I was recently trading Facebook comments about the controversy in Oklahoma over a statue that a group called Satanic Temple wants to place at the statehouse along with the existing Ten Commandments.
It is an interesting case, a bit more colorful than the typical church-and-state brouhaha. Of course, there is the usual debate about whether the particular David to Christendom’s Goliath is a “real” religion, and the tiresome doublespeak of the group that holds the political power. (“This is Oklahoma, the middle of the heartland,” said Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon. “I think we need to be tolerant of people who think different than us, but this is Oklahoma, and that’s not going to fly here.”)
And then, as a kind of sidebar note, there is the appearance of another familiar fellow known for flying through the heartland. That’s right, it seems the Flying Spaghetti Monster wants to get in on the fun too.
A little backstory: in 2005, with a majority of “religious conservatives” (in America, that is code for “fundamentalist and evangelical Christians”) having been established the year before, the Kansas Board of Education passed new science standards for public schools that included a Critical Analysis of Evolution lesson plan and recommended the inclusion of Intelligent Design as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins.” In January 2005, Bobby Henderson, then a 24-year-old Oregon State University physics graduate student, sent an open letter to the Board, arguing that intelligent design and his belief that “the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster” were equally valid. In his letter, he noted,
“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.”
In May 2005, having received no reply from the Kansas Board of Education, Henderson posted the letter on his website, gaining significant public interest. Shortly thereafter, “Pastafarianism” became an Internet phenomenon. Within one year of sending the open letter, Henderson received thousands of emails on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, eventually totaling over 60,000, of which he has said that “about 95 percent have been supportive, while the other five percent have said I am going to hell.”
“I don’t have a problem with religion,” said Henderson. “What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.”
In February 2007, with four key ID supporters removed from office in midterm elections, the Kansas Board of Education reversed the 2005 ruling. The official definition of science was once again returned to “the search for natural explanations for what is observed in the universe.”
Fast forward back to 2014: those thousands of emails have evolved into millions of website hits, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster has become kind of a folk hero for those whose views on religion are “not going to fly” in places like Oklahoma. So naturally, when Satan challenged the supremacy of the Ten Commandments at their statehouse this year, the FSM was right there with him (along with some Hindus and, oddly, the animal welfare advocacy group PETA).
It seems that the Flying Spaghetti Monster sticks His Noodly Appendage into the fray wherever religious liberty becomes an issue and the separation of church and state –which is more important for the health of the church than it is for the state– is threatened. If it provides no other service to humankind, the Flying Spaghetti Monster deserves our love and praise for that.
Then I got to thinking: is Pastafarianism an example of what I mean by avant-God? In other words, does it advance our understanding or the scope of our concepts about the Divine in any meaningful way? It is certainly a novel idea, but not all novelties should even get to take the test of time, let alone pass it. And what about Intelligent Design? Just because some people have used the concept to push a narrow, regressive agenda doesn’t mean the concept itself is wrong or useless.
I realized that I had almost no working knowledge of either side, so I decided to investigate.
It is a tricky undertaking. From a pantheist perspective, knowing there are other cogent ideas beyond these false dichotomies, there is rather strong imperative to stay out of the argument between creationists and evolutionists, atheists and theists. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking sides in Twitterdee and Twitterdum’s battle over textbooks, monkeys and the age of dinosaur bones. What makes this argument interesting, though, to the extent that it still exists, is that a mock theistic model has grown up around the Flying Spaghetti Monster, in the tradition of Principia Discordia. So really, this is more of a debate between competing visions of what theism means and of what value it can be to our understanding of Reality. There was potential for a lot of overlap of ideas, and that seemed worth the risk.
Here is what I learned: it isn’t even a fair competition. Intelligent Design is bringing a butter knife to a bazooka fight.
I admit to some bias in this, because I have a real soft spot for satire. It is an advanced form of metaphor, and a very useful one when done well. While making “A” look ridiculous, for instance, a satirist may well be suggesting “B,” but it is an open-ended suggestion; the audience is left to make its own conclusions from numerous possibilities. This can be far more effective than screaming “B B B!!!” Satire also communicates through humor, which can have a natural way of easing tension that results from taking ourselves and our positions too seriously. Think of the atmosphere at a celebrity roast. Only a real narcissistic sourpuss can’t stand being clowned by his friends (and that’s an important distinction I’ll get back to later).
Intelligent Design offers none of this. Not only does it scream “B!” to evolution’s A, but it seems completely oblivious to the possibility that a single alternative could exist, let alone C thru Zx10(100).
As I read about the arguments for ID, I was truly dismayed at just how, well, unintelligent they are. And that’s as a theological platform, never mind the effort to masquerade as science. Here is a two-sentence summary of the argument: “Many aspects of nature are too complex to have evolved to be as they are. Therefore there must be an intelligent agent behind creation.” I’ve yet to find an explanation for why they believe nature can only handle so much complexity before it throws up its hands and says, “That’s it, I’ve had enough! Need a miracle here, God!” It seems to be offered as some kind of tautology. They use fancy terms like “irreducible complexity” to hide that problem and make Intelligent Design sound more intelligent. In order to roll with what science learns about the natural world, some ID advocates talk about primary and secondary causes: basically, if we can explain it scientifically, it is kosher to attribute it to the secondary cause of natural processes; if we can’t explain it, or it lies beyond the scope of scientific explanation, it is due to a primary cause of God’s design. The effect is an awkward phenomenon called “God-of-the-gaps” where the Divine Creator appears to retreat from the known universe as we get to know it better, making God little more than an avatar for our ignorance.
OK. This is clumsy as hell, but no red flags so far. After all, Darwin himself was not an atheist (1), and left open the possibility of a “theistic evolution” without defining what or Whom the theos might be. A good scientist knows not to make assumptions about what is as yet unobserved or unobservable through scientific inquiry, and thus would have no problem filing these conjectural realms under a “Mystery” heading. God as a Great Mystery, working outside the boundaries of our own knowledge, kind of surrounding and embracing the universe if you will, conflicts neither with science nor ontologically with any particular theology that might emerge from it. Cultures could interpret the Great Mystery as they perceive it and teach their people in a way that doesn’t contradict the teachings of another, provided that it is understood that these teachings are interpretations of our interaction with the Great Mystery. We can roll with this. All is well here.
Oh, except that’s not what ID advocates want us to conclude. You see, ID is a very recent creation. According to Wiki, “the leading proponents of this version of the argument are associated with the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank based in the United States, and believe the designer to be the Christian deity…The intelligent design movement was developed by a group of American creationists who revised their argument in the creation–evolution controversy to circumvent court rulings such as the United States Supreme Court’s Edwards v. Aguillard decision, which barred the teaching of creation science in public schools on the grounds of breaching the separation of church and state.”
Phillip E. Johnson, a born-again Christian considered the father of the ID movement, “has stated that cultivating ambiguity by employing secular language in arguments that are carefully crafted to avoid overtones of theistic creationism is a necessary first step for ultimately reintroducing the Christian concept of God as the designer. Johnson explicitly calls for intelligent design proponents to obfuscate their religious motivations so as to avoid having intelligent design identified ‘as just another way of packaging the Christian evangelical message.'” This is described by their own literature as a “wedge strategy.”
Add it all up, and you can summarize the ID platform in three steps:
1. We have no idea now the universe got here.
2. Therefore an intelligent designer that is not part of the universe created it.
3. Therefore the God of the Christian Bible is the One and Only God Who Reigns Supreme in Heaven, and sent His Only Begotten Son…..
Maybe this explains why the concept lacked intellectual integrity from the get-go: it was never meant to stand on its own as a concept. The veneer of humanism was a disingenuous farce, a Trojan Horse meant to sneak a very particular fundamentalist Christian creationism into public education. It was all a political maneuver to trick the state into sleeping with the church. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Henderson saw this charade and called it out, but the brilliance of the card he played was in his knowing that, by introducing a single random creation myth into the discussion, a C into the War of A and B, the Trojan Horse would fall apart. As soon as the dichotomy breaks down, B can no longer try to prove itself by disproving the absolute truth of A. And with the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the fray, there are THREE theories asking for scientific validity. Anyone for a fourth?
I think that’s all we need to explore about ID. I was planning to give it equal time in this piece, but honestly it starts to feel like trolling. In the end, the Flying Spaghetti Monster accomplished its task and moved on to internet stardom, the ID folks went back to the drawing board, the children of Kansas were safe to be fed Darwin on a platter with neither Yahweh nor pasta, and nobody was a bit wiser for the ordeal.
OUR FERVENT HANDS
We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.
–Rainier Maria Rilke
The whole conflict underscores two very important points. First, we see the urgent human need for mythic context, on both sides of the coin. And by “mythic” I mean exactly the concept taught by Joseph Campbell that appears all over this site:
“Mythology is not a lie…mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words…Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.”
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is actually the easier mythic image to explain. If it hadn’t touched a nerve among a disjointed population of atheists and various freethinkers, the FSM would have done its job in freeing Kansas and sailed off to the Great Italian Restaurant in the Sky, leaving barely a trace on our collective consciousness. But it didn’t. It has stayed with us because it offered a new way to bind a disparate group of people together. (The exact etymology of “religion” is unclear, but a common interpretation traces it to the Latin “religere,” to bind together.)
“It’s only because of the insistence that we were not legitimate,” said Henderson on his website, “that there was motivation to be a legitimate religion. You see, our religion, like Christianity and other mainstream religions, is based not on a foundation of evidence, but of community. The Pastafarian church was built and its legitimacy formed by people tired of being disenfranchised for thinking rationally. We have every right to exist and form a religious community. That many of us don’t literally believe our own superstitions or in the existence of our own God is evidence that we’re thinking.”
I’m going out on a very safe limb, and guessing that all of the “believers” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not believe that it created the universe, or exists/has existed in a way more tangible than Santa Claus. To the contrary: the FSM has united its followers in their disbelief. It gave them a mythic image to represent the absurdity of belief in the specific objective reality of a subjective interpretation of Mystery. In this way, Pastafarianism serves a similar purpose to surrealism –it gives us something very specific to disbelieve together, so that we may have a shared experience of release from the functions of the mind that clench onto objects and kill the Mystery just as surely as belief does. Surrealism in the form of an absurdity like FSM helps liberate us into the realization of how vast and fluid the possibilities for expressions of Truth in the universe really are.
In short: if the Flying Spaghetti Monster didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. So someone did. Someone said, “if an absurd image of God is what it takes to unite us in our opposition to a stifling and ultimately dangerous mode of thought, here it is.” The FSM is the perfect character foil to a deity taken way too seriously by too many people on both sides of the fence, and it only serves to prove the necessity of the mythic image in our lives.
Fundamentalists want a mythic image too, but they want one that is firm and solid and unchanging, like an idol. They are correct in perceiving a dire threat to their mythos, but they are unaware that the threat comes from their own effort to turn the poetry of myth into biography, history, or science. The death threat is from their own fervent, idolatrous hands.
Understanding this requires digging deeper into the philosophical roots of the divide between religion and science. There is a point that is lost on almost everyone on both sides: We have errantly cast science as the enemy of mythic context. In fact, science itself is a flavor of mythic context, and one with a great deal of fluidity and beauty, and of course, Truth.
This seems to get lost at a schism point between two kinds of naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism is a worldview with a philosophical aspect which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. Therefore, metaphysical naturalism is the framework of the staunch atheist who definitively insists that nothing is real beyond what we can perceive, and furthermore, nothing of the supernatural could be real.
If the term “metaphysical naturalist” seems like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. To call “metaphysical” an idea that denies anything beyond the physical is to invite charges of ridiculousness. And the contradiction goes deeper: in their effort to squash any and all dogmatic statements about the supernatural, the metaphysical naturalist makes a statement that is dogmatic to the core. It rests on an untestable hypothesis, so it actually flies in the face of the science it thinks it is trying to protect.
In an effort to be more precise with my terminology, I’ve rebranded this kind of naturalist as a “fundamentalist materialist,” or “stuff fundie” for short. When posed with this question (see right), the stuff fundie would answer, without much contemplation, “The glass is empty.” It is from this flawed, flat-earth intellectual heritage that we inherited the idea that the universe is a hodgepodge of blind mechanical forces and temporarily animate objects that live for a while and die and that’s about all. It is against this wasteland of fundamentalist materialism that fundamentalist religion rallies with its mythic images as blunt force weapons, falsely accusing science of having brought about the wasteland by debunking the objective reality of their mythos.
But the wasteland is all in our heads. Science didn’t put it there. Sure, there are some poorly trained, mechanically-minded scientists and students of science who subscribe to strict materialism, just as there are poorly trained, mechanically-minded theologians and clergy who will not budge from the platform of their strict reading of scripture despite literally being surrounded by evidence that there is more to it.
The vast majority of competent scientists and afficionados of science would likely consider themselves “methodological naturalists.” In a nutshell: “I don’t know if there is a supernatural realm beyond what can be observed, there may very well be,” (some would even add, “and physical evidence suggests there is”) “but I don’t have time to think about that now; I have work to do.” That’s it. No need to complicate it further, no need to trash theology as a pursuit. It’s just not their gig. Maybe they are devout to a certain tradition but realize that their labor requires as much suspension of subjectivity as they can muster; maybe they are full-time agnostics who are content sharing the universe with a vast Mystery. The point is, neither belief nor doubt is inferred nor excluded by methodological naturalism: it is a discipline of maintaining a specific context for the betterment of one’s scientific pursuits.
It will still annoy the fundamentalist who wants to prove the scientific validity of his scripture, but poses no threat to the gospel follower who can accept or welcome plurality because his Truth isn’t bound up in concepts. This is probably more common than our caricature of the Bible-believing Christian would suggest. In fact, if you gave truth serum to a representative sample of clergy members and adherents across sectarian lines, I think you’d get an awful lot of methodological theology: “I don’t really know how or why God acts, or what it all means or leads to in the end, but I was born and raised Catholic/Methodist/Lutheran/Reform Jewish/Shi’a, and this community is where I feel most at home, where I can do the most good and lead the best life.” I imagine few non-theists would raise a fuss about that, because these are the kinds of believers who simply do what they do and try to act according to conscience– they aren’t in chatrooms shouting down infidels, or far worse.
This all leads us back to the second major point I started back there: the common enemy of all is neither science nor religion, but the virulent strain of fundamentalism in modern religious and secular spheres. And at the root of this is our tendency to conceptualize our world in binary terms –dualism. It “kills the poetry” of both religion and science.
Fundamentalism, as I am using the term here, is the idea that if Theology/Theory A is true, it necessarily and permanently disavows B through Z as false. This destroys the metaphorical power of theology and violates the basic tenets of scientific method (not to mention that it pits two versions of A, the hypothesis of naturalism, against each other in cases like this). It results not from anything inherent in religion or science, but from an overreaching, unchecked duality in the mind of the observer.
Here is another example of duality making enemies where there needn’t be: this business of the supernatural and natural “worlds” being opposites.
In order for “supernatural” to mean what Christians intend it to signify as a concept, it must have the same monistic quality as the omnipresent God. It isn’t a cosmic doughnut with a hole in the middle where the natural realm goes. It must completely overlap and include every shred of the natural world. It is fully beyond us and fully within us. If we have evolved into what we are, we are evolving from within, and God is both the evolver and the evolved. That’s what the idea of supernatural tells us when we don’t impose our dualism on it. The monotheist concept of God is a symbol for non-dual reality itself as an infinite monist totality, an inside with no outside.
What we call the supernatural colloquially is none other than the non-dual, natural world as it appears with the veil of duality pierced and the mind exposed to stimulus in ways that defy logical order and rational explanation (2). Supernatural phenomena provide orderly, rational cover to the experience of the mystic unity of self and other, acting like a stained glass window between the blinding light of divine Mystery and the dark room of the human mind.
There have also been countless natural phenomena throughout human history that once upon a time had supernatural explanations to cover for the lower-grade mystery caused by simple lack of understanding. Religion should cede these explanations as science makes them unnecessary, for science is simply the process of Nature seeking to understand itself in human terms. But science is permanently ill-equipped to understand the ultimate source and ground of all phenomena. We can’t step back and observe that ground like we can study any finite system. If the functioning of every single atom in the physical universe were understood by science in relation to all other atoms, this basic inadequacy would remain, and thus the the entire infinite system of existence itself shall always be shrouded in impenetrable logic-defying Mystery.
Science needs to cede its own mythic images of origination (the “Big Bang,” for example) to this Mystery in order to be taken seriously for the valuable knowledge it does produce. If we trust science to fill every internal gap, we must trust metaphysics to provide insight about the boundless external gap created by the self-proclaimed boundaries of science —insight which promptly flips the script on our dualism and says, “as without, so within.” No matter how well we come to understand the physical universe, by its very nature it is swallowed whole by Mystery, and metaphysical language is that which imparts the feeling of boundless Mystery.
When the Greek philosopher Empedocles told us, almost 500 years before the birth of Christ, that “the nature of the divine is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere,” he was offering that kind of metaphysical insight, and a mythic image far more profound (and accurate) than a bearded man atop Mount Olympus, a celestial father figure who smites cities and impregnates mortal vessels, or a flying plate of pasta and meatballs. But a successful mythic image must also be relatable. That circle needs to really grab hold of our attention before disappearing into infinitude. That’s why anthropomorphic (and gastropomorphic?) images will always have a competitive edge in the marketplace of ideas, why our fervent hands race to create them even as our metaphysical mind erases them.
The key point: images and events reported as supernatural occurrences are not mere delusion. They are the dualistic mind’s attempt to rationalize, through its own veil, our true experience of non-dual reality, giving the illusion of objective existence to the symbols which evoked the feeling of metaphysical insight. This is not to say the rationalizations are not real, just subsidiary and subjective, like a dream is to the dreamer. I can legitimately say “The Flying Spaghetti Monster touched me with His Noodly Appendage” as a subjective experience of the transmission of metaphysical insight that defies straight-on verbal articulation. I just can’t claim this Holy Appendage is objectively extant –mythically significant, yes, but not extant in the way that I am.
The metaphysical experience of non-dual reality itself is more real than anything we know about it, because what we know is inevitably clothed to some degree in the products of our imagination. The clothing, the mythic images and events, are also real, in the way that a Halloween costume of a witch is real, and to the extent that wearing the witch costume actually makes you a witch (that is, in your subjective imagination) you are at liberty to say that this supernatural experience happened exactly as you saw it. The wise, however, will recognize that their imagination is at play and not claim such objective specificity for the experience.
What they also will not do is dismiss the mythic images and events as insignificant for being rooted in imagination. They will treat them like gemstones of insight found in a dark cave. With the fervor of an archaeologist at the greatest dig of a lifetime, they will search the depths of that cave for significance and metaphorical meaning in what they’ve found, and bring these gems into the light of day so that others may witness and, maybe, find their own veils pierced in new liberating ways. This is how I have learned to approach all theological claims, no matter how absurd on the surface– up to and including His Noodly One. If we are to be truth seekers, scientists and theologians alike, we must get past the lens of dualism that says the opposite of what we consider truth is a lie. Otherwise we throw away a lot of gems hidden in plain sight.
The main point is that, generally speaking, there is nothing inherent in the priest that makes him more susceptible to supernatural experience than the scientist. What we call the supernatural is not the exclusive property of anyone, and can be properly understood by anyone who has lost him/herself in the wordless poetry of a sunset or the birth of a child. To have a supernatural experience is to lose one’s sense of separate selfhood and experience Nature as it really is: an unbroken whole.
The respective roles give the priest a leg up in that he works within a tradition designed to both cultivate supernatural experiences and guide people through them, whereas the tradition of the scientist implores him to keep the veil firmly intact, at least during working hours. But this advantage is true only to the extent that the priest remains open to new and continuing revelation. Some of the greatest scientists of recent history have shown us how easily those tables can turn, because new and continuing revelation is part of their job description.
For the clergy who can maintain that reverent love for a nameless, faceless Great Mystery in their midst, and scientists who can take off their dualistic goggles when off the clock, there is all the common ground in the world on which to meet and relate as kindred spirits. Natural proclivities will undoubtedly steer one toward the priesthood or the sciences, and once steered, there is no sound reason for one to begrudge the other, or say one’s job invalidates the other. We might as well have fire fighters and police officers arguing over whose job is more important.
Hopefully I have laid the foundation for seeing even the most agnostic parts of the Pastafarian platform as fertile ground for new and continuing revelation –in theory. In Part 2, I will put the Flying Spaghetti Monster under the microscope and tell you what I see. You may be surprised.
(1) From the Wikipedia page on the Religious views of Charles Darwin: “In 1879 John Fordyce wrote asking if Darwin believed in God, and if theism and evolution were compatible. Darwin replied that a man ‘can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist’…and for himself, ‘In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’ Those opposing religion often took Darwin as their inspiration and expected his support for their cause, a role he firmly refused.”
(2) In the first draft, I wrote “with the veil of duality lifted.” But that seemed like an overly dualistic impression in itself, that the veil is either fully intact or it is gone, and not terribly accurate either. I need to develop the wording for this, but it seems to me that we perceive the supernatural through “thin spots” in our rational mind’s ability to understand its sensory fields verbally –those magical moments when “there are no words” for something. Where there are outright holes in the veil, so to speak, this is likely to produce a level of confusion beyond what most people can handle, and psychological damage is likely…unless the observer is properly conditioned with a context for non-duality, in which case paranoia can be turned inside-out into metanoia….like I said, needs some work 🙂