You Are Not a Religion

A fine little essay on the silliness of the American cult of the individual and self-concocted religions.

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  • kenneth

    For what it’s worth, we went over this case recently in the pagan forums, Wild Hunt if memory serves, and most of us agreed that commercial fortunetelling is not a religion under the Constitution’s construction of that idea for First Amendment purposes.

    Not because its too flaky or New Agey for the tastes of Christian conservatives, but because it just doesn’t even attempt to do the sorts of things religions do. Our government is not allowed to judge the relative merits of a group’s theology, but it has to have a distinct theology if it is to be treated as a religion for IRS purposes and for the sorts of freedom of religion protections that place additional burdens on governments seeking to zone or otherwise regulate religious groups.

    You have to have something consistent to say about ultimate questions of existence, death, life after death (or not), the existence of supreme beings (or not) and their possible nature and relationship to humanity. You also have to have some sort of rituals or services and teaching of whatever doctrines you may have and some system for ordaining and training clergy, if your system has such a thing.

    Tarot reading is seen as a tool of spiritual growth by many people, but it has never been a stand-alone religion nor a unique component to any one religious system. This fortune teller stretched First Amendment theory a bit too far to try to dodge some commercial regulations.

    I’m not entirely unsympathetic to her plight. While there are legitimate regulatory concerns about fraud and a sort of blackmail, many officials in Bible Belt or other areas have used that cover to try to enforce their own religious convictions against fortune telling. Among their cute tricks are the imposition of absurdly high fees and taxes and zoning measures to confine them to “adult entertainment” zones in the middle of some horrid industrial park.

  • Jessica

    Hi Mark – this touches on something I’ve intuited before…

    We do expect there to be some level of conscience protection in our country, which, as we know, does not always coincide with the religion one professes.

    So how is the government to sort out the difference between a conscience protection and a religious protection?

  • Rosemarie


    I wonder whether this could cause problems for some people who object to vaccination? Some states, like NY, only allow a religious objection, not a philosophical one. So a NYS resident can only get a religious exemption if his objection is truly religious in nature, not a mere secular philosophy. IIRC, a past court case ruled that one need not be a member of a particular organized religion (say, Christian Science) to get a religious exemption. As long as one has personal religious conviction against vaccination, that is supposed to be sufficient.

    (In practice, this generally leads to “sincerity testing” by local school districts, in which parents who say they don’t believe in vaccination are subjected by school officials to an inquiry, in which they are grilled on their religious beliefs and asked tricky questions to try to ascertain the “sincerity” of their religious opposition to vaccination. I’m struggling right now not to compare that to an “inquisition,” so I’ll just say that such religious inquiries by employees of government schools do seem to violate the principle of “separation of Church and State.” But I digress….)

    Anyway, a ruling like this might set a precedent that could limit some people’s ability to object to vaccination. If not permitted a philosophical exemption, they may find it harder to assert a personal religious conviction apart from an organized religion. And lest you think that’s just a problem for tofu-sucking New Agers or other weirdos outside the tribe, let me point out that it could become a problem for Catholics as well. Some vaccines are developed using stem cell lines from aborted fetuses, and some pro-lifers desire an exemption from those at least, even if they don’t object to immunization in general. However, the Catholic Church does not officially reject vaccination as some religions do, which complicates a pro-life Catholic’s effort to make a case for religious exemption from some vaccines. He may have to argue more on the basis of personal religious convictions rather than the concrete teachings of his Faith. I really hope I’m wrong about that.

    • kenneth

      As one of the weirdos outside the tribe (albeit one who can barely tolerate tofu), and one who’s sick enough to enjoy reading case law, I don’t suspect this ruling will have far-reaching implications for vaccine exemption. It really had to do with determining the line between commercial activity and what constitutes a “church.”

      • Rosemarie


        I hope you’re right since, like I said, I hope I’m wrong.

        Incidentally, I didn’t mean statements like “tofu-sucking New Agers” or “other weirdos outside the tribe” as personal insults of people, well, outside the tribe. I was speaking to a mentality that some readers might have, though I hope they don’t, that infringement of rights isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t directly affect me or people like me. So I was using hostile terms in that sense, not because I personally see all non-Catholics as “weirdos.” As for tofu, I actually eat quite a bit of it myself. Especially since the price of meat went up, my diet has become more vegetarian than it used to be and I’m even considering going completely vegetarian again. So I guess you can say I’m a ‘tofu-sucking Catholic.” :-)

        So yeah, I just wanted to correct something that I realized might have not come out right. If this weren’t the internet you might have caught the sarcastic intonation in my voice and realized that I didn’t intend those insults seriously, but words on a screen can’t express that much.