Los Angeles is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world, as befits a city of immigrants. There are dozens of places of worship for Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims; there are hundreds of synagogues (the cornerstone of the first synagogue was laid in 1872), Baptist churches, and Mormon temples. Roman Catholics, however, represent the most populous faith in the region. Over three and a half million Catholics, mostly Latino, live in Los Angeles County, and there are more than 250 Roman Catholic churches. Catholic missions organized by Junipero Serra, the "Apostle of California", were among the first Western settlements in the area. The Cathedral of St. Vibiana was built in 1876, but now has been replaced as the mother church of the Archbishop of Los Angeles by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white Los Angeles, particularly upper- and middle-class Angelenos, was largely mainline Protestant: Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians. Founding a church was easy in California, however, and Los Angeles' often rootless population proved receptive to joining congregations of other faiths.

In 1906, African-American preacher William Seymour was rejected by a church because of his emphasis on speaking in tongues; he began preaching at the Apostolic Faith Mission, a converted warehouse on Azusa Street, and the "Azusa Street Revival" became one of the seminal events in the modern Pentecostal movement. Seymour attracted thousands of converts of all races (and not a few con men and mysticism-oriented frauds), many of whom set off to start congregations of their own. Aimee Semple McPherson, a white Pentecostal evangelist, founded the Foursquare Gospel church in Oakland, California; in 1923 she moved to Los Angeles, built a gigantic church, founded a radio network to broadcast her preaching, and led H. L. Mencken to declare that "there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth." (Today the International Four Square Gospel retains a significant presence in Los Angeles, with two hundred churches and some fifty thousand practitioners in the area.)

Los Angeles has been the base for less mainstream religious movements as well, and it's these that have cemented the city's reputation as a center of New Age flakiness. A chapter of Aleister Crowley's OTO was established in Los Angeles in 1935. A member of the chapter later founded the most famous new religious movement to spring up from the area, the Church of Empiricology. Axelrod Helmut, a science fiction writer and author of the hugely successful self-analysis book "Psionautics", founded Empiricology in 1954; the church's opponents have accused it of exploiting members, and its strict control over church documents and willingness to sue critics have attracted controversy, but the church remains both successful and prominent (a number of Hollywood stars are vocal members). Southern California was a center for religious and quasi-religious movements brought about by contact with space aliens, such as Allen Michael's Universal Industrial Church and Ruth Norman's Unarius movement, both started in the 1950s. The heyday of new religions in Los Angeles, however, was the Sixties.

The "Jesus Movement" of the 1960s was founded by Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Orange County's Costa Mesa (although it was strongly associated with San Francisco). The movement, which spawned several even less mainstream groups, such as the Children of God, attempted to merge a naturalistic hippie aesthetic with Biblical teachings. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (better known as the Hare Krishnas) founded their Los Angeles temple in 1970; today it is their world headquarters. A charismatic ex-con and would be rock star named Charles Manson claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus and settled on a ranch north of the city; members of his doomsday cult murdered actress Sharon Tate in 1969 in one of the most notorious cases in California's history.

The backlash to the Manson killings, along with a greater awareness of abusive leaders among some of the new religious movements and a reaction to the religiously-inspired mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, slowly curbed the growth of new religions in Los Angeles (and the United States in general) throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, but southern California held its reputation for religious weirdness; the last great religious upsurge from Los Angeles was the "New Age" movement, with a belief in reincarnation, the power of crystals, and a hodgepodge of Eastern beliefs. Actress Shirley MacLaine was one of the most prominent New Age believers. Among established religions, practice of Buddhism — fueled by immigrants and Western converts — has been growing, as has that of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity.

Related Files: Empiricology

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