The Noodly Conundrum: States and Their Uneasy Reactions to Joke Religions

Posted on August 6, 2011

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Written for and first published by Global Affairs Magazine.

This month the Austrian police issued a driver’s license to a man named Niko Alm—completely ordinary save for the fact that in the license photo Alm wears a pasta strainer on the crown of his head. Alm earned the right to wear the culinary sieve in official state documentation, because, he argued, it is the official devotional headgear of the Pastafarians, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The satirical faith was first proclaimed and professed by Bobby Henderson in 2005 as a critical response to the Kansas State Board of Education’s debate over the place of creationist teachings in education. (Henderson argued that the earth was created by a cosmic being resembling spaghetti and meatballs, who created the world with “his noodly appendage” while very drunk, further stating this his view was as valid, provable, and deserving of class time as was creationism). It served as a platform for Alm to make a point about Austria’s decision to allow confessional headgear in government-issued photos. Being a joke religion, the Alm incident was duly covered by media in jocular fashion, with the occasional nod to debates over the lines of allowance drawn out for religious observance in secular states.

But beneath – and mostly ignored – are serious questions about Alm, Pastafarians, and a growing host of “believers” of new, joke, and anti-religions, and beyond them about all who ascribe to idiosyncratic/spiritualist beliefs. One is how secular states ought to define and delineate faith. There is also commentary over how states ought to protect and at the same time limit the rights of the faithful, and how they should figure out when to make or withdraw allowances for faith.

States and faiths: a tangled history

Religion is a tough subject for governments to tackle, and fittingly the language surrounding it is vague. The simplistic view is to summon the separation between church and state as the ideal for secular governments. But even this has a tangled history – not in the least for its varied interpretations. Indeed, given a government’s need for social order and the varying level of control modern states exert over personal life, secret passageways likely undermine any wall between spiritual and state institutions. Both meet at issues of personal liberties, taxes, minority rights and protections, and others that make governments strong, subtle actors within religion. The inclusion of a faith as a census answer, or its receipt of tax exempt status, or the provision for members of some faiths to forego military service during a draft in some nations (United States included) all lend unintentional legitimacy to some religions. Accepting contact and influence between states and faiths opens the debate as to what each institution’s responsibilities and challenges to the other are.

Still, there is at least some consensus in international law. In 2005 Professor Johan D. van der Vyver compiled a comprehensive survey for the Emory International Law Review of existing norms and accepted treaties governing the responsibilities of secular states towards religions. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to theDeclaration on the Rights of Persons Belong to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and echoed in national documents and court precedents in secular states, the agreement is that states have accepted a responsibility to protect religious associations and enable their practices and self-promotion, so long as religions do not engage in practices that contravene the laws of the secular state. But there are still two problems unresolved.

First is that government has the right to limit and criminalize certain religions. The United States government, for example, accepts and recognizes the organized Church of Satan, widely (yet most likely falsely) believed in the 1980s to be associated with child abuse and ritual murder. But in a bow to the government’s ability to criminalize a destructive faith, when members feel the need to return to the old, bloody ways of worship, the Satanic clergy turns them over to the authorities—in 2007, Andrew Culver e-mailed Satanic High Priest Peter Gilmore that he wanted to kill in the name of unholy Satan. Gilmore handed his e-mail over to the FBI. In another example, peyote, otherwise an illegal narcotic, is sanctioned for consumption in Southwestern Native American spiritual practices (in part an issue of sovereign Native lands).

In Kenya, provisions by its strongly moral Christian population are made to allow the depiction of naked children (otherwise child pornography) in instances where the display has clear religious value. The lines as to what does and does not constitute a clear threat to the national interest in religious practice—self-mortification, practices by and depictions of minors otherwise deemed unacceptable, the use of restricted substances—blur constantly and precedents clash readily. Indeed, when Catholics in the United States Southwest reenact the crucifixion verbatim, the government scratches its head.

Second is the matter of proving faith. This writer was once briefed about a case in which a Quaker called up for the draft during the Vietnam War requested he be excused from armed service so as not to interfere with his religious observance of pacifism. The military investigation in the case compiled a list of practices officially observed by Quakers, and when the man failed to prove that he adhered to all practices, he was denied his exemption and drafted. The laws for conscientious objection, since 1971, are actually quite broad—the Supreme Court declared that anyone with deeply held beliefs against violence could be exempted from military service. But whereas ritual makes it easy to point out an exempt a Quaker, the situation is much more difficult to prove faith for practitioners of modern—idiosyncratic, spiritualist, and, yes, even “joke”—faiths.

Who says a joke religion is a fake religion?

Even modern scholarship on religion often likes to think of it as something most often highly ordered, with rituals, conversion practices, common texts, etc. But in truth, even back in ye olde days, the vast majority of individuals practiced individualized and hybridized faiths—Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith provides some interesting examples of the sprinklings of witchcraft, amulet usage, and lapsed orthodoxy in early American Puritans and other sects. (My favorite example is the Bellarmine Jar, a clay pot made in the image of a Catholic priest, filled with urine, and then buried under the doorframes of early Protestant American homesteads in a ritualistic display of Christian faith.) In a personal sense, it is hard to deny the belief and honest belief of idiosyncratic practitioners of a faith—even a spiritualist belief that has no set name. But in the legal sense necessary for the state to protect certain rights and practices of religions, the youngest and smallest have a devil of a time.

And here it all comes back to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendage. Alm appears like a lark due to news coverage that focuses on its goofball antics. Left unmentioned, however, was that Alm’s quest to wear a pasta strainer on his head took three years and a mental health test to complete. His Pastafarians are likewise serious about the joke. The loyal followers revere pirates, celebrate the holidays Pastover, Ramendan, and Holiday, and have even compiled a Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The movement’s website lists meetings of adherents and even offers to sell certification of ordination as a priest of the church.

This has been going since before the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In 2001, 390,000 Englishman and Welshmen, 70,000 Australians, 53,000 New Zealanders, 21,000 Canadians, and 14,000 Scotts officially declared themselves Jedi on their census forms. The movement led Conservative British Member of Parliament Dominic Grieve to seriously debate whether or not Jedi should be explicitly excluded from the UK’s Religious Hatred Bill—a bill codifying the UK’s commitment to protect religious rights and practices. Other notable jest faiths include The Church of the SubGenius, which exults the sacredness of slacking off, and few Gaia numbers that deify the environmental movement.

Scholars, faithful, and writers scoff at these jest faiths as a jokes de on whims by like-minded atheists for temporary communion. But a few religious scholars have started to pay heed to the trend. Professor Carole M. Cussack of the University of Sydney, Australia, has referred to these new faiths as “late/post-modern religious forms, including the use of fiction as part of a bricolage for spirituality, identity-formation, and personal orientation.”  And three religious scholars who formed a panel (poorly attended) on Pastafarianism at the American Academy of Religions 2007 conference in San Diego referred to the servants of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and practitioners of similar faiths as developing “open source theology.”

Extending equal protection to burgeoning faiths

Alm has set a precedent for the acceptance of faiths of any stripe, even the most comical. Yet his three-year slog and the skepticism of government, media, and the general population demonstrate how difficult it is for states to accommodate and provide equal consideration for and protection to new and idiosyncratic/spiritualist faiths, to “open source theology” and “late/post-modern religious forms,” as well as to organized and established faiths.

Consider, in this light, Scientology. The young faith received tax-exempt status in 1954, but had it revoked in 1967 when the Internal Revenue Service and other governmental institutions gained evidence that the Church appeared to be a commercial venture meant purely to benefit founder and science fiction writer L. Rond Hubbard. Yet in 1993 the Scientologists regained their tax-exempt status. A 1997 report in the New York Times by Douglas Frantz revealed that the organization, widely alleged, among other gross acts, to beat members and force abortions, regained its tax-exempt status through a prolonged campaign of intimidation. Over 25 years, Scientologists sought to discredit IRS officials through costly lawsuits and whistle-blowers. The result was a bypassing of protocol to grant legitimacy to a religious organization that, though not with absolute certainty, seems to commit practices that contravene national law.

Stated bluntly, the state has provided a level of legitimacy and protection to Scientology as a large, organized and wealthy faith that it cannot provide to Pastafarians and idiosyncratic believers/spiritualists. Granted, spiritualists do not require tax-exempt status and often do not hold beliefs that would require special treatment from the government. But the case of Alm and a number of precedents relating to pacifism and similar personal convictions demonstrate the extreme difficulty of procuring equal treatment and consideration compared to that a Scientologist might receive.

In the days described by Jon Butler, it was easy enough for heterogeneous Christians in the woods of Massachusetts in the 17th century to consult their cunning men and bury their Bellarmine Jars, and to receive some local equality simply because there was enough isolation from other faiths and from the constant touch of government to make it feasible.

But modern governments can reach into most every facet of our lives and in the process can limit religions, while demanding much of us personally. Even if nations are duty-bound to protect and consider the convictions of individuals, it is almost impossible to think that a spiritualist who holds a personal dogma, or even anti-dogma, in equal esteem to the Bible in another’s life will be as able to seek consideration for his beliefs as a member of an organized religion. One must ask, then, whether or not modern states are capable of carrying out their self-assigned mandates of protecting equally all faiths. Or will modern religion, even the satirical, but still heartfelt, (often just extensions of ancient trends) be crushed under the dual weights and momentums of modern states and organized faiths.

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