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Are You $piritual?
Welcome to The Kabbalah Center. Jocasta Shakespeare meets "Tinseltown's high priestess" Karen Berg for The Observer:

In her book God Wears Lipstick she says that what most women want is 'to eat chocolate, party, have sex, dance ... We want those diamond earrings and Jimmy Choo shoes', and the mundane nature of her desire is her charm. She is warm and friendly and I can't help liking her.

These days she lives a millionaire lifestyle, surrounded by servants and adored by beautiful and powerful celebrity icons. Her manicures are no doubt better than they used to be, but her values have not changed. Unlike her female followers, Berg herself wears a beautiful diamond bracelet as well the cheapo red string thing. Housewifely common sense has its compensations.

But it only goes so far. Berg says she met the Rav in a past life. 'In my last life, I was in the Spanish revolution. I was with the Rav and he refused to change his religion. I scooted off and left him [she winks again, to punctuate this girltalk moment]. I didn't have what it took to stay because the Spanish would have killed me and he said, "I'd sooner die than change what I am," and I said, "No, I'm leaving."' I ask how she knows this to be true and she shakes her head and laughs: 'Because you couldn't have the kind of chalk-and-cheese relationship we do and have so much love between us unless there was some kind of karma connection that happened before, you know?'

Anyone know the Hebrew for "Whatta loada crap"?

In this life, Karen met the future Rav when she was 16 years old and worked as his secretary in an insurance firm in Queens, New York. 'At first I didn't like him,' she says now. 'He was a different person.'

In fact, he was an orthodox Hasidic Jew and insurance salesman, born in Brooklyn in 1930, called Shraga Feivel Gruberger. He was also married with eight children.

Karen left the insurance firm to marry a builder at the age of 17 and had two daughters, Leah and Suri. Eight years later, when she was divorced, Karen met Gruberger again and felt 'strangely flustered' when asking him 'a little breathlessly' about his Kabbalah studies.

They met for dinner and, she says, 'I have to tell you, at that meeting it was all over. We knew instantly that we were meant for each other.' Gruberger abandoned his wife and children soon after this meeting with Karen and reinvented himself as 'Dr Philip Berg'.

...Kabbalah is Karen's invention: a vast money-minting, non-profit, tax-exempt 'charity'. She has claimed copyright to the name 'Kabbalah Centre', retails the Zohar at £420 a set, and has successfully repackaged a 4,000-year-old Judaic tradition. Berg says now, 'I insisted that this wisdom be made available to the peoples: to everyone, of any age, gender or religious belief. I like to give myself a stripe for that.' She polishes an invisible badge on her left shoulder. 'I said, "If I can understand it, then anyone can." He said, "Do you realise this has never been done before?" I said, "So What!"' And so the Kabbalah Centre - and the Rav himself - was created.

Part of this story reminds me of what's wrong with atheists as a group. Ben Akerley (author of the hilarious X-Rated Bible) invited me to the Atheists Alliance conference a few years ago, and some woman complained to me that Christian groups on campuses threw "pizza socials." Well, duh! Atheists should be throwing them, too. "We don't want to bribe people, she said." "Why not?" I asked. College kids are hungry. Feed them, and they might listen to what you have to say.

And another point atheists miss: People find it comforting to be in groups -- so comforting, in fact, that they'll snort out their money to these Jewish R.L. Hubbard types above. Atheism, to attract people, needs to be less like current atheism and more like religion, in that people have a need to belong to something. Groups of no-godders, say, with an ethical framework, or at least, offering discussions about rationality and ethics, and why so many people believe in Santa Claus.

And finally, there are too few hot atheists. The public voice of atheism tends to be Julia Sweeney. Wow, whatta hottie. Look at the public voice of nonthink, Ann Coulter, note how she made her bones, so to speak -- on Politically Incorrect and other shows. But for her blonde, leggy, televised controversy-mongering, she'd be bent over a law book -- and maybe by some sex-starved Supreme Court justice.

Posted by aalkon at August 28, 2006 10:16 AM

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Not an atheist myself, but as an amateur sociologist, I think you've put your finger on the main practical (not philosophical, just practical) weakness that atheism has had so far. For whatever reason, most people seem to like to join groups. Religions usually provide many other things than just a framework for a belief in something. Forming a group of atheists/secular humanists/whatever, however loose, could also let atheists show that they, too, can fulfill some of the traditional practical functions of a religion, such as charity, response to crisis and the like. Atheists tutoring inner-city kids after school would do a lot more to get people to listen than just discussions of rationality, IMHO.

Also, every group on campus that wants people to visit offers pizza socials or the like. College students are indeed hungry all of the time. It's not a bribe, it's an entry fee. It's also a way of attracting people who might never have thought about the cause, but who can possibly be persuaded by a good argument.

I think the main failing here is that organized religions generally seem to realize that they have to give people reasons to join and stay. Scientology has survived this long, IMHO, because it's pretty much all about doing that. I may have some issues with Catholicism, but my local church organizes trips to baseball games, holds dinners, takes us on dog-walking outings, etc. etc. And the trend is toward doing more, not less, of that. Fair or not, we live in a competitive world, and atheism has to compete if it's going to expand significantly.

Posted by: marion at August 28, 2006 6:45 AM

I like that thought. "Competitive atheism." It can be thought of as a brand, and it needs to be treated like one.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 28, 2006 7:02 AM

I knew it! I knew it! You're trading one kind of busy-bodyhood for another.

Posted by: Crid at August 28, 2006 8:09 AM

Who says I haven't been a no-god busybod all along?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 28, 2006 8:18 AM

I'm not an atheist either, but the thing I always thought was cool about atheists is that they were above it all. The thought of the Campus Atheism Fellowship slinging free pizza and making their pitch along with the rest of the believers just seems wrong.


Posted by: Speedy at August 28, 2006 8:43 AM

I'm not a "joiner" either, but if that's what it takes to interest college students in rational thought, what's the problem?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 28, 2006 9:45 AM

No problem...I didn't mean it was morally wrong or anything, just that atheists engaging in the sort of marketing behavior practiced by the rest of us would mean they forfeit the cool points they previously earned by virtue of their aloofness.


Posted by: Speedy at August 28, 2006 10:33 AM

At my college's recent organization fair, two girls were stationed a table labeled "Atheist/Agnostic Student Organization. The organization is new this year, and the two girls are the founders. The little clipboard for email signup was 2/3 full. I was pretty darn pleased to see the interest. No idea if they were offering pizza, though.

Posted by: jaw at August 28, 2006 11:32 AM

> if that's what it takes to interest
> college students

If it's a club with dues and uniforms and gossip and loyalty oaths and handshakes and regular meetings and snobby exclusion of others, it's a religion. One great thing about being rational is that it doesn't compel you to hang out with anyone in particular. Yet.

Still, I'd like a look at the hymnal.

Posted by: Crid at August 28, 2006 1:28 PM

"Atheism, to attract people, needs to be less like current atheism and more like religion..."

Author Margaret Atwood, an agnostic, contends that it already is:

"...BILL MOYERS: Does that mean you take your stand on the side of faith?

MARGARET ATWOOD: No, no having been raised a strict agnostic.

BILL MOYERS: A strict agnostic?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Strict agnostic.

BILL MOYERS: Not an atheist?


BILL MOYERS: What's the difference?

MARGARET ATWOOD: -- is a religion.

BILL MOYERS: Atheism is a religion?


BILL MOYERS: You mean it's dogmatic?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Absolutely dogmatic.


MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.

BILL MOYERS: There is no God.

MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.

BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what, a strict agnostic?

MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge..."


Posted by: Doobie at August 28, 2006 7:23 PM

There's no evidence there is a god, nor is there evidence there's a giant desk lamp ruling us all, so I'd be an idiot to believe in either.

Doobie, kindly avoid using html double-breaks between sentences. I cleaned them out of your comment, spaced it regularly, and made the quote a blockquote.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 28, 2006 7:49 PM

>>Forming a group of atheists/secular humanists/whatever, however loose, could also let atheists show that they, too, can fulfill some of the traditional practical functions of a religion, such as charity, response to crisis and the like.

I think any such organization would find itself competing with the Unitarian Universalist church for members.

I know a lot of agnostic, atheist, and ambivalent-about-religion types who are loyal UU'ers, because it allows them to benefit from the positive aspects of belonging to a congregation -- social structure, service opportunities, life lessons, etc -- without the negative aspects of religion.

Posted by: Gary S. at August 28, 2006 8:03 PM

Eh, I still think there's room for a formalized Secular Humanist/Atheist organization. There are plenty of groups of like-minded people with rules and norms and activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion - just ask the people attending the World Science Fiction Convention in a few days. I'm envisioning a group that would have meetings to hash out the philosophy of certain issues in an ordered, rational way, to be followed with pizza. Or something like that.

Basically, when it comes to companionship, do-gooding, and just activities in general, atheism is competing with a lot of heavyweights. My church has been around for about 2000 years, for example. UU is a nice compromise, but for many of the people I know who don't believe in God/god/whatever, it's still too much like religion for their comfort.

Posted by: marion at August 28, 2006 8:32 PM

Really liked the post, Amy. I think I've said this before, but one of the issues that I have with a lot of your commentary on religion is that I, as an atheist, find it a bit shrill and a bit dismissive of the good things that religion provides (I think it does a lot of good, and a lot of bad, just like every other human institution). People like to have a group that can throw pizza parties for them; churches give that to them. A lot of leading atheist commentators sound like they want to take away religion without replacing the good things it does; I think an atheists-organization could do a lot of good, for atheists' social lives as well as for their image.

Posted by: Jadagul at August 28, 2006 11:37 PM

"Ann Coulter [...] But for her blonde, leggy, televised controversy-mongering, she'd be bent over a law book -- and maybe by some sex-starved Supreme Court justice."

Sounds like it's time for your saucer of milk, Amy! MeeeeeeeOOOWWWWWWWWWWW!

Posted by: Lena Purina Cat Chow at August 31, 2006 7:39 PM

You've been Meeeee-isssed, Lena!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 1, 2006 6:58 AM

Marion, Unitarian Universalism may be "too much like a religion for some people" because it IS a religion. UUism is a liberal and creedless religion, but it is a religion, despite the fact that it welcomes atheists, deists, humanists, agnostics, pagans, and people of various religious backgrounds and beliefs or lack thereof.

If an atheist or agnostic is uncomfortable with any spiritual discussion or purpose, then a UU church or fellowship probably wouldn't fit the bill. But if a religion that lets you "build your own theology" (or hold none at all) sounds intriguing, check out a UU church.

And you're guaranteed some intelligent conversation and debate at a UU church - UUs regularly score the highest of any religious group on the SATs (followed by Reform Jews.

Posted by: Melissa at September 1, 2006 4:32 PM

I used to know someone who liked to drive by Unitarian churches and scream out, "Get a fucking religion, losers!"

Posted by: Lena at September 1, 2006 8:17 PM

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