In the latest podcast at the Religious Studies Project, Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism, talks about her research into conspiracy theories. She begins by offering one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard of what a conspiracy theory actually is:
“A conspiracy theory is usually some articulation of fear and trying to find an answer to what’s causing the fear or causing sustained sense of disaster. It’s an explanation when some of the things that you would normally turn to aren’t providing the answers you’re looking for.”
Then she offers a fascinating overview of conspiracy theories in North America, from the Know-Nothings in the 19th century, to the John Birch Society in the 20th century, to QAnon in the 21st century. She covers a bunch of topics that I’m currently fascinated with, including the resurgence of the John Birch Society in recent years, “Blue Beam,” “White Lives Matter,” the Council for National Policy, and the role of religion among people who refuse to get vaccinated.
She concludes by saying that it’s not helpful to merely dismiss conspiracy theories, because they’re not going to simply disappear:
“Possibly when people get back to work and the pandemic is over and people start engaging with social groups again, [the prevalence of conspiracy theories] might lessen a little bit, but those ideas of distrust are not going to simply go away. Those ideas of distressing the media or government are not going to go away. And it is something that the government and media and all of us have to articulate. We have to be out there in our public intellectualism talking about these things and not dismissing people but engaging and trying to understand.”
This is useful advice for religious liberals who may be inclined to dismiss conspiracy theories, and the religious impulses associated with them. Instead of dismissing them, we’d be better off using our skills in interfaith and cross-cultural understanding. The distrust underlying conspiracy theories is real, and it behooves us to try to understand.
I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.
Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.
Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.
This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.
Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.
If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.
And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”
The battle isn’t between science and religion, not any more. (Sometimes I wonder how there ever was such a battle; it must have arisen from very narrow definitions of both science and religion.)
The battle is between religion and … soccer, celebrity worship, rock concerts, tarot card readings, what’s left of the human potential movement, yoga classes, art museums and art classes, spoken word performances and hip hop, the cult of personality in politics, the Web (smartphones are the icons before which we worship the Web) … and it’s not a battle, for these are all manifestations of the same human impulse to join with other human beings to celebrate and mourn and have festivals and pretend death doesn’t end everything, and to try to make sense of the world.