“This is proof that the world has gone bonkers. The end HAS to be near. There is no hope.” – Online comment in the Boston Globe, November 13, 2015.
In the wake of Friday night's horrific events in Paris, it’s no surprise that such a comment was posted beneath an online news article. What may surprise you, however, is that the comment wasn’t made in response to a story about the catastrophic violence in France. Instead, the apocalyptic remark was posted under a story about a Massachusetts woman who won the right to wear a spaghetti strainer on her head for her driver’s license photo.
The woman in question, Lindsay Miller, is a Pastafarian, a follower of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarians believe that their creation story—that the universe was made by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, also known as FSM—is as plausible as any other, and have constructed an entire theology around that notion.
At first glance it may seem that the two news stories—the tragic violence in Paris and the lighthearted human interest story from Boston—have little in common; but in fact they interrelate in important ways. Although many commenters have dismissed Miller and other Pastafarians as crackpots, they miss the point that Pastafarianism has something important to offer in today’s distressing world.
To be sure, the violence in France has complex geopolitical roots, going back at least to the First World War and the partitioning of the Middle East by the victors; but even as we acknowledge such complexities there is no denying one fact: religion is an important component in modern terrorism. Thus, as Miller smiles for the camera with a colander on her head, making a religious statement that angers some and delights others, the relevance of Pastafarianism to weightier issues, even to the tragedy in Paris, should start to become apparent.
To the extent that Pastafarianism uses parody to express religious beliefs (such as the belief that some aspects of ancient theology make little sense in a modern context), it is a close cousin of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of an Islamic terrorist attack in January. Raising irreverence to an art form, Charlie Hebdo found ways to ridicule almost anything considered sacred, especially religion. Unfortunately, as we saw in January, Islamic fundamentalists don’t seem to be fans of satire. And as much of the world wept in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, few wept more than Pastafarians. After the attacks one Pastafarian leader wrote a column entitled “In Defense of Religious Satire” that circulated widely.
We don’t know much yet about Friday’s violence in Paris, but one of the few known facts is that Islamic extremists—this time ISIS—claimed responsibility. This, of course, came as no surprise. As Bill Maher has said, when we hear of such attacks we can immediately rule out the Amish; and for that matter nobody speculated that a group of secular humanists would claim responsibility. While we should certainly understand that fundamentalist religion alone doesn’t explain the terrorism, we'd also be remiss to ignore the frequent correlation.
Which brings us back to Miller and her colander. Talking to a television reporter with her spaghetti strainer proudly placed upon her head, she may not come across to casual observers as reason personified. But first impressions can be deceiving. Pastafarianism is indeed a weapon in the arsenal of reason, a rebuke of religions that rationalize violence, treat women as property, and promise eternal rewards to those who take innocent lives. The FSM apparently disapproves of such things.
Of course, fundamentalist religion would disapprove of Miller and Pastafarianism as well, and the most extreme of fundamentalists would treat Pastafarians pretty much as they treated the staff of Charlie Hedbo in January and other residents of Paris on Friday night. But that simply proves a basic tenet of Pastafarianism: religion can be idiotic.
To appreciate Pastafarianism, one need not have a simplistic view of the world that assumes religion is the root of all evil. (In fact Pastafarian doctrine discourages such thinking.) One can recognize that terrorism is the result of numerous economic, political, and historical factors, not the necessary outcome of Islamic theology. One can recognize that most Muslims are decent people, and one can point out that countless atrocities have been committed by western nations toward innocent Muslims, rarely resulting in sympathetic outpourings as we see when blood is shed in Europe or America. One could also recognize that homegrown extremists are more likely than jihadists to execute lethal assaults in America.
But even understanding all of the above, there is no denying that dangerous interpretations of ancient theology (and not just Islam) are indeed a part of the problem in today's world, and not just on the issue of terrorism. Religion is used to obstruct progress on numerous other isues all over the world and in our own backyards: climate change, overpopulation, anti-intellectualism, the mistreatment of women and girls, and many others. If a silly colander calls attention to such facts, it’s little wonder that many people are worshiping a linguini-based deity.
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Disclosure: The American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which the author directs, assisted Miller in her successful effort to wear a colander in her driver's license photo