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What Defines a Religion?

 In the wake of the Black Mass controversy that unfolded at Harvard over the weekend, it may be time to re-evaluate what we think the First Amendment means about religion in theory and in practice.

When issues of religious freedom are addressed in the news, we tend primarily to hear about majority religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. There is an undercurrent of popular opinion by which time and familiarity make these religions more acceptable than less familiar practices. Up until the past several years, I'm not even certain I would have included Islam in the list of what the US considers "accepted majority religions" - and an argument could be made that it is still treated (at least in my country) as if it were some spiritual whippersnapper trying to muscle in like an unruly child to sit at the table with the adults. Legitimacy in a religious practice is equated, in most peoples' minds, with tradition: the age and popular establishment of that faith.

Of course, this whole attitude breaks down when you realize that the majority of US citizens look upon Hinduism and Buddhism both as strange, fringe anomalies that are neither as valid nor as socially acceptable as monolithic Christianity. Never mind that both of these religious traditions are, in fact, older than Christianity.

How is this even possible? Ignorance of a faith seems to equate, at least in some peoples' minds, to that faith being new and, therefore, strange. That's hard even for me to wrap my brain around, and yet I've encountered the attitude again and again. Familiarity -- and along with that, popularity (within one's own cultural group) -- become the measurement for legitimacy.

When most Christians - who tend to view themselves as the prime religion of validity within the United States - are still struggling to wrap their heads around Buddhism, Hinduism (and, let's be honest - Islam) as valid religions, that leaves a huge number of other, equality valid traditions, out in the cold - from Sikhs to Pagans to our knee-jerk tradition of the week, Satanists.

And I can anticipate a response to that, because I've seen those responses written across my social media. Satanism isn't a religion. It can't be! It's all about being anti-religious, so surely that doesn't allow it to qualify under that hallowed First Amendment right -- does it?

On a theoretical or spiritual level, we could argue over what defines a religion for days. However, it's fairly simple to outline that definition in the grand US of A. So enamored of its forms and filing and making sure everyone is counted and in their place, the legal definition of a religion within the United States revolves around paperwork. You want a religion that allows you to worship the Disney Princesses as a modern pantheon of Goddesses? Get your hands on the appropriate paperwork and file it. If you submit the proper form, and it is accepted, your Disney Pantheon is a religious group, with all the rights and privileges there unto -- from tax exempt status to the protection of your right to practice your sincerely held beliefs mandated by the First Amendment.

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It sounds silly when I frame it around Disney Princesses, and yet, with the system we have in place, Disney-ism, if filed and recognized, would be just as legally valid a religion as Christianity, or Scientology, or LaVeyan Satanism, or The Universal Life Church. And in the end, whether we personally agree with the beliefs and practices of any of the religious groups listed above, if we are going to enact laws to protect the rights of one, those laws absolutely must protect the rights of all. If we truly want to support religious freedom in this country, we cannot allow the discourse to devolve to something from Orwell's Animal Farm, where, out of one side of our mouths, we proudly state, "All religions are created equal!" and then, out of the other side, we add, "But some are more equal than others!"

 

--M

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Raising Hell at Harvard

This blog is normally reserved for samples and snippets of my fiction, but today I have something else to share. My life is often stranger than any fiction I could possibly concoct, and that became abundantly clear the other day when I learned that a good friend I loaned several of my demonology books to back in college happens to be one of the people involved in a highly controversial rite being held by a student group at Harvard this coming Monday.

They're doing a Black Mass.

Here's the skinny:

A student group at Harvard will be performing a Black Mass on Monday. After the performance, there will be discussion about the spectacle and what it means in a country founded on -- among other liberties -- freedom of religion.

For those unaware of the ritual, a Black Mass is an intentional perversion of the traditional Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, taking the whole sacrament and turning it on its head. It is offensive to Christians and specifically to Catholics -- and to be frank, it was designed to be that way.

Although, during the European witch trials, there were plenty of allegations that the wild worshipers of Satan were engaged in Black Masses (along with other awful perfidies performed at secret orgies in the woods), the real performance of a ritual like a Black Mass often came down not to Devil worshipers but to Atheists and Rationalists who were seeking to mock the religious fervor of their Christian peers in a time when they felt the devout masses should know better.

Yes, I'm suggesting the Black Mass is an outgrowth of the Age of Reason -- a loud, flamboyant and somewhat mean-spirited reaction to religious fundamentalism. Given the atmosphere in the US today, it should not be surprising to see intellectuals going to such an extreme. In a country where we pride ourselves on our liberties -- freedom of religion being a major one -- we recently had a member of the Hindu clergy more or less shouted down by Christian extremists when he attempted to lead our Senate in prayer. Notably, he was invited to do this. That wasn't good enough for the folks whose notion of our country has skewed from the Land of the Free to One Nation Under God -- a God who, apparently, must always be theirs.

The Black Mass then -- and in a similar vein, the Satan statue that's going up in Oklahoma -- is an equal and opposite reaction to this frothing extremism. It is a conscious spectacle of satire in the spirit of mock religions like the Church of Bob or the Internet religion surrounding the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is also -- though the utility of this remains to be seen -- an intellectual exercise intended to make people think about what it means to allow anyone to worship however they please.

Civil liberties are at the heart of many of our hot button issues right now -- with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the thickest and nastiest parts of the arguments. The Black Mass at Harvard contains, by its radical satire of an accepted Christian rite, a powerful question in subtext: if freedom of religion means any religion (including no religion), where do we draw the line between one group's right to worship and the offended sensibilities of another, equally valid, group?

In a world that seems divided down the ranks of Christian, Muslim, and Jew -- while any people who fit into the "none of the above" category get caught in the crossfire, in a world where the science show Cosmos is threatened to be cut off the air in states that feel it should express, not science, but Creationist views, in a world where law-makers speak with horror about the possibility that Sharia law may creep into our legal system -- only to turn around and pass legislation blatantly based upon Biblical Christian values -- Harvard's Black Mass raises some damned good questions.

Where do we draw the line?

And perhaps it's an older question than we realize. It may surprise most of you, but Monday night's performance scheduled at Harvard hearkens back to the activities of at least one of our founding fathers. In his dealings with Dashwood's Hellfire Club, it is almost certain that Benjamin Franklin himself participated in mock masses inspired at least in part by that Age of Reason disdain for organized religion.

Something to think about -- and that's the whole point.

--M

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