Followers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster aka Pastafarians, believe that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe after drinking heavily. A satirical religion started in 2005 with over 100,000 members, Pastafarian mythology is easy to laugh at.
But try laughing at these myths. Life was created in a garden by an ‘omnipotent’ god who got so tired he had to rest on the seventh day. Or that people were created from different body parts of a god. Or that a man parted the sea for his people to pass. Or that a prophet incubated by magic, brought the dead to life and walked on water. Or that the highest religious desire of the followers of a religion that abhors idol and image worship, is to circumambulate and kiss a black stone.
As outgoing US president Donald Trump creates fake news to try mythologizing alleged fraud in the US elections, billions across the world are surprised that millions in America believe it. If they only looked at their own beliefs, perhaps they wouldn’t laugh so hard because what Trump is doing is walking on a road paved by religions since the creation of ‘civilization’.
There’s a common misconception in the minds of liberal scholars who lament that we are now living in the world of ‘post-truth’. What this indirectly suggests is that there was an age of truth sometime in the past. To borrow president-elect Joe Biden’s favourite curse word, this is a load of malarkey.
Truth is ‘Post-truth’ is nothing but another myth. We were always living in a world of fiction and myths – religious or otherwise. All that leaders like Trump, Putin, Jinping, Modi in the present; and Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill, Napolean, etc. in the past did, was use it and/or created their myths to rule over humans.
By saying this I don’t mean to imply that all mythologizing and fictionalizing is bad. Historians believe otherwise. Yuval Noah Harari in his books deftly argues that fiction turned to myths have united people to work together for a common purpose. Ironically, the repudiation of these myths by scientific minds – especially in the age of enlightenment – led us to the modern age of science and technology.
Despite their past usefulness, most of these mythologies have long served their purpose and have entered an age where they are dangerous and counterproductive. Most wars today might at the surface seem about ideology, religions, belief systems and values but at the core are about competing mythologies.
What Donald Trump with unintended honesty shows, is how dangerous myth-creation can be not just to the prevailing order, but to the unity needed to fight our greatest threats like diseases, climate change, stupidity, etc. One man armed with fiction and strong enough broadcasting tools can gather sufficient followers and unleash anarchy everywhere. USA - since its Civil War - has never been such a divided country. It isn’t any different in India.
Why do people believe in harmful myths, you might ask? I’ll let the master of fake news and propaganda answer this question. Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist of the Nazis said, “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle.”
His master, Adolf Hitler, said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Do you think only fascists or religions have used the power of lies? What about Coca-Cola. Harari writes in ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’: “What images come to mind when you think about Coca-cola? Do you think about young healthy people engaging in sports and having fun together? Or do you think about overweight diabetes patients lying in a hospital bed. Drinking lots of Coca-Cola… increases your chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes.”
How did Coke fool us for so long, and continues to do so? Same way Trump does. By repeating lies till they turn into believable myths.
The most important question thus, to those who want not to be influenced by myths based on lies, is how do we break free from this vicious matrix?
The first thing you must do, I believe, is to get out of your high-horse and acknowledge humbly that you don’t and cannot know all. This includes everyone from religious nuts to woke liberals both of whom suffer from the same type of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is a straight path to intellectual, moral and social degradation. Even when you are absolutely right.
Second thing is to differentiate between knowledge and faith. You believe in Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Ram, etc. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you keep it private. Never forget the old cliché: religion, like your sexual organs, should never be flashed in public. Remember also that what you can touch, hear, smell, see and taste is far more real and immediate than any myths you believe should ever be allowed to be.
The third is to trust science and fact-checking sources. Harari suggests you invest both your intellectual energy and money in first figuring out trusted and unbiased information sources and then support it financially. Even after you do that, don’t believe anything blindly. Never before has almost all the knowledge of the world been available at your fingertips. Uses those lazy fingers to search for provable truths rather than believing in spaghetti monsters.
The fourth and most important of all is to keep your mind open. You know what you know. But be open to making an about-turn if facts show you a different reality. Remember that cliché – minds like parachutes work best when open. Make this into your personal dogma if you like. Yet be wary of conspiracy theories – they are easy to believe simply because they mix a teaspoon of facts into a potful of fiction. Just a spoonful of truths won’t make the whole stew right.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster religion is often used as a contemporary version of Russell's teapot, a thought experiment conjured by philosopher Bertrand Russell that states that the burden of proof should lie on those who make unfalsifiable claims, not on those who reject them.
Most of Trump's fake news and myth-making, in that sense, is no different from religions: both are unprovable yet unfalsifiable. It’s like Harari writes, “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s religion.”
Pastafarians are just nine hundred ninety-nine million nine hundred thousand followers short of a ‘true’, global religion.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)