Austrian Court Okays Head-Colander in Driver’s License: Is Pastafarianism Becoming a Religion?

After three years of waiting, Nico Alm of Austria has won the right to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his driver’s license photo. Alm is an atheist but he’s also a “Pastafarian,” a member of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. After providing a doctor’s note ensuring that he was mentally fit to drive, his request was granted, but Austrian authorities were careful to point out that he was not granted a religious exception: The pasta strainer did not cover his face, thus making the photo acceptable. Alm’s next step will be to petition the Austrian government to recognize Pastafarianism as a valid religion.

The mythology of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or FSM) was created as a satire, though it has provided religion scholars with an interesting case study. As the ranks of the Pastafarians continue to swell on both sides of the Atlantic, scholars and legal experts are challenged to reassess their definition of religion.

FSM is a reflection of America’s longstanding tensions over both the establishment and the free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. It arose in response to the debate over teaching evolution in schools, a problem that has persisted since the 1925 Scopes Trial. In 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to allow Intelligent Design to be taught in science classes as an alternative theory to evolution.

Intelligent Design (or ID), which has been described as “Creationism presented in non-religious terms,” posits that certain features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent designer (read: God). Proponents of ID argue that students should be taught “both sides of the debate” and that science classes should present ID alongside evolution. Unemployed physics graduate Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter to the school board, supporting their decision to teach multiple perspectives but insisting that students also be taught a third perspective: The possibility that Earth was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. As Henderson put it:

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.

Henderson’s letter was published on his website, thus beginning the Pastafarian movement.

Henderson’s critique of ID was undeniably clever, but also continued a long tradition of arguments against religious truth claims. Since the Enlightenment, writers such as Voltaire have used satire as their weapon of choice when critiquing religion. Richard Dawkins praised FSM in his atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, and noted that it was a revival of Bertrand Russell’s argument of the “celestial teapot”—a hypothetical teapot orbiting the sun that, like God, no one could prove did not exist.

Furthermore, education experts had already argued that there are far more than “two sides” regarding how the universe came to be. In his book Overcoming Inertia in School Reform (2002), Robert Murray Thomas suggested that teaching a biblical account of creation in a science class might be acceptable so long as it was part of a unit on comparative approaches to human origins where Genesis was read alongside other Abrahamic, Asian, and indigenous narratives.

FSM became an internet sensation, drawing support primarily from atheists and college students. In online forums, the doctrines and mythology of FSM were expanded and in 2006 Henderson published The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pirates somehow found their way into this mythology, becoming an important symbol of the movement. In a parody of the pseudo-scientific arguments sometimes used by creationists, Pastafarians created charts showing a direct relationship between declining numbers of pirates and rising global temperature. In 2008, Pastafarians organized “Skepticon,” an annual convention for skeptics and atheists held in the heart of the Bible Belt. FSM also gained significant support in Europe. In 2007, FSM appeared in a Council of Europe report on efforts to teach creationism in schools.

Success has altered the polemics of FSM as Pastafarianism has become closely aligned with the so-called “New Atheist” movement. Henderson once remarked, “I dont have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and hes intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.” Henderson used his satire defensively, acting in the interest of scientific rigor and the separation between church and state.

By contrast, many current Pastafarians have, like Alm, gone on the offensive. Alm’s quest to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his driver’s license photo was in response to Austria’s exception for religious head-coverings such as the hijab worn by Muslim women. In his blog, Alm describes his resentment that government policies make exceptions to accommodate religious liberties. The apparent goal of his Pastafarian protest is to push the envelope of religious liberty until it becomes either untenable or unreasonable.

In America, people have been pushing this envelope since the 1960s, but for the opposite reason: to gain religious exceptions. In 1966, Arthur Kelps created the “Neo-American Church,” which claimed LSD as a sacrament. Demonstrating the sort of silliness that defines Pastafarianism, the Neo-American Church hymnal included “Puff the Magic Dragon” and their motto was “Victory Over Horseshit.” While their bid to legally use LSD was struck down in 1968, last month Ariana Iacono of North Carolina successfully sued her school district over her right to wear a nose-ring to school; Iacono was a member of the Church of Body Modification, founded in 1999.

All this highlights the need for a more sophisticated understanding of religion. In American jurisprudence, the definition of religion, which has remained largely implicit, has been psychological, focusing on the individual and what he or she believes. Defining religion this way also prioritizes belief in supernatural forces—the very aspect of religion that Pastafarians find so objectionable.

What scholars generally refer to as a “substantive” definition of religion has, since the 1960s, become increasingly unmanageable. In United States v. Seeger (1965), a case over conscientious objector status, the Supreme Court established the so-called “sincerity requirement”; i.e. those invoking religious liberties are required to demonstrate their sincerity. However, this requirement is rarely invoked in court decisions, precisely due to the difficulty in assessing “sincerity.”

Scholars, like Jay Demerath III (an expert witness in a case involving the Church of Body Modification), have proposed that governments adopt a more sociological or “functional” definition of religion, shifting focus from individuals and their beliefs to communities and their practices. The father of the functional definition, Emile Durkheim, famously defined religion as: “Beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.” By asking, “What does this church do,” instead of, “What does this church believe,” it may become easier to discern satirical ploys from religious practices worthy of legal protection.

Unfortunately, each solution creates new problems.

While FSM began as a joke, the community that has formed around it has come increasingly to resemble Durkheim’s moral community. Historically, critics of organized religion have framed the alternative as a worldview that is individualistic and cerebral. For example, Thomas Paine stated, “My mind is my church.” What’s so significant about Pastafarianism is that it’s taken atheistic philosophy and infused it with collective meaning in the form of rites and symbols. The image of FSM now appears on car bumpers, necklaces, and as street graffiti.

In addition to Skepticon, Pastafarians have also created International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Pastover, and Ramendon. For functionalists, it is irrelevant whether Pastafarians sincerely believe in their noodly deity. This shared body of symbols and practices has spawned an esprit de corps, uniting philosophical atheists and agnostics into a moral community, meaning that Pastafarianism may well be on its way to becoming a religion—in both the substantive and the functional sense. 

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).