Pondering the late unlamented election debate about the niqab, I took to wondering just what a religion is. Not the dictionary definition or what theologians say it is, but how it is practiced by its followers.
Take Christianity, for example, the religion that has surrounded me all my life. As someone who has no religion, a mere observer of things religious, I might think Christianity should simply be following the teachings of Jesus Christ. But it ain't that easy. In quite significant ways, Christians reject the teachings of Christ, even making that rejection part of their dogma.
Consider Christ's teaching about how one treats one's enemies. In Luke 6:27-8, He says, "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." In Mathew 5:38-9, He says, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." He is quite clear on this point and obviously considers it of great importance—he offers the message twice.
But how many Christians do you know who will turn the other cheek? Any? Americans are perhaps the most religious people in the West, yet they are almost constantly at war, punishing their enemies. No cheek-turning there. The Catholic Church even has a doctrine, the Just War Doctrine, which spells out the conditions that allow Christians to kill their enemies.
Or consider the wealth issue. In Mathew 19:24, Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That's pretty clear, too. But how many Christians do you know who don't want to be rich? The Catholic Church has struggled with this at times, nonetheless, rarely turns down a fat donation from a rich man and has acquired quite a hoard itself. Some denominations view getting rich as not only acceptable but as a religious calling, extolling wealth as an outcome of faith. Prosperity theology claims that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians.
These conflicts between religious practice and the teachings of the prophets occur in all religions—Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever.
So what than is a religion? Apparently it is what the members of a religion, or a denomination, say it is, no more, no less. If what they say agrees with the teaching of their prophet, so much the better, if not, so much for the prophet. There is no ultimate arbiter. Believers think there is, but He seems to have little to say about such conflicts, commonly leaving the disparate parties to literally fight it out.
This brings me back to the niqab. Many critics of niqab-wearing claim that most imams and Muslim scholars teach that wearing the face covering is not required by Islam. Actually, that isn't true. Muslim scholars, depending on the denomination, differ on the issue. Some say it is obligatory, some say it isn't, while others say it is not obligatory but desirable.
But what the scholars say is irrelevant. If a recognized body of Muslims believe, regardless of what most Islamic scholars profess, that wearing the niqab is essential to their faith then it is essential for them. It is a legitimate religious observance. Therefore wearing the niqab at a citizenship ceremony is deserving of protection under the constitution, as long as the wearers are prepared to uncover and take the oath in private (as indeed they are). This the new government quite properly recognizes.
As for Christ, if he were to return to Earth today, would he be comfortable as a member of a Christian Church? Even if He could choose one, I suspect not, considering the cavalier way his teachings are treated. He might feel it was necessary to start all over again with a new church. We might call it Jesusism. And, of course, eventually it would be whatever Jesusists said it was.