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Traditionalizing in Cyberspace

Published May 22nd, 2008 by Bobby Henderson

The following is an academic paper by Carrie Iwan looking at FSM as Folklore. Enjoy and please leave feedback with your thoughts.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

Traditionalizing in Cyberspace

Carrie Iwan

Introduction

Over the past year or so, through my interest in science and related political issues, I have become involved in an international community of atheists, skeptics and freethinkers. This involvement has consisted of reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, attending meetings and conferences with like-minded individuals, and it eventually lead to writing for www.skepchick.org, a reasonably well-known skeptical feminist blog.

As I began to consume more and more scientific and skeptical media, I noticed several mentions of something called the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), usually used in debates on the existence or nonexistence of god(s) as a modern equivalent of Russel’s teapot to show that the burden of proof lies with the individual making an extraordinary claim, and not with the skeptic. I eventually discovered that the FSM had a website, and what appeared to be quite a large following.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, is a satirical religious group which has grown out of a 2005 letter written to the Kansas state school board by a physics graduate named Bobby Henderson in protest of a decision by the board to mandate the teaching of intelligent design creationism alongside evolutionary theory in biology classes. The FSM is said to have created the universe, and he uses His Noodly Appendage to interfere with scientific data in order to confuse human understanding and test our faith. In addition, Pastafarians believe that correlation equals causation: because statistics show that the rise in global temperature and the number of pirates in existence are inversely proportional, then dwindling numbers of pirates must be causing the earth to warm, therefore pirates are considered to be holy beings. Group members frequently speak like pirates (or type in pirate dialect), and dress in pirate garb for gatherings.

I am a registered user on the FSM discussion forums, but signed up for the sole purpose of accessing the boards for research on this project and have had no involvement on the forums in any other capacity. Although I do not necessarily consider myself a member of this group, I do share many of their values.

My research activities for this project consisted of an examination of scholarly writings on the subjects of folklore, traditionalizing, and the internet, as well as an extensive examination of the interactions taking place in the online discussion forums and an email interview with Henderson.

FSM as a Folk Group

In The Dynamics of Folklore, Toelken defines a folk group as “people who share some basis for everyday communal contacts, some factor in common that makes it possible, or rewarding or meaningful, for them to exchange vernacular materials in a culturally significant way.” (Toelken: 1996).

Henderson’s website, www.venganza.org, has nearly 5000 registered members, 1500 of whom have actively engaged in regular discussion on the site’s forum. These members hail from all over the world, and generally hold scientific worldviews. Members gather in the online forums to discuss a wide array of topics, ranging from debates over scientific topics to newly revealed FSM prophecy. The forums are closely monitored due to the sometimes inflammatory nature of some of the topics discussed in order to keep the entire site from becoming a screaming evolution versus creation fight. This ensures that members will be able to feel comfortable carrying on conversations appropriate to each individual discussion board without worrying about a troll breaking in with an outrageous comment better suited to one of the specified debate boards. Community values evident in FSM interactions and publications include playful irreverence, secularism, humor, skepticism, civil discourse, and having a good time.

Although it exists in a relatively new and somewhat unorthodox interactive space, The Church of the FSM fits Toelken’s definition. It offers a place for members to “meet” in cyberspace in order to exchange ideas and information. Members engage in conversation and develop relationships, and as they do so, they create and engage in a unique cultural experience. The group exists primarily online, though FSM branches are cropping up in increasing numbers irl (in real life), especially on college campuses.

Traditionalizing the FSM

Because it is such a young group, Pastafarianism exists in a highly dynamic state. It began with very little established tradition, and in the three years since Henderson’s letter, the content of FSM canon has increased exponentially, due in large part to contributions of members on the message boards. Regarding his continuing involvement with the direction of the FSM, Henderson told me the following:

“I lost control over the direction of FSM a long time ago…I don’t think I could stop FSM if I tried…I imagine that I have some influence in that I run the official website, but other than that, FSM will evolve how it evolves.” (Henderson: 2008)

In a 1975 speech to the American Folklore Society, Dell Hymes asserted that traditions should be seen not as static objects in time, but as a process of creation that all humans engage in, consciously or not, to fulfill our need to feel that what we do matters; that our activities somehow fit into a pattern of human behavior that we can trace into history. He coined the term “traditionalization” to describe this process (Hymes: 1975).

Every day on the FSM forums, although they probably don’t realize it, people come together to traditionalize. On one level, they traditionalize in the sense that they consciously submit ideas and materials to be included in the canon. They expound on existing ideas and create new ones. They attempt to meld their ideas into a community ethic. Even though the religion they are creating is essentially satire, its emerging structure follows a long line of existing religious forms. This can be seen especially clearly on the “Scripture and Lore” board. The following is an excerpt from a thread started back in October of 2005 in which the poster calls for submissions for an FSM equivalent to the Ten Commandments:

1 1 S.: Two things to keep in mind: OUR RELIGION IS WAY BETTER, and WE HAVE FLIMSY MORAL STANDARDS.

On that note, we don’t have COMMANDMENTS, we have SUGGESTIONS. We don’t have ten, we have as many or as few as we decide we like. By we, I mean all of us, you, me, the Council of Olive Garden, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Let’s all toss them out for consideration.

Here are the “gimme’s”

“Ye ought not do stuff ye already know is wrong, like killing, lying, cheating, stealing, etc. Do ye really need these carved into a rock?”

“Judge not, for verily it be not thine job neither most likely to be thine business.”

“Be kind unto others whether they are kind unto you or not, for it maketh you the better person in most situations, and occasionally it doth piss off an idiot, which is funny unto Your Lord the Sauced One.”

What’s next?

2 verbtea.: I am the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You shall have no other monsters before me. (Afterwards is OK; just use protection.)

3 S.: ROFL…. being a nitpicky scribe, however, I’m gonna capitalize “monster”

4 verbtea.: Don’t you dare! The only Monster who deserves capitalization is Him! Other monsters are false monsters, undeserving of capitalization.

5 S.: okay, okay, point taken…. ::: takes out flail, begins to flagellate self ::: begins to chant “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy” over and over again…..

6 S2.: Ye shalt make no graven pasta.

Ye shall throw waffles at thy neighbor’s kittens.

7 S.: Verbtea, I’m just wonderin’…. and I’ll keep my flail handy, cause I see you get a tad testy once in a while… if we could incorporate your SUGGESTION with its follow-up, to whit:

“I am the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You shall have no other monsters before Me. (Afterwards is OK; just use protection.) The only Monster who deserves capitalization is Me! Other monsters are false monsters, undeserving of capitalization.”

::::cowers:::: ::::prepares to flagellate and grovel::::

::::mutters to self “this scribe gig is NOT worth the constant self-flagellation”::::

The above exchange is a great example of the sort of communal back and forth effort that has gone into creating the Loose Canon. Note the playful tone of the debate and the way the members combine their ideas. This discussion took place in October and November 2005, and culminated in a list of twelve suggestions which were declared to be final by the originator. However, even though the original poster appears to have abandoned the topic, the discussion continues today.

On another level, members in the forums traditionalize through their participation in tropes appropriate to the community’s values and environment. They join in discussing important issues through a humorous vernacular. Members love to show off their knowledge of FSM lore and terminology in their posts. This creates an atmosphere of community understanding, and allows members to be “in on” their own set of jokes.

Traditionalization and Material Culture

An important means of traditionalization for members is to create FSM related art and craft items and then share photos with other visitors to the site, sometimes including instructions or recipes for others to use. This can take the form of everything from knitting to poetry to pottery. The following are Limericks posted in the “Hymns and Songs” section:

While creating things both far and near,

The FSM had a bit too much beer,

Which caused blurring of plans

And some oddly made glands

(Though He perfected genus buccaneer).

–The Reverend C.S. Rowan

A pasta with grand intention

Procured a fantastic invention.

But drinking too deep,

He fell in His sleep,

And created another dimension.

–EarthRise

Limericks, which are by definition humorous, fit perfectly into the Pastafarian aesthetic. Note the inclusion of beer (Pastafarian heaven includes a beer volcano), and the notion that the FSM might be a bit haphazard (Henderson: 2006).

In addition to written material, a wonderful diversity of member made craft objects can be viewed on the site. Here are a few highlights:

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The above photo is of a sculpture by Ariel Safdie placed on the lawn of the Cumberland County Courthouse in Crossville, Tennessee. The spaghetti is made from painted foam pipe insulation.

The below photos show a piece of pottery made by J.D. Hutton (Pontius Pirate). It depicts the pirate fish logo on one side, and His Noodly Self on the other, with some Greek-looking design motifs added to make it look historical.

post2.jpg

Here is the FSM etched into the bottom of a beer glass, by someone named Paul:

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Someone actually went to the trouble to create a formula that makes the pirate fish logo appear on a graphing calculator. This showcases great artistic skill, as well as a level of geekiness that most Pastafarians would find enviable.

post4.jpg

Below is an FSM cookie, made from chow mein noodles, cocoa puffs and whoppers; complete with googly eyes made from gelatin capsules and sprinkles.

post5.jpg

Knitters, embroiderers, and quilters have also created FSM objects. Below are a hat, embroidery project, and quilt.

post6.jpg

post7.jpg

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These objects demonstrate the diverse set of skills and interests among group members. They also show that Pastafarianism is important enough to them that they are willing to spend a great deal of time creating these well-crafted items. It will be interesting in the future to study lineages of FSM art, that is, how certain ideas and motifs are influenced by previous works. So far, it seems that most of the objects are original ideas, apart from the image of the FSM taken from Henderson’s original drawing.

Creating a Community from Many Identities

The Church of the FSM encompasses an incredibly diverse set of people. Like the Vietnam veterans’ group examined by Nusbaum, community forms around the shared identities and experiences of its members, and is enriched by each individual’s particular specialty (Nusbaum: 1991). For veterans, these rallying points tend to center around commonly shared war experiences: places visited, battles fought, war wounds. For Pastafarians, they tend to come together around shared values or identities and create subsets of an astonishingly wide variety of non-FSM interests. A brief perusal of the threads on the “Miscellaneous Discussion” board turns up posts about tea, math, Showtime’s “The Tudors”, sports, cakes vs. biscuits, and bacon, just to name a few.

Because the nature of the online forum environment allows members to reach thousands of people in a relatively short amount of time, they are not limited in the obscurity of the topics they raise, because it is likely that at least one other member will see a post and want to discuss the topic as well. This is nearly impossible in face-to-face interactions, especially when there are only a few people present. People in real life, small group situations tend to stick to a few topics that they are all familiar with. Unlike typed words in an online forum, which can be read years after they’ve been written, spoken words in live conversation are fleeting. It is much easier for individuals who share interests to find each other in an online discussion board than through everyday social interaction in real life. In some ways, I think this makes traditionalizing online easier than in the real world.

Conclusions

The Church of the FSM is a vibrant folk group in the early stages of its existence. It manages to tie together an immensely wide diversity of members through shared values and life experiences. Because of its online genesis and the continued position of the FSM forums in traditionalization, its membership and its folkloric content increase constantly. I think that as people turn more and more to the Internet as a social outlet, we will see the formation of many groups that evolve like Pastafarianism has. It will be interesting to see what the FSM movement looks like after a few more years pass.
[works cited]



50 Responses to “Traditionalizing in Cyberspace”

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