Last week, an Austrian man named Niko Alm won what he says is a fundamental victory for religious freedom: he was permitted to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his driver’s license photo. Alm, a self-identified “Pastafarian,” said that his religion requires him to wear the strainer, and petitioned for the right after reading that head coverings were only allowed in driver’s license photos for “confessional purposes.”
Now, three years and one mental health screening later, Alm has his driver’s license photo. His next step is to petition the Austrian government to recognize “Pastafarianism,” or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as an official religion. Alm’s crusade is best understood in the context of the creationism debate of the mid-2000′s, when the Kansas State Board of Education voted to teach Intelligent Design alongside evolution in science classes. ”Pastafarian” Bobby Henderson petitioned for the state to include his “religion’s” perspective. He wrote in an open letter:
“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.”
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) became an online sensation, at least for a few years – which is presumably when Alm, an atheist, “converted” to the religion and began to petition for the pasta strainer. Unlike Henderson, who seemed content to mock the establishment’s missteps, Alm is more aggressive. According to Joseph Laycock of Religion Dispatches, on his blog, Alm “describes his resentment that government policies make exceptions to accommodate religious liberties.” His petitions on behalf of “Pastafarianism” are part of a larger mission to make these exceptions “untenable or unreasonable.”
Laycock suggests that the success of “Pastafarianism” may signal that although its origins were humorous, it is actually a candidate for status as a religion because it forms a “moral community.” While Alm’s struggle may seem ridiculous, it raises useful questions about how religion functions in public discourse and in relation to public life. With Rick Perry loudly endorsing his prayer rally, Herman Cain’s claim that American communities should be able to ban mosques, and, most recently, Fox news hosts declaring that Mitt Romney is “not a Christian,” it’s plain that religion is playing an increasingly distorted role in our public discourse. If faith becomes merely a tool for political gain or fear-mongering, maybe it’s easier to understand why some atheists are inventing religions to fight back.
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