Amy Levin: Huffington Post Comedy recently ended a short and perhaps not-so-sweet competition called “Create Your Own Religion.” Though curiously lasting only three days, the call ushered in 906 submissions, including 113 (and counting) featured in a slideshow. The contest was open to anyone with enough free time to send in a catchy name, photo, and set of beliefs, rituals, and holidays – clearly, all a religion needs to survive.
The invitation is too good to paraphrase, so here it is:
You’ve got the long hair, the nice bushy beard, and lots of beliefs, but you don’t have the 2.2 billion adherents worldwide. Or perhaps you’re chubby and like to sit cross-legged, but no one is making statues of you. Or maybe you’re a mediocre sci-fi writer that wants people speaking your psuedoscience.
Well now you can be the next Jesus, the next Buddha, or even the next L. Ron Hubbard. Sign up now to create-your-own religion. You name it, write down the beliefs, rituals, and holidays. We will then post the best submissions on our site and allow you to compete for followers.
All religions had to start somewhere. There are 7 billion people out there who need something to believe, bring out your inner missionary and get converting!
According to those humored enough by stock religious figures to write this, religions are made up of three elements (not the trilogy you are thinking) and, of course, seek to proselytize. Their genesis occurs at the whim of an individual with enough social capital and good PR to win converts. However, scrutiny aside (for the moment) what did the modern prophets come up with?
Perusing the slide show, we find anything from “frisbeetology” to “The Temple of the Holy Mushroom” to “IDK,” the “new brand” of agnosticism. While some submissions were honorable missions like “Totrea,” to “worship and respect trees” and “Humanity,” the satirical tone of the guidelines didn’t bode well for humanistic idealists (but they’re lovable anyway). Indeed, the lucky first place winner was “The Holy MAC devotional congregation” (that’s holy macaroni), with second place “9th Order of the Eternal Pringles.” Both of which suggest another required element for a hot new religion: comfort food.
While we should probably take this all with a grain of salt, I find the subject matter is too provocative, and perhaps, too important. Is this an offensive mockery of ancient religious traditions, a stab at new religious movements (ahem, Scientology), or does it expose the delicate and abiding possibility of new social imaginings? Depending on who is answering, we may as well assume all three. However, based on this biblical flood of visionary creations, HuffPo is engaging in more than comedy.
In their coverage of the competition, CNN Belief Blog honed in on religion scholars’ ritualistic use of Robert Bellah’s “Sheilaism” for comparison. Bellah, a sociologist of religion, quotes a woman named Sheila Larson who describes her faith as “Sheilaism,” her own form of personal religion. Sheilaism is often used to describe the current New Age spiritual marketplace where individuals choose amongst a hodgepodge of traditions to create their personal utopian religion. Over the past few decades–even though scholars have adopted a more nuanced view of secularism–society continues to perceive religion as of the church (and missionaries) and not of the world. Religion, when highly qualified, continues to be viewed as individual and private, something which invokes the cryptic “spiritual but not religious” category.
If the create-your-own-religion competition is mediating the production of Sheilas (albeit with funnier names), then it serves to re-invoke the presumptuous idea that religion is individualistic, and that crafting our own faith is possible, and even ideal. Or, another possible thought: the abundant mockery of secular-sounding submissions like, “The Church of Baseball,” with rituals like “the Star-Spangled Banner before games” including the holidays, “Opening Day” and “The World Series” show us just how so-called secular and religious cultures mirror each other, as well as how ritualistic and communally oriented our society continues to become.
Recognizing such similarities and patterns may not have been the goal of the competition, but it provokes us to consider religion as more than church – maybe even food, art, or theater. One thing is for sure: while fraught with parody and performance, religions and their bedfellows (old and new) sure are creative.