“I’ve been working on this bit about Scientology,” Sarah Silverman tells Jerry Seinfeld in her episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “It’s only weird to us because it’s new. We make fun of it because it’s bats**t crazy, but it’s no more bats**t crazy than Catholicism or anything, right?”
Too often, pop religions are just a name and identity for what people already believe — a flag to float idly over the status quo.It’s a common sentiment these days. In a society where we choose our convictions with increasing nonchalance, and where convenience and subjectivity have more and more say in what we believe, who’s to say one religion is better than another? They’re all a little crazy, right?
Judging by the expanding pantheon of pop religions, “crazy” is a bit of a sliding scale. Take Yeezianity, for example. The media has been quick to pronounce the advent of a new religion that deifies Kanye West, taking its name from West’s 2013 album Yeezus. The religion comes with its own dogma, five pillars, and a version of the Golden Rule (all posted on the Yeezianity website). Among its “Declarations of Faith” are the following:
- I believe I Am a God
- I believe Yeezus Is a God
- I believe in the creative power of Man
- I believe God wants Man to create in his Image
- I believe God wants Man to fully express himself
- I believe Yeezus will lead us into a new Age of Creativity
- I believe I will help usher in the new Age of Creativity
According to the website, “Ye’ciples” believe that “the one who calls himself Yeezus is the highest living human being and he will help to usher in a New Age of humanity.” Adherents are allowed, even encouraged, to practice other religions:
We allow a Ye’ciple to be a member of Yeezianity as well as any other spiritual practice of their choosing, including some of the best ones: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. In fact, we encourage Ye’ciples to explore and consider the tenets of any other spiritual ideas they feel attracted to.
Yeezianity is only the latest in a long line of pop religions. There’s also Dudeism, based on Jeff Bridges’ iconic character in The Big Lebowski, which blends Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Epicureanism as epitomized by “The Dude.” (Dudeism is big and getting bigger. As of August 2012, 160,000 Dudeist priests had been ordained.) A new religion in Argentina deifies soccer legend Diego Maradona. Kopimism, founded by a Swedish graduate student, is based on the conviction that file-sharing is a sacred virtue, and has been officially recognized by the Swedish government. There’s a religion spawned by Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction, and a religion based on the Matrix movies. There’s Discordianism, Tarvuism, and Kibology. The list goes on.
Just how serious are these religions? For many of them, humor and irony are key ingredients, with tongues firmly planted in cheeks even as their numbers grow. Some exist solely to parody their more established cousins, and have no serious adherents. The Invisible Pink Unicorn, for instance, mocks the unfalsifiable nature of theistic belief, and Pastafarianism, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pokes fun at creationism and Intelligent Design.
Yeezianity, it turns out, is as much a publicity stunt as anything else. Its founder, a 23-year-old living in upstate New York, has admitted as much in an interview. “In a lot of ways I want to create some controversy. I want people to be like, ‘This is absolutely ludicrous.’” And yet, he goes on:
I believe in what it is, and that’s real. Is there a real organized religion behind it? There is not… But I created it, I reflected on it and thought that this was just a rehashing of Christianity, but just throwing in Yeezus instead of Jesus. Jesus has all this baggage and all these connotations, and Yeezus is this new thing… That’s why if it takes off in the future, people would forget Kanye and his antics, and instead focus on what the message is.
The message of Yeezianity itself seems like little more than boilerplate pluralistic humanism, a distillation of popular mores served up with plenty of eye-winking and irony. You are a God; express yourself; help usher in the new Age of Creativity; and explore any other spiritual ideas you feel attracted to.
Too often, pop religions are just a name and identity for what people already believe — a flag to float idly over the status quo. How serious their adherents actually are is an open question. Jediism, based on Star Wars, famously skewed census data in the U.K. in the early 2000s, when 0.7% of the U.K.’s population claimed it as their religion, either to protest organized religion or just for a laugh. And yet, despite being largely a hoax, the Jediism phenomenon still tells us something about our culture’s view of religion.
Pop religions don’t offer new revelation. They’re syncretistic blends of the whole smorgasbord of popular belief. They’re rehashings of humanism, Zen, Taoism, Christianity, etc., all boiled down and steeped in irony. What they do reveal, in flashbulb clarity, is our society’s religious ethos. Their basic tenets are a reflection of our society’s deepest convictions. Whether you see them as real religions or just an expression of the zeitgeist, their growing popularity makes them hard to ignore.
Isn’t Sarah Silverman right? If our culture has, by and large, decided that all religions are made-up and subjective, just arbitrary structures of value and meaning to help us get through life, then what’s to distinguish one from another? And what does it matter how ludicrous they are? After all, every religion seems nutty to the uninitiate. A virgin birth? A resurrection? Whatever works, right?
Whatever works. The proliferation of pop religions suggests that our culture is less and less interested in the veracity of their belief systems. It doesn’t matter if your religion is based on a pop star or a fictional character. It matters even less that it can’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny. What matters is that it’s working for you.
For many people, sound arguments for Christianity’s credibility are met with complete indifference. This may come as a surprise to a generation of believers that grew up learning how to defend Christianity rationally, to “give a reason for the hope that you have” — a verse I heard regularly growing up in American evangelicalism. That verse (I Peter 3:15) was always quoted with a view toward the faith’s rational credibility. But Yeezianity reminds us that our culture’s starting point for matters of faith is often radically subjective, and that it’s expectations of religion are increasingly utilitarian. As important as the work of apologetics is, no one converts based on reason alone.
We may live in an increasingly post-Christian society, but we certainly don’t live in a post-religious one. Despite the privatization of belief, pop religions suggest a widespread felt need for the kind of metanarrative and community that religion provides. And in the diverse market of religions, that realization can be a great encouragement.