Practical Piety


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.

Bahá’í Faith

Founder: Bahá’u’lláh

Date: 1863

Membership: U.S.: 100,000 to 130,000. World: 5 to 6 million.

Top Management: The
Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body, elected via national Spiritual Assemblies.

The Word: The writings of Bahá’u’lláh, of which there are more than 200 volumes, all of which have not yet been translated from the original Persian and Arabic languages.

The Big Picture: Acceptance of all the world’s major
religions and God’s messengers throughout humanity’s history— Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha,
Jesus, Muhammad, and the Báb, of which Bahá’u’lláh is the last, but not final, one.

God: Reveals himself
through messengers, each corresponding to the needs of a particular place, time, and level of civilization.

Path to Salvation: By
acquiring virtues in this life, one is closer to God in the next life (heaven); conversely, hell is a “state of remoteness from God,” and not a physical place. Satan does not exist. Bahá’ís are forbidden to
participate in partisan politics.

Rendezvous Point: Houses
of Worship, all with a central dome and nine sides (corresponding with their idea of completion). There’s one on each continent, open to people of every religion, with no sermons, rituals, or clergy. The current placement symbolizes the Bahá’í belief in a democratic world government.

The Money Trail: Only registered members can donate money, and are encouraged to do so on a regular basis.

On Women in the Church: The Universal House of Justice, the international governing counsel of the faith, is limited to men, as stipulated by Bahá’u’lláh, and therefore is unchangeable. All other elected and appointed positions are open to women.

On Homosexuality: According to Vicky Jones, director of office of public information, “for Bahá’ís, the only truly legitimate sex act is between a man and a woman in marriage.”

On Abortion: Bahá’ís believe that the soul comes into
existence at the moment of conception; therefore valid medical reasons are the only justification for abortion among Bahá’ís.

On Euthanasia: According to Jones, the decision should be left to the “consciences of the patient, doctor, family
members, and possibly the spiritual community.”

On Interfaith Marriage: “The more the different cultures, ethnicities, and religions intermarry, the faster the prevailing prejudices can be expelled,” says Jones.

On Millennialism: Manifestations of God will appear in the future but, according to Bahá’u’lláh, not before the
expiration of a full thousand years from his own revelation.

Recruitment: “Teaching” can take the form of a “fireside,” an informal gathering in a Bahá’í home, or “pioneering,” moving into areas where there are few Bahá’ís and
becoming active members in those communities.

Miscellany: Bahá’ís, the largest religious minority in Iran, have suffered from religious persecution in that country, with nearly 200 executed or killed.

Web Address:

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Founder: Joseph Smith

Date: 1830

Membership: U.S.: approx. 5 million. World: 10.4 million.

Top Management: Gordon B. Hinckley, president and Prophet of God

The Word: The Holy Bible (King James version); The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ; The Doctrine and Covenants; The Pearl of Great Price

The Big Picture: In 1829, God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith and initiated a restoration of all the truths, powers, and priesthood authority of the ancient church established by Christ’s mortal ministry.

God: A Godhead— God the father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, separate in being but one in purpose.

Path to Salvation: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost (confirmation), and abiding by the teaching of the faithful.

Rendezvous Point: A meetinghouse, generally with a chapel, a cultural hall, and classrooms, where a congregation or “ward” worships.

The Money Trail: Members tithe, contributing one-tenth of annual income.

On Women in the Church: No female bishops (heads of local congregations) or presidents (Prophets of God); women may lead services and preach sermons.

On Homosexuality: According to Don LeFevre, church spokesman, Latter-Day Saints take a “chastity and fidelity” approach: complete chastity outside of marriage and complete fidelity within marriage. Latter-Day Saints are opposed to same-sex marriages.

On Abortion: Opposed to elective abortion unless a woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy or the fetus will not survive birth.

On Euthanasia: “A person who participates in euthanasia, including assisted suicide, violates the commandments of God.”

On Interfaith Marriage: Members are encouraged to marry within the faith.

On Millennialism: Latter-Day Saints believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ but do not predict when it will happen.

Recruitment: With nearly 60,000 missionaries worldwide, the Latter-Day Saints are firm believers in teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Scandal Sheet: In 1978, black male church members were permitted to enter the lay priesthood, and the church Web site denies any current racist attitudes. Critics charge that the church has not repudiated a link between blacks and Cain or a historical account that refers to the ancient Lamanites, a rebellious people who were cursed with a dark skin.

Miscellany: The church’s Family History Library, the largest genealogical library in the world, helps provide “saving ordinances” on behalf of those who died before the Restoration of Jesus’s Church.

Web Address:

Church of Satan

Founder: Anton LaVey

Date: 1966

Membership: The Church does not release membership statistics, but members come from all strata. “Teachers, artists, law enforcement, housewives,” rattles off Magister Peter Gilmore. “We’re not a bunch of nerdy goth kids.”

Top Management: Blanche Barton, high priestess

The Word: The Satanic Bible; The Satanic Rituals; The
Satanic Witch
; The Devil’s Notebook

The Big Picture: “A brutal religion of elitism and social Darwinism that seeks to reestablish the reign of the able over the idiotic.”

God: Satanists do not believe in God or the devil; rather, Satan is viewed as the dark force of nature. “We do not practice devil worship but self-worship.”

Path to Salvation: There is no afterlife. “Enjoy your life to its fullest; if you’re not, then you’re failing as a Satanist.”

Rendezvous Point: No official church buildings. “The philosophy resides in ourselves; we do not need a mediator.”

The Money Trail: A lifetime membership fee of $100 covers general administrative costs.

On Women in the Church: “Women are considered very powerful and are very respected. There are many women in the priesthood.” The church’s high priest is currently a woman.

On Homosexuality: “We are one of the first churches to accept gays, homosexuality, and other sexual fetishes.” Gays are represented in the priesthood.

On Birth Control: Extols its widespread practice.

On Abortion: Abortion is not condemned, but Gilmore maintains that people should “use birth control” and “shouldn’t be irresponsible and resort to it.”

On Euthanasia: “If life is a burden, there’s no need to hang on; if you’re in horrific pain, end the torture.”

On Interfaith Marriage: Allowed, but “a couple who have major philosophical disagreements don’t usually stay together.”

On Millennialism: Seen as irrelevant. “Human hysteria,” says Gilmore.

Recruiting: “You are born a Satanist,” says Gilmore. “You either identify yourself as one, or you say, ‘What is this crap?’ and reject it.”

Scandal Sheet: Since LaVey’s death in 1997, his daughter Zeena, current priest in the rival Temple of Set, has wrangled over her father’s estate with Blanche Barton, current head of the church and mother of LaVey’s youngest child. The spat has sparked an ongoing discrediting of LaVey.

Miscellany: Before founding the church, LaVey claimed he had worked as a psychic investigator, police photographer, burlesque organist, and lion tamer, and that he was briefly the lover of Marilyn Monroe.

Web Address:,


Founder: Muhammad

Date: Formally, 622, the year Muhammad, God’s final prophet, retreated from Makkah to Medina, where the first Islamic community was founded.

Membership: North America: in 1995, 5.5 million. World: in 1995, 1.1 million

Top Management: Historically, U.S. Muslim communities have been divided along national lines; organizations like the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan have been forging a more united community.

The Word: The Holy Qur’an, revealed to Muhammad through the angel Jibra’eel, is a direct communication from Allah, read and studied in its original form.

The Big Picture: Islam, meaning “submit,” is living life the way Allah intends. All the prophets, including Abraham and Jesus and culminating in Muhammad, are seen as one.

God: Muslims worship Allah, an all-powerful creator. You can “look to the galaxies and feel [Allah’s] greatness,” explains Imam Mohamad Gemeaha of the Islamic Cultural Center.

Path to Salvation: “There is no one to worship except God, and the religion inside of Allah is Islam.”

Rendezvous Point: A mosque is the traditional meeting place for the Islamic community, but one can pray to Allah anywhere.

On Women in the Church: A woman “can become an imam [leader and teacher of a Muslim community] for

On Homosexuality: A sin that will prove “fatal on Judgment Day.” Forbidden in Islam.

On Abortion: Prohibited unless a mother’s life is threatened.

On Suicide: Ending one’s life is forbidden. On Judgment Day suicide results in the eternal reexperiencing of death.

On Interfaith Marriage: Muslim men can marry outside
of the faith; Muslim women cannot.

On Millennialism: On Judgment Day, those whose good outweighs their bad will be rewarded. “That’s why [we] have patience and live with good hearts and in peace.”

Recruiting: Accepting Islam is “not conversion but rebirth,” says Imam Gemeaha. “[It] is returning back to nature as Allah created.” Life in the womb worships Allah; after that, parents raise their children in various religions.