Flying Spagetti Monster Back in the News

Pastafarians have been in the news lately.  In case you missed it, Austrian authorities issued a government identification document to a man wearing questionable religious headgear.  It’s a plastic colander, to be precise.  The European Union forbids head gear, unless religious, in official state photographs such as the license in question.  Offended by the religious exception, the pastafarian pressed his case for his religious rights.  

I would not pick a fight with the pastafarians, if I were the Austrian authorities.  Pastafarians are smart.  Clearly, they are poking fun at the new license regulations and satirizing religion, creationism and intelligent design in particular, but their methods are, well, intelligent.  They can abide silly laws (no smiles on EU licenses), but if a silly law treads on the separation of church and state, watch out.  They love logic and abhor misuse of scientific methods.  Confuse correlation and causation and they’ll throw a pirate chart at you.  (They claim the decline in piracy over the past 200 years caused global warming, and they encourage pirate costumery to keep the planet cool.)  

The Flying Spaghetti Monster first made its way onto my radar screen in 2005 when Kansas required intelligent design to be taught as a scientific theory alongside evolution in science classrooms.  Henderson’s classic letter to the school board became an internet sensation.  There were book deals.  FSM writings were gathered into a “loose canon.”   They established pastafarian holidays like Ramendan, when instead of fasting, pastafarians eat nothing but ramen instant noodles, relive their college days, and give thanks that those days are over.  

I applauded the pastafarian movement.  As a scientist, I opposed Kansas’ move to teach intelligent design in science classrooms.  US students struggle enough with science.  Let’s not confuse them further.  As a religious person, I admired the parody of dogma.  The logical consistency would make Aristotle proud. Austria couldn’t poke a hole in it.  As a playful person, I appreciated the versatility of His Noodly Appendage.  Pastafarians epitomize peaceful resistance.  They are watchdogs.  They protect the public interest without costing a cent.  (Ok, you can argue that Austria wasted civil servant hours, and euros, processing a license application for 3 years, but if they had taken my advice in the first place, they would have left the pastafarian alone and just issued the silly ID.) 

Most of all, I appreciate what the pastafarians teach us about form and function.  They mimic the trappings of religion with remarkable acumen.  For some people, that’s all religion is.  A priest I interviewed for my book on confession remarking sadly about the dearth of spirituality among the religious in his congregation.  For some in the spiritual-not-religious camp, the form of religion is an empty distraction, even obstructing encounters with the divine.  For others, the form of religion is like scaffolding, providing a framework that orients and supports us as we do the work of spiritual growth.  I love liturgy.  It gives me direction and focus when I’m on top of my game, and I can lean on it when I’m not at my best.  I feel like just going through the motions creates a space where the Holy Spirit can enter.  Pastafarians remind me that as much as I value the form—across many traditions, both religious and not—the substance is living into relationship with God. 

Join the conversation and have fun.  What’s your favorite thing about pastafarians?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Coming to Belief: Physics and Faith

 In the continuing conversation about coming to spiritual belief, examining how we come to scientific belief makes for interesting, and perhaps surprising, comparisons.  We arrive at our beliefs about all kinds of things—the character of friends and coworkers, social systems like workplace culture, and the natural world—via a process akin to the scientific method.  We posit an assumption, make observations, and adjust assumptions as the evidence comes in.  Recent posts reveal I also think this is how many people come to belief in God

The scientific method is not always conclusive, though, not even in science.  Theoretical physicists working on string theory have a knack for formulating hard to test hypotheses that elude scientific evidence.   Some physicists have devoted decades, their whole careers, to developing string theory, which has yet to produce scientific evidence.  

Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert in an essay titled “The Vagaries of Religious Experience” states, “The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence—things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure,” and he uses that test of evidence to invalidate religious belief.  That logic has several flaws.  

First, it misrepresents the nature of scientific evidence.  None of the evidence quantum physicists work with is human sensory perceptible via sight touch, taste, etc.   Quantum physics amply illustrates that some truths are beyond the ability of the human five senses to perceive and are at the edge of the human capacity to comprehend.  Second, some people are more perceptive than others.  CalTech Professor of Physics Richard Feynman was exceptionally perceptive.  He perceived truths that were out of reach for most of his esteemed peers.  Similarly, individuals with a robust spirituality perceive the evidence of God’s action in their lives in ways the less perceptive among us miss.  The perceptive ones are able to detect evidence not obvious to everyone.  No one claimed Richard Fynman’s perceptions were invalid because others couldn’t replicate them, yet spiritual perception does come under this attack.  A third flaw is this view doesn’t appreciate how much scientific work happens before the proof point.  

Mathematician and philosopher Reuben Hersh in What is Mathematics, Really? draws an apt analogy that applies here.  He describes the day-to-day work of mathematicians like the operation of a restaurant, where there is a front, a dining room that is quiet, neat and orderly, and a back, the kitchen where things are not always neat and orderly.  Hersh says the front of mathematics is formal and precise with axioms and rigorous proofs, while “math in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative.  We try this or that.  We say ‘maybe’ or ‘it looks like.’” 

The idea that everything in science is proven, or provable, is a front room perception.  That’s not how science really works.  Physicists working on string theory are doing science in back.  They know that operating with tentative beliefs for which there is not conclusive scientific evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

So it is with spirituality.  Faith in front appears tidy.  Believers don’t question or doubt or grow.  Those actively engaged in spiritual growth, however, experience faith in back.  Like theoretical physicists, they know that operating with hypotheses for which there may not be conclusive evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

Join the conversation.  What’s your experience of the search for truth in physics or in faith? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.