Are “made-up” religions less authentic than the “real” ones?
By Fred Folmer
Shortly after finishing Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), a recent book by religious studies scholar Carole M. Cusack, I tried a quick experiment. Given that the book focuses on groups that, as Cusack puts it, “announce their invented status”—often drawing quite deliberately from popular fiction to create new forms of religious expression—I wondered just how far the phenomenon extends beyond the Discordians, Church of All World members, SubGeniuses, Jediists, Matrixists, and adherents of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster whom Cusack seeks to describe.
And so I did an Internet search for Batman, the first comic book character I could think of (that’s right, my comic book knowledge is terribly deep), and added the word church. Sure enough, there’s a Facebook group for, ahem, the “Westboro Batman Church,” a group that claims to be “a pious church that worships the ONE, TRUE god, Batman!” In addition to a theological statement, in the “description” section we learn that the group’s 10 Commandments were handed down by Aquaman, and that one of the directives is simply “I’m BATMAN!” What’s more, there’s a similar Facebook group for Aquaman, although apparently their theology is still in the developmental stages. The group does, however, identify itself as “the church of our savior, Aquaman.”
Through its classification system, Facebook tells us that the two groups do indeed belong to the genre of “church/religious organization,” and who would really have standing to argue with that? One can laugh at the description—after all, it’s probably meant as a joke, right?—but then we don’t know who created the page or what role a “Batman religion” might be playing in this person’s life, nor do we know who might be reading the page and appropriating such a “religion” into their own personhood, in some way.
The latter point is a central part of the argument that Cusack, an associate professor in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney, seeks to make: In this secularized age of consumption and wide circulation of cultural forms, “religious” narratives can now be disseminated, combined and recombined over great distances as fast as…a speeding bullet, perhaps (yep, somebody started a Facebook “church” page for him too).
Because of this, Cusack argues, “religions” that start out as fictions or jokes can often come to be systems of belief and practice that people draw upon to form their “real” individual and social selves. Once the forms are created and dispersed, the creators have little control over what happens to their “churches” out there in the vast world of ideas, stories and images, where a sense of authoritative control over what counts as sacred, authentic or true has long been surrendered to the many-splendored subjectivism of modernity, and to the concomitant splintering of religious forms—a phenomenon that philosopher Charles Taylor has described as the “nova effect.”
“Invented religions,” as Cusack has formulated them, can begin to behave like the religious traditions that are usually deemed culturally authoritative, such as Christianity or Buddhism ; thus, she writes, “even those founders who deliberately employed fiction to create new religions may be gradually convinced of its value, reality or truth through their experience of its success, and in communication with like-minded people.” And so when, for instance, some Star Wars fans drew from the films to create “Jediism,” they came to experience the fictional world of the films as the newest expression of a larger truth. As Cusack writes, for such followers, “the fiction created by [Star Wars creator George] Lucas is true, or at the very least a manifestation of a perennial philosophy, as it has had human followers for thousands of years.”
Moreover, an “invented religion,” for the author, should be considered a “real” religion, particularly given that present-day “reality” (to say nothing of even more loaded terms like “sacredness” or “spirituality”) is up for grabs, hugely diffuse and highly mediated by the Internet and by the consumer marketplace (in this case, comic books, films, etc.). Cusack’s project is therefore not merely descriptive, it’s also redemptive in an important sense: While she’s not trying to argue that “invented religions” are true in some objective way, she is arguing that because they provide organizational principles for people’s real lives, they ought to be considered religions in the same way that Christianity and Islam are. To do so, she advances a version of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” argument, whereby if certain elements are present (such as belief in supernatural beings, authoritative texts, rituals, etc.) in a given set of doctrines and practices, one can assume that such a system is indeed a religion. For instance, Cusack writes that some aspects of Jediism have affinities with Asian religions—the way that Yoda trains Luke Skywalker using psychological strategies taken from the martial arts, or the organization of Jedi warriors into martial orders similar to “the samurai of Japan and the monks of the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, China.”
While one could easily argue that such resemblances are examples of a contemporary Orientalism, packaging a hybridized version of the so-called “mystic East” for Western consumption, that’s not the cause Cusack takes up. Rather, she is arguing that because Jediism employs tropes and narratives that resemble those long taken to qualify as “religious,” the newer set of discourses should be considered a religion too. As I take her argument, Cusack does not mean to suggest that there’s some transhistorical, prediscursive “essence” to what makes a religion; rather, she means that “religions” become religions only in conversation with the wider culture. And so new religions will bear resemblance to the “older” ones, both by drawing upon some of their forms and in the parody and critique of these same forms.
Thus, when the original Discordians—the first “invented religion” that Cusack profiles—set out in the late 1950s to create a tradition that would honor Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos (whose Roman name is Discordia), the “religion” they came up with looks a lot like a mixture of Greek mythology, some strands of Christianity, and Zen Buddhism. A paean to the spirit of chaos and anomie, Discordianism revels in its belief that “it is impossible to hold a consistent philosophical position.” Nevertheless, the creators of Discordianism—described by Cusack as “free thinking ‘nerds,’ devoted to Mad magazine, science fiction, poetry and philosophy”—also devised a five-point creed called the “Pentabarf” that evokes the Islamic five pillars quite directly: “There is no Goddess but Goddess and She is Your Goddess.” The Pentabarf also contains a lengthy list of dietary requirements, one of which is that on the “first Friday after his illumination,” a Discordian is required to “Go Off Alone and Partake Joyously of a Hot Dog,” which, further creedal declarations stipulate, must be eaten without a bun.
The parodic element of such a “religion” would seem to be quite clear, and perhaps some observers would be content to leave it at that. But Cusack wants us to press further: Discordianism, she argues, is a “religion of liberation” that has gradually “mainstreamed” since the 1960s into the larger family of neopagan belief systems, providing a “powerful explanatory narrative for the contemporary era.”
Given Cusack’s method, though, it’s hard to know what to make of this claim. Because she concentrates most of her attention on the story, texts, and influences of Discordianism’s creators, we don’t really come to understand who, other than perhaps a small group of “nerds,” has felt “liberated” by Discordianism. Nor is there a clear sense of what that liberation has entailed in the lives of those who felt it. For instance, when Cusack writes that the Illuminatus! Trilogy, a series of Discordian novels written in the 1970s, “brought many thousands of readers to Discordianism,” what does that mean, precisely? How was Discordianism taken in? Did it alter people’s daily life, their practices, their personhood, in some way? The answers to these questions would not be transparent even if applied to Christianity: The psychological, somatic, practical, and sociocultural experience of “becoming a Christian” varies greatly from person to person and group to group. This problem is amplified when trying to understand a newer “religion” such as Discordianism, which is unknown to most observers. And so Cusack’s specific method of focusing on the lives and works of creators—a top-down approach to thinking about a religion, it must be said—often is at cross-purposes with the argument she is trying to advance about the ways in which “invented religions” can be taken up and appropriated by others.
Although it does not completely overcome this contradiction, Cusack’s discussion of the Church of All Worlds fares somewhat better along these lines. This tradition, which she says has “never denied its fictional origins,” arose out of a 1961 science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, which argued for various forms of sexual and religious liberation. Like Discordianism, the Church of All Worlds has deep resonances with 1960s-era neopagan movements, practicing nudism and polyamory and advocating pro-environmental positions. Cusack does provide some evidence that the church has helped people find community and belonging in an era when social organization was rapidly changing. Also, it does appear that the Church of All Worlds even has some trappings of a “church”—or at least a 501(c)—and that some people altered their family and life structures based upon its teachings. And so while it’s still hard to know what “membership” in the organization really entails (beyond, again, the activities of the leaders and creators whom Cusack describes), it is also fairly clear that at least in this case, an acknowledged fiction has indeed provided a springboard for a social construction of reality.
The rest of the book surveys still more new “religious” movements. Cusack describes the Church of the Subgenius, whose adherents mock Pentecostal revivals and stage “culture-jamming” events; its teachings seem to be close to Discordianism insofar as they press for liberation through a sense of anarchy and chaos. The author’s key point here is that this very culture-rejecting thrust gives the Church of the Subgenius “a legitimate pedigree in the history of Western religion,” and that a deliberate joke has led, for some, to the adoption of an ethical system and the creation of a life world based on that very joke. Cusack could back this assertion up more robustly—though we do hear from some Subgenius members about their understanding of their own practices, much of the discussion still focuses on “doctrines” and the history of the group’s public events. Thus, there’s a lot we still don’t know, particularly about the way Subgenius teachings might fit in amid other potentially competing discourses and practices in its adherents’ lives. But the author does include the story of a woman who lost a custody case due to her Subgenius role-play practices (the judge found her to be, in Cusack’s phrasing, a “pervert”). The anecdote provides fairly compelling evidence that Subgenius practices rose to the level, at least according to one representative of state power, of being a cult. As we all ought to know, one era’s cult can be the next one’s “bona fide” religion.
While the author’s method only allows her to shed partial, if sometimes interesting and helpful, light on the movements discussed, it does raise a question that is worth considering. How seriously must someone take a given set of practices in order for those practices to rise to the level of “religion”? Would my (hypothetical) Jediist practice be a religion if I tried to channel the Force five or six times a day, but not a religion if I merely had seen Star Wars and thought to myself, “Wow, the Force seems just like…God…”? The folks on Facebook who created the Westboro Batman page—is that, too, a religion, and how would we know when it had become one? I mean, why not—after all, 15 people said they “Like” it! This is fraught territory for anyone who doesn’t have a specific tradition to defend or a particular theological axe to grind, because in a secular age, there is just no answer to these questions that could possibly satisfy everyone.
The fact that Cusack tries to defend what she sees as the legitimacy of “invented religion” takes her straight into such questions—and, more crucially, answers. For her, “invented religions” rise to that level, whatever that level may be, and she takes issue—though does not, I’m afraid, engage very directly—with scholarship or commentary that appears to argue otherwise. It would further seem here that “religion,” even if it’s a joke or parody, is something serious, an isolatable “tradition” that gives a kind of meaningful organizational purpose to a human life. As many scholars have pointed out, such a functional definition is so multiply broad that almost anything can be applied to it, rendering it roughly useless—unless one adopts an essentialist argument that the author seems to be trying (and rightly so) to avoid. Cusack actually multiplies this problem by attempting to defend not only the concept of “religion” but also the subconcept of “invented religion”—overlooking, perhaps, the ways in which self-avowed “fictions” are also intertwined with more traditional forms of religious practice. The entanglements of the apocalyptic Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins with contemporary evangelicalism come immediately to mind, as does the way some practitioners of liberal Christianity have come to regard many of their own founding texts as mythical or allegorical.
Cusack’s project might have been more illuminating had she forgone authorial versions of definition and legitimacy altogether, and focused more attention on how practitioners of “invented religions”—and their critics, whoever they may be—grapple with these questions and issues. Who are Discordians (Jediists, Subgeniuses, etc.), and how do they understand themselves in relationship to the “religious” practices they’ve adopted? Do they consider themselves to be “religious” people, “secular” people, or something that defies either category? How do they decide what is and is not “religious,” and what might these term mean to them? And perhaps most importantly, one might ask a question drawn from anthropologist Saba Mahmood: What kinds of selfhood are presupposed and produced through these discourses and practices? The book does supply fleeting glimpses of this kind of engagement. But in more or less taking for granted what a “religion” is—both of the invented and non-invented variety—and deciding in advance that the groups in question “fit” both definitions, Invented Religions is ultimately more occupied with category and classification than with grappling with “religion” as practiced and lived, holding such matters at an unfortunate distance.
Fred Folmer is a freelance writer, editor, and academic librarian. He holds an M.A. in religious studies from New York University.