In 2005, Oregon State University physics graduate Bobby Henderson sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education in which he announced the existence of an, until then, unknown phenomenon: the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The new ‘religion’ was a controversy and raised many questions about the prerequisites of religion and the place of religion in society. In this paper, the different opinions about the thesis “Pastafarianism is a religion” will be explored. In addition, the questions around Pastafarianism will be discussed by analyzing some examples from real life.
In 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education had hearings about the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the school curriculum, which is a position that states that there is evidence that the world was created with God's help, challenging Darwin’s evolution theory. After deciding on the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the curriculum, physics graduate Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter to the board in which he expressed concerns about the decision. He noted that he understood the board’s decision to offer multiple viewpoints, but argued that Intelligent Design has multiple forms and that the board had neglected his form: the position that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. He threatened legal action if the board did not accept his proposal, because “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.”
He created a situation in which the board was unable to reject his proposal without being hypocritical
The letter was a protest against the teaching of religion-based science in biology classes. By proposing that Pastafarianism was also scientific - including scientific ‘evidence’ in the letter - Henderson argued that it should also be included in the curriculum. By creating a satirical religion-based science with ‘evidence’ similar to Intelligent Design, he created a situation in which the board was unable to reject his proposal without being hypocritical. By rejecting the proposal, the board would label the evidence of Pastafarianism as religious. However, with Intelligent Design’s evidence also being based on religious beliefs, it would be hypocritical to accept the evidence from Christians, but not from Pastafarians.
The fact that the letter was meant in a satirical way becomes clear from one of the closing sentences, which sounds rather sarcastic: “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 (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.” On top of that, Henderson’s Pastafarianism as explained in his letter included many satirical characteristics. For example, Pastafarianism can only be taught in the appropriate attire, which is “full pirate regalia”. Henderson noted that there were “lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power”, as well as over 10 million Pastafarians. He included some details about the religion, as well as an “artistic drawing” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which can be seen in Figure 1.
Although the Kansas State Board of Education did not accept the proposal, the letter, which was shared online by Henderson, did receive a lot of attention. The ‘empirical religion’ gained a lot of followers, and grew bigger, gaining more details with each addition. In 2006, the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was published, which contains the beliefs of Pastafarians. It can be regarded as the official scripture for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, much like the Bible and Quran for Christianity and Islam. Apart from the Gospel, there are many other characteristics similar to other mainstream religions. For example, Henderson is considered a prophet, and there is an afterlife, namely heaven containing a beer volcano and a stripper factory. The church has stances on common religious topics, rules of behavior, and a traditional outfit, namely pirate’s clothing and a colander on the head.
The religion has the characteristics of a networked religion as described by Campbell, all of which will be made bold in the following text. First of all, it is a networked community. Much of the communication within the church has happened online on the Flying Spaghetti Monster website. On the website, there is room for comments and discussions, which are used extensively. People from “varying levels of religious affiliation and commitment” (Campbell, 2011) come together in the social network. The second scripture for the church, The Loose Canon, the Holy Book of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, consists of a collection of texts from various devoted Pastafarians.
Next, the Pastafarians have a storied identity, meaning that their religious identity is both constructed and performed. They may use forums and scriptures about the Flying Spaghetti Monsters as resources and communicate their own beliefs connected to that, both online and offline. This can, for example, be done by playing an active role in the discussions section on the church’s website.
The discussions on the website are a form of spiritual engagement
Although the church is rather new, some traces of a shifting authority can already be found. Bobby Henderson is the original, traditional authority as prophet and spokesperson of the church, however as mentioned before, the second scripture was written by the community, taking away part of Henderson’s authority. There are also movements of the church started by people in other countries. The Pastafarian church’s convergent practices, in which people come together for spiritual engagement, are much different from what is known traditionally. However, as the big majority of religion has always been online, and it is centered around discourse about the place of religion in society, it can be argued that the discussions on the website are a form of spiritual engagement. Albeit adapted, as the response time is longer than it would be at an offline convergence, the Pastafarians come together to discuss their faith.
Lastly, the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a multisite reality, in the sense that there is an “interconnection between online and offline contexts” (Campbell, 2011). While the Pastafarians mostly carry out their religion on the aforementioned website, there have also been instances in which the beliefs of the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster were expressed offline. For example in parades, like Christmas decorations, on official documents (more on which will be discussed later in this article), and on posters, like in Figure 2. Figure 2 shows how the poster was made as a direct response to a Christian poster. In this case, the expression of the religion was influenced by offline resources (Campbell, 2011).
Despite the fact that Pastafarianism at first glance seemed satirical and not to be taken seriously, it has evolved into a religion that shows all of Campbell’s characteristics. Therefore it can be argued that Pastafarianism is in fact a true religion.
Although the characteristics seem rather convincing, the Pastafarians still had to deal with many hardships. For example, a Dutch law student wanted to request a passport with a passport photo of her wearing a colander on her head, which is the official headwear of the Pastafarians. The request was denied, as passport photos require an uncovered head. Exemptions are made for religious head coverings because there is freedom of religion in the Netherlands. However, the Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Council of State determined that, although it is important to be able to criticize religions, Pastafarianism is not a religion itself, because the “the satirical element of Pastafarianism predominates in such a way that this movement does not meet the criteria of "persuasiveness, seriousness, coherence and importance. The European Court of Human Rights applies these criteria to a combination of views if those views are to be classified as a religion. In particular, Pastafarianism lacks the required seriousness and coherence" [translated] (Raad van State, 2018). Even though the Flying Spaghetti Monster is registered as a church in the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, the scriptures and characteristics were considered too satirical, and therefore the woman’s personal expression of religion was not acknowledged.
Many of the considerations that are normally made towards religious individuals were dismissed due to the satirical content of the religion
The lawsuit was extensive, however, it was made clear that many of the considerations that are normally made towards religious individuals were dismissed due to the satirical content of the religion. It seems like in the Netherlands, the Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Council of State has the power to determine the seriousness of a religion. Freedom of Religion is only true for religions that are acknowledged by governing bodies. In other countries, similar situations have happened, for example in Austria. The man ended up being able to wear the colander, but only because his entire face was visible, not because of religious reasons. He had to obtain a doctor’s certificate to prove that he was psychologically fit to drive (BCC, 2011).
A unique and honest stance
The church itself makes a few notable statements on its website regarding religion. First of all, they welcome everyone, skeptics and people from other religions included, to become a member, even when they do not literally believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They realize that the “Pastafarian scripture has some outlandish and sometimes contradictory components – [but] (...) these pieces were intentional and obvious.” They also state that “there is a lot of outlandish stuff in the Bible that rational Christians choose to ignore”. Therefore, the outlandish components should not matter, as they are no different from other religions.
Regarding the question of whether Pastafarians truly believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the church states the following: “Some Pastafarians honestly believe in the FSM, and some see it as satire. I would just make the point that satire is an honest, legitimate basis for religion. (...) If it’s a joke, it’s a joke where to understand the punchline you must be conscious of underlying truth.” They argue that in every religion there are people that are not “True Believers”: “Most religions are comprised of a group of people with similar – but not exact – world views. Pastafarianism is no different in that regard.”
Satire is an honest, legitimate basis for religion
The underlying truth and worldview for Pastafarianism seem to be the critical thinking about the role and place of religion in society. Starting out by protesting against the inclusion of religion in the school system, they have gone on to criticize the ways in which some churches make money: “(...) think of cults, or churches where the leaders are scamming their followers out of money. These are groups where the followers fully believe. Are these churches legitimate since they have many True Believers?”
The Dutch movement of the church has also voiced critiques in the form of religious statements. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, big gatherings like lectures were not allowed, however, exceptions were made for churches. To point out the unfairness of the exception, the church offered to acknowledge educational institutions as their official churches, and the lectures as their church services, as their religion was focused on science. This way, students would be able to attend classes at their campus again.
Religion in society
All in all, there is no single answer to the question of whether the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster can be considered a religion. It contains all characteristics of a networked religion as described by Campbell, and has very similar characteristics to mainstream religions. However, due to the satirical nature of the religion, it is not being acknowledged as a religion by many governing bodies. The church itself states that they are not different from other religions, in the sense that other religions also contain components that are “outlandish” and that are not being followed by the believers. To be a Pastafarian is to wonder about the place of religion in society, and whether the way in which it plays a role in education, law, and finances is just. In a sense, the Flying Spaghetti Monster can be reduced to just a metaphor for this position. So whether people are atheists, skeptics, or followers of a different religion, they may still wonder the same things, and according to the church, that is enough to become a member, and it is not insignificant to have discourse about a topic that is so present in society.
To be a Pastafarian is to wonder about the place of religion in society
To conclude, a comprehensive statement from Bobby Henderson: “Let me make this clear: we are not anti-religion, we are anti- crazy nonsense done in the name of religion. There is a difference.”
Campbell, H. A. (2011). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80(1), 64–93.