Friends often tell me that I should start a new religion. After all, modern day religious practice is generally a matter of “shopping around” until you find a brand you like. Lifetimes go into shaping religious sensibilities and outlooks, and when we see something we like, we choose that as our spiritual refuge. I was reminded of this once again by a story in Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger about a girl who’s been suspended from school for following her religion. Her North Carolina school has a dress code forbidding certain body piercings, but the girl belongs to the Church of Body Modification. The girl’s mother makes a valid point (in the words of the Associated Press article by Tom Breen): “school officials are setting themselves up as judges of what constitutes a ‘real’ religion.”
Religion may be defined in many different ways. Today many people consider religion a belief system that requires a strong faith commitment; belief is primary in such a definition. On the other hand, today’s world still includes many people who are born into a religion that is essentially a system of rituals or practices rather than a belief structure. It could be argued that such people do their rituals and practices precisely because they believe them, but often belief is not even discussed. It is simply a matter of who they are.
If religion entails solely a belief system, then any number of philosophies and outlooks might be defined as religious. Governments would need to be liberal with their tax-exempt status coupon books, since should I declare that my predilection for things Ugaritic to be a religion, who could reasonably protest? With a couple of like-minded adherents, we would have created a new religion (or a very old religion, depending on how you look at it).
Religious freedom defines the United States. For all its faults and foibles, this nation has allowed freedom of conscience to be the yardstick by which we are measured. If the girl’s religion insists on a nose-ring, who is local government to dispute this? If we could learn to define what a religion is, perhaps we would be much further along the path of ensuring true religious liberty.