Shining a light on those who prey

Special to the Los Angeles Times

God’s Lunatics

Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man’s Eternal Search for the Divine

Michael Largo

HarperCollins: 480 pp., $16.99 paper

Sometimes the best place to hide something is out in the open. Michael Largo chose to veil his wry polemic against the excesses of religious dogma and superstition in the form of an alphabetized reference book. In this deceptively benign format, even something with a title like “God’s Lunatics” — hardly a coy understatement — can come across more measured and nuanced, than, say, one of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens’ slash-and-burn screeds against faith, which can strike even nonbelievers as unnecessarily offensive to those who do believe.

In Largo’s hands, the origins and customs of the world’s great religions are purposefully given equal time alongside tales of lecherous popes, greedy gurus and apocalyptic cult leaders. With example after example of often stunning religious lunacy, Largo marshals a powerful and difficult argument to refute, namely, that religion has done far more harm than good for mankind. By the time readers have traveled from entries on the afterlife and the Akashic record to those on the Westboro Baptist Church and the Salem witch trials, Largo’s exhaustive examples of religion’s excesses will leave them, well, exhausted.

Among the head-scratching notions found in “God’s Lunatics” is the fact that 59% of Americans believe that the events described in the biblical book of Revelation will actually come to pass. The extraterrestrial aspects of not only Scientology but Islam are discussed (each day, Largo writes, more than a billion people pray in the direction of Mecca, not because it is the birthplace of Islam but because of the Black Stone, a meteorite sitting in the Kaaba). Levitating ascetic St. Thomas Aquinas and the virgin martyr St. Agatha — normally depicted carrying her breasts on a platter — compete for space against decidedly less saintly types such as self-described Victorian-era “Antichrist” Aleister Crowley and the Robin Hood-esque Jesus Malverde, protector of those who would traffic in los drogas. (DEA agents know that the presence of a Malverde medallion or dashboard saint is usually a dead giveaway that narcotics are present.) In one entry, Largo details the staggering number of King David’s sexual conquests. ( Tiger Woods has nothing, I repeat, nothing, on the Jewish patriarch.)

Although the author doesn’t hesitate to employ coldly withering prose when describing religious con men and faking fakirs, his smartly written A-Z capsule entries allow readers to come to their own conclusions. Surprisingly, the author has a lingering affection for “seekers” — who he seems to think are born every minute. Despite his clear misgivings about organized religions and cults alike, Largo still harbors a grudging respect — even envy — for those who would spend their lives questing after religious ecstasy. There’s no shame in wanting to know why we exist and if there is a creator and what his or her master plan might be — but he’s markedly less generous with those who would claim to possess that creator’s secrets or dispense them.

Metzger is a writer and television producer who blogs at