A federal judge has ruled Pastafarianism is not a religion protected by the U.S. Constitution. But what makes one religion legitimate and another mere fantasy?
As debates regarding “religious freedom” rage across the country, it is best to keep in mind that belief systems do not have rights, only individual persons do. And in a free society, an individual may believe whatever he wishes to believe.
He may praise Allah, accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, promote the “truths” of Scientology, practice the neopagan traditions of Wicca, touch the noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or believe in nothing at all.
Religion, it seems, is eternally pliable — whether seriously addressing the harshest realities of the human experience or pointing out the absurdities of life.
This fact makes religion quite difficult to define.
In his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, philosopher and scientist, Daniel Dennett, generally defines religion as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”
Such a broad definition may be cause for debate, and that’s the trouble with trying to create an objective standard for defining religious thought and experience. As the many believers of the many religions will often claim, there are limits to science and rationality. Religion finds its home in the contradictions, vagaries, hopes and fears of the human personality.
Yet, this begs the question: is it possible to setup a non-religious standard by which we may judge some religions as legitimate and others as mere poppycock?
Well, the federal government is seeking to do just that.
In a recent ruling by the Nebraska U.S. District Court, Judge John Gerrard found Pastafarianism or FSMism, “is not a ‘religion’ within the meaning of the relevant federal statutes and constitutional jurisprudence. It is, rather, a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education.”
The suit was brought by inmate Stephen Cavanaugh who wished for prison officials to accommodate his faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Now, Pastafarianism may seem absurd and insincere to this judge, this author, and many of you reading this. But who are we to declare what is a legitimate religion? Could not a religion be based upon absurd and satirical impulses?
Many religions old and new seem absurd to us today. Many gods have come and gone, and I suspect many more will be born only to eventually die. As H.L. Mencken asked in 1921 in his essay Memorial Service (I encourage you to read the whole piece as linked):
Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year–and it is no more than five hundred years ago–50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey…
…You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity–gods of civilized peoples–worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.
So, was the judge right to deny this inmate his religious accommodations? Before you answer, be sure to think about the consequence of making the federal government the authority in defining religion.