Fake or Real? Answers to Yesterday’s Quiz Questions — Find Out Which Outlandish Religious Practices I Made Up

So here was the setup: Yesterday, I presented 15 brief descriptions of behaviors that were religious or spiritual in nature — some mainstream, some obscure. Three of them were fictional; the other 12 were real. Your job was to separate my fabrications from the things that people actually do to pay respect to the gods and spirits who, you know, rule their lives.

Some readers thought the 15 bizarre practices were all made up. Rather than give them an “F,” I’ll let the gods take care of them. Be rueful and very afraid, oh ye of little faith!

Others thought it was a trick question and that all 15 examples were real — and, to be honest, I’d toyed with that thought when I put the quiz together. In the end, however, it seemed more fun to concoct a few rituals of my own. So I did.

Now let’s go down the list.

1. During the yearly fall festival, taking enemas of lemongrass smoke, for purification.

Fake. I guess you could say I was just blowing smoke up your, um, backside. Although such enemas, in the good old days, were real enough, the smoke was produced by burning tobacco, not lemongrass, and it was a medical procedure to revive drowning victims, rather than a religious ritual. The always-interesting website Dangerous Minds has more.

2. Throwing a baby off a five-story building for good luck.

Real. Muslims and Hindus hold baby-dropping rituals in parts of India. The baby is caught in a taut sheet, and the practice is thought to confer good health and fortitude upon the infant.

3. Transferring one’s sins onto a condemned-to-death chicken.

Real. Welcome to Kapparot, a Jewish ritual in which a participant swings a live chicken over his head three times, transferring his sins to the doomed bird. It is then slaughtered and offered to the poor, who apparently delight in eating a drumstickful of roasted sin.

4. Regarding the marks in one’s underwear as a sacred symbol.

Real. Believed by Mormons. This is why it’s such a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t get elected president. Should we bomb Syria? Mitt would know just by looking for divine guidance in his underpants. We’re not talking about skidmarks, but about “sacred” signs that are sewn into the ill-fitting, uncomfortable, church-dispensed undergarments that committed Mormons wear every day until death.

5. Chopping up dead bodies and feeding the chunks to birds.

Real. This one’s not as rubbish as the rest. It’s an old Buddhist funerary practice in Tibet and Mongolia, where the absence of trees in barren regions makes cremating the bodies impractical or impossible, and where earth burials are out because the ground is too rocky or frozen. Hence, sky burials, in which the body is offered to wild vultures. Details of a sky burial vary: Sometimes, the corpse is laid out more or less intact; in other instances, the flesh is first stripped from the bones, and/or body parts are cut into smaller chunks.

6. Pulling chariots uphill with ropes attached to sharp hooks that pierce one’s back.

Real. Practiced by Hindu Tamils in India and elsewhere during the month of Thaipusam. Here’s a video. What started as a piercing of the tongue (a reminder to stay silent during meditation) has been transformed in an orgy of oneupmanship and increasing religious fervor.

7. Spitting on a newborn baby and telling the infant how bad it’s being.

Real. It’s how the Maasai, in Africa, greet a family addition. The Maasai are enthusiastic spitters, but for them it is a mark of respect and communal connection. It’s tradition that a father spits on his daughter’s shaved head and breasts for good luck when the girl gets married. The berating of the infant seems to come from the belief that evil spirits won’t come after the baby if they hear everyone talking about how bad and worthless the child is.

8. Sucking the freshly-cut, bloody penis of a baby boy.

Real. It’s a circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh. A staple of Hasidic Jewish culture in Israel and Brooklyn and other places, “the direct mouth-to-bloody-penis sucking [is performed] by many mohels (and almost all hasidic mohels) just after cutting off the baby’s foreskin and ripping off the membrane under it,” Shmarya Rosenberg of the indispensable Failed Messiah blog reminds us. At least two Brooklyn infants have died after they apparently contracted herpes from the mohel.

9. Ingesting several pounds of pebbles or shells before a ritual swim in a holy lake.

Fake. Made it up. This is as good a time as any to share the joke my eight-year-old daughter told me recently: “Daddy, have you seen the movie Constipation? No? That’s because it never came out.” Followed by uproarious laughter.

10. Eating a cracker in the belief that it is the actual body of a tortured half-god.

Real, although some insist that it should properly be called a “wafer,” and that Jesus, the tortured man, was an actual God rather than a demi-one. This is the kind of stuff over which religious people have been known to start wars, so in the interest of avoiding bloodshed, fine, you’re right. Catholic transsubstantiation, according to Wikipedia, is the doctrine that “the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist is changed, not merely as by a sign or a figure, but also in reality into the substance of the Body and the Blood of Jesus.”

11. Fanning perfumed smoke onto a car to bless it.

Real. Rituals to bless cars and other vehicles, sometimes with the use of holy water or fragrant smoke, are common from Thailand to Bolivia to the United States.

12. Running naked through the streets while inviting thousands to play tag.

Real. This grabfest takes place during Shintoism’s Hadaka Matsuri festival in Japan. According to this travel website, “one volunteer is randomly selected to be the Shin-otoko, or Naked Man.” After he undergoes a purification ritual in the local temple, “he appears before an invited group of local VIPs and temple benefactors, who are allowed to touch him before he’s released to the masses.” After that, Shin-otoko plays tag with as many as 9,000 sake-besotted men in loincloths. All this fun was conceived 13 centuries ago as a way to ward off the plague.

13. Sticking one’s hands in gloves filled with large predatory ants and enduring their immensely painful bites.

Real, and practiced by a Brazilian Amazon tribe called the Sateré-Mawé. It’s a coming-of-age ritual that supposedly bestows bravery and good fortune on the boys in question. Hundreds of large, venomous bullet ants, whose bites are excruciating, are placed or woven inside of the gloves. After the adolescents endure the pain of the bites, the ordeal may continue for days, as the ants’ neurotoxins frequently induce paralysis, fever, hallucinations, and convulsions.

14. Pleading for fertility by sneaking up behind a male cloven-hoofed animal and licking its testicles.

Fake. At least, I’m not currently aware of any people who swear by the spiritual benefits of teabagging a bovid. Let me know if I’m wrong, though, I’ve heard stranger things.

15. Taking sacred instruction to relieve the sorrow and anxiety caused by disembodied alien souls.

Real. According to the Church of Scientology, 75 millions years ago, the galactic overlord Xenu took care of a nasty overpopulation problem by bringing billions of his people to our planet, where he stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Their alien souls still infest Earth and are the cause of — well, all that ails us spiritually, really. But fear not: by giving the church ever more money, you can learn how to fight these fiends and become “clear.”


Going through the comments, it seems that only reader badgerchild correctly identified the three fake rituals, although technically s/he deserves just a touch of celestial punishment for breaking the rule that quiztakers shouldn’t read the comments, or use The Google to confirm hunches.

Hope you all had fun, and thanks to everyone who played!

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.