By some accounts the world is, step by step, becoming an ever more disbelieving place. With secularism gradually becoming the developed nations’ default setting, the number of people saying they’re agnostic, atheistic or simply religiously unaffiliated—‘nones’ as they’re sometimes called—is growing significantly. Nones, for example, now account for over one-quarter of the US population, historically one of the most god-fearing countries on the planet. Across Europe, they’re the second-largest group. With the generation by generation untethering of the major world religions come profound changes in the way people ponder death, raise their children, consider ethical matters and so on.
But this new focus on the secular isn’t entirely accurate because to measure the relevance of religion by considering only the big guns of spirituality—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism—is to miss a counter-trend: the rise of alternative religions. Call them niche, call them boutique, call them crackpot, but religions that don’t conform to conventional spiritual thinking are making inroads. And we’re not talking about the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientologists.
Take, rather, the likes of Iglesia Maradoniana, established 20 years ago by Alejandro Veron and two friends and now counting over 500,000 members worldwide. It has a Christmas mass and baptisms, in which the new convert must score a goal using their left fist. Maradonians unite in prayer on Diego Nuestro to celebrate the birth of their deity. They’re as crazed in their devotion as any true believer might be. Their god, however, is—if you haven’t worked it out—is the one-time football great Diego Maradona.
Indeed, scratch the surface and humanity finds ever more curious, sometimes challenging, sometimes provocative, frequently left-field ways of organising to express their faith in some or other idea of the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, with all the devotional and ritual observances that go with it. We want, it seems, to believe.
Glenn Carter is an engaging straight-talker. He’s enjoyed a successful career as a stage actor. He’s a bit of a dude. He just happens to also be among the bishopric of the Raelian movement, a UFO religion founded by one-time motoring journalist and race-car driver Claude Vorilhon in 1973, when a purported extraterrestrial encounter with a being called Yahweh led him to change his name to Rael and spend the next four decades expounding some interesting ideas.
Among these are that human life was scientifically created by an interplanetary humanoid race that, way back, passed itself off as angels and gods, periodically sending prophets— Jesus and Buddha among them—to set humankind on the road to an eventual technological resurrection. The Garden of Eden was a laboratory, Noah’s Ark a spaceship. On the one hand, Raelians believe in mind transfer and genetic manipulation and want to build an embassy for the extraterrestrial arrival. On the other, they’re not into notions of the soul or of the supernatural. They keep it real, in a Star Trek kind of way.
“[Raelism] is not about faith but about tangible proof,” says Carter, who first discovered what he calls “the philosophy” by happenstance in a bookshop. “It made more sense to me than believing in some omniscient god, just one of the contradictions [of mainstream religion] that made no sense to me at all. I have never met a little green man, been on a spaceship or held a ray gun. I’m not a fool. Raelism is the easiest religion to ridicule because it involves aliens. But it’s hard to do that when you really look into it.”
Carter says Raelism is science-based and was easier for him to acknowledge than earlier converts, since the intervening years have, one by one, seen Vorilhon’s claims proven correct. They’re some big claims too, regarding the likes of the potential for human cloning, which a company founded by Rael says it’s already achieved, or climate change, which, Raelism contends, isn’t man-made but a natural geological process, “an idea science is now increasingly accepting”. Evolution is without scientific foundation, it’s argued. It’s easy to see why controversy has sometimes dogged this movement.
“But read Rael’s books now and it all just seems obvious. It only requires objective intelligence,” says Carter. “Some suggestions I thought went too far. There was one idea that the hair on our head could act as a kind of transmitter. But now tech allows us to sense hormone emissions from the scalp. Science catches up. If I told you to put money on a horse to make a fortune, you didn’t and it won, and then I did that day after day, my predictions proving to be accurate over and over and you didn’t believe me, then who’s the foolish one?”
Indeed, Raelism—which, according to the movement, has some 90,000 followers—has something of an activist bent, especially when compared with other major religions. It’s protective of fundamental human rights—it even led one of the first campaigns against paedophilia in the Catholic Church—and considers sexuality a private matter providing nobody is hurt. “Let’s be honest. Inevitably it’s been called a sex cult as a result,” Carter notes. “The media sees what it wants to see.”
And yet Carter’s support of Raelism has, he reckons, come at personal cost. In 2002, he appeared on TV arguing for the legalisation of stem cell therapies— then hugely controversial, much less so now—adding that they were, in effect, much the same as human cloning. “Put it this way: up until that point I’d only worked for British producers in the West End [London’s theatreland]. And I’ve never worked for a British producer in the West End since,” he says. He doesn’t regret it though. He believes his part in the Raelian campaign helped usher in life-saving therapies faster than they otherwise would have been.
“We’re just all more aware these days. We’re more sophisticated,” says Carter. “People from alternative religious beliefs just tend to feel more free to think in other ways.”
Carlos Martinez’s favourite Star Wars movie is, he says, the first one. “As a kid, I was twirling a broomstick for weeks after that,” he laughs. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope was, after all, where the mythos of one of arguably the most culturally impactful movie franchises in history was originated. It is, so to speak, Genesis with light sabres. But Martinez found himself taking his movie fandom further than most. He is now pastor at the Temple of the Jedi Order, based in North Carolina, the US, where it was founded—and legally recognised—13 years ago.
“The movie was such a big thing— the film itself, the literature that followed, the archetypes that were created, the many interpretations it inspired, it touched so many people— from fiction to representation to actualisation in life,” says Martinez. “But you can come to Jediism and find you’re already a Jedi. There’s a gap, of course, between the movie buff who likes the idea of a light sabre and actually behaving as they believe a Jedi might, and that’s what we’re about.”
Indeed, Martinez makes no claim to being able to levitate or repel objects through the power of ‘the force’. He’s even careful to refer to himself more as a Jediist than a Jedi because, this being America, “George Lucas owns all the Star Wars terminology and we don’t want to get into trouble”. But he does see the sci-fi series as being as valid a source for a life philosophy as any other, as comical as, he admits, the idea might at first seem. It is, he explains, a code of good conduct, of morality and loyalty akin to that of chivalry, as followed by the knights of yore in England’s medieval feudal system.
This isn’t fixed, it’s more open to interpretation, but for him, it boils down to this rather poetic, if esoteric summary: emotion, yet peace; ignorance, yet knowledge; passion, yet serenity; chaos, yet harmony; and—of course—death, yet the force. The force—the idea of a power that connects all life—is an idea common to many religions, Martinez notes. More practically, there is an emphasis on maintaining a clear mind, being aware of one’s actions, focusing on the present, being wary of attachments, being conscious of one’s well-being, being compassionate, patient, peaceful and self-aware. It’s all sound stuff.
“Every Jedi has the ability to take on the Jedi cloak and apply it as they see fit,” says Martinez—and they do too: the Temple receives between 10 and 20 people registering to join every day, with peaks, inevitably, after the release of each new instalment in the space saga. “As in the movies, the Jedis are united in a bond, but they each have their own path. For us, Jediism has become a lifestyle, a creed for a better way of living that’s transcended the movies. When I was a kid, the Jedis were just cool. But look through that and there’s a way for people to find the ability to grow in themselves. Is that idea too much for some people? Sure. Some just like to dress up. But it can also bring huge freedom.”
Martinez says taking a Jedi approach to life has transformed the way he behaves, the way he sees things. It encouraged him to question the religion he grew up in—Catholicism—and to find one that was right for him. His friends and family have not been above a wry smile but, he says, they also see that he’s a better person for Jediism.
That’s not enough for the force, also known as bureaucracy, in some countries. The last two decades have repeatedly seen the authorities challenge hundreds of thousands of people’s attempt to state their religion as ‘Jedi’ on census forms. Outside the US, it seems all too often a religion must be state-sanctioned to be real.
“The idea,” says an effervescent Selena Fox, “is that we’re all connected, that we’re all part of a greater circle of nature. It’s an idea that resonates through a lot of religions too, ones often lumped together, be they primal religions of the Maori, Native Americans, the Zulu or eco and green spirit religions. This is an updated version of a religion with its roots in the ancient past.”
Fox is the founder of Circle Sanctuary, a Nature Spirituality church and nature preserve in Wisconsin, the US. As the cliché might have it, she’s all about getting back to nature—attuning ourselves to the rhythms of the moon, the sun, the seasons, whose sacred days are the likes of the solstices, equinoxes and various ye olde fire festivals out of Celtic and Viking traditions. Fox is all about recognising diversity, valuing the inner life, honouring nature and our ancestors.
“We have a grassroots focus around human connectivity with nature rather than most religions’ more typical focus around a particular human and their teachings,” she adds. “We’re contemporary pagans, helped by the rise of the Internet and social media. We don’t see any conflict in using mobile and satellite technology to connect a circle of practitioners around the planet. We look to the old traditions but add to that creatively, through art and song. We’re changing things up.”
It’s the kind of tree-hugging, free-spirited, easily appreciated outlook that certainly chimes with the times—both increasingly environmentally aware and deity-doubting as they are—even if it’s all too easily dismissed by some as so much hippy-dippyness. But that, laughs Fox, is the least of possible troubles. Sure, nature spirituality is a broad church, she explains, incorporating intense religiosity, polytheistic beliefs of the kind beloved by the ancient Greeks and Romans, pantheism and a vast swathe of middle ground too.
“But not a week goes by without some practitioner being discriminated against,” says Fox, who led a successful campaign for the right to use pagan symbols on gravestones. “There’s always the ‘witch’ word and that’s a word that’s really loaded. There’s still residue from the burning times of the Middle Ages. In some parts of the world there’s straight persecution of practitioners of paganism, Wicca and the like. People demonise what they don’t understand, anything outside of their own sphere of belief.”
She doesn’t mention the likes of The Wicker Man or this year’s hit movie Midsommar, but both are the kind of publicity she surely doesn’t need. And which only serve to distort the espousal of a much more heartfelt, gentle, archaic truth.
There are thought to be millions of believers worldwide, such that it’s said to be the world’s fastest-growing religion. It’s what they believe in that’s strange: a flying spaghetti monster. Indeed, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster reckons their deity created the universe a few thousand years ago and that evidence it was created billions of years ago is a trick of the scientific establishment. They note, too, that the reduction of the pirate population and global warming correlate, so clearly one has caused the other.
Yes, they really do wear colanders on their heads as a mark of their faith too, which will be rewarded in Pastafarian heaven—for believers call themselves Pastafarians—with a beer volcano and a stripper factory. “And,” notes independent film-maker Mike Arthur, “I honestly think that in a hundred years this could be seen as another legitimate religious group. I mean, why not?”
Of course, Pastafarians—whom Arthur has documented in a film called I, Pastafari, premiered at select film festivals last autumn—possibly don’t believe any of the above. After all, this new religion was founded in 2005 when Bobby Henderson challenged the Kansas School Board’s decision for schools to teach evolution alongside creationism as equivalent scientific theories. Surely then, he argued, it would only be fair that his belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster be taught as well.
“Pastafarianism is super funny but also super important in what it’s trying to say,” contends Arthur, who grew up a Catholic in Kentucky, near Ark Encounter, a museum that espouses the literal interpretation of the Bible, but which is able to glean the state-sanctioned benefits of being both a church organisation and a private business. “Beyond satire, it raises the question of what defines a ‘real’ religion. It would be difficult to argue in the court of a democratic, secular nation that Pastafarianism is any less ‘real’ than any other religion. But this isn’t about making a mockery of religion or religious people, even if their beliefs may be as hard to accept as a flying spaghetti monster. If anything, it’s a fight for religious freedom for all religious people.”
Indeed, Pastafarians have gone to court in the Netherlands—where, as of 2016, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was granted official recognition as a religion—in pursuit of religious freedom. Specifically, they pursued the right to wear their colanders in ID photos, as believers of other religions are allowed to wear their symbolic headwear, and, in doing so, subtly underscore the fact that rarely is there a complete separation of church and state since the former tends to get privileges in terms of various legal exemptions and financial subsidies.
“It’s saying that proper religious freedom must include the freedom from religion,” stresses Arthur. “It’s pointing out the difference between saying, for example, ‘my religion says I can’t eat this food’—which is cool—and saying ‘my religion says you can’t eat this food’, which is not cool.”
As for those colanders, they are, as Arthur notes, a tidy metaphor. Much as they retain the pasta but let the water drain away, “so it’s a suggestion that we should do the same with religion perhaps—keep hold of what’s good in religion, the likes of the community cohesion, the social work and so on, but let the bad stuff slip away, the bigotry and the violence, the failure to notice, for example, that religion is not science and science is not religion.”
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