by Joseph Laycock
* This post is a creative summary of the author’s essay that appears in the latest issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion 42.3 (September 2013), entitled “Laughing Matters: ‘Parody Religions’ and the Command to Compare.”
This weekend I read Jesse Walker’s new book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, 2012). A chapter entitled “Operation Mindfuck” describes the “ironic style” of conspiracy theory developed by the New Left during the 1960s. The ironic style was closely related to the rise of parody religions such as Discordianism, which honors Eris, the Greek goddess of strife, and the Church of the SubGenius, which reveres an icon of a 1950s patriarch smoking a pipe. Walker’s research suggests that Kerry Thornley, who founded Discordianism in the 1950s along with Greg Hill, became increasingly unable to discern reality from the conspiracy theories he had invented in Discordian publications. He began to suspect that intelligence agencies were actually spying on him and experienced “recovered” memories of his involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Friends ceased to communicate with him and he spent his final years selling trinkets and essays on the streets of Atlanta. In a moment of lucidity, he allegedly told Hill, “If I had known all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus.”
Walker locates this rather tragic account of Thornley within a larger tableau of American paranoia dating back to the eighteenth century. His discussion of the ironic style suggests that parody religions are not simply jokes but inherently political discourses. Through satire they seek to call into question socially constructed realities that are otherwise taken for granted. This is the point I make in “Laughing Matters: ‘Parody Religions’ and the Command to Compare.” In that article I examined legal challenges presented by the Neo-American Church and the devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to show how these claims were designed to critique the very category of “religion” and the rights and privileges afforded to this category in Western democracies. Furthermore, by forcing a critical examination of what constitutes religion, the work of parody religions is not so different from that of religion scholars.
The parallels between religion scholars and popular discourses occurred to me again last month while attending the twelfth annual Mothman festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. As always, the festival presented the opportunity to speak with people attempting to make sense of impossible experiences. A man from MUFON explained his theory to me that Bigfoot is an extra-dimensional being and that this is why alien abductees have reported seeing Bigfoots while aboard alien spaceships. The “extra-dimensional hypothesis” is popular among the paranormal investigators at the festival because it presents a grand unified theory that appears to explain numerous phenomena. Like parody religions, paranormal investigators are in the business of drawing comparisons. While they begin with a different set of assumptions, the way they formulate conclusions from the data is not so different from the work of religion scholars. To claim that a Bigfoot sighting is actually an encounter with an extra-dimensional being is not so different from claiming that it is a hierophany from the sacred.
Cultural discourses such as conspiracy theories, parody religions, and paranormal investigation are sometimes regarded as a sort of sideshow within the academy. They are seen as “fun but not serious.” Could at least part of this reaction be what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences?” Is it possible that we laugh smugly at these discourses in order to obfuscate the fact that our own insights are not so different from those of satirists and bigfoot hunters? J.Z. Smith noted that the work of comparison often resembles play and The Onion, through its own parody, has suggested that comparison is not particularly difficult. Perhaps by paying more attention to these sites of comparative work occurring outside of the academy we can form connections beyond the ivory tower and better perform our role as public intellectuals?
Joseph Laycock holds a PhD from Boston University and is a wandering adjunct at present. He is currently busy with numerous publications on American religious history, foremost of which is a manuscript on the Catholic seer Veronica Lueken.