The Flying Spaghetti Monster, creationism, science education and religious tolerance


I had to renew my driver’s license this month. I considered heading to the DMV dressed like this:


But I decided to go sans colander, and my driver’s license ended up looking like this:

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Meh. I’ve looked worse.

In California, you’re not supposed to be able to wear anything on your head for your driver’s license photo, unless it’s religious headgear. But Californians like Beth and Chris have won the right to use a spaghetti strainer as a form of religious headgear, associated with their Pastafarian beliefs:



It could have been fun, so why did I opt for my bald pate over my slightly-more-shiny colander?

I don’t think a colander would have been respectful or constructive. It would take Pastafaranism beyond the realm of advocacy for sound science education, and beyond the fight against fundamentalist religion in the science classroom.

It is okay to wear your colander on your head for your driver’s license? Sure, it’s fine, whatever floats your boat. It’s just not floating my boat. Have I been touched by His noodly appendage? I guess so. But I don’t have to put a colander on my head at the DMV. I guess I’m a lapsed Pastafarian.

What is the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How did this start and where are we now?

About a decade ago, creationists had a solid run marketing their religious beliefs as a non-religious “intelligent design” idea. The notion was to provide a veil of non-religious cover to sneak religion into the science classroom. This approach was legally dismantled in a tremendous legal decision in Pennsylvania near the end of 2005, and that was pretty much the fatal wound to the intelligent design movement in the US legal system. Creationism itself is still doing just fine, though — they’ve just abandoned that particular sales pitch.

For a few years, the “intelligent design” wrapper for creationism was getting some good traction, particularly in places where religious fundamentalists managed to get majority control of the school board. This happened at the state level in Kansas.

The Kansas State Board of Education held hearings in May 2005 to evaluate the newly-adopted science standards in the state, which would “Teach the Controversy” and give equal time to theories that explain the origin of life and existence of biodiversity.

The board wanted to sidestep the fact that “intelligent design” is fluffernutter quackery, and that evolutionary biology is actual science that is filled with testable and falsifiable predictions. So the 6-4 fundamentalist majority decided that multiple viewpoints must be included in the curriculum.

Remember that way back in 2005, we didn’t annoy people by sharing links on social media, but instead by sharing links via email. (At the time, Facebook was not a thing outside university campuses.) One thing that made the rounds was this open letter to the Kansas School Board. This gave birth to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (If you haven’t ever read this letter, it’s worth your while.)

The point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, at its inception, was to mock the Kansas Board of Education’s idiotic stance on science education. If Christian fundamentalists can make up non-science stuff and call it an alternative scientific theory, so can anybody else!

It was a beautifully creative way to bring attention to the fact that “intelligent design” creationism didn’t belong in the science classroom because it is so obviously religion, and not science.

Now, let’s shift forward a decade.

Religious fundamentalists are still doing their darnedest to undermine science education. Creationism is still strong in the US, though in the past ten years, we’ve seen the percentage of people who accept the fact of evolution without invoking any kind of deity shift from 13% to 19%. Baby steps. As atheism is on the rise, then creationism is on the decline. That roughly tracks the proportion of people who do not identify with any religion.

Nonetheless we’ve still got a long road to haul for science education, especially in states that are being run by religious zealots. I don’t have to worry (much) about creationism in my kid’s public middle school here in Pasadena. But if I drove 60 miles in any direction possible, that wouldn’t be true.

Pastafarianism is a useful idea religion for showing how religion isn’t relevant to the classroom. It’s a mockery of creation myths, and points out that belief in a religious tradition is about faith, and not about facts and evidence. And faith doesn’t belong in a science classroom.

Then, what does a driver’s license photo have to do with science education? What does a colander on your head have to do with creationism in the classroom?

Nothing at all.

By bringing the Flying Spaghetti Monster into the DMV, Pastafarians are taking the a productive mockery of sham science education and extending it to a generalized insult to people of religious tradition.

I realize there are some people who feel that science education can’t be advanced without taking religious people down a notch, including those who are not advocating for creationism in the classroom.

It turns out that there are a few other non-Christian religious traditions that involve the wearing of traditional items on one’s head. The ones that first come to mind are Judaism and Sikhism. And there’s also a Muslim practice of covering one’s hair, too.

If we are wearing colanders to the DMV, we’re not just making fun of Christian creationists who are trying to impose their religion in public schools. Actually, we’re not making fun of them at all. We are now making fun of people who have sincere, privately-held religious beliefs that are not being imposed on anybody else.

Wearing a colander on your head isn’t making fun of creationism, it’s making fun of religion. That’s uncool. I’m well informed about some religions and remain as nonreligious as one can get, and making fun of religion doesn’t seem to help anybody at all. It makes science education advocates and atheists look like assholes. And that closes minds and makes it harder to bring science to all. We want everybody to learn about the science of evolution — including people from religious backgrounds. That’s hard to do if you’re insulting them.

I don’t see how the mockery of religious belief itself helps out science education. It just makes non-believers look intolerant of belief. It shows that atheists can be as bad as the most arrogant theists.

To put it another way, I’m more partial to They Might be Giants and less partial to Richard Dawkins.

Yes, the in the state of California it’s legal to wear a colander on your head. It’s also legal to be an intolerant anti-religious stuffhead, too. I’ll opt for neither.

5 thoughts on “The Flying Spaghetti Monster, creationism, science education and religious tolerance

  1. Nice post, Terry. I’m involved in a fair bit of “capacity building”, which is analogous here in that we’re trying to impart skills to a group of individuals. The general consensus is that, if you both share the same goal (the point of any partnership, or student-teacher/prof relationship), it’s far more likely to be successful working WITH rather than against.

    Calling people idiotic or stupid rarely results in a productive interaction.

  2. Nice post. Most of my colleagues are reserved and tolerant when it comes to faith (though generally not religious themselves), but a minority are not. I’ve never understood the jump from “evolution is fact” to “religion is stupid” that a few of my colleagues seem to have made. And, unfortunately, the spaghetti monster has become more of a straw man argument against religion than a device to make a point about education.

  3. As a bit of counterpoint, I would argue that the colander IS making a useful statement about the role of religion in our society, just not one directly about creationism in education. In many cases in the U.S., one gets a pass on breaking the rules if one just claims a religious belief. The rule, in this case that nothing should be worn on the head in the photo, is presumably there for a reason. Either it is arbitrary and unnecessary, in which case it should be abolished for everyone, or it makes sense and thus should be applied equally to all. The colander here is a bit of a counter protest against this. Perhaps it is silly in this case, but it’s not that different in concept to claiming religious exemption to pre-school vaccination, which was legal in CA until very recently.

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