Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Religion and the Social Science Curriculum

The First United Methodist Church of San Diego first organized in 1869 and celebrates its sesquicentennial this year. The current sanctuary in Mission Valley was completed and opened in 1964. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

The study of religion can add a valuable dimension to academic programs in both the humanities and the social sciences. Religious history, theology, art, liturgy, organizations, and architecture have each played a large part in the development of our modern world. Religious conflict and cultural pluralism continue to shape politics and economics at home and international trade and diplomacy abroad. A sound understanding of the major world religions will help your students better understand the complex patterns and dynamics of U.S. and world history as well as government, geography, and economics.

Many people assume that religion can only be taught in private schools. At first, I was among them. I began my teaching career in the theology department of a Roman Catholic high school, where I taught Old and New Testament classes, the history of Christianity, and comparative religions. I was hired in part because I possessed a seminary degree and had a book published by a religious press. When I moved to the public school system after two years, I thought I would not have further use for this background. I soon discovered to my surprise that the state social science content standards also included topics related to world religions.

World history standards for grade 10 highlight Judeo-Christian and Islamic influences in the development of western democratic thought. The origins, teachings, and spread of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism are all part of the California Social Science Standards for grades 6 and 7, as are the Crusades, the characteristics of Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman mythology, and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas. Even religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita can be referenced as historical sources in class.

American religious history has its own category in U.S. History state standards for grade 11, including key events such as the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Disestablishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the role of religious reformers in the Antebellum and Progressive Eras. The establishment of churches and synagogues in America is part of what is covered in the story of national development, as well as new Christian denominations in the 19th century and other faiths brought through the Ellis and Angel Island immigration stations in the first half of the 20th.

The caveat in public schools, of course, is that religion can be taught but not preached. Classes in my first teaching assignment began with a Catholic prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, and students of all faiths were required to attend mass several times a year. This made sense for a school run by the local diocesan office of education. In the public schools where I spent the remainder of my career, however, religion became a purely academic subject. Students of various faiths could form their own extra-curricular clubs, but the practice of religion was no longer appropriate on a school-wide level.

Religion may be taught in public schools as long as no particular tradition is favored. The focus must be inclusive and balanced with respect to the variety of religious pluralism. Many public schools offer comparative world religion courses as humanities or social science electives, but the emphasis is on critical study rather than personal spiritual or moral development. Tread carefully and deliberately as you design your lesson plans. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict. Be clear with parents that you are teaching material from the state social science content standards. Be willing to offer alternative assessments, but stick to the standards. Your state teaching credential grants you the right and the duty to do so.

Religion appears all across the curriculum. From the role the Bible played in spreading literacy on the American frontier to the conflicts over war and slavery between Quakers and other groups in the 19th century, many topics arise in class that tie in religious themes. The various faith traditions introduced by immigrant groups are as vital a part of the national “melting pot” story as are their cuisine, language, dress, and culture. Many landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases have dealt with issues of religious doctrine and practice. Faith still motivates political activism on both the right and the left.

When I taught world religions, I had students of various backgrounds bring artifacts and stories to class. We took field trips to local houses of worship, including a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, and a Protestant chapel. We compared theological traditions and liturgical practices and discussed how they influenced political and cultural relationships. In my history and economics classes, the attitudes of different religious groups toward the environment, the role of women, the treatment of labor, and the growth of business and trade were great topics for Socratic Seminars, class projects, and DBQ essay assignments.

Religion plays a large role in the lives of many of your students. A careful study of diverse religious traditions will increase your cultural literacy and sensitivity as an educator. If you decide to pursue formal studies at an accredited institution of higher learning, there are many excellent choices. My Master of Divinity degree was completed at the interdenominational Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a renowned center of religious pluralism adjacent to the University of California campus.

When I was there, there were nine separate seminaries and several affiliate centers for religious study. GTU students were enrolled at a particular school but were encouraged to take classes at all of them. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians learned alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and secular humanists. My church history course included a series of lectures with faculty and students from all the schools as well as a smaller weekly seminar at my school of affiliation. For someone like me who did not come from a particularly religious background, studying at the GTU was a rich and rewarding experience.

This was in the time before the internet. The new digital world in which we live offers far more opportunities for learning than what I had at my disposal then. Take advantage of these vast resources to develop the religion element of your state standards. Like rhetoric, etiquette, Latin, and Greek, theology and religion were once part of a “classical” education. Now they have been largely discarded from today’s course offerings. I think this does our students a disservice. As long as state standards include religious topics, their study should be included in what the kids get in class.

Learn as much as you can about world religions (to read my World Religions Topic Summaries, click here). As you do so, be aware of your own biases. Get to know the cultural and religious backgrounds of your students. Respect those who are believers and those who are not. Hold to your own personal beliefs, but avoid favoritism in class. Teach rather than preach. Give your students the forum to explore various ideas and come to their own conclusions. Empower them to be critical thinkers. Their ability to do so will serve them well in our complex and challenging world.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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San Diego at 250

Historical marker at Presidio Park in San Diego, California. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Two and a half centuries ago today, on May 17, 1769, a party of Spaniards led by Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of San Diego in the hills above the bay first sighted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Portola’s fortified camp was followed a few months later by the first of 21 Franciscan missions, called San Diego de Alcala by Father Junipero Serra.

The Spanish were eager to establish a foothold on the west coast of North America in the vast and rich land they would later call Alta California. Their conquest of the local indigenous people was efficient and ruthless. The Kumeyaay and other native tribes were driven off by the soldiers or baptized and put to work by the friars, and by the 1820s a small Spanish-speaking adobe settlement had been built at the foot of the hill where the mission stood. By the time California was admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850, this pueblo of 650 people had been incorporated as the city of San Diego.

This has led many to consider San Diego the “birthplace of California.” Annexation by the United States and the Gold Rush began a century of astronomical population growth, and by 1962 California had become the most populous of the 50 states. The Golden State today boasts the widest ethnic diversity of any state, including the largest Hispanic and Asian American communities, and California’s economy is now the fifth largest on earth. Summer 2019 will see many celebrations commemorating San Diego’s role in the origins of this great success story.

The original pueblo at the bottom of the mission hill is now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, maintained and administered by the State of California since 1968. For several of the past 50 years, it has been the most visited of the 280 sites in the California State Park System. Its Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead festivals are among the largest in the United States. Old Town’s 27 restored historic buildings highlight the settlement’s 19th century history and are surrounded by scores of popular restaurants and shops.

Naturally, an honest appraisal of California history must include its darker side. San Diego’s story in particular includes many shameful chapters. In addition to the decimation of local Native American peoples by disease, warfare, and subjugation, the Spanish-speaking Californio families who formed the original community were soon marginalized by the English-speaking newcomers. “Old Town” was eventually eclipsed by the “New Town” of downtown San Diego along the bay side waterfront, notorious for shady business deals, a vibrant red light district called “Stingaree,” and a succession of corrupt politicians.

Then came the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier. San Diegans and thousands of visitors were welcomed to the newly completed Balboa Park with its grand Spanish colonial architecture and lush gardens. Twenty years later, the California-Pacific International Exposition was held in Balboa Park to boost morale during the Great Depression. By then San Diego had become a vacation destination and tourism had grown into a major local industry. A thriving tuna business and active military bases led to further development and new communities.

The burgeoning shipping and aviation industries grew exponentially overnight with the coming of World War II. San Diego became the civilian and military port and base of operations for the war in the Pacific. Many who arrived during the war decided to stay afterwards and contribute to the city’s growth. By the end of the 20th century, San Diego had become California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the country. Today the city is host to many new and exciting industries, resurgent historic neighborhoods, and a metropolitan population of more than three million.

San Diego’s story set the pace for the growth of California, as California did for the nation as a whole. Despite a high cost of living, a struggling public school system, unresolved immigration issues, and continuing economic inequities, there is still much to celebrate this summer. California represents the land of promise for thousands of newcomers who arrive each day, and the state government in Sacramento has made valiant efforts to expand public health care and other social programs to reach more of the state’s 40 million people.

I have called California home since 1977. In those four decades I have lived in Long Beach, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Orange County, and many other places before moving to San Diego last summer. Over the years I moved to other states for a brief time, but the excitement, beauty, and opportunity of California always brought me back. The Golden State has led the way in the emergence of our diverse, entrepreneurial, digital, global society. I am pleased to be here in the place where it all began 250 years ago.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Cesar Chavez Day

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today would have been Cesar Chavez’s 92nd birthday. In the years following his death in 1993, support grew to commemorate March 31 each year as a “day of national service.” President Barack Obama established Cesar Chavez Day as a federal holiday in 2014 and now eleven states have followed suit.

I decided to answer his call to service as an educator. During my five years as a middle school social studies teacher and drama coach in Bakersfield, California, I had the good fortune to have some of his grandnieces and grandnephews in my classes. Chavez’s wife Helen Fabela attended nearby Delano High School during World War II and many of her relatives settled in Kern County.

Cesar’s legacy is strong in the Bakersfield area. He is buried at Cesar E. Chavez National Monument near the rural town of Keene. I incorporated the story of his civil rights and educational work in my history curriculum over the course of my seven years in Bakersfield and continued to do so during my subsequent thirteen years in Orange County.

There are many forms of national service. As teachers, we have the unique opportunity to continue Cesar Chavez’s work for equality and human rights in a lasting and meaningful way. May his vision of an America that celebrates dignity and diversity come to fruition through the efforts of all those who serve.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

International Women’s Day

My mom and I on my first day of college at UC Santa Cruz, September 1979. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. Names like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothea Dix, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Alice Paul come to mind when I think of all the great women who have shaped the course of our history.

Today I also think of the first influential woman in my own life, my mother. She passed away recently at the age of 82 and will be greatly missed. She was an accomplished nurse who overcame much adversity to raise a large family and inspire friends and colleagues with her courage, humor, and dedication. I will always be grateful for the large part she played in my own academic success, artistic development, and personal growth.

As the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, let us all think of those women who have inspired us to thrive and succeed. Women are entering careers and public service in ever greater numbers and will continue to improve the quality of life here in America and across the world. May we all work together with them to stand up for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

World Religions Topic 15 Summary: Agnosticism and Atheism

The critical study of religious text and doctrine during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe would in time lead some to further question the very idea of God itself. Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) challenged the precepts of medieval scholasticism by arguing for free will, religious toleration, and critical thinking within the context of Catholic faith. This “humanistic” school of thought influenced the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who postulated that salvation by grace through faith could occur outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Church. Faith and salvation were not guaranteed by participation in the Sacraments. The individual must make a choice to believe in a personal Lord and Savior.

For some later Enlightenment thinkers, the choice was not to believe at all. These writers and philosophers concluded that the very concepts of church and salvation were themselves flawed and unnecessary. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) embraced deism, which accepted belief in a creator of the universe apart from participation in institutional religion. This approach was shared by prominent American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). For others, however, deism did not go far enough. More radical rejection of religious doctrine took the forms of agnosticism (from the Greek “without knowledge”) and atheism (“without God”).

These ideas were explored by French Enlightenment philosophers such as the aristocrat Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), and the art critic and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784), compiler of the world’s first encyclopedia in 1751. These and others argued that the human capabilities of reason and feeling were enough to produce both happiness and prosperity, and that the notion of God and the ecclesiastical and theological infrastructure needed to sustain it were therefore superfluous. Diderot was briefly imprisoned by the French government for expressing these views in his 1749 essay Letter on the Blind.

Many of these objections to theological constructs arose within the context of French Catholicism, where ecclesiastical wealth, corruption, and political influence in the Bourbon court at Versailles bred popular protest. The virulent hostility of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church bears witness to centuries of resentment and outrage. Later atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) carried this thinking further in describing organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” invented and utilized by the rich and powerful to control the working classes.

Marx was influenced by the German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who argued in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity that the idea of God is merely a projection of the best of human nature and not a separate Supreme Being that requires devotion and service through participation in organized religion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and others built upon Feuerbach’s ideas in the development of modern empiricism, existentialism, and nihilism. These schools of thought dismiss religious doctrines as distracting fictions that pull focus from human responsibility in the only world that truly exists, the material world available to the senses.

But not all atheism is an historical reaction to European institutional Christianity. The idea of a deity or deities that exist separately from human beings is foreign to many eastern religious traditions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of people today consider themselves atheists or agnostics even while they visit ancestral shrines and participate in cultural religious holidays and festivals. Millions more, especially in the western world, claim no connection whatsoever to any religious tradition, cultural or otherwise. Those who consider themselves actively religious today have become demographic minorities in many societies where religious membership was once required on pain of exile, imprisonment, or death.

The Communist revolutions of the 20th century were based in part on a political and philosophical materialism that rejected established religion as a tool of capitalist injustice. Participation in religious life was considered threatening to these regimes and often severely punished. Jews and Orthodox Christians were persecuted in the Soviet Union and Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Communist China. Only in this century have people of faith been permitted to practice their religion in Cuba, North Korea, and other traditionally Communist societies. Human rights groups still call attention to the repression of Buddhist Tibetan and Muslim Uyghur minorities in China today.

In the United States, the First Amendment allowed for freedom of religious expression and the disestablishment of a state church. This left room for the development of independent religious denominations as well as the growth of secular humanism. American atheists found a champion in activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who led a successful campaign to ban Bible readings in public schools that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp (1963). O’Hair founded American Atheists that same year and devoted herself to defending the separation of church and state. She appeared on national television and fought to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. dollar.

Atheists generally fall into the two categories of positive or hard atheism, which asserts definitively that there is no God, and negative atheism, which rejects a personal theism but does not deny the possibility of God altogether. Many negative atheists can be more accurately described as agnostics, as their approach to the question of divinity is either ambivalent or apathetic. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Americans still believe in a God of their understanding, while less than 10% are willing to commit to positive atheism. The larger figure includes millions of agnostics who are reluctant to take sides on the issue of faith.

Following the initial anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment period, agnosticism grew in popularity with the dissolution of traditional religious communities during the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization in 19th century Europe. Marxist materialism and the association of the church with discrimination based on race, sex, and class added to the alienation of many with institutional Christianity. Marginalized groups that did not have their own supportive religious infrastructure often chose to reject the relevance of religion altogether.

The advent of film, radio, television, and the internet increased the volume and diversity of public discourse on matters of faith and church membership. Many young people and leftist intellectuals in the 1960s antiwar movement and counterculture objected to some of the language of the political right that defended the unpopular Vietnam War as a “righteous crusade” against “Godless Communism.” Scientific inquiry clashed with religious fundamentalism throughout the 20th century. Civil rights struggles, financial crashes, and environmental crises eroded the effectiveness of religious answers in addressing the complicated problems of the new century.

Recent sociological studies have shown that more than half of the adult populations in the developed world today can be characterized as “unchurched,” particularly among the “Millennial” generation born in the closing decades of the 20th century. This number includes many who have left institutional religion as well as those who dismiss notions of faith and God as antiquated or irrelevant. All across the world, church membership among those under 40 years of age is falling dramatically. Some have left one religious tradition for another, but more have never attended church at all or have dropped religious affiliation altogether.

Some object to the very words “God” and “religion” and prefer language like “Higher Power” and “spirituality.” Many have been scandalized by criminal, avaricious, or hypocritical behavior among church leaders and religious politicians. Some argue that unearned suffering and senseless tragedy point to the absence of a benevolent deity. Others are horrified by terrorism and murder committed by fanatics in the name of religious faith. For still others, church attendance and prayer at home cannot compete with the appeal of a secularized popular culture endlessly streamed through cable television and social media.

Whether their beliefs are the result of outrage, disillusionment, disappointment, materialism, apathy, ignorance, or critical reflection, today’s atheists and agnostics constitute a significant portion of the world’s population today, especially among the young. Many believe in the same altruistic values of human rights, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that have characterized the best public efforts of organized religions. The contributions of “nonbelievers” to solving the most critical challenges facing the global community will be as necessary to the quality of life on earth as those who adhere to an historic religious faith.


  1. Can a person of faith also be an agnostic? What about an atheist? Explain your answer.
  2. What effects do you think the internet and smartphone technology have had on religion’s role in human society?
  3. What do atheists and theists have in common? How can they find common ground to transcend their differences and work together to create a better world?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

World Religions Topic 14 Summary: Neo-Paganism

The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to renewed interest in western matriarchal religious traditions that had long been suppressed by mainstream monotheism in northern Europe and the Mediterranean. During the medieval period and beyond, the ancient goddess-based religious traditions of Scandinavia, the Baltic region, the British Isles, central Europe, Egypt, and the Balkans were replaced by patriarchal Christian and Muslim authorities bent on the violent repression of cultural and religious minorities. Women who practiced the healing and earth-based rituals and arts of the “old religion” were persecuted as “witches.” Hundreds of thousands were ostracized, imprisoned, or murdered over several centuries in what became known as “the Burning Times.”

When Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century C.E., any Roman citizen who refused to convert was labeled paganus, a pejorative Latin term for an ignorant “rustic” rural outsider. Many of these people refused to abandon the ancient goddesses of their native Etruscan, Norse, Germanic, Iberian, Slavic, Celtic, or north African religious traditions and were therefore termed “pagans.” When interest in these indigenous faiths returned in the second half of the 20th century, their adherents were dubbed “neo-pagans” by mainstream critics. Much like the 16th century term “Lutheran,” what was once a term of scorn became one of pride.

Not all followers of this “new paganism” today choose to identify themselves by this term. In fact, the cultural and cosmological diversity of the movement defies uniform description and categorization. Renewed scholarly interest in the indigenous religious traditions of Africa, Australia, Asia, North and South America, and the South Pacific led to demands for the same respect afforded to the indigenous faiths of Europe. The seminal work of authors such as archaeologist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), publisher Raymond Buckland (1934-2017), and journalist Margot Adler (1946-2014) drew popular attention to revived pagan traditions.

The American environmental activist Starhawk (born Miriam Simos in 1951) has become one of the most recognized leaders of neo-paganism today. Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess was later revised and reprinted in 1989 and 1999 and has become a classic resource for practicing pagans. Her commitment to human rights, protecting the environment, sustainable agriculture, and nonviolence has set the pace for the modern pagan movement and garnered some level of recognition from other religious leaders and the mainstream media.

Starhawk and others identify the goddess-based faith of ancient Europe as Wicca, from an old Germanic verb meaning “bend” and from which the words “witch” and “witchcraft” were derived. The negative connotations and stereotypes associated with this terminology have been replaced by modern Wiccans with a celebration of their earth-based and holistic faith. Wicca emphasizes the divine power of fertility and regeneration that emanates from the Goddess and renews life on earth in the annual cycle of the seasons. Wiccan ritual provides the tools to access this regenerative force for the common good.

Wicca and other neo-pagan traditions share many theological and liturgical practices. Worship is held in a circle and often outdoors, rather than in the indoor, linear configurations of modern churches, synagogues, and mosques. While some pagan priests and priestesses have formal religious training and their credentials and congregations (or “covens”) are legally recognized, paganism does not require formal clergy or group membership. Home altars are common as they are in Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Shinto households. As in Shinto and Taoism, sacred locales in nature serve as places of worship. Celtic astrology, for example, is based on trees, and Norse divination drawn from runes.

In the British Isles, ancient circles of standing stones such as Stonehenge in England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland and neolithic tombs like Newgrange in Ireland have become focal points for pagan lore and liturgy. Neo-pagans mark the four seasons in their rituals and invoke the power of the four directions with the use of an athame, or sacred consecrated blade. In Celtic paganism, the four seasonal festivals of Imbolc (February 1), Beltaine (May 1), Lughnasa (August 1), and Samhain (November 1) are observed along with the Spring and Fall Equinoxes and the Summer and Winter Solstices. Full and new moons are also occasions for prayer and celebration.

Holistic medicine is also an integral part of many modern pagan movements. The use of essential oils, healing stones, meditation, and organic foods is encouraged, as well as noninvasive pain management techniques such as acupuncture, massage, stretching, and chiropractic. Oft-neglected elements of both eastern and western religions can be found in neo-pagan practice as well, particularly ancient Buddhist and Taoist mediation techniques and the mystical styles of prayer found in the Jewish Kabbalah and Muslim sufi traditions. Music, song, costume, and dance are lively aspects of pagan prayer.

Pagan symbols include the Pentacle (five-pointed star), the Tree of Life, the ankh symbol from ancient Egypt, and small figurines of the pregnant Goddess such as Ishtar from ancient Mesopotamia. The circle is considered the most sacred of shapes and forms the basis for all pagan worship. Many pagans choose to wear clothing made from organic materials in earth tone colors to honor the Goddess in their daily life. The four elements of fire, water, earth, and air are integrated into pagan homes and worship. Incense, boughs, flowers, candles, goblets, and jewelry representing sacred animals or mythological creatures are also used to reinforce pagan beliefs.

Much of the historic hostility toward pagan traditions is associated with the casting of “spells” or rituals that invoke the power of the Goddess to bring healing or good fortune to the coven or individual. Western missionaries considered these practices a direct threat to their own liturgies and doctrines and engaged in concerted efforts to stamp them out. Paganism became equated with the occult, destructive “black magic,” and blood sacrifice, all distortions designed to thwart the traditions of Goddess worship. The Wiccan Rede of “Do as you will, and harm none” was ignored in favor of a negative view of their traditions as “the instrument of Satan,” an aspersion rejected by Wiccans and their supporters today.

Modern pagans follow many of the same traditions as other indigenous religious traditions around the world, including the use of amulets, totems, astrology, divination, shamanic rituals, spirit animals, vision quests, and ancestral worship. The lack of continuity of these traditions in Europe and the Middle East because of historic persecution has made some of them difficult to reconstruct. Neo-pagans utilize extant manuscripts as well as oral traditions and archaeological artifacts to pull together a contemporary version of these ancient faiths. Pagan artists and sculptors have sought to recreate some of the sacred symbols that have been largely lost to history.

Neo-paganism has often been mistakenly identified with “New Age” spiritual practices such as channeling, astral projection, and other esoteric occult beliefs. While there is some overlap in the use of sacred gems, ritual, and prayer, pagans are quick to identify themselves with an authentic historical religious tradition. Modern pagans see their faith as benevolent and devoted to personal renewal and public service, not something that sets them apart through science fiction, commercial popularity, or self-destructive behavior. They do not take their beliefs lightly and are diligent in correcting mainstream presumptions to do so.

In 1972, the Icelandic farmer and poet Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson (1924-1993) formed the Germanic heathen organization Asatruarfelagio (the Asatru Fellowship), which was recognized as a formal religious body by the government of Iceland the following year and now boasts more than 4,000 members. In Britain, the Odinic Rite gained legal status in 1988 as a “registered religious charity.” Other animist and druidic organizations have grown in membership and are now recognized by many governments as legitimate religious groups. Up to two million people worldwide consider themselves practitioners of European neo-pagan traditions today, and popular interest in their movement is growing.

Several countries today still consider “witchcraft” a capital crime, and prejudice and discrimination against pagans remains widespread around the world. The terms “heathen” and “pagan” are still associated by many with savagery and barbarism. Modern pagans are committed to braving these obstacles and forging forward with their belief in the all-powerful Goddess who created and nurtures the natural world. They are among the forefront of contemporary people of faith who see their tradition as a relevant remedy to the social, economic, and environmental injustices that threaten the world today.


  1. Why are witches portrayed as evil or negative in popular media such as television, film, theater, and costuming?
  2. How did the Celtic new year celebration of Samhain’s Eve (October 31) morph into today’s commercial Halloween holiday?
  3. How can modern pagan movements gain the same social and legal status as the other major world religions?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Presidents Day Weekend

“President Lincoln reviewing Pennsylvania troops” by Torin Finney. Copyright (c) 2004. All rights reserved.

President Abraham Lincoln turns 210 years old today. The sketch above is one I drew in character as Harper’s Weekly Special Artist Correspondent James Allen Davis at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in July of 2004. I was invited to come out from California to represent the “period press” at the Museum’s annual Civil War Days event.

I spent part of my childhood in Lancaster and visited nearby Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other historic sites as a kid. It was a real treat to go back decades later in period costume and participate in a living history event at an authentic restored 19th century town near where I grew up. If you are ever in that part of the country, a visit to Lancaster and the Museum is well worth your time.

President George Washington’s birthday is coming up on February 22, so the national Presidents Day holiday will be observed this coming Monday, February 18th. Whether you have three or four days off this weekend, enjoy your time off and reflect on the legacy of your favorite President(s). Think about how you can best participate in public life. You can make a difference in your community.

Have a great holiday weekend!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

World Religions Topic 13 Summary: Indigenous Traditions

People have sought to understand the origins and nature of the world in which they live since the beginning of human culture and society. As the prehistoric cave drawings and carvings in wood and stone found everywhere from northern Europe and the Great Plains of America to the Australian outback and the jungles of Brazil, Borneo, and Cameroon attest, the need to give expression and meaning to the human experience has always been universal. Out of this need arose early religions. Once dismissed by Christian and other missionaries as “heathen” or “savage,” such ancient tribal cosmologies are now identified and studied by scientists and theologians as indigenous religious traditions.

Some 300 million people across the world today still practice some form of these ancient traditions. In the Arctic region, the Sami of northern Scandinavia and the Eskimo and Aleut peoples of Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada keep their traditional religious practices alive. Many Native American tribes throughout the western hemisphere do the same, as do the aboriginal cultures of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Maoris, Hawaiians, Tahitians, and other Polynesian cultures preserve traditional beliefs through song, dance, story, and ritual.

In sub-Saharan Africa, ancient religious rites of passage and dance rituals are performed by hundreds of historic cultures, from the Igbo and Ashanti in the west to the Masai in the east and the Zulu in the south. Many Asian peoples still retain traditional beliefs, particularly in rural areas of China, Korea, and Mongolia and in the Ainu communities of Japan. Multi-generational commitment to ancestral beliefs and rituals can be found among the Indonesian and Malaysian cultures in Borneo and Sumatra and remote communities in the Philippines. All across the globe, indigenous religious traditions continue and flourish.

All have several elements in common. The dichotomy between heaven and hell that motivates much of western theology is absent; rather, a multi-level cosmology informs much of indigenous belief. The spirit world is believed to co-exist with the material world and can be accessed through the intercession of a shaman, once called “medicine man” in earlier times. Shamanic practices vary according to locale and culture, but most involve prayers, chants, and trances designed to drive off evil spirits and invoke the aid of benevolent deities and ancestors.

Sometimes trances are induced with the use of natural hallucinogens or fermented potions, but more often than not the shaman connects with the other world through fasting, prayer, and prolonged isolation in nature. This is related to the tradition of the “vision quest” that is part of many indigenous cultures and is used not only for religious guidance but also as a rite of passage to adulthood. Another element of shamanic ritual is the use of totems, or physical objects created to act as talismans in gathering spiritual power. The majestic totem poles of the Haida and Salish tribes in the Pacific Northwest are prominent examples, but a simple stone, piece of wood, or animal artifact may suffice if gathered and prepared in the proper ritualistic manner.

The role of ancestral spirits is vital to most indigenous religions. Those who have gone before serve as inspirations and guides to the living. Their aid is invoked both in times of crisis and celebration. While the western belief in resurrection or eastern idea of reincarnation are not strictly followed, many tribal traditions believe that the spirit of the ancestors may be reborn in the lives of descendants who are faithful to culture and family. Ancestral totems and talismans are often worn by direct descendants and adopted children as well as by the shaman or chief.

Many tribal religious traditions are polytheistic, but others worship a single or all-powerful deity, such as Wakan Tanka in the Lakota culture, Ha-wen-ne-yu among the Iroquois, and Akongo in west Africa. Sometimes this supreme God is represented by an important animal or geographic landmark. The sun, moon, and stars are often associated with the power of the divine. Astrology and divination are frequently used tools to discern the will of the Creator manifest in the natural world. Much like kami in Shinto or ruach in the Hebrew Bible, indigenous traditions acknowledge a “Great Spirit” that infuses all living things.

Traditional music, dance, and visual art have been employed for centuries to invoke the assistance of spirits and ancestors to bless agricultural harvest, marriage and childbirth, and ease the passage of the departed. Exploration of faraway lands and inter-tribal conflict were accompanied by religious ritual. Oral history traditions kept cultural identities alive. Storytellers such as the griot in west Africa and the Kurdish dengbej are held in high regard. Traditional medicine based in herbs and essential oils is widely practiced to this day. Faith healers such as the curandera in northern Mexico are universally respected.

All indigenous traditions are sustained by an elaborate cosmology based in a central creation myth, and many across the globe are remarkably similar to one another. The alcheringa or “Dream Time” of the Aranda and other Aboriginal tribes of Australia has much in common with the creation stories of native peoples of North America and central Africa. Belief in the regenerative power of the creation is expressed in both art and ritual. The power of the shaman is believed to originate with the ancestral spirits who date back to the beginning of time and continue to create new life in the present.

The role of animals is very important, both as totems and as spirit guides. Ancient cultures survived on the meat, bones, and hides of the large herds and saw this bounty as evidence of a benevolent Creator who demanded devotion and sacrifice. This often involved the first fruits of the harvest in crops and livestock. Modern practitioners of indigenous religion still retain the belief in the power of spirit animals and draw on their power through prayer, ritual, wardrobe, and home decor. Sacred herbs and stones are equally revered and included in daily life.

Arriving with armed mariners and soldiers in the age of exploration, western missionaries worked assiduously to stamp out indigenous beliefs and replace them with their own doctrines and practices. In this they were only partially successful. The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Vodou in Haiti, and Santeria in Cuba all bear witness to western monotheism synthesized with indigenous beliefs, as do holy wells and stone circles in Ireland and Scotland and sacred forests and rock churches in west and east Africa. Many of the most enduring religious beliefs in nominally Christian or Muslim countries predate those faiths by thousands of years.

The children of indigenous tribes were systematically taken from their families and enrolled in western boarding schools in an effort to replace their cultures with modern western values and beliefs. The policy of American missionaries to “save the man, kill the Indian” when dealing with Native American children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a prominent tragic example. Patriarchal religious values were also superimposed on tribal cultures to obliterate the fertility based goddess worship that characterized many ancient cosmologies. The folk Madonnas of modern Catholic imagery in Latin America and Africa clearly speak to an earlier, more ancient understanding of the maternal nature of creation.

Contemporary generations of ancient tribal cultures have renewed their efforts to recover their religious traditions in an increasingly impersonal, secular, and technology-oriented society. Many others from outside those cultures have taken a keen interest in the power of their rituals and beliefs and incorporated traditional song, rhythm, instrumentation, and dance into modern world music. Political and economic reforms have sought to correct some of the injustices of the past. The election of public officials from tribal communities has called attention to many cultural issues that have long been sidelined.

Scholarly attention on indigenous religions has increased in both volume of work and the cultural sensitivity with which that work is pursued. While persecution and discrimination continue against indigenous peoples across the globe, many people of conscience from all faiths are taking a new look at the rich religious traditions of these ancient cultures. With alarming environmental crises plaguing the planet and many people searching for meaningful connections to the past and one another, the rich traditions of indigenous cultures may offer effective solutions to some of the 21st century’s most pressing problems.


  1. Do you feel a connection to any indigenous religious traditions in your own ancestry? If not, how and from whom could you learn about them?
  2. The word “religion” comes from the Latin verb religare, “to bind together.” Many anthropologists have identified remarkable commonalities among ancient indigenous religions, in contrast to the bitter divisions between some contemporary religious groups. Why has religion failed to bring people together in modern times?
  3. How can a person retain their traditional culture in today’s digital, commercial society?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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