You can be a/an (insert here) on Youtube (or, how I learned about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Seth MacFarlane is an atheist? Well… knock me over with a feather!

This is what’s going through my mind while I’m working at the instructor’s office in the depths of the RTV building. I’m reading Raymond Vanarragon’s piece on Family Guy and religion. I’m not even sure where to start unpacking it. I mean, I agree with his main point. Religious individuals can can be fans of Family Guy once they lighten up. After all, it is a television show, it is entertainment, and it’s Seth MacFarlane. Family Guy will lampoon anything and everything, therefore, why get so bent our of shape when religion becomes the target?

One possible answer is this: religion has always played an important role in American society. Every American knows the story of how the Puritans came to the new world to escape religious persecution. A smaller number, I’d say, are also familiar with John Winthrop’s famous sermon A Model of Christian Charity. In 1630, Winthrop addressed his congregation on the deck of the Arabella, during their journey to Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop told them:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. (Winthrop, 1630).

Winthrop clearly believed that his congregation had a calling, a special mission, and that their actions would be an example to the world. However, to retain God’s favor, Winthrop and his followers had to abide, unflinchingly, to Christian morals. Otherwise, they would all be doomed. This is how he ended his sermon:

But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity (Winthrop, 1630).

Taking historical precedent into account, I’d say that asking people to lighten up  underestimates the importance of religious beliefs in American society, and how religion polarizes the nation.

Anyone can be a/an (insert here) on Youtube.

According to the Pew Center, Americans are “highly religious,” unlike Europeans, who tend to be more secular (Pew Center, 2008). However, the Center also reported that Americans are not very dogmatic about religion, that is, most people believe that religious teachings can be interpreted in different ways, and that religion is not the only path to salvation.

The majority of Americans, therefore, tend to be very open minded about religion. Yet there is a relationship between religion, social mores, and politics:

The social and political fault lines in American society run through, as well as alongside, religious traditions. The relationship between politics and religion in the United States is particularly strong with respect to political ideology and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, with the more religiously committed adherents across several religious traditions expressing more conservative political views (Pew Center, 2008).

A previous Pew Center survey, from 2001, suggested that about 28 million Americans go online to seek out information about religion and spirituality. By 2004, that number had climbed to about 82 million individuals (Clark, 2004), which is not surprising when you consider how many more people had taken to the internet in the period between both surveys. The Pew Center coined a term to describe these individuals: they were called religion surfers (Larsen, 2001). Religion surfers use the internet to seek out information about their faith and other faiths, and to send and receive messages about religion and spirituality, according to both Pew surveys.

Nevertheless, this is not the only thing that religion surfers do. Many of them use the internet for social activism and proselytizing. And this is how I came across the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Because the Internet allows the expression of diverse viewpoints, it has been considered as a potential public sphere. The Public Sphere is a concept associated mostly to Jurgen Habermas, a German critical theorist. According to Habermas, the public sphere ensures a healthy, and functioning democracy. The public sphere is “the realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Habermas, 1989/2006, p 73). It is a space, or better yet, “a constellation of communicative spaces in society that permit the circulation of information, ideas, debates—ideally in an unfettered manner” (Dahlgren, 2008). The public sphere, according to Habermas, shows four key characteristics. First, in the public sphere, all participants are equal; social class does not matter, but the ability to craft convincing arguments is pivotal. Second, the public sphere is a critical space where people interrogate issues, debates concerns, and keeps public authority in check. Third, the public sphere is open and inclusive to all. And fourth, debates within the public sphere are rational (Habermas, 1989/2006; Dean, 2003).

Again, these are ideal characteristics. In reality, the public sphere has been criticized, among other things, because it is not as inclusive as Habermas would have it to be. Since Habermas linked the public sphere to the rise of bourgeois society and to the Enlightenment, women, minorities, and the working class were excluded, a fact that Habermas himself acknowleged. These marginalized groups, moreover, create their own public spheres, but they are not as powerful in shaping public opinion (Fraser, 1992, as cited by Papacharisi, 2002).

Habermas also acknowledges that as more people enter into the public sphere — that is, as participation increases — the ability to function as a rational body decreases. And this, to me, is a more serious problem with the public sphere, this assumption of rationality. People who participate in public debates are expected to show civility, common sense, and skill. Furthermore, in order to successfully argue for a position, individuals need to be persuasive, which means that they need to be able to craft logical and coherent arguments. These assumptions deny the fact we can be completely irrational, incoherent, and disruptive, and still chime into the public sphere until it becomes a cacophony. Sites like Youtube offer a perfect example of this. Youtube is a space that everyone can use as a platform for anything they please, including the voicing of opinions that attempt to persuade others. In that sense, Youtube could be similar to the idealized public sphere. However, the site is not constructed to facilitate dialogue, deliberation, or reciprocal discussion. In other words, anyone can be a/an (insert here) on Youtube.