| 'Spaghetti Monster' is noodling around with faith |
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Is the world ready for The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Will its revelations — that pirates control global warming, that there's a beer volcano in heaven, and that superstition trumps science every time — overwhelm religious belief for all mankind?
Worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — "Pastafarianism" as it is known to its adherents — began as a whimsical side dish in last year's standoff between advocates of evolution and intelligent design. FSM, as it is known to its followers, took shape in a protest letter to Kansas officials who were embroiled in a controversy about how to teach students about the origins of life. The parody religion leapt from those pages to become an Internet phenomenon, finding fans among supporters of the theory of evolution —— and receiving e-mailed threats of bodily harm from evolution's opponents.
"I wrote the letter for my own amusement as much as anything. And it totally snowballed. Some people say I'm going to hell," says FSM's 25-year-old creator, Bobby Henderson, who recently moved from Oregon to Arizona, partly to escape the uproar. But his paperback testament, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ($13.95, Villard), which arrives Tuesday, reveals the tenets of the parody religion. A few of them:
• A "Flying Spaghetti Monster" created the universe, Earth and its creatures, making a few mistakes on the way after drinking heavily from heaven's beer volcano.
• The FSM hid dinosaur fossils underground to "dupe mankind" about Earth's true age and is the secret force behind gravity, pushing everything downward with its "noodly appendage."
• The FSM wants everyone to talk and dress like pirates. Global warming is considered a punishment for the relative scarcity of pirates these days.
• Every Friday is a sloth-filled holy day. Instead of "amen," devotees end missives with "R'amen," in honor of the college student's favorite noodle fare.
"The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a kind of particularly amusing shell fired off in the ongoing culture wars," says Arizona State University's Lance Gharavi, an editor of The Journal of Religion and Theater. "Ultimately, it is an argument about the arbitrariness of holding any one view of creation."
The FSM was born in a satirical letter Henderson sent last year to the Kansas Board of Education, which voted to teach alternatives to evolution in high school science classes. The vote was heralded as a victory for proponents of "intelligent design," who see the hand of an intelligent force rather than natural selection in the evolution of mankind. Intelligent-design advocates such as Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe believe some biological structures, such as the wagging flagellum tail of some microbes, are too complex to have simply evolved.
Henderson applauded the board's openness to amending its science standards and called for the addition of pastafarianism to its curriculum. Henderson nominated a sentient spaghetti bowl as his intelligent designer and demanded equal time for his teaching.
This was set against the backdrop of a court battle and eventual ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones that intelligent design is warmed-over creationism and cannot be taught in a Pennsylvania school district, a victory for evolution advocates.
So the time was right for the divine entrée.
The noodly appendages reached for Internet fame last August, when the popular website BoingBoing.com offered a $250,000 prize to anyone who could "produce empirical evidence which proves that Jesus is not the son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster."
The challenge satirized an earlier creationist award for empirical evidence of evolution and turned FSM into an Internet deity, one that now grandiloquently claims "10 million followers."
Henderson and his followers satirize creationism in often-tasteless japes, such as a claim that heaven has a stripper factory. Creationism holds that God created human beings in their present form exactly as described in the Bible, a belief held by 53% of people nationwide, according to a recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll.
The FSM gospel contains its own creation myth, guides to propagandizing the faith (including a step-by-step guide to building your own flying spaghetti monster out of pipe cleaners), some pseudoscientific "proofs" of the FSM's existence and many pasta puns. "Some people like the noodle jokes," Henderson says.
"Clearly, (FSM) theology is ludicrous, but no more ludicrous than intelligent design," says Stephen Unwin, author of The Probability of God, a look at reconciling faith and reason. "Let's see how long it lasts. I doubt it is up to Christianity in its staying power."
The sublime and the serious
Henderson, who graduated in 2003 with a physics degree from Oregon State University, says he is as surprised as anyone. When asked whether a higher power is at work, he says, "maybe."
He wrote his letter to the Kansas school board because he sees the whole notion of "redefining science" to include a role for supernatural forces as destructive to science and society. "I don't have any problem with religion, but it is not science," Henderson says.
The FSM punctures one of intelligent design's selling points, Henderson says. People who are uncomfortable with both creationism and science can see intelligent design as a more reasonable alternative. Design advocates leave that guiding force creator unnamed. In this way, Henderson says, intelligent design leaves itself open to any creator, even a bowl of pasta.
"I don't know if (the FSM parody) makes a difference," Henderson says. "People who really need to get it aren't probably listening. But if anything, it might bring some awareness to undecided people out there."
Florida State University science philosopher Michael Ruse, a critic of creationism, doubts that parodies change anyone's mind about evolution. "However, sometimes parodies outlast the originals," he adds, pointing to the classic Alice in Wonderland, in many ways a poke at math and logic.
Joke religions are nothing new, of course. The "Church of the Sub-Genius" has mocked campus cults since the 1980s. More than 70,000 Australians declared themselves "Jedi" in their 2001 census. FSM follows in such traditions, Unwin says. "People look for humor out of frustration, when they run into beliefs they find impossible to credit."
But not everyone finds the FSM so amusing.
"It's too bad that they'll get attention for this sort of drivel when we have a robust scientific research program that the media doesn't seem to want to write much about," Discovery Institute spokesman Robert Crowther said in an e-mail interview. The Seattle-based institute is the leading think tank for intelligent-design advocates.
"I'm happy to say I think FSM hurts the evolutionists' program since, by mocking the Christian tradition ... it reinforces the correct impression that there is genuine contempt for biblical faith in that camp," says Mark Coppenger, a pastor who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "Besides, the parody is lame, and there are few things more encouraging than cheap shots from one's opponents."
The FSM also has brought Henderson death threats, which are posted on The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster website (www.venganza.org). "I'm not surprised," says Arizona State's Ghavari, pointing to the furor over Danish cartoons that sparked lethal riots in the Muslim world this year. "People have a strong reaction when you mock their beliefs."
"I never expected this thing to grow this big," Henderson says, pointing to the 2 million visits in three months his website picked up at the height of last year's intelligent-design ruckus.
"I'm still trying to get a pirate ship" with the gospel proceeds, Henderson says. He says he'll sail the world to find converts. And best of all, he says, as a religious leader, he'll be applying for tax-exempt status for his voyages.