Mainstream religions aren't meeting your needs? Check THESE groups out . . .
Irritated by Islam? Peeved about pedophile priests? Had enough of gay-bashing Episcopalians? Consider a new, more exciting, more interesting faith. (If you've met one Scientologist, you've met them all.) The seventh edition of the Encyclopedia of American Religions includes 250 new churches, sects, cults, temples, societies, missions and religions. We realize most people don't have time to find the needle of truth in a haystack of dogma, so we've selected a few candidates that could make you the spiritual life of any party.
Church of All Worlds
Background: Two students at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri created the church in 1962, taking its name and concepts such as grokking (the ability to fully empathize with others) from Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In the spirit of the times, the students also decreed that sex is a divine act. (According to one account, during a police raid of an early CAW orgy, a minister, while still fucking, asked the cops not to disturb the service.) By the late 1970s the group had begun producing "living unicorns" by operating on baby goats. The first of these animals toured with Ringling Bros. until 1988. The church has also organized an expedition to search for mermaids in New Guinea and launched initiatives such as the Street Cat Aid Team, or SCAT. Its website includes articles on responsible condom use and strategies for swinging. Spiritual guide: The church, which claims about 575 members, survives under co-founder Tim Zell, now known as Oberon Zell-Ravenhart (above left), and his wife, Morning Glory. Its chief text is Zell's Gaia Thesis, which posits that the planet and its creatures are a single organism. Downside: Somebody at the orgy has to keep an eye on the unicorn. Pickup line: Female members are greeted with "Thou art goddess."
Background: Traditionalists believe that the modern Catholic church has become too modern. Adherents at 600 chapels worldwide celebrate mass in Latin, push the theory that every pope since 1958 has been a poseur and reject the reforms of Vatican II that, among other things, exonerated Jews for the death of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Vatican does not approve. Spiritual guide: Traditionalists came under intense scrutiny when believer Mel Gibson released his $25 million, self-financed Latin and Aramaic epic, The Passion, depicting the last bloody hours of Jesus's life. "A lot of unusual things have been happening," Gibson told an interviewer on the set. "Good things, like people being healed of diseases." The actor has also given $2.8 million to the Holy Family congregation, which is building a 9,300-square-foot traditionalist chapel near Malibu for Gibson and its 70 other members. One passionate if extreme traditionalist thinker is Hutton Gibson, Mel's dad and the author of Is the Pope Catholic? The elder Gibson considers the current pope a "Koran kisser," says Vatican II was "a Masonic plot backed by Jews," asserts that the planes that flew into the World Trade Center were flown not by terrorists but by remote control and denies that the Holocaust ever occurred ("There were more Jews after the war than before"). Downside: Hard to follow all-Latin sermons, especially the punch lines. Pickup line: Wanna see my Passion? (Caveat: This will work only if the movie makes it to DVD.)
Church of Satan
Background: The good news is you don't have to believe in Satan symbol of man as a carnal beast whose needs must be fulfilled. Every satanist is encouraged to follow his or her own set of rules, and self-preservation is considered the most powerful instinct, followed by sex. Drugs are discouraged for being escapist. The church's guiding principles include indulgence, kindness and vengeance. Spiritual guide: On April 30, 1966 founder Anton LaVey shaved his head and proclaimed the start of the satanic era. He gained notoriety performing weddings and funerals and worshipping at his Black House in San Francisco with a nude woman on the altar. A 1991 investigation found that much of LaVey's wild biography — including his stint at as a circus lion tamer — had been invented. John Raymond, who played the groom in a staged satanic wedding, wrote that LaVey had "found a gig that privately amused him." A $100 lifetime membership, available online, gets you an embossed membership card and a freak-out from your mom. The breakaway First Church of Satan raises funds by selling Dark Passion, a jazz vocals CD. Downside: Goat-head tattoo. Pickup line: Behold, I have a tongue like a serpent.
The Peyote Way Church of God
Background: The Mescalero Apaches introduced the use of peyote for enlightenment to the U.S. sometime prior to 1870. It spread rapidly among Native American tribes until the U.S. government began a crackdown in 1918 that continues to this day. A Peyote Way founder writes, "When we eat the peyote we experience time and eternity, and it is from that vantage that, the next day, we can live our life in a very positive and nontrivial way, realizing that this day could be the last and everyone around us is our brother and sister and we need each other." Spiritual guide: In 1965 the government decreed that only people who are at least 25 percent Indian could become members of the peyote-eating Native American Church, which had been tolerated since 1918 as an "Indian version of Christianity." The restriction led to the 1977 creation of the Peyote Way, whose 250 members welcome everyone; the state of Arizona allows them to distribute the drug on their 160-acre compound. For $200 visitors can partake in a 24-hour fast followed by an eight- to 12-hour meditation. The church suggests taking along spiritual reading material, a pad and pen, a lighter or matches, a hat, a sleeping bag and a flashlight. The peyote is consumed as a tea or in small buttons. Downside: Sitting on a sleeping bag in the wilderness outside a remote religious compound may not be the best place to have a bad trip. Pickup line: Can I see you on the other side?
Pentecostal Snake Handlers
Background: Snake handlers, who operate under the umbrella Church of God with Signs Following, believe that the Bible commands the most godly to handle deadly serpents. (The less godly can watch.) Snake handlers entertain 50 to 100 congregations stretching from central Florida to West Virginia to Ohio. They also believe that the godly speak in tongues, cast out demons, drink poison, apply fire to the skin and heal the sick people who've been bitten by pissed-off snakes. Spiritual guide: According to church lore, snake handling began about 1909 in Cleveland, Tennessee. That's where George Hensley was preaching on Mark 16 ("They shall take up serpents") when parishioners dumped a box of rattlers at his feet. He picked them up and kept talking. Hensley's luck ran out in Florida in 1955, when he was bitten by a diamondback. At least 77 other believers have reportedly died from bites. Downside: Because snake handling is rooted in the Pentecostal faith, church leaders ban jewelry, booze, tobacco, caffeine and modern medicine. Some churches allow visits to the doctor, but only if you're dying. Pickup line: Wanna see me handle my snake?
The Aetherius Society
Background: According to this Hollywood-based society, Earth is involved in a cosmic war with evil magicians who hope to enslave mankind. Its members channel humanity's concerns to the Great White Brotherhood, which includes Jesus (now living on Venus) and Buddha. Spiritual guide: While practicing yoga in his London apartment in 1954, founder George King (left) heard a voice proclaim, "Prepare yourself. You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament." The following year King announced that Master Aetherius of Venus had named him as the planet's primary terrestrial mental channel. In short order he visited 18 mountains (including Mount Baldy and Castle Peak) to charge them with power. Until his death in 1997, King channeled some 600 messages from the Cosmic Masters, many of which are posted online as audio files. He also wrote numerous books, including You Too Can Heal and Contacts With the Gods From Space. Downside: Ever seen the movie Independence Day? Pickup line: Nice peaks.
Universal Life Church
Background: The ULC is the best known of the mail-order churches that will ordain anyone who asks. Once a person's name is added to its online database, he or she can legally perform baptisms, weddings and funerals in most states. The church offers other benefits, such as a $5 minister-on-call windshield card so you can snag prime parking spots at nursing homes and prisons. Although the ULC cites the Bible to justify its unorthodox position — "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you" — it has no central beliefs. "We believe only in that which is right, and everyone has the right to determine what is right for themselves." The church trinity is freedom, food and sexuality. Spiritual guide: Kirby Hensley and his wife, Lida, founded the Modesto, California-based church in 1962. The IRS viewed it as a tax dodge, but the Hensleys said they believed that all religious and political forces would someday unite under the ULC banner. (Courts ultimately ruled in the ULC's favor.) To speed the unification process, Kirby Hensley formed the People's Peace Prosperity Party and ran for governor of California and president of the U.S. Ever the progressive, in 1971 he officiated at the wedding of two women. Downside: None, really, unless you get the IRS involved. Pickup line: You'll have sex only if I marry you? Okay, stand right here."