This spring, the Infrastructure Ministry in Brandenburg, Germany, found itself litigating what counts as religion. The ministry typically concerns itself with worldly issues like road signage. But then the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) sought a road sign of the sort that local Catholic and Protestant churches receive from the German state.
The ensuing legal skirmish—a court ultimately sided with the Infrastructure Ministry, which argued that FSM wasn’t “a recognized religious community”—was the outgrowth of a different controversy more than a decade ago and 5,000 miles away. In 2005, the Kansas Board of Education voted to let public schools teach the creationist theory of intelligent design alongside evolution, arguing, among other things, that you couldn’t prove a supernatural being hadn’t given rise to life. A 24-year-old with a degree in physics named Bobby Henderson responded on his website that you also couldn’t prove a flying spaghetti monster hadn’t created the universe. Why not teach that theory as well?
The Kansas board reversed itself within two years, but the semi-parodic Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has outlasted the dispute, spreading via the internet to countries around the world. As FSM has taken root in Europe, where evolution is fairly uncontroversial, its purpose has shifted somewhat, with followers using it to test the relationship between Church and state in countries ranging from relatively secular France to heavily Catholic Poland.
There’s no official count of Church membership in Europe (or anywhere else), but “Pastafarian” Facebook pages from countries across the Continent have accumulated thousands of likes while, country by country, FSM members have waged and even won legal battles for the privileges enjoyed by other religions. Along the way, something funny has happened to a movement founded in large part to critique organized religion: It’s gotten organized, and has taken on both the trappings and some of the social functions of a real religion.
FSM has its own iconography (the deity features, in addition to spaghetti, two meatballs and a pair of eyes) as well as a Sabbath (Friday, because “our god was faster than the other gods, and he finished with the creation of Earth earlier”). The flagship German church, in Brandenburg, features a weekly mass modeled on the Catholic celebration, but with noodles and beer in place of bread and wine. FSM officiants even conduct weddings in several countries; this year, New Zealand became the first to legally recognize these marriages.
In Austria, a onetime church leader named Niko Alm started a tradition of “religious headgear” (an overturned colander), winning the right to wear it in his ID photo. “Headgear is not allowed in driver’s licenses except for religious reasons,” he explained. “So I invented a religious reason.” Since then, he told me, the headgear has been adopted in “virtually every country that has Pastafarianism”—with some countries allowing it in official photos. Even as a U.S. court this year denied a Nebraska prisoner’s request to practice the Pastafarian faith, ruling FSM a parody and not a religion, the Netherlands chamber of commerce went the other way, becoming the first country to grant Pastafarians “official status.”
Alm says there is “high variation” in Church practices by country, save for some common elements like pirate costumes and beer. Austrian Pastafarians, he said, don’t do a weekly service like Brandenburg’s Nudelmasse; instead, “we meet, like, three or four times a year and drink beer.” And whereas the Austrian Church concentrates on changing laws, he maintains that the British “only do the fun parts.” In Russia, where the Church is particularly active, eight Pastafarians were detained for holding an unauthorized “pasta procession” in 2013; on a more recent visit to the country, Alm “signed hundreds of colanders.”
FSM’s big idea, in Russia as in Kansas, is that “nothing is inherently sacred; it’s sacred by virtue of the fact that people agree that it’s sacred,” says Douglas Cowan, a religious-studies professor at Renison University College, in Canada. As if to underscore the point, the Church may be the only one in the world with a God-back guarantee: If you’re not satisfied, Henderson has pointed out, “your old religion will most likely take you back.”