- Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith by Carole M. Cusack
Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions examines six recently “invented” religions: Discordianism, the Church of All Worlds, the Church of the SubGenius, Jediism, Matrixism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Because these religions have received little to no attention from scholars, Cusack’s work is a very valuable contribution. However, the book itself is at times frustrating, and Cusack’s analysis is occasionally sharp but often muddled. The ideas around which the book is organized are provocative and enticing. “Invented religions,” Cusack’s chosen category, refers to those movements and organizations that, most important, “announce their invented status” (1). This distinguishes them from other “new religious movements” (NRMs) that purport to be “true.” Invented religions are meant as commentaries on the category of religion itself, knowingly parodying common religious themes and specific religions.
The first chapter, “The Contemporary Context of Invented Religion,” sets the terms for the argument and analysis. Cusack emphasizes the role of secularization in the West, especially in the last fifty years. Relying primarily on Peter Berger and Charles Taylor, she links secularization with consumerism and individualism—resulting in the condition wherein “belief is a personal choice” (11) and the rise of NRMs, Asian religions and their offshoots in the West, and New Age. This is all well and good, but Cusack quickly takes the study in the wrong direction. Strangely, she decides to take up the question of whether or not they really count as religions, rather than situating invented religions as perceptive and clever critiques of these cultural shifts. Cusack writes, “This study argues that invented religions are neither trivial nor necessarily invalid” (3). What “validity” could possibly mean in this context is not discussed, but some functionalist definition is at work. Invented religions are “valid” because, like “real” religions, they “pique curiosity, and send the imagination soaring” (5), and their “narratives fire the imagination of certain people” (125).
Discordianism, the Church of All Worlds, and the Church of the SubGenius each receive their own chapter. In these chapters Invented Religions is most compelling. The founders of these movements are invariably fascinating characters with insightful, cheeky, and often sarcastic critiques of twentieth-century consumerism and religion. “The Church of the SubGenius” (COSG), for example, “relentlessly parodies existing religions, particularly megachurch Christianity and Scientology” (84). There is an interesting story to be told about authenticity politics, as some of the religion inventors found some religions, such as Buddhism, more compelling than others. What is it about Buddhism—or science fiction, which is a consistent theme in these religions—that makes sense to people in a secular age? Cusack begins to offer some answers but keeps getting distracted and bogged down by vague references to “meaning-making” and ends up engaging in authenticity politics instead of [End Page 259] analyzing them as data. The “message of COSG,” she states, “is arguably a legitimate path to liberation in a world dominated by work and money” (84). What does “liberation” mean in this context? Why choose that word? Whose job is it to decide what is “legitimate”? Why is that interesting? Cusack must assume that the reader knows the answers, because she offers no explanation.
Cusack uses invented religions as support for “the principal argument” of the book: “that humans are meaning-making creatures who find certain types of narrative powerful, chiefly narratives in which unseen agents effect causality in the world” (139). Her subjects probably would disagree with this, but Cusack, the scholar, knows better, bestowing “that most lofty of designations, ‘religion’” (1), upon their creations. Secularization cannot kill homo religiosus. Only such an orientation informed by totalizing claims (“Humans yearn for narratives infused with meaning” ) could allow for the bizarre ahistorical conclusion that invented religions “are properly understood as the inevitable outcome of a society that values novelty, and in which individuals constitute their identity through the consumption of products, experiences, cultures and spiritualities” (141). Although Cusack acknowledges newer theories of secularization, such as...