Monday, December 05, 2005

Of Spaghetti Monsters and People

From the August issue of The Seattle Sinner.
A Parody Religion Takes on Creationism and Intelligent Design

By Jeremy M. Barker

“Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design,” Bobby Henderson wrote in a letter to the Kansas school board in June. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Confused? Well, you wouldn’t be the first. But let’s take step back: In order to understand how a Flying Spaghetti Monster has become a global protest, it’s necessary to understand the long, sordid story of ID (Intelligent Design). ID has recently replaced gay marriage and stem cell research as the front-line of the culture war; from small town school boards across the country to the front pages of The New York Times, from the floor of the Senate to the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian, ID is being debated everywhere. To its supporters (including the President and the Senate Majority), ID is an important theory that deserves classroom time alongside the theory of evolution. To critics in the mainstream science community (who refer to it as “neo-creo” for “neo-creationism”) it’s just another attempt by evangelical Christians to get Jesus back in the classroom.

Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species pretty much killed creationism in the eyes of serious scientists, but Christians pushed on. In 1925, a Tennessee schoolteacher named John Scopes was convicted of violating state law by teaching evolution in what is widely regarded as one of the most important court cases in American history, the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Despite being taught throughout the country today, evolution has never really won the culture war. Only in a 1986 court case, Edwards v. Aguillard, was creationism finally ousted from school curriculums on First Amendment grounds.

Conservatives set out to find a loophole, and that loophole, such as it is, came in 1993. Bruce K. Chapman, a former Seattle city council member and one-time liberal Republican, came across an article by Stephen Meyer, a historian and philosopher of science at a Christian college in Spokane, about ID. Chapman connected Meyer to his old friend George Gilder. Over a dinner at the historic Sorrento Hotel, according to a recent New York Times article, Meyer and Gilder found common ground in opposing what they saw as the secular-materialist bent of modern science and, with Chapman, set out to create a think tank to promote their oppositional religious theory. The result was the creation, in 1996, of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute here in Seattle. From the Institute’s offices in the Melbourne Building at Third and Pike, they set out to defeat Darwinism.

The result was Intelligent Design in its modern form. To skirt the Constitutional prohibition on teaching creationism, ID takes a novel approach: Discovery Institute scientists collected a handful of mostly weak criticisms of evolution, argued they point to the presence of an unnamed “intelligent designer,” and set out to get equal classroom time. Although the Institute has worked with Catholic and Jewish organizations, its greatest success has been piggybacking on the success of evangelical organizations. By working with large national organizations like Focus on the Family, the Discovery Institute created a grassroots movement by distributing its materials to small-town ministers across the country, who in turn used the power of their pulpit to lobby local school boards to adopt ID curriculums.

But there is one crucial flaw in the ID argument: in order to dodge Constitutional restrictions on promoting one religion over others, it doesn’t speculate as to who or what its “intelligent designer” is; it suffices to criticize Darwin, assuming that its own theory points to some sort of Judeo-Christian God.

Enter Bobby Henderson. A 25-year-old, out of work physics student from Oregon State University in Corvallis, Henderson had a late-night revelation born of “a combination of insomnia and mounting disgust over the whole ID issue”: people could just as well have been created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The joke was funny enough for him to send a letter (available at his website) to Kansas school board members as they were debating adopting ID curriculum.

In the letter he set out to prove, using the same sort of dubious logic employed by IDers, that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster (or, in the preferred on-line shorthand, “FSM”).

“Pastafarianism,” as the belief has come to be known, has, according to the letter, over 10 million adherents. “I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory,” Henderson wrote. “It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia.” The website includes a graph demonstrating compelling evidence which links global warming to the decreasing number of pirates worldwide.

In an e-mail interview, Henderson admitted, “I have no idea how FSM got so big. I think it must have struck a nerve with a lot of people. [The websites] Fark and BoingBoing are responsible for a lot of it. I would say it’s 99% an Internet phenomenon. The newspapers have picked up on it now, but that’s a result of it becoming so popular on the Internet.” Indeed, what started out as a joke has become something of a global phenomenon. A Google search for “Flying Spaghetti Monster” returns over 201,000 hits as of Aug. 28th (up from 155,000 only three days earlier). Henderson’s website includes endorsements from well over 20 Ph.D.’s from around the world, and FSM has been reported on in sources as diverse as The New Scientist and England’s The Guardian newspaper.

Asked his opinion of ID, Henderson responded “...the [Kansas School Board] is trying to prove [an] a priori position.  They are rewriting the definition of science to conform to their personal dogmatic views.  Teaching ID is maybe ok, but not in a science classroom.  The fact that the KSBoard has changed the definition of science to allow supernatural explanations is a good indication that they don’t understand what science is, and it’s obvious they have no business deciding the science curriculum.” His website lists responses from three board members opposed to ID, one even commenting, “Thanks for the laugh. Your web site is fascinating. I will add your theory to a long list of alternative theories I intend to introduce when it is appropriate. I am practicing how to do this with a straight face which is difficult since it’s such a ridiculous subject; it is also very sad that we are even having the discussion.”

Henderson, asked whether any ID-supporters on the Kansas board had responded to the letter, wrote, “The majority members still have not responded to the letter, but I have it on good authority that they’re receiving dozens of e-mails a day by loyal Pastafarians, so I’m hopeful they'll respond soon.”

Not that FSM hasn’t earned Henderson some harsh critics. Asked about hate mail, Henderson provided an remarkably grammar-free message concluding, “fucking humans, your all pathetic. you dont know shit bitch.” A similarly grammar-challenged e-mail informed Henderson, “"This is obviously a slap in the face against Creation. I can only say I will obviously give you mention in Church to pray for you. You are obviously an atheist. It is obvious I am a Christian. It is also obvious that you are living in the ignorant bliss of humanism. It is also obvious that we both disagree. I can also say that I have considered evolution in years gone by and that any obviously discerning and intelligent person who is willing to think beyond the blind acceptance of science and it’s theories will come to the conclusion that obviously the world in all of its complxity's and
diverse lifestyles is not an accident but was created by a far superior intelligence than I see you or I obviously possess.”

Henderson himself isn’t actually a particularly strident atheist. Asked if there was anything he wanted made clear, he replied, “One thing I think a lot of people are missing is that this isn’t about science vs. religion, it’s about thought vs. dogma. We oppose what the [Kansas School Board] is doing not because of their views of our origins, but because of the way they’re using specious reasoning to push these views into classrooms. ID shouldn’t be taught in science classrooms because it’s not science.”


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