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8 Odd Religious Practices Still Practiced Today (and 7 That Are Banned)

8 Odd Religious Practices Still Practiced Today (and 7 That Are Banned)

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees (among other things) the right of U.S. citizens to freely exercise whatever religion they have chosen for themselves. Despite this seemingly boundless right, not every religious practice is allowed. This is more so true in other countries, where certain, odd, religious practice have been banned for centuries. With the plethora of religions currently out there, we thought it would be interesting to develop a list of 8 Odd Religious Practices Still Practiced Today (and 7 That Are Banned). Naturally this list is primarily composed of the practices of “fringe” religions which have not received widespread acceptance, however, you will see some odd rituals from mainstream religions which have made this list. Perhaps more importantly, this list should illustrate the power that popular religions have in protecting the rights of its congregation. This is in contrast to those isolated religious groups whose practices have been highly regulated by the U.S., and other, governments. No matter the popularity of the religion, all the entries on this list appear odd to the non-converted eye. If you can think of any odd religious practices which did not make our list (illegal or otherwise), feel free to mention them in the comments.

15. Odd – Dia de los Muertos


Some of the entries on this list are not derived from a specific religious doctrine, but are instead the result of a cultural assimilation of these ancient texts. Such is the case with the Dia de les Muertes (the day of the dead) practiced in many Latin American countries. The Dia de les Muertes is comparable to the American holiday of Halloween, though it carries with it significantly more religious overtones. The reason that this festival finds itself on our list, is its participants overwhelming fascination with death. While death is traditionally feared by most of the world’s religions, this odd practice of Latin American pokes fun at the idea of human mortality. Many participants of the festivities paint their faces to resemble skulls, and skull candied and memorabilia are now a fixture of the event.

14. Banned – Scarification


The idea of self-flagellation has been around for hundreds of years, and has been popular in several exotic religious sects, as well as some mainstream religions like Roman Catholicism. The Chambri tribe of Papua New Guinea has taken this to a whole other level, however, in their “scarification” ritual. In this ritual, boys entering manhood have their skin cut by respected members of the tribe. These cuts are supposed to scar, and eventual resemble the scales of the crocodile. The crocodile is an important religious icon for this tribe, This practice has been performed by the Chambri since ancient times, and some evidence suggests that it is the descendant of what was once a godlike worship of the crocodile creature

13. Odd – Ant Handling


I once attended a barmitzvah for one of my friends, and I have to say that his journey into manhood seemed much more enjoyable than our next entry. For members of the Brazilian indigenous tribe, the Satere-Mawe, the plunging of their hands into gloves filled with thousands of venemous ants is a sign that they are ready to ascend into adulthood. The Satere-Mawe are found deep in the depths of the Amazon, and have there adopted some strange religious practices. One of these is their obsession with bullet ants, the largest ant on the planet, who is also said to possess the most painful bite. This intense pain is said to have religious benefits for the men of this tribe

12. Odd – Kaparot


As one of the world’s oldest religions, there are some practices of Judaism which are noticeably odd. One such odd practice is the holiday ritual of Kaparot. Kaparot requires Jewish practitioners to perform a comical (or at least it appears comical to outsiders) ritual with a chicken, that transfers the sins from the person performing the ritual to the chicken itself. This act requires the person to grasp a live chicken by its shoulder blades and to rotate the it around their head exactly three times. The chicken is then killed and is traditionally donated to the poor. In recent times, this archaic ritual is only performed in Haredi communities, where it is usually accompanied by a reading from the Tanakh.

11. Banned – Ghost Dance


I don’t know if any entry on our list caused as much widespread fear among the masses as did the Native American Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was initially popularized in the late 1800’s by Jack Wilson (Wovoka), who preached that the dance would bring back the spirits of dead Native Americans who would fight against the white colonists. According to Wovoka, once the white settlers left the land it would begin an era of peace and prosperity to Native Americas throughout the Great Plains region. There is some debate whether the Ghost Dance itself was all that unique. Several scholars have argued that it was merely an adaption of the circle dance which was used by several native tribes since prehistoric times. Nevertheless, the performance of a ritual meant to “scour the earth of white colonists” terrified many white settlers. As such, the U.S. federal government outlawed the unique ceremony

10. Odd- Nudist Monks


One of the two main sects of Jainism, Digambar is an Indian religion that emphasizes the independence of the human spirit, equality between all forms of life, and a non-violent stance towards all living beings. One of its main prophets is Mahavira, who the faithful believe became free of the need for food, water, and sleep after attaining enlightenment. It is in this tradition that Digambar monks do not wear any clothes and carry only a water gourd (for nourishment) and a broom of fallen peacock feathers (to harmlessly brush away creatures that come in their way).

9. Banned – Polygamy


I don’t know if there is another entry on this list which has been more legally contested than the practice of polygamy. defines polygamy as “the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time”. If you’ve been through the other entries on this list, you’re likely thinking that this doesn’t seem as openly harmful as some of our other odd religious practices. The practice of polygamy, however, was once so despised in the United States that those practicing it were subject to severe retributions by both the U.S. government and the general populace. The forceful (and sometimes violent) response to this religious practice, has led its most prominent practitioners, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), to officially abandon it as a facet of their religion.

8. Odd – Peyote


On the rare occasions where I sit through a Sunday mass, I often find myself imagining how much more devout I would be if the practices my religion required were more fun. Such is the case for the various Native American religions to utilize the smoking of peyote in their rituals. After a series of lengthy court battles, these Native American groups affirmed their right to utilize this intoxicating (and illegal) drug in religious ceremonies. While the number of people who actually practice these rituals is fairly low, it speaks to the relative tolerance of the U.S. that these Native peoples have been given an exception for this important facet of their native religion.

7. Banned – Okipa Ceremony


One reason why Native American religion was so looked down upon by early colonists (aside from inherent European prejudices), is that some of their ceremony seemed so extreme by outside appearances. One example of this is the act performed by some Native American tribes in the northern plains which required its participants (usually young men new to adulthood) to pierce their skins with long hooks to suspend themselves from the ceiling. The leaders of these tribes reportedly understood the dangers associated with this ceremony, but found them inconsequential to the spiritual benefits they inferred on the tribes future warriors.This law was outlawed by the U.S. government in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has since ceased to be practiced.

6. Odd – Snake Handling


A religious practice which has experienced quite a bit of publicity in the United States, is the ritual of snake handling, which is popular in some southern Baptist churches. While there is some diversity among these rituals, they all basically function on the belief that the handling of (potentially) dangerous reptiles signals the congregations faith in God. Not only do consenting adults often participate in these ceremonies, however, it was at one point fairly common for families in the church to offer up their young children in order to signify their covenant with God. There are conflicting laws on the books on whether this is a form of child abuse, and many of the churches themselves have sought to mitigate the bad press by excluding children from these dangerous rituals.

5. Banned – Dowry


Admittedly, dowry has never been prevalent in the United States, but it is the cultural norm in several eastern countries. While individual practices may vary, it usually involves a potential suitor giving money to a girls parents in exchange for her hand in marriage. Obviously this raises serious questions of both slavery and sexism, two things that aren’t currently very socially acceptable in the U.S. right now. Among the obvious concerns of the girl having no say in choosing her potentially husband, is concern over a recent study which found that sexual assault was significantly more prevalent in marriages which were the result of a dowry system. All of these factors have cause the dowry practice to be outlawed across the United States.

4. Odd – Self Mutilation


While ritual mutilations are common across many religions, one of the most famous examples is the Hindu religion of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is meant as a holiday devotion to Lord Murugan, a major god. As part of the celebration, practicing Hindus pierce various parts of their body. Piercings are usually done with “skewers, lances, large hooks, or a small spear called a vel“. While there is no instruction manual on how this mutilation is supposed to be done, it has taken on a new scope in recent years. The intensity of ones’ piercings has now become synonymous with one’s religious devotion. As such, some practitioners have shown up to Thaipusam with some incredibly ornamental piercings. This includes some devotees who have even attached several large, ornamental hooks, to their backs as a harness by which to pull ceremonial chariots behind them.

3. Banned – Animal Sacrifice


This one should have been obvious, but it is worth stating that animal sacrifice is illegal across the United States. Several (extreme) religious sects have challenged these laws over the years, with all of them failing. The U.S. populace simply isn’t comfortable with any living creature (even something like poultry) being sacrificed for the purpose of religious ceremonies. Part of this is obviously due to animal rights groups, but I think the majority of people are appalled by this kind of ceremony for a more psychological reason. It seems to me that ideas of human sacrifice bring with them connotations of Satanism, or Devil worship. This concept has been drilled into the minds of the American people through decades of scary movies, which have used animal sacrifice as a symbol that a particular religious sect is up to no good.

2. Odd- Communion


When I began compiling this list, I knew I could not be an unbiased writer if I didn’t include an important (yet odd) facet of Roman Catholicism. As a Catholic, I grew up thinking that it was normal that Christians would eat and drink the body of Christ at every Sunday mass. As I have grown older, however, I have come to understand that this religious practice is just as odd (if not odder) as some of the other entries on this list. For practicing Catholics, the eating of wafers, and drinking of wine is not only meant to symbolize an ancient practice, the consecration of these items is supposed to literally transform them into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

1. Banned – Eating the Dead


Since the earliest days of recorded history, one of the most tabboo practices that a culture can enter into is the eating of their own dead. Something about this “heathenistic” ritual seemed to signal to outside cultures that those practicing it were backward or uncivilized. These social norms did not, however, reach the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rainforest. These people have an especially pronounced fear of death. As such, by eating the corpses of their dead neighbors (usually mixed with bananas), they believe that it will allow that person’s soul to live forever within themselves. Because the Yanomami are so secluded within the Amazon, there is evidence that these practices continue into the present day.

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