When some of the world's leading religious scholars gather in San Diego this weekend, pasta will be on the intellectual menu. They'll be talking about a satirical pseudo-deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose growing pop culture fame gets laughs but also raises serious questions about the essence of religion.
The appearance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the agenda of the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting gives a kind of scholarly imprimatur to a phenomenon that first emerged in 2005, during the debate in Kansas over whether intelligent design should be taught in public school sciences classes.
Supporters of intelligent design hold that the order and complexity of the universe is so great that science alone cannot explain it. The concept's critics see it as faith masquerading as science.
An Oregon State physics graduate named Bobby Henderson stepped into the debate by sending a letter to the Kansas School Board. With tongue in cheek, he purported to speak for 10 million followers of a being known as the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- and demanded equal time for their views.
"We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it," Henderson wrote. As for scientific evidence to the contrary, "what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage."
The letter made the rounds on the Internet, prompting laughter from some and vilification from others. But it struck a chord and stuck around. In the great tradition of satire, its humor was in fact a clever and effective argument.
Between the lines, the point of the letter was this: There's no more scientific basis for intelligent design than there is for the idea an omniscient creature made of pasta created the universe. If intelligent design supporters could demand equal time in a science class, why not anyone else? The only reasonable solution is to put nothing into sciences classes but the best available science.
"I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; one third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence," Henderson sarcastically concluded.
Kansas eventually repealed guidelines questioning the theory of evolution.
Meanwhile, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (FSM-ism to its "adherents") has thrived -- particularly on college campuses and in Europe. Henderson's Web site has become a kind of cyber-watercooler for opponents of intelligent design.
Henderson did not respond to a request for comment. His Web site tracks meetings of FSM clubs (members dress up as pirates) and sells trinkets and bumper stickers. "Pastafarians" -- as followers call themselves -- can also download computer screen-savers and wallpaper (one says: "WWFSMD?") and can sample photographs that show "visions" of the divinity himself. In one, the image of the carbohydrate creator is seen in a gnarl of dug-up tree roots.
It was the emergence of this community that attracted the attention of three young scholars at the University Florida who study religion in popular culture. They got to talking, and eventually managed to get a panel on FSM-ism on the agenda at one of the field's most prestigious gatherings.