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'Pastafarian' Stunt: 'Religious Freedom' Is Not Freedom For All

On what grounds could we conclude that the man in the pasta strainer deserves less deference from the state than the woman in the hijab or the man in the kippa?

The following is reprinted with permission from  Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

Satire is a dish best served al dente. The Austrian authorities issued a driver's license to a "Pastafarian" with a picture of him wearing the approved headgear of the satirical religion: a plastic IKEA colander. The story was fed into the news-of-the-weird cycle and churned out faster than noodles from a pasta roller. The aim of Nico Alm's impish stunt, as he explained on his blog at its outset, was not to win legal privileges for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but rather to challenge the religious exemption to the regulations barring head coverings from official ID photographs.

Alm expected his request to be denied, thus dramatizing his claim that the exemption discriminates against non-religious citizens. The police, who are responsible for issuing the IDs, have insisted that his headgear was accommodated not because of its declared religious significance but because it left his face clearly visible. This only clouded the issue. The Department of Transportation website states that head coverings are permitted only for "religious reasons" ( religiösen Gründen), and that in such cases, the face must be visible from the lower chin to the forehead.

The affair raises questions that go beyond the jokey "church" -- questions with which every society must grapple: What is religious freedom? Does it entitle some people to special protection under the law, and if so, which people? We can persist in drawing increasingly arbitrary lines between Rastafarian and Pastafarian, between the Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist and the Church of Scientology, or we can join the few pioneering scholars of religion and the law who have found another way. The solution is that no one is entitled to religious freedom because there is no such thing as religious freedom.

Straining Credulity

On what grounds could we conclude that the man in the pasta strainer deserves less deference from the state than the woman in the hijab or the man in the kippa? Is it that their faiths are "real," and his fake? There are two ways that the state could judge that a faith is real as opposed to fake. One is to determine that the objects of the faith are true. The other is to determine that the adherence is authentic.

Anyone who has ever applied for a driver's license will have doubts about the competence of government to record a street address correctly, let alone pierce the veil of eternity. Locke said it better: "The one only narrow way which leads to Heaven is not better known to the Magistrate than to private Persons, and therefore I cannot safely take him for my Guide, who may probably be as ignorant of the way as my self." Yet even if the state could ascertain the truth, and even if we could somehow overlook the enmity that would be sown between communities and nations by adopting it, we would still have to establish that the state has a positive interest in advancing that truth.

The problem is that any purported public good of religion to which one can point -- as a source of moral education, identity, social cohesion, or a check on the forces of profit or centralized power -- can be found in forms of thought and solidarity outside of the traditional confessions; even in Alm's secular humanism. Therefore, the state would have an interest in advancing that good wherever it may be found, not in advancing religion as such.