Karen Stollznow

Photo courtesy Karen Stollznow.

How much do you know about Santeria, Scientology, or Satanism?

If you answered “not much,” you’re far from alone. Studies have shown that a great number of Americans are ignorant about major religions—so it’s no surprise that, when it comes to minority religions, misinformation and stigma are widespread.

Atheist author Dr. Karen Stollznow, a linguist and former researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to change that. So she traveled across the U.S. to visit and study minority religious communities.

The result: her recent book God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States, which offers an insightful look at minority religious communities in the U.S.

Below, Dr. Stollznow tells me what she learned while writing God Bless America and why she thinks all people, religious and nonreligious alike, need to learn about minority religions.

Chris Stedman: What do you hope that both atheists and theists will gain from reading your book? 

Karen Stollznow: I want both atheists and theists to gain a better understanding of these fascinating people and their controversial beliefs and practices. I will add that God Bless America isn’t just a book about religion—it’s also about history, philosophy, culture, and society. Hopefully there is something of interest for many people, regardless of their beliefs.

CS: What was the most eye-opening thing you learned while doing research for this book? 

KS: Before I began my research I had a lot of preconceived ideas about these people, based on the way they are portrayed in popular culture. The more I researched them, I was astounded to discover that many of our perceptions of these people are based in misconceptions and prejudice. This book demystifies these people and demolishes many of the stereotypes—but it also confirms a few of them, too!

CS: Why do you think it’s important to be educated about different religions? And, in line with your book, why minority religions in particular?

KS: Being educated about other religions is enriching. The point is not to become a convert, but to glean new philosophies from these different worldviews. When you’re socialized into a religion it can be very difficult to think outside of that belief system.

'God Bless America' cover, courtesy Karen Stollznow.

‘God Bless America’ cover, courtesy Karen Stollznow.

Learning about other ideologies, traditions and customs helps us to avoid ethnocentrism—that is, the tendency we have to believe that our own culture, language, way of thinking, or religion is the “superior” or “correct” one, meanwhile condemning others as “inferior,” “wrong” and even “evil.” Minority religions are especially important because so little is known about them, and what we think we know about them is often wrong.

We should also want to know more about them because we come into contact with them. These people have their own communities, but they are also a part of our greater community. You might meet Amish kids buying candy bars in your local grocery store, or that woman buying the cow’s tongue in the supermarket might plan to use it in a Voodoo ritual.

CS: You write that “this book is about participation.” Why do you think it’s valuable to meet people from other communities and observe their practices?

KS: When writing about human beings you don’t want to do so in a detached and clinical way. Religion and culture aren’t topics to be studied in a lab, but out in the field. This kind of cultural immersion turns “subjects” into people, and gives them a voice. I wanted to get to know these people and become a part of their world for a while.

CS:  You also write about finding yourself identifying with various aspects of different religions that you studied for this book, particularly those that “offer profound insights into the human condition.” What are some of the personal benefits of studying the teachings of different religions, whether you are religious or not?

KS: Religion is about making meaning of life—and in that pursuit, religions offer insight into the human condition. We may not agree with the origin story of a religion, or its doctrine or rituals, although the humanistic elements will often resonate with us. We’re united in our search for truth and for tools to cope with life and its problems.

Many of these belief systems are not just religions but also lifestyles. Their people are not just congregations but communities. A personal benefit of studying them is to understand these people. I could say it helps to foster tolerance for these religions, but “tolerance” has connotations of “putting up with” something rather than appreciating it. So I’d prefer to say that studying these teachings can help us to develop empathy for these people, which is one of the most important things we can have.

Want to learn more? Visit NonProphet Status to read the rest of our interview.


    • Christopher Blackwell

      I wonder why it it is so rare that people learn anything about a religion that they will then attack ad say all sorts of ignorant things.

      I have far more respect of people that learn a bit about a religion before they say anything. So it is nice to see people beginning to break through the wall of their own ignorance. And we all have those wall in the

      So whether atheist or evangelical, I find myself respecting anyone that learns about other religions.

      In reverse I think religious people need to get to know about atheists ad agnostics. It is not necessary to agree, only that we do better when we understand that there other views on everything. Difference is not a matter of good and bad but just a difference of viewpoint. Once we allow others to have their view, then and only then can we begin to work out the problems between different viewpoints.

  1. Scientology certains seems to bring out “experts” on the subject who know absolutely nothing about it. On web sites, comments on Scientology are usually a cut and paste of some other person’s comments about it in the past. Hubbard is usually described as a “Science Fiction writer.” This is rather like describing Mary Baker Eddy as a “housewife.” He wrote fiction – not only Science Fiction – to finance his research into the mind. Writing was for him, I believe, a means of support at the beginning and a recreation.

    Hubbard must be the most prolific writer known to man. His published works, including lectures on CDs, fiction and non-fiction, would fill a small town library wall to wall.

    • I was Sea Org (Scientology’s lifer staffer category like nuns or monks of traditional religions, people who take essentially the vow of poverty).

      I comment monthly, weekly on Scientology related chat sites since 2004 to now.

      I was a training officer (Flag Course Sup and 1 year word clearer) 1977 to 1983.

      I did the research and writing and wrap up, sort of a scribe project, of all of Hubbard’s admin, for the Int Base run “Computerized Routing Forms Mission” which provided standard routing forms that raised orgs stats, proven by months of gathered statistics.

      All this said, I was an atheist before, and again today.

      I reached out for 10 years now, to new religious scholars.

      Scientology is a spiritual practice, and despite Hubbard admitting to his Creston Ranch hand/friend Sarge Steven Pfauth, Hubbard admitted failure “here on earth”, read the final pages of the recent books that quote this interview with Sarge, he’s confirmed what he said about Hubbard at the end of Hubbard’s life is accurate.

      So, not by a long shot are your generalizations accurate.

      How many years were you in the Sea Org, and what orgs did you work at?

      What did you actually read of LRH”s.

      A huge crop of expert ex members are speaking freely on the the internet, and you friend, are NOT listening to them, why is that?

      Chuck Beatty
      ex Sea Org, 1975-2003
      866-XSEAORG toll free advice phone
      See my answers at “All Experts”

      • Chuck,

        With all due respect, you are a blown Sea Org member.

        I visit many of the “ex members” sites, Rathbun, et al. There are things some of them say that make sense. But it’s like a tiny diamond in a cow pat.

        So much of what they write is just a bunch of motivators and trying to make Scientology or LRH wrong – and, themselves blameless and angelic at the same time.

        • With all due respect John you are clearly a devotee of the church of scientology and as such cannot be objective. I realize that this is also true of ex-members, those who have blown. As a never was in person who has read a few books, listened to more lectures and testimonials my take is this.

          The beliefs of scientology are a mix of various Eastern religions with L Ron Hubbard’s “space opera” added in. The theory behind auditing stems from the work of Sigmund Freud who also believed that past traumas affect your present self in the same way Hubbard proposes, although he stopped at the womb and did not go in to past lives.

          Issues with the beliefs arise with the tone scale. Doubt being classed as a crime is part of a clearly identifiable “thought stopping” mechanism; though stopping mechanisms are designed to instill in to the adherent phobias against questioning anything they are told by a selected “source”.

          The thought stopping mechanism here is doubt is a crime combined with the reinforced idea of one must only having positive thoughts and that doubts are an indicator of something being wrong with the doubter; they are the doubters fault and harmful to the doubter the doubter therefore fears them.

          Another thought stopping mechanism can be found in the “study tech”. The official text is correct, if you do not understand it then you have a problem. The solution to the problem is convoluted and tedious, in the first instance finding the misunderstood word, looking it up and using it in all its forms in sentences. This can cascade as other misunderstood words are discovered either in the text or the definitions. In the second making a clay model and in the third repeating a lower level of training because the student must be on too high a “gradient”. In such a regime the student quickly learns to happily accept everything thing as read unquestioningly; this feels good because the student reaches a point where they feel they understand everything but all they are doing is forming nebulous understanding. The problem with this is when they are told to do something in the name of the texts they believe they will do it unquestioningly because to question would mean they didn’t understand it in the first place. That in many cases the texts are gobbledegook that evade understanding because they lack substance is neither here nor there.

          I could go on but real life intervenes. I will say though the actual beliefs are not the biggest issues. The biggest issues are physical, mental and financial abuses perpetrated by the church of scientology.

    • Hubbard was incredibly creative, typing 70 words per minute non-stop for extended lengths of time, producing stories he was able to sell to pulp magazines and sometimes to book publishers. The most amazing thing he created was scientology, which is a story I fell into as a young person and almost never escaped from. It’s a story where humanity is a weakness, family is connections are genetic (not spiritual) and love simply does not exist. It is a story, a deception, and when you are in it, you do your part to perpetuate and keep the story alive. Once you’re out of it, you don’t exactly appreciate how your were deceived and manipulated, hence the not-too-favorable opinions you’ll read about Hubbard and his cash-cow.

    • “On web sites, comments on Scientology are usually a cut and paste of some other person’s comments about it in the past.”

      I frequently visit websites where people discuss Scientology. It is common for contributors to “cut and paste” comments (just as I have done here) in order to respond to specific points. Perhaps you should cite some verifiable examples if you expect your point to be taken seriously.

      “He wrote fiction – not only Science Fiction – to finance his research into the mind.”

      Hubbard never “researched” the mind. Yes, of course, he claimed he did in his Dianetics book. However, he never cited verifiable sources or case studies of any kind; he simply TOLD the reader that he had conducted research. If you don’t want to believe my statement, simply read “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” and follow the footnotes/endnotes to the research. This should be an easy task – there are no such entries.

  2. I really hope she does a good job on the Satanism portion of her book… I think that Satanism is the most misunderstood atheistic tool there is… Like when a murder happens and it says satanism was the cause. In Satanism, it is a worship of yourself. You dont believe in god or the devil, you believe in urself. One is the center of their universe which does make sense. It is a look at our carnal nature as humans… I hope she doesnt go to the wrong person for this and goes to Peter H. Gilmore himself! If only LaVey was still alive!

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  1. […] “Being educated about other religions is enriching. The point is not to become a convert, but to glean new philosophies from these different worldviews. When you’re socialized into a religion it can be very difficult to think outside of that belief system. – See more at: http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/02/20/santeria-scientology-satanism-oh-karen-stollznow-und… […]

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