FaithGoesPop, part 4: John Oliver and Fake Religions

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series FaithGoesPop

NOTE from Dr. Wayne Baker—Welcome Ken Chitwood, a scholar and journalist with a specialty in reporting on religious diversity. He’s the creative force behind the FaithGoesPop project, exploring the impact of faith on our culture and vice versa. Here is Ken’s fourth column this week

John Oliver and the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption (1)

Click on this image to visit the satirical website John Oliver set up to lampoon fake religions.

All hail Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption and blessings be upon its anointed Megareverend John Oliver!

Yes, indeed, the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, is now the head of a brand spankin’ new religion. Social media has been abuzz about his launching of a tax-exempt church in order to criticize the IRS’s approach to televangelists.

Oliver joins a long list of parody religions, “antibelief systems,” and “authentic fakes” like …

What do they all have in common? They’re claiming to be religious groups—often with obviously dubious claims—in an effort to critique or call into question the proposed abuses, miscues, and false claims of religion.

Invisible Pink Unicorn image

In this case, you can see most of the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Followers of this satiric idea also like to post images of the unicorn with the color turned to “white” so the images is both there—and isn’t there—at the same time.

What’s real and what’s a lampoon? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. The jury is still out on whether the relatively new Satanic Temple group is actually a satire of pagan religion. Online news coverage suggests the founders aren’t really interested in devil worship; they’re opposed to organized religion and have positioned their new church to file legal challenges against public religious displays in general. Here’s the current Wikipedia summary.

Atheists, skeptics and free-thinkers have a long history of satirizing religious excess. In the 1990s, yet another bogus group was born among followers of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (Wiki link).

While new media and communications technologies (such as Internet, Web 2.0 and social media) are conduits for conventional religions and institutions, they are also fertile ground for the growth of fresh, fabricated, and “fake” religions. In a culture replete with parody, satire, snark, and irony are we the least bit surprised?

But here’s the deal, as David Chidester wrote in Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture: Even fakelore or fake religion, although invented, mobilized, and deployed by frauds, can produce real effects in the real world. Not only do they parallel accepted religions in their rhetoric and form, their medium of communication and other characteristics such as founders and creeds, myths and symbols, rituals and proclamations, but they also force us to call into question our very notions of religious identity and authenticity.

In the age of the Internet, Tweeters can break news faster than CNN. Websites can hold governments accountable. Fake religions can “raise the problem of religious authenticity even when they are obviously fake, because they present themselves as real religion.” (Chidester, 192) In the face of the internet—for all its good and ill—the traditional tests of what is real and what is hoax are subverted and the lines between authentic and counterfeit are blurred.

Given the smorgasbord of options available to the individual religious consumer today and the competing claims of the commercialized religious marketplace these “authentic fakes” force us to question the very basis of traditional religious identities and claims in the first place.

Have you seen a Pink Unicorn? It’s a definite discussion starter among friends.

At the same time, these “authentic fakes” also re-enchant the world as they think, act, and feel like “real” religions. In this sense they are “hyper-real religions,” in the words of Adam Possamai, that often take on more meaning and relevance to individuals because they are more related to the experience of the isolated and independent religious consumer.

Just as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s parody news became more real and relevant for Millennials than traditional news sources, so too are parody religions being anointed by many men and women, today, as more authentic in their religious sensibilities than established religions and spiritual institutions.

Rather than dismissing these “authentic fakes” then, it is important for us to pay attention to why they are so viral and apropos. Why are their sarcastic statements and stances so spellbinding? What critiques are they leveling? How are these censures speaking to the real religious needs of their “followers” and digital disciples? What does it mean for a religion to be “real” and “authentic” in the (post)modern world?

Start a conversation …

The OurValues project is designed to spark spirited, civil discussions. You’re free to print out, repost or share these columns on social media. Many readers like to bring these materials to their weekly classes or small groups. So, please, get people talking!

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