argument in the hall. It was very hard to concentrate. "How come I never get to use a test room?" one yelled. "I never get a test room." The CA looked at me sadly and said, "those Scientologists are having trouble communicating with each other. I guess they're not Clears yet…"

When we had finished this test, our nice host came back and took it away and gave us a second test, theoretically a timed, half-hour IQ test. I have no idea whether this was a real IQ test or not. There were a lot of simple math problems, analogies, and pattern recognition problems. Some of the analogies were absolutely terrible – so bad that the CA and I would have to stop and consult on a problem, and it would become clear that there was no correct answer whatsoever. The CA and I went to good schools and we're just killer test takers, so we were enjoying this even though the Timed Test With No Right Answers is basically the Organization Kid's nightmare. In fact, we got very competitive about it. (The CA ended up beating me by about seven points, if you must know.)

Other peculiar elements - the answer sheet was numbered right to left, so if you sat down without paying attention you would fill it in all backwards. I asked afterward whether this was an element of the test, meant to see whether you were paying attention to detail, but the test evaluator didn't know. (I told the CA that my noticing this should count for at least three IQ points.)

Finally, there was a timed test that I believe was intended to check how well you read directions and how fast you could act under time pressure. The first three questions were a couple of simple logic problems. #4 on the test was just the statement: "A triangle has three sides." There were no boxes to check, or questions that followed this statement, so I had no idea what to do. The CA wrote "True" and I just skipped it. We judged which of two lines was longer, and we wrote our names in the margin of the page and circled our last names twice and first names once. Then we wrote down how long it took us to finish the test.

When we finished the test, we moseyed around for about 10 minutes until our tests had been scored. (How did they do it so fast? It wasn't electronic, because we were using red pens.) Then they escorted us into separate rooms (quickly, before we had time to protest), where evaluators talked to us about our test results.

The "Oxford" test scores different aspects of your personality, from -100, which is bad, to +100, which is good. The metrics include "unstable/stable," "depressed/happy," "nervous/composed," etc. I was in a good mood, so I scored above 0 on everything except "responsible/irresponsible" and "appreciative/lack of accord." I
scored particularly high on "aggressive," and so did the CA. But "aggressive" was listed as a positive quality. Odd. Or, I guess, if you think about Tom Cruise, not really so odd.

The evaluator sat me down, closed the office door, and asked me deep questions about my life based on this test. She was young and slender, with an accent I couldn't place and extremely thick black eye makeup. She seemed shy. Were there circumstances in which I felt unappreciative of other people? she asked. Was I sometimes critical of others unnecessarily? She told me I was careless in the third test, the timed test, but as far as I could tell, I hadn't made any mistakes on the test itself. She didn't give it back to me, though, so I'm not sure. She asked me whether I was careless because I was being distracted by issues in my life. She was a bit pushy about this, but nothing you don't encounter day-to-day with your basic AM New York pusher or film promoter on the streets around here. Perhaps I would be interested in taking a class on communication. She asked me about myself and my feelings. I could see where this was going. When you confide emotional secrets in a stranger, you feel a connection with them. You begin to trust them and you want to do what they say (recite Hail Marys, sign up for Scientology classes). I am certainly one of those people who, if you catch me in the right mood, close the door on me and ask me how I am feeling, I will burst into tears.

Thus, being behind this closed door made me nervous, and my Aggressive and Lacking in Accord sides came out. I was irritated that she kept telling me I had problems. The IQ test strategy had backfired - my trusty Organization Kid instincts had kicked in, and the test had built my confidence up instead of breaking it down. Plus, the questions were just so terrible. How could I respect a scary cult with such mediocre standardized testing?

With my nerd-powers surging, I brushed aside the evaluator's questions about my feelings, and instead asked her about herself, the tests and the classes. And she faltered.

"I'm just an evaluator," she told me. "I don't really know the answers to these questions. Let me get you someone in sales."


I've read that other people had experiences with much meaner or pushier evaluators at the Scientology center. That some of them got told that their personalities were in deep trouble and that the situation was urgent and they had better take some classes ASAP. It could have been my fabulous test results that saved me from this experience, but my gut feeling is that my evaluator just didn't have the nerve to follow her script, or she had decided that her own sales tactics were better. Or maybe she'd already written me off as a waste of time.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Fear Not The E-Meter, Part II

There are three main Scientology centers in New York. One of the three centers is in Harlem, one is in the theater district near where I live, and the third is on a posh block on the Upper East Side. This third is known as the Celebrity Center, and it is open primarily to "leaders in business, entertainment, and the arts."

I called this center on the phone to try to find out how it was different than the Scientology Center near me, just to see if I would be missing anything by going to the regular center in my area. The lady answering the phone said no, it was basically the same. The Scientology website elaborates:

"The largest of these churches, Celebrity Center International, is located inHollywood and ministers to parishioners who excel in the arts, entertainment and business professions. Celebrity Center International also provides ecclesiastical management assistance to the other Celebrity Center churches located in such places as Paris, Vienna, London, Munich, Florence and New York. By example and through their art, celebrities influence millions.

The receptionist then asked me in a perky voice, "And what do YOU do?" I didn't answer the question, because I didn't want to get into a whole discussion, and instead I asked her more questions about why there was a separate center for famous people. She didn't explain this particularly well, but the official website answer is below:

L. Ron Hubbard once wrote, "A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists." An artist in a number of fields himself, he recognized that artists supply the spark of creativity and the vision of the future which helps improve the condition of society. Thus, the Church established Celebrity Centers,
Church organizations specifically geared to provide Scientology services to such parishioners.

This lady then asked me again, in a warm, positive, friendly voice, exactly the same as before, "And what do YOU do?" This scared me, so I said in a warm, friendly voice, "This answers all my questions" (I'm a little bit of a mimic when I'm intimidated) and I hung up. Whew.

Since I live in the theater district, I decided to sidestep the Friendly What Do You Do Lady and visit the Scientology Center nearest to my home. The Companionable Atheist joined.

The entrance to the Church of Scientology is displayed prominently but not gaudily on Forty-Sixth Street just off Broadway. It has a "Church of Scientology" sign out front that looks a little bit like an old-fashioned Broadway sign. The building is very neatly decorated in glass and black metal. When you enter, you are on a wide staircase between two levels of the building. The receptionists are down a level and encourage you to go down to them. The building is bustling with people. Some of the people are obviously tourists – casually dressed, clutching their boyfriends and giggling, or trying to kill an hour between engagements – while others are obviously Scientology staff, dressed formally and rushing around on their various errands, or
standing crisply in the corners waiting to be of service. The building is noisy – aside from being filled with Scientologists and tourists, the building is filled with the noise of twenty televisions playing promo videos at the same time. There are three big flat screen TVs on every wall or panel of the floor, all showing different short videos about various aspects of Scientology. The generic Friendly Male Narrator Voice echoes from all these promo videos, throughout the building. It kind of gives you a headache. All in all, the center gives off the impression of a busy, well-staffed, new science museum that went a little too heavy on the TV displays.

At the center of the floor, there is a room mostly walled off with glass, where 10 or 15 people (including a 10-year-old kid) were reading books on Scientology and doing some exercises on paper, it looked like. On the wall, there is a progress chart with names on it, that showed how far along people had gotten in their courses.

On the day that I went, the receptionists, naturally, were the two youngest and most attractive women in the building. They were in their mid twenties and wore sexy
black dresses that were a little bit see through, and black high heels. They seemed a little bit hyper. They ran back and forth, directing tourists toward introductory information and pointing Scientologist staff toward visitors ready for test-taking (see below).

The sexy receptionists showed me and the Companionable Atheist toward a hall full of colorful displays explaining the principles of Dianetics, and toward several video screens that also explained these principles and those of Scientology (Dianetics is a specific group of practices that Scientologists use, based on one main theory; Scientology is the overall set of beliefs and practices, which are basically outgrowths of Dianetics. Dianetics was first introduced to the public through an article Hubbard published in a science fiction magazine in the 1950s). Overall, this information is a combination between basic psychology/self help principles and totally bogus "scientifically proven" information about the human subconscious. It's a bit difficult to sum up, but I'll try to give you the short version of the practice, as a beginner would practice it, as well as I understood it (and I may be missing some key elements, so my friendly Scientologist commentator from the last post should feel free to weigh in here). Ahem:

Every human alive is traumatized in various ways. This trauma generally stems from incidents that occurred to people when they were unborn or unconscious. These traumatic incidents are called "engrams." If you are sometimes irritable, depressed for no reason, or if you startle easily, these are all signs that your engrams are bothering you. The initial goal of practicing Scientology is to get rid of all your
engrams. People who have gotten rid of their engrams (by taking many courses offered, at various prices, by the Scientology Center) are known as Clears. They are much better at dealing with others because they have worked through all their trauma. Another way of working through your trauma is by going through the Auditing process (that's the thing with the tin cans). The Auditor listens to you talk about your beliefs or experiences in your life, and notes when the meter spikes. The spikes represent stress, which represent areas of past trauma for you. Then through Auditing and through classes, you can get rid of that trauma.

Okay, so, you're starting to figure out what the core of the practice is, right? When you take an e-meter test, someone is listening to you calmly. You talk about your life and your problems. A person, who is clearly trained in some way, is paying attention to you talk about your life and your feelings and is not supposed to respond, only to draw you out as you talk about your life experiences. All the Scientologists I talked to on that day were very good about asking me about my own life. Which is a great way to get people to bond with you - because all of us like talking about yourselves! Scientologists are very sharp about this.

The Companionable Atheist and I spent some time perusing the displays and videos (after a sexy receptionist unlocked the video screen for us). There was a lot of discussion of not letting things in your past bother you – I remember something about how you are made up of who you are, what you do, and what circumstances you live in. You have two minds: the reactive mind, and the rational mind, and you can only be
really happy when you get rid of the reactive mind (and the engrams therein). When we came to the end of the videos, a nicely dressed guy of about 30 came over and introduced himself to us. He said that he'd been a church member for about a year, and that he'd found the church the same way we did – by walking by, walking in, taking some tests, and then getting excited about what he'd found. He invited us to take the tests that serve as the starting point of Scientology practice for beginners.

Stay Tuned For Part III: Hannah and the Companionable Atheist Take Some Rigorous Tests

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Oh Wow

Hi all,
I'd just like to point out that I posted this first blog entry at around 8:45. By 9:55, I received an actual comment on the entry by an actual Scientologist. Check it out below.

Fear Not The E-Meter: A Visit to The Church of Scientology Part I

The Church of Scientology has a presence in New York that is entirely out of proportion to its size. People returning to parked cars often find them decorated with flyers advertising Dianetics (Dianetics, invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is the "science" behind Scientology.) The Scientologists in New York are best known for their “stress test” stations in the subway, where alarmingly normal looking people offer passers-by free assessments of their stress level by asking them questions while they hold a tin can in each hand (the tin cans are wired to a little box with a couple of dials known as an “e-meter.”)

New Yorkers, of course, generally assume that any strangers trying to speak to them about anything other than “Which way is Madison Avenue?” are insane, so the vast majority have never taken e-meter tests. But millions of people use the subway each day, so whenever you go by, the e-meter testers are always busy with interested customers. Thus, I have developed the subconscious assumption that there are many active Scientologists in New York City.

When I told my friends that Scientology was next on the tour, I was startled by their responses. “They mail people live snakes,” explained my roommate. "I wouldn't go in there - they take advantage of people" a co-worker warned. Another mentioned that the Church of Scientology employs a gargantuan legal team and would not hesitate to sue me if I, um, wrote anything inaccurate about it. As we will soon see, Scientology is based around a truly comprehensive and bizarre belief system. However, what is interesting to me is that it has spawned a second complete mythology about it that belongs to outsiders. People pass on myth outside the same way they pass along myth inside. Just last week, for example, Star Magazine reports that the Scientology church is punishing Katie Holmes for disobedience by forcing her to live in a sensory deprivation chamber and drink cup after cup of vegetable oil fortified with niacin (Scientologists believe niacin is very important to brain function). Since none of us on the outside have any clue whether this is a reasonable allegation or not, we pass it on to one another cheerfully without any attempt at rational reporting whatsoever. This leads me to what will become the Fourth Principle of Fear Not The Gods: It is reasonable and right to be concerned about any practice concealed from outsiders.

According to Scientology literature, L. Ron Hubbard believed that a person ought to find things out for himself. So I did. And I went.

By the way. This is a photograph of science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as a young man.
Cool cat, isn't he?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Everyday Ritual I: The Phone Ritual

When you visit a museum that displays artifacts from the lives of Early Humans, has it ever struck you that an astounding percentage of these artifacts seem to be "for ritual purposes?"

I used to think this was probably just poor archaeology. But now I think that we still perform rituals constantly - we're just not as clear about what they are. My first example: the phone ritual.

Hannah makes a phone call.

Hannah: "Hi, X, this is Hannah. How are you?"
X: "Good! How are you?"
Hannah: "Good!"
X: "Good!"

Sometimes there are three people on the call. The ritual takes a lot longer.

Hannah: "Hi, X, this is Hannah and Y. How are you?"
X: "Good! How are you guys?"
Hannah: "Good!"
Y: "Good!"
X: "And how are you, Y?"
Y: "Good!"
X: "Good!"
X: "And your baby?"
Y: "Good!"
X: "Good!"

When this happens, I often get the urge to just say "Okay, good!" and hang up the phone before we go around any more times.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fear Not The Gods on hiatus for food poisoning

Was very sick this week. I am better now. Back up and running soon.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Forewarned is...

I am visiting the Church of Scientology on Sunday. People seem to have a lot to say about this. Do you? Leave comments!

In the mean time, please enjoy its orientation video. It's blurry because someone was filming it secretly. It's a weird combination of goofball 50's educational video, science fiction (duh), and 60-minutes style documentary.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Religious Updates

Article today about how the door-to-door proselytizing has been going for Mormons on the Upper East Side. Since everyone has doormen, it's hard to go door to door. Instead they stand on the street and hand out hot chocolate and stuff.

Also, according to the AP, a bunch of rabbis in Israel have decided they'd like to start sacrificing animals on the Temple Mount again. Great idea, guys.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Young and Soft Spoken: "KZ" on the Upper West

About KZ:
Kol Zimrah is a five year old "independent minyan" that meets on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They also have an arm in Jerusalem but I don't know anything about those guys. "Independent minyan" means that it's a Jewish group for religious worship that owes no allegiance to any larger American Jewish institution (it's not part of the Conservative Movement or the Reform Movement or the Havurah movement or anything like that). They currently meet about once a month for Friday night services; the rest of the month, those members who pray regularly go elsewhere. The night I visited, they were meeting in the Jewish Home and Hospital on 106th street.

I was late.
Grr. I hate being late.

The Jewish Home And Hospital

What a jarring experience it was to walk into the Jewish Home and Hospital. The Jewish Home and Hospital is a very large and slightly run-down-looking institution that houses a number of older and infirm individuals. It looks like exactly what its name sounds like - a cross between an old folks' home and a hospital. After waiting for a tiny Chinese grandmother and her two granddaughters to walk slowly out of the front door, and then for a black grandfather in a wheelchair with his two kids to go out, I walked in the front door and asked the door clerk about the prayer group. We felt that this couldn't be right, but he nodded recognition and told me the group was meeting in the auditorium on the third floor.

I'm sure Jews will live in Manhattan for many generations to come. But the Jewish Home and Hospital is one glimpse of the future - institutions founded by Jews for the public benefit now inhabited by other folks who came to Manhattan at other times. (Though I'm rarely morbid about the Jewish future, sometimes I imagine that in a couple centuries the only Judaism left in this country will be Orthodox Jews; people who are paid to be Jewish (rabbis, non-profit directors); and Jewish-named buildings.)

The auditorium is a big gray-tiled room with a few Jewish paintings on the walls and a few kids' drawings beside them. There is a stage at one end of the room and a dark wooden ark (possibly with a Torah inside) stands kind of slantwise in front of the stage. To the other side of the room stood two tables where people put their potluck dinner entrees. One one table, vegetarian food; on the other table, officially kosher vegetarian food. (This compromise allows anyone to bring food and for the kosher people to be able to eat with the nonkosher people. This is important and wise. It is a truly upsetting thing, on a very deep level, when someone in your community won't share food with you. Two tables is no big deal.)

The Worshippers
The worshippers, about fifty of them, sat in disorderly concentric circles in the middle of the room, facing inwards. The average age was about 24. Some were formally dressed, others in jeans. Some stood aside and prayed while leaning against the walls of the room.

At first, it was impossible to figure out who was leading the service. AFter a few minutes I figured out that it was two soft spoken characters who were sitting in the center of the circle - a guy slouched forward in his chair and a young woman quietly strumming a green guitar. I actually know both these folks and they are great. But the leadership style of this service gave me a lot to think about.

Basically, the prayer service was completely anti-authoritarian - the opposite of the Big Man On Bimah model I and many other suburban American Jews grew up with. The two prayer leaders spoke very softly and sang very softly. In fact, they were so quiet that the group had a hard time following them - it took a couple measures for us to figure out what tune they were using to sing any particular song or what key they were singing it in. The guitar occasionally seemed to be playing in a different key altogether. Nobody seemed to mind. In fact, in a way, it was very restful. Nobody cared, really, what anyone else was doing - what they were wearing, how they were singing, or where they were in the prayer service. Though most participants used a common prayer book (a xeroxed packet with a plastic spiral binding), a substantial minority had brought their own books, which presumably held similar prayers.

On Page Numbers.

A minor issue that I have now heard come up several times in discussions of Jewish prayer services - as it clearly represents a larger issue - is the issue of Page Numbers. No, seriously. Right now, for a lot of people doing this Jewish prayer thing, page numbers are a big deal. In my congregation, growing up, the rabbi would periodically announce the page number we were at, in case anybody was lost (or daydreaming; or taking kids to the bathroom; etc). In super traditional congregations, nobody tells anyone the page numbers because you all pretty much know the prayers already. These newfangled prayer congregations, particularly those that are not tied to a movement, vary in their opinions on the page number issue. To announce the page numbers for the benefit of the newcomers and non-Hebrew-readers seems benevolent and inclusive. However, it is also disruptive to the overall flow of the prayer experience. And if you're really working on getting into the prayer experience, the page numbers maybe break that up for you. For a lot of independent minyans, page numbers represent them deciding what kind of congregation they want to be. Are they for people just learning how to pray, or are they for people who know the prayers and want to lose themselves in the prayer rhythm without any guy telling them from the bimah where they should be in their books?

God and Theater
I have no particular opinion about the announcing of page numbers, but for me, KZ was too far to this anti-authority end of the spectrum. I just think they were a little bit shy! If you're going to play a guitar with some people who are singing, play the guitar! If you're going to guide us as to which of the 100 tunes for "Adon Olam" we ought to be singing, guide us! Nobody will mind! These young, polite, sweet, inwardly facing young praying-people left me a little bit cold. I thought I would like that nobody was being pushy or showboaty. But I just don't have the internal prayer thing down well enough to enjoy doing this communal-but-on-your-own thing. I still need a little theater, a little showmanship, a little more leadership, to help me get into the right kind of introspective mindset to be able to even begin thinking about God. I just can't do it all by myself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Friend Nino Visits a Southern Baptist Church

Nino is a good friend and music junkie who lives in DC. Here's his report on visiting a Southern Baptist church for a musical event.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More American Jews Found; Lost

Among Jewish professionals, surveys are big, expensive instruments of political warfare. Believe that Jews shouldn't marry people of other religions? Commission a study from the right person, and he or she will give you the headline you want: "Jews who Marry Christians Less Likely To Raise Kids Jewish." (Angry community dialogue ensues). The opposite perspective can also be commissioned for $100-150K from a willing demographer. These aren't joke surveys either. People put a lot of work into them. But the conclusions usually boil down to one of two stories:

X is Good for the Jews (i.e. "The Jews are Flourishing")
X is Bad for the Jews (i.e. "The Jews are Floundering")

Watch this at work with the latest study to come out, called, "The Jews Are Multiplying", which says there are more Jews in this country than we thought before. (The people commissioning the previous and corresponding "The Jews Are Dwindling" study, apparently forgot to account for all the young people without landlines or who weren't home at 6 PM when the surveyors called).

The Jews Are Flourishing perspective: our numbers are growing!
The Jews Are Floundering perspective: there are millions more Jews out there that we, the people with money in communal institutions, have failed to reach through our programs! Woe is us!