For those who don’t know, I’ve spent this semester working as a TA for an undergraduate course in American religious history. The professor has been gracious enough to allow me to lecture on occasion, and today was one of those times. We spent last week talking about new trends in religion in the US, with the class reaching the conclusion that it was difficult to say what was and wasn’t a religion. In the back of my head during that class, I was thinking about an episode of a tv show I had seen a few weeks before, but I figured I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. But, thanks to an unforeseen problem with the syllabus and a learning module that had failed to upload to the Blackboard site, we found ourselves needing new material. So, that’s how I came to spend this afternoon giving a lecture based on a cartoon and a renowned sociologist. Here’s what that looked like.
The episode I wanted to talk about was “Aquaticism,” Season 7, Episode 14. The short version: Tina, Gene, and Louise attempt to save an aquarium from going out of business by trying to convince the IRS that it’s actually home to a religion: Aquaticism. When the IRS agent (Agent Flanley) comes to visit, the aquarium’s owner (Judy) has to prove that this Aquaticism is a legitimate religion deserving of tax-exempt status. They throw together literature, the kids pose as the “youth group,” and they hold a singles’ mixer as an example of the events Aquaticism offers its members.
The best part of all this? It works. Flanley not only buys the scheme, he actually just buys into Aquaticism. At one point, Tina offers something of a homily on the “touch tank” and the sea cucumbers: “You know why sea cucumbers are great? Because they eat the stuff that no one else in the ocean wants, and what they poop out is cleaner than what they take in. So basically these ugly/beautiful creatures just go along constantly making things better than when they found it.” Flanley is moved at this point to describe Aquaticism as “beautiful,” “thoughtful,” and “answering questions I didn’t even know I had.” Even though this was constructed as a joke, he still found something he had been looking for, and for him, it was a real thing, at least for a bit. The end of the episode is the kids telling him that baptism is immersion in the jellyfish tank, which doesn’t go well. He decides that he might have actually been interested in Aquaticism because of romantic interest in Judy, but there was still a moment of genuine buy-in for what Aquaticism had to offer.
And here’s where Clifford Geertz comes in. Geertz argued that religious rituals and symbols actually mediate a particular worldview. Participation in religion generates the reality of that religion, at least for the participants. In the episode of Bob’s Burgers, we, as the audience, are aware that Aquaticism is a construction. It’s not real, it’s just an attempt at tax evasion. But Flanley, unaware of this fact, sees only the practices and symbols, the outward performance of this made-up religion. For him, in those moments, it was tangibly real and moving. If you’re familiar with Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence, that also comes into play here. Flanley was very much picking up on the vibes of those around him and catching the religious fervor, in a sense. Can even a made-up religion hold value? It seemed to generate some sort of response from Flanley. Is it still a made-up religion at that point?
So, what does that mean? First of all, it means that we should be cognizant of the fact that religion is incredibly tricky to define. Religion is a flexible concept and moving target that changes over time. Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the foremost scholars of religious studies, and one of my favorites, once wrote about religion students citing James H. Leuba’s Psychology of the Study of Religion, a textbook which offered fifty different definitions for “religion.” His students claimed that the presence of fifty different definitions was proof that “the effort clearly to define religion…is a hopeless task.” Smith rebutted that, on the contrary, “the moral of Leuba is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways.” So, we face this difficulty in defining religion, and even practices which may seem foolish to us could be very real/sincerely held religious beliefs, if we are to take Geertz’s argument seriously. Even something like Aquaticism could be legitimate. But, even if you don’t think something made-up can be a religion, it’s also probably worth noting that just because something is constructed doesn’t render it inherently worthless. There are many constructs which have been imbued with deep meaning, and that meaning can be retained, even if we learn their origin.
As we start to revisit terms that were once taken for granted, like religion or secular, it’s going to be interesting to see how that changes the landscape in America, particularly in regard to religious freedom. One of the questions we asked the class today was, “Who gets to decide what is and isn’t religion?” We have the religion clause of the First Amendment because people like Thomas Jefferson envisioned a marketplace of ideas and beliefs with a seat for everyone at the table. But, how do we actually make that happen when the table keeps expanding in ways the Founders never envisioned? With ever-broadening concepts of what is and isn’t religion, who’s going to say whose First Amendment claim is and isn’t sincere? How can the government decide what fits and doesn’t? How would revisiting notions of religion change the way we look at the Dakota Access Pipeline? How about burqa bans?
I may have been talking about a cartoon, but it’s not really a joke. This is a legitimate and difficult conversation that society actually needs to try to engage in.