Many words spent on a marvelous prank

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, July 15, 2011 11:44 EDT
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What is secularism?: That's the question that I've come to realize the atheist/secularist movement is actually dodging on a regular basis.  Which isn't unusual—most social justice movements are actually pretty hazy when it comes to defining their core values.  This causes less tension than you'd think on a day-to-day basis, but often leaves a movement with an Achilles' heel.  For instance, "feminism" is defined by some feminists as "promoting the interests of women" and by some (like myself) as "breaking down the gender binary and all its implications".  The latter also tends to link feminism more strongly with other social justice movements.  The vast majority of the time, the tension between these definitions doesn't matter—we're all anti-rape, all pro-equal pay, etc.—but then someone like Sarah Palin comes along and suddenly people firmly in camp #1 reveal that they're willing to overlook a lot in order to get another female face into office.  

Anyway, the tension over "secularism" I've noticed is that for some (like myself), it means a society that has as much religious freedom as possible and for others, it means a more aggressive approach to pushing religion out of the public square.  Most of the time, there's no tension.  We all object to "under God" in the Pledge, state promotion of religion, and allowing religious groups to replace good educational standards with religious ideology.  We think that having Congress open with prayers is unconstitutional, even if you diversify who's praying, because it still favors belief over non-belief.  But the tension between the two views comes out when it comes to questions of individual expression of faith.  Folks like me think that secularism means that the government should err on the side of liberty when it comes to individual expression of faith, in no small part because we are intensely skeptical that government restrictions on such expressions will be fairly applied, which makes it de facto establishment of religion.  (For instance, France claims to be "secular", but the government tends to target religious minorities more, which increases the sense that Catholicism gets favored treatment.)  We argue that things like FIFA banning the Iranian women's team for wearing hijabs doesn't do anything for secularism except send the signal that secularism is a cover for racist bullying.  We argue that this will gradually erode religious faith over time, as people are exposed in the public square to the diversity of religions and this provokes them to think things like, "Well they can't all be right, but they could all be wrong."  It's easier to believe that your faith is the one true faith when you don't ever really engage the fact that others believe differently. 

The other argument is that secularism should be promoted aggressively by the government, and that believers should feel that their faith can only be expressed in private.  This argument gets dismissed out of hand a lot, but I think it should at least be heard, even if I disagree.  The underlying assumption is that by having so much religion in the public square, even if the government is officially neutral, believers start to think they do have support.  So  you have problems like Christians not understanding why they get to pray in school, but they aren't allowed to dictate what's taught in science class.  If we had a strict private/public divide regarding religion, these secularists argue, it would reduce tensions between groups in public as well. This is the argument in France behind banning all religious gear in the schools.  The hope is that by wiping religion out of the public sphere, people would become less religious over time, as well, because without the ability to establish yourself as pious to others, most of the reason to be religious disappears.  Also, this method takes away the need to constantly be drawing the line over where someone else's religious freedom ends and other people's right not to be hassled begins, since so many expressions of faith are about controlling others.  For instance, most religions still teach that women are lesser than men on one level or another, and that means many people being visibly faithful will do things that are oppressive to women.  

Like I said, I don't think this tension actually means the two groups can't work together, and honestly, the notion that there's two distinct groups is untrue, anyway.  A lot of people drift between the two from situation to situation, which is one reason why I think the latter can't work, because you see so many atheists assume that religious people from their own background are more harmless than religious people of other backgrounds, and so will be camp one with their own people, but camp two with different people.  But for argument's sake, there's the two camps on what "secularism" means.  

I bring this up, because I'm genuinely curious what an Austrian man named Niko Alm was trying to accomplish by presenting himself as a Pastafarian and demanding (and obtaining) the right to wear a pasta strainer on his head for his driver's license picture.  The whole thing is clearly parodying the whole debate over whether or not other religious groups should be allowed to wear religious headgear in these pictures, which has mostly (always?) been a fight over whether or not Muslim women who wear hijabs or face veils should be allowed to wear them in these pictures.  He could be showing how stupid it is to allow any religious headgear—i.e., standing up for camp two—but if that was his goal, he utterly failed, because the result of his prank is that nothing bad happened because he was allowed this freedom.  

Regardless of his intent, I think that his prank best works as a defense of camp one.  Alm had to wait three years for this right, demonstrating neatly how having strict limits on what counts as freedom of religion end up creating pointless bureaucracy when it would just be easier to let people do what they want, as long as it doesn't  interfere with anyone else's rights.  But Alm also managed to send up the most common criticism of camp one from camp two.  Camp two tends to tell camp one that they're too tolerant and that we're pandering to religious people, and that we live in fear of pointing out that religion is fundamentally silly.  That's true in some cases, but not always!  By posing with a pasta strainer on his head, Alm managed to show how you can both strike for religious freedom while also arguing, through parody, that religion is fundamentally stupid.  

So, well-played, Alm, and I wish you well in your further endeavors to destablize religious protectionism by getting Pastafarianism recognized as an official religion by the government.  





Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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