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Religious information

Common religious misunderstandings

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Common misunderstandings about secular matters on religious web sites:

bullet About half of all U.S. marriages have ended in divorce. A commonly cited figure is that 50% of all marriages will eventually end in divorce. But the percentage of marriages which have already failed is considerably less than 50%. A poll showed that, among Christians, non-denominational churches -- typically fundamentalist congregations with no affiliation to a Christian denomination -- had the highest percentage of persons who have been divorced (30%). Baptists are next at 29%; Catholics and Lutherans are tied at 21%. 21% of Atheists and Agnostics have been divorced.

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Common misunderstandings about religion in general:

bullet The U.S. is a Christian nation: There are many ways of defining whether a country follows a specific religion. By some criteria, the U.S. is a Christian nation:
bullet Religious identity: About 70% of American adults identify themselves as Christians.
bullet Importance of religion: 75% of women and 60% of men regard faith as a critical part of their life.

On the other hand, if other criteria are used, it may be argued that the U.S. is not a Christian nation:
bullet Legal factors: The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution calls for the separation of church and state. This prohibits the government from recognizing a state religion.
bullet Church attendance: Numerous surveys have shown that 40% of adults say that they attend church regularly. In fact, when noses are actually counted, the actual number is only 20%. The number is about 10% for Canadians and even lower in European countries.

bullet Christian prayer in public schools: Many Americans believe that the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools. They did not. The court merely declared that prayer, as an integral part of the classroom day, was unconstitutional, both because:
bullet It would elevate religious belief as superior to secular belief, and
bullet It would elevate Christianity above other religions. 

Students can:
bullet pray at the flagpole and at any other location outside where students area allowed to gather;
bullet pray silently in the hallways or classroom outside of class hours (i.e. before classes begin or after they are over;
bullet say grace before meals in the cafeteria;
bullet join with fellow student believers in forming Bible study clubs, if one or more secular, non-curriculum related clubs are also permitted;
bullet study comparative religion in class, as long as the course meets constitutional requirements of inclusiveness and balance;
bullet wear religious clothing and religious jewelry;
bullet initiate religious conversation during free time with fellow students as long as they do not engage in harassment.

Of course, some school officials are ignorant of the law and may attempt to infringe upon rights guaranteed to students' under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their current favorite technique is to claim that certain religious jewelry (cross, crucifix, star of David, pentacle) are gang symbols and thus prohibited. Fortunately, there are legal groups -- like the American Civil Liberties Union -- who will often come to the aid of students. Usually a brief conversation or letter between a lawyer and school principal is sufficient to restore students' constitutional rights.

bullet Bibles in the public schools: Many people believe that students are not allowed to bring their Bibles into public schools. Others believe that they can have a Bible, but are not allowed to read it. In fact, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that:
bullet Students can carry Bibles on the school bus;
bullet They carry Bibles with them while in school;
bullet They can read Bibles on school property, even in the classroom, if it is not during actual instruction time.
bullet They can freely read and use their Bible in a Christian club, if one or more secular, non-curriculum related clubs are also permitted in the same school.

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Common misunderstandings about Christianity:

bullet Christianity is growing: Worldwide, the percentage of people who identify themselves as Christians has been stuck at about 33% for decades. It may actually be shrinking as a percentage of the total population even as its total numbers are increasing. Islam is growing rapidly, largely due to higher birth rate in many predominately Muslim countries and forced conversions. Some observers expected it to surpass Christianity in total numbers later in this century, perhaps in the 2030s if current trends hold.
bullet The Ten Commandments: There is a very common belief that the Ten Commandments are a set of rules of behavior that everyone should feel comfortable following. In fact, the first five Commandments (or four, depending upon which translation that you use), are purely theological in nature, require people to worship Yahweh, and provide curses for the children, grand children and great grand children of anyone who refuses to worship Yahweh. The Commandments are thus quite unacceptable to followers of religions other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)
bullet The Immaculate Conception: This is a mainly Roman Catholic doctrine. Most people seem to believe that it refers to Jesus being without original sin when he was conceived circa 6 BCE by Mary and the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Immaculate Conception refers to the belief that in about 20 BCE when Mary herself was conceived, that she was without original sin. 

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Common misunderstandings about Islam:

bullet Female genital mutilation: This is often seen as a religious ritual act, promoted by Islam. However, it is apparent that female genital mutilation is an African tradition that is grounded in cultural practice, not religious belief. In those countries where it is practiced, it is done by followers of all religions. In many Muslim countries outside of North Africa, it is an unknown practice.
bullet Jihad: This is often translated as "holy war" -- a call to fight against non-Muslims in the defense of Islam. This meaning is particularly common in the western press. In reality, it means "struggle."  Most Muslims view it as a personal, internal struggle with one's self. The goal may be achievement in a profession, self-purification, the conquering of primitive instincts or the attainment of some other noble accomplishment.
bullet Intolerance: Many media report extreme cases of intolerance up to and including crucifixions, decapitations, etc. of non-Muslims who refuse to convert to Islam. Other reports relate to acts of extreme intolerance by followers of the two main traditions if Islam -- Shia and Sunni -- against each other. 'The split occurred over a millenium ago over the selection of a successor to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. However, the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful.

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Common misunderstandings about Neopaganism:

bullet Witchcraft: This term has so many mutually exclusive and variant meanings that we recommend it never be used. Two common, opposing meanings are:

bullet A Satanist: a worshiper of Satan who uses black magic to harm others, involving the aid of Satan and his demons.
bullet A Wiccan: a follower of Wicca, a benign reconstruction of an ancient European Celtic religion. Wiccans are prohibited from using magic to harm others; they do not believe in the existence of Satan or demons.
bullet Wicca: This is viewed by many as a form of Satanism. In reality, Satan is largely a Christian quasi-deity whose existence is not recognized by Wiccans. Wicca is a modern religion, created partly from ancient Pagan Celtic symbols, holy-days, deities and beliefs. They worship a God and a Goddess, and do not have an all-evil entity such as Satan in their pantheon of deities.

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Common misunderstandings about New Religious Movements:

New Religious Movements (NRMs) are often called "cults." We recommend that the latter term never be used, unless it is carefully pre-defined, because it has so many mutually exclusive and variant meanings.

bullet Cults are dangerous: A handful have proven themselves to be hazardous to the health or lives of their members. But of the thousands of religious organizations in the U.S., only a very small number fall into that category. Almost all religious groups are benign. New religious movements are simply the beginning stage by which new faith groups are organized. Christianity itself was a new religious movement in the 1st and 2nd century CE. In the 19th century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Christian Science were both new religious movement. Both are well established faith groups today.
bullet Millions of people are unethically recruited by and brainwashed in cults: Many groups in the anti-cult movement teach that new religious movements capture followers by deceptive techniques and reduce their critical faculties through mind-control techniques -- some almost to zombie-like status. Other groups in the counter-cult movement teach that any group which deviates from traditional Christian theology is a cult. By including such large, established Christian groups as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, Unification Church, Christian Science, etc., they can then claim that "cults" number in the millions. 

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Common misunderstandings about Satanism:

bullet Satanic Ritual Abuse: During the 1980s and early 1990s, a Satanic Panic swept across much of the English speaking world. Many feminists, therapists, police officers, conservative Christian leaders and the public itself believed that Satanists were kidnapping, abusing and killing infants and children in human sacrifices. Estimates ranged to 50,000 annually or more. This belief was partly fueled by false childhood memories generated by recovered memory therapy used on adults. False memories were implanted in young children through the use of direct and repetitive questioning. Lack of hard evidence finally caused most to abandon their beliefs. Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) is now mainly promoted by a very small percentage of feminists and conservative Christians.
bullet Worship of Satan: Most people believe that Satanists worship Satan. By "Satan" they are referring to concept of the Devil as an all-evil, living, quasi-deity. This view of Satan developed during the Middle Ages within Christianity.

In reality, the two largest groups within religious Satanism are the Church of Satan (whose members view Satan as a pre-Christian, pagan principle, not a living entity) and the Temple of Set (whose members worship Set, a pre-Christian deity from Ancient Egypt -- a predecessor of the Satan of the Bible). However, some small Satanic groups do worship Satan as a living entity.

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet Christianity: all aspects
bullet Non-Christian religions: all aspects
bullet Religious information menu: Church attendance, divorce rates, etc
bullet Religious language: 
bullet Glossary of religious terms: [A to Z]
bullet Use of religious terms in essays and articles
bullet Use of secular terms in writing about "hot" religious topics

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Copyright © 2000 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-9
Latest update: 2015-OCT-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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