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Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

BessieExt     220px-Kopimizm.svg

Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Finding religiosity within a parody

Finding religiosity within a parody

By: Essi Mäkelä, University of Helsinki

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on ”Invented Religions” (30 January 2012).

A parody of religion will include elements that are accepted as religious within the society. This makes sure the parody is recognized as being targeted towards religion. Hence, a parody of religion will tell us what is accepted as a legitimate part of religion in the society where a parody or a joke on religion would be at home. Intuitively this includes nonreligious, irreligious or ”indifferent” people who have not found the official religion(s) to attend to their needs in interpreting life and the world. From this perspective it is understandable such parodies of religion would spur to life on a university campus, among students.

As with other religious activities, there are different levels of participation in this parody. At one end, some find beauty in the cermonies of the local church so they get married, baptize their children and bury their relatives using the services the church provides. Some find meaning in these practices and will pray and think about religious texts and meanings while occasionally participating at the church. At the other end lies complete devotion , with religion being a way of life and consuming most of the participants’ time and interest. This is also true for ”alternative” religiosity, such as paganism or ”Witchcraft” (McGuire, 2002: 122) – why not for ”fiction-based” or ”invented religions” (Davidsen, 2011; Cusack, 2010) too? For some, the parodies and sci-fi narratives are simply entertainment and fun. However, others seem to contemplate more deeply, finding a seed of truth in the parody and so come to refer to these narratives more often and more (or less) seriously.

In Principia Discordia, the book of Discordianism, there is a concept of The Law of Fives. Principia claims that there is a memo in ”The Erisian Archives” from Mal-2 (Greg Hill) to Omar Ravenhurst (Kerry Thornley) which says: “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.” Come to think of it, this applies to all things in life. If you are concentrating on something, you will tend to notice a connection between almost anything and the subject you are meditating on. If you find a joke or a fiction good enough – ”so good it should be true” as Cusack puts it (podcast 14:00-14:35)– you will probably start seeing it manifest in the world more often than not. Even if it begins as a joke, the more a joke is told and applied to incidents in real life, the closer you may come to accepting the narrative as true.

This process can be analogised to the process of converting to any other religious (or, indeed, explicitly ”nonreligious”) group, where individuals build new narratives for their past life and explain experienced incidents from the point of view of the new religious community of conversion. In the case of Discordianism or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the community might be no more than a collection of texts on the Internet. But the simple act of reading about someone who has – even jokingly – been reflecting on the original joke ”as if it was true”, might start a process of coming to believe in its literal truth.

For my Master’s Thesis, I have interviewed people who put a lot of emphasis on the philosophical worldview of Discordianism. According to questionnaires and face-to-face interviews conducted by myself and a student colleague, Hanna Lehtinen, in the winter of 2010/2011,  these individuals claimed to reflect on Discordianistic philosophical thought, and to utilise it in their everyday lives. When things get too tough, for example, a Discordian might find peace in the thought that this is just one point of view in the ultimate chaos within which everything is true, even false things… you just have to deal with it.

The terminological discussion surrounding these kinds of religions is indeed an interesting one. As Cusack points out (podcast 22:30-24:01), both invented and fiction-based religion have positive and negative connotations as definitions of a certain group of religious behaviours. Alternatively, David Chidester (2005) has used ”authentic fakes” as a description for religious behaviour which draws its inspiration from popular culture and which may be authentic religious behaviour but isn’t ”really” religious in the traditional sense – for example the First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis. He takes Discordianism as an example of orchestrated fake religion which might bring about some authentic religious experiences. Having said that, ”authentic fakes” fails to describe these religions as well as ”invented” or ”fiction-based” religions, and includes the pejorative word ”fake”  which implies that these are merely parodies of religion.

As Discordianism is somewhat different from the religions that are explicitly built on an existent fictional narrative, in my thesis I don’t yet discuss the definition of the other religions. According to our small-scale study, Discordianism is more or less religious in its ”counter attack” on religious thought. Hence Hanna Lehtinen calls Discordianism a ”counter religion” in an article yet to be published. Starting from these building blocks, and the ongoing discussion surrounding ”invented religions”, I am sure it will be possible to derive new definitions for new religious behaviour, and bring the study of religion into the new millenium.

About the Author

Essi Mäkelä is a Master of Arts student in Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. She is writing her thesis on how Discordianism fits into the theoretic framework of “liquid religion” as developed from Zigmunt Baumann’s “liquid modernity” by Teemu Taira, a Finnish scholar of religion.

 

 

References

Chidester, David , 2005. Authentic Fakes. Religion and American Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2005, Los Angeles, USA)

Cusack, Carole, 2010. Invented Religions.  Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)

Davidsen, Markus, 2011. “Jediism: a convergence of Star Wars fan culture and salad bar spirituality” (De Filosoof 51, Utrecht, May 2011, p.24)

McGuire, Meredith B. 2002. Religion. The Social Context (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA)

Invented Religions

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

[N.B., Carole asked us to let you know that when she said that George Adamski founded the Aetherius Society, she meant George King. Both Georges encountered Venusians in 1954, but Adamski was in the US and King in the UK. A forgivable error, we’re sure.]

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Of particular relevance to the topic of this interview is Carole’s article

Science Fiction as Scripture: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds in Christopher Hartney, Alex Norman, and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Creative Fantasy and the Religious Imagination, special issue of Literature & Aesthetics, Vol. 19, No. 2, SSLA, 2009, pp. 72-91. The full text is available here. If you have  access to the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, you may also find the following article of interest: Discordian Magic: Paganism, the Chaos Paradigm and the Power of Parody, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2011.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Carole M. Cusack on Invented Religions (30 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson (with Chris Cotter). Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson (DR): What if you choose to believe in a faith that you knew had been made up? And what if it worked all the same? That’s what Carole Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religions at the University of Sydney, asks in her recent book Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, and she’s with us today. Hi Carole!

Carole Cusack (CC): Hi David!

DR: So? Why should scholars take invented religions seriously?

CC: I think the best way into that query is to understand that human beings create, to some extent, their reality in the sense that they, as individuals and then in communities, tell narratives that make meaning, and they externalise those narratives, those narratives gain an objective status, and then, they’re re-internalised by individualized and communities as something that has facticity outside of simply being a human cultural production. That is a kind of summary of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social-constructionist model of reality-building, and religion is a kind of worldview and people do precisely the same thing with religions when they join a religion, when they take on a religion: they learn new vocabulary, they tell new stories to each other, new converts or people who are drifting close to joining are told those stories and rehearsed in actions, and language, so that they come to be part of the community. Where I’m going with this is that even though the phenomenon of religion sort of based explicitly on narratives that are known to be fictional seem to date only from the 1950s, there is a sense in which every religion has been invented in some sense, even those religions that claim revelation from an external deity. What happens is a person, a prophetic or charismatic leader, has an experience and communicates that experience as narrative to a group of people who haven’t had that experience, and they story-build, and talk about it, and externalize it, and objectivise it and then re-internalise it, and it becomes true… for them. And this is one of the issues with invented religions, as I term them in my book that came out in 2010. They are cases where the narrative actually predates the religion. The person who founds the religion already has in their possession a narrative that has been written by somebody else, and they think that this fictional narrative more accurately represents spiritual realities, values, meaning-conveying issues in life, than existent scriptures, and determine that they will make from a fiction a document that becomes a scripture, or a myth, or a program for human spiritual development.

DR: It begins with Discordianism, really, doesn’t it, that’s the first of these invented religions?

CC: Well, Discordianism is an interesting case because it’s not actually based on a pre-existent fiction, but it does, I think, kick off the phenomenon. It’s technically founded in 1957, and consequently, it’s the earliest of the religions that I study. There are other examples that fit almost exactly into that same milieu. For example, the quite highbrow American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, in 1958, founded what he calls a ‘micro-cult’, with Richard Fariña, the late folksinger, that was based on a novel, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, and this was a very specific campus-based thing. One thing fascinating about invented religion is the extent to which students, university and college students, are the people who create these stories, create these faiths from pre-existent stories. Discordianism is Greg Hill, later known as Malaclypse the Younger, and Kerry Thornley, later known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, sitting in a bowling alley with some of their friends, over a few nights, and coming up with the idea that the world as they understood it, which was very much a Cold War view, is just completely chaotic, and that if there is a deity, the deity is the deity of chaos, Eris, the great goddess of discord, called Discordia in Latin, and deliberately inventing a kind of farcical burlesque of religion based on this goddess. What’s most interesting about them is that even though they didn’t work from a pre-existing fictional narrative, they both went and some of the other very important contributors to the religion, like Robert Anton Wilson or Camden Benares, went through the same sort of processes. They both went through a process where they began knowing that they had made it up. But by the time they were speaking with Margot Adler in the middle 70’s, when she was writing Drawing Down the Moon, her pioneering study of alternative religionists in America, they both had come to the position that they realized that something that they thought was a fiction, that they had spun, was in fact a reality that was true. And this seems to me to be related, though not identical, to the process of picking up a pre-existent fictional text and attempting to instantiate it. To an extent, they are the authors of the fictional text. You could argue Principia Discordia was a piece of fiction they produced, and rather than waiting for someone else to pick it up and decide that it should be made into a religion, they gradually became auto-converted.

DR : And the other major invented religion that you are concerned with,the Church of All Worlds, they didn’t create the texts themselves, rather they appropriated some else’s text, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How are they different?

CC: Well, firstly, Discordianism begins as spirit of parody, as spirit of really kicking out against the culture of the 1950’s. It begins in rebellion. It begins in the desire to mock and to even vilify religion as hypocrisy, as ridiculous. And it becomes, to some extent, serious though there is still a strong element of parody, and Discordians tend to be chameleonic, irreverent, very difficult to pin down. The Church of all Worlds, which began at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1962, on the 7th of April, precisely, if you want. That was founded by two college students, Tim Zell and Richard Lance Christie, and in a lot of ways, they’re a brilliant contrast, to Hill and Thornley, because Hill and Thornley’s friendship broke apart over the years. They came to understand Discordianism very differently and to, in many ways, become bitter, and to become essentially broken through their experience of it. It’s significant, I think, that Zell and Christie were both psychology majors, and in fact, Zell went on to graduate work in psychology, which he didn’t finish. They formed a friendship that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, as Tim Zell in now known, he says: ‘He was Spock to my Kirk.’ They speak when… Christie was still alive, he died in 2010… they spoke of each other in terms that were familial, almost lover-like, the idea that when they met each other as friends, as undergraduates, it was the true recognition of the other person in the universe that they’d been missing up to that point. And consequently, they had a very strong shared program for what this religion was going to look like. They both read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which was released in 1961. They both fell in love with the book as they had with each other, and with psychology, and with certain ideas about world transformation. In 1962, what was formed was two branches. The Church of All Worlds, which was the religious arm, with Zell in charge. He was the early developer of liturgy and of praxis, mostly derived from Heinlein. And the waterbrotherhood called Atl, which Christie was in charge of, which became essentially an environmentalist project, an ecological project. And they kept those roles throughout the whole of the next forty-odd years, where Zell is the flamboyant religious leader, the Pagan, the magician, the trickster, the person who garnered public opinion and worked tirelessly as a promoter of the worship of Gaia as a religion, whereas Christie worked as almost entirely as a secular environmental activist, having done graduate work in environment science. So their religion doesn’t have a parodic element. It’s serious. It’s devotional. There’s playfulness there, but that comes largely, I think, from the sense that Heinlein’s own novel is full of playfulness, and the wholehearted rejection, especially of mainstream sexual morays, and wage slavery, and other kinds of ideas that were considered to be the successful life in the 1960’s, places CAW in that hippie drop-out rebellious camp, but it’s a rebellion that is not characterised by parody or by savage satire of religion. It’s rather a religion characterized by rejection of mainstream standards, and a religious vision, which actually is entirely serious.

DR: The element of satire comes back strongly with what you described as the Third Millennium and invented religions with… and they’re going further into things like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being outright attacks on religion, not just playful satires. Is there anything behind that change?

CC: That’s an interesting one and actually I think it’s important at this point to just refer for one minute to what Robert A. Heinlein said himself. He actually, even though he shares some values with CAW, i.e. he was into nudism, and polyamory, and he was politically very radical, sometimes very right wing, sometimes very left wing. He is absolutely non-religious, and he did not want his novel to be read as a religious tract. That’s quite interesting because it’s a novel that largely about religion, in various forms. But there is a notion that wants that once an author releases a story into the world… I started with storytelling in the way that humans use stories to world-build and to create identities. Heinlein released this story into the world and it was enthusiastically taken up by enormous numbers of mostly young people in the 60s. And in the early 1970s, Tim Zell began corresponding with Heinlein, and Heinlein subscribed to Green Egg, the newsletter that CAW published, and he always maintained, in fact, there’s passages in his published letters, that he doesn’t believe any of it, and he doesn’t really think that it was a great idea to turn his novel into a religion. But nevertheless, he came to like Zell and to find value in the way that he was appropriating this story and making the story live in a different way.

The Third Millennium new religion you just mentioned, the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, of course, it doesn’t start as a religion at all. It starts as a narrative that is a mockery, a very funny, and very clever mockery of intelligent design, the latest largely Christian repackaging of Creationism, which is very important in America, where issues about religion are so much more debated than they are in Europe or Australia, where I’m from. And of course, Bobby Henderson released that story into the world. He wrote The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an enormously funny book, and he created a mythology, he gave the FSM a noodle-y mess with meatballs for eyes as the creator of the universe. If you’re going to have to specify an intelligent designer, why shouldn’t it be the FSM? He created also a religion that would appeal to college students. Heaven has strippers and a beer volcano. So what happened of course was that people who read this and first thought what a hilarious piss-take it was, started saying exactly what Zell and Christie said about Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘This a is fiction so good, it should be true.’ So you have people starting sectarian branches of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the spirit of parodic religion, and Henderson has declined ever to be considered a prophet. But he’s also said he doesn’t really care what people do with it. He released it onto the market, people can pick it up and they can do with it what they want. And so you have the guy who publishes ‘Spaghetti-grams’, which are anagrams done on the computer, using the words ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and say, for example, whatever issue that you want advice on… so ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster sexual morality’, and you get Spaghetti-grams, which are four line quatrains, arranged of anagrams from the letters that are available. This is a kind of divinatory advice. People who wear colanders, pasta strainers, on their heads as religious headgear, as a recent case in Austria where a young man requested that he’d be allowed to wear such headgear in the photograph featured on his driver’s license, was tried in the courts and found to be a valid religious headgear. And so the story is what’s important, and how people build that story into an identity formation, whether as an individual, or whether as a group who want to create a cell, a church, for the FSM in real life. And that’s very amusing and very good fun. And it does critique religion, but it critiques religion in an interesting way because, I think that scholars who, for a long time, have been comfortable with the idea that there could be religions that don’t have any gods, that in fact aren’t supra-empirical or supernaturally oriented, there are just really about what people do in their lives… this is not generally a view that the person in the street finds easy to accept. Usually, if you vox-pop, one of the first things you get, if you say ‘what do you think there has to be as a vital element to make something a religion?’, most people will say God or gods. But scholarship is very comfortable with the idea that religions are really about people, this is because scholarship is a secular activity. It’s not theology. It’s not confessional. We understand that human beings are makers of their own worlds. And so, those people who are making their religious world out of the Star Wars trilogy or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they’re doing something that scholars are very comfortable with.

Chris Cotter: You’re raising very valid points which gel with my own work into the atheists, etc., and one of the big critiques that contemporary atheism or non-religion has of religion is that it is invented, and they spend an awful lot of time demonstrating that the Bible was written by people or this religion was just founded by some guys who wrote a novel or whatever, and they seem to think that this will make a difference. Does it?

CC: No… look, I think this is one of the great problems with atheism in the 21th century. I’m very sympathetic to atheist discourses and I think it is correct that they’re included among other religious discourses. But for me, the main problem is that atheists seem to think that if you can mount and knock down arguments that are based on either rationality or empiricism, the twin poles of the Enlightenment, that you won’t be able to make people realized that their beliefs or their practices are erroneous and should be abandoned, and it seems to me that this is entirely counter-intuitive. Human beings are capable of rationality, but very very few, even educated Westerners, operate consistently on principles of rationality, and you only have to look at statistics from the US, which often talk about the fact that people who have science degrees are very likely to be Creationists. Human beings have compartmentalised knowledges, issues of identity formation, and things that they considered precious and important, and these don’t often bleed into each other. So I’m afraid I think the atheist argument that you can demonstrate that religious texts were written by humans, or that you can demonstrate that the founder of a particular religion, like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, was in some sense a huckster or a fraud, I don’t see that these are important because they don’t take into account that the lived experience of people is more powerful to them than any kind of argument drawn from rational principles. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it seems to me that it is how it is.

DR: Scientology is a white elephant in your book, isn’t? Is that a deliberate decision so as to not get sued or… I can’t imagine that’s the case, knowing you… or was it rather that you considered them or don’t consider them to be in the same class as the other invented religions?

CC: Scientology is really difficult. It comes out of exactly the same milieu. The Church of Scientology is founded in the 1950s, 1954 to be precise, on the back on Dianetics, and yes, it contained science fiction tropes, and in the 21th century, what we know about it looks a lot like an invented religion. I am ambivalent about Scientology, because I don’t think it begins as an invented religion. It begins as a critique of psychiatry. It begins as a therapy. It begins as a… an answer to the problems of modern life, and it’s not surprising that when Dianetics was released, major psychologists like Erich Fromm actually reviewed it, and it was treated as a work of amateur psychology. What’s interesting about it is that it goes along exactly the same track as the theosophical legacy, because L. Ron Hubbard begins with clearing engrams that are experiences that ones has had in the past in one’s life. They the engrams go back to in utero, then they go back to past lives, and before you know what happened, these past lives may be on other planets involving extraterrestrials. This is in fact exactly what happens with theosophical ascended masters. Madame Blavatsky’s masters where real Tibetans living in Tibet, who were alive in her life. After she died, mediumship contacted people who were dead, people who lived in Ancient Egypt, mythical figures like the Comte de Saint Germain for people like Guy Ballard and before you know it, it’s people from other planets, Venusians like Orthon who speak to George King. These sorts of things are a logical extension. So in some senses, I would place Scientology in a post-theosophical therapeutic milieu. And I think, as we came to know as scholars, a lot more about the Operating Thetan levels, the Xenu mythology in particular made it look a lot more like an invented religion, but at the moment, I’m just not 100% sure that I would put it in the same category.

DR: Well, this is absolutely cutting-edge research. Has anybody taken up your research and challenged it or taken it further?

CC: The interesting thing is that it’s evolving so fast, I’m not quite sure. I came up with the term ‘invented religions’, but I really wanted emphasis to be placed on the subtitle, which was Imagination, Fiction and Faith, ‘cause I think the human imagination creates the stories, the stories are fictions, people come to have faith in them, I think that’s really important. But very, very shortly before I completed the book, I met Markus Davidsen, who’s doing his PhD at the University of Leiden and the University of Aarhus, and he is working on what he calls ‘fiction-based religions’, because he’s working on Jediism and spirituality and religious groups that have grown out of the Tolkien mythos. I thought in some sense that was a better title. We discussed this privately and he went for ‘fiction-based religions’ because he thought that all religions are invented, which was where I started today. And I could see the sense of that, but then we linked up with Danielle Kirby, who’s at Monash University and who did her PhD on the Otherkin, and she argues that ‘fiction-based religions’ is no good because it’s too passive a term, and what we’re really looking at is a kind of actively constructed type of new spirituality, that… you need the dynamism of invention and you need the content of fiction, but what we’re still looking for now is a better term to characterize these groups. That being said, I’ve had very favourable email contacts from mostly Discordians and members of the Church of All Worlds, including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who actually helped me a lot with the research that I did in that book, and they are very comfortable with my term ‘invented religions’. But these, of course, are not people within the academy and I think it’s within the academy, that the category, that area, whatever you want to call it, is going to be developed and refined, and that’s happening, it’s just not quite clear where it’s going to go yet.

DR: Professor Cusack, thank you.

CC: It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Cusack, Carole M. and David G. Robertson, with Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Invented Religions.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-carole-cusack-on-invented-religions/

Podcasts

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

BessieExt     220px-Kopimizm.svg

Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Finding religiosity within a parody

Finding religiosity within a parody

By: Essi Mäkelä, University of Helsinki

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on ”Invented Religions” (30 January 2012).

A parody of religion will include elements that are accepted as religious within the society. This makes sure the parody is recognized as being targeted towards religion. Hence, a parody of religion will tell us what is accepted as a legitimate part of religion in the society where a parody or a joke on religion would be at home. Intuitively this includes nonreligious, irreligious or ”indifferent” people who have not found the official religion(s) to attend to their needs in interpreting life and the world. From this perspective it is understandable such parodies of religion would spur to life on a university campus, among students.

As with other religious activities, there are different levels of participation in this parody. At one end, some find beauty in the cermonies of the local church so they get married, baptize their children and bury their relatives using the services the church provides. Some find meaning in these practices and will pray and think about religious texts and meanings while occasionally participating at the church. At the other end lies complete devotion , with religion being a way of life and consuming most of the participants’ time and interest. This is also true for ”alternative” religiosity, such as paganism or ”Witchcraft” (McGuire, 2002: 122) – why not for ”fiction-based” or ”invented religions” (Davidsen, 2011; Cusack, 2010) too? For some, the parodies and sci-fi narratives are simply entertainment and fun. However, others seem to contemplate more deeply, finding a seed of truth in the parody and so come to refer to these narratives more often and more (or less) seriously.

In Principia Discordia, the book of Discordianism, there is a concept of The Law of Fives. Principia claims that there is a memo in ”The Erisian Archives” from Mal-2 (Greg Hill) to Omar Ravenhurst (Kerry Thornley) which says: “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.” Come to think of it, this applies to all things in life. If you are concentrating on something, you will tend to notice a connection between almost anything and the subject you are meditating on. If you find a joke or a fiction good enough – ”so good it should be true” as Cusack puts it (podcast 14:00-14:35)– you will probably start seeing it manifest in the world more often than not. Even if it begins as a joke, the more a joke is told and applied to incidents in real life, the closer you may come to accepting the narrative as true.

This process can be analogised to the process of converting to any other religious (or, indeed, explicitly ”nonreligious”) group, where individuals build new narratives for their past life and explain experienced incidents from the point of view of the new religious community of conversion. In the case of Discordianism or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the community might be no more than a collection of texts on the Internet. But the simple act of reading about someone who has – even jokingly – been reflecting on the original joke ”as if it was true”, might start a process of coming to believe in its literal truth.

For my Master’s Thesis, I have interviewed people who put a lot of emphasis on the philosophical worldview of Discordianism. According to questionnaires and face-to-face interviews conducted by myself and a student colleague, Hanna Lehtinen, in the winter of 2010/2011,  these individuals claimed to reflect on Discordianistic philosophical thought, and to utilise it in their everyday lives. When things get too tough, for example, a Discordian might find peace in the thought that this is just one point of view in the ultimate chaos within which everything is true, even false things… you just have to deal with it.

The terminological discussion surrounding these kinds of religions is indeed an interesting one. As Cusack points out (podcast 22:30-24:01), both invented and fiction-based religion have positive and negative connotations as definitions of a certain group of religious behaviours. Alternatively, David Chidester (2005) has used ”authentic fakes” as a description for religious behaviour which draws its inspiration from popular culture and which may be authentic religious behaviour but isn’t ”really” religious in the traditional sense – for example the First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis. He takes Discordianism as an example of orchestrated fake religion which might bring about some authentic religious experiences. Having said that, ”authentic fakes” fails to describe these religions as well as ”invented” or ”fiction-based” religions, and includes the pejorative word ”fake”  which implies that these are merely parodies of religion.

As Discordianism is somewhat different from the religions that are explicitly built on an existent fictional narrative, in my thesis I don’t yet discuss the definition of the other religions. According to our small-scale study, Discordianism is more or less religious in its ”counter attack” on religious thought. Hence Hanna Lehtinen calls Discordianism a ”counter religion” in an article yet to be published. Starting from these building blocks, and the ongoing discussion surrounding ”invented religions”, I am sure it will be possible to derive new definitions for new religious behaviour, and bring the study of religion into the new millenium.

About the Author

Essi Mäkelä is a Master of Arts student in Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. She is writing her thesis on how Discordianism fits into the theoretic framework of “liquid religion” as developed from Zigmunt Baumann’s “liquid modernity” by Teemu Taira, a Finnish scholar of religion.

 

 

References

Chidester, David , 2005. Authentic Fakes. Religion and American Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2005, Los Angeles, USA)

Cusack, Carole, 2010. Invented Religions.  Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)

Davidsen, Markus, 2011. “Jediism: a convergence of Star Wars fan culture and salad bar spirituality” (De Filosoof 51, Utrecht, May 2011, p.24)

McGuire, Meredith B. 2002. Religion. The Social Context (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA)

Invented Religions

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

[N.B., Carole asked us to let you know that when she said that George Adamski founded the Aetherius Society, she meant George King. Both Georges encountered Venusians in 1954, but Adamski was in the US and King in the UK. A forgivable error, we’re sure.]

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Of particular relevance to the topic of this interview is Carole’s article

Science Fiction as Scripture: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds in Christopher Hartney, Alex Norman, and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Creative Fantasy and the Religious Imagination, special issue of Literature & Aesthetics, Vol. 19, No. 2, SSLA, 2009, pp. 72-91. The full text is available here. If you have  access to the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, you may also find the following article of interest: Discordian Magic: Paganism, the Chaos Paradigm and the Power of Parody, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2011.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Carole M. Cusack on Invented Religions (30 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson (with Chris Cotter). Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson (DR): What if you choose to believe in a faith that you knew had been made up? And what if it worked all the same? That’s what Carole Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religions at the University of Sydney, asks in her recent book Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, and she’s with us today. Hi Carole!

Carole Cusack (CC): Hi David!

DR: So? Why should scholars take invented religions seriously?

CC: I think the best way into that query is to understand that human beings create, to some extent, their reality in the sense that they, as individuals and then in communities, tell narratives that make meaning, and they externalise those narratives, those narratives gain an objective status, and then, they’re re-internalised by individualized and communities as something that has facticity outside of simply being a human cultural production. That is a kind of summary of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social-constructionist model of reality-building, and religion is a kind of worldview and people do precisely the same thing with religions when they join a religion, when they take on a religion: they learn new vocabulary, they tell new stories to each other, new converts or people who are drifting close to joining are told those stories and rehearsed in actions, and language, so that they come to be part of the community. Where I’m going with this is that even though the phenomenon of religion sort of based explicitly on narratives that are known to be fictional seem to date only from the 1950s, there is a sense in which every religion has been invented in some sense, even those religions that claim revelation from an external deity. What happens is a person, a prophetic or charismatic leader, has an experience and communicates that experience as narrative to a group of people who haven’t had that experience, and they story-build, and talk about it, and externalize it, and objectivise it and then re-internalise it, and it becomes true… for them. And this is one of the issues with invented religions, as I term them in my book that came out in 2010. They are cases where the narrative actually predates the religion. The person who founds the religion already has in their possession a narrative that has been written by somebody else, and they think that this fictional narrative more accurately represents spiritual realities, values, meaning-conveying issues in life, than existent scriptures, and determine that they will make from a fiction a document that becomes a scripture, or a myth, or a program for human spiritual development.

DR: It begins with Discordianism, really, doesn’t it, that’s the first of these invented religions?

CC: Well, Discordianism is an interesting case because it’s not actually based on a pre-existent fiction, but it does, I think, kick off the phenomenon. It’s technically founded in 1957, and consequently, it’s the earliest of the religions that I study. There are other examples that fit almost exactly into that same milieu. For example, the quite highbrow American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, in 1958, founded what he calls a ‘micro-cult’, with Richard Fariña, the late folksinger, that was based on a novel, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, and this was a very specific campus-based thing. One thing fascinating about invented religion is the extent to which students, university and college students, are the people who create these stories, create these faiths from pre-existent stories. Discordianism is Greg Hill, later known as Malaclypse the Younger, and Kerry Thornley, later known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, sitting in a bowling alley with some of their friends, over a few nights, and coming up with the idea that the world as they understood it, which was very much a Cold War view, is just completely chaotic, and that if there is a deity, the deity is the deity of chaos, Eris, the great goddess of discord, called Discordia in Latin, and deliberately inventing a kind of farcical burlesque of religion based on this goddess. What’s most interesting about them is that even though they didn’t work from a pre-existing fictional narrative, they both went and some of the other very important contributors to the religion, like Robert Anton Wilson or Camden Benares, went through the same sort of processes. They both went through a process where they began knowing that they had made it up. But by the time they were speaking with Margot Adler in the middle 70’s, when she was writing Drawing Down the Moon, her pioneering study of alternative religionists in America, they both had come to the position that they realized that something that they thought was a fiction, that they had spun, was in fact a reality that was true. And this seems to me to be related, though not identical, to the process of picking up a pre-existent fictional text and attempting to instantiate it. To an extent, they are the authors of the fictional text. You could argue Principia Discordia was a piece of fiction they produced, and rather than waiting for someone else to pick it up and decide that it should be made into a religion, they gradually became auto-converted.

DR : And the other major invented religion that you are concerned with,the Church of All Worlds, they didn’t create the texts themselves, rather they appropriated some else’s text, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How are they different?

CC: Well, firstly, Discordianism begins as spirit of parody, as spirit of really kicking out against the culture of the 1950’s. It begins in rebellion. It begins in the desire to mock and to even vilify religion as hypocrisy, as ridiculous. And it becomes, to some extent, serious though there is still a strong element of parody, and Discordians tend to be chameleonic, irreverent, very difficult to pin down. The Church of all Worlds, which began at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1962, on the 7th of April, precisely, if you want. That was founded by two college students, Tim Zell and Richard Lance Christie, and in a lot of ways, they’re a brilliant contrast, to Hill and Thornley, because Hill and Thornley’s friendship broke apart over the years. They came to understand Discordianism very differently and to, in many ways, become bitter, and to become essentially broken through their experience of it. It’s significant, I think, that Zell and Christie were both psychology majors, and in fact, Zell went on to graduate work in psychology, which he didn’t finish. They formed a friendship that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, as Tim Zell in now known, he says: ‘He was Spock to my Kirk.’ They speak when… Christie was still alive, he died in 2010… they spoke of each other in terms that were familial, almost lover-like, the idea that when they met each other as friends, as undergraduates, it was the true recognition of the other person in the universe that they’d been missing up to that point. And consequently, they had a very strong shared program for what this religion was going to look like. They both read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which was released in 1961. They both fell in love with the book as they had with each other, and with psychology, and with certain ideas about world transformation. In 1962, what was formed was two branches. The Church of All Worlds, which was the religious arm, with Zell in charge. He was the early developer of liturgy and of praxis, mostly derived from Heinlein. And the waterbrotherhood called Atl, which Christie was in charge of, which became essentially an environmentalist project, an ecological project. And they kept those roles throughout the whole of the next forty-odd years, where Zell is the flamboyant religious leader, the Pagan, the magician, the trickster, the person who garnered public opinion and worked tirelessly as a promoter of the worship of Gaia as a religion, whereas Christie worked as almost entirely as a secular environmental activist, having done graduate work in environment science. So their religion doesn’t have a parodic element. It’s serious. It’s devotional. There’s playfulness there, but that comes largely, I think, from the sense that Heinlein’s own novel is full of playfulness, and the wholehearted rejection, especially of mainstream sexual morays, and wage slavery, and other kinds of ideas that were considered to be the successful life in the 1960’s, places CAW in that hippie drop-out rebellious camp, but it’s a rebellion that is not characterised by parody or by savage satire of religion. It’s rather a religion characterized by rejection of mainstream standards, and a religious vision, which actually is entirely serious.

DR: The element of satire comes back strongly with what you described as the Third Millennium and invented religions with… and they’re going further into things like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being outright attacks on religion, not just playful satires. Is there anything behind that change?

CC: That’s an interesting one and actually I think it’s important at this point to just refer for one minute to what Robert A. Heinlein said himself. He actually, even though he shares some values with CAW, i.e. he was into nudism, and polyamory, and he was politically very radical, sometimes very right wing, sometimes very left wing. He is absolutely non-religious, and he did not want his novel to be read as a religious tract. That’s quite interesting because it’s a novel that largely about religion, in various forms. But there is a notion that wants that once an author releases a story into the world… I started with storytelling in the way that humans use stories to world-build and to create identities. Heinlein released this story into the world and it was enthusiastically taken up by enormous numbers of mostly young people in the 60s. And in the early 1970s, Tim Zell began corresponding with Heinlein, and Heinlein subscribed to Green Egg, the newsletter that CAW published, and he always maintained, in fact, there’s passages in his published letters, that he doesn’t believe any of it, and he doesn’t really think that it was a great idea to turn his novel into a religion. But nevertheless, he came to like Zell and to find value in the way that he was appropriating this story and making the story live in a different way.

The Third Millennium new religion you just mentioned, the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, of course, it doesn’t start as a religion at all. It starts as a narrative that is a mockery, a very funny, and very clever mockery of intelligent design, the latest largely Christian repackaging of Creationism, which is very important in America, where issues about religion are so much more debated than they are in Europe or Australia, where I’m from. And of course, Bobby Henderson released that story into the world. He wrote The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an enormously funny book, and he created a mythology, he gave the FSM a noodle-y mess with meatballs for eyes as the creator of the universe. If you’re going to have to specify an intelligent designer, why shouldn’t it be the FSM? He created also a religion that would appeal to college students. Heaven has strippers and a beer volcano. So what happened of course was that people who read this and first thought what a hilarious piss-take it was, started saying exactly what Zell and Christie said about Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘This a is fiction so good, it should be true.’ So you have people starting sectarian branches of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the spirit of parodic religion, and Henderson has declined ever to be considered a prophet. But he’s also said he doesn’t really care what people do with it. He released it onto the market, people can pick it up and they can do with it what they want. And so you have the guy who publishes ‘Spaghetti-grams’, which are anagrams done on the computer, using the words ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and say, for example, whatever issue that you want advice on… so ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster sexual morality’, and you get Spaghetti-grams, which are four line quatrains, arranged of anagrams from the letters that are available. This is a kind of divinatory advice. People who wear colanders, pasta strainers, on their heads as religious headgear, as a recent case in Austria where a young man requested that he’d be allowed to wear such headgear in the photograph featured on his driver’s license, was tried in the courts and found to be a valid religious headgear. And so the story is what’s important, and how people build that story into an identity formation, whether as an individual, or whether as a group who want to create a cell, a church, for the FSM in real life. And that’s very amusing and very good fun. And it does critique religion, but it critiques religion in an interesting way because, I think that scholars who, for a long time, have been comfortable with the idea that there could be religions that don’t have any gods, that in fact aren’t supra-empirical or supernaturally oriented, there are just really about what people do in their lives… this is not generally a view that the person in the street finds easy to accept. Usually, if you vox-pop, one of the first things you get, if you say ‘what do you think there has to be as a vital element to make something a religion?’, most people will say God or gods. But scholarship is very comfortable with the idea that religions are really about people, this is because scholarship is a secular activity. It’s not theology. It’s not confessional. We understand that human beings are makers of their own worlds. And so, those people who are making their religious world out of the Star Wars trilogy or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they’re doing something that scholars are very comfortable with.

Chris Cotter: You’re raising very valid points which gel with my own work into the atheists, etc., and one of the big critiques that contemporary atheism or non-religion has of religion is that it is invented, and they spend an awful lot of time demonstrating that the Bible was written by people or this religion was just founded by some guys who wrote a novel or whatever, and they seem to think that this will make a difference. Does it?

CC: No… look, I think this is one of the great problems with atheism in the 21th century. I’m very sympathetic to atheist discourses and I think it is correct that they’re included among other religious discourses. But for me, the main problem is that atheists seem to think that if you can mount and knock down arguments that are based on either rationality or empiricism, the twin poles of the Enlightenment, that you won’t be able to make people realized that their beliefs or their practices are erroneous and should be abandoned, and it seems to me that this is entirely counter-intuitive. Human beings are capable of rationality, but very very few, even educated Westerners, operate consistently on principles of rationality, and you only have to look at statistics from the US, which often talk about the fact that people who have science degrees are very likely to be Creationists. Human beings have compartmentalised knowledges, issues of identity formation, and things that they considered precious and important, and these don’t often bleed into each other. So I’m afraid I think the atheist argument that you can demonstrate that religious texts were written by humans, or that you can demonstrate that the founder of a particular religion, like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, was in some sense a huckster or a fraud, I don’t see that these are important because they don’t take into account that the lived experience of people is more powerful to them than any kind of argument drawn from rational principles. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it seems to me that it is how it is.

DR: Scientology is a white elephant in your book, isn’t? Is that a deliberate decision so as to not get sued or… I can’t imagine that’s the case, knowing you… or was it rather that you considered them or don’t consider them to be in the same class as the other invented religions?

CC: Scientology is really difficult. It comes out of exactly the same milieu. The Church of Scientology is founded in the 1950s, 1954 to be precise, on the back on Dianetics, and yes, it contained science fiction tropes, and in the 21th century, what we know about it looks a lot like an invented religion. I am ambivalent about Scientology, because I don’t think it begins as an invented religion. It begins as a critique of psychiatry. It begins as a therapy. It begins as a… an answer to the problems of modern life, and it’s not surprising that when Dianetics was released, major psychologists like Erich Fromm actually reviewed it, and it was treated as a work of amateur psychology. What’s interesting about it is that it goes along exactly the same track as the theosophical legacy, because L. Ron Hubbard begins with clearing engrams that are experiences that ones has had in the past in one’s life. They the engrams go back to in utero, then they go back to past lives, and before you know what happened, these past lives may be on other planets involving extraterrestrials. This is in fact exactly what happens with theosophical ascended masters. Madame Blavatsky’s masters where real Tibetans living in Tibet, who were alive in her life. After she died, mediumship contacted people who were dead, people who lived in Ancient Egypt, mythical figures like the Comte de Saint Germain for people like Guy Ballard and before you know it, it’s people from other planets, Venusians like Orthon who speak to George King. These sorts of things are a logical extension. So in some senses, I would place Scientology in a post-theosophical therapeutic milieu. And I think, as we came to know as scholars, a lot more about the Operating Thetan levels, the Xenu mythology in particular made it look a lot more like an invented religion, but at the moment, I’m just not 100% sure that I would put it in the same category.

DR: Well, this is absolutely cutting-edge research. Has anybody taken up your research and challenged it or taken it further?

CC: The interesting thing is that it’s evolving so fast, I’m not quite sure. I came up with the term ‘invented religions’, but I really wanted emphasis to be placed on the subtitle, which was Imagination, Fiction and Faith, ‘cause I think the human imagination creates the stories, the stories are fictions, people come to have faith in them, I think that’s really important. But very, very shortly before I completed the book, I met Markus Davidsen, who’s doing his PhD at the University of Leiden and the University of Aarhus, and he is working on what he calls ‘fiction-based religions’, because he’s working on Jediism and spirituality and religious groups that have grown out of the Tolkien mythos. I thought in some sense that was a better title. We discussed this privately and he went for ‘fiction-based religions’ because he thought that all religions are invented, which was where I started today. And I could see the sense of that, but then we linked up with Danielle Kirby, who’s at Monash University and who did her PhD on the Otherkin, and she argues that ‘fiction-based religions’ is no good because it’s too passive a term, and what we’re really looking at is a kind of actively constructed type of new spirituality, that… you need the dynamism of invention and you need the content of fiction, but what we’re still looking for now is a better term to characterize these groups. That being said, I’ve had very favourable email contacts from mostly Discordians and members of the Church of All Worlds, including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who actually helped me a lot with the research that I did in that book, and they are very comfortable with my term ‘invented religions’. But these, of course, are not people within the academy and I think it’s within the academy, that the category, that area, whatever you want to call it, is going to be developed and refined, and that’s happening, it’s just not quite clear where it’s going to go yet.

DR: Professor Cusack, thank you.

CC: It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Cusack, Carole M. and David G. Robertson, with Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Invented Religions.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-carole-cusack-on-invented-religions/