Finding my religion
A spiritual consumer’s guide to Ventura County’s best spiritual experiences
By Butch Warner 08/25/2011
Struggling for meaning in your life? Losing your religion? Did you turn against the religion you were born into because of those sadistic nuns, that weird deacon or that hypocritical Rabbi? Or were you simply born into an agnostic home and suddenly feel the need for some spirituality in your life? Or maybe you’re on vacation at the beach and feel the need to “cheat” a little with a new religion, just for the thrill of it. Don’t worry; when you pray in Ventura, it stays in Ventura.
In this article we’ll offer expert unbiased ratings and reviews on the available religions, information that empowers you to make the best decision on shopping for a brand-new religion in Ventura County.
We urge you to be nonjudgmental, even though some religious notions may seem strange to you. For example, the smash Broadway play “Book of Mormon” lampoons the Mormon notion that Jesus traveled to America and anointed Joseph Smith. The truth is that all popular religious notions as viewed by a first-time observer may seem a bit odd.
Religion in Ventura County
In Ventura County, the number of religious adherents, or people affiliated with a religious congregation, in the last Census was 335,672 out of a total population of more than 800,000 (45 percent); nationwide, the total is about 50 percent. Of those who declared a religion, 89 percent are Christians, which includes Catholics (66 percent), Protestants, evangelical, and other denominations. Less than 6 percent are Jewish, and about 5 percent are Buddhist, Wicca, Muslim, Scientologist, Baha’i or other denomination.
Religion and spirituality
People who say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” are right up there with those who say, “I’m vegetarian, but I eat chicken and fish,” in terms of cliché value. Clichés notwithstanding, in this article we will differentiate between religion and spirituality, instead placing religion as a subset of that larger, more embracing category.
Atheists and agnostics
The traditional notion is that atheists actively believe that there is no god, while agnostics say there’s no way of knowing. The demographics of atheists and agnostics are difficult to quantify, because people interpret these terms in different ways, and because some people are reluctant to deny religion openly. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, “One in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind.”
Religion and psychology
Sigmund Freud thought religion was an illusion. He viewed religious belief as infantile and neurotic. Carl Jung, on the other hand, viewed spirituality as essential to the Self, and used the term “collective unconscious” to describe the phenomenon that human beings from all over the planet create similar religions. He also spoke of “vital spiritual experiences … huge emotional displacements” as distinct from religion.
What do you want?
Do you want an easy religion that doesn’t expect much from you in terms of time or money? Then stay away from Latter Day Saints (Mormons) or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do you want to reconnect with your heritage? Do you want to hobnob with people who earn more than average in the hopes that some of this financial fortune will rub off? Then maybe Hinduism is the religion for you. Or possibly you need strict moral guidelines. If so, Christianity with its Ten Commandments, or Orthodox Judaism with its Talmudic Law, might be right up your alley.
Want a shortcut to salvation? Then Islam or Christianity might be for you, since both promise a wealth of spiritual rewards in the afterlife if you only believe and behave.
What, exactly is religion?
A great wit and psychiatrist, the late Dr. Lee Bloom, once said, “The difference between schizophrenia, a cult and religion depends on how many people agree with you.”
For the sake of expedience and for the purposes of this article, the definition of religion is “A group of people sharing a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices concerning the existence of and worship of superhuman controlling power(s), especially a personal God or gods.”
Religions usually have organized behaviors, clerical hierarchies, regular meetings, holy places and sacred scriptures. Religion may also include sermons, sacrifices, festivals, trance, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, music, art and dance.
The Bahá’í Faith was founded in the 19th century in Iran and since then has spread worldwide. It teaches unity of all religious philosophies and accepts all of the prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as additional prophets, including its founder Bahá’u’lláh. For more information, call (800) 228‑6483
Buddhism was founded by Guatama Siddhartha in the 6th century B.C. Buddhists believe that human beings can end their suffering (dukkha) by understanding the “true nature” of things and events, and in so doing escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth, eventually achieving nirvana, or a state of bliss or peace. This state may be experienced in life, or it may be entered into at death. Beliefs vary significantly across various sects and schools, but all share an admiration for the figure of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth.
Approximations for worldwide number of Buddhists are between 350 million and more than 1 billion. There are now more than 1 million American Buddhists, and Buddhist concepts have greatly influenced Americans and Californians, primarily in the areas of meditation and nonviolence. For more information, go to www.venturabuddhistcenter.org.
Christianity began initially in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, and then spread to the Near East, ultimately becoming the state church of the Roman Empire in A.D. 380. The religion of all of Europe in the Middle Ages, it expanded throughout the world, and is now the world’s largest religion.
Christians are monotheistic, but almost all Christians believe in the Trinity, which teaches the unity of Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit as three entities in one godhead. Christians believe that Jesus, the Son of God made man, visited the earth 2,000 years ago, performed hundreds of miracles, was nailed to a cross, rose from the dead, and in so doing eradicated “original sin” from mankind. Christians also believe in forgiveness through confession to a priest, and in redemption through prayer and faith. Christians, like Jews, believe that the Ten Commandments are a template for righteous behavior.
Most Christians believe that their religion is the only true religion, and that non-Christians must be converted or they will be condemned to hell, an inferno where sinners suffer throughout eternity.
Thirty percent of the respondents in our VCR survey identified themselves simply as “Christians,” and many of them seemed baffled when asked which branch of Christianity they adhered to. Christians, of course include Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and other Protestant churches.
The main divisions of Christianity are, according to the number of adherents:
Catholicism: Staunch Catholics believe that all other religions are false and that their adherents will go to hell, in the “infallibility” (inability to make a mistake) of the Pope, the divinity of Jesus, the three-part nature of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Catholics are usually not Bible thumpers, although it is officially their basic text.
Catholicism is also the world’s richest religion (although, in this country, Jews and Hindi are the richest adherents), with holdings that surpass those of many large countries. For more information, call 643-4318.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the prevailing Christian denomination in the majority of Slavic countries (including Russia), as well as Romania, Moldova, Greece, Cyprus and Georgia. It considers itself to be the official religion established by Jesus Christ and his apostles almost 2,000 years ago.
Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian communion in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents.
Fundamentalism: Christian Fundamentalism, also known as Fundamentalist Christianity, is defined by its literal interpretation of the Bible (which is considered infallible or unerring), the need for personal conversion (or being “born again”), and actively expressing and sharing the gospel. Jehovah’s Witnesses and many of the “televangelists” are fundamentalists. For more information, go to california.hometownlocator.com/features/cultural,class,church,scfips,06111.cfm.
Mormonism/Latter Day Saints: Mormons believe that Jesus traveled to America and anointed Joseph Smith, an American religious leader and the founder of the Latter Day Saints movement. The Mormon Church has four officially canonized books of scripture, of which the Bible is one. The “Mormon Bible” is actually The Book of Mormon. LDS theology states that in order to make it to the highest kingdom of heaven, you must pay a full and honest tithe, basically one-tenth of after-expense income. Also: no coffee, no drugs, no tobacco. When we die, our spirits are separated from our bodies, and if we were good they go to “spirit paradise.” If we were bad they go to “spirit prison.”
In the LDS religion any worthy male can be given the priesthood and is given specific duties. Black people were not allowed to have the priesthood until 1978. Females are not allowed to have the priesthood.
About 5 percent of Ventura County residents are Mormons. For more information, call 482-7112.
Protestantism is the broad category of religions resulting from separation from the Catholic Church in the Reformation.
This movement began in Germany in the early 16th century as a reaction against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. The main denominations in the U.S. are Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Calvinist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed. For more information, go to ventura.areaconnect.com/churches.htm.
Unitarian Universalism is characterized by support for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and it has a wide range of beliefs and practices. Unitarians do not actually have shared beliefs, but rather are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth. They do not believe in “obedience to an authoritarian requirement.” Unitarianism and Universalism have pedigrees in Christianity, but followers may be atheists, agnostics, theists or any point in between.
Hinduism, the third-largest religion in the world, is an ancient religion with no recognized date of origin or founder. Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism (one god), polytheism (many gods), pantheism (Nature equals god), atheism, and agnosticism, among others. The term Hinduism comes from the word India and is actually part of a variety of religious paths that have developed in India over thousands of years. Most Hindus worship one or more deities, practice meditation and observe celebratory holidays like Holi and Diwali. Most Hindi do not eat cows, and many are total vegetarians.
Hinduism is a colloquial term describing the similar philosophies of Vaishnavism, Shaivism and interrelated groups that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Concepts most of them share include karma (the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding one’s fate in future existences), caste, reincarnation, mantras (short prayers repeated in a soothing, hypnotic fashion), and darśana (philosophical systems or viewpoints on the nature of reality and the release from bondage to karma).
In the U.S., Hindi have the highest average income of any religious adherents. For more information, call 639-0334.
Islam: An adherent of Islam is called a Muslim. Muslims believe in one god, and their basic text is the Quran, considered to be the word of God, Allah. Muslims also abide by the teachings and example of Muhammad (also spelled Muhammed, Mohammad or Mohammed), who lived from A.D. 570 to 632. Muhammad founded Islam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in A.D. 610.
Muslims also believe that Islam is the complete and universal version of a primal faith that was revealed many times and places before, through Abraham, Moses and Jesus, whom they consider prophets. Many Muslims, like Christians, believe in angels who deliver God’s message to his chosen prophets, and record what we say and do. There are angels of death and angels of heaven and hell.
Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. As with Christianity, there is no single orthodoxy in Islam but a multitude of traditions.
There is no evidence that Muslim teachings are any more violent than other world religions.
Judaism: originated in ancient Israel and Judea, and predates Christianity and Islam by more than 3,000 years. It is a monotheistic religion whose adherents believe they descend from the Jewish patriarch Abraham. Judaism’s basic texts are 1) the Torah, a large part of the Old Testament, and 2) the Talmud, which comprises Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history.
The three largest Jewish denominations — Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism — maintain the belief that the Jews have been chosen by God for a purpose. “Chosenness” is the traditional belief that the Jews are the Chosen People.
Orthodox Jews go to synagogue three times a day, and men always wear a skullcap (yarmulke or kippah in Hebrew) on their heads, and do not work or operate machinery on the Sabbath, Saturday. Reform Jews do not generally follow the most stringent customs, but “observant” Jews attend Temple regularly and celebrate feasts like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Today there are about 13 million Jews on the planet, about 40 percent living in Israel and 40 percent in the U.S.
Ventura County now boasts about 50,000 Jews. (In 1979, the Jewish populations in VC were so small that no one bothered to take a count.) The total Jewish population of California is about 2 percent, and Jews in Ventura County number around 6 percent. Jews are also the second-richest religious adherents in the U.S., after Hindi. For more information, call 658-7441.
Native American/indigenous religions: Native Americans believe their spiritual beliefs are a necessary part of their existence and cannot be separated from their life experience.
Traditional Native American religions are diverse, because of the separation of the different tribes across North American for thousands of years, but often involve more than one deity or “universal force.” Native American religion is closely connected to the land, with emphasis, as with most religions, on the supernatural. Common concepts are taboos, spirits, visions, shamans, and communal ceremonies often involve the use of psychoactive plants like psilocybin.
Scientology is a body of beliefs and practices created by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in 1953. Scientologists believe that an alien named Xenu was the dictator of the “Galactic Confederacy” who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of his people to Earth in a DC-8 like spacecraft. Then Xenu killed them, using hydrogen bombs. Official Scientology dogma holds that the spirits of these people still remain, and that they cause spiritual harm to modern humans. Scientology is legally recognized as a tax-exempt religion in the United States.
Scientology sponsors a variety of social service programs, including the Narconon anti-drug program and the Criminon prison rehabilitation program. Its moral guidelines are expressed in a booklet called “The Way to Happiness.” For more information, call 644-3993.
Wicca: No discussion of religion in Ventura County would be complete without a reference to Wicca. Wicca is a belief system based upon the revival of pre-Christian traditions that originated in what are now parts of the United Kingdom. Its adherents claim that, “Contrary to what those who choose to persecute or lie about us wish to believe, Wicca is a very peaceful, harmonious and balanced way of life which promotes oneness with the divine and all which exists. To be a Witch is to be a healer, a teacher, a seeker, a giver, and a protector of all things. If this path is yours, may you walk it with honor, light and integrity.” (www.wicca.com)
Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C. The Zoroastrians worship the Creator Ahura Mazda. In Zoroastrianism, good and evil have distinct sources, with evil trying to destroy the creation of Mazda, and good trying to sustain it. For more information, call (818) 610-8610.
George (Butch) Warner, MA, CADC, IMF is a music therapist and addiction specialist in Studio City and Pasadena.