A recent government meeting in Alaska began with Pastafarian prayer, according to AP News. A pastor of the religion performed an unusual opening prayer while wearing a pasta strainer on his head. Religions are nearly as diverse as their followers.
The AP article said that Barrett Fletcher of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster offered the opening prayer for the meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, at which he hoped to “invoke the power of the true inebriated creator of the universe,” who in turn would “rouse himself from his stupor and let his noodly appendages ground each assembly member in their seats.” The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was founded in 2005. Since that time, it and many other nontraditional churches have caused many people to question what constitutes a religion and what that religion means to its individual followers.
Of the countless religions in the world, finding one common thread to unite them all is difficult—even having faith in a deity is optional. So what makes a religion?
“First of all, religion tends to involve a system of beliefs,” said Dr. James Hall, the James Thomas Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at the University of Richmond. “Facts, values, intentions, purposes, history, the future, the meaning of life, everything else—religion tends to be an all-encompassing set of beliefs.”
Dr. Hall also said that religion tends to take a preeminence in life—that following its beliefs or doctrines should come first and foremost over other beliefs that a person has.
“Third, religious systems of belief typically—but not always—do involve some sort of notion of being of a supernatural dimension to the world in which we have access,” Dr. Hall said. “It tends to say that there is something to reality over and above what we can see, taste, smell, and hear. That may take many, many different forms.”
One of those possible forms is the idea of a spirit or entity beyond our world. This entity may or may not be the universe’s creator, protector, judge, all-around duct tape, and god. The final component of what tends to define a religion involves humanity’s place in the grand scheme of things. This means both how our actions are judged by supernatural forces and what happens to us after we die—or what happened to us before we were born.
Practices and Behaviors
Once a set of religious beliefs has been established, a culture and social structure forms behind it—it becomes a way of life.
“If the religion in question has that notion, then there is going to be a set of behaviors, a pattern of life that generates out of those beliefs that affect the way that we orient ourselves towards that being,” Dr. Hall said. “Suddenly you get worship and you get prayer and you get fasting. Beliefs, but coming out of beliefs is practices and behaviors.”
Dr. Hall also mentioned religion as a community or a social phenomenon, saying that religion tends to institutionalize itself. “We tend to want to get together with people who have attitudes and feelings and beliefs that are not too far from our own—people who see the world in a way that is not too different in the way we see the world and can share with us in the rituals of worship and sacrifice,” he said.
The other side of that coin is that religion often involves an individual’s very private and personal relationship with their beliefs and/or their god or gods. Sometimes these beliefs conflict with practices of the religious hierarchy, like the church, and each worshiper must resolve that conflict in one way or another, whether it means coming to terms with the institution of that religion or seeking one that aligns more with one’s beliefs.
And if you really love spaghetti, you may know who to call.
Dr. James Hall contributed to this article. Dr. Hall is the James Thomas Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at the University of Richmond. He earned his B.A. from Johns Hopkins University, his Master of Theology from Southeastern Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.