Practical Piety

A Guide for the Perplexed

Preachers sermonize in the subway, ads herald the imminent return of the Messiah, and missionaries harangue passersby in Times Square. Organized religion is everywhere in New York. If you're pregnant, preparing a trip down the aisle, or on the verge of a nervous breakdown, you may wonder if the truth is really out there.

We asked some religious organizations where they stand, what they think, and what they want you to think.

American Atheists

Founder: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Date: 1963

Membership: U.S.: 2500. Local affiliates, regional groups, and national conventions.

Top Management: Ellen Johnson, president

The Big Picture: A nontheist way of looking at the world, free of tenets, creeds, rituals, and dogma. Besides promoting atheism, AAs believe in the absolute separation of church and state, and address civil rights violations perpetrated by "the establishment": governments and mainstream Christianity.

God: "The world does not revolve around spiritual beings," says national spokesman Ron Barrier. "We have faith in a man's ability to reason." AAs accept only that which is scientifically verifiable.

Path to Salvation: "Religion exploits the unknown," states Barrier. "We are a society that refuses to deal with our own finality."

On Women in the Church: AA literature states, "Religion is antifeminist. The principal opposition to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was from religious groups. The cornerstone of Christianity is the domination of the female by the male."

On Homosexuality: A nonissue. "Who cares about a person's sexual orientation? I think it's sick that Christianity has an obsession with homosexuality. If two people want to dedicate their lives to one another, that in and of itself is good," says Barrier. As for ballot initiatives on gay marriage, Barrier asks, "Since when is [marriage] subject to popular vote?"

On Birth Control: Barrier explains that "complete and thorough sex education combined with a knowledge of birth control will remove the need for abortion."

On Abortion: A sensitive medical decision by a woman, her doctor, and anyone else they choose to involve. Says Barrier, "A ban on abortions is oppressive to poor or uneducated people."

On Euthanasia: The church or state should not interfere with a person's medical condition, and the best medical care should be available for people facing such decisions.

On Interfaith Marriage: "We don't interfere in the personal choices of our members," says Barrier. "Some [interfaith marriages] work out fine; some don't."

On Millennialism: "Phony," exclaims Barrier. "People will accept cockamamy stuff much easier than the cold, hard truth."

Recruiting: "You're not converting; you're recovering," says Barrier. "We try to get people to think more for themselves; we're not trying to make them atheists."

Scandal Sheet: Founder Murray O'Hair, her son Jon Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, disappeared in 1995 with $630,000 allegedly stolen from atheist organizations.

Miscellany: The AA, first organization to picket a Roman Catholic pope (in 1979), conducts "Pope Picket '99," in St. Louis January 26 and 27.

Web Address:,

Buddhist Churches of America

Founder: Shinran (1173­ 1262) of the Jodo Shinshu sect, a refinement of the Pure Land Buddhism taught by Honen (1133­1212). Falls under the rubric of Shin Buddhism, whose central act is the repetition of the Nembutsu.

Date: 1899 (Buddhist Churches of America)

Membership: U.S.: 16,597 (active members in the BCA). World: According to the BCA, Jodo Shinshu is the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, Europe, and South America.

The Word: Pure Land Sutra, consisting of the Meditation Sutra, Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, and Smaller Sukhavativyuha Sutra.

The Big Picture: Repetition of the Nembutsu ("Namu Amida Butsu" or "Take refuge in Amida Buddha") with sincerity, deep belief, and longing is to be one with Amida Buddha.

God: Amida, as the Buddha is known in Japan, lives in a "pure land" that is both near and far— far west.

Path to Salvation: Through reciting the Nembutsu, the faithful will be reborn in the Pure Land, a state of power and bliss (nirvana).

Rendezvous Point: Churches or temples where the Nembutsu is repeated, often before the statue of Amida Buddha.

On Women in the Church: Women can become ministers and hold positions equal to men. But there is "male dominance in society," explains Reverend Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church, and "society plays a part in how these roles are played out."

On Homosexuality: "There is nothing wrong with a male-male friendship or female-female friendship," says Reverend Nakagaki. Basically, a matter of choice and responsibility.

On Birth Control: A matter of "free will and responsibility" and "respect to life," according to Reverend Nakagaki.

On Abortion: The fetus is considered a life; therefore BCA opposes abortion except for certain cases, e.g., if the mother might die.

On Euthanasia: Ultimately, the issue "depends upon the situation and conditions," explains Reverend Nakagaki. "There is no right or wrong." He emphasizes "a natural way of living."

On Interfaith Marriage: People are encouraged to practice Nembutsu after marriage, regardless of whom they marry.

Miscellany: According to Nakagaki, about 80 percent of the people who died when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima were Shin Buddhists. A statue of Shinran in front of the New York Buddhist Temple commemorates the survivors, and an annual Peace Ceremony commemorates the day— August 6, 1945.

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