Sacred collanders and religious freedom

Many of my libertarian friends are part of the Pastafarian movement. And they really think it’s funny. And I have to admit that I’ve never quite gotten its appeal. It all sprang from some Oregonian dude’s attempt to mock intelligent design and became a huge worldwide sensation among atheists. The Flying Spaghetti Monster Church has a made-up deity and holy days and religious gear and silly formal beliefs and all that — all to show the stupidity of religious belief. Get it?

So this Austrian adherent wanted to show the stupidity of driver license regulations permitting religious adherents to wear headgear. So he put a colander on his head and took a picture. And, being that this is his religious requirement, he now has a license with a colander on his head. OK, so what’s the big deal? Well, again, I’m not sure I understand. But it’s seriously big news.

NPR’s “The Two-Way Blog” looked at the story and gave it the headline:

Austrian ‘Pastafarian’: License Photo Was A Win For Freedom From Religion

It was? How so? I mean, from the story we learn that Austria basically accepts the Pastafarians’ claim that they are a religion and treated them as religious adherents. That seems more like a win for religious freedom than freedom from religion, but maybe I’m missing something.

Eyder Peralta explains that Nico Alm was testing regulations. So he took the picture and then three years later (not sure why it takes three years), he got his license in the mail:

The result is, of course, humorous and it’s gotten worldwide attention and on our post, at least, started a series of hilarious pasta puns (“And people who discriminate against Pastafarians will be labelled antipasti?”). Perhaps it struck a chord because it pokes fun at government bureaucracy, perhaps because one man was able to pull a fast one on a set of regulations that overhauled European Union licenses, making them more like credit cards and much more serious, including a regulation that did not allow people to smile in their official pictures.

But, Alm notes, it also strikes at the tension between church and state:

“The Republic of Austria is still very closely attached, is trying to serve religion and churches without any apparent need,” Alm said. “And that’s just another thing I pointed out… that something is going wrong here that there is a part of the population that can exert certain special rights that people like me, that atheist people or non-believers cannot have.”

OK, I admit I had a couple of drinks at the airport bar before I got on the plane where I’m writing this … but someone needs to explain this to me. In what way does this “strike” at the “tension” between church and state? And does it show that atheists don’t get to wear headgear in their license? Because it sounds to me like it shows that they can.

We get a bit more explanation about how this is supposed to be a win for “freedom from religion”:

But Alm says his aim — as an advocate “for the clean separation of church and state” — was to win one for freedom from religion.

“There shouldn’t be any special rights for anybody because of their religious belief or non-belief,” he said.

He also said, his protest isn’t aimed at religions. He said he is no way poking fun at people who take their religion seriously:

“I am ridiculing the authorities,” he said. “If anybody is offended there is nothing I can do, but I am offended too, if logic and reason is offended.”

Alm said his next step is to get the Austrian arm of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster officially recognized by the government.

I think the problem might be that the reporter doesn’t understand Alm’s claims. He is specifically saying he’s not protesting religions but bureaucracy. I don’t think that’s the same thing as fighting for “freedom from religion.”

Just in general, we could use some much better explanation of terms and an understanding of what this protest was attempting to accomplish and how, exactly, it did that.

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  • kristy

    No, the drinks haven’t affected your logical thinking abilities. This is a case where a journalist had their conclusions previously arrived at, then added some funny bits, and said “There- that proves it.” Total ADHD logic. Of course, I’m used to it, being from Anne Gaylor land. This is where ‘freedom OF religion’ turned into ‘freedom FROM religion’ because, well, if prepositions mean whatever I want them to mean, then I can replace one with another at will, and then start slapping lawsuits on people who disagree.

  • Mike O.

    It’s quite clear that Nico Alm is not in favor of religious exemptions. He explicitly says so multiple times in the article. He could have fought against those exemptions in two ways. The first would have been to go to the courts and demand those exemptions be removed. The other is what he did, which is to get an exemption for himself and shine a spotlight on how ridiculous and absurd they are.

    To take that, to take where he says he is against the government giving special priveleges to believers, and somehow think that he’s not advocating seperating government from religion (i.e. freedom from religion) requires not seeing Mr. Alm’s intent whatsoever.

    And Kristy, I think if prepositions could be replaced one for another, I’m sorry to say that I think you skimmed under the article and jumped through your own conclusion (the latter in much the way you claim the author of the article did).

  • Mollie

    Mike O.,
    Yeah, I get the feeling that people view what happened as a spotlight on the absurdity but I’m not quite sure it works that way. I mean, since it could be argued that the state isn’t really interested in judging the quality of one’s religious beliefs when it provides religious exemptions, it could also bolster the exemptions and show that they are universally applied and fair and what not.

    Like, is the hope that this will spark some public movement to remove the exemptions? If so, how? I just need more information.

  • Bill P.

    Alm’s blog seems to hold some info, but the Google translator does a poor job of telling me what he’s saying. (There does seem to be a reference to Muslim women and burkas.)

    TIME reports via an Austrian news agency that Alm wants to achieve official state recognition of the Pastafarian whatever-it-is.

    The Telegraph has some tidbits of interesting info, and even more interesting comments.

    My take? We’re watching a three-ring circus. In the first ring are self-styled rebels looking to drive hits to their ad-festooned blogs. The second and largest seems filled with a good many who are cheering the rebels for mocking people of faith. (Sadly, of course, these first two groups are using a lexicon that they do not seem to understand.)

    We find many in the media in the third ring, egging on the show and sometimes getting the most laughs.

  • Mike O.

    Mollie, you’re right in that this could back fire on Mr. Alm and cause an increase in non-parodic religious exemptions. I also agree that the article doesn’t state whether beyond this he looks to go further in trying to get religious exemptions removed. Is his plan to get Pastafarianism recognized by government as a whole intended to reach a goal of getting religious exemptions removed? Possibly, and this is something the author of the article might have asked Mr. Alm.

    But even if he doesn’t have a plan he’d still be part of a long life of people that have done something silly in order to make a point, even if they are not necessarily in the forefront of working towards a certain goal.

    It’s the part at the end of your article that says, “He is specifically saying he’s not protesting religions but bureaucracy. I don’t think that’s the same thing as fighting for ‘freedom from religion,’” that I disagree with. No matter what his short-tem or long-term goals are (if any) in putting a pasta strainer on his head, his opinion and intentions are quite clear: He does not want government giving special priviliges to the religious. That is one aspect of freedom from religion.

  • Jerry

    The NPR story made the reason for the headline clearly albeit in two parts of the piece:

    As we reported Wednesday, Alm was testing a caveat in those new regulations that said headgear could only be worn for religious reasons…Alm says his aim — as an advocate “for the clean separation of church and state” — was to win one for freedom from religion.

    So I’d say that the headline reflected his stated aim which might be wrong, but that’s a second question.

    The one thing the story did not have, or at least the NPR version, is the bureaucratic justification for bare heads in such photos. After all, women can change their hairstyles all the time and what appears in a photo might be totally different from how she looks today. That argues that everyone should always wear head coverings in such photos in order to isolate that part of the face that does not change. Although, come to think of it, men grow and shave beards so do we need to consider that as well? :-)

  • Mollie


    Did you notice that while the story said his aim was that, his actual quotes didn’t back up that assertion? In fact, they seemed to contradict it?

  • Jerry

    Mollie, we read the story differently. When I read “There shouldn’t be any special rights for anybody because of their religious belief or non-belief,” I took it to mean that his quote did back up the assertion. It’s possible I misinterpreted it, of course.

  • Ben

    I would have thought the Pastafarian would prefer to be denied the license so that he could then sue and call into question the whole policy in court. But I suppose he could take it as a “victory” in that this decision might rob religious adherents of a certain satisfaction that the government has made an exemption for their religious needs. For a minority community like Muslims I could imagine the willingness of the government to allow headscarves in official photos might seem like a gauge of the government’s openness to people of that faith. The colander shot subtly undermines that feeling of special accommodation based on respect for deeply held beliefs. But, yeah, I agree with Mollie this isn’t a very clear “freedom from religion” win.

  • Elijah

    The headline of this story – and then your post – grabbed me, but it’s awfully hard to take this story or the dolt who inspired it very seriously.

    This is like saying some guy who egged St. Peter’s made a great statement against Roman Catholic clericalism.

    It’s silly and juvenile and not at all a serious protest, commentary, or expression. Whatever, dude.

  • Stephen A.

    The reporter completely fails to understand that what has happened is that, far from showing that religious exemptions are silly, the man’s “joke” has actually validated the exemption process as open and understanding of all self-proclaimed religious beliefs, and his actions have simply created another religious exemption and EXPANDED the freedom of religious expression in Europe, not diminished or demeaned it.

    Or at least that’s an alternate version of what has happened, which surely deserved an airing with this story. I agree that the reporter seems to have made up his mind and then wrote the article to fit preconceived biases.

    (Side note: The vicious, hateful anti-religion comments on the NPR blog under the story made me cringe. Thank GOD – pun intended – for Get Religion!)

  • Zebba

    So you’re not sure why this is a big deal? You said it yourself, although you also admitted you didn’t understand:

    So he took the picture and then three years later (not sure why it takes three years), he got his license in the mail

    It took 3 years because they didn’t want to give it to a guy with a colander on his head. But once he is able to convince them it’s a religious thing, it becomes OK.

    The issue is – it shouldn’t matter if he had the colander on his head for religious reasons or because he likes the way he looks in it. It should be either OK to wear these things or it should not. Religion should not come into the equation. The fact it did IS a win for “Freedom from religion”, as it highlights the hypocrisy and stupidity of such distinctions.

  • Elijah

    Zebba, I think this episode is just about as banal as can be, but lots of law enforcement types think nothing should be on the head, face, etc, of people in drivers license photos. Try telling the Jewish, Muslim, etc . licensees that “religion doesn’t enter into it”.

  • FSM

    The church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was organized to
    counter the governmental sanctioning of Religions or churches.
    We believe that religion should be a completely private matter and that it does not belong in our schools or governments. We feel that if you can’t prove it, then don’t mentions it.

    We fight what we consider public religious silliness with our own public religious silliness.
    We expect you to take us as seriously,
    as you expect us to take you seriously.
    Wrapped in his noodly embrace, I am:
    Educate the Christians with Carbonara sauce.

  • Ray Ingles

    Other, more complete coverage made the point that he had to undergo a psychological evaluation to prove he was fit to drive:

    Headgear from more established religions can be considered equally odd, but doesn’t trigger mental health reviews, does it?