Ep 19 – Ten Strange Religious Beliefs and Practices
Welcome to C-Webb’s Sunday School where every episode I look at various religious claims by using critical thinking and scientific evidence. A video is going around the interwebs that shows a glimpse into the Mormon Temple ceremony. I watched it and it gave me chills, it was a little creepy, I’m not going to lie and to think that maybe the next president of the United States (not very likely) Mitt Romney has gone through this ceremony. I am not going to get into the Mormon belief system at least not in this episode but is what they are doing really so different from what other mainstream religions have been doing for centuries? In this episode, I am going to look at a few kooky beliefs practiced by other religions and you judge for yourself what is strange.
- 1. Feast of the Circumcision of Christ
That’s right folks; Orthodox Christian Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican and Lutheran Church’s celebrate the circumcision of Christ by throwing a party. According to Jewish tradition, eight days after birth, males are circumcised and are formally given their name. Jesus, being a male Jew had to have had this procedure done. It is said that this was the first time Jesus shed his blood which kicked off the process of redemption and that Jesus was fully human and obeyed Biblical law [link]. The question that has been asked as I am sure all of you are asking now is ‘where did the foreskin go?’ The most widely held belief is that it remained on Earth with no less than 21 medieval churches and abbeys claiming to be in possession of it. It is reported that St. Catherine of Siena wore it on her finger in the form of a ring. One of the creepiest stories about the Holy Foreskin comes from an Austrian nun Agnes Blannbekin (1244-1315). She became obsessed with Jesus’s foreskin which led her to a stunning revelation during the Feast of Circumcision, where she “felt the Lord’s foreskin on her tongue, thin as the membrane of an egg, and swallowed it with great sweetness ‘about a hundred times.’ Christ then revealed to her that his foreskin had been resurrected with him on Easter.” You are now free to draw your own conclusions and let your filthy minds wander [link].
- 2. A Race of Giants Born from Women and Demi-gods
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Genesis 6:4
Myth making at its finest, the Nephilim were the offspring of human women and angels. They caused so much trouble that God had to flood the Earth to get rid of them. There is nothing particular new in this working of the myth, throughout history we have stories of gods and goddesses mating with humans all the time. Large primates are not uncommon throughout history. Meganthropus Robustus is said to have lived 1 to 1.5 million years ago in Southeast Asia. Fossil records indicate that the size of Meganthropus was approximately 8 feet tall and 500 pounds. Having a body that size required lots of energy to cool and eventually, the Meganthropus could not complete with other hominids in the region and became extinct [link]. An earlier primate called Gigantopithecus existed roughly 9 million years ago and as recently as 100,000 years ago in what is now China, India and Vietnam. Fossil records indicate that Gigantopithecus was roughly 9.8 feet standing and up to 1,200 pounds [link]. There were certainly large mammals roaming the Earth but they are a stronger case for evolution and not freaky sex between angels and humans. My hypothesis is that ancient people found bones of dinosaurs, hominids and other large mammals and without proper context or scientific understanding created stories to rationalize what they found with their belief systems. What’s more plausible? That or angels mating with humans?
- 3. A Talking Donkey Scolds a Prophet
“Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.” Numbers 22:28-30
For sane, rational beings, the idea of a talking donkey is ridiculous but what if the very foundation of your belief rest on the fact that every word in the Bible has to be taken literally? How can you rationalize the notion of a talking donkey? Balaam seemed to think this type of interaction was normal. Instead of freaking out that his donkey was talking to him, he actually engages the donkey in a conversation. How lonely is it for a prophet wandering the desert that the idea of a talking donkey is no big deal? The same people that believe this also believe the Earth is 9,000 years old and a snake tricked Eve into eating an apple.
- 4. Dark Skin is a Sign of God’s Curse
“Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Genesis 4:11-16
Used for centuries as a justification for racism, the mark of Cain has literally left its mark on human history but our Mormon friends take it to another level. In the Book of Mormon, dark skin is considered a curse from God and white skin as a sign of blessings. The Lammanites displeased God and “because of their iniquity…the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” 2 Nephi 5:21. When they later became Christians “the curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.” 3 Nephi 2:15. The founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, didn’t have kind words for our darken skin brothers. He taught that they were cursed as “sons of Cain.” Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith, had this to say about African Americans: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10.
- 5. Transubstantiation
“The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’ Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” John 6:52-53
During Mass, Catholics line up to eat a piece of bread and drink from a cup of wine. This is called communion and at that point and time, the bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus. Do Catholics really believe this? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following:
“The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation (Paragraph 1376) [link].”
A poll of Irish Catholics conducted in June 2012 showed that 62% do not believe the blessing of bread and wine during Mass changes into the actual body and blood of Jesus but that it only represents the body and blood of Jesus [link].
- 6. Miniature Flying Horses with the Face of a Woman and a Tail of a Peacock
Just so it doesn’t look like I am picking on my Jewish and Christian friends, Muslims have some pretty strange beliefs as well.
“Then he [Gabriel] brought the Buraq, handsome-faced and bridled, a tall, white beast, bigger than the donkey but smaller than the mule. He could place his hooves at the farthest boundary of his gaze. He had long ears. Whenever he faced a mountain his hind legs would extend, and whenever he went downhill his front legs would extend. He had two wings on his thighs which lent strength to his legs. He bucked when Muhammad came to mount him. The angel Jibril (Gabriel) put his hand on his mane and said: “Are you not ashamed, O Buraq? By Allah, no-one has ridden you in all creation more dear to Allah than he is.” Hearing this he was so ashamed that he sweated until he became soaked, and he stood still so that the Prophet mounted him.”
The Al-Buraq is a mythical steed that transported prophets. It is said that the Al-Buraq transported the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem. After visiting Jersusalem, Al-Baruq, Gabriel and Muhammad cursed the various heavens and Muhammad was introduced to Allah and earlier prophters which I assume Jesus was there as well. Allah instructed Muhammad to tell his followers to pray 50 times per day, realizing that they would never get anything done and with the help of Moses it was reduced to 10 and they eventually settled on 5 and once all that was done, Muhammad was sent back to Mecca [link].
- 7. The Ganges River
Hindu’s believe that the Ganges River is scared and is the personification of the goddess Ganga. Hindus believe bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitates liberation from the cycle of life and death. Pilgrims travel to immerse the ashes of their kin, which brings them closer to nirvana. Not only do Hindus rely on the river for spiritual needs, they also depend on it for their physical needs. This doesn’t sound too strange until you know that the Ganges River is one of the top five most polluted rivers in the world. Fecal coliform levels are more than one hundred times the official Indian government limit. Clean-up efforts have failed for various reason including lack of technical expertise, good environmental planning and because of traditions and beliefs. Raw sewage and industrial waste spills into the river daily. The religious belief of throwing the ashes of loved ones into the river has contributed to the pollution as well. Thousands of uncremated bodies have been thrown into the river including holy men, people with leprosy and chicken pox, people who have been bitten by snakes, people who have committed suicide, the poor and children under 5. Water borne diseases such as gastrointestinal diseases, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid are rampant because people bathe, drink, wash dishes and brush their teeth from this river [link]. Most religious practices are strange but few have such a negative impact on human health as this one.
- 8. Kapparot
This next ritual you can perform at home by yourself. First you need to get a live chicken or a bag of coins. If you are a woman, grab a hen and if you are a man grab a rooster. Next you need to twirl the bag of coins or live chicken around your head while reciting “this is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster/hen/bag of coins will go to its death/charity, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.” When this is done, slaughter the chicken and give it to the poor and if you used coins, donate those as well. You have just transferred your sins to the chicken/coins.
This is the Jewish practiced call Kapparot and is performed on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, which is the Jewish Day of Atonement. In 2005, more than 200 caged chickens were abandoned in rainy weather in Brooklyn. Some of these chickens were rescued and Jacob Kalish, an Orthodox Jew from Williamsburg, was charge with animal cruelty for the drowning deaths of 35 chickens [link].
- 9. E-Meters
The Church of Scientology use E-Meters in their auditing sessions (it’s really a device which measures electrical resistance and skin conductance) to help locate areas of spiritual distress. It measures the psyche, the human soul, spirit or mind. It measures the spiritual state or change of state of a person, which they call Thetans. They believe that thetans control the body and not the central nervous system [link]. Proof? None. E-Meters also measure traumatic incidents which are stored in the subconscious, these are called engrams. In 1971 a U.S. District Court ruled that the device has no medical value, forcing Scientologist to now claim the e-meter as an artifact for religious use only [link]. E-Meters are no more reliable than polygraph machines. The auditing sessions are akin to cold readings and integrations. There is no scientific support for e-meters. We are not going to even go into the beliefs of Scientologist that warrants an entire episode.
- 10. Snake Handling and Poison Drinking
Most people in the skeptical community know of the man that was bitten by a rattle snake and eventually died from the bit because he believed he was protected by God because of Mark 16:18 “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Apparently this gentleman didn’t have enough faith or he had too much faith, whichever it was, it killed him and his father. Not surprisingly, this ritual started in Appalachia in the 20th Century and is part of the Holiness movement.
There are several things one can do to reduce the risk of being bitten by any snake. One is holding the snake close to the head. Snakes that are hot, hungry or feel threatened are more likely to bite so keep your snake cool, well-feed and calm. The more a snake is handled, the less likely it will strike. Is this a sign that God is protecting you? Hardly. There is nothing remarkable about handling snakes and surviving. By following a few simple precautions, the chances of being bitten are reduced significantly. It’s not 100% safe, as evidence by the recent death of the snake handling pastor but not significant enough to be deemed miraculous.
I can go on and on but I think I made my point. All religions have strange and kooky beliefs and practices. The secret Mormon Temple ritual is no more or no less strange then some of the other beliefs and practices I have presented. Just because something has been done for thousands of years doesn’t make it any more or less valid.
This has been C-Webb’s Sunday School. Find me at cwebbssundayschool.com, cwebbmedia.com or at dumbassmedia.info. I am on iTunes, search C-Webb’s Sunday School and while you are there, leave me a review. I can also be found on stitcher, Zune and most other podcatchers and don’t forget to follow me on twitter @cwebb619. Join me next time when I take on more religious claims both holy and unholy