SGU Episode 445

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SGU Episode 445
January 25th 2014
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 444                      SGU 446

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


K: Karen Stollznow

Quote of the Week

'On my 70th birthday, I was asked how I felt about mankind’s prospects. This is my reply: We are behaving like yeasts in a brewer’s vat, multiplying mindlessly while greedily consuming the substance of a finite world. If we continue to imitate the yeasts, we will perish as they perish, having exhausted our resources and poisoned ourselves in the lethal brew of our own wastes. Unlike the yeasts, we have a choice. What will it be?'

Farley Mowat

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

  • January 25, 1945: Grand Rapids MI, first city to fluoridate their drinking water

News Items[edit]

Cosmic Web ()[edit]

Exorcism Deaths ()[edit]

Ball Lightening ()[edit]

Kepler Update ()[edit]

Creationism in Texas ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: mushroom

Name That Logical Fallacy ()[edit]

What kind of logical fallacy is it when a person argues against something on the basis of what the consequences would be as a result of the point being true?Say for example, Donald tells his physician that hamburgers can't be bad for him, since hamburgers are tasty and it would suck for hamburgers to make him chubby-wubby.JulianOhio

Karen Stollznow (48:12)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Karen Stollznow. Karen, welcome back to The Skeptic's Guide.

K: Thank you, thank you for having me here.

S: And you are joining us this evening to talk about your latest book, “God Bless America.” But you are the author of previous books, including, “Haunting America.” And you are a writer and speaker and science communicator and promoter of skeptical values. So, tell us about your new book, God Bless America. What's the book about?

K: Okay, well, it's about strange and unusual religious beliefs and practices. And I kind of focus on some of the minority groups in this country as well. So I made a point of looking at beliefs and practices that are around today, and being practiced now. So, I looked at groups like the Fundamentalist Mormons, and the Amish and Mennonites, Charismatics, and Pentecostals, and Voodo, Satanism, lots of different topics.

S: Did you encounter a lot of the Satanists, did you?

K: No, they pretty much keep to themselves. A lot of these groups are closed societies too. Certainly the Fundamentalist Mormons and Amish and Mennonites. But Satanists, they really- I don't think too many of them actually practice their rituals. Either it's just more, membership to a club, bragging rights, maybe.

S: It's kind of like an affectation. It's not like a really serious religion, you think?

K: Yeah, and I think many, many wouldn't actually classify it as a religion. Most of them are a non-theist style, or atheists. There are very few actual devil worshipers out there.

R: Yeah, didn't Satanism begin as a satirical look at Christianity anyway?

K: Well, there are different groups, but, with the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey started that back in the sixties. So that was more mocking Christianity, more than about devil worship. They are atheists and humanists and free thinkers and skeptics.

S: Yeah, I don't know that they're, is there anybody who actually believes the devil exists and worships the devil?

K: Well, there have been claims of many different societies, historically, of people who did practice devil worship. Just in investigating those groups, or the claims, none of them actually existed. So, if you have a look online, you will find the odd person out there, here and there, who is practicing devil worship. Really, it's just the anti-thesis of Christianity, so they pray, and they have rituals and spells to Satan instead of God. But, they're just few and far between, these theistic Satanists.

S: Yeah, there's no organized underground of Satanic cults or anything.

K: No, no. As much as people fear that, and of course, for the Satanic panic in the 1980's, and all of those claims. They do not exist.

S: Was there anything in researching the book that surprised you? Did you uncover any cults or religious movements that you didn't know about before you started researching the book?

K: Nah, I'd heard of most of these groups. I think I was fascinated with them. Coming from Australia, a lot of them aren't practiced in Australia. You're just not going to find many of them there. So I wanted to really experience them myself, and find out more about them, and was in the perfect country to be able to do that.

But I didn't come across anything that I hadn't heard of before. But certainly, was able to bust a lot of myths and stereotypes about these groups. I think we all have these understandings, or ideas about these people, and what they practice, and what they believe. So I was able to bust some of those myths.

S: Give us some examples. What were the common myths that you found were not true?

K: Well, I think maybe with the Amish and the Mennonites, we tend to think of them as just being these perfect people who create quilts and bake apple pies, and

B: Make barns

E: They raise barns, yeah.

K: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Barn-raisings and things like that. We think that there's no underbelly, that they're very good, pure, and simple people. Just in researching them, there are a lot of problems inherent to their closed societies. They – I don't know if you've heard of puppy mills before?

B: Oh yeah.

E: Oh, absolutely.

K: So, they're guilty of things like that. Certainly, unfortunately, there's a lot of rape and incest that takes place in some of the communities too. It's just kind of hushed up. I think that they like to deal with these problems internally. They don't like to – they're very isolated in the way that they live, too. So they don't like to deal with our authorities. They'd just rather forgive people, and forget, and turn the other cheek. So there is an underbelly, unfortunately. But of course, a lot of people also seen shows like Amish Mafia, and so they're aware of that.

Even though some of those people aren't really practicing, or they didn't actually become Amish. To actually join the society, you need to be baptized as an Anabaptist. And you do that around the age of sixteen, maybe into the early twenties. So, most of those kids in those shows didn't actually become baptized.

S: The Amish is one of those things where the public has this image of them that's probably based mainly on the movies.

K: Yes.

R: Mostly Witness.

S: Mostly the movie Witness.

K: Oh yeah, the mob story. Harrison Ford.

E: Directed by Peter Weir!

S: But the reality never holds up to those kind of movie images.

K: Yeah, yeah. That's often the case. Same thing with Voodoo as well. You think of some of the movies like White Zombie, and the fears that people have about … just zombies and magical spells and things. And the reality isn't quite that way.

S: So, tell us a little bit about Voodoo. What is the reality there?

K: Well, it is practiced today. It's gone through many different forms. It's come to the United States from countries like Haiti, but originally from West Africa. There are a number of Afro-Caribbean religions like Santería. You may have heard that too. That's becoming more popular in the States. And there are about one million people practicing Voodoo in the States today, which I was very surprised to find that out. A lot of refugees from Haiti, and certainly a lot of people just in this country who are fascinated with it.

You've got different forms of Voodoo too. Not only have you got people who've come over from other countries, and are practicing it a certain way. Maybe more traditionally, you've got Louisiana Voodoo, which is more of a commercial style. And of course, you have people online who are peddling all kinds of Voodoo, and claiming that they can create magical spells to cure cancer, and stuff like that, for a cost, for a fee.

So, normally, if you pray within the system of Voodoo to a spirit, and you try to petition them for something, you will give them something in return, some kind of offering. But online, of course, these Voodoo masters, and Voodoo kings, and princes, they're charging money, often thousands of dollars.

S: It's really just their version of faith healing.

K: A lot of it is! Oh, yeah. There's a lot of folk medicine in Voodoo – in Hoodoo as well – which is kind of folk magic.

S: My understanding of Voodoo is that it's essentially a fusion of Western African religious beliefs,

K: Yes.

S: and Catholicism.

K: Yes, it is. It is. It's called synchrotization, where you have religions that are blended together. So when West African slaves and Haitian slaves came here, they were often forced by the Code Noir to become Catholic, usually within about a week of arriving in The States. So, to protect themselves, they became Catholic for all intents and purposes; and to protect their religion, they adopted various facets of Catholicism.

So, in that way, a lot of their spirits have synchrotized with Catholic saints. And they've just incorporated more than just Catholicism too, there are aspects of Pentacostalism, and Charismatic beliefs, and Freemasonry, even native American belief systems have just been blended in with Voodoo. So it's not like other religions in that they have a particular doctrine, and a church. It's really in many ways whatever goes. You've got kids with candle-burning books through to people who practice mambos, and Houngans that consider themselves to be Priests, and Priestesses, and do it professionally.

S: Is there anything that's the equivalent of the Bible that is a source of doctrine?

K: There isn't. There isn't. There are lots of spells which are passed down. It's all oral tradition, by and large.

S: How far inside did you get to the religions that you were investigating? For example, Scientology. Apparently, your chapter on Scientology was praised by Richard Dawkins, and he thought it was a very good treatment. How far, did you actually get to talk to some people who were pretty high up in the church?

K: Well, it was different with every religion. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of these are closed societies. With the advent of the internet, a lot of information is really coming out. For groups like Scientology, and for the fundamentalist Mormons too, where we're getting to the meat at the same time as the milk. So, the good stuff and the bad stuff.

So some of them are harder to penetrate than others, but a whole point of the book was, I wanted to have an experience with these people. I wanted to not only research them, and do armchair research, but to actually go and participate, and get involved with them.

So with Scientology, of course, they're more than willing to have some one come in off the streets. But they were kind of surprised, I think. Normally, they're having to drag people in the lure of a free personality test, and various other things. And I just walked in off the street on a Sunday morning, wanting to go to one of their services. And they thought, “What the hell is going on here?” They were kind of a bit suspicious of me.

At one point, I had a fellow just approach me and take a photograph of me, and then disappear. Didn't ask me for my permission. He just did it and disappeared.

So it seemed like they weren't prepared for some one to come in and actually want to go to one of their services. And there were people everywhere, auditors, and various other staff members. I just don't even know if they had a service planned as such. But I ended up speaking with a fellow there, and he showed me around. They've got this, it looks like a banza noble or something. They've got all of these videos and things about, and books, and just merchandise.

Then this fellow came back a little bit later and he had a cross, he was wearing a cross on his vest. So suddenly, he's the minister. I sat through this very bizarre service where he was reading L. Ron Hubbard's stories as sermons. It was kind of like an auditing session too. I think they were, a lot of hypnosis was coming into play. He was just telling me, ordering me to do these various things, I think to get me into this kind of hypnotic state of suggestibility, where I guess I would go and purchase books and DVD's and things.

B: Oh my god.

K: But it was just really bizarre! I said to him as well, “You've got so many people here; why aren't they attending the service?” And he's all, “They're busy! They're working!” And he said later on that they had one family who would normally turn up on a Sunday. So this was a legitimate Church of Scientology service, but I just don't think they really get the numbers as a rule. So I took them by surprise.

It was really weird. They had busts of him everywhere, which was kind of like Mussolini. Just very strange. And of course, he did claim, he had this thing called “Tone forty.” I don't know if you guys have heard of that before. But it was a particular tone of voice that you could use to command some one to come back to life. So I really do think he's kind of, they're setting him up as a bit of a Jesus figure.

S: So they're still working on that? Achieving the tone forty thing. They think they're gonna bring him back?

K: Yeah, it wasn't successful with him, was it? But he claims that he'd brought babies back from the dead, and that other people had used this before. You needed to have a very commanding voice, and order the person to come back. It could work.

R: Picturing L. Ron Hubbard drunk and shouting at a dead person.

E: Exactly!

R: Get up!

K: As you know, he was very much against psychology, and psychotherapies, and psychiatry, and yet when he died, they found he was full of, I think, anti-anxiety agents,

B: Really!

K: and anti-depressives, and other drugs.

S: Well, Karen, thanks; it's a fascinating book. We really enjoyed talking to you about it.

K: Thank you.

S: Appreciate you coming on the show.

K: Thank you for having me.

R: Thanks Karen.

B: Thanks Karen.

(Commerical: 1:01:46 – 1:03:00)

Science or Fiction (1:03:00)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that even positive civil comments can undermine the effectiveness of online public service announcements. Item #2: Scientists find that taking fever-reducing medication when sick with the flu increases the spread of the disease and leads to more flu-related deaths. Item #3: A new analysis concludes that US carbon emissions can be reduced by 40% if all passenger vehicles by 2050 were fully electric.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'On my 70th birthday, I was asked how I felt about mankind’s prospects. This is my reply: We are behaving like yeasts in a brewer’s vat, multiplying mindlessly while greedily consuming the substance of a finite world. If we continue to imitate the yeasts, we will perish as they perish, having exhausted our resources and poisoned ourselves in the lethal brew of our own wastes. Unlike the yeasts, we have a choice. What will it be?” ~ Farley Mowat

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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