The Null Device

Wal-Mart of the soul

America is experiencing a rise in do-it-yourself religion; this ranges from trivial examples (i.e., Catholics who privately practice contraception or Jews who don't keep kosher) to more elaborate combinations (Judaism/Buddhism is an extremely popular combination, apparently, though others, like Buddhism, Islam and the Norse pantheon, exist), and various made-to-order pop-cultural syncretisms (such as Elvis religion and self-help-book "angel" spirituality). Is this the logical combination of the two American traditions of religious identity and commodity consumerism? (via Plastic)
Neopagans themselves mix all sorts of spiritual ingredients -- and not always consciously. Many carry baggage from the churches they've supposedly rejected. "The former Catholics are the ones that are into the big ceremonial magic, because that's what they grew up with -- the big Catholic ceremonies," argues Ceredwyn Alexander, a 33-year-old pagan (and former Catholic) who lives in Middlebury, Vermont. "And the Baptist pagans tend to be the rule-oriented pagans: 'You must be facing the east at this particular time of day, and anything other than that is evil and wrong!'"

Mind you, real-world religions aren't the only thing being appropriated into new DIY spiritualities; some prefer to base their religious beliefs on works of fiction and popular culture:

So it was that in 1993 members of the Order of the Red Grail, a Wiccan group in Nebraska, held an "experimental magickal working from the High Elven point of view," drawing on the world invented by Tolkien. And so it was that in the mid-'80s some occultists in California -- not a pagan group, my informant stresses, though there were some pagans among them -- attempted to channel the Amazing Spider-Man. The collective unconscious was probed, and a persona claiming to be Peter Parker emerged; the magicians then tested the alleged superhero by asking what would take place in the next few issues of the comic book. Alas, the channeler's predictions proved inaccurate, thus nipping the project in the bud.

One person's High Elven is another person's High Elvis, of course; "Elvis miracles" have been reported for decades now, and there are "serious" Churches of Elvis. There's even a book about "Elvis spirituality". And then of course are the Jedi; sure, most of them put "Jedi" on their census forms just for the hell of it, but there are surely a few who find deep spiritual meaning in lightsaber battles and dyslexic muppets.

Such playfulness marks the so-called Free Religions. Under this header one finds Discordianism, the "Non-Prophet Irreligious Disorganization" devoted to the Greco-Roman goddess of disorder; the Church of the SubGenius, inspired not by classical mythology but by conspiracy theories, UFO cults, and sales manuals; and the Moorish Orthodox Church, which might best be described as Discordianism crossed with Afro-American Islam. Other Free Religions are one-off efforts, sometimes launched by followers of other free faiths.

That seems to be right; what Discordian or SubGenius hasn't at some stage (and often under the influence of various substances) declared themselves on a whim to be the High Pope-God-Emperor of the First Universal Church of Spray-On Cheese or something?

A while ago I was thinking that, while memes like that occur everywhere, the placing of them in a religious context seems to be a very American idea. I.e., if Discordianism originated in, say, England or France (or even Australia), it probably wouldn't classify itself as a religion; perhaps it would be an art movement, or a philosophical experiment, or perhaps just a meme, a signifier marking out those In The Know.

(I put down "Discordian" on my last few census forms, though I don't regard it as a religion, any more than Dadaism or Situationism was a religion. (One could argue that Marxism, one of the parents of Situationism, shows the characteristics of being a religion, but that's another can of worms altogether.))

There are 6 comments on "Wal-Mart of the soul":

Posted by: mike farahbakhshian Mon Apr 28 20:36:37 2003

The Judaism/Buddhism combo makes a lot of sense in the contest of Kabbalah.

Posted by: gjw Mon Apr 28 23:56:15 2003

I reckon the SubGenius religion is fantastic in what it does - begun, essentially to poke fun at evangelical religion, it has over time developed it's own mythology, sacred objects, sacred books and "ceremonies". I guess it's most successful feature it the framework it provides for people to express their weird art within. Why Photoshop something mundane when you could Photoshop a "Dobbs Head" instead?

Posted by: dj http:// Tue Apr 29 06:14:21 2003

we used to have our own cult based around a dorky kid at school named Carlos. We even had membership cards with "Disciples of Carlos" written on them, as well as an Indoor Cricket team with the same name.

Posted by: Graham Tue Apr 29 08:52:47 2003

Hmm, you've got me thinking...

Posted by: Alex http:// Tue Apr 29 13:03:18 2003

A friend noted that if you changed the signs at Moorabbin station to read 'Moorabbit' an instant cult would result. Imagine how fucked the bush would be if moorabbits were set loose ... in a way, we are all moorabbits ... etc

Posted by: Ben the REAL Ben Tue Apr 29 16:05:53 2003

Discordianism is the organised worship of Eris, the greatest of harlots and the source of abominations.

Far better to accept Bob into your life and Forget About Jesus tm.