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 called 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 of 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.
The title: "Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody."
"For a lot of people they're just sort of fun responses to religion, or fun responses to organized religion. But I think it raises real questions about how people approach religion in their lives," said Samuel Snyder, one of the three Florida graduate students who will give talks at the meeting next Monday along with Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.
The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."
Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, "in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative)."
The authors recognize the topic is a little light by the standards of the American Academy of Religion.
"You have to keep a sense of humor when you're studying religion, especially in graduate school," Van Horn said in a recent telephone interview. "Otherwise you'll sink into depression pretty quickly."
But they also insist it's more than a joke.
Indeed, the tale of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its followers cuts to the heart of the one of the thorniest questions in religious studies: What defines a religion? Does it require a genuine theological belief? Or simply a set of rituals and a community joining together as a way of signaling their cultural alliances to others?
In short, is an anti-religion like Flying Spaghetti Monsterism actually a religion?
Joining them on the panel will be David Chidester, a prominent and controversial academic at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who is interested in precisely such questions. He has urged scholars looking for insights into the place of religion in culture and psychology to explore a wider range of human activities. Examples include cheering for sports teams, joining Tupperware groups and the growing phenomenon of Internet-based religions. His 2005 book "Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture," prompted wide debate about how far into popular culture religious studies scholars should venture.
Lucas Johnston, the third Florida student, argues the Flying Spaghetti Monsterism exhibits at least some of the traits of a traditional religion _ including, perhaps, that deep human need to feel like there's something bigger than oneself out there.
He recognized the point when his neighbor, a militant atheist who sports a pro-Darwin bumper sticker on her car, tried recently to start her car on a dying battery.
As she turned the key, she murmured under her breath: "Come on Spaghetti Monster!"