Plotting exposure, parody seeks to unveil rather than to mask, to offer truths where it finds lies, deceit, or hypocrisy. So why has religion proven particularly prone to this means of comedic put-down?
Derived from the Ancient Greek word “parodia”, parody has long been employed as a method of subversive humor; however, according to Linda Hutcheon, its particular “ubiquity” in contemporary cultural expression has made our era “the age of parody” (A Theory of Parody. New York: Methuen, 1985. p.2). But why? And why has religion proven particularly prone to this means of comedic put-down?
Parody, alongside its distant cousin, irony is, in many respects, a defining mode of postmodernism used for reflecting suspicion and cynicism about traditional institutions, ideologies, and belief systems. Rooted in the “question authority” attitudes of ‘60s youth rebellion, parody came of age in the ‘70s and has flourished as a critical methodology ever since. Not to be confused with pastiche, intertextuality, or blank parody—all of which lack a “cutting” edge—parody is often our way of “answering back” to our elders and their traditions (Simon Dentith. Parody. New York: Routledge. p.5).
Imitation is no form of flattery in modern parody; conversely, it’s a technique by which to ridicule, comment upon, and poke fun at entrenched institutions and institutional thinking. Moreover, its intentions are rarely honorable or passive; instead, it seeks to stir, incite, create dialogue, and ultimately force changes in hearts and minds. Even in its most light and innocuous manifestations—as in spoofs and lampoons—modern parody is rarely inert or innocuous.
As seen regarding the media on The Colbert Report or the workplace in The Office, pointed parody relies upon environments where conventions and codes have already been established, and audiences are fully cognizant of them. Hence, religion is particularly amenable to this type of humor and parody religions often play upon its common features by, as Simon Dentith explains, “Identifying a characteristic stylistic habit or mannerism and making it comically visible” (32). Such characteristics include a deity, a church, hierarchy of power, a holy book, and visual icons of identity. Once these features are known and recognizable, parody can then go to work pushing their portrayals into excess and absurdity, in the process subjecting the larger institution to renewed perspectives, understandings, and evaluations.
The religious are susceptible to such comic scrutiny by virtue of their often serious sense of selves and common refusal to question (or allow questioning) of rules and roles of involvement. As such, parody religions express the superiority theory of humor, whereby the purpose is to puncture pomposity and to humanize those who have become, what Henri Bergson calls, “mechanical” (“Laughter.” Trans. Wylie Sypher, in Comedy, eds. Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. p. 84).
Critical parody hereby behaves much like satire—unmasking, exposing, and mocking—though the former might be seen as doing so through more internally engaged means. Plotting exposure, parody seeks to unveil rather than to mask, to offer truths where it finds lies, deceit, or hypocrisy.
It’s notable that the first wave of parody religions arrived in the late ‘70s, in the wake of the mass suicides of the Jim Jones Peoples Temple cult; this was also the time when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was being established. Brought to broad public awareness via mass media attention, these much publicized manifestations of religious extremism set the stage for the arrival of parody faiths like The Church of the SubGenius.
The next wave came during the mid-‘00s, in the midst of the Kansas School Board’s decision to allow Intelligent Design to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. This provoked the young scientist-activist, Bobby Henderson, to create Pastafarianism, otherwise known as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Behind Henderson’s parody writing is a secular humanist philosophy, one rooted in adherence to the science and reason promoted during the Enlightenment era. It advocates on behalf of rationality and justice, defending human rights and tolerance where those are compromised. For young critics like Henderson, religion has not lived up to its stated ideals and hides behind faith whenever its motives or mores are questioned. Like many young people today, Henderson uses parody as a weapon of last resort against those who place the burden of proof for Gods on the faithless rather than the faithful.
Tired of futile debates where the religious side falls back on supernatural belief and ancient texts whenever challenged by science, reason, or logic, young parody merchants have resorted to using mock-imitation as an illustrative means of stating their case instead. Echoing the kind of dodge-and-weave methods atheists and agnostics are up against, Henderson wryly states in the “Disclaimer” of his “holy” book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, “Attentive readers will note numerous holes and contradictions throughout the text… These have been placed there to test the reader’s faith” (Bobby Henderson. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. New York: Villard, 2006. p.xii).
Some recent parody religions have derived straight from pop culture phenomena and thrive by virtue of their novelty as much as their critical purposes. Movies and literature have often served as stepping-off points for fans intent on perpetuating writers’ themes on the internet in quasi-parodic ways. Some have subsequently taken on a cult-like form, such as Dudeism, based on the 1998 Coen Brothers movie, The Big Lebowski.
Just as this movie has enjoyed an intriguing afterlife in the form of annual conventions and on-line chat sites, the guru acclaim accorded to The Dude character has since spawned its own contemporary Tao-like religion. Bokononism, derived from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 satirical novel, Cat’s Cradle, has met a similar fate as fans have mock-embraced The Books of Bokonon, Vonnegut’s textual parody of The New Testament.
Science fiction has long been a genre within which religion has been questioned or re-imagined—as well as one attracting hordes of computer obsessives. Thus, it’s not surprising that parody religions drawing from sci-fi’s many u/dys/topian visions and prophesies have emerged via the internet. Star Wars, for some a religion in itself, was responsible for the early ‘00s internet phenomenon of Jediism; likewise, the Matrix movies have inspired fans in chat groups to ponder such themes as multi-layered reality around such religion-laced imagery as “The One” and “The Path”.
For many folks around the world there is only one religion worthy of total worship: Football! Certain Argentine fans of the game clearly felt this way when they formed Iglesia Mardoniana (the Church of Maradona). Named after that nation’s (and maybe the world’s) best ever player, Diego Maradona, adherents are known to baptize themselves by slapping a football, a reference to his so-called “Hand of God” goal that put England out of the World Cup in 1986. At the time, the England manager, apparently a non-believer, called this act of creative cheating “the hand of a rascal” (“English football and the world has lost a shining light in Sir Bobby Robson” by Paul Wilson, The Guardian, 1 August 2009).
A less playful batch of parody religions has used wit to address certain philosophical problems behind religious belief. Here, Russell’s Teapot has served as an iconic precedent for others to adopt or build upon. Philosopher Bertrand Russell used this image to comment upon the unfalsifiable nature of a deity. Believers have set the terms of debate, argued Russell, such that non-believers have been obliged to prove the non-existence of God, which is impossible. Henceforth, employing the strategy of reductio ad absurdum, Russell posited an analogy, arguing that if he were to claim that a teapot orbits the sun, he could not expect others to believe this, nor could they prove him wrong.
Playing upon the arbitrary nature of deities, others have offered variants on Russell’s Teapot. J.B. Bury uses donkeys that speak English on a distant planet, Carl Sagan speaks of an invisible dragon in the garage, and Richard Dawkins calls back the Norse deity, Thor, as his arbitrary replacement for modern concepts of God.
This line of parody found a popular destination with the on-line phenomenon of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU). Started on alt.atheism in 1990, IPU seconds Russell’s proposition, showing that you cannot disprove the existence of IPUs, just as you cannot any other “deity”. Explaining the paradox of its name, proponent Steve Eley jokes that although invisible, “we have faith that they are pink”.
All kinds of fun and games have ensued around this parody religion, as on-line posters have offered their own personal revelations and participated in mock debates as to the visibility of IPUs. A popular contribution has been to post Biblical passages with all references to God replaced with IPU. Artist fans have also got on board, such that the IPU now has its own pink logo, though some prefer the use of totally blank images.
The IPU has even reached beyond the on-line community. In 2006, an Atheist Children’s Camp, Camp Quest, was offered in Ohio under the motto, “It’s Beyond Belief”. There, attendees were given an exercise in which they were challenged to prove that the IPU (as a metaphor of God) did not exist. The point was to show the kids that you cannot prove a negative. At the pragmatic level, the camp fostered rational thought and critical thinking, as well as teaching the children the kind of defense strategies needed in a society where the burden of proof is invariably placed upon non-believers, particularly for kids in certain school environments.
Some parody religions have been as concerned with the social practices of institutions as with faith itself. Here, religion is seen as a cultural force, one that can often perpetuate rather than combat discrimination, greed, and corruption. The Landover Baptist Church (or Americhrist Ltd.) was created in order to combat questionable practices occurring within the world of fundamentalist Christianity.
Three weeks prior to his impending graduation from Liberty University in 1989, student Chris Harper was expelled after the administration discovered that he had been satirizing the school’s procedures—as well as the conduct of its founder, Reverend Jerry Falwell—on his radio show. Refusing to go gently, Harper retaliated by creating an on-line fictional church in the fictional town of Freehold, Iowa. Whether one calls this a parody or an exposé, Harper has since crafted a rich and detailed on-line environment, in the process unmasking a religious subculture the Liberty hierarchy would have preferred be kept in-house.
Elaborate and multi-faceted, Landover Baptist Church offers the outside world insight into the goings-on at Liberty as experienced and imagined by Harper. Here, a dictator called the “Pastor” rules over all, controlling members through a system of fines, orders (called “mandatory volunteering”, and threats of expulsion. As much a corporation as a church, Landover is a self-contained community (i.e., closed), complete with its own mini-mall and gun store. Its extensive holdings evoke the heyday of the televangelist era, when prosperity theology Americanized religion by marrying the gospels to laissez-faire capitalism. Often, Harper’s parody illustrations can be quite severe, such as his anecdote about the rewards given to the Baptist youths who can demonstrate the extent of their anti-Catholicism by smashing the most statues of Mary.
Still active 15 years after its establishment, Landover’s close-to-the-bone realism has been a constant source of irritation to many leaders in the fundamentalist Christian community. Apparently, too many of their followers have embraced the farcical propositions and outlandish tall-tales shared on the site, blissfully unaware that they are actually in the midst of a parody of their religion.