The Satirical World of Atheist Activism

Recently, Massachusetts resident Lindsay Miller won the right to wear a colander in her State ID photo on account of her belief in Pastafarianism. There are two ways of interpreting this:

1. This is compelling. Most Departments of Motor Vehicles only allow head coverings in state-issued IDs for religious reasons (most commonly allowed are kippahs, veils, or turbans). A denial of one’s right to wear a colander in the name of Pastafarianism would mean the State of Massachusetts has decided that Pastafarianism isn’t a religion, which calls into question the method by which the government makes these distinctions.

2. This is ridiculous. This is a ridiculous person with a strange belief system and, if an activist, even stranger priorities.

Part of my interest in this story was my belief that the ridiculousness of the colander overshadowed what could potentially be a real advocacy movement, that the popularity of the viral ID photo could be part of a reflection of a cultural shift away from religion and custom. Pastafarianism might be trending right now, but is the popularity of atheist performance art and activism a marker of a larger cultural shift toward secularism? Recent research has shown that Millennials are markedly less religious than previous generations. And while this trend has been observed before, many young people of past generations will opt to identify as “spiritual” rather than religious. This is also untrue for Millennials—we’re just really, truly, not as invested in spirituality. Atheist activism like The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has all the makings of a successful Millennial social movement: it’s catchy, it’s absurd, and it’s mostly organized online.

So I interviewed Cynthia Nelms-Byrne, an artist, activist and Pastafarian in Dubuque, Iowa. In her mind, the colander ruling is indeed a victory, but its real significance is that it gives visibility to the Pastafarian cause, which boils down to keeping intelligent design out of school curriculums. She and other Pastafarians participate in the religion by writing letters to school boards that say, as Cynthia explained (with notable sarcasm), “This is great that intelligent design is fighting against evolution being taught in schools! We want our dogma taught too, our creation story.” That story just so happens to be that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world. So?

Pastafarianism got its start in 2005, when a man named Bobby Henderson set out to find an effective way to protest the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to allow intelligent design in school curriculums. Henderson wrote a letter, since internet famous, in which he professed his belief in a supernatural creator named “His Noodly Appendage”. He argued that his creation story, resembling intelligent design in structure though decidedly different when it comes to the details (Henderson’s deity strongly resembles spaghetti and meatballs), should be taught alongside creationism and evolution in school.

The internet success of letter led to a book deal in 2006, when Henderson released The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The satirical book details the beliefs of the religion, everything from the declaration that a shortage of pirates is somehow the cause of global warming to something involving a beer volcano. “It’s all this nonsense, but they do it as though they are just another intelligent design story, against evolution. And that’s what makes it so funny,” said Cynthia. As to whether or not she truly believed in the religion, she laughed and replied, “Well, I can’t speak for the other followers. To me, it’s just a hilarious way of confronting idiocy.”

While many Pastafarians might be quick to admit to the gag, it is interesting to note that the underground cultural criticism has resulted in an organized community of people who share a similar belief system: it looks a lot an actual religion. Pastafarians believe religion doesn’t have a place in our government and that it’s important for the rights of everyone, religious people included, to keep it that way. As Cynthia stated, “I don’t understand why a bunch of Christians and other religions aren’t in favor, or there aren’t as many in favor as there should be, of separation of church and state, because once the state gets ahold of your religion, it’s not going to be the same anymore.” “In terms of regulation?” I asked. “Yeah, everything. I mean, you can’t have the State deciding what the official religion is. We see how well that works in the rest of the world.”

Pastafarianism is essentially an organized community of people who all believe in the same thing—a religion with an atheist constituency. But the act of advocating for the separation of church and state doesn’t necessitate that someone isn’t religious. I asked Cynthia how much she associated Pastafarianism with atheism. “Quite a bit. I mean, people who subscribe to any religious dogma are not going to be Pastafarian, I don’t think.” So Pastafarianism isn’t atheist activism by definition, but it tends to behave like it. There are organizations that advocate for nontheist beliefs (like the removal of intelligent design from curriculum) that are explicitly atheist, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with which Cynthia and her husband are actively involved.

Cynthia was very wary of talking about rules, customs, or traditions, even when it came to Pastafarianism. When I asked her if she decorated her house with spaghetti and meatballs, as is a common Pastafarian practice during Christmas, she responded quickly and definitively. “No, I don’t like any holidays from any religion. I don’t press my agenda on anybody.” There was notable adamancy here. Cynthia wanted to be clear that she didn’t support dogma, even the satirical kind. And in order to fully participate in a performance piece like “The Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” that includes not participating in their customs or decorations either. Cynthia is a true humanist atheist, in every sense. She was always careful to qualify every opinion as her own, to emphasize that it was her perspective and only her perspective that she could offer. In other words, Cynthia is this Millennial’s exact kind of hero.

At the end of our interview, Cynthia thanked me for having asked her about the specifics of her involvement with the movement, noting “I’m glad you reminded me about this, because I think they’ve got a great idea. If you can make fun of something enough…” I agreed that the religion is compelling. “You should join!” Cynthia added. “I think it’s free.”

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