Consider this: the United States is a nation with a secular constitution that guarantees religious freedom, while New Zealand’s head of state is legally required to be a Protestant Christian. Yet a U.S. federal District Court in the United States recently ruled, in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt, that Pastafarianism is not a real religion entitled to legal protection, while New Zealand just saw its first wedding performed by a legally recognized Pastafarian officiant. Mysterious indeed are the ways of the world.
As a Genuine and Authorized Discordian Pope (Hail Eris!) and a dues-paying SubGenius awaiting the pleasure saucers from Planet X to rapture me off this rock, I’m always on the lookout for holy ridiculousness. So I was an early evangelist for the word of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, blogging about Bobby Henderson’s original letter to the Kansas State Board of Education in September 2005, just a few months after it was first made public and well before the publication of the book The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
And while Henderson’s original intent was clearly satirical, I was not surprised when some people started to treat Pastafarianism as something more than a joke.
Decades ago, the culture of computer hackers identified the idea of “ha ha only serious”. As the Jargon File puts it, the term applies “to parodies, absurdities, and ironic jokes that are both intended and perceived to contain a possibly disquieting amount of truth, or truths that are constructed on in-joke and self-parody.” Or as Gregory Hall put it in the Principia Discordia through his alter ego Malaclypse the Younger,
GREATER POOP: Are you really serious or what?
MAL-2: Sometimes I take humor seriously. Sometimes I take seriousness humorously. Either way it is irrelevant.
Discordianism began as a joke — a somewhat juvenile one at that, if you look through the first edition of the Principia. But I will state for the record that I have had Discordian experiences that are as genuine as anyone’s mystical epiphanies. Eris herself has walked next to me and whispered in my ear a revelation about the myth of the Golden Apple. I have felt her comforting presence on more than one occasion as I watched some supposed “order” that I thought was stable dissolve.
I don’t claim to be a prophet but I tell you this: I have had more direct religious experience of Eris as a Discordian than I had of Jesus during my childhood Catholicism, a faith which I took quite seriously. (I’m feeling much better now.)
I haven’t (yet?) had as deep an experience with the word of “Bob”, but I’ve met the founder of the Church of the SubGenius, Ivan Stang. He’s a Starwood regular, and the SubGenius “X Day” is the weekend before Starwood at the same campground, so several times I’ve gone out early and waited for the flying saucers. (No luck yet.)
There’s no doubt that that Church started entirely as satire, yet in these strange gatherings I’ve seen traces of genuine spirituality, people investigating their relationship to themselves and to the universe. The very act of finding other people who are weird in the same way you are, of finding others who look at “reality” from an angle similar to yours, is fundamental to building spiritual community. I remember one fire-side conversation — after we’d burned “Bob” in effigy for failing us once again — where Reverend Stang reflected on how his joke had, in some sense, turned real, had created a community where people supported each other in their pursuit of sacred creativity and weirdness.
And Reverand Stang isn’t the only founder of an interesting Church I’ve met through Starwood; I’ve also had the chance to hang out with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, founder of the science-fiction inspired Church of All Worlds. So it’s notable that District Judge John Gerrard found in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt that “[a] prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds.” Gerrard does recognize the existence of CAW in a footnote: “Not that such a thing would be impossible: Heinlein’s fictional church, at least, inspired foundation of a pagan church of the same name…. But Cavanaugh does not allege allegiance to any comparable organization—he simply relies on the FSM Gospel, taken at face value.”
But let us imagine that our friend Oberon, or one of his co-conspirators in the early days of CAW before it was legally formalized, had landed in jail over some dispute or misunderstanding with the state, and demanded recognition of his or her religious conscience with no documentation beyond Heinlein’s novel. It is indefensible to claim that a person’s religious liberty is dependent on the existence of an organization claiming the same faith or ideas. Religion, the fundamental matter of reconnecting with the universe, is not multiple choice between extant organizations. It is an essay question which we all answer differently. Some answers may fall into well-divided categories but some will be unique. And some of those unique ones will eventually attract others to answer in the same fashion. The first American Buddhists, for example, could rely only on the texts of sutras, not on any organization with American presence.
The point here is that the measure of a religious practice is not its origins or any associated organizations, but its results. A joke religion can lead people to genuine experiences of the ineffable. So can a religion started as a con — see Scientology and Mormonism. (Determining what other historical religions might fit this category is left as an exercise for the reader.) So can a religion founded on mistaken anthropology — see Gardnerian Wicca. Of course we must be free as individual citizens to debate and criticize these beliefs and practices, but the state must respect the basic religious conscience of all persons, no matter the origins or contents of their beliefs.
In 1919 Harlan Fiske Stone, who would later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote:
“[B]oth morals and sound policy require that the state should not violate the conscience of the individual. All our history gives confirmation to the view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state. So deep in its significance and vital, indeed, is it to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature that nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation; and it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.” [*]
[* Stone, The Conscientious Objector, 21 Col.Univ.Q. 253, 269 (1919), quoted in United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)]
The hard part is that this obligation and protection includes religious ideas that are not just silly but stupid and nasty, such as homophobia, sexism, and racism.
Civil libertarianism has always meant standing up for unpopular ideas. A march for motherhood, apple pie, and puppies is unlikely to encounter opposition, so the controversy is always over ideas that are not widely accepted, either bad ones or ones ahead of their time. To defend free expression and the freedom of conscience is never easy.
But it seems to have become even more unfashionable of late, with many on the left willing to adopt “politically correct” authoritarian means of pushing their idea of “progress”, from official censorship to mob shutdown; while many on the right are happy to have the state push Christian “family values” and generally whip into shape anyone who doesn’t love the flag and Jesus.
Now, basic concern for others and a reluctance to use state force against them ought to be enough to make us respect the basic liberties of others, even people who are wrong. But there’s also a very good self-centered practical reason: when we protect the rights of others, we protect our own.
We give the Devil himself the benefit of the law so that the same protection cannot be taken from us. The reason we let, for example, the KKK speak their horrible, horrible ides and march in the streets is not just because we find a spark of compassion even for morons that keeps us from sending in club-wielding police to stop them. It’s also because in preventing the state from interfering with the rights of idiots we also restrain it from interfering with the rights of moral leaders and true reformers.
You may have seen a recent story about the Pagan Federation Ireland’s response to a self-described “Odinist” who was searching for a wedding officiant who only performed heterosexual same-race marriages, and you may have cheered (as I did) their response telling that jerk “Fuck off” (their actual words). But the legal right of Pagan clergy to pick those for whom they will preform ritual cannot be separated from the rights of racists, homophobes, and other dingbats to refuse to attend or participate in a same-sex ceremony.
Of course one person’s religious liberty ends where another person’s fundamental rights begin. Your religious liberty does not extend to choosing me as an involuntary human sacrifice to your chosen deity.
And if we are going to use the state to create a system of private property and wage slavery, part of the ante for that game is some protection for everyone in housing, employment, access to places of public accommodation, and other economic fundamentals. When you call the police to evict problematic tenants, intimidate insubordinate employees, eject unwelcome patrons, or patrol your rest rooms for gender “correctness” the burden is on you to justify that initiation of force. “My holy book says such-and-such” is not sufficient.
But a curious idea that has taken hold among some authoritarian progressives the past few years that those basic rights include having the photographer or baker of one’s choice provide services to one’s rituals. Some seem to believe that the state should actively force social acceptance on people with threats of fines or jail time.
That joke religion Discordianism has an important teaching that’s relevant here: the Law of Eristic Escalation. As Discordian Society co-founder Kerry Thornley explained:
Eristic Avatars are sent down into Reality, the original Rorschach, for the purpose keeping things from becoming so well ordered that they stop working. This they often accomplish by insisting that certain arbitrary interpretations of reality are the only valid ones. That causes Strife which results in Confusion which revitalizes Holy Chaos….
That is made possible by the Law of Eristic Escalation…
This Law pertains to any arbitrary or coercive imposition of order. It is: Imposition of Order = Escalation of Chaos.
Fenderson’s Amendment adds that the tighter the order in question is maintained, the longer the consequent chaos takes to escalate, BUT the more it does when it does!
Armed with the Law of Eristic Escalation and Fenderson’s Amendment any imbecile – not just a sociologist – can understand politics.
So I will translate into the lingua franca of the Western world: An imposition of order creates a chaos deficit, which compounds until it is paid off (by enduring all the outstanding chaos).[*]
[* Thornley, Kerry. Introduction, Principia Discordia, Fifth edition. IllumiNet Press, 1991.]
The law of Eristic Escalation does not discriminate as to what sort of order is imposed; imposing a “good” order results in an escalation of disorder just as surely as imposing a “bad” order.
A culture of acceptance and justice must grow naturally in its own time. You don’t make the grass grow by pulling on it. (Though you can still water it, fertilize it, and do what can be done to create circumstances conducive to growth.) Just so, you don’t make human beings more tolerant of diversity through lawsuits. If anything, a heavy hand causes resentment and resistance that slows the progress toward justice.
And if that lesson in wisdom is found in a satirical religion invented in a bowling alley by beer-drunk kids just out of high school, who knows what noodley truths the Flying Spaghetti Monster may grace us with in time?