COMMENTARY: The right to hallucinate

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/24 June) — “I am the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Thou shalt have no other monsters before Me… The only Monster who deserves capitalization is Me! Other monsters are false monsters, undeserving of capitalization.”––Loose Canon

Let me start off by saying that I’m glad to be alive in the 21st century. A few centuries back, if we had lived in some faraway land, we would have been sentenced to the stake for the “crime” of keeping a book or even just reading something like that “Thou shalt not…” commandment above regardless of whether we agree with the author or not.

There was strong opposition to Kabataan Rep. Raymond Palatino’s bill that sought a ban on religious rites and symbols in government buildings and institutions. I used “sought” because on Friday, Palatino announced that he decided to withdraw the bill that was seen by many people as an attempt to “ban God” in government offices. It’s pretty obvious why he had to back down. If he forced the issue, his youth group would surely lose in the elections. But what really puzzles me until now is why he didn’t see it coming.

According to Palatino, all he wanted was to “implement the constitutional provision on freedom of religion where the state should remain neutral and cannot favor any religion.

“There should be no state-sanctioned religious ceremonies.”

Palatino’s bill was doomed from Day 1. In fact, it died in the womb for the simple reason that Congress is inhabited by politicians who are always in need of religious votes. Besides, good or bad, immoral or not, corrupt or not, Congress is predominantly monotheistic and polytheistic (the pork-barrel funds are gods as far as many congressmen are concerned).

A ban on religious practices in certain institutions? It’s like legislating good manners and right conduct. Let’s just say your god is Zeus and you hear the Angelus while you’re walking in a campus. Stop and keep your mouth shut. If the majority in a government office wants to pray for a birthday celebrant and say grace before a meal he has prepared for the occasion, stand up when all the well-wishers rise to their feet. Good manners and right conduct dictate that you do this even if you’re not a believer or even if you adhere to an entirely opposite and weird religious teaching like, for example, all good people go to hell; only bad people go to heaven. That’s called respect. If you can stand up and keep silent without making faces or raising the arch of hair above one eye while they turn the occasion into an instant prayer meeting, that’s tolerance.

Shouldn’t workers like us, including the nonbelievers, be very thankful for the religious holidays? Do we really want to stop looking forward to these religious holidays when we can spend days away from work? Do we want government to stop giving us the privilege of taking almost a week of vacation each summer? And what about the traditional December parties? No more exchanging of gifts? I say killjoy!

But I think I know where Palatino is coming from. The New York Times put it this way in one editorial: “The real threat to religious liberty comes from the effort to impose one church’s doctrine on everyone.” Those in search of jurisprudence may also want to contemplate on the words of Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving justice currently in the US Supreme Court: “…the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land” would mean allowing “every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Palatino has seen the light, so to speak. The way we, as a people, practice our different religions raises too many legal questions. The practices even raise issues on the kind of education our children are getting, be it in public or private schools.

The “Thou shalt not…” passage I used earlier comes from the “Loose Canon, a Holy Book of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” The fella who started this slap-in-the-face parody was the then 24-year old physics graduate Bobby Henderson. In 2005, he wrote to the Kansas State Board of Education on behalf of “10 million others” with whom he supposedly shared a strong belief that “the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Palatino’s aborted bill reminds me of that controversial letter, something that shocked and made a lot of people laugh––and think––nearly a decade ago.

Henderson’s “purpose” in writing it was to talk the state education board into allowing him and the “millions” of other “Pastafarians” to propagate their “religion” by giving “Flying Spaghetti Monsterism” or “Pastafarianism” equal time in the classrooms just like Creationism and Darwinism.

Henderson professes: “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him…

“…We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. Also, you may be surprised to hear that there are over 10 million of us, and growing. We tend to be very secretive, as many people claim our beliefs are not substantiated by observable evidence.

“What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75 percent of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10 thousand years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.”

Now, how is that any different from the belief that Apollo Quiboloy is the “appointed Son of God” and that Davao City or his mansion is the “New Jerusalem”? Or that fugitive Ruben Ecleo Jr. is the “Supreme Master”? Or that the late Tomas Eugenio was the Holy Ghost in the flesh? Or that our hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, was a divine being sent over a century ago to be the country’s messiah? The faith of many of their followers could be as strong as that of those in the Filipino mainstream. Like the majority, the faith of their followers is grounded on a “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” What if they’re right and we are all wrong?

It doesn’t require genius to see that the 2005 letter was a joke––a lampoon––but Henderson, now referred to as a “prophet” of “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” won’t admit it, at least in public, and I think many people who laughed until their bellies ached took his points seriously. The letter raised valid points of discussion, including some legal issues, that a number of respected publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Guardian, among others, either published it as an open letter or carried commentaries on the Henderson travesty.

“The joke, of course, is that it’s arguably more rational than Intelligent Design,” writes The Guardian’s Jack Schofield.

Justin Pope, national higher education reporter of The Associated Press, called it “a clever and effective argument.” Pope writes: “Between the lines, the point of the letter was this: there’s no more scientific basis for intelligent design than there is for the idea an omniscient creature made of pasta created the universe. If intelligent design supporters could demand equal time in a science class, why not anyone else? The only reasonable solution is to put nothing into sciences classes but the best available science.”

One of the comic but valid points Henderson presented was that his alternative theory of intelligent design should be taught along with the evolution theory to enable students to “choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them.” This, he argued, can only become possible if the students are made aware of the multiple viewpoints. He said he feared students will hear only one creationism theory.

“Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design,” Henderson pointed out. “It is for this reason that I’m writing you today, to formally request that this alternative theory be taught in your schools, along with the other two theories. In fact, I will go so far as to say, if you do not agree to do this, we will be forced to proceed with legal action. I’m sure you see where we are coming from. If the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith…

“…I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, and unfortunately cannot describe in detail why this must be done as I fear this letter is already becoming too long. The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

“…I am eagerly awaiting your response, and hope dearly that no legal action will need to be taken. I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; one-third time for Intelligent Design, one-third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one-third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.”

Henderson’s letter had a postscript which reads: “I have included an artistic drawing of Him (Flying Spaghetti Monster) creating a mountain, trees, and a midget. Remember, we are all His creatures.” (The drawing looks like it was made by a five-year old.)

In this nation of superstitious people, where, until now, there are still those who actually believe that the aswang, the kapre, the mananaggal and the dwende, among others, exist or that a god has taken a human form somewhere in Timbuktu or that Maria Makiling turned into a mountain or that Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are non-fiction (the last two are exaggerations, I hope), Henderson’s letter and a proposal like that of Palatino’s will always be considered downright offensive and makagaba.

The eye sees what it wishes to see. Even educated people here still flock to some outlying village and fall on their knees because they think they see the image of what looks like a bearded man stained on the trunk of a banana plant. That’s how it is in our Banana Republic.

Which is why it would have been much easier for Palatino to succeed if he rooted for a bill that would require superstitious people in government offices and institutions to turn “Malakas and Maganda”––and the bamboos from which they supposedly came from––into religious icons. It would probably have been much easier for him to make a camel go through the eye of a needle than make religious people in government rid their offices of harmless religious rites and symbols.

It was really a futile exercise. Palatino just wasted his time and government resources in crafting House Bill 6330. The Philippines is not ready for something like this––not yet. Not in our lifetime, boy.

Instead of a ban on harmless religious practices, why not a regulation on the practice of imposing one’s religious doctrine on everyone? Congress can make it a criminal offense for any irrational bigot to ram down his religious doctrine down everyone’s throat. Such person threatens our democracy and is, in fact, a potential internal security threat. Today, the bigot is only messing with government’s secular policies because of the dictates of his religion. But sooner or later, he could toy with the idea that it is part of a divine plan for him to wear a vest of explosives and crash a plane into a church or a mosque or even Malacanang.

In this country, many oppose rational House and Senate bills filed for the common good because they think the proposals go against their definition of morality. And people here vote for incompetent, selfish, money- and power-hungry, and glaringly corrupt politicians if the preachers say they’ve been “anointed.” Why? Because God says so, stupid. Buot ka?


(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Herbie Gomez is editor in chief of Cagayan de Oro-based The Mindanao Gold Star Daily.)