Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Here is "Choosing My Religion," a humorous non-fiction feature

that I wrote and reported for Details magazine, which published

it in its October 1994 issue.

Of all the almost innumerable features and news stories

I've written for magazines and newspapers over the decades,

this is one of my favorite pieces.

It's also a good example of what happens when a publication

lets me do a story my way, without editorial interference.

Details should be applauded for 'getting-the-joke'

when I brought them the idea and not messing (much) with the

final version that I wrote and reported. (Yes, I did go

through the final manuscipt line-by-line with a terrific editor,

but the editor was mostly fact-checking and verifying; what I

wrote remained unchanged (except for maybe five or six words)

and completely unchanged structurally.

Truth be told, there was one bad note in the published

version: at the last minute, an editor (without telling

me) shifted it from the past tense to the present

progressive tense (e.g., from "I visited the synagogue..." to

"I visit the synagogue..."). Not a good idea, in my opinion.

And that's why I'm presenting my source file here (i.e.,

the story I wrote, before the edit), which I think works

much better.

So here it is, the story of how I converted to all the world's

great (and not-so-great) religions:

Choosing My Religion

Converting to the World's Great (And Not-So-Great) Religions -- All of Them

By Paul Iorio

If everything were to go wrong, it's somewhat comforting to know

organized religion would take you in -- no matter who you are or what you've

done or what you really believe.

But first you must convert. What religion is best for you? Which one

offers a sensible plan for eternity, no-fault redemption, praying that gets

results, easy admission to heaven, and a moral contract that's non-binding?

To answer these questions, I set out one morning to convert to the world's

great (and not-so-great) religions. Within hours, I grew certain of only one

thing: becoming holy was not the best way to expand my sexual options,

since many faiths prohibit even the most mundane erotic activities. Islam, for

example, forbids masturbation.

"It's a sin," says Abdul Hai of the Islamic Center in Chicago.

"You can't even masturbate with your wife?," I ask.

"How come you do masturbating with your wife?," says Hai.

"Mutual masturbation -- that would be okay, right?," I ask.

"I don't think so," says Hai.

So for those sometimes feel sex is too private to do in front of

another person, Islam is clearly not the way to go.

Muslims also bar lechery. "Even if you gaze at the face of a woman out of

lust, it is forbidden," says Muhammed Salem Agwa, an imam at the Islamic

Cultural Center in New York. (Sunnis and Shiites largely agree on such

lifestyle issues.)

I then tried the Mormons. First thing I found was they take marriage very

seriously. Not only do they nix sex before marriage, they believe in marriage

after death. This, of course, raises the question of whether one can file for

divorce in eternity.

"As far as getting a divorce in the eternities, I don't think so," says an

elder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. "If you lasted until the eternities

with your marriage, it's pretty much going to last forever."

"But if you do get a divorce in eternity, do you split the soul 50:50?," I


"Good question," he says. "I never thought of that. I'll have to think about


Judaism actually regulates the penis itself; circumcision is recommended

for converts. (For the uninitiated, adult circumcision is usually performed

under a local anesthetic and requires several stitches you know where.)

Next, I checked out the best ways of getting to heaven. For

Catholics, I found the password to heaven is a simple, "I'm sorry." Evidently,

the deal for Catholics is this: Commit any sin during the week, confess on

Sunday, and you're pardoned, no matter what the offense.

Catholics can even envision forgiveness for Adolf Hitler. "If at the end,

Hitler had been truly sorry for the things he had done, then the possibility of

forgiveness is there in a theoretical sense," says Father Kevin Madigan of the

Blessed Sacrament Church in Manhattan.

"Is there any point of evil beyond which you say, 'No amount of

repentance will redeem you?,'" I ask.

"No," says Father Madigan.

Catholics aren't the only ones with a loose forgiveness policy. Listen to

Pentecostal pastor Donald Lee of the Healing Stream Deliverance Church in

New York: "One of the people we're affiliated with is Son of Sam," he says,

sounding a bit like Dan Aykroyd's E. Buzz Miller character on the original

"Saturday Night Live." "We've prayed with him a number of times, and he's

really strong now in the Lord."

"That seems way over the top," I say. "If Son of Sam doesn't go to hell,

then who does?"

"He doesn't go to hell because he's totally repented. In this case, he really

meant business with God," says Lee.

"What sins won't you excuse?," I ask.

"When you experience the power of God and then you blaspheme it, you

mock it," Lee explains.

Other religions have their own quirky, irredeemable acts. What sin do

Lutherans consider unforgivable?

"To die in unbelief," says Dale Hansen, the pastor at St. Luke's Lutheran

Church in Manhattan.

"But then if I believe before I die, I'm forgiven my previous unbelief?," I


"That's right," says Hansen.

With this much forgiveness going around, heaven must be mighty

crowded, right? Not according to Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim heaven

has a tight guest list of exactly 144,000. Apparently, admission depends on

who you know. Each apostle gets to bring along 12,000 guests, says Elder

Eugene Dykes of Kingdom Hall in Columbia, South Carolina.

Despite stiff competition for admission to heaven, one can still have a shot

by following as many religious rules as possible. Among them are the Ten

Commandments, which raise complex ethical questions. For instance, would

I be considered unholy if I break the First Commandment by believing Al

Green is God?

"Oh, no, no, no," says Adriano Hernandez of the Broadway Seventh-Day

Adventist Church in Manhattan.

"Al Green is a great guy, but he's not the supreme being of the universe,"

notes Glenn Evans of the Singles' Ministry of the First Baptist Church of

Dallas, Texas.

"Believing Al Green is God means you're going to become a total servant

of Al Green," says Father Madigan, "and whenever he calls you on the phone

and wants you to do something, you're going to do that. I don't understand

how you can worship Al Green as a god."

"I think you're pulling my leg here," says the very smart Leslie Merlin of

Brick Presbyterian Church in New York.

If the Ten Commandments are strict, just think of Judaism, with its

additional 613 commandments. How do you know if you're violating, say,

commandment 537? "It's hard," admits Rabbi Jacob Spiegel of the First

Roumanian American Congregation. "We don't expect you to."

Most orders of Judaism don't expect adherence to their dietary laws. One

commandment forbids Jews to consume meat and any milk product at the

same meal, which rules out something as innocent as coffee with milk after a

burger. But Rabbi Simcha Weinberg of the Lincoln Square Synagogue slyly

reveals a loophole: "You could have the coffee first."

Islam's food restrictions are so strict it's a wonder someone hasn't

marketed them as a diet plan yet. Among the regulations, most devotees must

fast from dawn to dusk for one month a year. Does that mean not even a Slim

Fast or a megavitamin? "You cannot even take a drop of water once you start

fasting," Abdul Hai says sternly.

Praying is a good way to get your side of the story across to God. And

God reportedly understands every prayer in every tongue -- including


Pastor Donald Lee demonstrates his fluency in tongues: "When the spirit

comes into you, you'll be speaking in tongues -- cora ba shinda da ba sa --

like that. Like right now -- kara sheek a ra da ba da sheev ba ra sa. When I

pray in tongues -- cora da shotta -- it gives the Holy Spirit a chance to dig


But don't try imitating Pastor Lee, which of course I know you're dying to

do. "You could imitate me, but it wouldn't be by the Holy Spirit," he says.

"It would just be mechanical."

Islam requires Muslims to take comfort in prayer five times a day and to

turn toward Mecca when doing so. "Suppose I turn toward San Francisco," I

say. "Does that negate my prayer?"

"You can have a compass and you keep it with you," responds

Muhammed Salem Agwa.

Because I didn't have my compass with me, I decided to try another

religion. What about Christian Science? At the very least, it's a super way to

save on healthcare. I checked out a service in Greenwich Village.

The congregation, looking like people who wash their hair with bar soap,

sings Hymn 31, a four-four ditty with catchy lyrics like: "What chased the

clouds away? Twas love, whose finger traced aloud a bow of promise on the


Then it's open-mike time at the church, and a Christian Scientist with a

comb-over shaped like a gerrymandered congressional district says, "I have a

healing to share." Though the Scientists believe faith can cure any ailment,

this service was causing me sudden nausea. I left for the Hare Krishna house

on Second Avenue.

Approaching the Krishna center, I expected a lot of shaved heads and

chanters in neon orange robes. Instead, I found an almost irreverent

get-together of twentysomethings vaguely resembling Billy Bragg and

Sinead O'Connor.

I investigated the Krishnas further. Which Vishnu god gives me the best

return on my worship? "Kirshna," says Akunthita Dasi of the International

Society for Krishna Consciousness in Chicago.

Must my cremated ashes be scattered on the Ganges River, or will the

Hackensack or Potomac do? "We just throw ashes in the lake here," says

Chakra Pani of the Temple of Understanding near Limestone, West Virginia.

Seeking something more earthly, I tried an Orthodox Jewish Minchah

service at Congregation Talmud Torah Adereth El in Manhattan. In a tight

basement with bars on the windows, men wearing hats turned the pages of

the Torah backward and spoke Yiddish in an emphatic fast-motion ritual. I made

a contribution and quickly left.

Equally daunting was a Catholic Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New

York. Inside, worshipers repeated "I shall not fear" as a cop patrolled the

north aisle and an usher prodded me with a long-armed collection basket.

Then everybody shook hands with one another on cue and filed out to the

sound of a barely audible organ.

A nearby Buddhist meditation service was a breath of fresh incense -- at

first. But then someone told me I was meditating incorrectly and needed

formal instruction. (In Zenspeak, I didn't know what I wasn't doing.)

My head was spinning in a spiritual vortex. I wondered: could I

simultaneously shave my head, get circumcised, genuflect, speak in tongues,

pray with a compass, and stop masturbating? It may be worth trying. It

would certainly improve my chances of getting to heaven.

[From Details magazine, October 1994; this is the way I originally write it.]


So there's the story! It went to generate letters to the editor

(like the one below) from readers who enjoyed it:


Just to give you an idea of how I created this feature:

here is but one page (below) of several that itemize 32 pages

of phone calls I made in conducting interviews for "Choosing My

Religion." I interviewed hundreds of sources and attended

dozens of religious services for this piece.