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Alternative Religions Blog

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So Long, and Thanks

Saturday November 30, 2013

This will be my last post here at about.com.  I have had a wonderful four years here.  I have gotten a few questions about where I can be found now, and the best place to look is http://blog.cnbeyer.com.  I'm just setting it up (and I'm in the middle of a semester) so there's a little construction dust, but you can find news on new projects there.  The blog addresses a variety of topics, not just religions.

For my last couple of articles here:

  • Hoaxes and Fallacies: a collection of specific hoaxes and fallacies addressed in articles over the years
  • Apocalyptic Religions: Religions that regularly focus on their end-times beliefs
  • Navjote: The initiation ceremony for children in Zoroastrianism

Thank you, everyone.

Article Round-Up

Monday November 18, 2013

I will be leaving About.com at the end of the month.  As such, the next couple weeks will be a potpourri of articles I have previously finished but am just now posting.

Scientology Controversies And Misconceptions

Reading Bible Code

Monday October 28, 2013

I am teaching a new class at the university.  It's modern western history, as opposed to the pre-modern history I more frequently teach.  In discussing the Scientific Revolution, we, of course, discuss Sir Isaac Newton, who was basically the Stephen Hawking of the 17th century.  (They even held the same position at Cambridge University.)

But when Newton wasn't figuring out inertia, gravity, calculus, and generally how the entire universe moves, He was also studying alchemy, writing theology (although he tended to be reserved on the topic of his non-trinitarian beliefs, due to the religious climate of the times), and attempting to decipher Bible code: knowledge hidden within the Bible that can be discovered through use of mathematics and non-traditional readings.

Newton is neither the first nor the last to study Bible code, which goes under a variety of names.  Kabbalah includes such approaches to Jewish scripture, particularly the Torah, for example.

Samhain and Halloween

Monday October 28, 2013

As a historian of European history, issues of holidays are frequently a time of frustration as I shuffle through the usual internet clutter of pseudo-historical claims of Christianity "stealing holidays."  Are there similarities?  Absolutely.  Was it deliberate?  Sometimes. Did it just rewrite older traditions in the hopes of fooling pagans?  Not a chance.

So why do so many people connect Samhain and Halloween? There's several reasons.  One is misinformation.  The claims depend on a whole bunch of information about Samhain that we don't actually have.  Why do we think we have it?  Today it is because people keep repeating it.  Originally it often came from the presumption that modern folk practices have been practiced since ancient times.  Not only do we not have evidence supporting it in many cases, but sometimes we actually have evidence of how things did change.  Finally, people find small commonalities and insist it had to have been deliberate, when, in fact, some concepts are fairly universal.

Here I hope to lay out in some detail how this connection has happened, why many of the claims are wrong, and why you should be careful in addressing holidays in general.  It's complicated.

When I write things like this, certain responders presume I'm a Christian, as if that could be the only reason in debunking such things.  It's not the only reason, and I'm not Christian, so we can stop with the conspiracy theories.

Article Round-up: Snoop Lion, Pantheism, Operation Snow White and More

Monday September 30, 2013

September marks the beginning of my semester, which is more hectic than most.  As such, I've been rather absent from the blog.  Here are this month's new articles:

Pantheism and Baruch Spinoza - Pantheism is the belief that God and the universe are one and the same.  The idea was popularized in the 17th century by Baruch Spinoza, who provided deep rational and philosophical arguments for his position and was excommunicated by the Dutch Jewish community for it.

Snoop Lion - Rapper Snoop Dogg recently changed his state name to Snoop Lion as a reflection of his conversion to the Rastafari Movement.  The Lion of Judah is a major symbol within the religion.

Operation Snow White - The biggest public relations issue for the Church of Scientology to date is what is commonly called Operation Snow White, which involved the infiltration of government agencies by Scientology agents.  Exposed in the late 1970s, several high ranking members went to prison for it, including prophet L. Ron Hubbard's wife.

New Religions in the Modern World - A collection of articles addressing the New Religious Movement, including why we are seeing so many more now, why people follow them, and why people are suspicious of them.

Identifying Fraudulent and Defaming Religious Claims - An example of a hoax circulating the Internet broken down into its various problematic aspects to illustrate ways of debunking such legends.

Limits on Interfaith Marriage

Sunday August 25, 2013

Both culture and religion tell us it is only appropriate to marry certain people, although different cultures and religion might tell us very different things.  This may be about age (you can't marry a child), gender (only someone of opposite gender), race (marriage between whites and blacks was actually illegal in may US states well into the middle of the 20th century), family (can't marry your sibling), etc.

Some religious communities also strongly discourage marriage with non-believers.  Their reasons are complex, ranging from family dynamics to protection of cultural and ethnic identity.

Review of "Beyond Belief"

Sunday August 25, 2013

Beyond Belief is the autobiography of Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of David Miscavige, current head of the Church of Scientology.  She was born into the religion, and both of her parents were raised within it as well.  As such, she gives a refreshingly complex picture of life as a dedicated Scientologist, including how things were rationalized and what her multiple motivations were for staying or leaving.

Hill certainly has very significant issues with the church, which she left several years ago, which makes her restrained tone all the more encouraging.  She is not, however, considered a Suppressive Person, as critics and defectors are often declared. She's a bit of a PR nightmare for the Church, being the leader's niece.  Her bother and both of her parents, one of which being David Miscavige's brother, also left several years before she did.

Hill was a member of the exclusive Sea Org organization, the closest thing the Church has to clergy.  They are held to the highest standards and face the harshest punishments when they don't live up to them.  It is Sea Org members that end up in the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF, which is the origin of a lot of public accusations of abuse against the Church.  Hill herself was never assigned it, although her mother was.  That probably had less impact on Hill than on the average kid, because families in the Sea Org are largely separated.  Hill grew up in dormitories, not in a private family setting.

Death of Lee Thompson Young and Yoruba Religion

Wednesday August 21, 2013

First of all, I get rather nauseated at the way our media flocks to celebrity deaths.  Reporting on an event is one thing, but encouraging spurious theories - particularly if they are scandalous - done entirely to boost readership is rather awful in my book.

I am a fan of Rizzoli & Isles. It was quite sad to hear of the passing of actor Lee Thompson Young this week, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound (although so far I have only seen Young's representative say such.  The authorities, so far as I know, have said nothing official).  But when I started looking for information, I came across the oddest thing.

First, Young was apparently into Yoruba religion, a traditional African religion that strongly influenced diaspora religions such as Santeria.  Ok, interesting fact of the day.

Second, however, was the suggestion that his religion might have encouraged him to kill himself, based entirely on one line: "iku ya j'esin," meaning "death is preferable to ignominy."  Forget anything else his religion might teach; the fact that this sentence exists seems a smoking gun to certain people. Let's not notice the articles don't even attempt to suggest what "ignominy" Young might have committed.  Let's not notice that preferring death doesn't equate to killing yourself.  Let's not even ask what Yoruba religion says about suicide.

Let's just grab a tragedy, a non-mainstream religion, a single sentence, and wrap it all up in a neat and tidy package.  That's so much easier than actual journalism.

Reza Aslan and Academic Discussions of Religions

Thursday August 1, 2013

This week, Fox News anchor Lauren Green shook up the blogosphere in an interview with author and professor Reza Aslan.  Her first question about Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was about why he, as a Muslim, would write about Jesus.  That's right, first question out of the gate was about his faith rather than anything in the book.

Let's forget for a moment that Jesus is a rather important figure in the Muslim faith as well, which makes accusations that he is somehow on a deliberate campaign to discredit Jesus fairly bizarre.  The question underscores a larger problem in that people don't understand that academics can write about things they don't believe in or even disbelieve in.  That's why it's academic.  We look at the evidence and draw conclusions from it, just like we approach any other topic.  Sometimes it agrees with the general teachings of our faith, and sometimes it doesn't.

I have been a longtime supporter of honesty and education in the neopagan community.  Things like "Wicca is ancient" and "the Church killed 9 million women in the Burning Times" are embarrassingly wrong statements.  (Thankfully, such claims are becoming more and more rare.)  I've had people accuse me of lying about being Wiccan because of my position.  Because I refuse to see all of history in terms of gender, I was once accused of actually being a man because "no woman would talk like that." (In fact, I have met very few women who talked anything like how this person was talking.)

When I was a teaching assistant, I got one student review that accused me of forcing my militant atheism on the class, while another stated my evangelical Christianity was blatant.  My supervising professor just shrugged.  "Sounds like you're doing it right, then," she said.  When I've talked about what the historical record does and does not support in the Bible, I've been accused of being anti-Christian.

I confess, I have been guilty of presuming bias myself, but I was about 19 at the time, so hopefully you'll forgive me.  My medieval history professor told that most scandalous stories about things that happened in the development of the Catholic Church.  Going through my own disillusionment with Christianity, I can to the conclusion he couldn't possibly be Christian, and probably wasn't even religious.  But the time I graduated, I was fairly convinced he was, in fact, a Catholic.  (To this day I have no confirmation, because, wow, that would be rude to ask.)  His understanding of the history of the Church was separate from his faith in it.

I can play devil's advocate for just about every religion I talk about on Alternative Religion.  That doesn't mean I believe in them.  I don't.  But I can write about what they believe and why they believe it and how those beliefs fit into social and historical contexts.  I can also do the same about people who object to those faiths.  That's my job both online and at the university where I teach.  And the fact that Lauren Green and others can't separate faith and academia is a scary, scary trend.

Is Azlan's book credible?  I don't know.  I haven't read it, and the New Testament is not particularly my thing.  (Azlan focused a degree on it and can read Biblical Greek.)  But if you find something problematic, you address the problem, and you address the problem with facts rather than with the equivalent of "you're wrong because I believe otherwise."  You don't start out with an ad hominem attack against the author and against his faith.

New Shapes and Symbols

Saturday July 27, 2013

I think I'm pretty much finished with common meanings of geometric shapes, unless someone has a suggestion.  I've added squares (which frequently are used like crosses, which is one of the reasons it's been on the back-burner) as well as the more complicated symbols like 10- and 12-pointed stars, which are much more rare than the basic shapes I have previously covered.

Somewhat related, I've added the alchemical imagery for squaring the circle.

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