What is Religion? Church of Body Modification leads to Suspension for Nose Ring Controversy

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N.C. teen Ariana Iacono has been suspended for wearing a nose ring to school. She’s fighting back, arguing that the nose ring is a fundamental part of her religious beliefs and practice, and that the school is violating the First Amendment right to practice freedom of religion as well as the school’s own dress code rules which stipulate exemption on religious grounds.

So what does she believe in? Is she a Hindu or Muslim? No – but if she was, the school would have no problem letting her express her religious beliefs. So what’s the problem? Ariana and her family are part of the Church of Body Modification – a small group which believes, basically, in the individual’s right to modify their body. Here is an excerpt from their statement of faith:

We assert and protect our rights to modify our bodies and to practice our rituals.

We believe our bodies belong only to ourselves and are a whole and integrated entity: mind, body, and soul. We maintain we have the right to alter them for spiritual and other reasons.

Affirmation of our living, breathing, physical beings is paramount to our self-identities and helps us define who we are. The Church of Body Modification promotes affirmation and growth of a more expansive perspective of our physical and spiritual being.

The result is a fascinatingly complex theoretical controversy, which I will explore in this article.

What is a Religion? And why does it deserve special treatment?

This is the root of the controversy: America is persisting in allowing any and all forms of religious expression. Any “Religion” gets a free pass to do whatever it is that they want to do, no questions asked. This is a First Amendment rule, which became necessary as America distinguished itself as a secular/non-religious government. In the face of religious pluralism and the very different religious practices brought over by the immigrants, America formed a ‘live and let live’ policy towards religion.

In more recent times, when dissension between religious groups and cultures and races reached peaks of animosity (9-11, etc), America’s policy of Religious Tolerance – overlooking Bush’s anti-white “Axis of Evil” – is championed as one of America’s greatest and most cherished traditions.

It has also, however, seen a great deal of issues that on the surface seem ludicrous, stemming from America’s rather liberal policy towards establishing new religions. For example, the guy who refused to take off his star wars mask and show his face at a checkout counter because he was a member of some Star Wars religion (sorry I’m not even going to take the time to look up the details.)

By embracing all forms of religious practice, America has made it all too easy to set up a club, group or organization of like-minded individuals as a RELIGION – a practice which leads down a slippery road and into such ‘controversies’ as wearing a nose-ring to school.

What is a religion? Obviously, this is the million dollar question. I’m tempted to say something like “A religious includes a traditional set of religious/spiritual beliefs and practices, deals with issues such as soul, death, afterlife, ethics, divinity or God, and has a corresponding set of rites/rituals that are performed in meetings of members.” I could add that members of these groups must actually believe that what they are doing is valid, true, and effective; they have ‘Faith’ in their religion.

Apparently, however, you no longer have to believe in any kind of God or divinity to make a religion or church. The Church of Body Modification calls itself “Non-theistic” – which means ‘no God’ although I’d bet they are extremely flexible on this issue and grant each member the freedom to worship who and what they choose. So a “Church” may or may not be spiritual. Faith or belief is also no longer a requirement: For example the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Church of Google, which are actually skeptical or atheist groups using sarcasm to mock traditional religions.

Anybody can think up anything and do the paperwork and become a religion. (In fact I’m thinking of creating the “Church of Holy Blasphemy” – which will make it my Constitutional First Amendment right to talk shit and ridicule other people’s religious beliefs, loudly, in public, in any way I deem fit.)

And so we reach the debate about a 14 year old girl who’s part of a Church that practices piercing as a spiritual ritual – if a Hindu or Muslim could get away with breaking school rules, why can’t she? What’s the difference?

Might makes Right?

On the one hand – NOTHING. The main difference between these religions, is that Hinduism or Islam are OLD and LARGE. They have an ancient book, filled with a lot of supernatural stories about godmen and demons, and a bunch of rules for ‘right’ living which are centuries outdated. They also have millions of practicing members. I can’t make the case that some religions are ‘more true’ – because they all depend on faith or belief in something or some way of living. At least the Church of Body Modification is a simple, intelligent, rational expression of a belief, and also a pretty inclusive and tolerant one – which is pretty cool.

On the other hand, I’m not willing to allow this organization the right of being called a religion for the following reasons:

1) They don’t believe in anything. Piercing, or the right to self modify, is a personal choice. They are basically about the right to do what they want to their own bodies; freedom of choice and expression, etc. Yes, they say that the point of modification is to learn, grow, perhaps become more spiritual, yada yada… but it seems actually members could fundamentally disagree on central spiritual tenets, such as God, Afterlife, Ethics, etc. I don’t believe ‘piercing’ in itself is an essential part of any religious tradition, and so it should easily be discarded when it leads to controversy.

2) They have no stories or history. A religion should have the ability to inspire a person to become a better person; as such it should have a body of mythological / fictional literature which can be read, shared, thought upon in times of doubt, and which can provide answers to difficult questions.

3) It makes too much sense. Piercing is a rite, not a religion. The right to freedom of expression is an opinion, not a tenet of faith. Religion means believing in something ridiculous despite the fact that it can’t be true, and believing it together with a lot of people. If it’s simple, obvious, clearly worthwhile, and can be argued efficiently and logically – it can’t be a religion.

My personal conclusion? Should Ariana Iacono be allowed to wear a nose ring because it’s her religion? NO! But – neither should a Muslim or Hindu girl. Due to the First Amendment, a State-run, public school must ensure freedom of religion. I think this is just crazy. Either have absolutely no dress code at all and let students wear what they want, or have a very strict dress code that everyone must follow – religion be damned.

If the point is equality and tolerance, you need a level playing field: which means, the cost of ‘religious tolerance’ and being left alone to do what you want IS that when you join a public, government run organization or school, you relinquish a few of those rights, for the time being. Why doesn’t this make sense to other people???

Let’s pretend I’m a witch, and I like to make bonfires and boil cats and dogs in my home. I do this everyday and I enjoy the smell. But I have to go to school to learn to become a dentist to pay the bills. Why the Hell should I have the right to light my cauldron and boil dogs and cats at school, on government property? Why can’t I wait till I get home? What’s the point in doing it publicly anyway? What if other people don’t like the smell of boiling cats and dogs?

Ok, ok, body modification is different because you can’t always hide tattoos and it sucks to take out a new piercing or put a bandaid over it. It’s only effecting your own body, yourself, why should the school care? I’d have to agree… but then add “if piercings for those card-toting members of religion, then piercings for everybody.”

After all, if Christians can wear silver crosses (to fend off the werewolves, of course), and some jewelry is OK – where do we cross the line? 2 Earrings is OK but 6 is not? You can put a hole in your ear but not your nose? Who makes up these silly rules?

Obviously, it’s a difficult and fascinating subject. What do you think?

Is the Church of Body Modification a “Real Church”?

Should teenagers be exempt from school dress codes if practicing their Religion?

(See the original story HERE).