With the ongoing battle over intelligent design being taught in schools, Radar wonders, why stop there?
History is full of religious novelties that have turned out to have real-world impact, some with great success (Mormonism) and some with moderate (Wicca), but few have been explicitly fiction. As a deliberate attempt to whitewash religious dogma and make it more palatable to a public raised on the scientific method, intelligent design isn’t fiction, strictly speaking, but its close cousin, spin. Still, Radar thought, as long as there is a serious possibility that courtrooms across America will overturn Darwinian evolution and allow a religious Trojan horse into our kids’ curriculum, why not see how intelligent design stacks up against some other scams, parodies, satires, and forgeries particularly close to our hearts?
Intelligent Design (ID)
The idea behind intelligent design is simple. Its proponents don’t necessarily discount the notion that evolution has taken place, their big beef is with natural selection—the idea that genetic mutations are passed on through a natural (read: random) process. Instead, ID proponents claim that the development of species on Earth is being (or has been) guided by an external intelligence. ID is the brainchild of Stephen C. Meyer, the founder of the conservative Christian think tank Discovery Institute, and the retired legal scholar Phillip E. Johnson, whose 1991 book Darwin on Trial is an ID landmark. In an issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Johnson warned proponents that “the first thing that has to be done is to get the Bible out of the discussion.” He has also explained that religious inclination should be obfuscated so people don’t see ID “as just another way of packaging the Christian evangelical message.” Despite proponents’ claims that ID is a scientific theory, few to none of their efforts are aimed at producing research. The ID movement is essentially a PR machine, intelligently designed to get as many school curriculums altered as possible. Since 2001 the Discovery Institute has solicited signatures from scientists for a petition (“A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”) that supports intelligent design. So far 400 have signed. A similar, unfunded project (“A Scientific Support for Darwinism”) has been signed by more than 8,000 scientists since it began this September.
The Priory of Sion
Every reader of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—and there are tens of millions of them—is familiar with the story of a secret society that protects the descendants of Jesus from the Catholic Church’s efforts to erase the “real history.” Brown’s is not, by a long shot, the first best-seller on this topic, and many have been persuaded to believe in it. Like any good con, it has a defense mechanism built in: Efforts by mainstream religious leaders to debunk it only prove that there’s a conspiracy. The story of the Priory of Sion began in the 1950s, when a French fascist and ex-con named Pierre Plantard wanted to make people believe that he was the descendant of a royal family. But in forging his documents he went overboard and linked himself not just to earthly monarchs but to Jesus himself. The myth soon spun out of his control, and even a confession by Plantard’s accomplice failed to quell it. With Tom Hanks starring in the film version of TheDa Vinci Code, the Priory may well become one of the great new sects of the 21st century.
The Talmud Yerushalmi Tractate Kodashim
When you’re 4,000 years old, occasionally someone’s going to put something past you. Amid the dozens of frauds that have rocked Judaism through the years, one particularly audacious example came from a man who presented himself as Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Algazi-Friedlander. He claimed to speak only a Sephardic dialect of Hebrew, and he visited the major leaders of Eastern European Jewry in the early 20th century with what he asserted was the sole extant manuscript of a long-lost Talmudic text. As it turned out, not only was the document a fake but Algazi-Friedlander was too. His real name was Zuske Rachel Leah, he’d been born in Beshenkovitz, Austria, and his major professional credential was a 14-year stint as a fish merchant in Germany. He had adopted other pseudonyms to produce fake endorsements of his manuscript, and had further sought to make his manuscript appear real by developing a method for aging parchment. Even though the text’s presumed legitimacy lasted only three or four years, it threw much of Jewish scholarship into turmoil. One of the most popular rabbis of the 20th century spent his old age practicing morning prayers according to its dictates. Algazi-Friedlander’s motive? He apparently just wanted to see if he could pull it off.
The Holy Prepuce
The relic business has long been derided as scam. In the 15th century Erasmus dryly observed that there were so many pieces of the True Cross, Jesus must have been crucified on a whole forest. Since Christ ascended corporally to heaven, though, it was pretty much impossible to obtain body parts of the son of God himself. At least until someone came up with the idea of the Holy Prepuce. Since Jesus’s foreskin would have been removed at circumcision, that could still be on earth. In time, there were countless competing claimants for the title (as well as the Holy Umbilical Cord, based on the same principle). The Catholic astronomer Leo Allatius, however, tried to nip the story in the bud by announcing that the foreskin ascended to heaven along with the rest of Jesus, and became the rings of Saturn (which had recently been discovered). The Holy Prepuce myth stuck around long enough to have begotten a spin-off fraud: the vision of St. Catherine of Siena, in which Jesus is betrothed to her using his foreskin as a wedding ring. Though widely credited by true believers, the St. Catherine story probably began as a 17th-century anti-Catholic parody.
Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (FSM)
As anyone who has been on the internet since June is aware, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is a direct spoof of intelligent design. Bobby Henderson, the 25-year-old founder, says he was inspired by the fact that intelligent design proponents often point out—in order to distinguish themselves from more traditional creationists—that they make no claims that the designer must be the Christian God. It could be, say, a supersmart extraterrestrial. “In the beginning,” reads one summary of the FSM creation myth, “the Flying Spaghetti Monster created trees, a mountain, and a midget. Thereafter, He reached down with his Noodly Appendage and muddled the atomic record to indicate to the carbon-daters that the world is vastly older than true faith in Him would have us believe.” What hope does FSM have as a true religion? “I’ve had a ton of people who say they sincerely believe, but how serious they are I don’t know,” Henderson tells Radar Online. “My view is that FSMism is just beginning to take off. We will soon be a bona fide religion with legal recognition, and I have received many, many thousands of e-mails from people who want to ‘join.’” Henderson says it wouldn’t surprise him if FSMism had the same appeal as mainstream religions. “In our case, our members are highly educated, free-thinking types who reject dogma but still want to be part of a community. And they’re doing this by joining a religion that, while openly satirical, still has the social and moral aspects of a mainstream religion, without the dogmatic prescriptions that make other religions so tedious. Our dogma is purely for entertainment.” At least for now.