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Bootlegging Religion: Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the Consummate Pirate

FSM

In The Pirate’s Dilemma I talk a lot about how people use the pirate mentality to create new spaces in markets, and bring new ideas into the public consciousness. If they are adding value to society, the actions of pirates often create debates and dilemmas. Sometimes, by pirating something, pirates expose flaws in an original design or business model, and the very fact that those pirate copies are there means the original business model changes. A good example of this is how the music business was forced to legitimize downloading (something it still hasn’t quite got the hang of completely), but one of the most unorthodox uses of the pirate mentality yet has got to be the bootlegging of religion.

When heated debate began in the U.S. about intelligent design being taught in science classrooms as an alternative to evolution, it quickly became a hot-button issue nationally. Whether or not intelligent design is “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” is a matter I won’t get into here, except to say that it is. But what is also interesting about the intelligent design debate is how it came to be one in the first place.

It didn’t happen because new evidence refuting Darwin’s theory of evolution had come to light. The vast majority of scientists, including many men and women of faith, believe the controversial theory has less to do with science and more to do with political polemics, so chose to ignore it when it reared its head back in the late 1980s. The scientific community (not to mention more than 38 Nobel Laureates) wouldn’t give the theory the time of day, but some far-right politicians would. Instead of fighting science and the scientific method, which has proved to be a losing battle, proponents of intelligent design took the fight somewhere else.

Several individuals and organizations with creationist leanings lobbied school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere to have intelligent design taught next to evolution, arguing that these “competing theories” must be given space in the classroom. Before you could say ‘separation of church and state’, the media, a gaggle of sound-bite hungry Senators and the President waded into the squabble.

Scientists gave intelligent design lobbyists the silent treatment, but the lobbyists could make a lot of noise on their own. Creationists couldn’t pick a fight with science, but politicians and the media proved to be much softer targets. But by creating this space for new theories, they also accidentally created a monster. A Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Bobby Henderson, a 25 year-old unemployed physics graduate from Oregon, was one of many people annoyed about intelligent design posing as science. But he saw a way of creating a pirate copy of a religion, which would highlight how ridiculous the whole debate was, and hopefully debunk the whole thing. In an open letter the Kansas Board of Education in the summer of 2005, he argued that intelligent design relied on the existence of a god, but it didn’t specify which one.

“We can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them” he wrote. “I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster… 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, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.” He threw the letter up on his website accompanied by a doodle of his noodly deity creating a mountain, trees and a midget.

Henderson intended his satirical letter to be nothing more. But within a few months, he was receiving oodles of email (95% of which was not death threats), his website was getting over two million hits a day, a host of other spaghetti monster sites depicting the carbohydrate-based creator had appeared and the ‘pastafarian’ movement the monster had spawned was hailed by the London Telegraph in 2005 as “the world’s fastest growing religion.”

“I don’t have any problem with religion, but it is not science,” Henderson told USA Today. “I don’t know if (the FSM parody) makes a difference… People who really need to get it aren’t probably listening. But if anything, it might bring some awareness to undecided people out there.’

As it turned out, the pasta-based parody made a big difference. Many academics taking the debate seriously got behind his noodliness, including members of the Kansas School Board in opposition to intelligent design, and Richard Dawkins. Soon school boards in Arkansas voted against teaching intelligent design in science classes, and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a Republican churchgoer, ruled the theory could not be taught in public school science classes in the state of Pennsylvania. The intelligent design supporters successfully hijacked the debate from the realm of science, pirate-style. But by relying on unsubstantiated faith-based claims, they took that debate into far more hostile waters. On this new battlefield, Henderson and his band of 10 million (and counting) pirates were able to take apart intelligent design with propaganda, parody, and cheap imitation, all low blows science wouldn’t resort to.

The spaghetti monster still has a lot of work to do. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, about 43% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” However that number has fallen 3% since 2006, not bad for a bowl of pasta. Meanwhile pastafarianism has taken on a life of its own. Henderson landed an $80,000 book deal to write The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and sales of monster merch are bringing in a steady stream of revenue. Not that it really helps my argument, but the pastafarians haven’t just embraced the pirate mentality, they are also inexplicably obsessed with actual pirates. Arguing pirates are divine beings, they claim the Flying Spaghetti Monster wants everyone to dress like pirates and that global warming, hurricanes and other natural disasters are punishments for the declining number of buccaneers currently roaming the high seas (Henderson has even started a fund to build a pastafarian pirate ship, which he claims has received over $100,000 in donations). Piracy isn’t just good at creating innovation and improving society, it’s also a great antidote to a load of old bolognaise like creationism.

One Response to “Bootlegging Religion: Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the Consummate Pirate”

  1. Michael Says:

    RAMEN.

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