Religion News Roundup: Soothsayers, a Vampire, Scientology, and Guns at Church

RNB Religion News Roundup: a compendium of blurbs and links to, for the most part, religion-related stories and religion research resources.

You’ll find religion news stories ranging from serious to seriously offbeat.

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Flim Flam

• St. Peterburg, Florida: It’s an issue lifted from Medieval Europe: Should the government treat soothsayers and ordained ministers differently?

The City Council will vote today to remove an antiquated measure from its books that requires five “good moral character” references from soothsayers, fortune tellers, palmists, astrologers and mental healers seeking a business permit.

But the proposed streamlined application process has done little to silence critics who say the city has no business regulating those spiritual leaders in the first place. Their concern? The decades-old permitting process exempts ordained ministers.


Vampirism

A man who calls himself “The Impaler” and ran for governor under what he called the Vampires, Witches and Pagans ticket has pleaded guilty to harassment through e-mail charges. John Albert Sharkey faced harassment and coercion charges for allegedly sending harassing e-mails to a Rochester teenager in 2007. After pleading guilty Monday, Sharkey was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

In ordering Sharkey to stand trial, Judge Joseph Chase last March said, “Jurors may well find the defendant to be a clownish buffoon and his alleged belief in vampires to be ridiculous,” Chase wrote in his memorandum, and jurors might also surmise that Sharkey places no more stock in this “vampire nonsense than most of us place in the Tooth Fairy, and that all of this is really his elaborate means of striking up conversations with adolescent girls.”


Occultism

• Former US First Lady Nancy Reagon told Vanity Fair magazine: “At night time, if I wake up, I think Ronnie is there, and I start to talk to him… And I see him.” […] Mrs Reagan has long been interested in astrology. In 1988, she was criticised and ridiculed when it was revealed that she had consulted astrologers during her time at the White House. And it was this that got the newly-elected Barack Obama into hot water. In a news conference in November, he was asked whether he had consulted any former presidents for advice.

He replied that he had spoken to the living ones, adding: “I did not want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances.”

Mr Obama called her almost immediately to apologise.


Samaritans

Guardians of an ancient faith with a cameo role in the Bible, the 750 surviving followers of the Samaritan religion are using surprisingly modern methods to keep their tiny community alive.

Internet acquaintances, mail-order brides and pre-nuptial genetic tests have all become familiar to Samaritans trying to plan future generations despite a shortage of young women within their own tight-knit community.

Such openness to the outside world seems baffling in a group that considers itself the original Israelites and upholds rigid traditions about diet, sex and the Sabbath. […]

Husney Kohen, 65, one of the faith’s 12 hereditary priests, saw no contradiction in the lifestyle of a community that numbered more than a million in the late Roman Empire but is now, as he puts it, “the smallest sect in the world.” […]

The alternative to adapting was grim. A century ago, the community was down to only 146 members. Some left to work in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, launching a new community there.

Marriage within the tight-knit community was so common by the mid-20th century that about seven percent of Samaritans suffered from some genetic defect.

Genetic testing before marriage has helped cut that rate in half. With rising living standards, the community has slowly restocked its ranks in recent decades. But a surplus of males meant some men had to seek wives outside the Samaritan world.


Islam

The White House has launched a sweeping plan to harness the ever-growing worldwide reach of social networks to promote President Obama’s major speech to the Muslim world tomorrow in Cairo. It is an unprecedented effort to market a presidential address.

Top officials who briefed reporters during the president’s stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia describe a “high profile” strategy to spread Mr. Obama’s message. Spokesman Robert Gibbs described a “fairly sophisticated outreach.”

The strategy includes using social networking pages that will allow people to monitor and comment on the speech. Speech excerpts and full transcripts will be posted. The administration will turn to Facebook, My Space and Twitter. A spokesman says Facebook is the largest social network in the Muslim world with nearly 20 million users.

The administration will also use a social network that is popular in South Asia. A State Department program will allow international callers to register to receive free text messages on the president’s speech in Arabic, Urdu, Persian, English and other languages. The registration link is here.

Video of the speech will be live streamed on the White House web site. It will also be posted on You Tube. U.S embassies in Muslim countries have been tasked to promote the availability of speech translations.

The folks at MediaCurves.com are running a research study on Thursday, June 4 regarding President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world. The speech will be televised and the company will ask research respondents to view excerpts of the speech early Thursday morning and report their level of agreement/disagreement with the speech.

You can register here for the study. By doing so you will then join the MediaCurves.com® panel, and will receive specific instructions about this survey tomorrow.

A telephone help-line offering advice about the true teaching of Islam is being launched in the UK today. Callers to the Islamic Hotline will get answers to their questions within 48 hours, from scholars trained at one of the world’s principal Islamic universities. The Islamic scholars behind the telephone helpline hope it will combat radicalism in Britain and help ordinary Muslims answer difficult questions about their faith.

• Gallup Poll: As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver a major address in Cairo on Thursday, aimed in part at rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Muslim world, a Gallup Poll update shows that 80% of Americans believe that people in Muslim countries have an unfavorable view of the U.S. Only 13% of Americans say such attitudes are positive. These views have changed little over the last seven years.

Egypt’s top government-appointed Muslim leader said Sunday the use of weapons of mass destruction by armed groups or individuals against non-Muslim states is not religiously sanctioned. According to the state news agency, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa’s fatwa, or religious edict, came in response to reports that some groups have sanctioned the use of weapons of mass destruction against non-Muslim nations.


The Church Around The Corner

From time to time — while keeping a safe distance — we observe the behavior of those slightly odd believers in ‘the Church Around The Corner’. Like so:

• A Kentucky church is asking its members to bring their guns to church: Not only are members encouraged to bring their guns to the New Bethel Church, they’re also encouraged to bring friends with guns to church.

The pastor of the church says it’s a “celebration” of our second amendment right to bear arms but as you can imagine, the debate has everyone talking.

Pastor Ken Pagano of the New Bethel Church in Valley Station is hosting what he’s calling an “open carry celebration” at the church on Saturday, June 27th.


Buddhism

• Unable to stop free people doing their own thing, the Chinese govenment continues to whine its way through life: China on Tuesday warned that countries receiving the Dalai Lama on his current European tour will ‘severely damage’ relations with Beijing.

‘Any irresponsible moves by any country over this issue will constitute gross intervention in the internal affairs of China and will severely damage relations with those countries,’ foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters. He gave no other details.


Catholic Church

Confessing in the Catholic church has long provided material for Hollywood screen-writers, with a dark wooden booth, a priest’s stern silhouette glimpsed through a screen and the uttered phrase “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

But, according to the Vatican, real life confessions are in danger of turning into cosy counselling sessions, which is why priests are to be issued with a handbook instructing them to give their flocks a sharp reminder of what sin is all about.

Explaining the initiative, an official at the Vatican office on clergy told Vatican Radio that the declining number of churchgoers who went to confession were confusing it with “a psychiatrist’s couch”. “An ever decreasing number of people see a clear difference between good and evil, between truth and lies and between sin and virtue, and therefore fewer are taking confession,” said Archbishop Mauro Piacenza.


Ethics

Abortion
Unwed pregnant teens and twenty-somethings who attend or have graduated from private religious schools are more likely to obtain abortions than their peers from public schools, according to sociological research published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

“This research suggests that young, unmarried women are confronted with a number of social, financial and health-related factors that can make it difficult for them to act according to religious values when deciding whether to keep or abort a pregnancy,” said the study’s author, sociologist Amy Adamczyk, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

With the slaying Sunday of Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation’s few late-term abortion doctors, supporters of abortion rights are questioning whether there is a connection between his death and the rhetoric of the abortion opponents’ movement.

More to the point, would Tiller have been a victim if abortion rights opponents groups had not made him so prominent?

“Pro-life groups have created this climate through language and attacking those of us who are pro-choice for being killers,” said the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

“Doing so, they set the stage for anybody who thinks that this is murder to put this in their own hands to commit murder. … They set the framework because they demonize those of us in the pro-choice movement.”
[…]

But some abortion rights opponents said their movement cannot be narrowed to rare acts of violence. In fact, Land said, the person responsible for Tiller’s death is not fit to be viewed as a representative of the movement.

“This is an act of a deranged individual,” he said. “Anyone who thinks they have the right to walk into a church and be judge, jury and executioner of a fellow human being is no disciple of the pro-life movement.”


Sikhism

Some 500 followers of a late Indian religious leader gathered Tuesday in Vienna to pay their last respects to the guru who was killed in last week’s attack on a temple in Austria’s capital.

Vienna police came out in force to protect the quiet mourning ceremony of the Dera Sach Khand sect, following the shooting on May 24 which had also left another guru and more than a dozen followers injured and sparked violent unrest in parts of India.
[…]

Although all of the six Indian men who opened fire during the religious service on May 24 have been caught, investigators have made little headway in finding out which movement was behind the incident.

The sect’s members do not consider themselves to be part of Sikhism.


Scientology

Scientology — deeply involved in quackery and pseudo-science — runs a hate group dedicated to attacking psychiatry.

The folks at Gawker write: Noted Scientologist Greta van Susteren’s sister is a psychiatrist. Or, as Greta’s religion would have it, a practitioner of the “industry of death,” a “fraud,” a drug-peddler, and a “rapist.”

Gawker called the sister to ask what she thinks about Greta’s views.

• The life and death of a con artist: His full name was Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. His followers—in keeping with their love of acronyms and meaning-imbued abbreviations— know him as LRH. However it’s said, his name is known worldwide mostly because he plastered it in large capital letters on everything he wrote, totaling millions of words in all. He lectured and wrote extensively, purportedly until the day he died, as he created and grew what is arguably the most controversial religion in recent history. In Hubbard’s own words, he “discovered” Scientology and its backbone, Dianetics. Yet it hasn’t been as easy to discover Hubbard, to wade through the legend to uncover the man.

Regardless, it’s clear that his death was a dim shadow of the way he lived. A famed writer who seemed to revel in controversy, Hubbard spent the final years of his life in seclusion. Though he revered communication, a devastating brain lesion had impaired his ability to speak.

Only a privileged few knew where he was for roughly six years. He was a man about town, according to church representatives, but in SLO County where he died, on Jan. 24, 1986, he resided largely unnoticed.

L. Ron Hubbard’s body was found in a motor home with the air conditioner running, tucked behind animal stables on a small ranch outside Creston. His family wasn’t there. His wife was in prison and his estranged son believed he was either dead or insane. In his final moments, the man who created a religion with a massive following was accompanied only by his doctor and lawyer.


Books

• Book review of Reason, Faith, and Revotion: Reflections on the God Debate By Terry Eagleton:

The Judeo-Christian religion endorsed by Eagleton is not of the variety favored by many churchgoers. … Eagleton does not believe “in the archangel Gabriel, the infallibility of the pope, the idea that Jesus walked on water, or the claim that he rose up into heaven before the eyes of his disciples.”

So what does he believe in? The virtues of a very “orthodox” Christian religion, Eagleton says, one promulgated by Thomas Aquinas and thinkers before him. This Christianity “is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” He goes on to say that faith “is for the most part performative rather than propositional. Christians certainly believe that there is a God. But this is not what the credal statement ‘I believe in God’ means. It resembles [rather] an utterance like ‘I have faith in you.’ “

Eagleton, who has churned out 40-plus books in his career, admits he’s no theologian. Yet that’s also true of the fundamentalists whose ignorant religion he rightly criticizes; true, too, of the main targets of his ire, the atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom he frequently lumps together as “Ditchkins.” …

This erudite but often entertaining volume runs out of gas only sporadically, whenever Eagleton commits too much philosophy, dishing up wordy and opaque paragraphs. His politics, while humane, can be as simplistically rendered as Ditchkins’s theology.

Note from Religion News Blog: If you’re thinking about buying some Religion Books — or anything else from Amazon.com — please consider making your purchases via these links. Doing so helps Religion News Blog pay the bills at no extra cost to you. Thanks!


Ever So Briefly

A federal court said a kindergartner’s mother could not read Scripture during show and tell, even if the Bible was the boy’s favorite book. The ruling is a victory for the Marple Newtown School District, near Philadelphia.

See this Courthouse News Service article for more on the issue.


Twittered

Religion News Blog’s editors twitter religion news. Follow us for stories like these:

• Video: Islam and comedy: http://bit.ly/FVPTC
• “Chrislam” Combines Christian and Muslim Beliefs: http://bit.ly/16uMjr
• Satellite channel for moderate Islam to be launched: http://cli.gs/q1Pjd9
• Do religious conservatives share blame in Tiller’s death? http://cli.gs/ss6Z8W
• Nemenhah leader defends group, alternative healing: http://cli.gs/PAdavR
• Suri Cruise not allowed to play with non-Scientologist kids: http://cli.gs/AesNvG
• Texas: 200 Executions and Counting: http://cli.gs/SmWajD
• Hundreds mourn slain Indian guru in Vienna: http://cli.gs/P13tnX
• Has the Recession Affected Your Spiritual Life? http://cli.gs/u41Zzb
• Accountant refuses to accept polygamist church’s delinquent payment: http://cli.gs/eS2GRe
• Abortion doctor killer “very religious in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way” http://cli.gs/bzhsUm
• Recruiting center gunman motivated by politics and religion: http://cli.gs/4y8tz7
• Scientology founder’s home sold: http://cli.gs/sQzPbT – #religion #cults #scientology + Hubbard: http://cli.gs/BS0J6Q
• China whines: Dont receive Dalai Lama http://cli.gs/4vpV3T
• Video: Interview With the Dalai Lama: http://cli.gs/haPWGb
• China keeps whining: Dalai Lama meeting ‘ruins’ relationship: http://cli.gs/S784Wg
• ‘Vampire’ pleads guilty to harassing teen: http://cli.gs/DMHg7v
• Lesbian elected Lutheran bishop of Stockholm: http://cli.gs/jbZatd
• Yearning for Heaven, but not ready to go: http://cli.gs/QUm5r9
• Singapore: Christian couple convicted for anti-Muslim booklets: http://bit.ly/Hf2Pn
• The myth of a ‘Muslim world’: http://cli.gs/TW7aVT
• Suit against Dahn Yoga alleges ‘psychological manipulation’ http://cli.gs/h3W5Q5
• For Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s all about spreading the word: http://cli.gs/g0RMup
• Taliban recruits teenage suicide bombers: http://cli.gs/ZaEu2E
• Boy chosen by Dalai Lama turns back on Buddhist order: http://cli.gs/HusWYJ
• Hawaii’s Islam Day resolution stirs passions here, on Mainland: http://cli.gs/Z2ZEeT
• Buddhists sow seeds with youth to protect faith in U.S.: http://cli.gs/9phzR9
• Pastor, an illegal immigrant, faces deportation: http://cli.gs/2Y1PEE
• Scientologists to open primary school in Czech Republic: http://cli.gs/R7nYMj
• Rabbinical Court forces US man to divorce wife: http://cli.gs/SH7hz6
• Jesus scholar to talk about new progressive Christianity: http://bit.ly/FT1UW
• A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality: http://cli.gs/LGAWz9
• A history of the Virgin Mary: http://cli.gs/zsVLE8
• Fiji bans Christian conference: http://cli.gs/0NGt1g
• Wisconsin: Faith-healing bill in the works: http://cli.gs/g6UyQp
• ‘Does God Hate Women?’ Fears of Muslim anger over religious book: http://cli.gs/PHgqtz
• Christians risk rejection and discrimination for their faith, study claims: http://cli.gs/B3Y6S7
• Wisconsin: Faith-healing bill in the works: http://cli.gs/g6UyQp
• ‘Does God Hate Women?’ Fears of Muslim anger over religious book: http://cli.gs/PHgqtz
• Christians risk rejection and discrimination for their faith, study claims: http://cli.gs/B3Y6S7
• County won’t force permit on Bible study leaders: http://cli.gs/XMEmVL
• Cult leader sued by estate of dead member he hid in toilet: http://cli.gs/uU9a1P
• Man claims religious rights were violated when state seized his marijuana. Sues for $75 Million: http://cli.gs/nVZ9Gq
• Teacher sacked after ‘making pupils kneel and pray to Allah’ during RE lesson: http://cli.gs/eWHAZS
• Get Mormons ‘out of the same-sex marriage business and back to helping hurricane victims’: http://cli.gs/nape4h
• Follower of jailed evangelist Tony Alamo allegedly violated probation: http://cli.gs/v715Qv
• Talking to Santana (who would love to start his own church) is like visiting a guru: http://cli.gs/puEJtg
• Conscientious Objectors See Years Of Service As Turning Point In Their Lives: http://cli.gs/VMaVyW
• Tanzanians on trial for killing albinos and selling their limbs to witch doctors: http://cli.gs/qG7mWv
• A Guide to Russian Sects and Fringe Beliefs: http://cli.gs/vMW0EP
• Zimbabwe: Woman found naked in botched ‘witchcraft mission’: http://cli.gs/tZB4dq
• What should Obama say in his speech to the Muslim world? http://cli.gs/emeteu
• Video: Amy Grant on divorce-induced faith crisis, faith, Christian music cliche’s, more: http://cli.gs/Jtu3ES
• Q for Robert Wright: Doesn’t it seem as if atheism has become its own form of fundamentalism? http://cli.gs/EGqeQg
• Robert Wright reframes faith-versus-reason debate: http://cli.gs/9B3XRz
• Norway considers Scientology prosecution: http://cli.gs/70ddBM
• Morocco’s New Guiding Force: Murshidas, http://cli.gs/Y9JdsL
• Muslims in fresh Athens demo over alleged Koran insult: http://cli.gs/aBtBN6
• Muslim extremists behind anti-war protest driven off by members of their own community: http://cli.gs/mpWVem
• Book of Psalms deflects bullet, saves pastor: http://cli.gs/pa5n6H
• Disgraced televangelist Robert Tilton has new life, third wife in Miami: http://cli.gs/qXQDGm
• University calls halt to degree in homeopathy: http://cli.gs/jPDeyq
• Atheists lose lawsuit over Detroit’s downtown church aid: http://cli.gs/ud6hzV
• Churches combine spiritual and physical fitness: http://cli.gs/Gqdt77
• Scientology Trial in France: Can a Religion Be Banned? http://cli.gs/3d4rgn
• Serbian Priest: I Beat Addicts To Help Them: http://cli.gs/3L4QB6
• Dalai Lama Calls for Autonomy as Only Solution for Tibet: http://cli.gs/ZhX84L
• Wikipedia bans Church of Scientology: http://cli.gs/uvgJW2
• Scientologist Greta van Susteren’s sister is psychiatrist: http://cli.gs/TYs6eh
• L. Ron Hubbard’s last refuge: http://cli.gs/QR3UWG • Hubbard: http://bit.ly/AnMky
• Beach cavorting Fla. priest known as ‘Father Oprah’ leaves Catholic Church: http://cli.gs/av6dzn
• Syria Tries Rehabilitating Muslim Extremists: http://cli.gs/UatmUA
• CNN video blip regarding Scientology vs. Germany: http://cli.gs/brzbJJ • Background: http://cli.gs/bRhPes
• EU sees wide discrimination against Muslims: http://cli.gs/1zNQ28
• Muslim clerics in Indonesia target mobile phone calls between sexes: http://cli.gs /sPZSDW
• Standard & Poor’s launching index of Canadian stocks with criteria defined by Islamic law: http://cli.gs/pP4qU5
• Eight men [barbarians, actually] charged over murder of Catholic man: http://cli.gs/6EhzhV
• Boyzone: Ronald Keating’s mum ‘thought he had joined cult’ – http://cli.gs/BLm4DW
• Sons of Abu Hamza (himself in jail for inciting Muslims to kill non-believers) jailed for car scam: http://cli.gs/BZ90Mv
• Hillsong pastor defends ministry against cult claim: http://cli.gs/sV0yP0

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This post was last updated: Jun. 4, 2009