I made Glenn Beck mad!

He’s ranting about this report, of which I am a co-author. I consider this a shining achievement and derive almost as much satisfaction from watching Glenn Beck’s hysterics over our survey as I did when I learned I was going to publish my first article.

My only regret: I didn’t make him cry!

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Scientology-ville (a.k.a. Clearwater, FL) Tour

Yesterday morning I was reading the local paper when I came upon this story about Scientology (part 1 of 3). Apparently 4 fairly prominent members of the religion have defected over the last few years and the St. Petersburg Times finally got them to agree to be interviewed. The Times is rolling out the interviews over 3 days, much to the chagrin of Scientology (part 2 of 3 is out today).

For those who don’t know, Scientology has a major headquarters in Clearwater, FL, which is about 30 minutes from where we live. It’s the training headquarters of the religion, not the corporate headquarters (that’s in LA), and not where the leader, David Miscavige, lives (that’s near San Jacinto, CA). As the training headquarters, there are lots of Scientologists living and regularly visiting Clearwater. The St. Petersburg Times (St. Pete is the adjoining city to the south of Clearwater) has a long history of investigating Scientology and the relationship between the two, Scientology and The St. Petersburg Times, is not very amicable.

I learned that Scientology had a strong presence in Clearwater shortly after we moved here and have wanted to go check out their digs ever since then. Seeing the story yesterday morning re-awakened that interest. Luckily, Debi and Toren were feeling rather generous yesterday, so they agreed to go walk around downtown Clearwater to check out the sites.

I did a bit of research before we went so I would know what there is to see. The St. Petersburg Times has a quasi-interactive though slightly dated map showing the property Scientology owns in Clearwater.

(1) Red properties were actual structures in 2004; (2) Blue properties were planned or under construction; (3) Gold were properties that were owned but as of yet undeveloped in 2004.
(1) Red properties were actual structures in 2004; (2) Blue properties were planned or under construction; (3) Gold were properties that were owned but as of yet undeveloped in 2004.

Another guy, who I believe is affiliated with Anonymous, has put together a Google Map of Scientology properties in the US that includes their many holdings in Clearwater:

Scientology sites in Clearwater according to Anonymous

Based on those two sites, I put together a little tour for us.  Having driven to Clearwater last week when Brent visited, I knew there was a little park right near the water in Clearwater, so we drove there to begin with and parked on Drew St..  The park is actually adjacent to the Clearwater library:

Clearwater library
Clearwater library

The library itself is gorgeous. But it looks out over the park and this:

Scientology 6-21-2009 4-15-50 PM
the view from the Clearwater library

If anyone comes to visit us and has a day they want to spend just relaxingly reading in a library, well, I’m not sure you can beat this one. It’s a gorgeous view.

Toren was hungry once we got here, so we stopped for a bit to feed him. While Debi took care of Toren, I saw a sign that said “Sandcastle.” I knew that the Sandcastle resort was right next to the library, but I didn’t realize there was a separate entrance for their restaurant:

Scientology 6-21-2009 4-11-07 PM
A sign by the entrance to the Sandcastle restaurant. If you look close it says “Church of Scientology Religious Retreat”

Feigning ignorance, I walked toward the restaurant (with my huge camera around my neck).  The two security guards looked very skeptical, but I’m pretty good at acting like a tourist when I want to.  I walked straight up to them and asked them if what I was seeing was a restaurant:

Sandcastle's restaurant and the security guards
Sandcastle’s restaurant and the security guards

They said it was in what sounded like a native Spanish speaker’s accent.  I then asked them if I could eat there.  They hemmed a bit, then said that I couldn’t unless I was a member.  I acted really naive here and said, “Oh, a member of what?”  They said I had to be a member of the Sandcastle resort.  I then acted like I was just seeing the sign and said, “Oh, is that affiliated with Scientology?”  They nodded.  I followed up with, “So, if I was a Scientologist I could eat here?”  Yep.  I told them that Debi was hungry and then asked if there were any other places we could eat nearby.  They were very friendly and offered some suggestions.  I thanked them then walked back across the street to the park.  I waited for them to turn their backs before I snapped a photo of them in front of the restaurant.

Once Toren finished up his snack, we packed everything into the stroller and headed up Drew st. toward Fort Harrison Ave. where there were some restaurants.  I snapped these along the way:

The Sandcastle Resort
The Sandcastle Resort

This is at the intersection of Drew St. and N. Osceola Ave.:

The front entrance sign to the Sandcastle Resort
The front entrance sign to the Sandcastle Resort

Directly east of the Sandcastle Resort is the Osceola Inn, which is also billed as a “religious retreat” and is owned by Scientology:

Osceola Inn sign
Osceola Inn sign

This was also taken at the corner of Drew St. and N Osceola Ave.:

Osceola Inn wide shot
Osceola Inn wide shot

From here we headed up Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave. then turned South where we immediately encountered the West Coast Building, which is also owned by Scientology.  There were uniformed Scientologists coming and going from the building while I snapped a few pictures.  This first one is looking at the front of the building.  It’s actually quite large and surrounded by parking lots on both sides (which I believe are owned by the Church of Scientology).  What I liked about this is it shows two cameras.  The first is just above the green bushes and is pointing down the street.  The second is just above it and is a controllable camera:

profile of the West Coast Building capturing the cameras
profile of the West Coast Building capturing the cameras

They seem a little obsessed with security.  We crossed the street and stopped at an Italian pizza place for dinner (owned by a Scientologist, but the employees were not; I asked).  Then I snapped this shot of the front of the West Coast Building:

Scientology 6-21-2009 5-33-34 PM
The front of the West Coast Building

The building really does look unassuming from this angle, but it goes back quite far from the street.  Also, you can’t see it from this far away, but on the front doors are two white crosses, which are symbols of Scientology.

From here we only had to walk about another 1/2 block before we entered the heartland of Scientology.  The corner of Fort Harrison Ave. and Cleveland St. is really the center of action.  As we neared the corner we could see droves of Scientologists walking back and forth.  We weren’t sure what was going on, but one of the many Scientology security guards floating around the streets of Clearwater (yes, you read that right, Scientology security guards patrol the sidewalks in Clearwater outside their buildings) helped clarify things.  The first building we came upon is the former Clearwater Bank Building that was bought out by Scientology and refinished.  There are no tours; they turned it into a cafeteria for Scientologists.  Everyone was coming out the Church of Scientology training center (see below), walking down Fort Harrison Ave., crossing Cleveland, then walking down Watterson Street to a side entrance into the former Clearwater Bank Building where the cafeteria is.  Strange.  Here’s the building from further down Fort Harrison Ave:

former Clearwater Bank Building
former Clearwater Bank Building; now a cafeteria for Scientologists; the side entrance is on the right

Here’s a shot of a plaque on the front:

Bank of Clearwater plaque
Bank of Clearwater plaque

The security guard was very nice.  He saw Debi and I looking around (we probably looked suspicious to some degree, though the baby is a great cover) and approached us, asking us if we needed some help.  We did.  We were actually looking for an ice cream shop for dessert (the dinner we had wasn’t very filling).  He pointed out the Baskin Robbins down the street.  I then asked him if we could take a tour of the Bank of Clearwater building.  He was the one he told us that it was now a cafeteria.  He did say we could take a tour of the Church of Scientology training center right across the street, though.  But when I looked across the street I didn’t really understand what it was I was seeing as no one was coming out of that end of the building (poor design).  We thanked him and headed to Baskin Robbins.

After we got our dessert, we found a nifty little side ally that took us to Park St. (turns out the side alley is where the Scientologists who are smokers hang out; I wonder if that is an engram they are working on…).  Here’s Debi walking down the side alley:

Debi heading down Scientology-smoker alley
Debi heading down Scientology-smoker alley

At the corner of Park St. and Fort Harrison Ave. we had a good view of the main entrance to THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY.  Toren also got a little hungry, so while Debi fed him I approached a uniformed member of the religion and asked her (she was from Columbia) what the building was.  She said it was THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY.  When I asked her to clarify she said, “No, really, it is THE church.  It’s the main one.  This is the chief church of all the churches in the world.  They do training here that you can’t get anywhere else.”  That explained why she was there, along with so many other foreigners – they needed the specialized training.  I asked her if we could go in and she said yes.  So, with Toren topped off, we headed in.  Here’s the building:

the north side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; apparently no one uses this entrance
the north side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; apparently no one uses this entrance
the south side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; this is the main entrance; the area with the exhibits is in the center glass enclosure
the south side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; this is the main entrance; the area with the exhibits is in the center glass enclosure

Another security guard approached us as we headed that way.  I forget his name, but he was also very nice and asked us if we needed anything.  We told him we were just interested in seeing what was inside and learning a bit more.  He was from Mexico but had only a minor accent (he had been in the US for 14 years).  He guided us in to the main hallway, started a short video for us, then went to find one of the guides, Beth.  We ended up hanging out inside this building for a good hour and a half at least, peppering Beth with questions.  There’s no way I can recount the entire conversation, but I’ll try to hit on some of the highlights.

It did eventually come out that I’m a college professor and that I’m a Sociologist of Religion.  They, of course, had no idea what that meant.  But when they would ask me if I knew anything about Scientology, I always said, “Yes.”  And when they asked whether I had heard anything good, I usually said, “Not much.”  I think I surprised them when I told them that I had read Dianetics, which I really don’t recommend (wow is that a terrible, terrible book).  Even so, they treated me like I didn’t know anything, which was kind of funny because I think I knew more about their religion than they did in some regards (neither of them showed any knowledge of Xenu when I asked them about him), though I did learn a few things.  I asked Beth if Scientologists believe in a god-like entity.  She said they did, kind of.  She also said that you didn’t have to be exclusively a Scientologist to belong – Scientology is not an exclusive religion (i.e., you could be Jewish and a Scientologist).  I asked if you could be an atheist and a Scientologist, but she said not really, as they believe in something akin to a soul (called a Thetan).  Their notion of god is kind of Buddhist or Hindu – it’s an ill-defined supreme being that they associate with the term “infinity,” which is also the symbol of their god.

I also asked Beth how many Scientologists there are.  She claimed, initially, 2 billion.  After I stopped guffawing and choking on my tongue, I asked her if she was sure.  It took her a few minutes, but eventually she realized her mistake – she meant 2 million.  Okay, I could live with that number (probably an over-estimate, but that’s okay; some religions do that…).

I also asked her who or what created their Thetans.  She said she didn’t know.  Then I asked her how old the Thetans were.  She also couldn’t put a specific time on it, but said that she, herself, was older than the Earth (they believe in past lives).  When I told her that meant she was at least 4.6 billion years old, she nodded and said that she had dealt with engrams that went at least that far back (Note: Beth is a 27 year veteran of the religion; she was probably in her late 40s or early 50s).  I asked her if Thetans predated the known universe.  She said she had been created some time after the creation of the universe, but she couldn’t put an exact date on it.  So, Beth (i.e., her Thetan component) is somewhere between 4.6 and 14 billion years-old.  That’s better than most religions can do!

I was peppering her with so many questions that she eventually pulled me into a backroom and showed me The Bridge to Total Freedom:

Apparently what this shows is the different levels of Scientology.  On the right are the levels of self-improvement (a.k.a. “processing”) that you can attain.  In Dianetics, Hubbard only talks about getting to the “Clear” stage (all your engrams are gone).  Apparently they have introduced additional stages that include more knowledge.  However, the last 6 or 7 stages have yet to be revealed.  Beth, my 27 year veteran guide, was a Grade 0 on the self-processing side.  The other side is the levels of training you can receive (so you can audit other Scientologists).  She was a Class II or III.  This chart gave me a ton of questions.  I asked her what “Total Freedom” is.  She said it is complete control over time, space, matter, and energy.  Basically, if you reach that stage you no longer need a body and are kind of omnipotent.  I asked her if L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, who died from a stroke in the 1980s, had reached Total Freedom.  She said she assumed so because he was the one who knew about it.  I asked her why not all of the stages had been revealed since L. Ron Hubbard had to have known about them.  She said that Scientologists were not ready for them.  I asked her if anyone knew what they were.  She said she thought David Miscavige must know them but he was waiting until Scientologists were ready to hear them.  I asked how he would know.  She said that L. Ron Hubbard must have written some indicators that must first occur before they could be revealed, but that they had to be included in his final papers.  I asked her how L. Ron Hubbard figured them out.  She said he studied.  I asked her what he studied.  She said philosophy and science.  So I said, “Well, that means all of this secret knowledge must already have existed then.”  She agreed, but said that it was L. Ron Hubbard (LRH for short) who was able to discern between the truths and the falsehoods.  There are millions of falsehoods mixed in with the truths; his special gift was being able to discern the truths.  Then I said, “Well, how did L. Ron Hubbard know what is special and what is not?”  She said he used a scientific method.  I almost lost it at this point when I said, “Well, you must not mean the same thing I mean when I say I, a scientist, use the scientific method.”  She said his scientific method was taking out of the many ideas those that worked.  I asked what the alternative approach would be.  She said you could do things philosophically and just take what you like.  So, what made LRH special is he had a “scientific method” for discerning truth and it was based on “what works.”

We talked about a bunch of additional things, but I ended with a final question (it was starting to get dark and we still hadn’t made it to the Fort Harrison Hotel).  I asked her, “Beth, why are you a Scientologist?”  She said, “I was raised a Methodist and never felt like I  found happiness or contentment in life.  Methodism didn’t hold the answers for me.  When I found Scientology I found happiness and contentment.  Scientology has the technologies and tools to bring me peace and happiness in life.”  I asked her if she thought that was the reason most people join and she said yes.

This last question does bring up some of the basic elements of the religion that I was less familiar with and seem to be quite prominently on display in the center.  A lot of what I saw in The Church had to do with pop psychology stuff (which is what Dianetics is, except it’s really poorly written, obtuse, and retarded).  The current teachings seem to be all about overcoming your own problems and learning how to interact with other people.  They still do this using auditing and e-meters (which are known to be hokum).  They now also include some pseudoscientific gobbledy-gook about toxins in our bodies and a detoxing program that includes vitamins, potions, special food, and time in a sauna (a good way to get you to spend more money on their processing programs).  So, maybe it has helped Beth.  Who knows.  But it does seem like a lot of people are interested.

Beth gave us 3 videos to watch and her card (I wanted it so I could call and get the time for a Sunday morning service some time).  She also introduced the head chaplain at the Church.  Oh, and I left out the little interaction I had with the security guard and Beth while Debi was feeding Toren.  The security guard followed up with me about what it is I do.  Not unlike most people who hear I’m a Sociologist of Religion, he didn’t know anything about what I do, about other religions, or about the worldwide picture of religion generally.  So I gave him and Beth a quick rundown on which religions are growing where and why.  He seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying, but Beth eventually interrupted – she was the one who was supposed to be teaching me stuff, not vice versa.  This does seem like a common feature of many missionaries – they are so confident they are right and that they have “ALL TRUTH” that they don’t realize just how much they don’t know.  If graduate school did anything for me it taught me how little I know.  Case in point, I have a PhD in Sociology but was asking them questions to LEARN more about their religion.  I know a lot about some things, but I also know that I know virtually nothing relative to what there is to know.  Alas, missionaries don’t seem to realize that…

Anyway, once we got out of THE CHURCH, we snapped a shot of the Super-Power Building that is still unfinished (and has been under construction for quite some time):

the unfinished super-power building
the unfinished super-power building

We then headed down Fort Harrison Ave. to the Fort Harrison Hotel:

The front of the Fort Harrison Hotel
The front of the Fort Harrison Hotel

The bellhops kindly helped us carry Toren’s stroller up to the main lobby where we waited a good 20 minutes for a tour guide.  One never showed up, so a bellhop showed me around briefly: the hotel has a very nice restaurant, Hibiscus, that isn’t too pricey but was empty.  He also showed me their massive auditorium where they hold receptions, graduations, and services.  It’s a swank hotel.  We didn’t stay too long as it was getting late.

As we walked back to our car, Debi couldn’t help but reflect on just how bizarre this all was.  She had no idea that Clearwater was really kind of Scientology-ville.  (For my Mormon readers, imagine what downtown Ogden would look like if the Missionary Training Center was across the street from the Ogden Temple and the campus was open, not fenced in, and you’ll get a sense of what it is like.)  Most of the people we saw were wearing Scientology uniforms and there were dozens of Scientology buses (all with “Flag” on them) shuttling people back and forth to buildings.  While it’s kind of an exaggeration to say that Clearwater is now Scientology-ville, it really isn’t much of an exaggeration.  Clearwater Beach remains a tourist spot with people of all stripes.  But the old Clearwater downtown area does now seem to be dominated by Scientology.

If anyone wants to come visit us and check out Scientology-ville, here’s my recommended walking tour:

Start at the Clearwater Library and park:

100 N. Osceola Avenue
Clearwater, Florida 33755-4083

There isn’t much to see of either Sandcastle or the Osceola Inn, but you can check them out briefly through the foliage that surrounds them.  Follow Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave.  Take Fort Harrison to Cleveland and check out the former Clearwater Bank Building.  You can only see the outside, but it’s intriguing to see nonetheless.  Take the little side alley to the east of The Church of Scientology, which is on the south of Cleveland opposite the former Bank (the address is 503 Cleveland St., Clearwater, FL; it’s also called the “Coachman Building”).  Wrap around the building then enter the main doors and spend some time inside.  You’ll likely be approached by someone inside (their version of a missionary).  Spend as much time in there as you’d like, then exit back out the same doors and head down Fort Harrison Ave to the Fort Harrison Hotel (210 S Fort Harrison Ave, Clearwater, FL 33756).  You can get a good glimpse of the Super-Power Building along the way.  If they aren’t super busy you should be able to get a tour.  You could even finish it off with lunch or dinner at the Hibiscus restaurant.  As near as I can tell, there isn’t much else to see, just keep your eyes open for the swarms of Scientologists floating around the city, primarily around the Coachman Building.  And if you’re feeling daring, go up and talk to a Scientologist; they don’t bite.  They may even let you get a picture with them (something we didn’t do).

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The Boston Globe calling…

I received an email from Michael Paulson, a religion reporter for The Boston Globe, yesterday asking me if I had time to talk about a new study coming out today.  The study is the latest wave of the American Religious Identification Survey.  Having worked with the principal investigators – Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar – on the original design of the survey and some of the analysis once the data was collected, I can say that I’m quite familiar with the survey.  So, I agreed to chat with him last night.  He called and we talked for about 20 minutes.  He mainly wanted to know whether I thought the survey was accurate and well-done (it is) and what I thought was most interesting about it.  I mentioned the significant losses of Catholics to non-religion in New England as the most interesting finding.  He was very nice and quite knowledgeable.

Anyway, I ended up in The Boston Globe today.  I’ve been interviewed by three reporters in the last week – one an independent journalist and one for my school’s newspaper (on unrelated topics).  But The Boston Globe!!  That’s pretty cool!

For additional coverage, see USA Today’s site.  The videos are pretty groovy too.

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The True Meaning of Christmas…

I should really be doing other work, but after reading the news this morning, it dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was write a short blog post about “The True Meaning of Christmas.”  (NOTE: For all the readers of my blog who are religious, this is your cue to stop reading now if you don’t want to hear me discuss the historical origins of Christmas.)

While other people have put similar ideas on paper before, I wanted something I could refer back to easily for future reference.  I also wanted to extend those ideas slightly.  So, I give you my version of the True Meaning of Christmas:

1) In pre-history, December 25th didn’t actually exist as a date, that had to await the invention of the Gregorian calendar.  Calendars were, of course, under development, but none of them had a pre-specified date for the birth of the mythical figure Jesus.


2) By roughly 4,000 BCE pre-historic astronomers and astronomers in early Egypt developed calendars, noting that the shortest day of the year (in terms of amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere) is close to December 25th (actually Dec. 21st).  Their calendars obviously don’t include a month called December.


3) ~648-330 BCE – Using the Egyptian calendar and basing some of their beliefs on those of the Egyptians, the Persians developed a belief in a sun god named Mithras, whose birthday fell on or around the date we would now recognize to be about December 25th.


4) ~100 BCE to ~300 CE – Romans celebrate a winter festival called Saturnalia, which celebrates the opening of the temple of Saturn.  The festival starts out as a 1 day affair on December 17th, but eventually turns into a week-long affair, running through December 23th.  The festival is marked by giving gifts, feasts, and parties.


5) 274 CE – A new Roman festival is introduced called “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” which is basically Latin for the “birthday of the unconquered sun god.”  Solis Invictus was the name of the sun god and a celebration was held in his honor on December 25th, decades before Christians began celebrating Christmas.


6) ~200-400 CE (estimated dates; probably range much wider) – Prior to their Christianization, Germans and Scandinavians practiced polytheism (a.k.a. they were pagans).  One of their celebrations, possibly influenced by Roman celebrations, was the festival of Yule, which took place around December 25th (exact dates aren’t clear).  The festival included sacrificing animals, burning yule logs, singing yule songs, and decorating with evergreen boughs.  Other than decorating their temples and the men with the blood of the animals sacrificed, many of the traditions from Yule celebrations have been incorporated into modern Christmas celebrations (Too bad about that blood decorating thing…  I’m sensing a new holiday tradition here!).  Yule is also the root of the word “jolly.”


7)354 CE  – Historical records make first mention of Christians celebrating Christmas as a festival, probably near December 25th and overlapping with other Roman festivities.


8) During the 1200s CE, Christians began incorporating elements of the Roman festival Saturnalia into their new holiday, Christmas.  The festival of Saturnalia becomes the 12 Days of Christmas.


9) During the 1500s a character is introduced into Christmas celebrations named Father Christmas.  He serves a variety of roles, but he is generally just seen as a jovial old drunk guy.


10) In the 17th Century Protestants are disturbed by the raucous nature of Christmas celebrations (which are still similar to Yule and Saturnalia).  They ban all Christmas celebrations.  This includes Puritans in the US and religious groups in the UK.  Roman Catholics respond by trying to make Christmas celebrations more religious.  The bans are relatively short-lived.


11) Christmas undergoes little development until the middle of the 19th Century when popular authors like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and Clement Clarke Moore write about Christmas.  In their stories they invent many of the traditions and meanings that are now associated with Christmas – stockings, Santa Claus, family dinners, Christmas trees, gifts, etc.


12) The creation of the new traditions by 19th Century authors also begins the commercialization of the holiday, which is quickly embraced by the rapidly developing consumerist culture of the United States.  Corporations latch on to the idea of an end of the year spending spree, which is beneficial for their bottom line.  Smartly, they wrap this in altruism – it’s always good to give, right?


13) Also created in the middle of the 19th Century is the modern-day conception of Santa Claus, who was drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast.  The idea is rooted in various European traditions of a gift giver, which is probably rooted in older traditions, perhaps representing the mythical magi who gave gifts to the infant Jesus and other Persian and Roman myths.


14) Christmas became a federal holiday in the U.S. in 1870.  It wasn’t until the late 20th Century, however, that religious fundamentalists in the U.S. began to decontextualize Christmas and turn it into a part of their culture war.  “Decontextualize” means they removed the context of the holiday.  The context is everything outlined above – the fact that it is based on various other holidays stolen or co-opted from other religious groups.  Once you remove the context of something you get to assert that it has only one meaning – a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  This is actually a very clever ploy by religious fundamentalists and political pundits to monopolize the meaning of a term and then use it against moderate Christians in their culture war.  It makes moderately religious people feel guilty.  My thought here is that religious fundamentalists want to use this to attract more moderate thinkers to their way of thinking, building their armies of followers.


15) Several years ago a group of atheists, agnostics, and humanists decided they didn’t like the consumerism associated with Christmas.  They also decided they didn’t like the religious themes now attached to Christmas. They created a new holiday that falls between the Winter Solstice and December 25th called Human Light Day. It is a celebration of humanity.  Some give gifts; some decorate in ways very similar to Christmas.  Some sing songs.  It’s basically a secular version of Christmas.  In a sense, December 25th has come full circle – it started out as just another day, became an important date for a bunch of mythological deities, and has now been returned to just another day.


16) So, do you want to know the true meaning of Christmas?  It can be summarized in one word: “syncretism.”  Syncretism is the combining, adoption, or co-opting of beliefs of one group by a new group.  Religious history is full of syncretism.  For instance, when Roman Catholicism came to the Americas, particularly Latin America, they forced the Native Americans to convert to Roman Catholicism.  As part of this process, many of the Native Americans carried their old religious views into their new religion.  At the same time, Roman Catholicism, learning from its thousands of years of forcing conversion of other groups, realized it is easier to co-opt the beliefs of a group than destroy them.  To facilitate this, Roman Catholics built churches over Native American temples, overlayed Native American gods onto saints, and co-opted holidays, like Dia de los Muertos.  As a result, Roman Catholicism in Latin America is quite different from Roman Catholicism in Europe, the US, etc.  It is a syncretism between Native American religions and European Roman Catholicism.

Syncretism is the key to understanding Christmas.  Christmas did not just pop out of thin air the day Jesus was born.  No one knows about Jesus’s childhood nor when he was actually born.  So, the holiday couldn’t just spring up to celebrate Jesus’s birthday given all the unknowns.  Also, the evidence suggesting Christians slowly pieced together a holiday out of prior religious festivals is quite compelling.  You can thank Scandinavian and Germanic pagans for: yule logs, Christmas songs, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus.  You can thank pagan Romans for gift giving, feasts, and parties.  And you can thank 19th Century authors and profit seeking corporations for: Santa Claus, gift giving, modern decorations, and the rampant consumerism of the season.


Now, for my contribution.  Given the fact that Christmas has been constructed, reconstructed, and even deconstructed by various groups over the years, that means the meaning of the holiday is fluid.  The claims of religious fundamentalists and political pundits trying to boost their ratings aside, the true meaning of Christmas is not the birth of the mythical Jesus.  The true meaning of Christmas is whatever you want it to be; religious, secular, whatever.  It’s your life; you get to give it whatever meaning you want.  No one has a monopoly on what Christmas can or does mean.  Yes, the word historically refers to “Christ’s Mass,” but there is no reason it has to in your own mind.  After all, how many Christians associate “Yule” with Odin?  You can turn Christmas into a purely secular holiday that includes no thought of the mythical Jesus, or Mithras, or Odin, or Solis Invictus, or any other god whose birthday has been celebrated on that day.

I think the true meaning of Christmas should be more akin to that created by secular humanists: A day to remember that we are all humans, to celebrate our relationships, both immediate and distant, and to reflect on our common goal to see our species survive.  That, to me, is what any holiday should mean.  But, the beauty of understanding that a holiday’s meaning is fluid is that you get to decide for you. I hope you have a happy holiday season, whatever that means to you.

Here’s the complete history of Christmas in a single chart:


I created the chart in Powerpoint (1 and 2).

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update on Signing for Something website

Not that I’m excited to post on here about Mormonism again, but I do think this turn of events is interesting.  One of the key people who set up the website “Signing for Something” opposing the LDS Church’s attempts to ban gay marriage in California is now being excommunicated for expressing his dissenting views.  He has put together a couple of videos on YouTube for people to see what’s going on (video 1, video 2).  He’s definitely an eccentric dude, but you have to admire his courage and gall.  Comments welcome!

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Colorado City and Home

Our trip to Southern Utah was pretty short, just 3 days.  My in-laws wanted to see the Shakespearean festival (though Cyrano de Bergerac is not by Shakespeare), Zion National Park, and Les Miserables.  I suggested Mountain Meadows and one other stop: Colorado City.  For those not familiar with Colorado City, Arizona, it’s a town literally on the border between Utah and Arizona (strategically placed to avoid authorities when required).  It’s also the base of operations for The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the increasingly well-known polygamist group, some of the members of which were the residents of the ranch in El Dorado Texas that was raided in April.  Debi and I recently wrote book chapters on the FLDS (the bookshould be coming out in the next 6 months or so), and I’ve heard lots of stories about the FLDS, so I figured stopping by Colorado City might be fun.  We originally planned to stop there after Zion National Park, but we spent more time in the park than originally planned, so we moved it to Wednesday and stopped there on our way home.

We didn’t really know what we wanted to see or what we could see in Colorado City, but we figured we’d drive around and see whatever we could and then hopefully stop for lunch somewhere.  Often Colorado City is referred to as Colorado City/Hilldale, as the town is kind of split right on the border – Colorado City is in Arizona and Hilldale is in Utah.  Since we were driving south from Utah, we passed through Hilldale first. Hilldale is, well, pretty much non-existent.  The majority of the city is in Arizona.  Only the very northern edge of the settlement is in Utah.  So, it really is more accurate to say Colorado City.

Without a particular plan of attack, we simply turned down a street and started driving around randomly.  As luck would have it, the best part of our trip happened at the very first house on the very first street we drove down.  I had heard stories that people in Colorado City are very distrustful of outsiders and that they will stop and stare at you if you drive into town.  I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it really is.  As we turned down the first street, we saw a woman dressed in the standard FLDS dress with her kids working on the lawn outside.  All of the kids stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we drove by.  We tried to get a picture that first time, but didn’t get a good one and felt pretty awkward doing so anyway.  So, we snuck up on them later and snapped this shot:

You can see the mother to the right, hoeing away.  The kids are all dressed in the standard outfits: girls in full-length dresses, boys in jeans and long sleeve shirts.  As we passed them this time, we waved.  Only the youngest kids waved back while all the others simply stared.  I’m not surprised by their response, but I am fascinated: the FLDS are definitely secretive and wary of outsiders.  I would kind of feel bad for my voyeurism, but I really am interested in them from a sociological perspective, so I can kind of justify snapping these photos.

We drove around the town for another 30 to 45 minutes, just seeing what we could see.  I don’t think anyone has written an article on this yet, but someone should definitely write an article on the architecture/urban planning of a secretive polygamist sect.  I was absolutely fascinated by what we saw.  If someone is interested in writing this paper, maybe the following will give you a good start (and then we can collaborate on an actual article).  I’ll begin with the most common house type we saw, something like the house in this picture:

It’s a very large home, which makes sense considering the sizes of families among the FLDS.  But there are several things that are noteworthy about these homes.  First, unlike homes for monogamous couples, they aren’t necessarily built for the aesthetic value but to maximize space.  This is particularly apparent in some of the other homes we photographed (see below), but also apparent in the above home – the more rooms the better.  Also, while you can’t see it very well in this low-resolution photo, the exterior of the house isn’t finished stucco but rather wooden particle board painted gray, which is pretty common among the homes we saw.  Second, notice the additions: the small building to the left is an addition to this home and there is a trailer to the right.  Neither of the two additions fit, aesthetically, with the larger home, reinforcing the idea that construction in the FLDS community is more about space than about architectural appeal.  I have to wonder if that is unique in residential communities.

This next photo does a better job illustrating the pragmatism of the FLDS.  Similar to the above home, but even more simplistic and less stylistic, this home is basically an enormous box with virtualy no adornments.  Also like the above home, the exterior is wooden particle board, this time painted brown, with no attempt at adding a finished exterior, like stucco or brick.  This is about the most utilitarian home you can get: it’s a massive box with tons of space for wives and kids.

Though slightly less common than traditional foundation homes, a fairly common sight was trailer homes like the one in the photo below.  There are hundreds of these homes scattered throughout Colorado City.  Again, this is probably a simple matter of utilitarianism: If you run out of space for your wives and kids, you buy a trailer and set it up in a field near your home.

The three homes above also illustrate the lack of interest in maintaining one’s yard, which was also very common in Colorado City.  Of the several hundred homes we saw, very few had any significant landscaping.  This is reaffirmed when you visit the town’s cemetery (which doubles as a monument to Prophet Leroy S. Johnson):

While we were in the cemetery there were sprinklers on and it was apparent some minor attempts at landscaping the cemetery had taken place.  But it remained mostly sandy soil and weeds.  There was virtually no grass and no clear lines demarcating sand from grass or walking areas from viewing areas.  I have a rather cynical theory to explain this that goes along with my assertions of pragmatism: The community wants to give the veneer of been clean, tidy, and well-kept, but the time required in simply handling the hundreds of kids is too much.  Additionally, while there are weak attempts at landscaping, the real interests of the community lie in maintaining their lifestyle and earning money, neither of which require nice landscaping.  Finally, maintaining a nice lawn in a desert area like Colorado City is probably both prohibitively expensive and time consuming.  It would require making that a priority, which is clearly not of interest in the community.  As a result, there is virtually no landscaping of note in the community.

Another point of architectural interest is the preponderance of abandoned homes like this one:

We probably saw one to two dozen homes just like this – framed up, but missing windows and inhabitants.  I don’t know what the explanation is for these homes, so I’m just going to propose a couple of possibilities.  First, the trust that holds the communal funds for the FLDS is now in receivership by the State of Arizona.  With limited access to the hundreds of millions in the fund, construction may have ceased on new projects.  Another explanation may be the reign of Warren Jeffs.  Once he took control of the religion he kicked out a number of men who were seen as threats.  These homes may stand as tributes to and reminders of the importance of obedience to the prophet.  I really am just guessing here, so if anyone reading this has a better explanation, I’d love to hear it.

Another element of the architecture of the community that is of interest is the preponderance of large privacy walls.  Of course you see privacy fences in cities and towns all over, but rarely do you see walls as imposing as this:

Walls like this were pretty common, though they weren’t all as tall as this one.  The walls are also pragmatic – to keep people like me from seeing what is going on behind them.

Despite having everything in common (supposedly), there are also clear class differences in the community, which are also apparent in the architecture.  Compare the home in the photo below to the homes shown earlier:

I’m guessing the quality of the homes reflects the religious hierarchy as well.

Another strange architectural feature is the lack of signage on most buildings.  By far the largest building in town, this massive white building, had no sign indicating its function.  From its architecture I’m inclined to believe this is the main church for the FLDS in the community:

The lack of signage is pretty common.  Again, I’m guessing this is a privacy thing: If you don’t know what the functions of buildings are, it’s hard to find people doing things in those buildings.  The lack of signage was also apparent on the restaurant/cafe where we ate lunch (which was the second most interesting thing we saw) – Vermillion Restaurant:

The sign is under the awning and not facing the street but between this building and another.  You really have to look for it to find it.

I knew they had a restaurant or two in town and was hoping to eat in town just to get a little bit of the experience.  We found this cafe near the center of town.  On the door was a sign that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”  Next to that sign was a sign that said, “Absolutely no cameras or video equipment permitted inside.”  As I was really interested in seeing how things functioned in the community, I didn’t take my camera in, though I would have loved to have gotten a photo of the inside of the cafe.  Inside was basically one large room with a counter at one end and restrooms at the other.  There were no booths, just very long tables with chairs.  It was completely open with no pillars, so you could see everyone inside.  You wrote your order on a slip of paper at the counter, they rang you up, then delivered it to your table.  The food selection was pretty interesting as much of it was simply frozen prepared food that they would heat up and deliver (e.g., mozzarella sticks, pizza sticks, chicken sticks, fish sticks, etc.).  We placed our orders and headed to a table to wait for them.

The owners of the restaurant are clearly FLDS – the woman who took our order was wearing the traditional dress and had the hairstyle that is common among the FLDS.  There were a couple of other tables occupied.  One was occupied by several men, all of whom were wearing long-sleeve shirts, jeans, and hats.  They all had cell phones and frequently made calls.  The other table was occupied by a mother with four kids, all girls and all under the age of about 8.  We were the only non-FLDS in the cafe.  It was fascinating to see the young girls respond to our presence.  There was one girl, probably around 4 or 5, who clearly recognized us as outsiders.  We were just as novel to her as she was to us.  She couldn’t stop staring at us.  She and her older sister kept running around our table to get a better look at us.  We smiled and waved and said hello, but she was reticent to respond.  We tried to be as cordial as possible, but the adults, who did glance at us furtively, didn’t really respond at all.

I did ask the person who took our order one thing about the community: I asked her if there was a monument to the 1953 Short Creek Raid.  The community used to be called Short Creek, but changed its name after it was raided by the State of Arizona in 1953 (very similar to the raid on the ranch in Texas).  If you read the entry on Wikipedia you’ll see that the polygamists in the town had forewarning about the raid and gathered in the local school to sing patriotic songs while the kids played around the flagpole outside.  I thought there would be a monument to the raid, as it was a defining moment in the community.  So, I asked her where it was.  She told us, but it was a good thing I asked or we never would have found it.  If it is a monument to the earlier raid, it is pretty neglected at this point.  Here’s a photo of the school:

The yard, like the rest of the community, is unkempt, but now it is also littered with trash and junk.  There is a sign indicating it is a historic location, but whoever is in charge of keeping it up is literally letting it die:

Debi and I got a picture at the famed flagpole, which was about the only area that seemed to be slighty well kept.  The rest of the place was really going down hill.

This was our last stop in the community before we headed back to Salt Lake City.  On our way home I asked my in-laws what there favorite part of the trip was.  Rosemary liked Les Miserables.  Gary, who didn’t understand initially why were going to visit a town on the border, said his favorite part was Colorado City.  I have to admit it was probably my favorite part, too.  It’s not every day that you get to visit a town in the heart of America that is inhabited by a people with a culture so foreign to regular Americans that you literally feel like are in a foreign country and are experiencing culture shock.  It was a fascinating chance to peek inside a reclusive, secretive sect and get a glimpse of the lifestyle that makes them so unique.

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the latest Steve…

In case you’ve never heard of “Project Steve” of the National Center for Science Education, here’s a quick recap:

NCSE’s “Project Steve” is a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of “scientists who doubt evolution” or “scientists who dissent from Darwinism.” (For examples of such lists, see the FAQs.)

Creationists draw up these lists to convince the public that evolution is somehow being rejected by scientists, that it is a “theory in crisis.” Most members of the public lack sufficient contact with the scientific community to know that this claim is totally unfounded. NCSE has been exhorted by its members to compile a list of thousands of scientists affirming the validity of the theory of evolution, but although we easily could have done so, we have resisted such pressure. We did not wish to mislead the public into thinking that scientific issues are decided by who has the longer list of scientists!

Project Steve mocks this practice with a bit of humor, and because “Steves” are only about 1% of scientists, it incidentally makes the point that tens of thousands of scientists support evolution. And it honors the late Stephen Jay Gould, NCSE supporter and friend.

We’d like to think that after Project Steve, we’ll have seen the last of bogus “scientists doubting evolution” lists, but it’s probably too much to ask. We do hope that at least when such lists are proposed, reporters and other citizens will ask, “but how many Steves are on your list!?”

Well, if you hurry and check, the latest Steve on the list is non other than Steven Wayne Morgan, Debi’s brother.  That page is regularly updated with the latest Steve, so catch it before it goes away.  Below is a screenshot for when another Steve is added to the list.

Steve joins the ranks of the elite!

Very cool!

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Workers of the World Unite! (on Sunday… in Church?)

I’m adding this sentence from a paper to my list of memorable student quotes,

The religious affiliations of the United States as a whole are that 77% of people are Christian (which includes Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, Methodists, Lutherans, Christians, Proletarians, Episcopalians, Mormons, and others), 1% are Jewish, 1% are Muslim, 1% are Buddhist, less than 1% are Hindu, 1% have other affiliations, 14% have no religious affiliation, and 5% refuse to disclose their affiliation.

I highlighted the mix-up for those who aren’t reading it closely enough to catch it. I’m sure Marx would roll over in his grade if “proletarians” were considered a religion, but, then again, maybe Proletarians would bring a much-needed focus on social stratification to religious practice.  The creed of the proletarian,

There is no god, but our masters, the bourgeoisie, are demon spawn from hell. 

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