The Flying Spaghetti Monster & The Struggle for Secularism
1. I’d really rather you didn’t act like a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou ass when describing my Noodly Goodness. If some people don’t believe in me, that’s okay. Really, I’m not that vain. Besides, this isn’t about them so don’t change the subject.
2. I’d really rather you didn’t use my existence as a means to oppress, subjugate, punish, eviscerate, and/or, you know, be mean to others. I don’t require sacrifices and purity is for drinking water, not people.1
Thus read the first two of the eight I really rather you didn’ts from the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). A parody on the ten commandments, the religion of Pastafarianism presents its teachings as suggestions rather than dogma. As founder and prophet of the church Bobby Henderson has proclaimed,
the only dogma allowed in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the rejection of dogma.2
Nevertheless, believers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster generally agree on a number of tenets. FSM is a complex carbohydrate entity best recognized by his noodly appendages. He is the only deity in Pastafarianism and is thought to have created everything in existence. Fortunately enough, FSM is a benevolent God; look only at the Heaven he has created for us – complete with beer volcano and stripper factory. Hell is not much different – except the beer is stale and the strippers have STDs.
The first Pastafarians are believed to have been pirates (the official attire of Pastafarians is full pirate gear). Far from the pillaging criminals they are made out to be, pirates were peaceful explorers who handed out candy to kids. The number of pirates has sadly been in rapid decline, which has had disastrous consequences. As pirates disappeared, our planet started heating up; so Pastafarians conclude that
global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of pirates since the 1800s.3
Those unfamiliar with Pastafarianism have surely made up their mind by now: this must all be one big joke. Well… yes and no. Nobody will deny that FSM is based on satire – many of the Pastafarian beliefs are obvious digs at organised religion. Prayers are ended, not with the Abrahamic affirmation ‘Amen’, but with the pasta-appropriate ‘rAmen’. Or consider the opening disclaimer in the Gospel of FSM, its main authoritative text:
Attentive readers will note numerous holes and contradictions throughout the text; they will even find blatant lies and exaggerations. These have been placed there to test the reader’s faith.4
But to understand why it’s more than just a gag, we need to look at what motivated Bobby Henderson to found the church of FSM.
It all began with a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education in 2005. The Board had just decided that Intelligent Design (ID) could now be taught alongside evolution as a legitimate scientific theory on the origins of life. For those unaware, ID is essentially creationism cloaked as science. Its main observation is that some aspects of nature are simply too complex to have originated from an “undirected, chance-based process such as Darwinian evolution.”5
Cynically inclined individuals will see ID as no more than a political tool to get Christianity and creationism into classrooms. If evolutionary thinking cannot be eradicated, proponents of ID must have thought, it can at least be displaced by presenting ID as a valid contender to explaining life in scientific terms.
Spoiler Alert – it’s not.
Ironically, ID would have been a successful satire of science if it actually managed to sidestep the scientific method. None of its claims, however, are empirically falsifiable. The notion that the complexity of nature necessitates the belief in a divine creator is so clearly motivated by a pre-existing belief in a creator that it is beyond silly to place ID alongside evolution as if it were science.
Henderson, driven by this very conviction, decided that if ID counts as science, we can simply make up our own religion and loosely tie it to pseudo-scientific claims. Enter the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Henderson writes in his letter that
if the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith.6
The point Henderson is making is that ID is clearly not based on science; if ID can pass as science, so can pretty much anything else we conjure up – like a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Henderson also tells us why scientists think there is no evidence for FSM:
what our scientist does not realise is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage.7
So how was this supposed to be serious again? It all comes down to the power of satire. The key to satire is that it cannot be mere ridicule; the humour must be employed to criticise something. Beyond the gags lies sincere criticism.
The Q&A on FSM’s official website makes a similar point, when answering the question whether anyone actually believes any of this stuff:
If you say Pastafarians must believe in a literal Flying Spaghetti Monster to be True Believers, then you can make a similar argument for Christians. There is a lot of outlandish stuff in the Bible that rational Christians choose to ignore.
Satire relies on truth to be effective. If it’s a joke, it’s a joke where to understand the punchline you must be conscious of underlying truth.8
As for the underlying truth that Pastafarians try to get at, it starts with the point that ID is not science and does not belong in science lessons. In a wider sense, FSM offers a criticism of the special status of religion in society. Many Western countries proclaim (with some pride, we might add) to be secular nations (secularism here refers to the conviction that the influence of religion and faith on the public sphere and civic affairs should be minimised if not removed entirely). The fact remains, however, that believers and religious organisations often enjoy special treatment.
Think for instance of holidays – mainstream religious holidays are often public holidays for everyone. The right to wear religious garments or symbols at a public workplace is another example, as are the tax exemptions that religious organisations sometimes receive.
Even if one sees no problem here, we do well to ask ourselves on what terms we decide what warrants special status. Let’s take clothing as an example.
If, according to their beliefs, it is very important for believers in public roles (like public transport employees) to wear a certain symbol or garment, and this does not negatively affect their ability to perform their job, then one may think there is no reason to disallow it. The question is what the criterion is for when something is significant enough to acquire special status – and if it makes sense to grant such special status in the first place, given the immense diversity of cultures and beliefs in modern societies.
What makes faith special? One reason is that it is fundamental to one’s worldview. But that only makes it special for those that adhere to it; this special character is only experienced by the believers, so only they can really assess its significance. Yet in a secular society with a plurality of faiths, the state should be tasked to decide what is significant enough to warrant exception, not the believers themselves. If it would be up to the believers, then anyone could found a church, along with holidays, garments and so on, and expect the same kind of special treatment.
This is exactly what many Pastafarians have tried – and this is where it gets interesting.
While there have been some successes in trying to get FSM to be recognized as an official religion, most attempts have been met with a lot of resistance. A federal court in Nebraska ruled that FSM cannot be recognized as a religion because it is a parody, and therefore not serious enough to be called a religion.
A North Carolina high school suspended one of its students for wearing pirate regalia – which the student claimed should be allowed under religious freedom. In Austria, Niko Alm tried to get a photo of himself approved for his driver’s licence, in which he was wearing a pasta strainer on his head. After three years of court cases and psychological assessment (yes, they thought he was crazy), he was finally granted permission. Similar cases in Ireland, The Netherlands and Belgium were less successful.
What this shows is that many Western countries are nowhere near as secular as they make themselves out to be. In the end, it is a matter of consistency – either every religion should enjoy the same privileges, or no religion should be granted special status. When distinguishing religions and their right to special treatment comes down to an assessment of their seriousness, the state has to start relying on religious doctrine to make a decision.
The issue with faith and doctrine is that it typically lacks empirical evidence accessible to all. Its significance is only accessible to the believers. So if a believer of FSM claims it is serious, that should be sufficient justification to be treated the same as other established religions. If this is not desirable, we should rethink the privileged status of religion in general. Secularism, to be successful, cannot be selective.
Turning back to FSM as a religious worldview, we can see that it does offer us many of the aspects we may expect from a faith-based worldview. There is a creation story, an afterlife, and a set of moral guidelines, as well as religious ceremonies and celebrations. The only vital element that might be lacking is actual conviction. While true belief in one’s doctrines should perhaps not factor into the decisions of a secular state, it does seem to matter for the believers themselves. One may wonder how much comfort Pastafarians really find in the prospect of their beer volcano heaven. This, of course, says nothing about the sense of community and social engagement that Pastafarians undoubtedly experience.
Finally, we can draw insights from FSM on the place of religious worldviews in pluralistic societies. The main issue seems to be the unfalsifiability of faith-based convictions. To suggest that metaphysical claims should be discarded just because they are non-empirical would be taking things too far, but religious worldviews should certainly be wary not to step beyond their proper domain. A worldview should be attentive to criticism from other groups in society, and will ultimately have to show some adaptability - rather than forcing its inadaptability on others by pretending to be something it is not – like creationism posing as science.
As long as secularism is not applied consistently, and some religious worldviews still enjoy special status, we may hope that Pastafarians around the world keep up their resistance through satire. In the words of Bobby Henderson,
I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.9
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‘The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’ is the main authoritative text of FSM. Worth a read - it’s hilarious.
‘The Loose Cannon’ is a collection of loosely related stories about FSM.
Russell’s teapot, a philosophical argument from Bertrand Russell, argues (in line with FSM) that the burden of proof for non-falsifiable claims falls on those who profess them - and not on anybody else.
‘I, Pastafari’ is a 2019 documentary on FSM. It is as informative as it is entertaining, and gives a good impression of the court rulings mentioned in the article.
Henderson, Open Letter to Kansas School Board, 2005
Opening Disclaimer in The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This is a clear criticism of Biblical literalism, or the tendency to understand scripture in a literal sense.
Henderson, Open Letter to Kansas School Board, 2005. While this is the first recorded mention of FSM, Henderson suggests in the letter that the religion has been around for a longer time.
Henderson, Open Letter to Kansas School Board, 2005