Rules Are for Schmucks: Finally, A Religion I Like!

Maybe all the “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” carols have finally worn me down. Maybe I watched White Christmas and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular one too many times, causing something to snap. Maybe I killed one too many brain cells celebrating the solstice. Whatever the reason, after years of criticizing every religion that floats across my radar screen, sometimes rather harshly, I finally found one that I really, really like.

My new favorite religion was born in ancient Sumeria, with an important twist added in modern-day Iceland. It starts with a funny-sounding name: Zuism. According to Sumerian mythology, the big god is called Enlil, who got put out of heaven for raping the goddess Ninlil, who proceeded to bear Nanna, the god of the moon (not to be confused with Nana, the dog in Peter Pan). Modern-day Zuists have services where they sing ancient Sumerian poems about all this crap.

That’s not the part of Zuism that appeals to me, nor do I suspect it’s the most compelling spiritual draw for members of Iceland’s fastest-growing religion today. Zuism’s fundamental attraction is rooted in the fact that Icelanders are required by law to pay an annual “parish fee” to their government. The government then takes this money and divides it among Iceland’s forty-some officially recognized religions, in proportion to the number of members registered in each. These organizations then use this money for critically important spiritual purposes: primarily, for paying the salaries of the experts in each, who teach Icelanders the truth about the supernatural realm, in forty mutually exclusive varieties.

If you aren’t a registered member of any religion, you still have to pay the parish fee. Your money then goes to the benefit of all the other officially recognized religions, in proportion. The technical accounting term for this procedure, translated into English, is “ripped off.”

What makes Zuism different is that it takes the money it receives from the government as an officially recognized religion and then gives it back to each of its members. This allows individual Zuists to devote themselves to their gods and goddesses (or not) in their own chosen ways. I suspect there is a little processing shrinkage along the way, but the amounts refunded are not insignificant: the equivalent of about eighty US dollars per person, per year. Bless you, mighty Enlil!

The other feature that makes Zuism unique is that its principal aim is to destroy itself. Its website states that Zuism “will cease to exist when its objectives have been met.” These objectives include not just abolishing parish fees and other religion subsidies altogether, but dismantling the whole process of individuals registering their religion with the government in the first place. I’m not sure American Christian politicians would agree with that. Think what President Trump could do with a list of who America’s Muslims are. Think what President Cruz could do with a list of who America’s atheists are! Exciting, huh?

About 1 percent of Icelanders have now officially become Zuists, just within the past couple of months. That’s larger than the proportion of Americans who are Hindu, or Buddhist, or Seventh-Day Adventist like Ben Carson, or Muslim—and we know from the news how important those folks are. If the movement keeps growing, as it certainly will, its proportion will soon pass those of American Jews, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Iceland’s God industry suck-up politicians are already choking on their harrumphs, despite the fact that opinion polls show that a majority of Icelanders agree with the Zuist position on ending the parish fee system.

Can Zuism spread beyond Iceland? There are several other European countries with somewhat similar church tax regimes where it might possibly take hold. One leading candidate might be Italy, where 0.8 percent of tax payments must either go to one of eleven approved churches, or be transferred instead into the general revenues where it can be used to pay the salaries of Italy’s starving politicians. If Zuism could get itself added to that list of eleven, I think it could rise faster than a calzone.

Germany is less fertile ground, because Germans who decline to pay the church tax simply get to keep the money for themselves. As hundreds of thousands more Germans, especially Catholics, are choosing to do every year. The amounts involved here are staggering—over 5.3 billion US dollars each year for the past three years, enough to buy and sell Iceland several times over.

Now picture yourself as a German Catholic cardinal, making a cool $16,000 a month, sitting in your spanking new $186 million diocesan headquarters, and watching this implosion happen. After studying your portfolio, you briefly turn your attention toward theology. Would you be more inclined to support a strict biblical interpretation on issues like marriage, divorce, and sexuality, in line with two thousand rigorous years of Catholic tradition? Or would you be more tempted toward a merciful viewpoint of “Aah, let ‘em all in, so long as they keep paying the tax”?

By amazing coincidence, it just happens to be the German church that is pushing the hardest to liberalize Catholic practice on matters like allowing divorced Catholics to remain in good standing—so long as they keep paying the church tax. Of course, it would be unkind to suggest—or even to speculate—that anything other than the Holy Spirit is driving these considerations. And in this season of good cheer, devout Zuists like me don’t wish to be unkind.