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. According to Brian Pellot of Religion News Service:
The HBO satirist launched a tax-exempt church Sunday night to criticize the Internal Revenue Service’s hands-off approach to televangelist fraudsters who promise prosperity, at a price.
Oliver joins a long list of parody religions, “antibelief systems,” and “authentic fakes” like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Church of the Almighty Dollar, Disciples of the New Dawn, and the Discount House of Worship in registering a scathing satire of established religions in an effort to critique or call into question the proposed abuses, miscues, and false claims of religion.
While new media and communications technologies (such as the internets, 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.
Take, for example, the Disciples of the New Dawn. While John Oliver is clear in his purpose and parody, the Disciples of the New Dawn (DOTND) — what I believe to be a parody internet religion — is subtle and sly. DOTND, supposedly led by the enigmatic Father Patrick Oliver Embry, uses social media to infuriate the masses with its provocative posts and offputting memes on topics as diverse as condemning C-sections and burning pagans and steampunks alive.
Like The Onion-like parody news articles that make their rounds on social media being purported as real reports, so too DOTND have been attacked for their insolent assertions and offensive opprobrium by people who swear they are real. Multiple Change.org petitions were set-up to get the DOTND Facebook page taken down. And they worked. Five times. DOTND’s Facebook page is now in its sixth version, having existed in one form or another since 2013.
While DOTND has not made their forgery public knowledge there is evidence that they are a bona fide “authentic fake.” Even so, so powerful has the DOTND parody been, and real its effects, that it now has its own parody page — Disciples of the New Lawn — which is regularly attacked for its “offensive beliefs and statements” even though it’s a fake of a fake.
Why are parody religions and digital fakes so compelling, and in some cases, so convincing? First, their brand of sharp wit and snark are par for the course and increasingly popular among Millennials and their ilk who thrive on the culture of irony. Second, they are a product of digital media. The Interwebs are more than a platform for cat videos and vague Facebook posts. The fact is that the World Wide Web changes how we interact with the world, connect with others, and learn, sort through, and judge the veracity of information. In the world of Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia, the former Englightenment ideals of authenticity and authority are often called into question or undermined entirely.
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. At the same time, they 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. Again, David Chidester:
Apparently advancing a universal religious claim, this assertion radically personalizes religious identity, because anyone, wherever he or she might be, whatever he or she might believe, feel, do, or experience, is the author of authentic religion.
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 like FSM, DOTND, and even perhaps John Oliver’s Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption being anointed 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?
Furthermore, as Chidester concludes, we cannot discount them as “fake religions” with no real-world religious effect, “because they are doing real religious work in a medium of communication in which anything, even religion, seems possible.” The only question left is whether we who care about religious identities, literacy, and claims of legitimacy will listen to, and learn from, these “authentic fakes” as well.