They use words like "didactic device" to describe the beloved but carb-heavy god of Pastafarianism. They say the FSM is cloaked in a "folk-humor hybrid body," and reveals a web-fueled movement toward "open source theology" that challenges existing beliefs.
Pastafarianism is "quite clearly confronting order with disorder, a profound kind of religious activity that we often overlook," said religious-studies professor and author David Chidester on Monday during a panel discussion about the belief system at the American Academy of Religion's annual conference in San Diego, which drew 9,000 attendees.
Sober words for a male deity made of two meatballs and a "noodly appendage." The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has largely been popularized through the internet. The church boasts of a long history and "millions, if not thousands of devout worshippers," according to its website. But it only entered the public sphere after self-described prophet Bobby Henderson, an unemployed twenty-something physicist from Phoenix, demanded in 2005 that the religion receive equal time in Kansas schools.
At the time, education officials in the state wanted to raise the profile of "intelligent design" in public schools and offer it as an alternative to evolution.
Henderson says Pastafarianism -- the official religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- is as serious as the religious-studies wonks are taking it. "The Church of FSM is real, totally legit and backed by hard science," Henderson writes on the site. "Anything that comes across as humor or satire is purely coincidental."
While the five academics drew laughs while discussing topics like meatballs, pirates and "saucy baptisms," they spent most of the time discussing how the faith illuminates their own debates over the secular versus the profane, the fake versus the real, and the roles of communities and parody in religion.
Conference organizers received "hateful" e-mail and voice messages from Christians offended by Monday's panel, said Northwestern University religious-studies professor Sarah Taylor. Whether other religious leaders agree the Flying Spaghetti Monster deserved such a forum is unclear: The panel drew an audience of only a hundred.
One panel member defended the discussion. "Most people don't think we're serious. They just keep saying, 'You're having a lot of fun,'" said University of Florida graduate student Samuel Snyder. "Yes, we're having a blast. But ... this is quite serious, too."
Reaction to public disclosure of the spaghetti deity's existence has ranged from hysterical laughter to staid criticism. "It is a serious offense to mock God," wrote one Kansas state school-board member.
Henderson, the world's leading Pastafarian, didn't return an e-mail message seeking comment about the panel. According to one speaker, he's traveling, using proceeds from his book on the religion.
As for other followers around the world, one declared that the speakers in San Diego should be boiled in marinara sauce, a scary if tasty fate, according to graduate student and panel member Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.
After hearing from the panelists, the audience in San Diego broke for dinner. No word on whether any said grace with the proper closing word for Pastafarian prayers: "Ramen."